I s s u e N o. 8
Maxine Allison Vande Vaarst
Copyright ÂŠ 2015 Buffalo Almanack. All writing and photography property of their respective authors. Cover art by John Kirsch. 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 Like us at facebook.com/buffaloalmanack
For Frieda and John, Maxineâ€™s amazing mentors at the University of Wyoming and the two best professors in the west. Now letâ€™s see if they read this.
When Buffalo Almanack alum John Kirsch came to us with two fabulous potential cover images, we knew we had to do something different this time. Something special. With choices like these, there was simply no way we could pick just one…by ourselves. As such, we turned the decision over to our readers. One became the face of our magazine, the other an empty memory of what could have been (but still a pretty darn nice picture). Thank you to all those who cast their vote!
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
Cover Vote Results John Kirsch
Editorsâ€™ Note Maxine Vande Vaarst Katie Morrison
Photography Bruce Louis Dodson
Photography Kanya Kanchana
Shadowboxing Matthew Duffus
Woodshop Talk An Interview with Matthew Duffus
Photography John Kirsch
Caught Jessica Barksdale
The Kingdom of Dust Featured photography by Matt Black
Brutus Lane Kareska
Photography Kevin Michael Klipfel
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
Woodshop Talk An Interview with Kevin Michael Klipfel
North Fork of the Yuba River Anna Schott
Photography Tammy Ruggles
THE TAIL END Dispatches from the Artistic Frontier
Interview Chantal Heijnen
Interview Trenton Lee Stewart
Review: What Lies in Wait David S. Atkinson
PAST PERFECT Review: The Alchemist Kristin D. Urban-Watson
Buffalo Alumni Checking in with #BuffaloNation
Like most young, fresh-faced editors, we entered into this endeavor back
in March of 2013 with a commitment to doing things differently. Mind you, we were not then are not now exactly sure what “differently” means. There are, after all, only so many ways to deliver text through the internet. Yet we were certain that there must remain some unexplored avenues toward a better litmag experience, and we’ve worked ever since to search out those pathways wherever they might hide.
It is this ambition that underlays our No-Fold Guarantee, the most binding
assurance we can offer that Buffalo Almanack, despite its current status as an online-only publication, cannot and will not vanish from the face of the internet, as so many past journals have. Our emphasis on the visual arts too distinguishes us, as does our Featured Artist series, which serves to open a wider array of world-class art to our readers, including up-and-coming supernovas like this issue’s welcomed guest, Matt Black.
Yet we find that for all our silly ideas and love of innovation, it is our
contributors – veterans all of the submission and publication rat race – who best understand the blind spots of the litmag world. And more and more we’re dismayed to hear that they themselves are the blind spots.
Write, sub, publish, so long. Wham bam, thank you ma’am. There’s rarely
any kind of relationship formed between author and journal, which is a true shame considering that our artists are the very foundation of our work. For as much as it may appear that we are the ones granting them a platform, in truth it is the other way around. There is no magazine without our artists. There is no
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
Buffalo Almanack without our Buffalo Alumni.
Hence our newest feature, which grants past contributors the opportunity to
inform us of their more recent achievements. It’s a small offering, we know. But it’s more than most litmags offer, and we hope it might allow our readers a bit more access to the total bodies of work our artists bring to the table.
We encourage you to flip to the back of this issue and see what some of our
past fictioneers are up to – then come back in September for a visit with our finest alumni in the visual arts! #BuffaloNation is strong and growing stronger, but we’re nothing without our artists, past – present – and for all those avenues yet unexplored. All the best, Maxine and Katie Editors
Bruce Louis Dodson Cannon EOS, 18-55mm
Bruce Louis Dodson
â€œI have an interest in the aesthetics of chaos and have taken a number of shots at a local steel mill scrap yard
Hardest part is getting into areas where I am not supposed to be.â€?
"Iâ€™m drawn to doorways. They symbolise that moment of pure potential when anything is possible, just waiting on the other side of the threshold.â€?
“I shot these by the Ucayali river in Iquitos, Peru. It was a slow afternoon. There was nobody around. The graffito on the broken wall — Silencio! — made it more poignant."
