Barely south review
S p r i n g 2013 // O l d D o m i n i o n U n i v e r s i t y
Artist Statement: Reality is arranged and transformed in the mind into intensely personal visions which are then transferred to canvas with directness, freshness, and a “passionate uniqueness” as one critic put it. Obeying the rules of the imagination, Allison’s paintings possess a mysterious poetry. Above all she is a masterful storyteller, putting elements within our grasp and counting on the viewer to draw the correct conclusions.
Last Dance at the Bohemian Cafe Oil on Canvas
Allison Lee Merriweather
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. Visit the Barely South Blog at barelysouthblog.tumblr.com Barely South Review reads for general submissions from 1 January to 31 March for the Fall issue, and from 1 September to 31 November for the Spring issue. Submissions for the Norton Girault Literary Prize are accepted from 15 December to 15 March. If you would like to donate to Barely South Review, contact the Friends of the MFA Creative Writing Program at ODU. Barely South Review is distributed for free online. Copyright 2013.
Fiction Ian Couch Lucas Flatt Tarah Gibbs Amana Katora Josh Norman Nonfiction Jodi Denny Jerry Healy Lauren Hurston Dillon Tripp Geoff Watkinson Poetry Eric Heald-Webb Alex McGaughan Kevin Oâ€™Connor Sarah Pringle Jeffrey Turner
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
Administrative Staff Michael Alessi, Liz Argento, Lucian Mattison, Andrew Squitiro bsr
Here ends my tenure at the helm of this gorgeous magazine. Oh, my tremulous heartstrings—what a pleasure this has been. Next year’s staff proves capable, ready to catapult our burgeoning endeavor into the annals of artistic excellence. We could be floating across that star map already— that’s for you to decide. I love the image, a rollicking vessel aimed just askance of the north star, set for sights unseen, hurts integral and stoked up from our ripe, sweaty, aching pasts and pathways, culled from brute lips and transmuted into song. That’s what we’re all about. Feelings. The pursuit of sacrifice, fallout from noblesse oblige, rancor on the tradewinds, muddled hearts and secrets. In this issue we feature consumer plights in peril, the formula for love transferred, herbal obsession, holy wonder, canine hijinks, unrepentant succubi. I can do this all day, but now I’ve got the vapors. I’ll leave it to the sober sort. Save this—I preempted Eliot six months ago, and now I’ll turn to Chaucer. Ahem. “Whan that aprill with his shoures soothe / the droughte of march has perced to the roote / and bathed every veyne in swich licour / of which vertu engedred is the flour.” Ooh, ooh! Sing it loud, you goofy-talking progenitor of us liteary goodtime party people. I had to memorize that olde schoole jam in high school, learned it day of, remember it still. I guess now I’ve found a reason.
It was four years ago that the world lost tunesmith Tim Krekel, a real treasure on the Americana circuit. Springs and summers I bide my time down south on my best bud’s farm, enjoying intermittent bluegrass festivals. That’s where my mind goes, this time of year, my body soon thereafter. But Krekel, a regular attendee of these fests, sang a song about a phenomenon known as the “Angel’s Share,” a distiller’s term for the marginal loss of whiskey to evaporation when the barrels come open. That might be what old Chaucer meant, those swich licours. Anyway, that’s what I’m hereby offering. Handle what follows responsibly. I’ve been cut off. So many thanks to my fellow editors, especially Eric Heald-Webb, who has kept this thing almost on course. Thanks to our contributors—I wish you unprecedented success. Thank you, reader, for finding us. Check back from time to time. There’s so much coming. Cheers! Lucas Flatt April 30, 2013
Art Allison Lee Merriweather Last Dance at the Bohemian Cafe . . . . . . . . 2
Nina Gibbs Derby Car . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Rusted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jason . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Artist Statment . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
12 43 62 99 138
K. Carlton Johnson Lone Tree . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139
Fiction Zachary Amendt Ecstatic Gringo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Alicia Wright Dekker Dirty Girl Scout . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Jon Pearson In Rememberance of God . . . . . . . . . . . 24
Sarah Domet Recipe for Everything . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Poetry Ray McManus American Poem #4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 Sixth Grade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Dick Bentley On Liberal Fascism . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
Grant Kitrell Kettle Number 40 . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
July Westhale After Time Has Rumpled the Sheets of Your Mouth . . 48
Harold Whit Williams Backmasking Presentation, United Methodist Church Youth Group . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
R.C. Neighbors The Devilâ€™s Whore . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
Liz Robbins A Kind of Cursing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
George Such Seeing My Marriage in a Spinal Cord Tumor . . . . 52
Glenda Barrett Final Wish . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
Bill Glose Night Jumps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
Gabriel Horowitz ceramic pitcher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
Makalani Bandele Girl Who Wants to be a Rhinoceros . . . . . . . 58
Maurice Emerson Decaul Two Poems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59 # 8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60 # 43 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
Nonfiction Emma Bolden Love Have They Waited, Long Have They Planned . . 63
Shana Campbell Jones Family Portraits, With Dogs . . . . . . . . . . 71
Bob Kunzinger Flip Flops . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
Erica Sklar Investment Property . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Norton Girault Literary Prize P. Ivan Young A Lesson on the Use of an Oyster Knife . . . . . . 102 Practicing with a .22 . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104 High Wire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
Jed Myers Reckoning Tent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108 The Gannets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112 Million Dollar Pier . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
Academy of American Poets University Poetry Prize Tarah Gibbs Prayer Group . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 Every Word Love . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120 Moon Clip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122
Ralph Lawson Gone Like a Vapor Trail, Gone Like a Breath . . . . 124 Sipping Highbrow Teas in Lowbrow Cafes . . . . . 126
Lucian Mattison A Dig . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128
Will Wilson Walking While Black . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
Derby Car Cell Phone Photograph, Digital Manipulation
Hamtramck, its roads pocked, its lots upended. Everyone’s underwater. But there’s the rumor of urban renewal, a new casino, a smattering of food trucks, and a feeling that recovery is possible, and that what it comes down to is miles per gallon. The Detroit metro is perfect if location doesn’t matter to you, as it doesn’t to me. I take a back room in the split-level home of an ex-autoworker and his comatose wife. The garage is his province and domain. Now that the government’s making cars, we’re all part-owners of the manufacturer that laid Mel Sloper and 200,000 others off last year. Chewing fat is Mel’s new pastime. There are two folding chairs in the Slopers’ garage; in between them is a Hills Bros. coffee tin into which we spit our Skoal. It’s the detritus of decades of hoarding, pack-ratting—busted bulbs, decayed cardboard, the floor caked in antifreeze. He has built hotrods here, rebuilt engines. Sloper’s heart works on the same principles of a piston engine: reliable, if cared for. If not, erratic, temperamental. For most of his life it was quiescent; he joined the union; he did not roil his superiors. Working under hoods rested him. Much as he likes talking about it, a lot of our conversations are Mel monologuing and me listening without any mechanical acumen. His tools are as foreign to me as astrolabes. But he knows I know a thing or two about music.
“You know of any place I can sell records?” he asked. He has boxes and boxes of vinyl, pristinely conditioned, although he has migrated to CDs. I told him I could sniff out vinyl just about anywhere, in any neighborhood, you name it. “Raleigh’s buys records,” I said. “Down on Eight Mile.” Eight Mile, which reminded him of drive-in movies and a thinner, less comatose wife, and reminded me of Eminem. This decrepit city photographs lovely. It has a photogenic memory of things past. The old ballpark. The Edsel. “Maybe I just should give them to my niece.” “Don’t,” I said. “Becca’s daughter? She’ll use them as Frisbees.” The daily plummeting of our currency is slapstick comedy. Detroit’s not unlike all the Chair Force cities that staggered along for a while, whirring unconsciously until the bases were shuttered: when the servicemen were cast out, unaided, into the private sector: and we prevailed upon the modern ghost town. Last year, dreadful last year, we all fell down yet again, but things are better now, two-thousand-ten, new decade: we are more resigned, our expectations are less, and there is money in the mattresses, and folks are gardening more, growing their own food, composting. In the Eighties the Slopers were sold/suckered into vinyl siding and Astroturf for the lawn. They plastered their surname on the mailbox and the welcome mats. His wife hung a sign in the window: Avon Sold Here. Eloise Sloper, Agent. She was good at cosmetics and addicted to General Hospital. Mel said, “Eloise isn’t much to look at, but she’s got big tits.” I scratched my beard. The fireflies are out tonight, and bothersome. I’m losing focus in the flash-outs. “I always wanted a woman with big tits,” he said. In case there was any deficit in my understanding. *** Since its takeover Mel’s old corporation’s gone through several iterations of bankruptcy—Chapter 11, Chapter 22—never has our faith in government
been so completely and swiftly shaken—and Mel, he was no sunshine patriot. He has talked of starting a community council, simply titled 48212. When he gets righteous on politics it’s hard to stop him. The object of his ire is the man at the top. “Obama’s a starfucker,” Mel said. I didn’t disagree, but the liberals were financing my fellowship. “Say more about that, Mel.” When he was shitcanned Mel got fully whisked and we drove into Grosse Pointe to stomp on the hoods of the rich folks’ Jaguars and Audis. He was in fatigues and loud, setting off alarms and motion detectors, what a sight. He didn’t know those cars weren’t made overseas. “All over the tabloids and doing interviews in cooking magazines. It’s not fair,” he said, lifting his hand up to the waning light, “what we did to McCain.” I said, “Listen to you. Melodrama.” “Seven years in a POW counts for something.” He thinks, because the numbers are even, that this year will turn out his way. Maybe one of Eloise’s rich distant relatives will knock off. She’s into numerology and 2010’s supposed to mean something. “You write grants, right?” “Ulysses S. Grantwriter,” I said. “You should help us get a grant.” “It doesn’t work that way.” “You got yourself one.” “That’s different,” I said. “That’s the NEA. I’m an artist.” He complains he’s poor, but he owns the house outright and the taxes on it are nothing. Last week I walked in on Mel and Eloise in their parlor
entertaining who I presumed was a religious proselytizer—but it was a salesman pitching reverse mortgages to older couples. “You’re fifty-nine,” I said. “Those are for people seventy-something.” “You’re twenty-seven,” he said. “How much are you in hock for school?” I counted on my fingers. “Six figures.” “This guy said I could get $70,000 for the property, square away. And we still get to live here.” Cash flow dilemma. I would have suggested investing in a hydroponic, but on Sundays the Slopers are big-box Christian people, so that’s off the table. “I can’t listen to you get swindled, Mel.” “We could do a lot on seventy-grand.” “You can do a lot less than you think.” *** Eloise is the woman at whom menopausal commercials are aimed. Her lunch is a can of sparkling wine and nachos encased in cold cheese. Pedialyte is her hangover antidote. QVC is her kryptonite. “What kind of books do you read, Eloise?” I was just making small talk. “Oh, Christian books,” she said. “You know, God.” “And Mel, what does he read?” “Oh, books about NASCAR.” The $400-a-month rental arrangement includes meals. It doesn’t matter for how much the room rented for: Eloise would rather it was occupied than vacant. She’s careful around my exposures, she looks at them but not into them, and I can’t blame her because I don’t see that deeply into them myself. But she does like my Marlene Dietrich. And she wonders why I won’t photograph her.
“They’re daguerreotypes.” Mel helped me build the camera I use. “Orotones. Old-timey pictures with real long exposures,” I explained. “I have plenty of time,” Eloise said. “Nothing but.” If she’s not in front of the television she’s on the phone with her friends at the nursery. Her peonies are blooming late: it’s the crisis du jour. The Slopers’ rotary phone pegged to the wall recalls the times I had to call home from parochial school for fighting on the playground, or skipping out on Mass. I told her, “You can upgrade telephones. Get a cordless, or a mobile. That way you could just chat away in the garden.” Eloise looked at me funny. She had unsightly skin tags on her neck. “What, and be that crazy lady who talks to her plants?” When she laughed it was a tumult inside her shirt. “Besides, who would ever call me?” She had a very good point. *** Mel was drafted in 1969. He listened to it on the radio. His lottery number was 4. This, apparently, is why he doesn’t celebrate his birthday. He spent some years of the war in the motor pool at Fort Ord until he couldn’t take it any longer, polishing Jeeps, fellating brass, that he moved out of the barracks and shacked up with a chemist at U.C.L.A. and, every week before his psychiatric exam, got loaded on different analgesics, Quaaludes, laboratory-pure cocaine, to approximate schizophrenia. It all sounded very Warholian, his honorable discharge. He was excited to show me his latest project. I expected him to unveil a Bel-Air or a golden Datzun 240Z: something with wings and get-up, a muscle car: but not this: it’s an amalgam of parts and colors and fuselage, siding of an Escalade, undercarriage of a Volt, breathtaking in its audacity, the sort of vehicle a lesser man would string together using duct tape and bailing wire. In the factory Mel was no grease monkey. He attached fenders. The noise didn’t bother him, so he eschewed the earplugs and safety gear. From a practical standpoint, absconding with these parts was a logistical impossibility: but all of his cohort were complicit: the security details, inventory control: the factory culture turned to sabotage once everyone felt the steady erosion of their benefits and the inevitability of the pink slip.
I asked, “Eloise doesn’t know about this?” “She doesn’t know. She does whatever it is childless women do. I don’t bother with any of that. She lets me alone, and I let her alone…in love with the doctors on her soaps.” In June her moods were no better than Mel’s. Eavesdropping on their Ralph-and-Alice Kramden kitchen banter one day I overheard Mel, late afternoon, posturing for food. “I’m hungry,” he told Eloise. “What’s there for me to eat?” She went bezerk in the pantry. “Meat! Meat! Meat! Meat! What else is there in this house! When is there ever anything else! Dairy. Cheese. Butter. Meat!” It was a good marriage. Mel limited his indiscretions to the local bars; he never slept on the couch. He is maudlin when her mood is low. I suggested that he outfit himself in a good suit and take her dancing and out to a nice dinner. “That’s the ticket,” he said. “Like Applebee’s.” Mel likes to play the bumpkin, but in his youth, Eloise tells me, he was arrestingly bright and handsome. “When I was your age, the future looked cheerful,” he said. “We weren’t going to be broke at fifty-nine, and jobless.” He worked on the calluses on his palms with a pumice stone. “You built this,” I said, beholding his latest flame. “What’s it named?” “Meloise,” he said, licking his thumb. Clever. “I’ve never taken her out before,” he said, twirling the keys like vice cops do handcuffs. *** Maiden voyage. Near the Wayne State campus Mel Sloper said the recession’s over and that he’s going to spend in defiance of the economy. In Royal Oak he’s cursing the Mexicans taking our jobs.
He was born in Sheboygan. I didn’t know where that was. He held up his left hand, as all left hands are shaped like Michigan. Sheboygan was the callous beneath his ring finger. “Canada’s right there,” I said, pointing to nothing. Detroit. It was, as the song goes, so cold in the D. Mel gave me the grand tour. We cruised past the sulking hulks, the reverb of American industrial misfortune: The Fort Shelby Hotel, The Statler, Joe Muer’s. A time so severely at ebb that rescue seemed inconceivable. Meloise’s front seats are leather and her rear seats are cloth. The engine doesn’t purr. When I tried to roll down my window, the trunk popped open. With this kind of ingenuity, I know we can beat the Chinese. As he drove her Mel pointed and narrated. The freeways were empty; half of Michigan had bailed. Once I got the window down I ingested the sky, hair trailing and whipping around, Medusa-like. When he tired of talking Mel put a Red Foxx cassette in the tape deck, pealing with unemployable idiot laughter. I’m not sure what’s funny, but I go along with it. It feels good to laugh, really truly. Everything’s on its head, topsy turvy. We never had it so good. *** Evidence that gift-giving is Mel’s love language with his niece: he paid seventeen dollars for a Sequoia germination kit – a pine cone in a fancy aluminum can. And he never once talked poorly of her mother. *** In Pontiac we barreled over railroad tracks. Soaring. On the concrete sidings of the railroad spurs is written: I am Legit and other, less discernible graffiti. As we landed Mel was thrown forward, telling me, “I don’t care who your celebrity crush is, just so long as it’s not my sister.” She was a minor big deal a few decades ago, until she bankrupted her record label. Too much was made of her one hit. Real fame in those days was the Dick Cavett program, but she only managed a cameo on Wally George’s Hot Seat. Her cache petered out and she hit the booze and Mel had nothing more to say.
“Becca cut this album in a day,” he said, fishing through one of the boxes in the backseat, his left wrist guiding Meloise, two cans of beer sloshing in the console. “If I can find it. Ah, here. One day. I was at the sessions and most of her concerts. When she sang, the ladies swooned. The ladies,” he said. “Imagine that.” They look related. I saw the resemblance in their jawlines. Becca Carmichael, nee Sloper, draped in sequins, her hair Gericurled – album covers in the days before Photoshop, when if you were a promoter you drove a stone pleasure boat like Meloise and if your talent wasn’t a 10 you used a soft lens for her headshots. “I was at one of her venues,” Mel said, “it was all poorly wired up top, slipshod work, and with everyone smoking and the dry ice, the smoke detectors went off. When the cops rushed in, she started taunting them. And then she sort-of lost interest in singing, climbed down into the front row, and laid in my lap and cried.” “Your lap?” “Right here,” Mel said, patting his groin. Raleigh’s was Detroit’s musical consignment. Waifish teens congregated out front, boys with big hair and mascara, guitars strapped to shoulders. Grunge chic. They looked convincingly homeless. I helped Sloper in with his boxes, except for his sister’s album, which I thought should stay in the family. Paper is heavy. Vinyl is heavy. We slogged it inside. “I’ve never done this before,” Mel told the buy-back clerk. “Times are hard.” Sloper leaned on the counter as the clerk sifted through and counted. I learned a lot about Mel from his music. He went through a Herb Alpert phase in the 70s, a Black Flag one in the 80s. He owned the Footloose soundtrack and the greatest ticklings of Liberace. “Ten dollars, guy.” “Ten bucks,” Sloper repeated. “I must have paid a thousand for these. They were worth something.” “Ten in cash, or twenty in trade.”
“Trade?” “It’s a twenty dollar coupon,” the clerk explained, writing it out on a pink slip which he stamped and signed. “This is Emmylou Harris,” Mel said, holding hers’ up, nonplussed. “Don’t get down,” I told Mel. “Good time to buy, bad time to sell.” Mel shook his head, unbelieving, and held the slip like the skeptics taking the Eucharist—saltine crackers transmogrified into the body of Christ—in the stadiums where he worships Sundays and which I watch on television. I can see it in their faces. They don’t dispute there’s a Lord. They just can’t find Him. Without football their Sabbath is ruined. *** Mel’s still pissed. He claims the good people of Detroit are throwing out their Inauguration papers. His friends who dumpster dive told him so. Mel would get hired somewhere, as a mechanic, a machinist. Of course he’s going about it all wrong. You don’t put on your Sunday clothes and beat the pavement chatting it up in corporate lobbies with dunce secretaries for vacancies they don’t know about or, if they did, would reveal only to their friends. These days it’s all computerized. This frustrates Mel, confuses him. He would rather gladhand and cajole. He’s old school that way. Eloise is getting fatter, succored by prosecco. Avon’s a fine gig, but she’s thinking of switching to Mary Kay. She wants that pink Cadillac. The Slopers are not the Huxstables and Mel is not the Fonz. All his savings were sunk in tanking stocks. For decades he trusted his institutionalized intuition, the design of the brokers and the senators. Today gold is up, platinum is down. Things are bad, getting worse, but never mind that. Back to his garage goes Mel. The garage, his Maginot Line.
