June 2 0 1 4
I s s u e N o. 4
Max Vande Vaarst
Copyright ÂŠ 2014 Buffalo Almanack. All writing and photography property of their respective authors. Cover art by Emily McBride. Buffalo Almanack is a non-profit publishing outfit founded in 2013. New issues are released quarterly, on the 15th of March, June, September and December. Inquire online for submission guidelines. www.buffaloalmanack.com Follow us @buffaloalmanack Like us at facebook.com/buffaloalmanack
For Poppy, 1933 - 2014 Twenty-five years wasn’t enough. Happy (Grand)Father’s Day - Max
Inkslinger Award winner
Photography Enrique Pelaez
Editors’ Note Max Vande Vaarst Katie Morrison
The Parlay Andy Bailey
Photography John Kirsch
Rise and Fall Emily Lackey
Photography Emily McBride
The Diary of Ella Monroe, 1852 Ethan Leonard
The 2014 Cottingley Lens Competition George Grubb and Melanie Clemmons
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts Liam O’Brien
THE TAIL END Dispatches from the artistic frontier
Interview Amy Greene
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
Interview Caleb Cole
Review: Every Kiss a War Robyn Ryle
Review: Bad Teeth Michael Christian
This is an issue about deception. Outside of these pages, goat-people do
not play with matches. Giraffes do not ride the New York City subway. Stumparmed strippers do not honor the name of Hellenic godspawn as they are showered with frat boy dollars. The Rapture did not come to the American westward frontier and kittens do not come coated in strawberry frosted flavoring.
This is an issue about the faux fairies even the father of Sherlock Holmes
couldn’t decipher and the advancing digital editing software that furthers their legacy. This is an issue about art that tells lies. But then again, so is every issue.
To be an artist is to tell lies. You snip together half-truths and quarter-truths
and tiny jagged fragments of truths, leaving behind only enough evidence of facture to serve as a breadcrumb trail back to reality. Even a purported act of non-fiction becomes in practice an elaborate chain of stretches and smudges. The author’s bias always wins out.
This is an issue about deception, and if it has a bias, perhaps it’s biased
toward great fiction and photography. We hope you’ll love it as much as we do. And if not, well, we hope you’ll lie.
All the best, Max and Katie Editors 6
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
Inkslinger Award Winner
LONGHORNS -11.0 Fliers
Devon Spoors missed the last two free throws, keeping the score 45 to 35.
The final horn blared and a minor celebration ensued in the stands, the home court Woodbury Longhorns having now advanced to the Las Vegas eighthgrade city championship over the visiting Findlay Fliers. Parents high-fived and took pictures while students danced and jockeyed for each other’s attention.
But in the far corner of the bleachers, back against the water-stained wall, the
baggy-eyed guy in the faded maroon sweatshirt and Nike baseball cap clenched his hands together in an effort to keep from lashing out at the goddamned shit of it all. At the parents, the students, the whole fucking bleachers, the whole fucking game, all of it.
The spread had been eleven points, so with Spoors’s miss, the Longhorns
hadn’t covered. And Ben Marks now sat twenty-seven grand in the hole. A stupid bet, with Mason Willis out because of a failed math test and Spoors the only pure shooter left for the Longhorns. Still, he’d thought that the Fliers defense had been vastly overrated due to inferior competition and that they’d crumble against a pick n’ roll-based offense like the Longhorns’.
And crumble they had, just not to the degree Ben needed. Ben was up in his
seat when Spoors got fouled on a jumper from the corner, cheering louder than anyone. But his attempts to shush the crowd for the free throws proved fruitless. The last shot clanged off the back of the rim, giving an agonizing whirl around the hoop before dropping off the side. Spoors didn’t care, he’d already scored 17 and caught the attention of every chick in the crowd. But Ben did. He’d put three grand on the Longhorns to beat the spread, having done more research on the game than either coach possibly could have.
He’d even been prepared to resort to shadier measures, like bribing a Fliers
player to tank it. He’d brought along a box of Twinkies, but a middle-aged man offering a 13-year-old a Twinkie could’ve been construed the wrong way, so he’d eaten them himself at halftime. Did kids even eat Twinkies anymore? What the hell should he have brought, a goddamn...Nintendo game? He sat through the on-court celebration, the handshake line, and the teams filing into the locker room, the gym emptying until only the parents were left, grouping together as they waited for their sons. They eyed him first amiably – thinking him one of them – then coolly, and at last with suspicion as he became the only nonparent left in the gym. A few dads even nodded in his direction as they huddled together. Time to leave.
Not that he wanted to stick around and creep on the parent-son
congratulatory hugs. He just didn’t want to leave the gym, where all his problems could be confined to the 74’ by 42’ slab of hardwood. Out there, other things waited for him. Things he didn’t want to face, didn’t ever want to face.
But he had to, and so he exited the gym through a side door and stepped
into a cold desert night, the wind snapping at his cheeks a reminder that you’re alive, like it or not, you’re alive.
Big Lo ran his sportsbook from the hidden inner room of a low-end arcade in
a deserted Northtown block. Outdated quarter machines with cracked displays blinked sadly, running through demo modes for an absent audience, title images ghost-burned onto their monitors like permanent tattoos of shame. Empty except for two teens playing Pop-a-Shot in the corner, tossing not basketballs, but trash from a nearby bin: soda cans, food wrappers, a discarded jacket that clogged the hoop. The smell of stale salty snacks covered something deeper,
something fishy and frightening that Ben feared without quite understanding.
He approached the ticket redemption booth, the shelves behind the
bulletproof window a depressing display of redeemable items which fell into two categories: plastic crap and stuffed crap, none of which had been touched in years. The guy inside didn’t look up from his cell as Ben approached.
“I’d like to redeem my tickets.”
It was a different guy every time, but they all fit a mold: thick build, dark
suits, Asian. This one had bleached hair and a scar running from the back of his neck, jutting to a right angle in front of his ear and ending near his hairline.
“Which prize would you like?”
“The slap bracelets.”
The attendant pressed a button and the door to the booth swung open. Ben
stepped in and, spreading his arms Christways, submitted to a rough patdown. From close up, Ben could see the guy’s scar was actually a tattoo, greenish tint and Frankenstein stitches, its contrivance somehow more frightening than the violence a real scar would’ve implied. Satisfied, the guy grunted towards the back wall, where he lifted up some empty shelves hinged on one side, then pushed open a hidden door.
Big Lo had the weirdest prop bets, the highest vigorish, and the worst
odds in town. He attracted the desperate, and Ben liked him because he didn’t patronize, didn’t hold it over your head. You both knew you were in trouble if you had to bet at his place, so no need to dick around. His sportsbook reflected the no-bullshit utilitarianism: small square room, bare bulbs, a chalkboard with the betting lines and just one old TV tuned not to sports, but instead some Chinese soap opera. After he’d burned his way through the Strip and then Fremont Street and then the scattered outliers, Ben was left with Big Lo, where
he’d always known he’d end up, ever since the slide.
Big Lo sat at a card table, buried in his laptop, another one of his goons
leaning against the back wall. A bearded guy snored in the corner, a bottle of offbrand gin nestled in his lap, his slumped body blocking a thick metal door. A series of rhythmic beats issued forth from the computer, and Big Lo bobbed his head as he regarded Ben.
“Dig this, Bean.” He punched a button and the volume from the tinny
speakers increased, like somebody’s earphones turned up too loud. “Made it myself, in Garageband. The sickies.”
Ben smiled absently and inspected the board. “The free throws killed me. I
“The sickies,” Big Lo repeated, and clapped his computer shut. Everyone
stared at something: Ben at the chalkboard, Big Lo at Ben, the goon at Big Lo, and the sleeping guy at the back of his eyelids. A long moment of silence.
“So you’re asking, what, double it up?”
“I’m asking for whatever lets me walk out under my own power.”
A dry chuckle. “Jocular. That’s a word, right? You’re jocular.”
Ben studied the lines, mind collapsing into that recessed place where the
possibilities played out in a gooey mix of numbers and symbols and floating dollar signs, trying to will himself into a Rain Man sense of calm as the solution presented itself. Could the LVFD flag football team beat a fourteen-point spread against the team from Home Depot? Would the average grade on Professor Kinney’s freshman psych exam be over or under 81.5%? Who would be the next worker laid off from the Paradise Valley post office? Did anyone who went behind that metal door come out again?
Big Lo’s voice pulled him from his ruminations. “Don’t bother with those.
You, my friend, have sunk yourself out of anything normal.”
The over/under on total daily sales at Desert Honda was $132,870. Ben
turned to Big Lo. “What’s normal?”
Afterwards, Ben drove around Northtown to bide his time. Lots of “For
Sale” signs, the whole state wrecked by the recession. Could get a decent house pretty cheap. Neighborhood wasn’t great, but would’ve been good for Jessie to grow up streetsmart, stay sharp and learn how to handle herself. Like he couldn’t.
The slide began February 3, 2008: Super Bowl XLII, Giants upending the
Patriots’ perfect season. Hadn’t even bet on a team, not trusting either prettyboy Tom Brady or oafish Eli Manning, but the over/under was 55 and he’d taken the over in a heartbeat, would do it again with those same numbers. Shit, Brady alone had scored that before a few halftimes during the season. Laid only a grand on it that morning but got antsy, saw the stats on ESPN pregame and had to go bigger: ten, no, twenty, his whole roll. But the total score was only ten at halftime and with each minute dripping away in the second half the hole in his stomach grew wider and wider, little toothy molecules eating through the lining and expanding the bottomless void where all the hope, from that point on, would go to die.
Final score 17-14, twenty-two points under. After that he’d gotten stupid,
betting desperately: the Pro Bowl, spring training, unimportant games where teams just played grabass, winning a little but losing more. He went on like this for months, every victory a little tease that would set him up for the next loss, the creeping inevitability of the slide not so bad once he embraced it. Watching people leave – watching those who had loved and trusted him clench their
faces and say they were sorry, but this couldn’t go on – that got old, until he cut himself out of everyone’s life first to save them the trouble. After Liz and Jessie left it’d become easy, people disappearing like minor characters in a sitcom. Cashing Out, it’d be called, or something less on the nose.
So he’d pared life down to its simplest elements: a studio apartment, a part-
time job delivering phone books, and Big Lo. When he offered Ben the parlay, Big Lo had a lighthearted smile, the whole thing funny to him, and then he laughed when Ben agreed, incredulous.
But what were his options? He didn’t have the money, so the next step
would’ve been either behind Big Lo’s metal door, or a frantic cross-country evasion that he didn’t have the energy for, or the bottle of sleeping pills and the fifth of Jim Beam waiting on his nightstand. He didn’t think Big Lo knew about Liz and Jessie – Ben didn’t even know where they were – but he could never be completely sure of their safety as long as he owed so much. So he’d taken the bet.
Goddamn right, he’d taken it. He was a gambler.
VOMITERS 7:30-8:00 ±3
He reached the Stratosphere via the back roads, out of sight from the glare of
the Strip, light years away. A few minivans and station wagons were scattered around the lot. The Strat attracted families with its rides and cheap rooms, too far off the Strip for the drunken partiers to wander in. Ben was pretty sure he didn’t know anybody who worked there whom he would’ve owed, but everyone bounced from job to job like a roulette ball – which would’ve made working at the Strat the bright green ‘00’. So he pulled his hat low and trudged through the red-faced dads leaning over blackjack tables and their impatient
wives standing cross-armed behind them. There was something sad and familiar about that scene, Liz’s voice dampened in his memory to a generic female whine, pleading to cash out and come home, did he really need one more drink, one more bet? Pay attention, he wanted to shout to the gamblers, but each man’s stack was his own.
He’d intended just to buy the elevator ticket to the top so he could watch the
bet unfold, face his fate like a man. But when he reached the front of the ticket line and saw the deals offered for a tower admission and ride combination, the plan materialized so quickly that he bought an unlimited ride pass before his brain had time to process the stupidity of it.
A parlay is a series of bets tied together. Higher odds, but a bigger payoff. If
all three bets hit, big winner. But if one loses, any one, the whole thing is gone, and your paycheck or kneecaps along with it. A parlay would normally be a few football games on a Sunday, or a few races at the track. But, as with the rest of Big Lo’s wagers, nothing was normal.
He’d only given Ben the details of the first bet out of the three.
In case it doesn’t hit, then I wouldn’t have wasted time explaining the
Big Lo had nothing to gain from this, Ben knew. Ben didn’t have the
“double” to pay, so the best Big Lo could get was the “nothing.” Not like he could kill him extra. Most likely just a diversion for Big Lo, a gladiator battle for a Roman emperor and – in a thought that startled him, but that had to be right – maybe Big Lo liked him, was offering him a way out. Maybe he genuinely didn’t want to fuck Ben up.
The bet was an over/under on how many people would vomit from 7:30-8:00
PM while riding Insanity at the top of the Stratosphere. Big Lo set the number
of pukers at three, and Ben took the over. He’d never ridden it, seen maybe a few pictures, but the Strat crowd would be rife with kids oversaturated with soda and junk food and distracted parents who’d let them ride as much as they’d want. Big Lo had smiled and told him good luck, that he should go watch, maybe enjoy a ride himself.
Which Ben decided to do, after downing three White Russians and two
heat lamp hotdogs. His stomach roiled and he immediately began to secondguess himself. And when he stepped out onto the observation deck and saw the grotesque monstrosity that was Insanity, he grew dizzy and had to step back into the elevator, where the attendant grabbed him by the shoulder.
“It’s okay, sir. A lot of people become overwhelmed.”
He wanted to tell the guy that he had no idea, but the food and the height
and the consequences all hit at once and he had to go hands to knees to catch his breath.