I learned of my sister’s death from the internet. Like so much of what
was written about her, the post made up for a lack of facts with innuendo and attitude:
TROUBLED PAINTER SARA FRYE FOUND DEAD EARLIER TODAY.
UNCONFIRMED REPORTS IMPLY SHE DIED AT OWN HAND. MIGHT THE ART WORLD’S ‘ELFE TERRIBLE’ HAVE SAVED HER MOST TERRIBLE FOR LAST? REGARDLESS, IT’S THE END OF A ONCE-PROMISING CAREER. SHE WAS 35.
I hadn’t spoken to her in two weeks, which wasn’t unusual, and I didn’t
hear from her husband, Ravi, for several more hours. She had killed herself, he told me when he finally bothered to call. She’d done it in her studio, in Pennsylvania, with a gun neither of us had known she possessed. When he finished, I began to thank him for finding time to call me himself, but he cut me off. “Don’t make this about you, Anita. You don’t get to have some special claim on her. Not this time.” But he was wrong. I’d been through too much with her for it to be otherwise.
I remember when she got her first camera, a
Polaroid. She took it everywhere. To school and to church, on Girl Scout outings and to the movies, where she’d sit up front and take photos of the unsuspecting audience, momentarily blinding them and getting herself banned from two Dallas multiplexes. She loved the shucking sound the machine made as it spit out each print, reveled in the brief moments before the image materialized, when it still lived only in its ideal state in her mind. She often made a series of attempts, laying them side-by-side and scrutinizing the differences — the changes in the light and the way this affected the texture and color, how different angles made it possible to de-familiarize the familiar, highlight ordinary aspects of the
She was a change-of-life baby, born sixteen years after our parents had given
up hope and adopted me. That gap meant that while she was mastering her camera, I was weaning my first child. When my husband and I arrived home for Christmas that year, baby in tow, I was disappointed that she didn’t come out to greet us. She usually bounced up and down, so excited to see her nephew that she’d make smacking sounds with her lips until I handed him to her. But this time I had to seek her out. She didn’t answer when I knocked on her bedroom door, though I could hear muttering from within, so I called her name.
“Auntie?” She often mixed up the sounds in my name. Auntie had been the
one to stick, especially apt on account of the age difference. She turned the lock and opened the door. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Everything was dramatic with her, ordinary phrases imbued with a breathless intensity that alarmed strangers.
Three of her bedroom walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with Polaroids.
“Thumb tacks won’t work,” she said, “so I use nails.”
“How does Mother feel about this?”
“She made me promise not to hit my thumb.” She rolled her eyes. “Like I’d
do that on purpose. That’s why they call them accidents!”
A coffee can filled with nails sat on her desk next to a hammer that looked
too big for her to lift. She’d been born prematurely, so tiny that when Daddy first saw her he told the doctor, “Put her back in. She’s not done yet.” Even full grown, she would be a few inches under five feet and as sturdy as a street sign in a hurricane.
I studied the Polaroids, moving from wall to wall as though I were in a
museum. No, more like a photographic hot house. It felt claustrophobic. Unless I focused on a specific image — a perfectly formed boot print in the mud, a
defaced bus shelter ad for a needle-exchange program — my head started to spin.
“Doesn’t this give you a headache?”
“Dr. Ware give me pills.”
“What are the pills for?”
“Look at these. They’re my new favorites.”
In a row on the wall next to her bed were three photos of her hair popping
out of the top of a turtleneck, like flowers in a vase. The pictures had been taken in an angled mirror, each one coming a little closer to centering the image. “Your hair’s green.” “And blue and orange.” She flashed me a familiar grin. “No way Mother let you do that.” “I used markers. Did it while they were in Galveston.” “They left you alone?” “Grammy Jeanette—” her godmother, giver of the camera and anything else she desired “—stayed with me. I washed it out before they got back.” “I think I like the off-center ones best.” “That’s what Jeanette said. ‘Off-center pictures for an off-kilter girl.’” She giggled and flopped onto the bed. When I asked Mother about this later, while we were doing the dishes, she said they found it easier to give in. “She’s been spunky since she was born. Why else would she want to come out so early?” Before I could respond, she added, “Jeanette has more energy to keep up with her.” I had to remind myself that
Mother was almost sixty, Daddy two years older, and that their Miracle Baby, as they’d called her before she’d been born, was more than most young parents could have handled. As casually as I could, I said, “Something seems off, don’t you think?” “Dr. Ware says she has Attention Deficit Disorder.” She said this slowly, as though the words alone had the power to conjure up more problems. “Have you seen her room? Her attention seems fine to me.” “I’m just telling you what he said. Jeanette’s making an appointment with a specialist. We’ll get to the bottom of it.” With that, Mother closed the door on the discussion. I knew better than to broach the subject with her again.