Dirty Girl Scout
Alicia Wright Dekker
If you hold my hair out of the toilet while I am puking, I will feel that I owe you a relationship. Never mind that I don’t have a single thing in common with you, don’t find you physically attractive, don’t think you’re funny, or smart, or even mildly interesting. You drink too much—although, obviously, so do I. But if you rescue my brand new cobalt blue pump from the gutter after it somehow falls off my foot on the way home, and then show me how to stop the bed from spinning by putting one foot on the floor, well, that will seal the deal. If you tell me that you’re not looking for a girlfriend, I will, at first, be amused—amused that you would tell me this, amused that you might think I would be interested, amused that you don’t seem to know—or care?—that you bear a striking resemblance to the Tasmanian Devil. But if you tell me this, and it’s just after I’ve woken up from a long nightmare of complication and recrimination, I will also be intrigued. I might decide that perhaps there is something, after all, behind the watery blueness of your eyes: a surprising confidence, a hint of swagger. I might decide that I’m in the market, just this once, for something fun, something wild, something meaningless. I will “do it” with you. Because? Because I am curious about your bravado and what might back it up, curious about your long-armed, barrel-chested, broad shouldered, skinny legged, no-neck body and the tricks you imply it can perform. But mostly, because I am drunk.
And then, because your body really can perform some amazing stunts, and because your apartment is a convenient place to crash between classes, and because you don’t want a girlfriend, I will continue to “do it” with you, in as many ways as we can dream up, until I notice something new behind your eyes. This newness will look a lot like tenderness. And it will make me panic. Panic, because I will know that the rules have changed. Panic, because I will know that the game is now serious. Panic, because I will realize in that moment that I don’t have a single friend, an acquaintance, or even a relative that I would not be embarrassed to introduce you to. I will feel ashamed. I will wonder, am I heartless? Am I cruel? I will think: you are muscle cars, beer bongs, and Wrestle Mania. I will think: I am—not. You will say you love me. I will say good-bye. But inevitably, I will be drunk again. I will be aware of my body sliding toward the floor—aware, yet powerless and strangely unresponsive. I will hear you. I will feel you pull me from under the table and sling me over your shoulder. I will giggle—or think I did. I won’t be sure. And then it will be morning, and I will wake, confused. I will have dreamt that I was flying, floating just below the ceiling. I will have heard myself say no. I will have seen you kiss my neck. I will have seen you pull me back. Pull me down. Hold me down. And then, nothing. Whatever you did, I was not there. I will call you six weeks later with news neither one of us wants to hear. You will beg, Don’t tell my mother. Sell your car, I will say. And your comic book collection. I won’t be above extortion. I won’t intend to pay for this. But I will, in ways you will never imagine. I will let you keep your mother.
In Rememberance of God
Maybe I didn’t actually see God, but I was three and in my underpants, standing in warm water, and it was sunset, and the water was shallow and warm, and I felt like I could turn into a great big small thing like an insect, a horsefly, and I felt porous, or like a piece of space cut out of the air, standing there up to my underpants in the weeds and water, and it was summer, and I was with my grandparents in Yosemite with the trees, the tents, the campfires. It was twilight, and the water was pink like God, or like I would later think of sex as pink, and I was a little boy then and didn’t know about sex, or I knew everything about sex because everything was sex, the slow, sweet ease of things, the goosh of mud, and I was small and round and staggering, fat-bellied and monkey-footed, in the toolies and weeds like a very small king, all rubbery with tomorrows, and naked on the inside, and full of geese or the smell of bacon and the night coming on, sleeveless and cool in the time before sex, when everything was sex, and I could drop to my knees in the pond water and fall through the floor of the earth. To do that now, though, I’d have to get drunk, I suppose. I remember how my mother got drunk, every night at seven-thirty. She’s been gone twentytwo years, but I remember her wandering her apartment with a drink in her hand, talking in circles, calling me “zohnny”—not “sonny” but “zohnny”—as if it were the start of a song and she were shoeless and floating. And I would look into her eyes and wonder, “Where is my mother? Where did she go?” She was off looking for God, maybe, the God just beyond the lamp or the rug or the bookshelf. She’d slur her words as if everything were going lavender
behind her eyes, or as if she were disrobing to music on the other side of the wall, and after she got rid of her clothes and her lost dreams and her failed twenty-year marriage, she might turn into this great white bird standing in the living room, like a stork or a swan, something pure white from all her forgetting, a loon maybe, smiling hard at the davenport, standing in weed water up to its ass and purring like a cat. They call liquor â€œspirits,â€? so maybe my mother was looking for God all those times, punching holes in the wall with her absent stare. Maybe that was it. She had a little nick in her nose, a cute little nick that I never knew the story of. Maybe she fell once while roller-skating as a little girl, and she was trying to get back to the time and the place when she could fly, when she could want and wish and lift right off the ground, when she could become a great big, small thing with wings, easy as milk.
Recipe for Everything
Thirteen months after her third husband died, Yasamine Gray wed for the fourth time. Most of the town was invited to the wedding, and many attended, they claimed, only for the sake of the reception dinner: Yasamine, after all, ran a small restaurant known for its spiced delicacies, which emanated smells from her two-story house and filled the area with a thin mist of exotic perfume. The town was abuzz, frenzied still a week later when my husband and I first arrived. Four husbands was three husbands too many, in most opinions, even if two had died of natural causes. The other disappeared one summer evening while out setting raccoon traps behind Yasamine’s restaurant. Some claimed that he ran away or was kidnapped. Others said he was murdered. But everyone agreed: Yasamine brought grief wherever she went. I was told the ceremony lacked for neither pomp nor circumstance. The bride’s gown was not only white, but so white it caused a momentary blizzard-blindness, that disorientation you feel when you’re lost in the snow and can’t recognize the landscape. They said her long, straight hair shone like black glass, and that the smell of wisteria and cumin wafted toward them as she walked past. They said her train stretched to the back of the chapel, even when she was standing at the front, and that her dress was splayed out on the floor around her so nobody could see her feet.
Rumor had it that Yasamine had no feet, that she was a witch or a spirit creature who hovered above ground casting love spells on men and subduing women with chants she whispered beneath her breath. She always wore dark, flowing skirts that dragged on the ground, and she never made any sounds as she walked up the sidewalk or across the wooden floor of her restaurant. Even I admit that from a distance, she seemed to glide from place to place as though she had wheels hidden beneath her dress. It was early spring. I was pregnant, and my husband and I moved to town so he could teach science courses at the small community college located there. We’d come from back north, where we’d left a city that seemed to sag with our histories, which poured like rain onto the dirty sidewalks in front of the apartment we’d lived in since we were married. I’d wanted a new start, and Phillip found it for me here. We moved into a small bungalow with a backyard so overtaken with weeds and overgrowth, I didn’t realize right away it abutted the back of Yasamine’s place. She lived in the flat above her restaurant, and I saw her for the first time the day she arrived home from her honeymoon with her new husband. I could see above the hedges, above the teakwood fence into her bedroom. Yasamine faced the window with her back to her husband. He was a few inches taller, and I could see only his forehead, wrinkled up in such a way that I knew he was smiling. Yasamine mouthed something, her lips moving slowly, and then she turned around, took something from her pocket, and placed it in her husband’s mouth. They fell backward together onto what must have been a bed, for when Yasamine appeared at the window some time later, she was wearing her husband’s shirt, unbuttoned. As I said, I was pregnant—three months—and pregnancy had begun to take its toll. My mind was hazy, gray, like my life was being lived in a noir film. I’ll be the first to admit that my memory has not always been the sharpest. Phillip used to tell me stories about when we first met: the dark restaurants we visited, the way he kissed me for the first time beneath an awning during a thunderstorm, the way we dashed from awning to awning during that storm until we were soaked, but safely home. But to me, these are just empty spots, eggs with no yolk, details that never embedded themselves in my mind. I’m funny that way. I don’t always remember the details. But I do remember the bees that first spring. Carpenter bees, Phillip declared, after they’d burrowed into the wood of our fence posts. They were everywhere, these fat, furry things with big cartoon heads and black antenna. They hovered in my face, buzzed in my ears. Phillip told me the
bees couldn’t sting me even if they wanted to, that they didn’t have stingers. He’d taught entomology courses, after all, and so knew these things. “They’ll go away after bee season,” Phillip told me. But I didn’t think I could wait. I’d step outside to trim the honeysuckle trees or pull weeds from the flowerbeds, and the bees would graze near my head, as though my scalp was a flower they were trying to pollinate. Finally, Phillip said to call the exterminator. “Yep, you have a lot of bees,” the exterminator said the next day while walking through our yard, as though this diagnosis could only be determined by his special science, and even then he wasn’t very concerned. His attention was caught, instead, by the smells coming from Yasamine’s kitchen. The scent was rich and thick—something roasting—and it felt we could have made an entire meal out of air alone. “Can you take care of them?” I asked, finally. “Huh?” he said. His eyes were closed, his nose lilting in the air as though pinned to an invisible clothesline. “Oh, yes… fumigate. Won’t even know what hit them,” he said. He closed his eyes and took in another bite of air. “Are the chemicals harmful?” I asked. “To humans?” I’d read many books about what to avoid during pregnancy: paint fumes, X-rays, car exhaust, cleaning products, permanent markers, caffeine, hair dye, scented candles, nail polish, and so on and so on. “I wouldn’t go around licking the fence, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. That wasn’t what I was asking, not at all. Phillip and I had tried for too long to get pregnant, had dealt with four miscarriages before now, and I wasn’t about to take chances, not any. He was counting on me, and I wanted this baby so badly I felt a constant light vibrating in my hands and my feet. “I’d better check with my husband,” I said just to have an excuse. The next few days, the swarm got thicker. Speckled clouds of bees overtook the fence, a Japanese maple, two pears trees, the hibiscus clinging to its life in a slipshod planter in the corner of the yard.
It was Yasamine who came to me later that day, introduced herself briefly from behind the fence. “I see your problem,” she said, though I could only see the top of her head, her thick, black hair. “Come with me.” With that, Yasamine raised her hand above her head, motioned me to her property, and led me around the back and into the side door to her kitchen. “I have a recipe for everything,” she said. She was pulling glass jars and bottles down from a cupboard, placing them in neat rows on the countertop. “First, some honey to make them feel they are loved, and some whiskey to make them feel they love you.” She was smiling, and I could see her teeth, smooth like one curved bone. She poured powders and liquids into a sliver bowl, mixing it together with her index finger. “Let’s see,” she said, announcing each ingredient as she added it: “some cayenne…garlic powder…witch hazel…ginger…cardamoms…kava plant…” she chanted beneath her breath, then she quickly sliced a lemon on the countertop, squeezed it into the bowl. She stirred the contents with her finger again, and I noticed it was extraordinarily long and stained a yellowybrown at the tip from the spices. “See: I even eat it myself. Good for indigestion,” she said, putting her finger in her mouth and pulling it out clean. “Hannah?” she asked. I realized then that I hadn’t said a word yet, not even my name to introduce myself. “Yes,” I said. “That’s me.” “Small town, you know,” she said. She had an accent, or maybe her voice was just soft around the edges, causing the beginning and ends of her words to fall off. “What is this?” I asked, motioning toward her concoction. She ran her fingers beneath some water and wiped them dry on her skirt. “The best part of cooking is sharing,” Yasamine said and handed me the bowl, but I shook my head. I thought she intended for me to eat it.
We walked back to my yard. Yasamine took an old grill brush and painted the fence with her mixture. She ran the brush along the posts, then blotted the pointed tips of the fence as though she were dotting I’s. She painted the trunks of the trees, then drizzled some into the dirt. “There,” she said as she turned around, her long skirt pulling dead leaves with her as she walked away. By the next afternoon, the bees were gone, their shriveled black bodies scattered around the yard like ash, and I swept them into a dust pan, and I threw them away.
The next few weeks, I worked in my garden again, pulling up weeds, tilling the soil, preparing the beds the way I’d read about in my books. I could tell by the way that the hydrangea and rose trees had been covered with thin cloth that the last owners had cared for this garden. Or someone had. In the garden, they’d left old pots labeled with the names of the herbs they’d grown: basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, rosemary. I wondered which spice they liked best. Our old place back north had only a small patio and a square patch of grass where I’d tried to grow tomatoes in pots, but never succeeded. They’d sprout fuzzy stems that grew to the length of my forearm, or so, but then they’d turn yellow at their tips, and wilted like they were taking a final bow. Phillip always said it wasn’t my fault, that some seeds just don’t germinate well— that’s nature. He told me the same thing after I lost our first baby six weeks into the second trimester. And again when I lost my second, late enough that we’d already painted the nursery. After I lost my third and fourth, he said nothing at all. Phillip thinks like a scientist, in details, numbers, and objective facts. He’d say things like the color of love should be blue, not red, since blood looks blue when refracted through skin. Red blood is spilled blood, he’d say. For Valentine’s Day, he’d give me dyed blue roses, a blue box of candy wrapped in blue ribbon because to him everything had definable explanations, even matters of the heart. When we moved, he’d explained that change is healthy: migration is what had allowed humans to outlive famines and floods. Adaptation is necessary for survival. The family that lived in our house before us had adapted, left their town, their house, and their garden behind. I found clues that told me about them. The second, smaller bedroom was painted yellow and white, with a mural of blue sky and clouds on the ceiling. In the hallway closet, they left a shoebox
of old Christmas cards that had been sent to them over the years—some still had school pictures of children tucked inside. At the front door was a mat that read Ring My Bell. By all counts, they seemed happy. But in town, I heard a different story. “They said they moved back home to be closer to family, but everyone knows they were having problems,” Nell Morrison told me in the produce section of the grocery store. Nell had blonde hair cut short around her chin. Her nose was small and upturned, and she wore a gardening hat with the top cut out of it. A few weeks before the family moved out of the house, she told me, the husband was spotted creeping out Yasamine’s back door, carrying his shoes on his fingertips. “Can you imagine? A woman like her?” she said. She laughed with her stomach but didn’t make a sound. According to Nell, Yasamine moved to town eight years ago, just walked up Main Street pulling a suitcase full of her belongings, wearing a dress that looked like it’d been worn for days. She’d bought her house with cash rumored to have been inherited from yet another dead man, though nobody could say for sure. “She’s a witch,” Nell said. “Bad news. If you need proof just ask her dead husbands, who can’t exactly respond, if you know what I mean,” she said and she laughed her silent laugh. “And speaking of husbands,” she said, and then grew serious, leaning in to whisper in my ear. “Oh, I don’t think I have anything to worry about,” I said, pretending to admire the purple potatoes on the slanted stand in front of me. “These days you just never know,” said Nell, and she went on to tell me a story about a woman in town—head of the church council—who did something or other to someone or other, though I can’t remember what exactly. Later, over dinner, I told Phillip about my conversation. I’d known him since he was a scrawny creature, whose glasses always slid to the tip of his nose in a way that made him seem like he was always looking down. That was a long time ago. Now, he’d filled out in the shoulders and waist. His age showed in his eyes, but he wore it well.
“I hardly think the town gossip is a reputable source,” he said, cutting his entire plate of food into bite-sized pieces before beginning to eat, which was a habit of his that always bothered me, but he claimed it was more efficient, so I left it alone. “I wonder why people keep coming to her restaurant,” I said. Everyone in town had negative words about the woman, but I’d seen the small dining room filled by patrons with hungry looks. Groups of people gathered near the front porch, sitting on the rockers, waiting for a table to open up, so eager to eat that they held their mouths open towards the sky like they hoped something might drop into them. “In their minds, dinner and Yasamine are two separate things,” Phillip said, still cutting his food. He finally set down his knife and began forking at his plate. “Or, maybe the smell of the food is simply too much to resist,” he said and went on to explain that the human olfactory nerve is closely tied to emotion. “Which emotion?” I asked. Lately we’d been, not arguing, but something worse, something less definable. We each wondered what the other was thinking. At nights, he stayed up late working in his office, and I stayed up late too, thinking about baby names and cribs and colors. Child psychology and nursing and labor pains. And about other things. “All of them,” he said. I wondered if happiness had a smell, and if it did, what it smelled like. A case of chickenpox was discovered in a schoolgirl who lived just a few streets over. It spread rapidly, according to the flyers posted in the window fronts of all the shops along Main Street. Before long, nearly half the town had caught it, passed it from one kid to another like a baton relay. I stayed at home an entire month—wouldn’t take the chance to venture out, not even for groceries. Instead I worked around the house, got the nursery cleaned up, planted my vegetable seeds. That month I spent entire mornings just watching the pots, thinking I could catch them growing. “You should get out,” Phillip nagged me. “There’s a zero percent possibility,” I told him. He liked answers in percentages.
“But Hannah, you had Varicella as a kid,” he said, using the scientific name for the virus, which I usually found endearing, but now found annoying. He touched the faded chicken pox scar just left of my nose, the one I’d wanted to remove a hundred times over the years, but Phillip always said he liked it, so I never did. “You can’t get the disease twice,” he said. “You know that.” “Maybe my case wasn’t strong enough to count,” I said. “Maybe I was misdiagnosed.” “It won’t hurt you to go into town,” he said. “In fact, it might do you some good.” He’d been worried about me since we moved, said it wasn’t healthy to be so solitary—for me or the baby. He said we didn’t move here so I could live cloistered in our house. I’d done that before. He said we needed to grow roots and wings, though I’m not sure I wanted either—just a healthy baby. “I think I’ll stay in a controlled environment, for the sake of the experiment,” I said, and I rubbed my stomach like I was applying sunscreen. Later, as I was transplanting my vegetable sprouts in the yard, I realized I could see through two crooked fence slats, past Yasamine’s lawn, into her kitchen. Yasamine was standing near the window, her hair pulled back by a scarf to reveal her long, brown neck speckled with moles. Her husband was sitting down, his outstretched arms and head resting on the table. When she walked over to him with a bowl, he sat up, and I could see she was applying something to the red pox marks on his face. “Always worse if you catch it as an adult,” Phillip said when I told him what I saw. “Will he be okay, you think?” I asked. “Always worse,” Phillip said again. Yasamine closed her restaurant to care for her husband, who couldn’t leave the house. She didn’t have help in the kitchen, and nobody in town would offer it. I can’t say I blamed them then for not wanting to get sick. Her second-floor windows remained propped open like half-shut eyelids. She’d often stand beside them, fanning the air, trying to push out the virus. When I’d water my garden, I’d look up to the sickroom where I could see them from the waist up: Yasamine would wind in and out of the room. She’d
bend over the bed, balancing spoonfuls of soup, which she’d dip down out of my line of sight and return to the bowl again empty. From a distance his scabs looked like giant freckles. I only left the house for checkups. Phillip and I had chosen a doctor in town to deliver the baby. He was tall as a midday shadow, all arms and legs. His office was dated—maroons and oranges, pastel paintings of hot air balloons on his walls—but he’d delivered babies for thirty-five years, and I trusted him as much as I trusted anyone in the medical field, which wasn’t saying anything too meaningful. Phillip laughed when he saw the baby on the monitor. “Look Hannah, look,” he said softly, and pulled my hands away from my eyes. The image was grainy black and white. In the middle of the screen I could make out a light movement, like a fish in darkest part of the ocean. I turned to see Phillip’s round, olive face. I studied the dark eyebrows that kept him looking boyish despite his wrinkles. When we went to see movies in the theater, I’d always turn my gaze toward him when I anticipated a scene I couldn’t stomach. I’d gauge the gore by the expression on Phillip’s face, his reaction, the curve of his lips, the gaping of his eyes. Phillip’s face was calm now. His eyes glistened. His lips were pressed together, restraining a smile. Phillip and I hadn’t wanted to find out the sex of the baby—well, I didn’t, anyway, and Phillip agreed. I was afraid of attaching myself to a son or a daughter again—to a name or an image in my mind. Phillip hoped for a boy, I knew. And I hoped for what would make us happy. We drove home from the doctor’s in silence, because we’d been there before. The appointments, the machines with images that seemed only as real as a magic trick, only as real as a picture can be. That night we ate dinner in front of the television and fell asleep facing each other, our bodies a fortress with the baby tucked safely between its walls. The next afternoon, Phillip came home from work with the news: Yasamine’s fourth husband had died. Nobody from town sent her flowers, at least none were delivered to her door. My postman told me she rarely received any personal mail, so I figured nobody sent her condolence cards either. I tried to catch a glimpse of her in her window, but nothing. Some townsfolk periodically drove by her house yelling from their cars:
“Murderer!” they cried, their voices landing like lead. “Witch!” Some of these people were teenagers. Others were not. From their windows they hurled eggs aimed for her the porch that fell short and rolled across the lawn, scattering about like Easter eggs. For my part, I did what any woman would do at a time like that: I made a noodle casserole. Back north, we’d once been inundated with casseroles, notes taped to their foil covers. I’m sorry for your loss, they read, or some version of that. The loss felt like it was mine and mine alone, and the personalized casseroles seemed to prove it. See? I held them up to Phillip in our small kitchen. See? I stacked the casseroles in the freezer. I couldn’t eat them. “Will you take this over to her?” I asked Phillip when it came out of the oven. Yasamine’s husband might have left behind death germs, and it wasn’t worth the risk. For the baby. “What should I say?” he asked. Phillip, for all the facts and figures filed in his brain, sometimes couldn’t find the words. “Just say ‘We’re sorry for your loss,’” I said. I handed the dish to Phillip and watched him walk over to her house. He knocked at the door, then stood there with his head down, like a young boy who’d accidentally hit a baseball through his neighbor’s window. Yasamine opened the door and Phillip disappeared inside. I hurried out back for a better perspective, and I saw them again, standing in the kitchen. Yasamine was at her stove, a thin cloud of steam rising up from the pot in front of her. She was beautiful, with her hair damped back from the heat, her skin wet and glowing. She’d occasionally wipe her forehead with the inside of her wrist, and then pause and arch her neck toward the ceiling and close her eyes, balancing tears inside them. When Phillip finally handed her the casserole, she let those tears fall, as though she, too, recognized her grief as rectangular and solid. Then Phillip hugged her. Looking back, I’m sure he meant well. Or perhaps he couldn’t help himself. They stood embracing, one of Yasamine’s arms wrapped around my husband, the other stirring her pot with a wooden spoon. “What did she say?” I asked Phillip when he returned some minutes later.