Insanity wasn’t a ride so much as a three-G death simulator. A giant crane-
like arm extended out over the edge of the tower, a circular spinning base with four smaller arms attached to it which ended in metallic pods. Riders sat trapped in the open-faced pods that, when the arms started whirling and flaring out, faced the Strip 900 feet straight down, offering a glimpse of the neonplated death below. So there was the G-force and the dizziness and the fear of heights to contend with, any one of which could make a person hurl. Combined together, no way he could lose.
Except that he could. Except that he might not be losing for himself this time.
He waited at the tower’s rail, getting a feel for the frenetic geometry of the ride and trying to figure out which of the workers were part of Big Lo’s team. Maybe all of them, eyes and ears and grasping little fingers everywhere in the city.
Observing the first full ride, Ben thought maybe he wouldn’t have to utilize
his plan at all. The sheer violence of it made him want to throw up just from watching. But then he saw the riders stumble out, loopy and hooting, before quickly regaining their legs and demanding another go. Aggressive teenagers, bachelor partiers – no sniveling merry-go-rounders here.
He fought in vain against another round of gas, knowing he had to go
through with the plan. The pods sat two each, so when he joined the line the kids in front of him began jostling each other for position, not wanting to be stuck with the haggard-looking loser who clearly hadn’t showered in a few days. Had it been a few days?
The guy who checked his harness eyed him suspiciously – one of Big Lo’s?
Or just weirded out by a lone middle-aged guy riding with no kids or friends? – but told him to have fun as he snapped the plastic yoke over Ben’s head. The gears clicked and caught, and as the pod began to move, the machine warming menacingly to life, Ben’s hand grazed the hand of the kid sitting next to him as they both reached for the grip bar at the same time.
“Sorry,” the kid mumbled as he pulled away. Ben would’ve told him it was
okay, you could even leave it there if you want, but heavy metal blasted from unseen speakers and hell ascended around them.
The G-force hit as the ride whipped around, slamming him against the seat.
As the pod loosened and began to spin on its own axis, the horizon gave way and the neon lights that detailed the ride above him became the neon lights of the city below. The distance was too far to frighten, though. It was cinematic, the spinning dulling his senses, the world beneath him too quick to register. Through it all, his stomach strained to keep its contents, the pressure trying to force everything out of whatever orifice was closest, but Ben squeezed his eyes
shut and focused on the bet, just make it through, screaming that could’ve been his or could’ve been the kid next to him, the music chugchugchugging and god he was going to puke –
His body lurched out from his seat, pressing against the harness as
machinery whined. The ride slowed. The music died. The pods locked into their original horizontal position, and the spinning clacked to a halt. The kid let out a girlish “Whoooo!” that was echoed across the ring of pods by his friends. A sly smirk from the ride attendant as he unlatched Ben, who had to resist the urge to let loose right there.
Instead he waded into a crowd of parents and onlookers waiting to greet the
riders, digital cameras and smartphones held at the ready like a firing squad, high-fives and backslaps all around. His stomach screamed to be turned loose, and he finally obliged. With an overexaggerated bellow, he let loose with a milky stream, vocalizing it as best he could for maximum effect: “BAAAARF!”
Big Lo had never told Ben he couldn’t be one of the three pukers. The White
Russians and hot dogs made for a toxic mix that burned on the way up, and the splatter haloed around him into the crowd. He kept his head down and gasped, undulating his stomach in an effort to draw out more. Standard shock and disgust from those around him, That’s so gross and Who let a bum in.
His stomach tapped, he gave a few loud dry heaves for good measure,
trying to pick through the noise for any sign that a domino effect would take place. Nothing. Smell wasn’t as powerful as he’d hoped. Still nothing. Then, he heard the first one, telltale gulping and a big release, and somewhere to his side the slapping of viscous sugary fluid against the ground and another collective groan.
Ben looked up and locked gazes with someone in front of him. Not just
someone: the kid with whom he’d shared a pod, his eyes struck with deep-set horror inspired by the primal fear of vomiting. A security guard approached from inside and worked through the throng towards Ben. C’mon, kid do it. Ben opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue and started gagging, eyes still locked, the guard now right on top of him, and Ben pretended to stagger forward and sloshed a little of the puke onto the kid’s shoe. That did it. Just a thin streak, quickly wiped clean with a kleenex from a ready mother, but it counted.
The guard grabbed Ben a little rougher than one would expect a sick man to
be handled, and, as he wiped himself off, he began to wonder if Big Lo would void the bet because of interference, or if he wouldn’t allow Ben to count as one of the pukers, or what other variation of cheating he could be called on.
But then, a gift. Another one. A skinny girl waiting in line who’d watched
Ben and the boys in horror and who didn’t want to go on the thing in the first place, probably only there because of the bullying of her older brothers, brothers who now shrieked with delight when she let loose a second torrent of slushiecolored spew, then a third.
Ben smiled as the guard hustled him into the elevator.
“I won that one.”
Guard punched the button for the bottom floor. “Didn’t win shit, pal.”
Right before the doors closed, Ben caught sight of a single stream of vomit
that had run from his initial puddle and caught a groove in the tower’s ridged floor, which took it winding through the crowd, out past the security fence, and off the edge of the tower itself, where it dripped down into the night and the throbbing city below.
“Got me on a technicality, Bean.” Big Lo sounded more amused than angry.
Ben could hear the thumping of Lo’s self-made dance beat in the background. “I did not specify. About you not puking. Or causing the puke. The hell’d you eat?”
Ben sat on a bench in the middle of the Excalibur midway, watching as
children and their parents rushed from booth to booth in attempts to win frighteningly massive stuffed animals or glowing medieval weapons. Something about seeing all those kids at the Stratosphere had pinged inside him, led him here. “Hot dogs. White Russians.” He was scanning the faces without wanting to, unsure of what he’d find.
Big Lo made a gagging noise. “Dude, hardcore. Guess now I know.”
“Not the first time I’ve been nuts to the chopblock.”
Big Lo’s voice distant, talking to someone else. “It’s ready? It’s good?”
Stupid, though. Why would they be up this late on a school night? Liz was a
much better mother than that. Jessie was probably too old for all the stuffed crap anyway.
A scratching noise as Big Lo came back on the line. “Ready for the next
Ben stood up, turning his back on the shrieks of joy.
“As I’ll ever be.”
HAPPY HOUR PICK ‘EM – ASHIA/RANDIQUE/RAYZOR/PERSEPHONE/NIKIYA
Foxy Girls sat a few miles back from the Strip, in a gray-washed commercial
zone next to a gun range and a discount tire shop. Underneath neon lettering reading “Foxy Girls – Top-less Dancers,” the sign had a Jessica Rabbit-looking
rendition of a stripper giving a wink, features pulled back into exaggerated vulpine points. A pink Cadillac sat next to the door, maybe to give the facade a more sophisticated look. But the car’s split leather interior and cracked paint negated any sophistication that may have transcended the location, the name, or the various other sketchy factors.
Ben couldn’t place the last time he went to a strip club, probably in his teens.
The Hollywood portrayal of someone hitting big at a casino, then rushing off to the Spearmint Rhino was true maybe for tourists and the rich dilettantes who entered a poker tournament every six months. The real gamblers, the lifers, knew that when you were fat with a roll you never wasted it by celebrating with tramps who had one hand in your wallet. You had to reinvest, keep building, shore up a safety net for when the snake eyes stared at you and wouldn’t look away.
Though Big Lo had made Ben give him his wallet so as not to try to sabotage
the bet with his own money, Ben still found himself instinctively reaching back for it as he pushed open the door and met the waiting cloud of smoke. The place was weirdly lit for a strip club, way too bright, highlighting every ripple of cellulite and every unfortunate tattoo that seemed to afflict all the strippers as they slouched over mismatched furniture and wandered idly around the stage, upon which a pink-haired woman was giving a listless performance to “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Midnight on a Tuesday and only a dozen or so other customers, spread out
along the stage a comfortable distance from each other. The closest stripper to Ben, a hefty number in a Dolly Parton wig, made a beeline towards him. She started asking about a lapdance before he even made it past the cigarette machine, but a sharp grunt from the bartender stopped her in her tracks.
Working the bar was the Frankenscar goon from Lo’s arcade. He shook his head at the stripper, and she flipped him off, flipped Ben off, then sulked away. The rest of the strippers turned back to their conversations and video poker. Ben gave Frankenscar an unreturned nod of thanks and proceeded unmolested towards the stage, taking a chair directly in front of the stripper pole just as the song ended.
Big Lo had pulled up the list of that night’s dancers, the website complete
with pictures, and had Ben bet straight up on who he thought would make the most tips during the late night happy hour. Big Lo was part owner of the joint, a fact that shouldn’t have surprised Ben as much as it did, and giggled as Ben scrolled through the women. They all seemed in various stages of disarray, cracked out or bloated or just plain ugly. Foxy Girls dwelled in the grimeencrusted bottom of the Vegas strip club hierarchy, Single-A compared to the majors of Sapphire or Spearmint Rhino, all bumbling rookies straight off the bus from Montana or bruised veterans too proud or stupid to give up.
“Like choosing MVP at the Special Olympics, right?” Big Lo laughed.
Just face shots on the website, nothing with the body, so Ben was choosing
half-blind. Eventually he settled on Persephone, liking her raw youthful looks and her name, which hinted at a deeper intellectual curiosity than did Rayzor’s, or any of the others, and thus perhaps might lead to a more nuanced performance.
That supposition certainly wasn’t disproven when Ashia strutted out to
booming hip-hop and began to gracelessly grind her hips into the pole, gaping jaw sagging like the fleshy rolls hanging off her body. The few other guys halfheartedly tossed ones on stage and were rewarded with a lewd smile and a close-up of various organs, all of which she was skilled at using to pick up
scattered bills off the floor. She eyed Ben and gave a few stutter steps in his direction, but when she saw that he wasn’t offering any cash she shouted at him over the music to kiss her fat ass and moved on to other customers.
She danced to three more songs and then mercifully ended her set. He
wouldn’t find out the totals until he met back at Big Lo’s, but Ashia’s take looked pretty light as she collected her pile and left the stage. But every stripper’s pile would be light here, with the sparse crowd, so Ben ordered a bourbon and coke – on Big Lo’s tab, what the hell, add it to the debt – and hoped that Persephone would have better moves, a better body, anything to get the crowd digging into their wallets.
Randique did somersaults for her dollars, starting near the center of the
stage and ending with her legs whomping down onto some guy’s shoulders, giving him a face full of crotch. Rayzor did weird jumping jacks, parts flapping everywhere, whipping bills into the air with her feet that she would catch with her cupped breasts. Despite the agility, neither girl received noticeably more than Ashia had, probably fifteen bucks each.
Ben took a deep breath as the DJ told everyone to put their hands together,
comeoncomeoncomeonmakesomenoise, for...Persephone! She slinked out, pretty face, body not tight, but tighter than her colleagues’, keeping good rhythm as the customers began lining up their dollars along the stage. It could work. It would work. He’d bet on a winner, like he used to. But a sudden twitching move from her arms and – what the hell?
She had a stump.
Her left arm ended in a smooth nub at the wrist, which she now clapped
in time to the music with her other hand. A noticeable start from the crowd, then guys began surreptitiously sneaking their dollars off the stage, a few even
moving back to the bar. A hollow retch and Ben felt the erection he’d been nursing slump back in his pants, totally deflated. Another drink. What was the point, now?
She’d finished one song to a total of two bucks and was beginning to slouch
her way through “Baby Got Back” when a commotion at the door turned everyone’s attention. About ten dudes whooped their way in – members of a UNLV fraternity, as indicated by the backwards white baseball caps and drunken enthusiasm tempered with ironic disdain. “Let’s get the pussy on!” one shouted, and a few peeled off to the bar while the rest crowded around the stage. Persephone was immediately met with a series of incredulous shouts, the frat boys transfixed with a boozy mixture of awe and revulsion, and she gamely strode over to them and met their madness.
The one in front nodded to her stub and asked where she could fit it, and
she said she’d show him for the right price, so he threw some bills down and she showed him, then showed him someplace else she could fit it, then one more place, and the crowd went apeshit and started tossing money at her. Ben was on his feet, bouncing along to the music, cheering her on despite the shivers of disgust crawling through him, herding errant dollar bills towards her pile. The money rained down for the rest of the song, probably triple what the other three dancers had made. As she left the stage Ben wanted to buy everyone a round, but figured that’d be pushing Big Lo’s credit a little too far and settled for joining the brothers in a sustained “Whooo!” of admiration.
He’d forgotten there was one more. The house lights and music went off for
Nikiya’s entrance, then a spotlight hit and Prince’s “Cream” kicked in, all moans and dirty guitar, and she appeared dead center.
Seeing her, Ben gagged on his drink. He’d walked right into it. No body pics
on the website, no way to tell what Nikiya’s true drawing point was. A reason she came last in the lineup, and he was too stupid to put it together before.
Her tits. Had to be FFF, if that was a size, riding high on her chest like two
museum-grade geographic globes, no sag or bunch whatsoever. Fake as hell, and yet works of art in their own right. She had no rhythm and kept her harsh features wooden as she wavered back and forth precariously in her high-heeled leather boots, but her titanic fake breasts mesmerized the crowd, especially the frat boys, who now began to pile bills on the stage in anticipation of getting a closer look.
He had to do something. Glancing back, he saw Frankenscar arguing with
one of the frat boys, happy hour pricing apparently not applicable to twenty Jagerbombs. Other patrons turned to watch the brewing conflict. The DJ even rushed out of the booth to jump in: now or never. Didn’t have time to check for cameras – a dead man if there were, but a gambler goes all in – as he bumped into a distracted frat boy, spilling the icy remnants of his drink across the stage. The kid wheeled with raised fists, but Ben had ducked into the growing fracas, moshing with the crowd until he was spat out near the door.