Like the rest of us, Sara went to A&M, where she majored in Art Education, a compromise with our parents, who found a studio degree too impractical. She even pledged the sorority that Mother and I had joined. She had a boyfriend, an Omega-Pi she brought home for Thanksgiving, where he played football with my oldest boy, feigned interest in the younger one’s Lego constructions, put up with Daddy’s jokes about being the Interloper. All in all a good sort, though a little bland. which is why it seemed so strange the following spring when the school blamed their break-up for Sara’s suicide attempt. Daddy had recently had knee-replacement surgery, and because Mother had to stay with him, I made the ninety-minute drive from Houston to College Station to find out what had happened. By the time I arrived, no one who’d been on duty when Sara came into the ER was there, so I waited for the university’s Crisis Liaison, as the title on his business card read, to arrive. “She’s fine now,” he said. “They stitched her up and sedated her for the night. She said she hadn’t been sleeping, which probably contributed—”
“She tried to kill herself because she was tired?” “No one’s saying she meant to kill herself. A suicidal gesture, most likely.” “She slashed both wrists.” “In a dormitory bathroom stall. She wanted someone to find her.” He paused to study me. I considered saying, You’ve never seen a Korean before? Heard of international adoption? Instead, I held my tongue and waited for him to continue. “Our understanding is that your sister has become withdrawn. When she and her boyfriend broke up, she needed a way to make others notice her.” “She’s in a sorority. How is that withdrawn?” “She hasn’t been to a meeting or function since January, and she’s been missing most of her classes for almost as long.” “And no one thought to look into this until now?” “Her RA talked to her about becoming more involved, offered to help her find a student organization to join. She wasn’t interested.” “After all this you think she made this gesture over a broken heart?” “You teach high school. You know how emotional girls — all teens — can be.” On campus, her RA let me into her room. We whistled at what we found. The room remained dark even after I flipped the light switch, and the smell of patchouli made my sinuses tingle. I stumbled toward the windows and reached for the curtains. They came off the rod when I pulled them, but still no light. Sara had covered the windows in tinfoil, covered the foil with trash bags, and tried to seal the curtains with masking tape. These layers came away one at a time, slowly illuminating the disaster area that was her room. She’d even put black tape over the tiny lights on her cordless phone charger and the smoke
detector, and turned her alarm clock, my graduation gift to her, to the wall. Dust particles hung in the air like ash after a volcanic eruption. Her RA pointed down and said, “She’ll have to pay for that.” She’d tiled the entire floor in a mosaic of black, gray and blue, each one-inch square. A swirl of black threatened to envelop the blue like a massive wave, the gray outlining the places where the process was in mid-act. “No wonder she hasn’t been going to class.” “You didn’t find any of this worth reporting?” I said. “I haven’t been in here since Alison moved out in February. But, you know, Sara’s not exactly normal.” “It’s like you people want us to sue you.” She backpedaled toward the door, reached behind her for the knob. “I don’t know anything about that. You’ll have to talk to the Hall Director.” Alone, I walked around the room. Sara had painted the mirror and sink fixtures a flat black. She’d used rubber cement to affix charcoal-colored sheets to the white cinderblock walls. Even the electrical outlets had been covered. She’d draped a sheet over the computer. As hard as I searched, I couldn’t find the phone receiver. Back at the hospital, she flapped her bandaged arms at me and called me Auntie, as though nothing unusual had transpired. Dark circles ringed her eyes like bruises, and her normally pale skin looked translucent. She’d lost weight: her collarbones and sternum stood out beneath her gown. Her blond hair, shoulder-length when she’d colored it with markers years earlier, had been hacked into a lopsided bowl cut that called attention to her pointy ears. “What did you do to your room?” “Isn’t it great! Jeanette gave me her credit card for the supplies.” The