“She said to thank you,” he said. “Is that all?” I asked. “That’s all,” he said, then went to his office and closed the door.
Days passed slowly, tucking themselves into each other so it seemed like one long stretch of time. Each day I felt closer to my baby, though tired. Each day I worried more and more. I hadn’t felt it kick yet, but I was waiting. Still waiting. Sometime later, Yasamine returned my casserole dish. She stood in my doorway smelling of dill and lime and lavender. Her eyes had dark impressions beneath them, and her face looked sunken, which made her more beautiful somehow, brought out her high-set cheek bones, highlighted her almond eyes. “I enjoyed every bite,” she said. I took the dish from her. “I’m sorry about your husband,” I said. “Yes.” She nodded her head. “And you? How are you doing?” she asked. She was looking at my stomach. I looked down, too, to where my small bump had finally popped. “Good,” I said. “Good,” she said. Silence stuffed itself in the small space between us, absorbing the air. “Would you like to see my garden?” I finally asked. “The bees are gone.” It was little more than a bed sprouting tangled leaves and vines. The rows were crooked, and my plants were flowering, but no signs of vegetables yet. Yasamine walked the perimeter of the bed. She knelt down beside it, touched her long index finger to the dirt, and tasted it lightly with her tongue. “The soil needs more nutrients,” she said, then tasted again. “Potassium. Try mixing banana and walnut oil. Do you have fennel?” she asked. I shook my head.
“Come to my kitchen,” she said, and I cleared my throat because I didn’t know how to tell her I was afraid of entering her house, inhaling the stale air of death, transferring it to my baby who was already living and growing and swimming in its sibling’s deathbed. “Why don’t I bring the ingredients over here instead?” she said. She returned only a few minutes later, cradling a cloth bag in her arms. I let her in the back door and into my house where she unloaded the contents of her bag on the countertop one by one: bananas, vials of oils and other clear liquids, unrecognizable greens. She moved around my kitchen with familiarity taking spices out of the rack on the pantry door, flour from the tins on the countertop, water from the built-in filter inside the refrigerator door. “Can I help?” I offered. “I suppose I’m used to working alone,” she said. She had formed a ball of dough out of the ingredients, was pushing and pulling at it like she was loosening a rock from the ground. She grunted while she worked. “They think I killed my husband, you know,” she said after a while. I did know. I had gone to the hardware store in town for some gardening supplies; saw Nell Morrison in her cut-out hat. “You know she did it, don’t you?” she said, helping me haul the heavy bags to the checkout counter. “Those poor men. She waits for the right moment, and then—pow!—she strikes,” she held her chubby hands out like two pink, misshapen claws. But I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen for myself the way Yasamine would move around her kitchen, kiss her husband between chopping and blending and mincing and mixing. She’d feed him morsels of food with her delicate fingers. They’d laughed with their mouths open so wide it looked like they were gulping for air. And at the end of the night, when the last diner had gone from her small restaurant, the two stood by the window, forehead to forehead, bookends with no books between them. And in my own kitchen, at that moment, standing next to a woman who had lost four husbands—who was accused of killing them—all I could think about was how her skin looked so soft and smooth and even in tone, the color of sand.
“Here,” Yasamine said. “Like this.” She pinched off a piece of dough, rolled it to make a small pellet. “Till these into your soil—you’ll notice the difference,” she said. “How do you know all this?” I asked. “I have a recipe for everything,” she said. “I don’t cook much,” I said. We stood there together, rolling and pinching, rolling and pinching. Occasionally her arm brushed mine as we both reached across the counter, and we laughed nervously together, like schoolgirls with an unspoken secret. When Phillip got home, Yasamine had already left. But the kitchen still smelled of dill, lavender, and lime. “Smells good in here,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It does.”
Within a week or so bright yellow flowers budded from my vegetable patch, big ones shaped like antique bugles. Little vegetables slowly squeezed through the flowers, turning them inside out, killing them in the process. The petals fell away, revealing perfect baby fruit. Phillip had started staying late at school. Doing research on nocturnal insects, he told me. About the same time, Yasamine pulled down the blinds on her kitchen and bedroom windows. Her house was closed to me. I knew her room was no longer empty. And how did I know? Because I could smell her cooking again—warm, savory scents so strong you could pick them like cherries out of the air. Rosemary and maple. Capers and garlic. Braised meats. Curries. Saffron and cinnamon. If fragrances had colors these would have been a deep, deep red. Phillip arrived home at nights, late, smelling faintly of spices.
We were in the warmer months now. My corn stalks were faltering. “Knee high by the fourth of July,” my gardening books had told me, and I knew I was in trouble since they reached only my mid-shin. “Maybe I planted too late,” I said to Phillip one Saturday morning as I made him pancakes, the kind you mix from a box. “Uh-huh,” he said, clearly not listening. He was holding a knife and a fork in each hand, cutting off a piece and taking one bite at a time. “Since when do you do that?” I asked. “What?” “Usually you cut your food all at once,” I said. “More efficient.” “I don’t know…I’m savoring the flavor, I guess,” he said. “Since when have you savored flavor?” I asked.
I know some time passed, but how much I cannot say. I know I picked my first harvest of tomatoes. They were shaped like over-sized lima beans, but they tasted okay. Phillip helped me put stakes in the garden to hold up the large vines of green beans that had fallen over during some rain. He sprayed the leaves with a soapy mixture to keep away the bugs. I wasn’t much in the mood to garden anymore by then. I’d been feeling exhausted, unwell. Food had lost its appeal. The doctor said everything looked normal. He told me to trust the course of nature. The waiting was the worst part. I’ve never been a patient person, and Phillip teased that I wanted to shrink time into one room and live there, so I’d never have to wait for anything again. I’ve heard that gardening teaches patience, but I found it disturbing—the grotesque way that a seed unfolds from itself into something so unlike its original form. Examining my plants too closely made me feel nauseous: the fattening and elongating and movement so slow, so hidden, that even though I couldn’t see it, it made me anxious. It felt like the world was out of my control. At those moments, I’d sit in the shade of our magnolia tree and look toward Yasamine’s house, hoping for a glimpse inside.
I was sitting under the tree when I felt movement inside me, sharp and drawn out, a steady kneading. I don’t remember much after that—or maybe I’ve erased it from my mind. Yasamine found me in my garden. I was in the grass, balled up like a fist, folded into myself, thinking about how emotions do have smells: It was sour and metallic like blood, and I knew what I had known several times before. My baby was gone. Yasamine knelt down next to me, her long skirt slowly poofing and folding around her, so it looked like she was sinking into the ground. Her hands were warm on my skin. She cupped my forehead and clicked her tongue. “I have a recipe for everything,” Yasamine whispered. She held me in her lap, fixed her eyes on mine without blinking, which from where I lay made me feel as though I were being pulled up toward some surface. “Even this.” Everyone in town said Yasamine was a witch, and maybe they were right. But sometimes witches are all you’ve got. Yasamine brought me a mason jar of yellow liquid, told me to pour it into my bath. She told me not to eat. To drink only water. To lightly rap upon my chest for five minutes every hour I was awake. She told me to come back in the morning and not to say a word to anyone. “A woman must bear many secrets,” she said. I went home and waited until it was dark, until Phillip came home late from his classes. I heated up a frozen lasagna and sat with him at the table. “Is everything okay?” Phillip asked. He looked so childish trying to hold his fork and knife properly. His napkin was tucked neatly into his shirt. “Of course,” I said. When he left the table, I washed his dishes, snuck into the bathroom, and lowered myself into the tub full of warm water. I let my body soak until my fingertips were spongy prunes. I returned to Yasamine’s the next afternoon, entered through the kitchen where she was standing at the sink, scrubbing her hands. The refrigerator hummed. I looked out the windows. With the shades raised, my own yard seemed so far away. Yasamine motioned toward a bowl sitting on the counter.
“This?” I said. “Eat.” I did. It tasted like tofu and peppermint and cream and dirt and yeast, like something sweet rolled with something sour and stuffed inside something bland. It didn’t taste very good, but I ate because I had to, because there were no other choices or options left. I ate because it was the only thing I knew to do at the moment, because Phillip wouldn’t know what to say to me, because I lived here in this town, hundreds of miles from where I belonged. But most of all, I ate because Yasamine told me to, and at that moment, as she stood in the kitchen, her face shining from sweat but beautiful all the same, I felt the spell her four husbands must have felt, and I wanted to please her more than anything in the world. At my next appointment, the doctor pointed to the heartbeat on the screen. Phillip squeezed my hand and smiled with a faraway look. His eyes gleamed as they focused on the screen. I wondered if he could see something in the sonogram, in the swirls of black and white. He looked as if he was about to say something, but at that moment the baby finally kicked, and he pressed his hand against my bare stomach, round like a melon, only warmer. The final months faded, the way some memories do. I remember eating vegetables from my garden, zucchini as big as my forearm, tomatoes so sweet I devoured them like apples, deep purple eggplants the color of a bruise. We couldn’t consume them fast enough—and just when I thought we’d out-eaten the harvest, more vegetables popped up in the garden overnight, shiny with dew. In the delivery room, Phillip stood by the bed squeezing my hand, feeding me sips of water. Woody spices like thyme and sage and tarragon lingered on his clothes, and I knew he was lost to me. The doctor said push, and I pushed. I was so close to what I wanted, so I pushed and screamed and pushed. I’ve moved back north. I live just two blocks over from our old apartment, with its sad, striped awnings that don’t seem so sad anymore. I have a yard, though I don’t keep a garden. I’m learning to cook. People tell me motherhood has changed me—I’m happier now. I found my purpose. Phillip comes to visit some weekends, and we go on walks together in the park, taking turns pushing the stroller. He tells me about his students, about his study of nocturnal bugs soon to be published. He doesn’t talk about Yasamine, and I don’t ask questions.
The baby—you, my boy—are not really his, but you’re not really mine either. Your smile looks like licorice, your hair the color of corn husks, your skin the smoothness of coconut milk, your breath the smell of ginger root. But I won’t tell you that. When you grow up to look like your father or your mother (or neither, or both), I’ll tell you how I wanted you so badly that I’d do anything, anything at all.
Rusted Cell Phone Photograph, Digital Manipulation
American Poem #4
We walk the field and pull halos from the rain and smash them with a mallet. You say we’ll be together forever, and we leave the pieces where they lay. Weeks from now we’ll come back here, but give it months, maybe years, and eventually I’ll get scared that we’ve lost the way. I’m not thinking about that now. I let the rain rob me blind and follow you because we’re in this much together and there’s thunder, and somewhere between this row and the one farthest from where we started, I dropped the mallet. I’m all backwards, turned around. I panic when I can’t see you bent behind a basket full of halos I’ve never seen before. Do you love me? Tell yourself you love me.
It was a drainage ditch behind the swing sets and the zipper was stuck so she had to work hard to free it. Later that day, I sat in the principalâ€™s office, and waited for my parents. I was given a pencil and a sheet of paper, told to stay quiet. The coach in the hallway was laughing. The secretary said stop it, and she laughed too. I heard the words like violate, and I knew they had something to do with me. I heard something about earrings and hair matter of fact under a sharp whisper. Then more laughing. They had the story all wrong. There were no bleachers, there was no crowd, there was no note passed at recess. There was no hair either.
On Liberal Fascism
It began when Jonah found a Whale right on page 36 At the bottom of screech So Jonah Goldberg slept With the whale And brought him smoothing into Anne Sexton’s dead harbor. Says Melville Any fish can swim near the surface, But it takes a great whale to go down Stairs five miles or more; Jonah From down below, Saith his book: Social Security and Medicare are “fascist,” while Hitler, Being a vegetarian, was a liberal, And Heinrich Himmler tended a garden And raised chickens Hence a Green Activist. Jonah saith “I believe God created the great whales, And each Soul living, which maketh me a liberal Along with the rest of them.”
Kettle Number 40
After brewing 39 kettles of tea, kettle number 40 tipped over and scalded my hand to the bone—well, not really to the bone, but it hurt bad enough— hurt so bad I shouted louder than I did five years ago when I won the lottery back in Florida and went out and bought 30,000 dollars worth of tea. I only had a little left tonight, but I had enough to make a few more kettles and that’s what I was going to do. But at kettle number 40, the kettle tipped over and scalded my hand to the bone—well, not really to the bone, but it hurt bad enough. After I finished shouting, I looked down at the teakettle and asked why it had done such a wicked thing and it said that I’d had enough. It said that obsession drives people to do horrible things and that I should learn to contain myself. That’s a reasonable thing to say, I said, then asked why it didn’t take its own advice and it just sat there on the counter and didn’t answer me.
After Time Has Rumpled the Sheets of Your Mouth
When I am winter, shutting privately down in my own deep snow, allow me solace in stinking rooms of books, typewriters cold and dressed for procession. Great old ghosts grousing on stairwells, tumblers in cuff and not a kind word on their paper lips. Allow me mercy in my frozen thicket, where parties will have come to call and left to hibernate, leaving behind them small tracks of silent pears, tepid angels in wakeful repose. & allow me comfortsâ€”sliced membrillo, an avocado churned by spoon, port in crystal tasting of exquisite girls, black cherries, a photograph smoldering magenta. Leave me hopeful for another. Waiter! Another.
Backmasking Presentation, United Methodist Church Youth Group Tuscumbia, Alabama 1985
Harold Whit Williams
The basement reeks of tater tots. Our guts Are gurgling after Sunday dinner. Preacher Recalls the rock and roll and sinful glut Of youth—the Jethro Tull and Alice Cooper And Molly Hatchet shows; the grass and wine. He lays an album on the stereo’s table And speaks of overdoses, doing lines Of coke and dust and smack. He drops the needle But spins the album in reverse. The sounds I dig are cymbals, fuzz guitar and bells That swell and moan like magick underground. This singer—preacher yells—is seeking hell And wants to place your soul in Satan’s hands! I knew that night I’d have to join a band.
The Devil’s Whore Reason is the devil’s whore. - Martin Luther
I, for one, shall risk a hellish case of mental herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhea; open books like nubile thighs; let tongue and finger relish heaving premises; then penetrate an eager syllogism, and I will give the devil his due, for it’s a comfort to the wicked to have companions in misery.
A Kind of Cursing Senator Matthew Feldman introduced a bill into the New Jersey Senate to allow a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for anyone who profits by guaranteeing a “curse” on a person’s enemy…
I live in Daytona Beach, land of contradictions. Students strip to sunbathe on Spring Break outside condos where the snow-haired keep vigil on pulses. If I lived in Hoboken, I wouldn’t fear fines: necessary work I do, knowledge of bodies. I am a factory of one, molding little red dolls from warm wax that hardens smooth. The contract in triplicate: one for you, one for me, a third for the doll who acts as third party—a kind of father, son, and ghost, though what I do does not kill, a clean trick one can’t outrun by car, plane, or prayer. The pin slides in the shoulder, bursitis. The genitals, a virus. The heart, and she is friendless. At midnight, doll in hand, I sip pinot noir, wait for the right pain to suggest itself, spot-lit. A vibe, an invented song. My pulse jackrabbits to the moon floating above the Atlantic. Froth on ocean waves means change. Crying brings solace, relief. I give third parties simple bad luck, as from bad luck eventually comes good. Pain helps revise themselves for better. Each doll costs an even grand. And I do not claim to cure you who makes the order.
Seeing My Marriage in a Spinal Cord Tumor
1. Dr. Ha, incisive smile below his glasses, asks me if I’d like to watch him operate, a spinal cord tumor, he says, fingers touching as he talks. He leans against the doorway of the physical therapy room where I’ve been teaching manual care, me a chiropractor, a volunteer, my first time in Saigon. I’d love to, I tell him, Sign me up.
2. The scalpel seems a part of Dr. Ha’s hand. It glides like a jet across the skin, and leaves a red contrail over the spine. So much of what we are is fluid. Then they spread apart the skin and muscles with metal retractors and suction the leaking blood.
I see the living layers I only know by touch. Dr. Ha cuts slowly through the bones, using a small electric saw that blisters the air with a bloody scent. He removes the backs of the vertebrae and opens the spinal canal, revealing the spinal cord, which glistens like a snake in a cave. Three hours have passed. I’ve watched in timeless trance, thinking I should have been a spinal surgeon. Dr. Ha cuts through the dura, the outer meningeal layer, and searches. There it is, he says, probe against the tumor.
3. I can’t help but see my marriage here, a bloody-pink distended tube that looks like a fish’s stomach—I used to slice them open to see what had been eaten, the crawdads and crickets, the half-digested minnows. I see the swollen pressure against the cord, the source of numbness. I feel the probe of Dr. Ha around the cyst, teasing the tissues apart, drawing it away from the spinal cord, fluid oozing. I sense the space the tumor’s stretched, and how the nerves adapted.
When my life draws to a close, bury me in the soil of Appalachia, where the ripened corn tassels blow in the summer breeze, and cows graze in green pastures near old barns. Where Morning Glories climb rustic fences that surround garden patches, and rose sunsets slide behind the deep, blue ridges. A place where early morning fog hovers over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the scent of wild honeysuckle fills the evening air. As night falls, and the lightning bugs flicker, Iâ€™ll be at home. A homegrown girl, Iâ€™ll sleep better in my own bed.
Bodies crammed together in the belly of an iron whale on a rough sea. Only light is a red star burning by the side door. Jumpmaster runs a hand along its open mouth as if caressing a loverâ€™s lips. Propblast whips his umbilical as he scans black ink for a patch of green. Paratroopers rise from cargo seats, line up like pack mules. Parachute, reserve, rucksack on knees, weapon carrier jammed beneath an arm. Each jumper leans into next, traces yellow static line zig-zagging his back like bootlaces. An error could mean the life of the man in front, but trust is an infant in a dark room.
When light turns green all boots shuffle forward. Every second another man steps to the cliff, leaps, tastes the kiss of night air.
I should carry small glass or porcelain items for the times when it is necessary to demonstrate the fragility of my feelings the ease with which something well-formed and beautiful parts into fine dust if you simply chuck it at a wall if you throw a teacup underhand straight up and it hangs there briefly against the daylight giving you time to walk away from it and the sky the memory dreamlike boundless is punctuated only by the sound it makes behind you
Girl Who Wants to be a Rhinoceros for katie
my peace i give for the clenched teeth. what can i say to get you to stay a little while longer with me? the night is older than ten thousand suns and ever extending its reach. we are firmly in its grasp. i don’t want to spend tonight alone. you say, i want to be a rhinoceros. sartre said, Il n’y a de réalité que dans l’action. and you say he’s tied your shoestrings all up in knots, which is excruciating to see, seeing as i am too riddled with my own riddles to draw you closer to me. flashback: spindly fingers ambling through my hair. sad but beautiful eyes—looking into them is like looking out a tiny bathroom window with a view of a woods beyond the guardrail at the end of a street. let not your heart be traveled and neither let it be gathered like the waters on the other side of the falls of the ohio. instead of staggering home—at home staggering through these feelings of the adopted child. why did you not want me? i want to be back at the mag sitting in a booth across from your lips, long brown hair, and slight, melancholy body. fast forward: the foot fetish porn video.