Nikiya was in the process of backing up, trying to do some sort of twirling
heel move, and didn’t see the puddle as she went up on one leg. She fell, ass first, letting out a cry as she landed. Everyone turned in time to see her try to rise, almost regain her balance, and fall again. Flustered, she tried once more, laughter and catcalls from the crowd now, and slipped again. She crawled back offstage, not bothering to collect the few dollars she’d earned from her dances, as the DJ called out to her from the bar.
Ben gave a sheepish glance around, and, satisfied no one was after him,
slipped into the night, giving a wink back at the cartoon stripper on the sign as
“Frat boy fight and spilled drinks? Caught some luck there, Bean. Don’t they
tell you at Gambler’s Anonymous that you can’t rely on luck? That it ruins you more often than redeems you?”
“Don’t know. I stopped after my first meeting.” Ben nodded and pulled
away from the table.
The betting parlor seemed smaller than before, a claustrophobic movie set
that hadn’t been altered since his last visit, still with the Chinese soap operas, the lurking bodyguard, the metal door. Most disconcertingly, the sleeping guy was still propped against the door, not having moved at all.
Big Lo sighed as he looked Ben over. “You really might do this, huh?”
“This is epic, you know. A three-part parlay, odds stacked bits-to-tits against
you, all this weird stuff to deal with. You’ve made quite an – ”
“What’s the last one?” Ben cut him off, back turned, afraid to look Big Lo in
the eyes. The betting lines on the board hadn’t changed, but why would they? It’d only been a few hours since the basketball game. A lifetime’s worth of prop bets in one night. “Tell me so we can end this.” A harsh tone to be taking with an underground bookie, but Ben had earned it, playing along with this bullshit, puking over kids and enduring the freakshow at the strip club.
A long pause. He could feel Big Lo’s eyes boring into his back. The sleeping
guy snorted and shifted, and Ben jumped in surprise. When Big Lo spoke, his voice was flat, all humor and levity excised into a precise businessy clip.
“Let’s do the damn thing then. I was trying to tell you how epic this was. Got
to end it on an epic note. You ready?”
He shrugged again. Too late to stop now.
Are you sure? the metal door whispered from the far side of the room.
LIZ ±0 JESSIE
He parked across the street and waited as the first pinks of dawn slowly
scratched across the sky. Their house was small, smaller than Ben would’ve wanted, but clean, a tidy little yard – who was tending that? – and no bars on the windows. The smallest house on a nice block, but better that than the biggest house on a shitty block. No lights on. The urge passed as quickly as it came, to get out and spy through the windows, take an unfiltered glimpse into the life he should’ve had. But it wasn’t his life, never could’ve been, and rather than add tom peepery to his recent list of transgressions, he reclined into the driver’s seat and waited.
They’d have to be together. Maybe Liz would be walking Jessie to school,
the one just around the block with the rainbow mural on the side. First grade? Second? Time barreled on like a semi with severed brakelines, unheeding and destructive, and Ben fought against the pangs of guilt he’d gotten so good at repressing. His body lagged with fatigue, but no way he could sink into sleep now. Had to stay sharp, focused.
Pointless to say no when Big Lo gave him the third bet. They’d both knew
he’d take it, would’ve taken it no matter what it was, would’ve jumped off the damned Hoover Dam. Big Lo had a sneer on his face, the jocular imp replaced by the badass crime boss, daring Ben to question, to falter. But what could Ben do? Had to prove a point, now. That he could do this. That he could win again. It’d equal out the last few years of losing, the last few lifetimes of losing, reverse the slide and give life an upwards tilt; harder going up, sure, but he needed the
feeling that the struggle was for something, was to something.
The microphone burrowed like a tick into his chest. Ben worked his
fingernails underneath the tape and carefully relieved an itch without disturbing the mic. The transmitter was stuffed into his pocket – no need to give it more than a cursory hiding. They wouldn’t expect him to be miked up. No one would.
Big Lo’d put as much effort into the parlay as Ben had: time, money,
connections. Ben should’ve cared why, should’ve been suspicious or at least curious as to what Big Lo was doing with all this, what he had to gain. But Ben didn’t care. Big Lo had probably filmed the whole thing, planned to turn it into a documentary with his stupid-ass beats as the background. Whatever got him hard, Ben didn’t care, as long as he cleared his debts.
Two hours later, well after the morning burst to life with a phalanx of
mothers marching their children towards the school, the garage door creaked opened and a beat-up Tahoe pulled out and gunned past him. Liz was driving. Hair cut into a severe punky angle, face set with a hardness he couldn’t remember, but definitely her. In the shotgun seat a pinkish blur barely peaking above the dash. Jessie. They were headed to school, late, and as Liz rolled heedlessly through a stop sign, Ben had to resist the urge to honk. He’d wanted to catch them at the door, handle things in private, but now it’d have to be the schoolyard, just another dramatic scene among the thousands that occur on blacktops and playgrounds every day.
Except they didn’t stop at the school, where children were beginning to
line up outside of the main door in anticipation of being let in. Didn’t even slow down, sped through a yellow light that shifted to a condemnatory red as Ben shot through the intersection beneath it. Private school? Specialized tutor? Didn’t look like they had the money, and no way in hell Liz would keep Jessie
out, probably wouldn’t even let her take sick days unless she had body parts falling off.
Directly behind them now, he kept trying to make eye contact with Liz
in her rearview. Her gaze remained fixed on something ahead, and he had to laugh when they veered into the McDonald’s drive-thru. Laughed long and hard, directly into the mic, let it echo down the wires and into the transmitter and across radio waves over the city and out Big Lo’s tinny speakers, let him see that Ben was loving this, it wasn’t just a bet, it was a life. He was going to see his family.
He followed them into the lineup of cars, waited until they ordered, then
cranked his car to a stop in front of the drive-thru menu, trapping them in the narrow lane one car back from the window. Her arm hung out, beating a heartbeat patter on the door as he approached. Hands in pockets, shrinking himself to nonthreatening size, he popped up next to her.
“Breakfast of champions?”
She jumped and jabbed a hand over Jessie’s chest as though bracing for a
crash. The surprise loosened her face for a moment, an open, artless look that pulled at Ben from way back, pierced through him, a tempered shot of pain that clenched then slackened his organs nearly to leakage. So beautiful. He’d forgotten. No celebration, no laughing, no winning, even if he won. She was what he’d lost, not the money. Ben couldn’t hear it but knew Big Lo was, at that moment, laughing a deep maniacal laugh, listening to the stretched silence of Ben’s shock. He’d set Ben up for this emotional gut-punch, and Ben had been too flush with winner’s high to see it.
Recognition hit and tightened Liz up, deep-set scowl lines cinching
around her mouth, along with the haircut giving her a ferocity that hinted at
deeper trouble than any Ben had ever brought. Wore more makeup than he remembered, a weird bluish eyeshadow that doubled the surface area of her eyes and shrunk the rest of her features to a cartoonish pinch.
“How the fuck did you find us?”
She patted Jessie on the shoulder, perhaps in apology for the obscenity,
perhaps for reassurance that this was real, that they all existed not in a dream but in life, in a McDonald’s drive-thru at 8:00 AM on a Wednesday.
He nodded past Liz. “Hey, Jess.”
She extended a flat palm outward in greeting.
Polite, maybe too polite – he was her father, not a crossing guard. Her puffy
pink coat cocooned around her, allowing just her head to poke through. A swaddled baby. Still with the puffy cheeks and oversized eyes nearly the same proportions as her mother’s. But her ringlets had lost their curl and now only gave a few half-hearted twists as they fell to her shoulders. A tiny set of furrows around her mouth mimicked her mother’s as she examined Ben.
“You go to school back there?”
Jessie nodded, then looked to her mother as though expecting rebuke.
He smiled at Liz. “Time flies, huh?”
Liz inspected Ben’s face, his clothes, held back a scoff. “You can’t start
wanting things again. We don’t have anything left to give.”
He raised his eyebrows at Jessie in an attempt at collusion. This lady’s crazy,
It worked. “I made a pyramid for art. It’s at school, though.”
The car in front of them pulled away from the window, and Liz put the car
“Ben, please, you can’t do this.”
“I miss you guys.” Hadn’t realized how true it was until he said it. The
crushing, terrifying loneliness of the past few years, for what? “You miss me?” He touched her arm where it hung over the door, and she pulled back.
“Go, please?” The car behind Ben’s honked. “You can’t be crazy like this, we
have enough in our lives as it is.”
He was teetering on the edge. No, a plateau, another slide below him,
bottomless this time, and above him some kind of tortuous path upwards, to a summit he’d forgotten he’d known. “Please tell me you love me.”
A snort. “What?”
“Jess.” She looked up, smile on her face, enjoying the unexpected excitement.
“Do you love me?”
She looked towards her mother. “Mom?”
“No, don’t ask her, just tell me. Do you love me?”
A bemused worker leaned out the window ahead of them, waving a bag of
food to entice them forward. “Ah, dude? You can’t stand in the drive-thru.”
He’d bet on Jessie – the young are abstracted, they don’t know the
permanence of things because life is still malleable to them – but now it didn’t matter, the parlay didn’t matter, winning and losing didn’t matter. He just needed to hear it.
Static crackled from the speaker post behind him, a demand for Ben to order
or move on. Jessie, distracted, leaned out her window to look at the line of cars behind them.
“Jessie. Do you love me?”
You’re alive, like it or not, you’re alive. The bet was even money between
who would say “I love you” to him first. Straight up, 50-50, no spread, no
favorite, no underdog, except maybe Ben himself.
“Mom, I want to go to school.”
Liz looked straight ahead, towards the worker and their dangling food,
towards the street, and beyond that to whatever disappointment had led her to this, this shitshow of a morning. Her face had reddened beneath the makeup and tears bulged from her eyes, only surface tension keeping them from streaking down her face. People began yelling from their cars, lyrical accompaniment to the long low dirge of the horns, and she let up on the brake, slowly, car edging forward as Ben kept pace.
He was so close, so goddamned close, almost had it, had all of it. He inched
along with his hand braced against the door. Another few feet and he’d have to duck or let go in order not to be scraped off against the jutting drive-thru window.
“I promise, I love you guys. Everything can be right.” He reached under his
shirt and ripped off the mic, then took the transmitter from his pocket. The wire dangled like the neck of a limp animal, and he tossed the electronic array to the ground behind him. “I’ll never do anything so stupid again.”
Liz finally met his eyes, breaking into a smirk that would never leave Ben,
never leave him as long as blood and breath flowed through him, as much or as little time as he had left.
John Kirsch â€œI made these images in the late 1970s at a nursing home in the Des Moines area. My father owned the home and, one summer, he asked me to do some painting there. I was in photography school at the time and needed the money. A little while later, my father suggested that I take portraits of the residents and charge them (I forget how much) for the photo. I took him up on the idea and asked each resident if they would like me to take a portrait of them. Only in retrospect have I been able to see that the ones who agreed may have felt they had to, since I was the ownerâ€™s son...
John Kirsch ...The negatives remained in a box for many years, until I decided some months ago to have all of my thousands of negatives scanned onto discs. When I looked at the scans of the negatives I shot at the home, I found a number of them to be striking and decided to try and share them.â€?
John Kirsch Nikon FM
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Looking at the house now, a stack of boxes in her arms, Miku traced the
horizontal line of the roof with her eyes, scanning the right angles to the point where they met the walls. It looked like a place of despair: its cement walls stained gray with salt from the East China Sea, its windows shut tight against the late season typhoons, the flat roof casting shadows across its facade like a veil. She looked for something in the way that it was constructed to understand how it could look both like a house and so unlike one at the same time, but there was nothing that she could see other than the post-war architecture found all over Okinawa: thick cement walls, shatter-proof glass, a tall wall encircling the cramped property like a fortress. It looked like it was hiding something inside of itself, she thought, something that would make it inhospitable to her and her husband, Dan, and their five-year-old son, DJ. It didn’t look like a place where living things could grow.
Miku shook her head and convinced herself she was just imagining things,
imbuing the house with the darkness she had been feeling ever since the baby that had been growing inside of her for twenty-four weeks — a daughter — had died.
Ever since, her usual quiet had grown heavy. But the people she saw on a
daily basis—the people who hardly knew her, who nodded at her from the line of cars dropping their children off at school or who said “Hey” while scanning cans of Spaghetti-O’s in the commissary—chalked it up to her missing home, figured it for nothing more than a rebalancing of sorts in a life constrained to an island two miles across in some places and sixty miles long. In Okinawa, people sometimes got like Miku, scattered across the island, hidden from each other behind the poured cement of their on-base housing, walls repainted so many
times the lacquer bubbled and peeled in the island humidity, revealing in tacky layers the tastes of women who had come before them, all the way back to the Korean War.
Miku took a step forward and caught her arm on the metal gate at the
entrance to their small driveway. The rusted wrought iron cut roughly into her arm. She dropped the boxes she had been balancing on her hip.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. She looked down at the gash, blood
swelling along the wound.
DJ slid down from the high front seat of the moving van and came to stand
next to her. She wiped the blood on her pants and did her best to keep a brave face for him.
“Take this,” she said, putting one of the smaller boxes into DJ’s hands. He
didn’t move. He stood in the driveway, looking up at the house, the brim of his baseball hat shielding his eyes from the hazy sun. The house was at the end of the street, in between a crowd of houses and the East China Sea, far enough away from the island’s main roads that the only thing Miku could hear was the sound of salt water breaking against the cement.
“This is our house?” DJ asked. “This doesn’t look like a house.”
Miku ignored him. She picked up the two boxes she had dropped and gave
his back a nudge forward with her free knee.