words ran together in her enthusiasm. “It took me two weeks. I might tile over it. There’s this de Kooning in my art history book, but maybe I should do something original. What do you think about—” “And the rest of the room?” “They tied me to the bed last night.” She gave me that grin again, the one that would lead a French critic to dub her the elfe terrible. “But the drugs…they were good. I haven’t slept like that—” “Is that why you did that to your windows, because you couldn’t sleep? You weren’t blocking out transmissions from Neptune or anything?” “Auntie… Do you think I can have more of those pills? Just the square one. The others, the capsules, are made with gelatin. That comes from animal skin.” “I’ve been up all night. Can’t you say something that makes sense?” “Poor Auntie.” She patted my hand. “Do you want to lie down? I can make room.” “Who cut your hair?” I held the jagged ends between my fingers. They were already splitting. “You did it yourself, didn’t you? Did you at least use a mirror?” “I can fix all of it, maybe not the floor, but I think it’s pretty. They could charge extra for it. Maybe they’ll pay me to do all the other rooms. I’ll be rich!” I knew then what I had to do, though it took several days to complete the paperwork, officially withdraw her from school and pack up her room. Justin and Henry, my two oldest, agreed to share a room so that I had somewhere to put their kooky aunt, and my husband Joel knew enough to keep his views to himself. Sara stayed with us through the summer and fall, volunteering during arts and crafts hour at a nearby nursing home, and all of us, even three-year-old Eli,
looked after her. She put on weight, started sleeping through the night, and even tapered off most of the drugs. At Thanksgiving, which we hosted for the first time, Jeanette announced that she’d gotten her into Sarah Lawrence, her own alma mater. She would start in January. “Wonderful,” Mother said. “That’s what she needs, to stay busy.” We’d all taken to discussing Sara as if she wasn’t present. “She’s busy here,” I said. “I was going to enroll her at the community college. If that works out, she can transfer to the U of H and still live with us.” Joel and Daddy exchanged a look, but Jeanette jumped in before I could say anything. “Houston’s lovely, dear, but it’s no place for an artiste. Sarah Lawrence is the kind of place where she can blossom. And it’s so close to the city.” “I know.” Sara and Eli were making faces at each other, Sara flipping her eyelids inside out, snarling, while Eli tried and failed to touch his nose with his tongue, as she could. “What do you think, Daddy?” I asked. “Maybe Jeanette’s right. Texas might not be big enough for your sister.”
Though it took her five and one-half years to graduate, Sarah Lawrence turned out much as Jeanette predicted. Sara won awards in every category at the student art exhibitions and was even invited to be part of a group show in New York, after which Joel and I moved her into a closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn, while Jeanette helped her get a job at the Public Library and paid for studio space a few blocks away, in an old furniture store. She lasted six weeks at the library before quitting to become a lackey for
Arnaud Duval, the video artist. From her phone calls, it sounded like she and the other assistants were the real artists, the Frenchman simply the face that attended gallery and film openings and appeared in the Post and the Daily News, but Sara seemed happy. One of her tasks was to find actors for Duval’s work, and that’s how she met Ravi. A fellow artist, he went from a walk-on role in one email to moving into Sara’s place three weeks later to being married in another month’s time. She brought him to Dallas soon after, both of them sporting matching gold bands, when we gathered for Mother’s seventieth birthday. “When did this happen?” I asked once we’d been introduced. “A month ago. We wanted to tell you in person.” “She asked me,” he said, the two of them laughing like idiots. “Three days later we were in front of a Justice of the Peace.” “Christ,” Daddy said, “you two ever hear of a church wedding?” “Watch your language,” Mother said, propriety keeping her from engaging in what was really going on. Even once Mother and Daddy accepted the way they’d gotten married, other complications arose. Just because they had adopted a Korean baby didn’t mean they were the sort to absorb an African-American son-in-law into the family without the occasional rough patch. For the rest of their lives, they couldn’t understand that Ravi’s stuffy, conservative suits were an artist’s affectation, not a sign that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. And, not being from the South, Ravi took offense when Mother naively asked, “Where are your people from?” Jeanette was so thrilled by what she called the Romance of Like Minds that she convinced Sarah Lawrence to host a joint show for them, though my