Maurice Emerson Decaul
These poems are based on American Slave narratives collected by the Federal Works Project during the Great Depression. I took care to not alter syntax except in cases where it was necessary in order to combine phrases. I also took care to not alter the lexicon thus accounting for the variation in voice. The use of the & is a personal idiosyncrasy and I owe the form of the poems to Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Talking Dirty to the Gods.” I made a conscious effort to not title these poems because doing so I believe, would have imparted a sense of ownership over the narratives, and this is not my intent.
Before I’se a field hand Massa use me for de gun rest. I bend over & Massa puts his gun on my back what he kills I runs & fetches & carries. I turns de squirrels for him & dat disaway: de squirrel always go to de other side from de hunter. I walks around & de squirrels go to Massa’s side de tree & he get shot. When he shoots de duck in de water I has to fetch it out dat gives me de worryment I’se skeert. Powerful skeert. He say swim in dere & get dat duck but I won’t go in dat water I couldn’t never get used to bein de water dog.
My mother was a slave driver for her master she was put over 25 or 30 women & child. Hoe coton- hoe it right & chop coton trim the corn; plant corn & pead seed. She walk erlong with her old cow hide whip & tell how to do it. I always obey my mother when that old cowhide come down on you thinks you seeing stars in day time. My honny moon brought all the trubble Angel & myself was jest playing. I slap Angel little too hard, caus her to cry then mama hear. When mama bulge in she push me down before I hit the floo she started whipping me. She lived to be 124 years old if she was living today & say: ‘‘you get down, you black rascal” you see me getting down & quick erbout it too.
Home Cell Phone Photograph, Digital Manipulation
Love Have They Waited, Long Have They Planned
When I decided to get married, it had nothing to do with the man I was dating. The first time my mother had met him, her right eye twitched halfopen then half-shut for two days. She said he had given her a look when I wasn’t looking. She said it was the kind of look you see at the beginning of movies that end in no good. She nursed a glass of Kool-Aid-sweet white wine while my boyfriend drank three Jim-Beam-and-ginger-ales. He complained only half under his breath that the restaurant was part of a chain and that restaurant chains always sucked. When we finished graduate school, he had a job, so he stayed. I got a job, so I moved. Nine hours of highway stretched between us, the landscape sloping from red clay to tidal marsh to Atlantic Ocean. We talked on the phone for an hour a day about what we would do to and with each other when we were in the same zip and area code. He wrote poems about the woman he had been in love with which suggested he was still in love with her. He sent one to me to read. It described the wine-screw curls of her hair, fireworks bursting themselves in the background. At the end of the poem, he admitted that though the fireworks were real fireworks that really did burst themselves, they were cliché, so I decided to think it was charming. Sometimes he would call five hours after my strict ten-p.m.-on-a-school-night bedtime, drunk and trying to figure out how to unlock a locked door and then open an unlocked door. He sang Wilco songs with the wrong words. I asked how he got home. Sometimes he didn’t remember. Sometimes he remembered that he drove but he didn’t remember how. Sometimes he sat in the backseat of
someone’s Hyundai, the woman he had loved and still loved balanced in the middle seat between him and someone they’d met at the bar. I decided to think this was a phase rather than a serious problem. One time I asked where do you see this going and one time he said well, I guess I’m in it for the long haul. The first time he visited me, we drank sweet tea out of Mason jars at Country’s Bar-B-Que, a line of sauces parading from sweet to hot to yellow at the end of the table. We held hands, mine pressed against the sticky tabletop, and our waitress, newly married and more newly pregnant, smiled at the spot where our fingers met. Afterwards I drove him to see the campus where I taught freshmen about semi-colons and the fact that people did write things before the Bible was written. I pointed to the window that was my office, at the top of a nine-story building I joked was like Dante’s Inferno in reverse, with my office the ice-cold center where Satan ate and re-ate his meals. They sealed all the windows shut, I said, so no one can jump, since suicide is a major work hazard here. He didn’t say anything. I thought it was because I wasn’t actually being funny until later, when he said, I don’t understand how they do it, people like that waitress. How they get married and have families without having everything in place. Like insurance and a house and all. He went on to talk about taxes and voting and laws, but I’d already decided he was talking about us. I’d decided that he was thinking ahead. He meant it: he was in it for the long haul, the diamond and the stretch marks and the emptied children’s bedrooms.
I first heard my students’ opinion about my thong third-hand. It was a topic of discussion on an unofficial online campus discussion board, a colleague said. The students knew what was going on under my clothes, and though they were hesitant to turn in three page papers analyzing fish imagery in early Egyptian love poems, even if they weren’t required to have a thesis or even type it, they didn’t hesitate to write about what was and what wasn’t covering my behind. They said it made me approachable. I never knew, a colleague said, that a thong could be a pedagogical tool. I told you not to wear those things, my mother said when I told her. You young girls think they’re just great and all and that when you wear them, you can’t see anything, when it’s the other way. You can see everything. She believed, as firmly as she believed in the rosary and the Virgin Mary and all her apparitional speeches about how scandalous women and their clothing were, that Visible Panty Lines might not be in style, but they at least told the world you were wearing panties. Besides, she said, who wants
to wear a piece of dental floss down there? But commercials and makeover shows on The Learning Channel disagreed, and so I disagreed as well, and filled a corner of my underwear drawer with the tiny triangles they made when folded. At first, I didn’t notice the rush of hushed voices when I walked into the classroom. I focused on not tripping on the unhemmed legs of my pants, or over my own shoes. I focused on remembering what I was supposed to say about Homer and whether he was a he or multiple hes, whether he was blind or a band of bards wandering blind. After my colleague told me what the whispers were saying, I listened. I walked into the classroom, watching one foot pass the other foot. I put down my binder and my anthology of world literature and turned around to write on the board. I made it to the anger in Sing, o goddess, of the anger of Achilles. Then it started, a shushing sound in the back of the classroom on which I focused until it became voices, then words. One voice asked, Thong today? Then another voice answered, No. VPL. Better luck Wednesday. I will admit it. It was, at first, flattering. At first, I felt seen. I felt like I wasn’t just the drone at the front of the classroom, one hand clutching the podium, the other squeezing a stick of chalk until it broke. And I liked it. I liked feeling like I wasn’t just the teacher someone saw at the grocery store with a cart packed with laxatives, red wine, and cat litter. It wasn’t flattering for long. Soon it became seeing myself too much. Every step was an act of performance. An act of awareness. I found myself backed against the elevator’s back, my backside covered by shirts I tugged to make longer. I listened for the slap of flip-flops, the flat thud of boat shoes. I missed doors to classrooms and offices. I walked into walls. I’d started hearing the words behind my behind, and I couldn’t stop. My female students didn’t help. It seemed they’d made their opinion of me on the first day, when I walked through the rows passing out syllabi and they saw the bare ring finger on my left hand. She’s not married, one blonde whispered to another, who fingered the pearls strung around her neck. One of those, she said, and they both rolled their kohl-rimmed eyes, and that was that. At least once a week, one woman or another would ask, what exactly are we supposed to call you? I mean, like, you aren’t a doctor or anything. I’d say, Ms. Bolden, and she’d say, Miss Bolden? It sounded like a hiss, like a snake dragging a belly full of S sounds over the ground. Ms. Bolden, I’d say again, dragging the S myself, Ms. M-S-period. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I knew I was going to cry. I was halfway through a diagram of Hector’s battle with Achilles–a smiley-faced stick
figure for Hector, an angry-faced stick figure for Achilles. The men boiled over–What the fuck, man? VPL central. I thought we were going to get our money’s worth today. The women laughed with open mouths. They didn’t try to hide behind hands. My hand broke the piece of chalk inside it. I told myself to stay calm. Achilles killed Hector, tied his body behind his chariot and drove it, its decay on display, around the camp for three days. The class ended and I told them to expect a quiz. I didn’t look at any of them as they left. They’d told our secret: I had a body, and we all were old enough to know what bodies did. I wanted to be a brain again. I wanted to be a disembodied voice, its boring drone. I didn’t cry until I made it to a female adviser’s office, where I watched my fingertips for mascara and kohl after wiping my eyes. She handed me one of the packs of Kleenex she kept in a drawer. They’re animals, she said. Wild and rabid animals. They will eat you alive. There were rules, she told me. There were ways to survive. Never enter the room with your hair down: put it up with a pencil if you have to. Never wear a white skirt without a slip underneath. Never wear the same pair of black heels you would wear on a date. Never call them heels: in the classroom, they’re pumps. In the classroom, a shoe is just a shoe. And never, ever let them know that you aren’t married.
I went to the Wal-Mart on the far side of town early the next morning, when my students would be too hung-over from beer pong and Jägerbombs to be awake, and bought two packs of the granniest granny panties I could find. I went to Mass, which is what my mother told me to do when I was confused and what Sister Nathaniel said to do if you felt dirty. I kneeled, trying to look holy, trying to ask God or Mary or whoever the Patron Saint of Underwear may be for guidance. That Monday, I pulled on a pair of fleshcolored panties that stretched from the top of my thighs to my too-high waist. I wound my hair into a spiral and pierced it into place with a pencil from the Writing Center. I would not be a show. I had a plan: any student said a single word I didn’t like, and I’d send them out of the room. I mentioned my plan to another adviser and found out it couldn’t be my plan. It was against University Policy, I was told. I was told I had to speak with each of the men who had high-fived or thumbsdowned me one-on-one, and alone, and in my office, with the door cracked to protect me and to protect their privacy.
I knew what to say. I know what you’re saying, I told them. I have your mother’s number. One more word about it, and she knows what you said. Each student became a boy. He bent his head downward and combed his fingers through his hair, the bangs grown thick and long enough to reach his eyes, like all the frat boys wore it. Yes ma’am, he said. And then I realized I’d have to get married.
I knew a lot about bad luck. I knew it was bad luck to put on someone else’s wedding ring. I’d learned that when my aunt Jackie left hers in the bathroom one Thanksgiving, and my mother told me to keep it because she’d forget. The ring was halfway down my ring finger before my mother screeched. No, no, she said. That’s bad luck. We’ll never get you married now. I thought it was probably even worse luck to buy an engagement ring for myself. My mother agreed, and so she and her friend found a sale on rhinestone rings at Peachtree Mall. They called my office and laughed into the receiver. I looked at and not out of the sealed window of my ninth floor office, wondering both who had tried to jump and if it was possible to break the seal and jump myself. I could use my keys, or the letter opener my officemate kept on her desk, to make sure my conferences go smoothly, you know, she said. My mother and her friend had their hands full of circles circled with stones– the kind of costume jewelry women used to pick up men with bad intentions over martinis and a split pack of Camel Lights, the kind that thirteen-yearold girls bought and moved into and out of the classroom’s lights instead of watching algebraic equations blooming over the chalkboard. They’d found a fake gold ring with one central stone—it might be too big and gaudy to be believable, my mother said–and a circle inset with rhinestone chips—that one’s too cheap-looking, her friend said, if you’re going to pretend you might as well go for it. When I became engaged, there were no bottles of champagne, no petals stripped off their roses. There was no beautiful view or crowded restaurant, no man on one knee. There was, instead, the padded envelope my mother mailed me. The ring would do its job, with six glass chips I couldn’t tell from diamonds and a larger stone, not too big to be believed but not too small to be pitied. My mother slipped a note inside: This was fun, she wrote. I just hope it doesn’t turn your finger green. I’m almost jealous, she told me on the phone. I wish I could’ve picked out my own ring. Not that your father doesn’t have good taste. He just doesn’t have my taste.
Within an hour, the ring circled my finger in green. I took it off and laid it on my dressing table. Beside it sat the two chopsticks I used to pull my hair into a bun. I watched it glint in the room’s single-bulbed light as I hung on the back of the door the clothes I planned to wear the next week, the clothes I hoped would help me tell the lie that I was capable, and I was claimed: a starched pink shirt and pin-striped skirt, a blue dress traced with white embroidery which settled neatly below the knee.
At first the ring was embarrassing. It was a secret I wouldn’t admit I was keeping. I turned the stone to my palm outside of the classroom, or else moved the ring to my right hand, where the Southern Baptist students kept their promise rings. If I boarded the elevator with another faculty member, I backed against the wall and held my hand and the ring behind it. This was a secret I’d only tell my students. They loved it. They finally asked questions, though not about Achilles and Hector or Homer, whoever or whatever he was. Have you set a date? What kind of flowers? What are the bridesmaids wearing? That’s my business, I said at first. But answers were tempting. I decided that if I was going to commit to this symbol of commitment, I needed to put on a good show. Once I answered one question, I found out it was easy. I wanted to answer more. At first I said sometime this summer, but soon the date became more certain: June, you know, since it’s vacation and all. June. June 28th. At first I said we’d deck the church in lilies, but then they seemed too deadpeople-ish, so we decided to switch to hyacinths, for T.S. Eliot, you know. We’ll get there next semester. I was very good at this game. Of course, the bridesmaids had to match. They’d wear powder blue. I’d let them pick out their own dresses, as long as the colors kind of matched. Who wanted to spend three hundred bucks on a tissue box of a dress they’d only wear once? I pretended not to notice my students’ eyes on my left hand, following the gleam of light that I was starting to think looked pretty good, pretty natural, just plain pretty. I pretended not to notice as my left hand took over the right’s duties–arranging my grade book and three-volume Anthology of World Literatures from the Beginning of Time to the Renaissance, lifting a Diet Coke to my lips, covering my mouth to pretend its carbonation wasn’t making me burp. I pretended not to notice when I started being careless, keeping the ring on my left hand at all times, clutching a coffee cup with my left hand in the elevator, no matter who was with me. The ring had its own
power. The ring had its own will, and it wanted to show itself, to show off its glitter and zirconium and nickel. Soon I had five bridesmaids. My maid-of-honor was flying in from Austria for the ceremony. She would wear a white sash and elbow-length gloves, while the rest of the bridesmaids wore blue sashes, wrist-length gloves. I bought each a box of pink wine for our bridesmaid’s luncheon. It was a private joke between us. Finally the perfect dress found me. It was tasteful but sassy, and it stitched on its waist a series of seed pearls from my mother’s wedding dress and from the gloves her mother wore at her wedding. A swathe of lace from my mother’s dress transformed itself into my veil. A ribbon from her dress didn’t want to be left behind. It decided to wrap itself around the stems of the white hydrangeas that insisted I carry them. In June, my arm would hook into the nook of my father’s arm, and my father insisted he loved the man I was going to marry. My father admired the leather patches on his tweed jackets, his taste in football and sixties music. My real father hated the real man I was dating, who’d really only said marriage to me once, and in reference to the woman he used to love and still loved, who’d found a man who once bought her three hundred dollar cowboy boots just because it was Thursday. I didn’t tell my boyfriend about our wedding. He didn’t know we spent our weekends thumbing through ivory cardstock, debating if the embossed initials were elegant enough to justify the price. He didn’t know we’d already looked through all of the place settings at Bed Bath & Beyond, or that we decided against getting china because no one used it these days. It was none of his business. One Friday he called from the woman he loved and stilled loved’s car to tell me he didn’t know how to not drink anymore. I nodded from my separate dark even though he couldn’t see me in his. I told myself he was ready to quit. I told myself that if he was admitting it, he was ready to quit, and that if he was calling me from her car, he was ready to be with me. We would be together. We’d get married. All of his wine bottles would recork themselves. The hair of his ex-girlfriend would uncurl itself. We would be happy, and when a student asked what they should call me, I wouldn’t snake-hiss a Ms. By Monday’s class, we’d moved the wedding to mid-September. It’d be outside, like we’d both always wanted, since September brought less heat and trees that still held up their green. We’d hired a soprano to sing “Ave Maria.” We bought a blue pillow for the bearer to bear his ring, and a straw basket woven with ribbons for our flower girl, his niece, who didn’t exist until she was part of the story. She was excited. She was to throw clots of petals with green leaves mixed in. They’d dot the white carpet that lay like a spine between ribbed rows of folding chairs, the aisle where I would
walk. Since this life wasnâ€™t my life, I wouldnâ€™t look like a ghost in white. I would look beautiful and everyone would watch. Everyone would say I was beautiful, and maybe, in this story, I could even agree.
Family Portraits, With Dogs
Shana Campbell Jones
 Leaving Poodlesville, as Johnny Warren called it, required a ritual we had only recently formulated but clung to with a tenacity that suggested it had always been so: gather a sweater, grab a coke, cram a lighter and a pack of cigarettes into the rented wheelchair’s scratchy, nylon pocket. Nod to nurses, smile at Mildreds. Sink with the elevator one flight down; roll out the front door. We did this every day, several times a day. One block and we’d be facing the Elizabeth River, perched at the edge of a neglected industrial site, with an entire field of weeds and brambles spreading before us. A bizarre routine, although Mama’s life before cancer barreled into her pancreas surely had prepared us for it. In the meantime, Harbor’s Edge towered behind us, wedged as it was between historic Fort Norfolk and abandoned land. It was a shiny, highclass place as retirement communities go, boasting an indoor saltwater pool. Blonde-silver ladies with large diamonds and fluffy dogs lived at Harbor’s Edge mostly, although a decent number of men lived there, too. They were the kind of men who could afford the place—retired judges, doctors, admirals, and congressmen. Men who had so propelled themselves forward throughout their careers that dying would take some winding down. My sixty-five-year-old mother lived at Harbor’s Edge, the youngest by a decade at least, but not a stranger to group homes or assisted living for
reasons other than a mortal illness. She couldn’t smoke inside or within 50 feet of the building, so every day, several times a day, I wheeled her across the street to an abandoned, overgrown bus stop, where she’d be protected from the wind. If she felt like it, we sat outside of the bus stop at the edge of the waiting-to-be-developed field, watching the river while she smoked. She sat at an odd angle in her wheelchair—uncomfortable, skinny, yellow— barely sucking on her cigarette. I sat on an abandoned concrete piling a few feet away, staring into the tall grass and thinking about all kinds of things but mainly how often I had been in that similar position and how familiar and inevitable it all seemed—of sitting and waiting and watching her smoke and disappear. “Do you see the dogs?” I looked up from the weeds and over at her. “No, Mama.” She glanced down and to the side, quick and a bit paranoid. She would like to ignore them, but she couldn’t. She saw dogs. “It’s all right, Mama.” She shook her head briskly, like a horse, and laughed a little. Whether she was bitter or relieved it was hard to know. All those years. All those years of seeing and hearing and maybe even feeling things that did not exist except in her own mind, things that were not there. All those years of doctors, medications and hospitals because she saw things that were not there. All those memories—some true, some false—all muddied up by denials, dreams, pretending, and rationalizations, not to mention sickness, electroshock therapy, and various doses and combinations of dubious, let’s-try-this pills. Now, suddenly, now that she was dying, psychosis was no big deal. Nobody panicked. Nobody called for a psychiatric evaluation. Nobody kicked her out of wherever she happened to be. According to the Hospice booklet we had both read (and she had promptly thrown into the trash when finished), the dying see loved ones, angels, all kind of things. They hear voices. And— here was the incredible part—it was all right. Normal. Expected, even. She saw dogs; she was dying. So this was the cure. “Do you think I’m going to hell?” “Oh, Mama. Why would you say such a thing?”