The house might not have looked like the kind of house they were used to,
but it was better than the on-base housing they had lived in for the last year. Miku had always felt like an outsider there. No matter how many times she smiled at the other wives from her front lawn or waved to them while unloading
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groceries from her car, her neighbors would pull their circle tighter and lower their voices. When she lost the baby no one had said anything to her, her stomach going from hard and round to empty overnight. She assumed it had something to do with the fact that she was part Japanese, a trait that many of the wives viewed as a threat. They saw the way their husbands looked at her, the way they bowed and said “Konnichi waa, kawaii” when Dan was out of sight. Even though Miku had never lived in Japan, even though her mother had married her father when he was stationed on the island in the 1980’s and had moved with him to Michigan long before Miku was born, to everyone on base she was Japanese, the white wiped off of her like something she had accidentally spilled on herself.
She had tolerated living on base just as she had tolerated most things about
Dan’s military career. He had joined to support their growing family, coming home with papers signed the day after she had announced she was pregnant with DJ. It didn’t fit who they were—two kids who spent their nights sitting along the wall that divided Grand Haven from Lake Michigan, dangling their legs over the edge and smoking tightly rolled joints until their fingers went numb—and Miku had been counting down the days until Dan’s enlistment was up, biding her time in the free on-base housing in Maine, North Carolina, California, and now Japan.
One evening, months before, DJ had come home from a friend’s house and
told her that his friend had made him put his penis in his mouth, Miku had felt a rage rise in her so suddenly it had scared her.
“What do you mean he made you?” she asked. More of Dan’s features had
come through in DJ than hers. DJ still had her dark hair and high cheekbones,
but otherwise his defining features looked like Dan’s: round eyes, wide smile.
“He said if I didn’t do it he would tell everyone that I was baby.”
Miku felt something soft inside of her turn to cement, and after she settled
him down in front of the television with a bowl of cookies drowning in milk, she walked out her front door, her feet still bare, her hands red from wringing.
“Angie,” she said, crossing the street to where the boy’s mother stood with a
few of her neighbors. One of them froze in the middle of lighting a cigarette, the orange flame held lit in front of her face. They all looked at her.
“What is it, Miku?” Angie spoke loudly, as if Miku were deaf.
“I’d like to speak with you in private if I could,” she said.
“These are my friends,” she said, gesturing around the circle. “Whatever you
have to say to me, you can say to them.” A few of the other women put their hands on their hips and looked at her impatiently.
“It’s your son,” Miku said.
“My son,” Angie repeated.
“Yes, your son.” She paused and looked at the ground.
“Just say it, Miku.”
But when she did, Angie’s face turned the color of a setting sun.
“Hold on. Your son gave my son a blow job and somehow that’s Brandon’s
fault?” She threw her cigarette on the sidewalk and flattened it under her foot. “That’s molestation, Miku.” She looked to her friends again for affirmation, but they were looking anywhere but at her: at the ground, at the sky, at the cluster of children riding their bikes down the middle of the street. Angie raged. She
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pointed her white-knuckled finger in Miku’s face. “You tell your faggot son to keep his goddamn mouth to himself.”
Later that night, after Dan called to say he was going to be working late and
DJ had fallen asleep on the couch, Miku, still seething over what this life had been done to her son, had started packing.
“I want out,” she told Dan when he got home. “If we have to stay on this
island, I want out of this base.”
They found the house a week later. After the baby died, they drove out to
the seawall to scatter the ashes. Miku had carried the small box that held her daughter securely against the loose skin of her stomach. Dan carried DJ. DJ remained quiet as they scattered the ashes, leaning over the wall and watching as half of them sank like a cloud of stirred up sand and the other half floated away on a breeze in the direction of China. He reached out and tried to grab some like dandelion seeds. When the particles had all floated away, he stared at the surface of the water.
“It looks like oatmeal,” he said, and Dan had put his hand on Miku’s back.
Miku didn’t look – she couldn’t – but if she had she would have seen it too: what remained of her daughter after the grey ashes sank was the thin shale of bone that refused to burn, floating on the surface of the water like rolled oats.
On the way back to their car, Miku had noticed the for-rent sign in front of
“Come on, buddy,” Miku said to DJ now, stepping onto the porch. She
shifted the boxes in her arms and unlocked the front door.
Inside, the house was traditionally Japanese: built-in cubbies for shoes in
the foyer, wood floors that hadn’t been touched by anything other than bare feet, sliding shoji doors painted with intricate Japanese landscapes. The walls were made of dark wood that had warped from years of humidity, bulging and buckling in places as if something were behind it trying to get out. The house smelled like a sauna.
She told Dan it was because of the seawall that she wanted to move into the
house. The seawall – covered with spray-painted Madonnas and bubble letters like a sleeve – reminded her of home, of the boardwalk in Grand Haven.
She took the small box from DJ’s hands and slid off her shoes.
For the rest of the day, Miku did most of the moving herself. She piled boxes
high in her arms and walked slowly up the stairs to set them down in the rooms where they belonged. DJ ran through the house with his arms stretched out like an airplane, dragging his fingers along the bumps in the walls until they were numb. At eleven o’clock, Dan came home, untucking his shirt and stepping over a box as he walked in the door.
“Ah ah ah,” Miku said, waving a dust rag in his direction. “Shoes off.”
They had signed a separate contract promising to never walk on the bamboo
floors with their shoes on, something Miku had been used to from growing up, a shoes off policy that her mother enforced with a sign and a long rug next to the doorway.
Dan bent over and took off his shoes. When he stood up, he gave her a small
smile. He looked as tired as he had in the months after DJ was born, when he would stay up late to give him his last bottle, swaddling him in his arms until DJ
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was asleep again, blinking his heavy-lidded eyes closed in the dark room.
But that had been before his first deployment – had they been nineteen?
twenty? – when it was still quiet and lovely between them. After they were married, she and Dan would drive to the pier on Friday nights, long after the summer tourists had returned to the suburban homes. They would buy a towering cone of ice cream from Stillwell’s and sit along the wall overlooking Lake Michigan. Miku would kick her legs against the cement and watch the soft, edgeless sun set over the water as Dan sat beside her, scooping small mouthfuls of the chocolate cone onto a spoon and feeding her every other bite. They went every night during the month before he was deployed, even though it was January and freezing. DJ would fall asleep in his car seat on the way there, and she and Dan would sit a few feet apart, the breeze between them whipping the sand in barely visible waves across the beach.
Miku remembered that time as something elusive, like a fistful of water.
She watched after that first deployment — and every one after — how, even though he came home, parts of Dan were dropped one-by-one in the desert sand alongside empty water bottles and shell casings.
Dan walked around her without saying hello. “Do we have any food?”
When he came back, he was holding a bowl of cereal. He brought a spoonful
to his mouth, and a drop of milk, once clinging to the bottom, let go and landed on the floor.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” she asked.
Dan tilted his head back to catch a bit of milk that spilled out of his mouth.
“Barely,” he said, his mouth full.
Since the first deployment, their nights had been interrupted by dreams that
would shake Dan awake like the stiff arms of a parent.
“Maybe you should talk to someone,” she had said to him the first time,
but he had shaken his head and laid it in her lap, the sweat from his forehead soaking into her pajama pants. She had sat upright and awake for the rest of the night with Dan’s head on the soft inside of her thigh, running her fingers through his hair and watching his body twitch reflexively as he gave himself over to sleep. Taking advantage of the free counseling the VA provided was viewed as professional weakness, a sure way to never reach a rank high enough to keep him from deploying, so moving to Okinawa had been a compromise with the military: move your family to Japan for three years, and you’ll deploy for six months at a time instead of eleven.
He had one deployment to go before his contract was up, but Dan’s
nightmares had become more frequent, more aggressive in the weeks leading up their daughter’s death. He had been more nervous than normal, talking about reenlistment as a way to defray the cost of a second child. She had pleaded with him against this idea, telling him she would go to work back in the states, that they would figure it out. It was the time in his enlistment, she knew, when he was the most vulnerable to being pulled back in, the military tempting him with huge bonuses, prime locations, a boost in their cost of living allowance, a promotion, anything to get him to stay. She had seen it happen to other women on base. One week they’d be sitting on their front stoop surrounded by their friends, tearing up and talking loudly about how much they were going to miss everyone, lamenting the hassle of having to pack up their entire lives and ship it across the world, and the next they’d be chain-smoking on the outside of the
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crowd, silent and stone-eyed and just as stuck as the rest of them.
“Maybe you should talk to your superiors,” Miku said, ripping a piece
of packing tape off of the box labeled, DJ: ANIMALS. “You could let them know you’re not ready to go back.” Dan nodded but didn’t say anything. She stopped what she was doing and looked up. “I mean with everything that has happened—”
Dan dropped the spoon in the bowl and it clanged loudly, sending a spray of
sticky liquid onto the floor between them. He sniffed loudly and set the bowl on the banister where it rocked back and forth and then fell. It clattered to the floor, the translucent milk spilling across the hall floor and filling the cracks.
She looked at the puddle on the floor and felt something pull inside her, a
sharp razor dragging across her insides. She remembered the linoleum floor of their on-base housing and how, when her water had broken twenty-four weeks into her pregnancy, she had stood in the middle of the kitchen and reached her hand between her legs, hoping the small curve of her palm could keep in what was come out. The clear liquid had spilled over the sides of her hand and through the small cracks between her clenched fingers.
“I’ll get it,” Dan said. But Miku reached out and stopped him.
“I’ll do it,” she said and went into the kitchen for a paper towel.
That night, while Dan and DJ slept upstairs, Miku sat down at the kitchen
table and smoked an entire pack of cigarettes. She had been doing this every night since her daughter had died, stopping only to light the next one. She smoked until her stomach started to hurt. She knew by now how many it
would take to make her sick. After twelve her stomach would start to turn, moving around and making noises as if there were something inside her. After eighteen she would walk quickly down the hallway where she would throw up in the small, blue-tiled room that held their toilet. Tonight she was on number eight and feeling antsy. The sagging walls, the delicate doors, the soft bamboo floors all seemed to swell now that she was alone, the sea breeze or the air conditioning shifting the house’s surfaces as she sat among them: the thin shoji screens swelling, the floorboards groaning, the walls all around her cracking like brittle bones.
She pressed her hands into the tops of her legs, her bare thighs sticking
to the seat cushion like they had in the hospital room after her daughter was born — Miku spreading her cotton gown open and sitting up on the delivery table, letting the stiff nylon cool the still-hot part of her where her daughter had slipped out of her, small and wet like a fish.
Miku leaned her head back and stared at the popcorn ceiling of their
kitchen, the long rectangles of fluorescent light buzzing and bright. She heard DJ crossing the hallway upstairs and righted herself. She figured he was coming down for a glass of water or a snack or any other excuse he could think of to stay awake and fall asleep on the couch to be closer to her. He walked to the top of the stairs and then slowly descended, his bare feet touching each step, the wood settling underneath his small weight as he made his way down. When he reached the last step and walked toward the kitchen, Miku tried her best to appear serious. She squinted her eyes and looked into the dark hallway to find the figure of her son.
“What is it DJ?” she said. He didn’t answer. She rested her hands flat on
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the table. “DJ,” she said, trying to sound stern. Miku stood up and walked toward the dark hall. She reached for the light switch, steadying herself in the doorframe. She flipped the switch and saw that the hallway was empty.
“DJ?” she called. She wrapped her arms around her chest and took a step
into the hallway. He must have ducked into the living room or back upstairs when he heard that tone in her voice. She took a step toward the living room and looked in. The light from the street lamps shone through the thin shoji, casting shadows of thick-trunked trees across the floor.
“DJ?” she called. No one was there.
Miku walked the length of the hallway and stopped at the bottom of the
stairs. Her foot stuck to the floor where Dan’s milk had spilled a few hours earlier. She peeled her skin from the sticky wood and rested it on the bottom step. She listened for the sound of DJ retreating into his bedroom, for his door squeaking open and then shut, but there was nothing. She climbed the narrow stairs slowly. When she reached the top she saw that the door to DJ’s room was exactly as she had left it, slightly ajar so that the bare bulb hanging from the hallway ceiling cast a blade of light across his floor. Miku crossed the hall and opened his door, expecting to find him hurrying to get under the covers, but instead she saw DJ sleeping soundly in his bed, the covers pushed down around his knees, his legs spread wide, his DS open and beeping in his limp hand.
She turned around quickly then. She walked down the hallway, steadying
herself on the wood walls on either side of her. When she got to the top of the stairs she stopped and listened. A fighter jet took off from Kadena and echoed across the island. In its wake, she heard the light tap tap tap of a moth bumping its dusty wings against the bare bulb above her head. She watched it for a
minute and then reached up, wanting to hold it in her hand, to feel its frail wings beat against her skin, to set it free into the muggy, orange-lit night. When she closed her fist around it, she felt a slight movement of air, like something was there, like something was slipping past her.
“Thalia?” she said, almost in a whisper.
She had never said her daughter’s name out loud, and it sounded strange in
her mouth. After her daughter was born, her body impossibly limp like warm putty, the doctor took her into the next room, told her that she was born dead, told her that, even if she hadn’t been, she was too small to stand a chance. Miku had dangled her legs over the edge of the bed and looked toward the room where her daughter was lying, waiting to be taken away. It was an alcove really, an addition to the hospital room, where a crash cart had been wheeled in and never used.
“I want a minute alone with her,” she had told the doctor, and everyone
had shuffled out, hanging their heads in a parade of grief. She heard one of the nurses sniff, watched her wipe the back of her hand across his lip.
In the adjacent room her daughter was lying flat on the warming table:
her skin translucent, her head too big for her body, her legs splayed open, her purple onionskin stretched across her ribs and stilled heart. She was a caricature of the baby she might have been, her features out of proportion and wrong. At first Miku felt nothing, as if it had all been a pantomime of grief and loss.
And then she felt some small part of her open – the part of her that had
begun to tighten, steadily like a slowly turning vice, when they moved to the island, when DJ told her about Angie’s son, when Dan talked about reenlisting.