sister almost managed to mess that up too. Instead of the urbanals — urban pastorals — she’d promised, her work arrived courtesy of an eighteen-wheeler and consisted of a series of eight-foot-tall replicas of famous dolls and stuffed animals, complete with anatomically correct, and often aroused, genitalia. Her enthusiasm for these creations was such that, in showing them to the gallery curator and the art department chair, she thrust the top half of her body into Raggedy Ann’s vagina. The students loved the show, the school paper devoting all but one paragraph to Sara’s pornographic creations, but this did not keep the administration from shutting it down three days early on account of complaints from alumni and the community. The accompanying furor reached the city, where Sara’s answering machine was filled with offers from galleries. She recreated the show in Manhattan but refused to sell to anyone but museums. She wanted her work to remain public, not in the hands of a small coterie of wealthy admirers. This, even though she’d never been in a position to sell anything before. It worked. They sold to the MOMA and the Walker, in Minneapolis, which bought both Raggedy Ann and randy Andy, and to other museums in Cleveland and San Francisco. In her mind, however, none of these successes topped the excitement of the original show. As the years passed, the Sarah Lawrence opening took on a Woodstock-like quality in the art world’s imagination: more people claimed to have been there than lived in Bronxville altogether.
For a while, all was quiet on the Sara front. Over the next eight years, Daddy got Parkinson’s and practically moved into the VA, which led Mother to sell the house in favor of a condo. Justin and Harry graduated from college, and we
packed Eli off to A&M as well. Then Ravi called from New York one July. Sara had been behaving Erratically — his word, as though he were a therapist giving an official report — and hadn’t been in contact in the nine days since she’d gone to Pennsylvania, where Jeanette had bought them a farm house for an artists’ retreat. “Why didn’t you go with her?” “The show in LA really took something out of her. I need you to talk to her. We’ve been having… issues.” “What sort of issues?” One benefit of getting older, I’ve learned, is that you’re allowed to be nosy. It’s as though younger people naturally assume you’re interested in their lives, now that your own is practically over. “A misunderstanding, that’s all.” “Is this about a woman?” “You know I wouldn’t cheat.” I waited for him to explain. “I’m not even sure, honestly. She was so upset when she left she didn’t make any sense. You have to talk to her. You’re the only one she listens to when she gets like this.”
When I arrived, the house was crowded with people, three different types of
music blaring from three different stereos in three different rooms. It looked like a scene from another time: Chateau Marmont in the ‘60s, or Henry VIII’s court at its most decadent. A Senegalese performance artist my sister had introduced me to at least twice stared me up and down without a hint of recognition, then forgot about me when the woman to his left passed an art deco bong his way. A couple in their twenties sat in the bay window, staring into each other’s eyes
while their hands, pressed together at the palm and fingertips, worked circles in the air between them. In the kitchen, a waist-high stack of pizza boxes teetered toward the countertop, a dented metal trash can, filled with empty wine bottles, blocked the back door and bubbles formed and popped on the surface of the gray water in the sink, like a witch’s cauldron. The house reeked of pot, body odor and what smelled like diapers, but turned out to be the Morning Meadow scent from the room spray someone had used to try to cover the stench. My sister’s groupies had descended like an Old Testament plague.
A glassy-eyed young man in nothing but jeans that hung so low I could
see the dragon’s wings tattooed on his pelvis came out of the half-bath off the kitchen and flinched when he saw me. “Konichiwa,” he said.
“I’m not Japanese.”
“Where’s my sister?”
“Sara. The woman who owns this place you’ve turned into your own—” I
almost said den of iniquity but stopped myself. I wasn’t as hip as my sister and her friends, but that didn’t mean I had to sound like Mother.
“Out back,” he said, mumbling as he fled the room.
I kicked the trash can out of the way and opened the back door, the rush
of fresh air an immediate improvement, and followed the path to the barn my sister used for a studio. Even from fifty yards away I could hear the music coming from the house. I pounded on the locked door with my fist, shaking it on its hinges, until my sister yelled, “Go the fuck away.”
“Auntie?” A minute later, the deadbolt flipped and the door opened. Sara
was nowhere to be seen.