She pressed her lips together, reaching her hand out and over to the side, petting the air absently. Apparently, the dogs were friendly. “You know, Papa Jack always said that spelling dog backwards was the surest way to get to God.” She looked at me sharply. Fear circled her eyes, glinting like shards of light. “So there you are,” I added, brow wrinkling, looking, I knew, like Papa Jack. She looked away, bringing her now-unlit cigarette to her lips. She wasn’t really smoking anymore. Half the time her cigarette burned out because she couldn’t suck on it hard enough to keep it going. But she pretended to smoke anyway. Partly out of the habit of smoking—maybe even partly out of the habit of pretending. And so that is how it was in the fall of 2010, as my mother died of pancreatic cancer after suffering a lifetime of mental illness, the serious kind. We waited. We talked some, but not much. We watched the ships in silence when they passed. We saw patterns in the weeds pressing against the bus stop’s cloudy plastic walls; we commented on clouds. We waited by the river with dogs visible and invisible circling, wondering how long it would be.  So much paper. So much stuff. So many pictures of long-gone people and beloved dogs. If I wanted to understand my mother and grandfather better, I might be considered fortunate to have been cursed with plenty of material beyond the experience of living and dealing with them. Boxes of it. A storage rental at $163.00 per month full of it. And some of it dense. When my grandmother, Mickey, died unexpectedly at 49 from an allergic reaction to an ill-advised medication at Walter Reed Hospital in 1970, my grandfather wrote a book a few years later in her honor, which I have. My mother also wrote a book during this time, about her mother’s death and about her son’s death and about her trip to Vietnam to see her father. I was three or so when she wrote it, and I have this book as well. I also have a copy of my grandfather’s press secretary’s diary. In 1975, she died with more than 150 Vietnamese orphans in a plane that crashed into a rice paddy, transformed immediately from a hero to a symbol of a star-crossed war. I even have a transcript of a telephone conversation between my father and Papa Jack from 1974, taken by my grandfather’s secretary. The fact that they were even talking by phone is startling. Papa Jack was in Vietnam at
the time, Daddy in Northwest Florida. In the days of long distance phone charges, when people used to watch the clock when they talked, my father and his father-in-law discussed my mother’s recent hospitalization, her surprising diagnosis of schizophrenia, her bizarre accusations about her own mother (that she was in love with my father), her strange indifference to her child (me), and her unfaithfulness to my father (“How she found the time,” he says, in a weariness that had to have translated through the heavy black receiver and across half of the entire world just as it had translated across all the years to me, “I do not know.”). Who knew what time it was. Who knew what kind of static and clicks punctured the background. The call spoke for itself: it was a desperate thing to do. I’ve only read this transcript once, and quickly. It’s too difficult to read any way otherwise, so more is in it, I’m sure. And there may be other transcripts as well—certainly, more papers wait for me to read, sigh over, and put down again. I do know this: Daddy was a young, Southern lawyer from a longtime Florida Panhandle family, glad he’d paid his Army dues in Germany instead of southeast Asia, thinking he was paying his dues on the way to becoming a local, small-town judge. Papa Jack, having paid his dues, was commanding a losing, upside-down war as his reward. Neither one of them had any idea about what to do about my mother. And, when Papa Jack died, in addition to boxes and boxes of military-related correspondence, I found two long file cabinet drawers full of letters he had written to his parents, beginning with his early career as an Army private drafted into World War II out of law school and ending with him serving in Vietnam, as a commanding general and Defense Attache. The estate sale lady encouraged me to sell these letters, perhaps on the Internet, saying some historical novelist might pay dearly for them. Or a stamp collector, at least. But the letters wait in my office, most unopened, although I have read a few. For whatever reason, I guess I believe that reading these letters and opening these old books is required of me somehow. It seems wasteful not to consider all those words, all that work. It might even neaten things up, put things into perspective and order. Yet all the documentation—except the occasional news article or phone transcript that catches my eye—waits. Perhaps this reflects some anxiety of influence on my part. Or maybe I know, rightly, that the documentation is unlikely to neaten anything up at all, that even a bigger mess might result, both of my office and time. Or maybe it just reflects the unhappy prospect that I might give up, overwhelmed by the enormity of such people and such lives and such paper. Accepting the awful
possibility that I might end up doing nothing at all, and that might even be best.  Sometimes you can live on memories, even if they aren’t true. My mother once said that to me, in a mixed manic state after I had schooled her about needing to go to see the doctor and get her medications changed before the inevitable break and hospitalization occurred. Even though her eyes were wild, and I needed to keep driving while also keeping the conversation going in a somewhat logical direction to distract my mother from her destination, I had to pause and remind myself to write that one down. Sometimes you can live on memories, even if they aren’t true. That one fell from the heavens, and was worth repeating, worth italics, and maybe even worth an inconvenient trip to the emergency room because it was an honest statement that is about a true a thing as I ever heard from my mother, and it’s true enough for all of us to be bigger than her, too. When I was about ten, I remember having a debate with my grandfather about which species was superior: dogs or cats. It was a classic Papa Jack question. I chose cats because I loved them and needed to stake out my own claims to what constituted ideal love in a dog-loving family. And I was a rescuer: I had found a kitten crying in a tree at my paternal grandparent’s fishing cottage on the Choctawhatchee Bay. With bright green eyes and white fur all over except for the black toupee-like spot on the top of his head and black half-moustache, T.C. was a dashing, sweet kitty, and he loved me for helping him down. And he was clean, unlike our scruffy terriers Yahoo and Tappy who had fleas, cuddled next to our house in dirty sleeping holes, and stupidly chased cars. “But cats can’t speak,” Papa Jack rejoined. “Dogs can’t talk either!” With blue eyes twinkling (eyes like warm ice), Papa Jack continued. “Ask a dog how his day went, and he will tell you.” I grudgingly walked into the trap. “What?” “It was rough.” I groaned. He didn’t have to repeat the joke. But he did go on. “Ask him what a tree feels like.”
I rolled my eyes, reaching down to pick up T.C. and put him in my lap to be comforted by his superior softness and lack of matted fur. Papa Jack grinned. Dogs won. This memory is true. Well, at least, it happened something like how I described it, and the people within it are recognizable to others. Papa Jack was a charming, provocative man. I was a ten-year-old girl mooning over a cat. We resembled each other. We liked to argue with each other. Sometimes you can live on memories, even if they aren’t true. Yes. Yes, of course, and keep driving. Instinctively I had always known my mother’s imagination both tortured and sustained her, so I rarely confronted her with realties that didn’t matter. Compliance (peace) was always my ultimate goal, and I had been trained from a young age to hold the truth this way and that to see what version worked best, a pragmatist early on. But sometimes I could not abide false memories, large or small, especially when they involved me. Living in dream world was one thing; acquiescing to it was quite another. How much of this was wishful rewriting of history and how much of it was genuine psychosis I will never know. She would have wanted to help me get ready for the prom, just as she would have wanted to have a friend named Mario who worked at the Maryville Garden Center (they banned her—she became obsessed with this imaginary friend and freaked the whole place out). Sometimes I wonder if her problem was profound loneliness, that she needed to occupy her mind with something. I do know that psychotic memories happen with mental illness sometimes. Fantasy bleeds into delusion somehow, or maybe it works the other way around. The social workers and counselors who dealt with Mama always had a time understanding her as they sifted the grandiose from the prosaic, weighing the extent to which she had really lost touch. When it came to my mother, they were often surprised to learn what was and wasn’t so. “Your mother says you work for the Governor.” Doubtful. “That’s true.” “Ah, well.” The counselor takes a long look at me, maybe for the first time. Professionally dressed and sincere, I am credible.
“She says her father was an Army general—the last commanding general to leave Vietnam. He had eight maids and let her fly around the country in a helicopter when she visited him.” Looks up, very skeptical. “That’s true, yes, odd as it may sound.” “Her uncle knew Ted Kennedy. Used to drink with him.” I nod. “Yep.” “And her best friend is CIA?” Weary. I’d nod, thinking of Johnny Warren, my grandfather’s best friend who had become, willingly or not, a go-to person for my mother to call in the middle of the night because he listened patiently and had a gentle, sonorous Southern voice, having grown up in Georgia. The counselor would raise her eyebrows at this point, and I would shrug. So maybe this woman was a secret Russian princess after all? But the truth, such as it was, didn’t last long and wasn’t quite what it seemed anyway. Her disordered mind inevitably betrayed itself, going too elaborate, and way too far. Certainly Mama’s innate arrogance contributed to the unraveling—she could never fulfill the threats she made to her captors, undercutting the entire storyline quickly with failure. But I think her lies/ delusions were more of a desperate tapestry woven by her brain to protect itself from her own painful mistakes or shortcomings than a projection of grandiosity for its own sake. She could never accept her failures, and neither could her anatomy. It may sound strange to split a person between her self and her brain, but it helps me to see it that way, and maybe that’s what the term split personality means, for all I know. I do know my mother could not accept her illness, although sometimes, in clearer moments, she would confess it terrified her. Bi-polar disorder (with acute mania and some schizophrenic tendencies on the side to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the doctor you talked to and the day she’d been seen) just wasn’t something she wanted to own up to very often, even if all of those around her were ultimately inclined —at least, in later years—to believe it was bad genetic luck. Rather, she (or her brain) concocted in self-defense false stories to explain how she (or her brain) received her “head injury.” A car wreck at age three that her parents didn’t take seriously enough. Post-traumatic stress disorder from an abusive marriage. (A painful one to hear recited, as my father, while imperfect, is about as far from being violent as you can imagine,
something my mother admitted on better days when she said she had loved him because he was “kind.”) A knock on the head from a baseball in the mid-1980s. (Her grandfather was an umpire and sportswriter in the heady days of 1930s and 40s New York baseball—a connection?) Eventually, all of these wishes or rationalizations or possibilities became something more than lies: they became actual real estate in her brain, bona fide neurons and synapses that fired automatically with no intention to untruth needed. They became memories—memories peopled with detail and emotion, as real as her First Communion or wedding day and believable to a point to strangers and casual acquaintances, especially in comparison to troubled Vietnam commanders, charming political minions, and half-hearted spies.  Yard-dogs of murky breeding were more common when I was a child than they are now. These days, even the reddest of rednecks hangs status on a dog’s lineage, no matter how ugly or dubious, with the result being that Pit Bulls and Rottweilers now populate trailer parks while abusive puppy mills make the news. Meanwhile, in the suburbs or cities, Old English Sheepdogs, Basenjis, and Shih Tzus lead their doting owners to the dog park. One of my best friends owns and runs a “doggy daycare.” The very idea would make Grandma laugh, if she was living. Such a thing would be akin to paying $3.00 for a cup of coffee or buying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a restaurant. Of course, all of these things are things that a lot of people do now, and I’m sorry she is not here to smile at us. We are foolish. Decidedly mixed, Yahoo and Tappy were terriers mostly, if a breed could be discerned. Their mother was Goldie who, having birthed many puppies in her life, walked around my grandparents’ large yard half beat down and half self-satisfied. Tappy was a round, squirming chocolate puppy when I picked her out, smelling of damp, under-the-house black earth. Yahoo was the runt, one-eyed and white with only three good legs. He shouldn’t have survived, but he did. We have pictures of me with my mother holding these puppies. My grandmother took them probably. My mother’s black-brown hair is feathered in a mid-1970s ladylike way, more Dorothy Hamill than Farrah Fawcett. She wears a blue, eyelet-laced cotton summer top with thick shoulder straps for sleeves. She isn’t plump by any means, but she has some flesh on her, probably because of medications, looking healthy and creamy. She was a beautiful woman—often compared to Natalie Wood or Ingrid Bergman. Compared to later pictures, where she is too thin and too sharp and too frozen angry, she seems placid and possibly happy, although it had
to have been only a few months after the fall of Vietnam. I remember once seeing my Papa Jack, holding his head in his hands, overcome by the thought of all the Vietnamese people he had known there, killed for sure after the Americans had abandoned them. He had gotten several people and families out, and he had begged Congress for more money prior to our departure. Surely the disaster weighed upon my parents, echoing everything they were beginning to suspect about life and grand endeavors. Yahoo became my mother’s favorite. Small and shaggy, he fancied himself a lover, trailing a pack of dogs that roamed our neighborhood whenever a dog was in heat. With his one good eye and peg-leg hop, he looked like he was perpetually winking as he stumbled through our yard, barking with gusto at cars, cats, birds, children—whatever had the nerve to pass. Mostly, he ran around matted, yellowish, and dirty, reminding me of Rod Stewart. My mother wrote a poem about these dogs, in remembrance. “Snoopy they were not,” it began. “Happiness is a warm puppy,” the first stanza later ends. Not the most auspicious lines when it comes to good poetry, but what I like about the poem is that it recounts memories that happened, at least until the end. The puppies needed blood transfusions as newborns, and a vet— my dad’s cousin—saved them. And my mother wrote about that. While they were still puppies, a cruel neighbor boy stole them out of our yard and put them in a garbage can, fastening the lid. Somehow they were saved again. A year or so later, I carried Yahoo around in a kindergarten pet show. I carried him because a leash on Yahoo would have been even more ridiculous than a tiny five-year-old in a dress lugging a ratty dog around in a roped off circle. Mama records these events in her poem, and I remember them. The poem turns sad, as it should. And with that sadness appears either false memories or good tries, it’s hard to say. My mother devolved rapidly after divorcing, like a whirlpool, and our tiny household right with her. She doesn’t write about that, but she does describe how the dogs became our “guardians,” as we were “prey in a haunted world.” Protectors they were, certainly, and in her more panicked moments, we needed them. But if she slept easily because of their presence in our yard, I did not. Paranoid and erratic, she bought me enough clothes to cover my bed one day, and then locked me out of the house the next. Neighbors, in the meantime, fed our dogs because she forgot to buy dog food. I ate Chef-Boy-R-Dee every evening and hoped she wouldn’t turn violent. Yahoo then disappeared. In her poem, my mother wrote she believed she heard his “squeal” one night but against her better judgment dismissed it, suggesting perhaps he was killed somehow and went off to die. I don’t think that happened. I don’t think a car or a bad dog or an ex-husband got him. I think he found another
family. He had been wandering off for days for a while, and I later heard from neighbors they thought they had seen him. I think he hopped off on his three legs to well-filled bowls and good petting, very much the pirate on the lookout for smoother sailing, and very much alive. Yahoo was the first to leave, but not the last. I had started locking my bedroom door at night. Tales of blood dripping from the ceiling were getting to be too much, and the hot, boiling rages were becoming more frequent. Then it got worse, inevitably. I finally called Grandma and asked: come get me. Come get me. It was all I had to say, and she responded, driving immediately the fifteen miles to Crestview from Laurel Hill, a rural farming community just far enough away to escape to without leaving my friends and school and everything I knew. Besides, it was my grandparents’ home, my father’s childhood home, my second home. Nestled against the Alabama state line, the community sat high and green on sharp rolling hills in the only part of Florida that had hills, a refuge of the first order. You see, Mama screaming she wanted to kill me and swerving off the road for a moment to prove she really meant it—well, that was enough. And the drama the night before—waking me up in the middle of the night and taking me to one of her co-worker’s house in a panic, because she was sure someone “with a gun was after us.” That was enough, too. So I followed Yahoo’s lead and left. My mother landed in the hospital soon after that, who knows how. Police or friends or neighbors, I guess. Days or maybe even weeks later, my grandparents came and got Tappy. By that time, my mother had been cycled out of the hospital and into a state-run mental institution. We knew she wouldn’t be back for a long time, but we had no idea it would be never. Wars had been lost. And husbands. And children. And dogs. No poem could tell the truth about any of that.  Dogs belong in the yard. Grandma and Pa Pa believed that, and I am inclined to agree with them. They liked dogs, but did not dote on them. Unlike my mother, or even Papa Jack, they didn’t seem to need them to be more than what they were. Run around, dogs. Eat up, dogs. Hush up, dogs. Neither love nor devotion were expected or required. Looking back, my paternal grandparents stand apart from all the wreckage like two tall, quiet longleaf pine trees. Their ability to keep their mouths
shut, and their capacity for forgiveness seems to have grown from a more eternal, evergreen time. With all the things they knew about my mother, and with the reality of their permanently diminished son whom they must have thought should have married someone else, they could have turned me against her forever, surely. Some would have thought they should have. Yet I never heard an unkind word. Yes, when my mother called (collect, of course) in a nasty, hateful state and left me, a goody-goody ninth grader, crying on the phone, my grandmother would simply take the receiver from me and gently set it into its hook. Yes, when I expressed pain and frustration about my mother, they would nod, sympathetic. But they never psychologized or judged or blamed—at least, not in my presence. “She’s sick, Sugar,” they would say. And that was all they would say. And that was right. Ironically, these two individuals probably visited their former daughterin-law during her 18-month or so sojourn in the state mental hospital in the mid-80s more than any of her blood relatives ever did, except for me. Almost every Sunday after church, in a pale green 1977 Oldsmobile 88, Pa Pa, Grandma, and I took a 45-minute drive to see my mother, who had been confined in a long, two-story brick state facility in Milton, Florida. Highway 90 was our preferred route, a straight-shot east-to-west two-lane highway through nothing but pine trees and the very occasional pasture. Trumped by the nearby interstate, it had little traffic and more character because, according to my grandparents, it ran beside bits and pieces of Bellamy Avenue, the oldest highway in Florida. Bellamy Avenue once crossed the top of the state from Pensacola to St. Augustine and was bricked by slaves in the 1820s when Florida still was a territory. The roads now ran parallel to each other, stacked on the map like the beginning of a ladder: Bellamy Avenue, Highway 90, and I-10. Bellamy Avenue was half gone, hardly remembered. I-10 was for tourists. Highway 90 was for us. I was only fourteen, but even then, as I looked out the window and scanned the thick grass for a glimpse of the old road that the likes of Andrew Jackson and my Florida cracker ancestors took, I knew my quiet grandparents were doing something profoundly ancient in its difficulty, deeply Christian and as hard as building a road in humid Florida heat. None of us enjoyed our task, and we never knew how my mother would receive us. But we did it, without saying much about it, and we made sure we stopped and got an ice cream cone on the way back. Little wonder that I walked down the aisle of the First Baptist Church that same year and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Pa Pa was a deacon; Grandma played the organ. I had breakfast every morning. My clothes were pressed fresh everyday before school. I could do my homework at the dining room table without interruption. I
could lie on fresh-cut grass, look at the sky, and rest on the fragrant earth. I had been saved, for sure. Eventually, Papa Jack arranged for my mother to move up to Fairfax to live with him. Her divorce was final, and I was thriving in someone else’s custody, making the cheerleading squad and running for Student Council. Papa Jack, meanwhile, lived alone in a big suburban house in a rich county outside of Washington, D.C. His second wife had left him for his Hawaiian property and half of his cash. Ironically, her jealously and pettiness freed him to take in my mother, and so he did. And she went. Rural Florida had always held little for my mother—now it held nothing. More to the point, now the state held her. Papa Jack. Jack Murray. General John E. Murray. According to family lore, Papa Jack’s first words were not spoken until he was three years old, and this is what he said: “Come on, dog, get your head out of the garbage.” Leave it to my grandfather to wait until he could make an impression, give a command, announce his brilliance, and involve a dog to inaugurate his speaking career. A nun later wrote on his report card that he talked too much. She had him pegged somewhat—not because he was a chatterbox as an adult, but because he became a professional talker for the rest of his life, thriving in law school, making his way up the ranks in the Army in spite of not having gone to West Point, and later giving speeches to business executives, government types, and boy scouts. Talking. He took a nun’s rap on his knuckles and made a living at it. But for all that a son of immigrants had achieved in his lifetime, my mother did not salute him, not really, not at all. If he regretted the decision to move her up to Fairfax in the end, he appreciated what it taught him, I think, which was that the whole thing that was my mother was far more convoluted and tricky than he could have imagined from afar, and that there was no one really to blame about it either. For so many years, he simply was not inclined—by temperament and by generational bias—to accept the enormity of his daughter’s illness, a hungry and unrelenting maw. In the past, he had responded to my father’s pleas for help with things like a country club membership or a piano, interspersed with judgment. But living with my mother—well, then he saw it. He saw the manic dancing, followed by days of sleep. He witnessed the ten half-open diet coke cans in the refrigerator, the piles of laundry. He paid the sky-high phone bills, called the bank about the overdrawn checking account, found the unopened medicine bottles under the bed, crammed inside a McDonald’s sack. He saw good art and bad art; he read good writing and bad. He found pictures of himself and his granddaughter ripped; he found unexpected presents on his bed and
muffins on the counter. He locked his bedroom door, just as I had. Unlike me, however, when acute mania seized my mother, he had her removed from his home (“kicked out,” she would say) because he could. And so it was that she became a regular to the Fairfax County mental health system, living in shelters and group homes, only to return back to Papa Jack’s when she improved to start it all over again. At first, I’m sure he thought she might improve for good. He had gotten my mother into an exclusive program at the National Institute of Mental Health. His younger brother and his children and various cousins lived in the area. Certainly, the psychiatrists around Washington had to be better trained, more sophisticated. He was even sympathetic to the reality of depression, if not mania, suffering from darkness himself at times, grateful that Churchill had confessed the very same feelings (his black dog). He may have thought the city itself might revive her, as it energized him. But he had no idea, really, and maybe he even thought that at the time. He had, after all, seen his daughter in a straightjacket and been told by her divorce lawyer to give it up, she just wasn’t going to regain custody and she needed serious help. With someone like my mother, you have to do your own mental tricks to keep pace. You have to hold the good and the bad, the possible and the impossible, all in your head, all at once, all of the time. So he brought my mother up to Virginia and got a dog. His ex-wife had taken his beloved Boo, so he needed a dog anyway just for his own sake. But I’m sure he knew he needed a dog for my mother’s sake—for their relationship’s sake—as well. They agreed on dogs. I can see them now, entirely enamored by a nervous, black poodle-ish creature my mother named Chloe. “Look at this dog, this greeter, this welcome,” Papa Jack would say, roughly scrubbing her head as she jumped up on him whenever he returned home, ecstatic every time. “Chloe, Chloe, I love you, Chloe,” my mother would say, petting her as hard as my grandfather had. Yes, there they are: smiling wide, eyes shining, talking to that dog in ways they could never talk to each other. Talking to each other through the dog. Yes, there it was: all devotion, all loyalty, all duty, and all happiness embodied in that faithful, yapping canine. All good things, in a dog.  Sometimes dogs enter our lives by the side-door—a stray catches our eye and follows us home, a purebred dandy lands in our lap after a relative dies. They walk in, and they walk out. You let them in or you don’t. Other times you seek them out. You need a dog, and so you get one. You could measure your life in achievements or failures, or you could measure your life in dogs.