Rise and Fall
She didn’t tell anyone what had happened next – not the mortician who
came to take her away, nor the nurse who massaged the afterbirth from Miku’s stomach. It was something she kept to herself, that was hers alone – how she was standing at the side of the warming table and saw something move: a trembling in her daughter’s chest, a small ripple in her skin as if she were made of water. And then her chest had inflated like a balloon, and Miku watched as her daughter breathed, her ribcage expanding and collapsing as her lungs fought for air.
She had stood there paralyzed, watching her daughter’s lungs suck in and
out, and she had thought, Why am I not doing anything? Why am I not calling for help? Instead Miku had closed her eyes, feeling her earlier relief hanging above her like a light bulb that had been turned off. When she finally opened her eyes (had it been a few seconds? a minute? an entire hour?), her daughter’s chest was still.
Miku stood at the top of the stairs in their new house on the western side of
island and listened for the floorboards to creak again. She waited for something to appear, but nothing did. She felt the dusty wings of the moth flit against her closed hand, and looked down. When she opened her fist, her palm was empty.
Miku didn’t sleep. Instead she stayed up all night wiping down the wooden
walls and floors with a rag and a bucket of bleach. She scrubbed the few marks the furniture had made on the walls and across the floor until her arms were sore, until her fingers hurt, until DJ woke up in the morning, plodding loudly down the stairs and scaring her half to death.
“Hey buddy,” she said, her hand on her heart, trying not to look terrified. 51
He rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. “How’d you sleep?”
DJ shrugged his shoulders, raising them up to his ears and letting them
“How about you play for a little bit until I’m done in here?”
DJ nodded his head and yawned. He walked heavily into the living room
to play with the box of toys she had unpacked for him last night. She went back to cleaning, opening the closet she had unpacked the day before and shaking out their coats. She could hear DJ turn on the television and spill his building blocks out onto the floor. She listened as she worked to the knocking sound of him stacking his blocks, one on top of the other, and then the crash of his tower falling to the floor, destroying what he had created in order to build it again. Better this time, hopefully, and more stable.
“Careful of the floor,” she called to him.
She reached for a blanket from the top shelf and felt something fall into her
hair. She jumped back and slapped the sides of her head, large sections of her ponytail coming loose. Whatever it was fell out of her hair and onto the floor. She looked down and saw it dart across the hallway, fast like a dry leaf blowing across a sidewalk. It stopped in the corner: a gecko, small and spearmint green, breathing deeply in and out, the skin of its neck turning translucent as it expanded and filled with air. It stood absolutely still, its eyes wide and blinking, and Miku didn’t move. She stood there for a minute watching the gecko and listening to the sound of the television in the next room. DJ giggled at the wap, zoom, bops. He knocked over his tower of blocks, this time more softly. Outside the thick windows, the palm leaves were rubbing against each other like numb fingers. 52
Rise and Fall
She waited for the gecko to do something. Then, after a minute, it took off,
running in diagonals from one side of the hall to the other, looking for a way out. After a few tries it rested in the corner again, breathing deeply, struggling for air. Miku crouched down to pick it up, but it took off again, running into the walls, dizzying itself and starting to bleed from the top of its head. It stopped in the middle of the room, its eyes blinking rapidly, its breathing shallow and panicked, the translucent skin under its chin inflating, deflating.
Miku reached out toward the gecko and it froze this time, letting her pick it
up between her fingers and bring it outside where it stood for a minute, stunned in the blinding island light, before taking off toward the eastern side of the island, in the direction of home.
“I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.”
“What ends up in your scrapbook? The pictures where you look like a good guy and a good family man, and the children look adorable - and they are screaming the next moment. I’ve never seen an album of screaming people.” – Richard Avedon
Emily McBride Canon 5D Mark III
The Diary of Ella Monroe, 1852
Today, my father shot a marauder and picked the guns from under the
corpse. He tried to hand one to me but I didn’t want to take it. He said if I am to survive, I need to learn to shoot. He thrust his repeater into my hands, cleaned the stolen rifle and revolver, and practiced with them on several herds of buffalo as we moved across miles of dry plains. He told me to practice too. I was still afraid, but knowing how my father’s rifle had saved us so far, I was able to muster enough strength to pull the trigger. The stock smacked my shoulder hard and the buffalo started to move. I couldn’t tell if I hit one or not.
Father insists that I keep watch for savages. The way he sees it, if there
is one, there are several more waiting over the hill to take everything we have. I still haven’t seen any, but Father is very sure they did not ascend.
I had a dream I ascended. Everything was so blinding I couldn’t open
my eyes, but something that felt like Mother’s best silk gown brushed against my wrists and I suddenly felt like I was being carried on a warm wind. I am happy to write about it so I may read this journal again and remember. It will help those mornings when Father says nothing and all I have to listen to is the heavy creak of wagon wheels through the dead grass.
Not every day is lonesome. We came across some folks resting with
their horses by the river. They held up their hands to show they meant no harm, and we gave them some cured meat in exchange for rifle ammunition. We asked where they were heading. They said they donâ€™t know, and my father asked if they wanted us to pray for them. They hesitated, but agreed. None of them lifted their heads after we said Amen. I find that when I pray for people, it is easier to remember the stars. I prayed the family found a place to go.
When I am uneasy about my faith, it is harder to draw a bead on the
buffalo. Father reminded me of my ascended child, and how the family blood survives so close to the heart of God. We are more blessed than you think, he told me.
I hit a calf in the knee and watched the herd take off. When I started to
cry, Father pulled his horse over to the dying babe and put a bullet through its head. Food supplies were low, so we had buffalo for the first time. Father told me the Indians around here would eat buffalo all the time, and got up and danced and sang around the fire like an Indian to try to cheer me up.
Everything felt very solemn, but the meat was better than any I had
I shot a man barreling down on us with his horse. Because of my
The Diary of Ella Monroe, 1852
courage, my father gave me permission to scour the remains of abandoned towns with him. Usually, I stay behind and out of sight, keeping watch on the roads and hills. While helping him, I found some rations and a full barrel of water in a saloon charred by fire. Our meal of cornbread and canned beans warmed over a fire put me at ease. Father smiled to see me smile. He said if my child was still here, I’d be so busy protecting him from all the evils of this world that I wouldn’t have been holding a weapon in the first place, and we might not have ever found so much food.
I hated to think he was right.
I saw another woman on the plains, so I told father that I miss Mother.
He said he misses her too. I wanted to talk about her for longer, but Father went on about other memories like the raw smell of the leather-bound Bibles and the repetition of blessings.
I am told to confess when I sin.
Today, while rummaging for supplies, I met a man hunched over
a woman’s corpse. I held him at gunpoint and told him to stand up and empty his pockets. He abided, but as my father once said, an evil soul departs the body from God and controls it. It is at all times an untrustworthy force.
I told the man to strip. He hesitated, but slipped quietly out of his vest,
his pants and underpants, and his dirtied-white collared shirt. I noticed his arms were thick, and his knuckles were white from clenching to his palms.
I had him bind himself. I was surprised how he listened.
When at last he was completely incapable of harm, I asked him if he
believed in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
He didn’t say a word. I nudged him with the barrel of my gun and
I knew then I was talking to a man gone deaf from his own godlessness,
one of the millions that now roamed useless through this country. I approached him, he backed against the wall. I kneeled down. I must confess somewhere else but Father. I lay my hand against this man’s thigh. He twitched, and I became more curious. I felt his stomach, then his chest. I was running my hand against his neck when I felt something soft between my fingers. I gave it a pull and the man sailed up, knocking me against my back. As I looked up, I realized what I felt were the feathers of enormous, white wings.
He left without a word or look of reproach, but I was afraid, and I am
afraid now. When I see the great shadows of vultures looming almost motionless in the heavy heat, I am not driven toward prayer, but away from it.
Father said he now feels ill when he tries to read Lazarus. The dead do
not rise up from their graves as many believed would happen. They yell, kick, and cry for God from the ground. We passed a cemetery and heard the cacophony of pine boxes trembling beneath the dirt. It is a terrible sort of thunder – worse than any storm I’ve endured.
I suggested we dig them up to free them from being alone, but Father
The Diary of Ella Monroe, 1852
called that a shameful idea. He said their souls are already departed. What salvation could they seek?
I knew he was thinking about Mother. And home.
I am saddened to see babies in the arms of men and women, born
perhaps a day, an hour, or a minute before the seven trumpets. They are always crying – they can find no comfort. Their parents find no comfort either, and it makes the children cry even more. The crying is endless. I saw a woman give birth on the grass, which I had been told wasn’t possible. A whore, Father said. The baby wailed and I felt pity for him, but the woman was overjoyed to hold her child in her hands. She kissed him on the brow, cradled him, and sang There is a Happy Land. I sang the hymn to myself as the child grew quiet in the distance.
I don’t know if it’s right to call him an angel, but he appeared to me
again. His wings enfolded his body, and I could tell he wore no clothing beneath. I was ashamed. I realized, as Father passed him without notice, that the unseen things scare me the most. I remember my stomach swelling, the kicking, the yearning to get out, then the nothing. Father was drunk when he demanded to know if there was blood, and I was sure when I showed him he would get mean. Despite the heat of the damp cloth there was nothing. Such things are miracles perhaps.
The angel stood in the empty space of the new world to show me God
exists, that Hell is real, and I suddenly had no need for faith.
The Cottingley Lens Competition
The history of photography is rampant with falsehoods and fabrications. A form that should have proven among the most honest of visual media – passing memory distilled into lasting record – has instead become an engine of misrepresentation. It’s true that cameras never lie. Photographers, however...
In 1917, sixteen year old English schoolgirl and apparent Mary Pickford
hairdo devotee Elsie Wright instigated the most prominent early case study in photographic trickery. Having borrowed her father’s equipment, Elsie
photographed both herself and her younger cousin Frances in various states of woodland repose, accompanied by a chain of frolicking fairies. The fairies were of course simply watercolor paintings pinned to flowers and sticks with hatpins. Many people recognized this. Many, many more did not.
One of those true believers is quoted above. Sir Conan Doyle, a
hardened spiritualist and romantic, was so convinced that the fairies of Cottingley were real and would provide society with the “jolt” needed to “admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life” that he wrote an entire book on the matter.
We don’t begrudge Sir Conan Doyle his right to be fooled. If sites
like worth1000 and the Photoshop Battles subreddit attest to anything, some of photography’s greatest pleasures come either before or after the image itself is snapped – in chopping, shopping, staging and reworking documentary reality into something wholly new and different.
That’s why this year, in honor of April Fool’s Day and the advent of
the spring season (peak fairy watching weather, as we understand it), we offered our readers the opportunity to submit their best take on the Cottingley incident. We asked that they send us their altered images, be they specially staged or manually/digitally altered after the fact. Their photos may haved attempted to pose their own hoax, or they may have chosen to disrupt reality for no purpose beyond artistic experimentation. Whatever the reason, however the method, we went looking for fake, fraudulent phonies. Who was phony enough to win it all???
The Cottingley Lens Competition
One of the original 1917 Cottingley Fairy photos. English teenager Elsie Wright poses beside an exceedingly convincing garden sprite on a dull summer afternoon.
Elsieâ€™s cousin, Frances Griffiths, then ten years old and very popular with the natives.
The Cottingley Lens Competition
Canon EOS 5D Mark II and III
The Cottingley Lens Competition
Canon EOS 5D Mark II and III
“In absurdity, there is clarity. Thus, this project’s premise uses a unique approach to raise awareness of a well published problem; the need for greater conservation efforts to protect endangered wildlife. Having traveled to every continent photographing threatened wildlife, the Artist sets in juxtaposition, his wildlife imagery into New York City scenes and asks… “If we cannot protect our wildlife in their environments, where can they be safe?” With each pigment ink print, a summary is provided of that species survival challenges as noted from the IUCN’s Red List. Most viewers recognize the topic of wildlife conservation, but few recognize the gravity of it.”
Canon EOS 5D Mark II and III
George Grubb’s “New York City Wildlife” series (including these photos!) will be on display at the SoHo Photo Gallery in TriBeCa July 2nd - July 26th. We encourage our New York-based readers to stop by and check out George’s work.
The Cottingley Lens Competition
â€œI often search the internet for pictures of cats, and also food cravings, like doughnuts. In an effort to make my time more productive, I have combined the two into one image. I have included a gradient and drop shadow in the image, as I am very fond of those aesthetic elements. I believe I have told you all you need to know about myself, while remaining anonymous. I prefer a life of mystery as my internet searches for both cats and doughnuts may or may not be embarrassing.â€?
Melanie Clemmons Adobe Photoshop CS6
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts
Johnny bought the house in ’78 because he thought he would take care of it. It was too big for one, but they were selling cheap, and he liked the hulking thing near the bluffs, its white stucco and exposed Southwestern beams so unsuited for the climate that they had mossed over long before Johnny got there. He flew out from Seattle in a Navy pal’s sea-plane, a favor called in. He got a car and stocked the kitchen with cans of soup from Anacortes. Then he went out to the front steps and spent all afternoon cleaning the huge, ornate lantern that hung on its chain from a beam, listening to the radio and the distant noise of speedboats on the water.
He and Frankie got back together in ’81, after six years of what in their letters
they called, “wild oat time.” Johnny wrote, “Are you sure you want to come? It’s a long way from Tennessee.” Frankie wrote, “Fuck Tennessee,” and next month he moved in. By then the front porch lantern was rusted over again, and the house was still too big for two. But Johnny liked to see Frankie coming down the staircase every morning, wearing the silk kimono Johnny had sent him from Tokyo a long while ago.
Frankie was a wide man and Johnny scrawny. Neither of them were good
cooks, but Frankie tried. He packed the kitchen with smoke, spotted the stove’s hood with burnt grease spots. In good weather, they ate in the garden out back, plates on their knees, leaning back in metal chairs scaled with mildew. Johnny said, “You’re no cook, but you’re a fine-looking man.”