The door slammed shut after I walked in, the bolt thrown, and I turned
around and saw my little sister pressed against it, as though her eighty-fivepound body might keep others from forcing their way in.
“Auntie, Auntie, Auntie,” she sang as she danced around me in oversized
hiking boots, touching my wrist, elbow, hair, and face with her tiny, paintflecked hands. When I reached out to her, she pirouetted away, sang something I couldn’t understand, and smiled her manic grin.
“It’s so wonderful to see you,” she said. She beckoned me toward her, and
away from the door, with her curled index fingers. She had on a dingy men’s undershirt that covered her boney ass, her tiny breasts and pointy nipples showing through the cheap fabric, the v-neck stretched out of shape. A pair of baggy, green boxing shorts swished as she danced. The thick leather bracelets she wore to cover the scars on her wrists stood out against her pale skin.
I followed her past the curtain my husband had helped her put up, years
ago, to separate her studio from the rest of the barn. He’d replaced the leaky roof and installed solar panels to make it self-sufficient like she’d wanted. Behind the curtain, sunlight flooded the room from the skylights in the ceiling.
“Who are all those people?”
“Friends,” she said. “Friends-of-friends. Friends-of-friends-of-friends. They
keep coming. Every time the Amtrak arrives a few more appear.”
“They’ve turned it into a frat house.”
“You haven’t noticed?” I looked around. Dirty dishes sat on the kitchenette
counter, a stool in the middle of the room, and her workbench, and a mound
of pillows and blankets slumped in the hammock tied between two beams in the corner. “When was the last time you left this room?” As soon as I asked, I wanted to take it back. I wanted to call Ravi and tell him I was finished, that she was his wife and that the problem was between them. I wanted to get in my rental car and head to the airport, not look back until I was home, preferably in bed.
“Want to see what I’m working on?” she said, beginning her dance once
As` a kid, she’d hummed to herself constantly, making up her own melodies,
and I wondered if this same music played in her head now, thirty years later.
“Answer my question first.”
She fluttered her fingers in front of her. “I threw my assistants out three —
no, four days ago. Is that a long time?” “Do you think that’s a long time?” I said.
“I think I’m staying here until those people are gone.”
“That’s the first sane thing you’ve said.”
She giggled. “Oh, Auntie. Come see my piece.” Piece. She’d trained me, years ago, to call them this. Even when they weren’t
mixed-media — another of her terms — when they were strictly paintings, photographs, or sculptures, they were still pieces. Once, Daddy complimented her on a painting and she walked away, wouldn’t even look at him until I convinced him to apologize. “It’s acrylic on canvas,” he said, pointing to the card hanging next to it on the gallery wall. “What the hell else should I call it?” “I’ll look at it later,” I said. “After we talk.” She tried to pull me by the hand, then pouted when I wouldn’t yield. “No fun.”
“I’ll be fun after we take care of everyone inside.” Now that she’d finally stopped moving, I could study her up close. Her face was puffy, the skin on her neck mottled and rashy, and her pupils had contracted to the size of the mole on her earlobe. She smelled as rank and feral as the inside of an animal shelter. “When was the last time you bathed?” She smiled, touched her tongue to her nose. “How about sleep?”
“A couple of hours on Monday.”
This was Wednesday afternoon, almost evening.
It took two days, all of the taxis in a tri-county area, and my bullhorn of
a mouth to clear the house so that we could get down to work. I began by confiscating all of Sara’s drugs, but coming down from her various highs made her incredibly irritable, and she was so stubborn about taking the prescription ones — the mood-stabilizers, the anti-depressants, the anti-anxieties, the antiantis — that I had to check under her tongue to make sure she’d swallowed. To keep her distracted from the headaches and muscle spasms, and her general grumpiness, we cleaned the house, noting what her friends had broken or stolen as we went along.
“Jeanette always hires a cleaning crew from town,” she said after I handed
her a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. The kitchen and bathrooms had to be scrubbed from floor to ceiling, three of the house’s four toilets unclogged.
“This happens often?”
Sara wiped at the wall with the sponge, more water dripping onto the
countertop than reached the intended destination.
“Every time I come here,” she said, wringing out the sponge. She’d already
spilled a quarter of the water on the dirty tile floor. “Ravi clears them out when they get too crazy.”