Two years prior to my mother’s death, Papa Jack lay dying in Harbor’s Edge in the nursing care unit on the second floor. I had brought him to Norfolk two years before, after his last and most mind-erasing stroke. Unlike my mother, it wasn’t hard to imagine him dying in such a place. He was almost 90, and he was the kind of successful guy who ended up in Harbor’s Edge, after all. But I would have never guessed my mother was so soon to follow him, only one floor up. They died similarly, minds weakening, flesh disintegrating into sharp bone. Papa Jack had lived in a cloud of dementia for almost three years. The essence of his personality had remained intact, though, even if his memories did not. He did not know where he was when we visited him, but he knew who we were, and he remained a polite conversationalist until almost the very end. “So, how do you occupy your time?” he would ask in those pre-final days— chipper, yet serious, a noble brow furrowed with concentration and watery eyes under heavy eyebrows locking into your own. Work. Child. Mama. My answer was always a litany of tasks and achievements, interrupted by dealing with my mother’s demands (more money and cigarettes) and requirements (doctors appointments, caregivers, and bills, bills, bills). Papa Jack would nod as I talked, say encouraging words, frown and smile as appropriate. In these moments, he—dear, charming Papa Jack—lived, and he and I both felt it. We saw each other. We reflected each other, bound not only by looks and demeanor but frustration, despair, and love for one of the most difficult and demanding persons we had ever known. About five minutes later, he’d fade. Quiet would settle in, with all of its terrible openness. Moments would pass and the question returned. So how do you occupy your time? Sometimes, out of the blue, he would announce: “I survived three wars, ten campaigns, two wives, and a daughter. The daughter was the hardest.” He took about three weeks to disappear from us entirely. He lay prone on the bed, hardly responsive, letting go. He said some words—he had a rally about a week before the end where he sat up, talked, and visited again—but he mostly slept and murmured and drank, desperately, warm orange juice from a straw. I read poetry to him; I talked to him about the past. Dogs soothed him. Corky. King. Woofus. Boo. Boo II. Chloe. At this litany, the edges of his mouth would turn so slightly upwards, and he would sink into the bed somewhat, not fight so much and relax.
He died on September 7, 2008 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery on November 21, 2008. My mother died on November 21, 2010. The same date. It never fails to astound me. At his funeral, after a beautiful young soldier handed her the flag at its conclusion, Mama looked at me and said, “I want to fall into the grave with him.” And so she did. In some ways, I think the question for me, Papa Jack, and even my father always was this: did her delusions mean something sometimes? Determinedly rational, we nevertheless shared enough doubt about ourselves and enough respect for my mother that we questioned ourselves more than she might have imagined. An astute comment, an accurate prediction—that would be just enough to spark the thought that maybe, just maybe, she was tuned to a higher frequency, had the ability to hear and know what we could not, not unlike her beloved dogs. Two months before she was diagnosed with cancer, before anyone suspected anything was wrong, she pushed me hard to see her lawyer about changing her will. Her insistence and talk of death annoyed me. All was well, yet here she was, giving me another task to do, in spite of the fact that her life had settled down into a stability she hadn’t known for years because we had finally put together a combination of independence and assistance that kept her in the road. We were having nice lunches and attending concerts; we took my son to the park. She wasn’t going to die—not soon, anyway. But she insisted she had business to take care of, prodded now it seems by voices I could not or did not want to hear. Perhaps she heard the cancer’s growth in her body, felt it wash into her blood. Maybe she knew. We meet death as we live life, both with denial and acceptance, despair and hope. A mixed-manic state, perhaps, that some of us ignore and others of us have a difficult time not expressing: the truth of it all is so awful and beautiful. The miracle may be that more of us don’t hear the voices my mother heard; the tragedy may be the same. At the end, as she meditated on whether she was bound for heaven or hell, I wonder how she could even begin a confession, if she was even inclined to return to her Catholic roots and attempt it. She didn’t need one to earn God’s forgiveness, but she committed sins, surely. She heard voices just as surely. If some memories aren’t real, which deeds demand absolution? How do you know what to ask? The weight of deep self-betrayal sits heavy on the soul, especially when you’re not sure you are entirely responsible for it. Meanwhile, for me, letters upon letters wait, understanding comes and goes, and forgiveness is something that seems necessary and superfluous simultaneously. Mama caused suffering, but she suffered more, and, in spite of everything, we loved her. Judgment seems beside the point with
such a person. Not because she couldn’t be held accountable for much of what she did or did not do, but the glass was and remains mostly dark and our delusions may not be much better. We believe so many questionable things. We believe chemistry, clinical trials, and professionals will save us; we even believe we shape our destinies. But for most of human history, no one believed any of that: demons wrought depression, angels brought ecstasy, and the future lived not in our control but in voices heard by prophets. Demoting such powerful spirits to “mental illness” may be one way to control them, but I’m not so sure they are gone. And so. So dogs came to my mother on her deathbed. The oracle of science —the booklet’s answer, the safe answer—tells us they are manifestations of a shattering brain, snapping neurons, delusions of the dying. No one knows why or to what physiological or evolutionary purpose, the oracle will admit, but what else could they be? But acquiesce for a moment into grayness, holding both faith and doubt together in what we feebly call the mind, and the possibility may arise that the dogs were as real as anything else was or is or will be. Maybe the dogs came from a deep primal truth lodged in all of us, or they came from somewhere inexplicable – maybe elsewhere, beyond. I don’t know. I do know that they came. Not the hounds of hell but the dogs of grace perhaps, and that it was just as ordinary and remarkable for them to appear at my mother’s side in death as they did throughout her life. Right, even. Inevitable. Dogs came. With generous acceptance, faithful companionship, and love exuberant. With swift and compassionate vigilance, even to the end.
I went to M and M Hardware in Hartfield and bought a sickle—a huge rakelike piece of steel—only instead of a rake at the end there is a double-edged sharp, wavy blade made to rip through branches, thick weeds and other bone-like growth. Eighteen dollars. The front of my property is wooded, and on a few acres toward the river, I spent some time clearing out brush and unwanted vines. We piled it up to haul away, but before that could happen, other more tenacious weeds— small trees really—took over the area. Some I pulled out, some I mowed, but I couldn’t grasp to tug out the tougher ones—so the sickle. One warm morning while alone, I put on shorts and flip flops, grabbed the sickle and walked the six hundred or so feet through the woods to swing away at a small grove. None would rip out easily, so I aimed for the fences, came down from my right with major-league force and tore through the vines like an axe through balsa. I attacked one after another, muscles taught so that sweat came fast, and I made progress. Then I stepped to swing for what looked like a thick, knotty growth at the bottom of the stump. It was a Virginia creeper vine. Sometimes these monsters look rooted but aren’t. But what do I know; I’m from New York. So I swung at it like Alex Rodriquez. The blade passed through as if the weed were nothing more than a figment of my imagination, and with all my energy plus a good deal of inertia, the metal ripped into my left ankle.
I like flip-flops, and I’ve been wearing them since I was a kid. I grew up on beaches from Long Island to Virginia, and I actually had one pair for ten years, sometimes rigged with a thick paperclip to hold them together. My feet from April to October have a thick white stripe across the tops seen only when my flip flops are off. I teach in them. I walk in them. I even mow the lawn and chop wood in them. Despite what many have said, they are not the cause of the blade Tarantino-ing my ankle. I don’t remember my foot slipping. I do remember almost not going out to cut the underbrush to begin with because I couldn’t find my flip flops. What a different story this would have been had I not come across them on the back porch. When it happened, blood exploded like water in a hose that’s been held back by bending and then releasing. My ankle, foot and flops looked as if dipped in bright red paint. I hobbled the six hundred feet to the back of the house to wash off the wound, bandaged it, and then went to cut more wood; I was wired, the adrenaline coursing through me. My ankle didn’t hurt too badly, it looked fine and, to be honest, I had a lot to do. That night I iced it. I kept it clean. I was fine. Really. A week later my leg was pitting a bit. Excess fluid I figured. Prior to the whacking, I had been running up to eight miles a day, prepping for the Rock and Roll Half, so one evening when I was feeling a bit more hyper than usual, and the swelling moved to both legs—a feat I could not comprehend from one ankle, but I don’t have a medical degree—I stopped at Kroger and spotted a blood pressure machine. This can’t be right, I thought, when the first reading came up 270 over 190. I did it two more times and both readings came pretty close to the same. At the checkout I let them know the machine was broken. We all laughed at my numbers—even the bagger laughed and put the laundry detergent on top of the bread. It was that funny. The next day, worried about my ankle, I washed off my flip flops and went to the doctor. He took my blood pressure. Again. Again. He asked why I was stupid enough to wear flip flops while doing yard work. I pointed out that I wacked myself above where any shoe would have come anyway. He asked if I was doing cocaine, heroin, or any other substance, asked if I had shortness of breath, dizziness, if I had thrown up, fell down, or otherwise felt corpse-like. He took my blood pressure again. He asked how long I felt hyper. “Years,” I said, and he took my pressure again. Then he sent me to the emergency room. Average BP—260 over 175. Tests. IVs. Tests. On and on it went for several hours. Nurses came, two doctors stopped by, some punk there to visit a friend who had overdosed
came by to check out my vitals because my blood pressure was the talk of the ward. The nurses upped the meds. Finally the doctors said based upon my vessels and various tests, my blood pressure had apparently been that high for probably some years, and that if it wasn’t for the fact I’m totally healthy otherwise, with excellent results from blood and other tests, I’d have had a major stroke. What did it, I asked. Genetics; in a high stress situation for far too long; a combination, they said. They brought it down to 190 over 95 and sent me home with meds to bring it to normal. They told me to keep exercising and that because of my medicines I could do the marathon, but to be clear, I’m going to be very weak for awhile until I adjust to a life where I’m not pumped on triple doses of double shots coursing through my veins. A few weeks later at a follow up where my pressure was at 110 over 70 and Brooklyn became once again my birthplace and not my attitude—the doctor told me, in complete agreement with the cardiologist and another doctor, had I not gone in, I’d most likely have had a major stroke trying to run the half, and probably would be dead. I asked then why didn’t I have one while doing the eight miles a day prior to the Great Sickle Incident, and he was quite professional about it: I don’t know, he said. I really don’t know. You should have. Good thing you wacked your ankle, he said. Yeah, good thing. And I thought how often that happens. Good thing I went back for the keys. Good thing I stopped for coffee. Good thing you kept me on the phone or I’d have been at that intersection just at that moment! Good thing I watched Monday Night football on the 10th and overslept: I work on the 85th floor and I’d have been right there, the stock broker said in the street to the television crew. As the towers tumbled, he counted his blessings. Good thing Larry Silverstein, owner of the lease of the World Trade Centers, has a wife who made him go to his dermatologist appointment that morning instead of yet another meeting in the North Tower. Good thing Chef Michael Lomanoco of “Windows on the World” broke his glasses and had to stop at Lenscrafters that morning to get them fixed.
Good thing Lara Clarke stopped to talk to her friend, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, in a chance run in down in the village that morning making her late for her job on the 77th floor. Thank God singer Patti Austin, booked on flight 93, had to leave Boston a day early because her mother had a stroke and she had to get back to San Francisco on the 10th instead. I went back and forth all day about when to leave, she said. Then I left. Thank God actress Julie Stoffer and her boyfriend had a wailing fight that morning and she missed Flight11. Actor Mark Wahlburg is still haunted by that same Flight 11 to LA, which he missed at the last minute when an 11th hour invitation to a film festival sent him to Toronto instead. He would have been sitting next to Family Guy creator Seth McFarland who also missed that flight when his manager gave him the wrong boarding time and he was fifteen minutes late. He, too, still has bad dreams, he says. Thank God, he says. It’s the phone call, the caught light, the traffic backup. It’s changing your mind. It’s sticking to the plan. It’s oversleeping, insomnia, an upset stomach. It’s a few seconds. It’s the wrong shoes. It’s the stroke of luck.
At her thirtieth birthday party, Emily was surrounded by people. She wore her trademark black—a tank top and slacks—and held a tumbler of whiskey. Her boyfriend Peter stood beside her, arm around her waist. It was the first time I’d been to her apartment in Washington Heights. We’d been officemates for just under a year, but I’d resisted getting too close. At her party, I realized that if I’d thrown one for my own birthday, three days earlier, I wouldn’t have had more than a handful of people to invite. We met at my job interview. If I got the job, I’d be in charge of the night shift at Columbia’s largest graduate student library. She and seven other people fired questions at me around a conference table, and I started a few weeks later. Back then, summer of 2005, Emily had almost shoulder-length naturally reddish hair, which she often held in a ponytail with a purple scrunchie, not a regular hair elastic. She had armpit hair. She had a tattoo on her upper arm of the symbol for female. If I saw her on the street, I would have expected her to be morose. But she wasn’t morose, most of the time. She was funny, generous with her time, thoughtful. She was silly, sometimes, gleeful about something I wouldn’t have cared about, like a book title that struck her. For days, after a professor addressed an email “Auntie Em,” she repeated it like a mantra, in adorable disbelief. But I couldn’t understand her combinations: armpit hair but in a long relationship with a dorky guy; black clothes but no discernable depression; a job at the library but no interest in graduate school.
H Friendship is just like buying a house. Maybe it’s not on exactly the right street, or maybe it doesn’t have as much storage as you’d like. Maybe it’s a fixer-upper, but has rich and original details like banisters and crown molding. You decide to invest—the right street is only a block away, and you’ve already got that storage unit across town. And then your stuff goes inside—your furniture, your books, the ceramics you took from your parents and grandparents. The antique table and the framed artwork. It fills the space just like you’d hoped it would, though there’s that one pesky corner that nothing seems to fit in just right. Who’d want an angle like that in their kitchen? you think. But mostly everything fits, and you settle in—you’re going to spend a lot of time here, after all. You’re going to want to live here a long time. You learn things from the house, too. You learn its noises, after a few nights of waking up. Just the heater, you think, just the refrigerator humming. You learn when to press harder on the door, when to jiggle the knob. You learn how the water pressure is better in the morning and weaker in the afternoon. You learn the smell—you learn the smell so well that it becomes your own, no smell at all. Houses, like friendships, appreciate. Their value rises over time, particularly if you maintain them properly. And if you don’t, the whole thing caves in on itself—the roof gives way, and suddenly those floorboards you love are waterlogged. You could step right through one. But if you maintain it, patching the roof, scraping the mold, adding value with window treatments and a garden out front, you can see the richness of it, even though you aren’t planning on going anywhere. H I envied Emily terribly after that party. I’d heard, in the office, about her friends—she was always going out for dinner with Nick, visiting Cindy in Westchester, going to weddings—but I’d never seen them all in a group before, never really imagined Jill and Marcos talking to each other, Susan and Lauren and Nathan having a beer together. I wanted a group like that. I wanted to surround myself with people who loved me, just like Emily had. But I had only lived in New York for a year. I had traveled and changed jobs and been unstable for so many years before that. My friendships were fractured—I hadn’t maintained them well. There were people all over the world that I could visit, who would—and did—put me up for a few nights.
But most of these friendships lacked depth, and I could see that Emily’s didn’t from the way they sang to her, and the way they got her presents that reminded her of something from years before. The way they understood each other’s jokes and gestures and glances. I didn’t know how a person made friendships like that. I didn’t realize that every afternoon in the library, we were forging one just by listening to each other, just by discussing what Bush wasn’t doing in New Orleans or what we were each doing that weekend. I didn’t grasp that when we came into the library to find a flood on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one of those rare days when it was just us, all day long, we were handling an emergency and also becoming friends. But the next winter, I figured it out. Emily’s boyfriend had started law school at Yale in the fall of 2006, a year after Emily and I became officemates, and he and Emily were seeing each other most weekends. They’d been together five years, arguing and fussing at each other before holding hands in their big wool coats, walking down Amsterdam together. Peter was smart, articulate, funny. He was also pudgy, a classic nerd, not overly kind. Emily was his first girlfriend. So when he talked about this girl who was flirting with him at Yale, about how he maybe wanted to kiss her, Emily thought that was okay—that now was a good time for him to explore sex with someone else. Once, in a low voice, she said to me, “I’m sort of proud of him.” I understood. But I never doubted their commitment to each other until he left her for the other woman, suddenly and vehemently, refusing to speak to her, refusing to see her. And our afternoon hour, that January, and for the next year, became a different kind of hour. It became an hour of sorrow, Emily in her blue chair and me in my red chair. It became an hour where we sometimes shut the door, so that Emily could just talk and cry and let me see some of the disbelief that endured for many months. It was the first time I’d seen someone suffer so acutely every single day. I didn’t know what to do, so I brought her cups of coffee with milk and sugar, chocolate, apple-flavored gum. I smoked cigarettes with her out in the courtyard, and reminded her to wear her scarf. I listened. I drank with her, sometimes, and other times, I told her maybe to take a day off from drinking bourbon in her apartment, the apartment owned by Peter’s parents, the apartment she’d been paying almost nothing for, but would now, at some point, have to pay rent for, or move out of. She cried so easily.