Frankie got up and kissed him with his mouth full. They went in and argued
over who would do the dishes, and they were both so stubborn that half the time they went to bed with the sink still full. Frankie would do them in the morning, while Johnny read aloud from the laughable small-town paper. Some
nights they touched each other. On others, Frankie would fall asleep first, or Johnny would say, “Too hot for that,” and they would keep their well-explored bodies on the far sides of the great brass bed.
One night, Frankie said, “I don’t think I like what being with you makes
me.” “What’s that?” Johnny’s mouth moved in the dark.
“Well, you’re a husband,” he said. “So I have to be a wife.”
“You’re nothing of a wife,” Johnny said, and he got Frankie to do him
kneeling on the bed, while he held on to the heavy hollow pipes that curved at the headboard. They quarreled for five years, ten years, kissed and made up in the run-down garden where salty air put a white scum on the clay pots of weeds. Frankie got heavier, and gray. Johnny got a belly that strained above his old jeans. Frankie would pat it to wake him up in the morning.
“Let’s go, old dog,” he’d say. “Make me some coffee.”
In ’95, Johnny bought the computer. It was a clunky, off-white machine. He put it in an empty room and called it his office. Frankie had no interest in learning to work the thing, and after a week of trying, Johnny pretty much gave up himself. It was a pain to stare at that screen of tiny glowing graph paper, trying to move things across it with a disembodied hand. So the office was abandoned, piled with stacks of Johnny’s old paperwork. The men had both grown up cautious, so they didn’t seek out friendships in Anacortes. But one evening, the radio reported there had been a fire at the local marina, and Johnny thought he’d go lend a hand if it was wanted. Frankie stayed home. “I’m no good at all that,” he said. “I just get in the way.” He lay on the couch with a mystery novel on his face and snoozed.
It smelled bad down by the docks. Some men stood talking by the marina,
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts
which was spattered and blackened, but still upright.
“Hello there,” Johnny said, approaching as he’d taught himself in the Navy:
the way straight men approached, the walk that said, I belong here with you. “Thought you all might like an extra pair of hands.”
The men looked him over. So did the little girl who was with them, leaning
on a post. One of them said, “It’s not as bad as it looks. But we’ll be working tomorrow if you want to stop by.” He was tall, maybe thirty, tattooed down one arm.
“Can do,” Johnny said. “I’m John Moran.” He offered his hand, nodded
around to the others.
“Ed Mullen,” the young guy said. “This is my daughter Theresa.”
She didn’t pay Johnny’s smile any attention, focusing on a long splinter she
was peeling from the tarry post. One of the other men said, “You live up on the bluffs? Big house?”
“Another guy lives with you, yeah?” Ed Mullen said. “He’s your, your
partner? I know him from the grocery.”
Johnny didn’t know whether to nod or laugh or look confused. Then Ed
Mullen’s kid said, “My friend Dylan is gay,” looking up with her first expression of interest so far. Johnny looked back at her, thrown off.
“How old are you?” he asked.
The next day, Johnny came back and worked all afternoon with Ed Mullen
and his friends, who had names like Dean-O and Scooter. They didn’t talk much
about wives or girlfriends or Frankie, though Johnny gathered that Ed had been divorced. Navy days, they talked, Army days, housing prices, the fountain Ed and Theresa were building together in their backyard. It took a few weeks to get the marina back in shape, but Johnny kept visiting after they were done.
Sometimes he went with the boys (they were “the boys” to him by then) to a
dingy fishermen’s bar and nursed a series of pale beers. Once he stayed out past dinnertime. When he got home, Frankie was bunched up on the couch, looking all resentful, mouth turned like he’d tasted a bitterness.
“You could have called,” he said. And then, “God, listen to me. I hate me.”
“Aw, no,” Johnny said. “My little Frankie, don’t. I’ll take you out to dinner.”
So they went down to the dockside tavern for oysters, and Frankie spooned
up broth with tender white coins of flesh, and his mouth got back its sweetness. That wasn’t the end, though. Johnny stayed out longer. Frankie’s face wavered between sorrow and anger every time. Soon enough Johnny got angry, too, despising Frankie for allowing his own loneliness. He began to stay up after Frankie went to bed, became familiar with the thin screen-light of the office computer. He learned to make the mouse work with his stiff fingers. He learned, too, about the people inside his machine; the ones who came out at night, hunched somewhere over their own machines. They were available – in a new, thrilling way – almost to be touched. When someone said, “u lonely?” Johnny said, “Yes.” But when someone said, “wanna meet?” he always answered, “No. Just talk.”
Apparently the fountain wasn’t going well. Ed and Theresa were harsh
with each other one afternoon at the marina, taking any opportunity to quarrel. Scooter was there, telling some story about the college boys who rented his house, who pretended to be scared of him, calling him “Big Daddy.” The
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts
story died, and eventually he got uncomfortable enough to say, “See you folks around,” and push out the glass door. Johnny stayed, wanting to maybe help them lighten up, if he could. They weren’t hearing his jokes, though.
A new shipment of stock had come in, and they were packing the shelves
with books of knots, inflatable rafts, twine, brass whistles, clean-smelling inexplicable hardware. Ed turned to find Theresa putting a stack of life jackets on the wrong shelf.
“No,” he said, and grabbed them from her with what Johnny considered
unnecessary force. He half-stood from his seat by the cash register. Seeing his movement, Ed tried to rescue the afternoon.
“Sorry,” he said. “Hey. Cheer up, kid. Don’t be a sad sack.”
But Theresa glared up at him and snapped, “You have no idea what it’s
That got Ed bristling. He dropped the life jackets on their shelf and said,
“You know what? You do not have a monopoly on sadness. Other people can be upset around here, too.”
“I think I’m going to go,” Johnny said, standing up for real this time. They
both looked at him, nodded. Outside, he glanced back through the window and saw Theresa raging to the back door, light bob of hair bent down. It was a shame.
He drove the edge of the bay on his way home, one window open so the
smell and glint of bright green water could come in. Dazzling all over, even the rocks and bouncy swathes of sea-grass, all giving way to the turtleish expanse of islands. A teacher had once called Johnny a “noticer,” saying he had a great eye for beauty. He’d been proud of that.
Frankie was waiting on the steps. He had been waiting for an hour or more,
wearing nothing but the silk kimono despite the day’s chill. Johnny’s first thought was to hold him, warm him. He hadn’t felt like doing that for a while.
“I found out,” Frankie said, when Johnny was out of the car. They stood
there while it came to Johnny what might be found out. A quiet feeling came when he got it.
“Let’s go inside,” he said. “You’re cold.”
“No,” Frankie said. “I can’t believe this.” He got louder. “It’s disgusting, it’s
gross. I almost threw up when I saw what you did.”
“Hey, hey, slow down.”
“I almost smashed that machine. You’re sordid. I can’t believe I ever touched
Johnny took hold of the stone wall that framed the steps. “You’re being
fabulously immature,” he said.
“Oh, so you’re mature? Some of those boys are probably underage, Johnny.
Did you go out with them? Did you go meet them somewhere on your long afternoons?”
The accusation stung him. It hurt that Frankie thought he could do that, and
more that he had given reason for the thought. He felt himself reddening.
“So what if I did?” he said. “What if I fucked around? Did I ever promise I
wouldn’t? Did we get married sometime and I forgot?”
“Johnny,” Frankie said, the tears coming. It didn’t help.
“You think I just wanted to talk to someone? Someone young? When I have
to see you every day, getting older and fatter in that stupid ratty old kimono.”
Frankie made a noise. “Did you tell them that?” he said. “Did you say that to
Johnny looked up without answering, and Frankie ran into the house. It was
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts
mean, a mean lie to tell. Johnny stood there for a minute, thinking of what might happen next. Frankie would move out. Either that or forgive him. Probably forgive him. They were too old to leave each other. They’d throw the computer out.
He went into the house slowly. Best to do everything slow, not lose his head.
It was dark in there, but not hard to move through the familiar hall to the foot of the paneled staircase.
Frankie was standing partway down the staircase looking down, one hand
wrapped in his kimono sleeve. He let the fabric go, and Johnny saw that he was holding something. It was Johnny’s Navy pistol.
Slow, he had to go slow. Looking up at the bunchy wet face above him, he
almost reached up, almost wept himself.
“My little Frankie,” he said, “don’t shoot.”
“What if I’d done it?” Frankie said a minute later, clutching Johnny as they
sat on the stairs. They both watched the splintered line in the floorboards as if it might move. The air inside felt very dry and thick.
“I want a big funeral,” Johnny told him. He held Frankie’s soft shoulder,
damp under the silk. “Parade, band, shiny hearse, people in tall hats. You remember that for next time.”
He looked for the bullet, hiding like a small black mouse somewhere in the
floor. Couldn’t find it. He’d have to tear up these boards, put in some new ones. Re-do the whole floor, maybe, might as well.
Frankie let go of him but stayed where he was, hands clasped. “I feel so
funny,” he said. “Breathless.” “Guess we have to do something for thrills at our age.” He could paint the walls while he was at it, and put in some more lamps. “Johnny.” Frankie paused, then said, “I really thought I wanted you
gone. No more you.”
Just outside the door, the big lantern trembled, ready to be scraped down
and polished up again. Maybe they could hang the gun somewhere prominent; a fine display, and handy for next time. He could make this place so nice.
Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
Amy Greene Author Long Man
Every Kiss a War Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith Review by Robyn Ryle
Caleb Cole Visual Artist Other Peopleâ€™s Clothes
Bad Teeth Novel by Dustin Long Review by Michael Christian
Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her second novel Long Man was published by Alfred A. Knopf on February 25, 2014. Her first novel Bloodroot is available in bookstores and online.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: There’s this division running through much of your first novel Bloodroot between the almost mystical freedom of the Appalachian landscape – reflected in the spirit of the untamable horse Wild Rose and the backwoods cunning-folk magic of the granny women – and the more grounded tragedy of domestic violence, civic intervention and family protective services. This thread carries over to your second novel Long Man in Annie Clyde Dodson’s homespun rebellion against the federal government’s forced relocation program. What’s the basis for this sort of “Don’t Tread on Me” mentality? Or would you frame it more as a communal pushback against the threat of homogenizing “outside” culture?
An Interview With...
AMY GREENE: I do think there was in the 1930’s, and there is today, a pushback in Appalachia against the threat of “outsiders” moving in and taking over. We’re descended from the Scots-Irish, who crossed the ocean and settled here for the sake of freedom, so I would say there’s rebellion in our blood. I think as well, partly due to the isolating effect of these mountains, East Tennesseans form a deep attachment to the land, going back to when our ancestors were sustained by what they could coax from the soil. In Long Man, Annie Clyde Dodson’s stand against the government is motivated more than anything by her love of home, and her fear of a big government machine that steamrolls individuals.
BA: Much of Long Man can read like a forgotten history, like the deathbed record of an outmoded way of life. Contemporary accounts tend to consider the Tennessee Valley Authority’s damming operations as one of the great successes of the New Deal campaign, but here you focus on its underserved victims. As a Tennessee native, did you feel any special obligation to pursue this topic? Was there an element of personal history at play?
AG: While Long Man is a historical novel, to me it’s also an intensely personal one. My family’s forty-acre farm was spared by the floodwaters that drowned a portion of East Tennessee during the Great Depression, but the lake that inundates our part of the valley –Cherokee Lake –is less than ten miles from the house my grandfather built. In the process of writing Long Man, I couldn’t help thinking how my life might have been different if the water had reached a little farther. When the lake is low in winter, you can see silos rising from its middle. Growing up, I was fascinated by the idea of a town buried underneath the water. As an adult, I began to think about the sacrifices that must have been made for
the sake of progress here in East Tennessee. When I started doing research for my second novel, I learned land that had been in families for generations was lost underwater. The bones of loved ones were disinterred and moved, historical landmarks were destroyed, thousands of families were displaced. At first, I felt only the compulsion to tell a story, but along the way my compulsion became to tell the story of this moment in East Tennessee’s history that I’m not sure the rest of the country knows much about.
BA: Both of your novels possess a well-developed sense of the past. How much research goes into writing about places like Yuneetah, 1936 – only a lifetime removed from our own experience, yet still a place in many regards bound to nineteenth century customs? To what extent do you feel like you’ve “lived” in your writing?
AG: I have a bit of an aversion to research, a fear of letting it bog down the writing process. But since I found myself working on this historical novel, I had to try and paint an accurate portrait of the Depression here, out of respect to those who lived through it. I visited a few TVA-built dams near my home, which was helpful, but in the interest of bringing the story’s humanity to the forefront, I spent most of my research time poring over caseworker interviews and pictures, getting to know the faces of those who experienced the TVA displacement. I studied Dorothea Lange’s work and WPA photograph books, documenting the TVA’s dam-building progress across the valley. More than anything, those images gave me a sense of having lived what I was writing about.
An Interview With...
BA: We were very struck by Amos, the enigmatic one-eyed drifter at the center of Long Man’s greatest conflict. What can you tell us about the manner in which this figure developed?
AG: Amos evolved from stories my father tells about a hobo who roamed his Johnson City neighborhood when he was a boy in the 1940’s. This drifter’s name was Tanglefoot, and he was a sort of town legend, always making mischief. In the very first draft of Long Man, Amos’s name was Tanglefoot, but my editor thought the moniker was much too “folksy” and I came to agree with her. In successive drafts I changed his name but not much else about him. He came to me almost fully formed and became in a way the heart of the story, the character I couldn’t stop thinking about. Even as part of a disregarded town in a region that Roosevelt called “forgotten by the American people” Amos is an outsider, mistrusted not only because of his mysterious origins but because of his disfigurement. He’s the embodiment of all those deemed by society as unloveable and disposable. Though some of the townspeople see Amos as a supernatural being, in the end his basic motivation is a human need for acknowledgment and validation. As a boy Amos forces those neighbors who turn their heads when he passes to look at him by causing trouble in Yuneetah. As an adult his anger at being devalued manifests as an opposition to all forms of hierarchy and authority. His stand against the dam isn’t motivated so much by any ideology or conviction as it is by his resentment of “the men in suits” who consider him nothing--a resentment so great that he’s willing to risk his life to get the government’s attention, even if his act of violence is no more than an obstacle to their end result. Having been born silenced, Amos’s driving desire is to be heard.