“Some retreat.” When this failed to get a response, I added, “Why isn’t he
“I might be on the verge of a breakthrough and you’ve got me scrubbing
“You’re not ready for floors. You don’t do walls properly.”
She didn’t respond.
“Tell me about your breakthrough.”
“I don’t talk about work-in-progress,” she said, miffed, as though she hadn’t
been the one to bring it up, the one who’d offered me a preview only days earlier. “The sooner I get back, the sooner it will be finished. Then you won’t need me to explain.”
She was waiting for me to give in, to acknowledge what a lousy job she was
doing and tell her I’d finish on my own, but even if I had to redo all her work, I wasn’t going to let her off easy. One of her friends had finger-painted with melted cheese and chocolate syrup on the wall opposite the refrigerator, and while I scraped at this with a fingernail, Sara dumped the dirty water in the sink, splashing the counter, floor, both of us.
“Nice friends you have. You’ll have to repaint the entire room.”
“This is idiotic. I’ll pay for cleaners.”
The cheese came off in long strips, taking a layer of seafoam paint with it,
but the chocolate spread out even more, turning what had been a smiley face into a shit-colored meteor.
Sara flipped over the empty bucket and sat down. “You want to talk about
why you’re here or keep impersonating Mother?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I shifted the kitchen chairs out of the way to
attack the wine spills on the floor, another of Sara’s tile-jobs. Not the de Kooning she’d talked of years earlier but a Jasper Johns that looked like a crime scene after a triple homicide.
“‘Where’s Ravi?’” she said in a whiny, needling voice. “He called you — of
course he did. He always calls you. Tell him to fight his own battles.”
“That’s rich coming from you.”
“Don’t you get tired of being an errand girl?”
“Don’t you get tired of needing a babysitter?”
We were fifty and thirty-five, engaged in the kind of argument sisters should
have had as teenagers.
“What did he tell you?”
“He’s worried. He hasn’t heard from you.”
“He knows why.”
She snorted. “Try theft.”
“You didn’t care about anything your friends took when they left here.”
“Not that kind of theft. You’d have to be an artist to understand.” I scrubbed the floor harder even though it made the stains worse. My frustration had to go somewhere, and it felt oddly therapeutic watching stray bits of yellow sponge adhere to the wine, adding texture to the mess.
“Don’t be mad,” she said, finally, her voice small. She waited for me to look
up, but I kept attacking the stain. “Fine.”
She left and stomped upstairs. So help me, I thought, if she goes to her room
to pout I really will leave. After a brief pause, she retraced her steps, thumping
down the stairs and back into the kitchen, laptop in her tiny hands.
“You want to know why Ravi isn’t here?”
She flipped up the screen and hit the keys so hard the sound echoed against
the dingy walls. If she’d worked like that when she was cleaning, we would have finished already. “Put down the damn sponge,” she said.
I sat next to her and looked at the screen. “I read that article. It was a puff
Ravi had been in the Sunday Times Magazine recently for a show at a famous
gallery. It had sold out — he didn’t share his wife’s qualms about private collectors — and led to rumors that he was being considered for a Genius grant.
“Look at the photo.” Sara clicked the magnifying glass icon and Ravi took
over the screen. He slouched in a straight-backed chair, left leg draped over one of its wooden arms in a pose that couldn’t be comfortable. He stared impassively at the camera.
“Do they teach that look in art school?”
“Forget him. See that painting?” She touched the screen, static snapping in
the air when she made contact. “It’s mine.”
“You share a studio. It was in the background.”
“I mean the composition. I did a whole series on this flyweight boxer —
Hector Mireles — but I didn’t like them enough to show. Ravi said he liked them, told me not to paint over them. This—” she stabbed at the screen again “—is why. The fucker copied my work, just fuzzed out the details so you can’t tell what the guy’s doing. Inspired by Basquiat, my ass.”
“I thought you said you influenced each other. ‘Creative osmosis.’” I
remembered this from an article in ARTnews years earlier, a pretentious dual
profile of art’s new Power Couple.
“It’s not even as good as mine, but everyone’s falling all over themselves
because of it. Oh, the lines, Ravi. They’re so primal, Ravi, so masculine.”
“All that pot’s making you paranoid.”