I told our boss, Mary. I told her because I knew that Emily wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it, and I didn’t want Mary to hurt her, by accident. And Mary was surprised, and said something about how great they’d seemed together, how happy. And then she let Emily call in sick, or leave early. I told Emily, after she thought she’d told Mary herself, and she wasn’t angry. This was friendship, I realized. H Last summer, Emily called me on my birthday from the office. I pictured her in her blue chair, her own birthday three days away. I pictured her waking up, thinking that she had to remember to call me—it was my thirtieth birthday. I was turning the same age she’d turned when I first envied her circle of friends. After a few minutes, Emily said, “Listen to this. There might be a body underneath the poured concrete garage at my mother’s house.” What?” “You know, from before my mom bought the house. This couple lived there, I guess, and one day the guy just disappeared. Just gone. And then the concrete got poured.” The police had already been to the house, already used ground-radar to see if there was something under the concrete, and found an anomaly. It turned out, later, to have been nothing, just a lighter type of fill from where a tree had been before the garage was built. They dug up the concrete, jackhammered a big hole and found nothing. No body. If they had found it, it would have belonged to Isaac Iverson, a commercial fisherman. He lived in the house with his second wife, Helga, decades before Emily’s mom bought the house. Both were Norwegian; Helga spoke no English; neither of them drove. Iverson went missing on January 7th, 1967—and he left his watch and wallet, along with what might have been a bloodstain, on the couple’s shared bureau. A few days later, Helga poured concrete in the garage. On his deathbed, Isaac’s son told Art that the body was buried under the concrete. Art followed up with the police. H
Houses have their mysteries, even when you think you know it all. The floorboard that creeks is a shallow mystery when someone comes knocking on the door, saying they lived in your house once. Maybe they walk around it, judging your furniture, remembering their own. Maybe they ask, “Did you know that my grandmother died in this room? She had Alzheimer’s.” You didn’t know. Maybe they say, “Did you know that the shed out back used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad?” You didn’t know. In friendship, you learn to accept what you can’t know—the ways you can’t know your friends. You learn to adjust your expectations after you see what your friends are—or aren’t—capable of. You learn that you’ve made things up about your friends to fill in gaps that you didn’t know you had. You decide things without knowing you’ve decided them. And then, suddenly, you’re out to dinner with a new face, and your friend comes out with some fact that replaces a fiction you didn’t realize wasn’t truth. It’s happened to you—you’ve walked down the street with someone, someone you’ve known for a year or more, and they say, “Wait, what? My dad? He doesn’t live in Westchester—he died when I was in high school.” And you are mortified, wondering why you thought he lived in Westchester, why you made that up, what led you to that wrong place. H Emily and I had our tense moments. Over a year after Peter left her, Emily occasionally went out for dinner or drinks with people who had significant others, sometimes quite significant. And she’d come to work the next day, and they would have kissed, only kissed, I think, and I wouldn’t hide my disapproval. I’d started dating someone, and I didn’t like the thought of being cheated on. I didn’t like the thought of Emily playing out this thing that had happened to her, that had turned her life on its head, and sent her into a tailspin. Once, I said to her, condescendingly, “I’m keeping my boyfriend away from you.” It was sort of a joke. “Your boyfriend’s not my type,” she responded, but in my mind, she didn’t really have a type. And then we went back to work, one of us probably diffusing the tension by leaving the office to work in the stacks or at the circulation desk. We didn’t have a choice but to find communion after those moments, to find ourselves back in some kind of equilibrium. And that was new for me too, the feeling of not only being forced to find my way back to someone, but wanting to.
After all, we shared an office the size of a large bathroom stall, with walls about as high. We could have maintained a professional relationship, I suppose. Maybe if we were a little more different—in age, in values, in interests—we would have. But we were similar in most ways. When I didn’t understand something she did, it was because I always expected her to feel the same way I felt. We adjusted, in the ways that I was discovering friends have to: I backed off, sometimes, and she did too. Sometimes, instead of saying anything, we’d just smile or change the subject. Over the next years, I moved in with a boyfriend, and then out of his apartment and into my own half a block south. Emily became my neighbor in Washington Heights, helped me move from his place, came over when most of my stuff was unpacked with a block of brie and a bottle of wine. I was listening to Cat Power, or Radiohead, or Death Cab for Cutie, and we talked about the sadness of breakups. For the first time, I was aware of our history, of the dramatic moments in the timeline of friendship that give it depth, not just longevity. H Before Helga married Isaac Iverson, she was a member of the Norwegian resistance during World War II, and her role was to dispose of Nazi bodies. But was she a murderer? Art’s only memory of her was an old lady crocheting in a rocker. Art’s father believed that Helga wanted Isaac’s social security. Once he was dead, or disappeared, she had to wait seven years, since his death couldn’t be proven. But after being patient, she took the money, sold the house, and left the state. Art Iverson, Isaac’s grandson, and the Anacortes police, are pretty sure that Isaac’s body never left the property. But Art also said, as he looked out over the garden that might be a grave, that it was a lovely resting place. We’ll never know the answer, unless the police decide to dig up the garden, the lawn. Maybe his bones will wash ashore someday. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be found, and he accomplished this goal. Maybe he buried his identity and got out alive. Emily thinks of it this way: “It’s sort of heartbreaking and lovely that no one knows what happened to this man, that there’s still mystery around it.” And maybe that’s right, that this man just wanted to disappear, that in 1967 that was still possible, even minus a wallet. Emily has always liked mystery— she’s read fantasy stories her whole life, is a devotee of Ursula K. Le Guin, once stayed up all night reading The Road. She likes some ambiguity, and I don’t blame her.
As Emily and I talked about it, we moved right into this heart of things neither of us knew at the time—who was the man that disappeared? What happened to him? We talked about how the wife might have been abused, or how he might have abused his children. How things are so often not at all what they seem. Maybe, Emily said, killing him was a mercy for the rest of the family. Maybe the case didn’t want to be solved. H And this, this push toward what most people would avoid, toward ambiguity as an answer, is one of the things I love so much about Emily. When Michael Jackson died, we talked for a long time about what it meant to be a human, and how humans develop. What if he just didn’t develop into manhood the way we imagine that people will? What if he was just stuck? Emily taught me about the vast gray area that I often stood on one side of, like it was a lake I didn’t know how to cross. By the time Michael Jackson died, Emily and I had worked together for four years already. I’d figured out how to wade into that lake, and we parsed shades of gray. In those four years, I’d made other friends, and enough of them that when I had a going away party, there was a crowd around me too—a crowd of people who I’d shared myself with, and who had shared themselves with me. A crowd of people who had felt tension and backed off instead of running away. A crowd of people who had listened to my fears, encouraged my goals, and pushed me just hard enough. When I left my job at the library, I was leaving Emily, too. I had completed an education on friendship. I learned what friendship could feel like—like falling into a chair and talking about anything for an hour. Or like knowing we’d see each other on our days off and feeling like that was necessary. Or like depending on someone and knowing they’d come through. Or like nobody knew me in that everyday way in quite the way she did, not even the people I loved the best, not even the people whose bed I’d shared in those years. H All families, like all deep friendships, have moments of revelation. Maybe the reveals aren’t typically about where the patriarch disappeared to, or whether Grandma killed him in cold blood, but nonetheless, accepting what we’ll never know is part of being a friend, a family member. Digging, sometimes, yields nothing, or nothing good. If Isaac’s body is under the garden, then there’s a memorial for him all summer in the flowers and
vegetables he helps to create. And if it’s not, then the best we can hope for is that Helga got her money and enjoyed the end of her life, and that Isaac got whatever he wanted in leaving her. H At some point, you realize that you’ve lived in this house, this house that was once new and strange and imperfect, for longer than you’ve ever lived anywhere else. You realize that this house, this friendship, has lasted longer than any other relationship you’ve had. You realize how valuable that is, to feel the history of your own friendship and to sit in the mystery you’ve learned to accept and even love. You realize that you’ve given the house some things that it will have forever, now. You’ve put in a large new soaking tub, a headboard bolted into the wall. Your house is the better for it. You’ll miss those things, if you ever leave the house, if you move away to pursue an opportunity. You’d like to pack up the house and take it with you. But you’re a writer, and you know what they say about that, even if, in the end, you can take parts of it with you. H Emily calls me, sometimes, when she’s walking to the train from work and I imagine her route: up Amsterdam to 123rd Street, then east to the A train, crossing the north side of Morningside Park, the basketball courts and the playground. The brownstones that we both love so much, with their stoops and shutters. But soon enough she’s at the train, and we have to say goodbye.
Jason Cell Phone Photograph, Digital Manipulation
THE NORTON GIRAULT LITERARY PRIZE 2013
Named for a long-time member of the Hampton Roads community and familiar face at ODU creative writing workshop tables, 2013 marks the second year for the Norton Girault Literary Prize. The winner receives $1,000 and publication in Barely South Review. In addition to the Winner, this year Barely South Review was able to create an Honorable Mention category as well, with a prize of $200. This year’s guest judge was David Wojahn, award-winning poet, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and faculty member at both Virginia Commonwealth University and The Vermont College of Fine Arts. Wojahn chose the submission from P. Ivan Young as the ultimate winner. Wojahn wrote that he was “much impressed by the linguistic energy of the poems;” he also said that “the imagery is muscular and the syntax richly-wrought in a way that is reminiscent of the early poetry of Seamus Heaney, whose voice [he heard] lovely echoes of in ‘Lesson on the Use of an OysterKnife.’” Chosen for Honorable Mention, Wojahn wrote of Jed Myers’ poems, “the poems impressed me with their genuine promise and the balance between formal control and searching, self-reckoning content, particularly in the narrative complexity of the aptly named ‘Reckoning Tent.’”
Thanks to all of the submitters to the 2013 Norton Girault Literary Prize. We will be announcing the 2014 Norton Girault Literary Prize (in Nonfiction this time) in December 2013.
A Lesson on the Use of an Oyster Knife
P. Ivan Young
The clouds are pearl and burnish, smell of salt, ghost of rain. The night sometimes comes apart, one layer upon another, hard as stone, soft as the mantle that gathers these particles. A man I once knew said, â€œPry the shell gently.â€? He slipped knife to hinge, rocking the blade so the hardened lip gave way. Even now I open this one with a certain reverence, tongue laid on alabaster, raising it like a cup full of words, an offering to these dark nights when I tilt it to my lips, brine opening me, juices flowing down my chin. What is desire but a foot laid out on the articulate surface, a muscle relaxed, lines of striation hidden
beneath glisten, verbiage gathered into something hard, ready to be prised for its delicate fabulation, soft the oyster, soft the hand that holds these texts, black and white, lapping at the tongue, waiting to be said.
Practicing with a .22
I plunk cans and bottles, cradle the stock between my fingers and thumb. My father presses the butt to my shoulder and tells me to line the sights, small stem of steel grooved into the metal V. The trigger is light and I pull the bullet into existence, powerful as a boy can be. Things become serious when he hangs the silhouette, teaches me to aim for the paper chest or brain; things become serious as he teaches variables of wind and distance, caliber and speed, the need to keep eyes fixed on the target, unflinching; things become serious
when he talks of doves falling in puffs of feathers and squirrelsâ€™ fantastic acrobatics as they drop from trees. He tells me this is practice as he loads the shotgun, places a pumpkin on a stump. I think of faces carved in Jack-o-lanterns, plump hands gripping toy swords, sticky with artificial blood. I think of Halloween masks. He lifts the barrel, leans outward in the same studied way he would slip between storm door and frame to place a candy in an opened bag. His body lurches, cuts an angry space of sound that seems to burrow to the orange center and expand before I even know heâ€™s pulled the trigger. The meaty strands and seeds launch into a universe moving outward from the core, covering my hands, sticking in my hair.
This is the night’s legerdemain, that while we stand by the dumpster smoking stolen cigarettes, a girl walks through the moon. I blow a cloud into the air, and as it clears, she stretches her arms from the ridge of Building B and places foot in front of foot. It doesn’t matter that she is drunk, it doesn’t matter that we don’t know her name. Gravity is a wolf panting below her, ready to lift its head and she as sensuous as Sarah Schwarz sliding into a slow split on the tight wire. I watch the last step, before she turns
her back and sits at the peak, and wonder how the impromptu night can be unbearable or if thereâ€™s enough deceit in this world to make it beautiful.
My father, still in silk suit and tie, presides in the court of my thoughts. Slats and mold-pocked plaster, patches of dura mater—it barely holds together, this drafty house of beliefs and doubts. The air in this shack-like tent is scented with both our lives—my weed, his aftershave, my unwashed sheets, the steam of his mother’s beet borscht, my muddy forests, his manholed streets—mixed in a light fractionated into beams as if through a West Philly shul’s shattered windows, shining the pates of a jury of ghosts who pray to the faceless Magistrate blaming all the gray host of his displaced children, and my father pipes up from the lectern, lifting his eyes from the scroll he can’t read, staring with terrified love right through me as I twirl the fringe of my frayed prayer shawl between trembling fingers. It’s January,
and all I can say for myself is, Please consider the circumstances—Sputnik, Telstar, the Catholic kids up the street crying Christ-killer and hurling stones, the Rolling Stones, acid, girls…. You can see I was not alone. Neil Young’s a witness, though he can’t make it in today. Please, consider your mother caressing my ass, consider your father caressing my balls, consider the involuntariness of my erection in bed with your mother when you left us together and drove out to the Catskills to mambo the whole weekend with Mom. Remember the weekend after weekend of summer you insisted on tennis and we never walked in the woods where I would’ve shown you the creek on the edge of the golf course? We could’ve overturned rocks and found salamanders I caught on my own. You hold yourself doubtless, even now, in death, don’t you? Does it keep your soul from collapsing like a bombed synagogue or a nomad’s tent in the wind of regret, the way you’d collapse in the aisles of trains and jets, reporting a terrible upset stomach? No one detected how much you stomached, suppressed, cinched in somewhere to forget. I’m saying all this to the father standing before me inside my prefrontal cortex, in the space between breaths, barely moving my lips, witnessing fresh how he pursed his lips when I turned up the Hendrix in the den before we sat down to the next chicken dinner and squared off again over Nixon’s war,
before we knew of the Mekong’s million villagers, old men and women and kids being blown to bits in the free-fire zone while we argued politics, both of us disavowing the sins we were visiting on his wife and my brother—that is, my mother and his other son—both of them biting their lips and praying we’d shut up and finish our applesauce or something. We’d carry on while Mom cleared the dishes, and it continues. Dad, I accuse you— in your WASP’d-out proper attire, your natural-shoulder Ralph Lauren suit and those English shoes of blonde leather— of holding me as the one to accuse. And I confess! I do desire to be free of you, and of your death to concoct a release, but you stand there between my eyes and the unseen behind them, in this reckoning tent where Aaron’s sons disappear in smoke with no hearing, for leaning too close to the unelected Magistrate’s nakedness. Here in the hovel where thought warms itself at the limbic hearth, I address you, Father, in death, in the tatters and must of my most anterior lobes— let me at last dissolve your presence, your rightness, your compulsive cleanliness, into the sands of my own intentions. Let me observe you being deposed, led off the stand—relinquish your incessant abstinence from all influence, all drink, unmarried sex, forests, all that might cloud the glare of control—
and into the flux of the dust, the unknown you just never see. The gulls and the crows in the air outside the court of my skull, they circle and laugh, calling to me to enter the gray light outside these thin walls, and you won’t follow. Why do I stand here flapping my lips in this private din? My absolution’s not scribed in the lines on your memory’s face. Forgiveness, if it comes, comes by rain, by thunder, or climbs off the bus as a tired stranger who bums a smoke from another wanderer on a corner, and the one, who’ll never see the other again, spreads grace without moving his lips.
The yellow-headed gannets seek their sleek prey, the needlefish, anchovy, mackerel, who travel beneath the Tasman Sea’s dazzle in shimmering schools. Bicameral eyes sight such kill from heights on which the gannets tilt their midnightdipped white wings, then plummet, crash, into the sea’s hard bright blue density. Our eyes might catch a sparkle of splash we hadn’t watched, then watching, see, from our outcrop perch, a bird breach surface, gullet stretched with fish already thrashed and funneled back down that black-tunneled neck. The gannets’ act looks effortless. Yet, by increments, they’re blinded. They crack the water’s glass with all their falling’s force to hurl them
deep to reach the fish. It takes an impact of attack that shakes the gannet’s eye’s fine apparatus, sharp in brightness plunge on plunge, till the gannet’s in the dark, and aimless, empty, it succumbs. We’ve hiked the bluffs to witness that pelagic dance. Must we dive into such shimmer, smashing bit by bit or all at once our innocence, our promise, thrust by hunger, till the damage drowns us? I wonder how we’ll touch our depths, if not headlong fast into the source. I walked here lost to watch the gannets. Have I found us?
Million Dollar Pier
Skin hot, sore, itching from the day under August sun on the beach in just trunks, I’d cherish the night’s breeze washing over my face and what cool air seeped under my madras shirt and corduroy jeans, out in the toasty creosote stink laced with whiffs of roasting peanuts, sizzling dogs, those infinite pink and blue strands of cotton candy in skeins bigger than kids’ heads, cigarette plumes, ten-cent cigar fumes, all these threads embroidering the raw silk of the surf’s wet-rot scent spread over us (evidence of the saltwater crests tossing themselves against the world in the darkness yards under our feet and shredding the seaweed, crushing shells, macerating the carapaces of sand crabs decimated in the tumble we heard without listening), the churn stirring and lifting the mist of invisible droplets, lending a subliminal shine to everything visible. We never see why we are anywhere at the time.
Amid the smells in that festival racket of roller coasters, start-up bells, the repetitive jarring jingles of eternal childhood emanating from the big-kid and kiddie carousels, came etheric wafts of the girls’ perfumes, purchased or shoplifted in Woolworth’s or off mom-&-pop corner drugstore aisles (the evidence, in volatile traces, available in the happenstance weave through the human clusters heaving from funhouse exit to Ferris wheel, skee ball concession to rifle row’s incessant procession of metal ducks)— the scents caught anywhere, sudden, unsought, off the bare necks of the girls I would never know better—the why in the why I was there with Marty, Richie, and Bobby, abandoning drums, keyboard, guitars, forgetting TV or any real dinner and stalking the boardwalk’s fast mile from Richie’s house to this rinky-dink magic peninsula, Million Dollar Pier seeking, secretly from myself, the evidence (in the glare of the million dumb-colored bulbs strung through the struts of this rickety storm-taunting monstrosity) of desire, borne in the form of that other I desired mystified and afraid, and afraid it would show in those goddesses’ eyes. They were made-up to excess, masked in opaque pancake and demonesque eye-shadow, eyebrows dark as the night out over the sea, skirted or slacked in mysteriously elastic cloth, and bloused in poor boy sweaters so loose I could see through the weave’s little windows the flesh upheld in the snug synthetic baskets of their bras. I could read the row-house dignity in their whispers into each other’s big-hooped ears, and admire their aversion of gaze from me, their eyes cartooned with liner
to say they are waiting for someone in leather or tall and bold enough to stand there before one of them and offer a smoke, a stick of gum, some calm company on that ride that flies out through the dark, a try at the satiny stuffed prize for toppling the pins with one true pitch, something in the code of cool that was called-for of which I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t want to sleep with one of these sweet-scented bearers of evidence of such desire— I only wished to someday have slept with someone like this, one of these still-distant emissaries of a land out of reach, across a sea I could not yet imagine myself across, however near, nearer than ever when I wove with my friends through the glitz among girls who skirted the night giving off hints of what might be possible elsewhere.
Academy of American Poets University Poetry Prize 2013
The Academy of American Poets sponsors over 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide, including Old Dominion University. Many of America’s most esteemed poets won their first prize through the Academy’s program. Philip Raisor was the contest judge for ODU’s 2013 Poetry Prize. Philip Raisor is the author of Swimming in the Shallow End and Outside Shooter: A Memoir, and the editor of Tuned and Under Tension: The Recent Poetry of W. D. Snodgrass. His poetry and reviews have appeared in The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, 5AM, Poetry East, Tar River Poetry, Ascent, and elsewhere. He was on the Board of Directors of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and a managing editor of New Virginia Review. He is emeritus professor of English at Old Dominion University. The winners and runners-up, with comments by contest judge are as follows: Graduate Winner – Tarah Gibbs: “A group of poems is the prizewinner. Together, “Every Word Love,” “Prayer Group,” and “Moon Clip” richly expand what each poem does: captures an authentic voice, place, and language. Including prose poem, lyric, and narrative, this collection does not strain for meaning, but stays within itself, revealing states-of-mind in brief moments. Humor and human aspiration go together here, as each narrator tries to define just what is possible, given the circumstances. It
appears that the poet has arrived at a voice that can consistently express, through various forms, a range of characters and situations that will tell us not only how they live, but why they live where they do. It is a voice, I think, that convinces us it all matters.” Undergraduate Winner – Ralph Lawson: “The prizewinner is “Gone Like a Vapor Trail, Gone Like a Breath,” not an understated title, nor a particularly apt one for this poem. I would also add that another revision would help the poem fulfill its potentiality. As it is though, the relationship between a young “caretaker” and a much older man has a directness, honesty, and narrative strength that make it a winner. We ask, as does the narrator, why she stays with the old tyrant, but the fact that in the end, she doesn’t know and we don’t know does not diminish the impact of the experience we have had with her. She hangs on, and we are neither urged not compelled to judge. Language and form serve to achieve the distance the narrator wants us to preserve. That is a fine accomplishment.” Graduate Honorable Mention – Lucian Mattison: “My runner-up is the poem titled “A Dig.” It is a five part poem which works throughout on two levels: an archeological dig that goes from surface inquiry through the discovery of artifacts, ecofacts, and finally an ancient site where “roman gold is stamped / with the many faces of emperors.” At the same time, the vertical movement exposes the breach of nature by an endless uprooting of earth which leads to no more than city being piled on top of city. That, says the poet, is the “arc of human architecture.” The voice of the narrator is quietly instructional, allowing the richly geologic details to draw us deeper and deeper into the human enterprise—a history lesson that patiently leads to self-examination.” Undergraduate Honorable Mention – Willie Wilson: “My runnerup is the poem titled “Walking While Black.” Its strength lies in the poet’s determination to compress the story of discrimination into one image: a young man walking down Hampton with a “hoodie / hiding his face.” Simple enough, authentic enough, and subject to diatribe, if one wants to develop an essay on “profiling.” But the poet’s voice is quietly submerged in the details that identify him: listening to the O’Jays, missing Brandy, his stylin’, his “Dark skin, / hugging him tight.” Why, then, should anyone, cops, stop him; he’s just walking? Sometimes, as in this poem, what is understated is more dramatic than what is spotlighted.”