BA: Bloodroot took many critics by surprise at its release in 2010. Not many authors could come flying out of the gate as you did, marking your debut publication with such an intricate blend of character and prose. How did Bloodroot come about? How did the process differ from your follow-up performance with Long Man?
AG: I began writing Bloodroot back in 2006, when I was a student at Vermont College. It took almost a year to finish the first draft, trying to form a coherent narrative from a messy collection of character sketches and scenes I had accumulated. When I was almost finished with the manuscript, although I was nervous about sharing it, I felt a need for feedback. I applied to the Sewanee Writersâ€™ Conference in 2007 and had the opportunity to learn from Jill McCorkle, one of the authors I admire most. She saw promise in my rough draft of Bloodroot and offered to put me in touch with a literary agent once it was ready to be submitted. Things moved quickly after that. Within a few months of leaving Sewanee, I found myself working with my brilliant editor at Knopf, Robin Desser. It was a whirlwind experience, and still hard for me to grasp sometimes. The process of bringing Long Man to publication took much longer, despite having an agent and an editor. Since Bloodroot is primarily a character-driven novel, I didnâ€™t do much research before beginning. But with this second novel, I had a more difficult task since the scope is much bigger. The plot of Long Man came to me in the form of a question. What would happen if a child went missing from a town that was about to be flooded by a TVA dam? I knew I wanted to pursue the idea, but then the challenge became to incorporate suspense into this historical novel, to tell against the sprawling backdrop of the Great Depression an intimate story about a family dealing with tragedy. Long
An Interview With...
Man went through six intensive edits before Robin and I were satisfied. I would definitely describe it as a labor of love.
BA: Do you have any plans to release short fiction in the future?
AG: Unfortunately, I don’t write short fiction. I tried my hand at short stories when I was a student and found them near impossible. The novel is my favorite, and only, medium.
BA: Call it Southern Gothic, Appalachian Gothic, Heartland Gothic (heck, maybe there’s a Rocky Mountain Gothic?), but the long American literary journey into the horror and majesty of our own interior continues. We’ve got Karen Russell and movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild discovering the supernatural in our swamplands and delightful maniacs like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock running up the body count in the Midwest. Cormac McCarthy was no stranger to your region in The Orchard Keeper. Even Buffalo Almanack has had the honor of publishing two fine American Gothics in Daniel Woodrell and Robert James Russell. Why makes this tradition so valuable and persistent? Where do you see your own work fitting in?
AG: Speaking of push-back, I wonder if maybe the Southern Gothic tradition is a way of resisting romantic stereotypes in Southern literature and calling attention instead to the struggles of the oppressed, the working poor, the outsiders that authors like Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee wrote about. As far as how my own work fits into that tradition, I can’t say. I’m often asked if I object to being called a “regional” writer. The other day I asked a
friend who writes about Northern Minnesota the same question, since I’m never sure how to answer. His response was perfect, I think. He said he doesn’t worry about what kind of writer he is, or where his work fits in. It’s readers and publishers who give us labels. We just write the stories that come to us.
BA: What’s something wonderful about Tennessee only a local would know? Do you have a favorite place we ought to check out?
AG: I grew up near a tiny town in Hawkins County, Bulls Gap. There’s a restaurant there called the Dairy Dream that makes the best cheeseburger you’ll ever put in your mouth. I had one yesterday, with a chocolate milkshake. The fried pickles are excellent, too.
BA: Any plans yet in store for your third book?
AG: Yes, I’m working on a third novel about an East Tennessee woman’s struggle to bring to light the truth about the industrial accident that killed her family and left her orphaned.
Born in Indianapolis, Caleb Cole is a former altar server, scout, and 4-H Grand Champion in Gift Wrapping. His mother instilled in him a love of garage sales and thrift stores, where he developed a fascination with the junk that people leave behind. Cole has exhibited at a variety of national venues, including the deCordova Museum of Art (Lincoln, MA), David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University (Providence, RI), and Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NYC), among others. Cole was also featured in Boston Magazine (HOME) as an emerging photographer who is “shaking up New England’s visual arts scene.” View his portfolio at www.calebcolephoto.com.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: There is an uncanny thread of loneliness and isolation running through your photography. The staging for “Other People’s Clothes” is meticulous, objects carefully posed in knowing representation of their owners. Yet outside of yourself, no living persons appear. It is as though you are the last man on earth, seeking connection with the past through its debris. To what extent do you believe material possessions can “speak” for a person? Do you mean to explore an indexical relationship between body, mind and thing, or are you more interested in the multiplicity of possible identities that these artifacts might suggest?
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CALEB COLE: It’s a conscious choice to show the people in Other People’s Clothes by themselves, both for functional reasons and emotional ones. I’m really interested in teasing out the differences between solitariness and loneliness, and how aloneness highlights one’s relationship with others, one’s environment , and with oneself.
The narrative as well as how the character is read come from the combination of clothing, context, and gesture. I have my own ideas about what’s going on but it’s not important to me that the work only function in that one way. It’s fascinating to me how differently some images can be read by different people depending on their own particular experiences. The same image can be read as purely funny or purely sad, as showing a man or a woman, someone young or someone old. I’ve been told by one person that my face always looks exactly the same and then not 5 minutes later hear from someone how my face contains multitudes of complex and varied emotions. It’s fascinating to me. And that, besides whatever my initial intentions were, is part of the work.
BA: So much of your portfolio is constructed around the prosaic, the visual language of everyday life – found objects and found photography, antique store purchases and, most notably, other people’s clothing. Do you believe these items possess a possibility for some kind of transcendence within the context of art, or do you mean simply to portray them at face value?
CC: I think objects themselves say so much about what human beings value and desire. I’m fascinated by the products that human beings have created and how they serve to fill a perceived need. Then there’s the way that humans surround
themselves with objects and clothing--- how they craft identities through the things they buy and wear, and how they discard items when they no longer fit their identities or bodies, or when their priorities shift. The clothes we wear and the spaces we decorate project to ourselves and others who we think we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be seen. The fact that those areas donâ€™t always line up perfectly is really interesting to me. I also love the ways that humans alter objects to more closely suit their needs; I collect ephemera with handwriting or drawings (books with inscriptions, photographs with writing on the back, other items altered or written on to express something) and treasure them for what they reflect about the human experience.
BA: The stagecraft and framing in this project really is remarkable, full of clean lines, hard light and environments that either appear to retract away from or cave into the subject. Youâ€™ve got a near-Kubrickian eye for visual storytelling. What draws you to this degree of compositional control? Do you see yourself ever wandering into more anarchic forms?
CC: As much of a control freak as I think I am, my approach to making the work is far more intuitive and less calculating than you might think. My
An Interview With...
approach is to create a set of rules or a process, then allow myself to play inside those boundaries. I don’t really know exactly what images from Other People’s Clothes will look like until I make them; even though I have a vague idea of what I’m going for ahead of time I’m always open to where the act of embodying the person I’d imagined will take me in the moment. I like the comfort of a repetitive process but the excitement of being surprised by the final work.
BA: Your undergraduate scholarship at Indiana University was in the fields of sociology and gender studies, both of which seem to underpin your projects. Your use of baby dolls in the series “Dolls” is particularly relevant. As you note in your artist’s statement, dolls are tools of socialization, meant to help children play-act various roles within the spheres of domesticity and sexual normativity. Yet here you reshape the dolls in your own androgynous image, with a great diversity of results. What message are you meaning to convey in regards to the nature of gender and childhood sexual discovery? What discoveries might you have made about your own body in the act of replicating it?
CC: Dolls are fascinating objects with strange and complicated functions, both intended and unintended. Yes, they are tools of socialization but they have the unintended effect of teaching children about anatomy---dolls do a terrible job of teaching children what most people’s bodies look like, and yet they somehow communicate something about what my particular body looks like; I find myself identifying with them. I love that attempting to make something in our own human image is always a little off; dolls play with the idea of the uncanny
valley, sometimes drawing people near with preciousness and sometimes pushing people away in discomfort/disgust.
Collecting and transforming dolls offers me a lot of time to think about my self and my body, who I am and how I am seen by others. I ponder the minutia of my body, like my hairline, hair color, and body shape, how those things have changed over time. I think about the ways that my body is similar or different to other people’s. I think about whether it’s possible to distill my features down to the point where applying those few changes to a doll that initially looked nothing like me still yields a spark of recognition in the end result. I try to use making the dolls as a way to come to terms with my body as it is and with my own mortality. The dolls I create make people laugh and make them uncomfortable and make them ask a lot of questions about representation and identity and gender and also why they feel so uncomfortable in the first place. I also like that viewers don’t always know what to make of them, that they sometimes don’t recognize them as iterations of me or even as altered dolls (how? I have no idea). It’s all fascinating to me.
BA: What does the process of doll making look like? Could you walk us through the average doll’s surgical procedure? What do you enjoy about dealing in a physical, hands-on medium, and what challenges does it present?
CC: I collect dolls from garage sales, thrift stores, antique malls, and on the internet. It’s a near daily process of searching for more to work on. Once I decide to begin work on a doll, I strip it of any clothes or identifying characteristics it may have. If I need to sand off any hair, I’ll do that next. I’ve
An Interview With...
also taken some of them apart and put them back together or altered their bodies to make them look more like mine. I’ll then use thread, paint, modeling clay, or synthetic hair to give the doll my hair and sideburns.
I’m most interested in work where one can see the artist’s hand – less from the standpoint of craftsmanship or being impressed with some level of skill and more about the idea of seeing the action of making, of the object reflecting the type of person who would do that action over and over, of being able to see the mark of human desire and emotion in the work. The slowness of the work is part of the end result--- I like that you see the time and effort when the dolls are exhibited. Nearly everything I’m working on now is hand-based work and labor intensive. I enjoy that it is both meditate and a test of endurance. It’s relaxing and exhausting at the same time. I like its physicality.
Since my background is in photography I seem to be unable to finish any given work without photographing it (and usually presenting those photographs in some way). I love the way the object is transformed, the control I can have over the final product that can be difficult with messier processes, and I love the level of control I can have over how people view things as photographs. How one views a sculpture is so much more variable (on the people/space doing the exhibiting as well as the viewers of the show themselves) and I always want to present my work in the way that I think it looks best. I should learn to give up control and let it be what it is but I haven’t fully gotten to that point yet.
BA: In addition to photography and doll making, you’ve also been involved with a number of performance art exhibitions, portraying both men and
women on stage, as well as, strangely enough, Lord Voldemort in a burlesque show tribute to Beyoncé. How does your performance-based work inform your photography and vice versa?
CC: My performance work deals with a lot of the same themes as my visual artwork: suppressed desires, failure, and subverting traditionally masculine archetypes. And it’s usually funny. I like a lot of my work, whether performance or visual art, to play with humor as a method of conveying ideas. Though the performances are often photographed or videoed, they are so much more ephemeral and therefore can be more spontaneous and experimental than my visual art. I approach the character work in both my performances and photographs in the same way, trying to shrink into myself and get lost in that person’s emotional space, letting that guide my movements and expressions. I also appreciate that I am able to be a lot less serious with my performances and to have immediate gratification through the responses of the audience.
BA: How do you handle scene scouting for “Other People’s Clothes?” Does the clothing typically originate with the backdrop, or do you seek these elements out apart from one another and pair them for maximum effect? Have any of the other people’s clothes since become your clothes?
CC: Locations come about a few ways--- ideally I find clothes, create a character, and then search for a place where that character fits. I pay attention to the world when I am out driving or taking public transportation and note when a location excites me. Other times someone will offer their home or business for me to shoot in and I have no idea what I’m getting into ahead of time. I’ll
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bring clothing or borrow their clothing and see what I can make on the fly in the spaces they’ve let me use. It doesn’t always work, but I always try. Clothing always is returned back to where it was found--- if I bought it at the thrift store it is donated back; if borrowed it is put back in the closet; and if found on the street I put it back in that very spot.
BA: Who are some of your artistic inspirations? Your favorite visual artists working today?
CC: I’m so bad at favorites! Locally (Boston), some artists who never fail to inspire me are Raul Gonzalez, Steve Locke, and Pat Falco. Other artists (not all living) I enjoy are Jason Lazarus, David Shrigley, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and David Wojnarowicz. There are more, for sure; these are just some that come to mind. As far as influences, I’d say Kids in the Hall shaped my views of character and comedy when I was young and Patti Smith has had a profound impact on me as well.
BA: What drew you to the great city of Boston? What does the Boston art community have to offer that other American cities may lack?
CC: I ended up in Boston for the reason that many other people do: school. Upon graduation from photo school I had already begun to make connections with the local art community and as time passed it became harder and harder to leave. I’ve met some incredible people here and it’s honestly the people that make me stay. The artists I’ve met are far more supportive than competitive, and I have a gallerist that encourages me to make the work I want to make,
whether or not it sells. I’ve lived here over 7 years and I still don’t know how exactly to describe the character of the art scene. It seems small and yet there’s so much incredible work being made. It’s close in physical proximity to New York and sometimes is sensitive about that, but the Boston art scene has its own unique flavor. I also want to say that the cabaret performance community I’m a part of here is doing such innovative and genre-breaking work that I feel is really different from other parts of the country. There’s an overlap between burlesque, drag, circus, short film, comedy and sketch, dance, music, and performance art work being done here and the results are really inspiring.