We’ll pray for you they said with such wide open arms, all smiles, teeth fluorescent, knobby fingers tight like rosaries that I nearly replied, Aw, thanks guys like I needed blessings. They reached for my hands and I held them for a moment, tried to be polite while they prayed but never closed my eyes. We were saints with each other. When they asked if I was ready to accept Jesus into my heart, I scuffed my black sneakers on the sidewalk holding back blasphemy, and let the strange long drawl around my teeth and tongue, Y’all, I just don’t know.
Every Word Love
She’s refilling the collards at the buffet line, and he hopes today will be the day he tells her. He loves seeing her: skinny arms smooth out the mashed potatoes and peach cobbler into bowls like they’re pieces of gold. He dreams of touching her: hair straight black as molasses with tips pink; how she looks like roses hanging to dry. He wants to show her how to ride a four-wheeler, feel her thighs press behind his in the seat, warmth of her belly against his back. He’d suck in that fried chicken gut, pretend to be one of them fit guys, leather jackets like she knew in the city, so when her fingers link around him he would feel like her world. Her arms, the rings. His barn is perfect for a wedding; he ain’t that much older than her and would take care of her forever; show the secret roots of their cotton plants—how it doesn’t have to be cold to snow, that snow grew from the ground when he was a boy, exploded from prickly burrs, drifted through his hair and danced with dragonflies, frosted his lungs at the gin, and was born of the clay so packed under his nails that his blood soaked it in ‘til it hurt—the birth of their family name. They’d honeymoon up north—Virginia, perhaps—so she’d still feel a little bit of home. He goes for seconds while she’s near the black-eyed peas, takes a heaping spoonful, heart like to melt in his chest. Her eyes narrow to slits, pretty lips twitch. “What?” is all she says and he thinks her voice is chickadees. He breathes deep, nearly chokes, tears up. She’s so good to look at. He says...Got any more hushpuppies? She got grease burns on her hands a while back, from the fried chicken; he was in a booth that day when she come screaming from the back, holding her hands, cursing and a-crying
â€œGoddamn hicksville redneck town!â€? Bubbling red fingers against her black Megadeth t-shirt. She almost looked like a Georgia fan.
In Dresden, Tennessee we never call the cops if we’re in trouble. Being from the shotgun houseside of town means we were born for prison. And if you’re a girl, honey bee, you snuggle that butterfly knife in your bra, keep it on your skin at all times. Gran’ma Elnor Rae knew how it was done. Sent a few men to the hospital with wounds near their groins, yet never spent a night in jail until she was caught doing seventy over the limit down dusty Clementine Road. So when Gran’ma Elnor Rae up and died, all us women had just one thing on our mind: her revolver, that sweet double-action, moon clip, spins so smooth in our fingers we could feel the men stepping back, holding their junk like they know they gon’ lose it. We tore through Elnor Rae’s house, cut the collapsed mattress, looked under the dripping sink, even in the outhouse.
I found it and Cousin Sasha helped me hide it, smiling and whispering, “Aunt Edith gon’ light a hellfire that she didn’t find it first.” I smuggled it out of the house in a brown paper lunch bag, like a baby Moses, and hid Elnor Rae’s revolver in the knot of an oak in my backyard, told my mama guess Elnor Rae gave that ol’ gun away. But sometimes I snuck out to the tree at night, reached high in its heart and pulled out that revolver, let the moonlight clean the barrel of the growing rust, turn it into something new and shining, powerful again. I thought of the men Elnor Rae fought off, how she’d slap them back when they hit her, how she’d appear the revolver from on her body, like it was in her body, like she created it every time she battled for her life. And when they packed their bags, left the next day muttering, “Ain’t livin’ with no woman gon’ disrespect me,” she’d pat that sweet revolver, nestled in between her big breasts and reply “Ain’t havin’ no man can’t take a hit like me.”
Gone Like a Vapor Trail, Gone Like a Breath
I’ve stopped anticipating Normal that opaque ghost doesn’t live here. Even still, there are standards, boundaries and lines that most people are content to color within. So now I struggle with empty jugs of wine setting them delicately (like freshly risen bread dough) into the trash bin outside so as not to let the neighbors hear. It’s bad enough they hear your screams from inside. Your yelps as you fall out of your office chair bringing the computer down with you, your military mouth cursing drunkenly as you pick your old body off the dirty floor, pick your computer off the floor. “Cocksuckingdogshitwhatthefuckisthisfuckingpieceofshit!” They hear you yelling at me from the upstairs window while I walk through the front yard to you, they hear your tone, how the aggression hardens over the years. And I have become more like my mother preferring to crack a joke, crack open a drink deprecate and desiccate myself rather than struggle through a serious discussion with you only to have it devolve into me clamming up while you rampage. Then there are the nights I come home from work and you’re hungry for kisses and food, complimenting me,
telling me how committed you are before you pass out. I never planned to live with my own Boo Radley, my flower in the attic, my dirty old secret. I’ve told a few friends I live with an older man. They get excited, lean in close expecting details, but what can I say about a man forty years older? Hip replacements, heart surgeries, feeling infantilized because you’re always right, giving an enema, watching your strength leave until I can easily pry my wrist out of your over-sized hands. But the worst is watching your memory leave, watching you tell the same stories over dinner. Knowing that in the bright light of the next morning you won’t even remember the pork chops I made at your request, you look confused and want to eat them again.
Sipping Highbrow Teas in Lowbrow Cafes
I’ve thrown out every blue pen, who cares if it’s premature? If you don’t like them then neither do I. I still have a sore throat from your strange cigarettes but that’s quite the souvenir. You said people only visit once in a while but I like your city, still feel your arm wrapped across me. I went to your favorite coffee shop alone. The manager smiled and asked if I wanted to wait and order with you. His face scrunched up when I said you weren’t coming. I think of the rainy night we met talking smoking under your umbrella. You took a half step towards me. I looked down at the smaller space between our bellies slowly
and came back up, your face scrunched in a question. I gave a shy half smile and you relaxed before me. And then sometimes Iâ€™m driving and talking and turn my head toward your empty seat. Most mornings I drive past the skeleton of a new skyscraper, I look up and ask the yellow sky, how bigâ€™s this thing gonna get?
I. It starts with the small talk of trowel work and something wakes in the soil. Just inches below the surface, the earth turns into a moist ink and creatures quiver in their granulose medium. II. Spaded rootballs are upturned in mid-rot and the spindle fibers fray, exposed to sunlight. The silence writhes like a newborn mute. III. The shovel breaks up loamy timelines of geologic memory. Variegated sediments
in bands of clay, pumice, and shale, blend their colors like layers of lichens. IV. In some places an inner earth appears, deeper down, in abandoned arcades and mausoleums of basaltic tuff. A market buried beneath the floors of a Franciscan church reveals to us that Naples is built atop Naples. V. Then come the ribs and coins. A palimpsest of roman gold is stamped with the many faces of emperors and cuneiform bones curl into the ground like shards of crock, always inward turning, this arc of human architecture.
Walking While Black
His only crime— walking down Hampton with a hoodie hiding his face from the cold, chill of November night bobbing his head to the smooth sound of the O’Jays playing in his ear; he misses Brandy just like them. His pants not quite fitting, but it’s his style. He struts when he steps but it’s his style. He cannot help some things—
his heritage; his past; what others do; who he is. Dark skin, hugging him tight. So why must he be stopped?
Zachary Amendt is from San Bernardino, CA. His stories have been anthologized by Dzanc Books and Underground Voices. Makalani Bandele is a Louisville, KY native. A member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem fellow, his work is forthcoming or can be found in journals such as Sou’wester, Barely South Review, Louisville Review, The Platte Valley Review, and African-American Review. He is a 2012 Pushcart nominee, Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize and Literary LEO 1st Prize in Poetry winner. Hellfightin’, published by Willow Books in 2011, is his first fulllength book of poems. For more info http://about.me/makalanibandele. Glenda Barrett is a native of Hiawassee, Georgia. She has published over one hundred poems and essays. Her work can be found in Fresh! Literary Journal, Mused Bella Online, and Wild Goose Poetry Review, among many others. Dick Bentley’s books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available from Amazon or Powell’s. He has published over 200 works of fiction and poetry in the U.S., the U.K., France, Canada, and Brazil. He served on the Board of Directors of the Modern Poetry Association (now called the Poetry Foundation.) Before teaching writing at the University of Massachusetts he was Chief Planner for the Mayor’s Office of Housing in Boston. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and won the International Fiction
Awards sponsored by The Paris Review and the Paris Writers Workshop. www.dickbentley.com. Emma Bolden is the author of Maleficae, a collection of poems about the European witch trials from GenPop Books. Her work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, The Journal, South Loop Review, Verse, and Feminist Studies. She’s a professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University and blogs at A Century of Nerve (www.emmabolden.com). Maurice Emerson Decaul is a poet, librettist and essayist, whose work has been featured in the NY Times, Sierra Magazine, Leatherneck, Epiphany and other places. His theater work has been produced or presented in NYC, Washington DC, and Paris. Alicia Wright Dekker is a writer, window treatment designer, and mom (not necessarily in that order). She is a student of The Muse Writers’ Center, in Norfolk, Virginia, and a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her short stories and microfiction can be found in The Quotable, and The Treehouse; A Magazine of Possibilities. She, herself, can usually be found in one of Norfolk’s many coffeehouses—but that’s another story. Sarah Domet is author of the craft book 90 Days to Your Novel (Writer’s Digest Books). Her fiction and nonfiction has also appeared in New Delta Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Potomac Review, Bluestem, Juked, Talking Writing, Harpur Palate, and other places. She teaches at Georgia Southern University. Nina Gibbs is a film producer, event planner, and photographer. Born and raised in rural coastal North Carolina, Gibbs is a small town girl with big city dreams. She runs the Pittsburgh based art gallery Most Wanted Fine Art with her husband Jason Sauer. The couple works together on urban renewal through the arts. Nina has been a producer for the Pittsburgh 48 Hour Film Project since 2009. The 48HFP is the world’s largest timed filmmaking competition, occurring in 110 cities worldwide. Nina is also on the board for The Hollywood Theater in Dormont, a non-profit classic single screen theater. Tarah Gibbs received her B.A. in English and an M.A.T. in Secondary Education from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. In May 2013, she will complete requirements for an M.F.A. in Fiction from Old Dominion University. She served as fiction editor for The Peacock’s Feet and as a non-fiction and fiction editor for Barely South Review. She volunteered with the WiTS program while in Georgia and with the Writers in
Community non-profit at ODU. Her fiction was published in The Quotable (Winter 2012) and her poetry won the graduate ODU College Poetry Prize in 2013. Bill Glose is a former paratrooper, a Gulf War veteran, and author of the poetry collection, The Human Touch (San Francisco Bay Press, 2007). In 2011, he was named the Daily Press Poet Laureate. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals and magazines as Narrative Magazine, New York Quarterly, and Poet Lore. More information can be found at www.BillGlose.com. Gabriel Horowitz founded the poetry journal Poems for Scott Norwood in 2004 after admiring Fuck! in the stacks when shelving at the SUNY Buffalo Rare Books and Poetry Library. Some of his early poems appear in that journal, which is available by request through interlibrary loan. He published a chapbook, Waking Up Buried in Snow, in 2009. He lives in Ann Arbor and is currently working on a book about the poetics of republicanism in Latin America. K. Carlton Johnson studied art at American University and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC. She has exhibited work at universities and galleries around the country. See more of her work at http://www. kcarltonjohnsongallery.com/index.html. Shana Campbell Jones is an environmental lawyer who lives in Norfolk, Virginia with her son and husband. She grew up in the Florida Panhandle. Grant Kittrell was born and raised in Fernandina Beach, Florida. He received his BA in both English and Philosophy from the University of North Florida and is currently completing his MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University in Virginia, where he also works for the Hollins Critic. Bob Kunzinger is the author of five collections of essays, and has work in many regional and national publications including Southern Humanities Review, and has been noted by Best American Essays. His book Penance has been immensely successful in the Czech Republic and is being translated into Czech and Italian. He is a professor of humanities. Ralph Lawson is a Creative Writing major at Old Dominion University. They enjoy cloud watching, bicycle riding, and baking bread. Ralph has previously been published in Channelmarker, Mace and Crown, as well as Barely South Review.
Lucian Mattison received his B.A. from University of Florida and is a first year poetry student in the M.F.A. program at Old Dominion University. He can be reached at Lucian.email@example.com. Ray McManus is the author of two books of poetry: Driving through the country before you are born (USC Press 2008), and Red Dirt Jesus (Marick Press 2011). His poetry has appeared in numerous journals. McManus is the creative writing director for the Tri-District Arts Consortium in South Carolina, and he is an Assistant Professor of English in the Division of Arts and Letters at the University of South Carolina Sumter where he teaches creative writing and Irish literature. For more information about Ray McManus and his work, check out his website: www.raymcmanuspoetry. com. Allison Lee Merriweather is a dreamer and a visionary. Her highly charged instantly recognizable style has gained wide acclaim among the viewing public. Her work has been featured in Biblical Archeology as well as on the cover of magazines such as Art Primitif, ArtWeekend and Houston’s own My Table. Allison Merriweather was named Artscape’s Best Visual Artist in 2005 and is the recipient of a Silver Award in Painting published in Artweek. www.merriweatherart.com. Jed Myers is a Philadelphian living in Seattle. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Nimrod International Journal, Golden Handcuffs Review, Atlanta Review, Fugue, Crab Creek Review, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Rose Alley Press anthology Many Trails to the Summit, and elsewhere. He’s received several recent awards, among them the 2012 Mary C. Mohr Editors’ Award from Southern Indiana Review. R.C. Neighbors is a sixth-generation Oklahoman, former Baptist minister, and current Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University, emphasizing in Native Southern studies and creative writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tampa Review, Red Earth Review, Parody, and elsewhere. Jon Pearson is a writer, cartoonist, speaker, and creative thinking consultant. He has written over three hundred short stories and his work has appeared in a slew of publications. Secretly, though, Jon is still five years old and believes that love will conquer everything and that courage, creativity, and caring just might save the day. Jon writes, now, for the same reason he played with his food as a kid: to make the world a better place. He lives in Santa Monica, CA.
Liz Robbins’ second full collection, Play Button, won the 2010 Cider Press Review Book Award, judged by Patricia Smith; her chapbook, Girls Turned Like Dials, won the 2012 YellowJacket Press Prize. Poems are in recent issues or forthcoming in diode, Fourteen Hills, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal, The Kenyon Review, New Madrid, New York Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, The Pinch, Rattle, and Tar River Poetry. She’s an associate professor of creative writing at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. She blogs at http://lizrobbinspoetry.blogspot.com. Erica Sklar is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at UNC Wilmington, currently at work on her first book. She has been previously published in The Masters Review. George Such is a former chiropractor. He recently completed an M.A. in English at Western Washington University, where he also served as one of the Bellingham Review’s poetry editors. Recently he was accepted into the English Ph.D. program at University of Louisiana Lafayette, where he was awarded a University Fellowship. His poetry has appeared in Arroyo Literary Review, Blue Earth Review, Cold Mountain Review, Dislocate, and other literary journals; his nonfiction has appeared in Phoebe. His collection of poems, Where the Body Lives, was selected as winner of the 2012 Tiger’s Eye Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming in 2013. July Westhale is a Pushcart-nominated poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Women Write Resistance and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. www.julywesthale.com. Harold Whit Williams is a guitarist for the critically acclaimed rock band Cotton Mather. His chapbook, Waiting For The Fire To Go Out, is available from Finishing Line Press, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Oxford American, Oklahoma Review, Natural Bridge, Tulane Review, Carolina Quarterly, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas. Will Wilson is an undergraduate attending Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the proud father to seven year-old, Dezene’ Wilson.
He hopes one day to construct his very own collection of poems for Dezene’ to read to his grandkids. He has been writing poetry since the age of nine, when he saw a poem of his mother’s entitled, “Seeds Sown,” in a collection of poems. He looks at poetry as a way to connect to all aspects of human existence. P. Ivan Young is the author of A Shape in the Waves, and a recipient of a 2011 Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. His manuscript Smell of Salt, Ghost of Rain won second place in the NFSPS Stevens Contest and was a semifinalist in the 2013 Philip Levine Prize. His most recent publications are in Myrrh, Mothwig, Smoke: Erotic Poems (an anthology by Tupelo Press) and in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fourteen Hills, Little Patuxent Review, Zone 3, The Cortland Review, and Crab Orchard Review. He lives in Salisbury, Maryland with his wife and two children.
During the summer of 2012, NINA GIBBS toured the southern U.S with her husband (fellow artist Jason Sauer) and infant son, Rowdy, with an â€œArt Car.â€? Gibbs and Sauer took photographs of strangers, in the style of police mug shots, and glued them to the car to create a scrapbook that grew with each city. As for the car itself, Sauer not only disassembled its body to use for his paintings, but he actually wrecked it in a demolition derby. The result of the experience is two separate artistic reflections of the heartland they explored over the course of an unhinged summer. Gibbs shows you a direct glimpse at her personal American dream: family, travel, and art, through a series of texture heavy photographs all taken with a cell phone. Each photo is a love letter to Americana: fun, free spirited, and badass. www.pittsburghartcar.com.
Artist Statment Nina Gibbs
Artist Statement: I have been painting since I was a very young child. My work has grown and taken on shape and color which reminds one of poetry. It was landscape that has informed my work. Rather than specific “landscapes,” it is more akin to “place.” The work is usually on canvas, although I have been experimenting with graphic representation in the form of mono prints. The canvases are 20x24 or larger and vibrant and alive with both color and shape.
Lone Tree Acrylic on Canvas, 16” x 20”
K. Carlton Johnson
I n t h i s I ssu e : In this issue: A l l i so n L e e M e r r i w e a t h e r ; N i n a G i bbs ; Z a c h a r y A m e n d t ; A l i c i a Adam Tavel
W r i g h t D e k k e r ; B i l l G l os e ; D i c k B e n t l e y ; G ab r i e l H o r o w i t z ; Carol Beth Icard
G e o r g e S u c h ; G l e n da B a r r e t t ; G r a n t K i t r e l l ; H a r o l d W h i t Kelly Martineau; valarie clark
W i l l i a m s ; J o n P e a r so n ; J u l y W e s t h a l e ; L i z R obb i n s ; M a k a l a n i Zana Previti
B a n d e l e ; M au r i c e E m e r so n D e c au l ; R a y M c M a n us ; R. C. N e i g h bo r s ; S a r a h D o m e t ; E m m a B o l d e n ; S h a n a C a m p b e l l J o n e s ; B ob K u n z i n g e r ; E r i c a S k l a r ; P. I va n Y ou n g ; J e d M y e r s ; T a r a h G i bbs ; R a l p h L a w so n ; L u c i a n M a t t i so n ; W i l l W i l so n ; K. C a r l t o n J o h n so n
The Spring Issue of Barely South Review, the Literary Magazine at Old Dominion University.