BA: We really shouldn’t be asking this, but since we’re both proud Purdue graduates…do you have any favorite memories of losing the Old Oaken Bucket to Drew Brees and/or Kyle Orton? Our apologies if you’re not a sports person. We couldn’t let those Bloomington credentials slip by unchecked.
CC: I’m sorry I don’t have anything good to report here – I’m one of those rare Hoosiers who never went to a basketball or football game OR a Little 500 while I was in school there. I know, I should be ashamed!
Review – Every Kiss a War
Imagine your first kiss became a place. The walls would be built of touches
felt somewhere behind your knees. The windows are your lover’s eyes. In the house made from your first love, the building would be rocked with storms – hail and wind and driving rain. You would barely notice because of the sweetness, though. The rooms would smell of whiskey and sugar.
To read Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut collection of short stories, Every Kiss a
War, is to take up residence in that place. It is to visit the times in your life when love hurt in the most satisfying way, like the fine, thin line of a scab you can’t
stop running your finger over again and again.
In these twenty-seven short stories of varying length, characters bounce
hard against one another, propelled by the force of their desires. In “Sometimes We Both Fight In Wars,” the story from which the collection’s title is drawn, a veteran lives on an orange houseboat where his lover asks him to show her how to kill a man. Rory, a young woman with an abortion in her recent past, finds a sympathetic connection in an unlikely place in “Skee Ball, Indiana.” A young widow tries to negotiate a complicated relationship with her dead husband’s best friend in “Whiskey and Ribbons.”
These stories are filled with characters who step out of the pages and onto
your living room couch to slouch there with a cigarette or beer bottle in hand. They’re the kind of visitors you both hope and fear will stay. Violet, a character who appears in three stories (“What the Fireworks Are For,” “Hold On, Hold On, and “Cheap Beer and Sparklers”), leaves her husband for unexplained reasons and heads for Florida, where she flirts with the irresistibly-named Roscoe Pie. She is the kind of woman who, having run away from her husband, then calls him to say she wishes she was pregnant with his baby. The strength of Cross-Smith’s writing is that you believe this is possible. You still like Violet as a character and you want to know more. When she writes in Violet’s voice, “I searched the radio for songs about how it ached in the same place whether you were leaving or heading home. How sometimes your body couldn’t tell the difference between not loving someone enough and loving someone too much,” you understand exactly what she means.
Leesa Cross-Smith edits online literary magazine WhiskeyPaper with her
husband, and the pieces they select reflect her own fresh aesthetic. She is a native of Louisville and it is this particular landscape that holds these stories
Review – Every Kiss a War
together. Hers is not the stereotyped Kentucky of Appalachia and coal mines. It is a startlingly fresh and modern South, filled with Russian women and Liz Phair references, as well as people who are white and brown and shades of color in between. The stories are unique in their mix of cowboy hats and cosmopolitanism.
In one of the longest stories in the collection, “Un Jour Comme Un Autre (A
Day Like Any Other),” Sam, a Kentuckian in Paris, marries and has a child with a brown-skinned French woman named Margot. Like many of the women in Cross-Smith’s stories, Margot looms mythic and large, like a modern version of Paul Bunyan or John Henry. In this world, women are legendary for the strength of their desire and the meteoric paths they pursue, sometimes even to their own destruction, as Margot is eventually killed by a lover after she has left her husband and child. At the beginning of the story, Sam says of her, “She is still in her nightgown, the barely beige one with the roses on it. The roses have thorns. He finds he is always staring at the thorns, counting them or reaching out to touch them, his fingers skimming over the slick satin ruffles.” The women in Every Kiss a War are soft and thorny all at the same time.
Cross-Smith’s writing appears effortless, but it is sprinkled with crystalline
language that pops in your mouth like a tart berry mixed among the sweet. A character laughs, “coy as white clover.” The thought of kissing someone is, “there snapping back and forth like a clean dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.”
What is it that the characters in these stories are fighting for? What are their
wars about? The experience of reading takes you forcefully into the present of their lives; you live with them. Your own needs become great. The sensuous texture of your life comes into high relief. You understand what it is these
characters chase after so brutally. A taste of sweetness. A moment of joy. The sensation of skin on skin that tells us weâ€™re alive.
Every Kiss a War Leesa Cross-Smith Mojave River Press 216 pages, $16.95
Review â€“ Bad Teeth
Dustin Longâ€™s second novel, Bad Teeth, establishes early on that Judas,
despite his limited likeability, is our main protagonist: At this point in his life, Judas was one of those vague young men on the verge of no longer being you, now in his midthirties, whose sense of purpose in life had been too long dependent on early promise, and who was only just beginning to realize that this promise had been rescinded.
Like Judas, the novel itself hints early on at an ambitious storyline involving
a mysterious revolutionary and an even more mysterious revolutionary organization, known as SOFA. We’re teased further by the mystery of the reclusive novelist Jigme Drolma, the so-called Tibetian David Foster Wallace whose latest book Judas hopes to translate for a hip Brooklyn-based indie literary concern.
But Long appears happy to misdirect. The ambitious plot turns out to be
a kind of Big Lebowski-esque non-story. Long lays the groundwork for a Big Novel, featuring the expected cast of well-drawn characters floating through differing locales (Brooklyn, Berkley, Bloomington, and Bakersfield) each with their own side quest and a few romantic subplots to boot. Oddly, most of these goals and potential connections remain unfulfilled or unresolved at the novel’s end. Jigme Drolma doesn’t play his pre-assigned role, spouting decidedly unDavid Foster Wallacian sentiments when he finally appears in the text: The great myth is that novels increase our capacity for empathy as we pause and reflect on the distance between our own lives and lives of those we read about…But no, the truth is that literature—all of the hours that we spend reading or writing alone—isolates us.
Judas never even fulfills his plot-triggering desire to translate Drolma’s new
book. There is no climatic anti-establishment apocalypse at the hands of SOFA, an organization whose acronym is never definitively defined. We’re told “SOFA is about changing the entire fabric of ideaspace.” Things remain enigmatic throughout.
As the novel itself seems to be unconcerned with plotty endgames, so too
does its female lead, Selah: She had moved well past the stage of wondering what she was doing here, or why she was with Mark in general, and she realized now that these weren’t so much questions
Review – Bad Teeth
with rational answers as they were koans: standing there in the hotel room, in his absence, she slapped herself on the forehead, and in that moment she was enlightened.
Selah’s “enlightenment” here is merely a decision to leave Mark, but the
idea of a koan seems more salient to Long’s concerns. A koan (I had to look it up too) is a paradoxical tale or riddle used in Zen Buddhism to illustrate the shortcomings of logical reasoning and, hopefully, prompt enlightenment.
Before reaching such enlightenment, Long’s characters must suffer at the
hands of various contemporary anxieties. These characters, most of whom are habitually solipsistic, appear ill equipped to deal with their present circumstances. Adam obliterates his present with alcohol. Selah uses weed. Judas wanders the country restlessly. Most characters are aspiring artists or underemployed. The specters of SOFA, social unrest, and (sometimes too glibly) 9/11 hover over the proceedings. “Thinking too much about the future,” Judas considers, “had never made him any happier.”
Judas, as stated earlier, has likeability issues. He makes fun of the narrator’s
bad teeth. He pursues virtually every woman he encounters, especially the women his friends—most of whom are providing free housing for the vaguely employed Judas—secretly or overtly desire. He lacks empathy. But later, toward the end of the novel when Judas is hit in the face with a bowling trophy by two men who mistakenly believe Judas to be the man who stole their big box of drugs (it’s a bit of a non sequitur even in context), something changes. Like Selah’s slap to the forehead, a kind of understanding washes over Judas as he falls to the grass: Judas knew none of this, and in recognizing the extent of his ignorance, he achieved a point of connection with the outside world that he had heretofore been lacking: an instinctive awareness that these people of whom he had previously known nothing may
actually have something to do with him—beyond, even, the tangible something that they had to do with the moment in which he found himself…it was the beginning of a broadening of perception that might eventually lead to such a wider awareness.
In unlocking a connection to the world outside of his own mind, Judas
finds more clarity and stillness inside his head as well. Through intense dental discomfort, Judas realizes that meaning is “to be found in the present moment rather than in this fictive emblem of future greatness that he had been hoping to harness to himself.”
So here is a novel in which a prominent and revered novelist turns out to
be a plagiarist who believes fiction lacks the power to bestow empathy upon readers. It’s a book with a main character so lacking in empathy that he must be beaten by strangers to realize he’s not alone in the world. Obsessing over the uncertain future in Long’s universe results in only discomfort and isolation. But to focus on the present, the aphorisms on the page, the contemplative footnotes, the philosophical digressions and believable characters, is to find a peaceful moment with an ambitious work of fiction.
Bad Teeth Dustin Long New Harvest 320 pages, $25.00
Review – Bad Teeth
ndy Bailey is origially from Boise, Idaho. He is an English teacher in Los Angeles.
ichael Christian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as PANK, Bull: Men’s Fiction and the Cafe Review, among others. He currently lives in Austin, TX.
elanie Clemmons is a multi-media artist from Texas. View her work at www.melanieclemmons.com.
eorge Grubb is the creator of “New York City Wildlife,” an absurdist composite project that mashes up the NYC landscape with the wildest of animals to better illustrate “the need for...conservation efforts to protect our endangered wildlife.”
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
ohn Kirsch is an editor for an English-language publishing company in Mazatlan, Mexico. Kirsch has previously worked as a reporter for newspapers in Iowa, his home state, and Texas, a state that often made Kirsch feel as though he had entered an alternate universe. He has a B.A. in journalism from Drake University and an A.A. in photography from Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.
mily Lackey is an MFA student in fiction at the University of New Hampshire. She is a graduate of Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in Okinawa, Japan.
than Leonard is getting Behemoth Review off the ground while working two jobs, improving grad school portfolios, and trying not to let sports anime consume his life. His previous work has appeared with the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Camroc Press Review, Projector, Grey Sparrow Journal, and others. He can be found distracting himself at 100percentkick.tumblr.com.
mily McBride lives in Lima, Ohio where she is working on opening a photography studio. She works in photojournalism for a few local papers and but the avant garde is her true passion. Some day she hopes to travel the country and shoot people in their natural state like her idol Richard Avedon.
iam O’Brien grew up on a small island outside Seattle. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied fiction and poetry. His work can be found in print in Unsaid Magazine, and online at the Offending Adam and Blackbird VCU. He will be attending the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa in Fall 2014. Longterm, he aspires to be more like Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams.
nrique Pelaez has been a fine arts photographer since 2005. His passion for photography began as a hobby, but his creations have since been seen by millions of people around the globe.
obyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in Indiana. She teaches sociology to college students when she’s not writing and has stories in CALYX Journal, Stymie Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, and WhiskeyPaper, among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
M ax Vande Vaarst is the founder of Buffalo Almanack and serves as its Fiction
Editior. He is a writer of imaginative fiction whose work has appeared in such sexy, sexy periodicals as A cappella Zoo, Inscape and Jersey Devil Press. He grew up on a near-constant stream of fantasy serials and hero’s journey adventure stories, but he can do proper literature too, if that’s what you’re into. Originally from the great(est) state of New Jersey, Max received his B.A. in English and history from Purdue University and presently resides in Colorado. He can be found online at www.maxvandevaarst.com.
Katie Morrison serves as Photography Editor for Buffalo Almanack. She
received her M.A. in art history from the University of Colorado and is presently trying to make a stable living with said degree. Her research tracks issues of race, violence, and urban identity in American photography. She is an avid cat enthusiast and possesses a deep passion for iced coffee.
Your lovely editors, Rocky Mountain High with some new friends at the base of the Sawatch Range.
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
J ohn Gummere operates Studio 264, a graphic design studio serving
businesses, institutions and non-profits coast-to-coast. Illustration has long been his specialty, and he works in a variety of media and styles depending on what is most suitable for his clientâ€™s needs. He received his B.A. in architecture from Columbia University in 1977 and lives in Philadelphia.
lesser-known element of the famed Paul Bunyan legend, Johnny Inkslinger served as Bunyanâ€™s office clerk and bookkeeper. To keep up with the demands of his bossâ€™s outsized work, Inkslinger invented a heavy-duty fountain pen, which drew its ink from a barrel-tap and hose. Buffalo Almanack is pleased to have established the Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence in his honor. This award is issued to the best short story and individual photograph of each issue, as selected by our editors. The cash prize as of June 2014 is $50 per winner, though this amount may be raised in the future as more funds becomes available. There are no fees required for entry into the Inkslinger sweepstakes and all submissions to Buffalo Almanack are automatically in the running. Winners are notified shortly before the release of their respective issue and are recognized on the Buffalo Almanack website, as well as in the pages of our digital journal. A pair of personal checks will be delivered to the winners via the U.S.P.S. sometime during that same month.
Issue No. 4 - June 2014
Buffalo Almanack considers fiction of all styles and genres. We neither
discriminate against the traditional nor the experimental, neither the “literary” nor the fantastic. Our interest in domestic micro-fiction is as great as our interest in space-travel novellas and we’ll always save a seat for the remarkable and unexpected. What then are we looking for? Well, we’re looking for greatness. We’re looking for rich and muscular prose, for stories that make us believe we’ll never read better. We’re looking for plot, for character, for setting, for diction. We’re looking for a writer’s best because the world deserves their best and we know they’ve got what it takes to deliver. Concerning photography, we invest in a diverse range of photographic subjects and styles. We are attracted foremost to strong composition, skilled technical craft and assertive authorial presence. We want images that tell stories, whether through a single frame or a broader narrative series. We want art that makes us ask questions, that leads us to wish we had been there behind the camera ourselves.