“That asshole at Paint who raves about him because he’s cerebral — like
black people can’t go to art school — loves this now, too, because it’s so authentic.”
“Have you talked to him about this?”
“Of course, but he’s like you. ‘It’s all in your head.’ When that didn’t work
he told me it was a goddamn homage. So I slashed every canvas in the studio. I tore them to pieces while he sat on the floor blubbering.”
“Doesn’t that suggest that he’s telling the truth?”
“He’s such a narcissist he’d show his used kleenexes if he could figure
out what to call them. Phlegm on Cotton, Number Forty-Seven. Three thousand dollars.”
“Calm down.” Her face was red, the vein in the middle of her forehead
so prominent it looked like she’d been branded. “Where are these canvases of yours?”
“Fuck you if you don’t believe me.”
I stood up, gathered my phone and purse and headed for the door. “No one
talks to me like that,” I said.
“Please sit down.”
Her head was on her folded arms, resting on the table, and she watched
me out of the corner of her eye, like she had as a kid when she didn’t want the adults to think she was paying attention.
“I moved everything to the warehouse before I left. He doesn’t even know
“Jeanette bought you a warehouse?”
“I rent space in one. The studio isn’t big enough for storage. And it’s a firetrap. Just because I don’t want to sell everything doesn’t mean I want to lose it. We’ll see what he comes up with now that he can’t steal from me. A genius? He hasn’t done anything original in three years.”
The same had been said of her recently, down to the number of years, not
that I’d ever mention it.
“So you’re leaving him?”
“The more upset I get at Ravi, the more I like those stupid paintings. I hadn’t
looked at them in years before I moved them, but they’re not bad. Just a boxer throwing punches. No bag, no opponent.”
A phone rang, a digital chirruping coming from the kitchen cabinets.
“That’s mine. It wouldn’t fit in the disposal.”
It rang six times, then stopped.
“That was him.”
“You can’t know that.” By the time I finished speaking mine had begun to
“I told you,” she said before I’d even looked up.
I stayed another ten days, long enough to get the house in order and to get
Sara back on her meds. She complained that they made her feel worse than the anti-malarial she took when she was in South America, but I couldn’t leave her in the state I’d found her in. She still wouldn’t speak to Ravi, though I convinced her to at least take her other calls, digging the cell phone out of the bread box she’d stuffed it in. We repainted the kitchen together, singing to the bad pop
songs on her iPod. Finally, the last few days she locked herself in the barn and continued on her project. It’s therapeutic, she’d tell me, then call me Auntie in her saddest voice if I tried to object.
I was back in Houston in time for summer’s final heat wave. Running
errands several days later, I heard the public radio host’s soothing voice announce the names of the grant recipients. Ravi’s was first, and though I knew they were ordered alphabetically, I couldn’t help seeing this as a portent. I pulled over and called my sister, but her cell rang and rang. She never used voicemail. Each of the so-called Genius Grant recipients will be awarded one hundred thousand dollars a year for the next five years. Once the foundation cut the first check, I figured Ravi would leave his crazy wife, so at least one problem would be resolved.
I tried her number a few more times that day, though I have to admit the
situation seemed less grave as the afternoon cooled into evening. By the time Joel brought the steaks and corn in from the grill, I’d forgotten about it for a blissful half hour.
The phone rang while I was finishing the dishes, someone from
Pennsylvania — I never got the name or position straight. An accident. Not over the phone. Next flight to Philadelphia. “We need you here in person,” she said. “Your sister left your number in case of emergency.”
Emergency didn’t do it justice. I knew by her tone that Sara had finally
succeeded. If she’d been alive, the woman would have stressed this to keep me calm.
Sara and Ravi shared the same management, and late that afternoon, while I
couldn’t reach Sara, her rep had. She’d discussed some business and mentioned the grant, then hung up. Based on the coroner’s report, Sara killed herself within
two hours of that call. “It’s amazing she could handle such a large-caliber weapon,” a detective told me, as though I should be impressed.
She’d done it in her studio, standing in front of her now-finished piece. She’d
even taped an X to the floor, like an actor’s mark, for optimum splatter.
When Mother announced that she wouldn’t attend the funeral — not
blaming Daddy this time but the cause of death, which she refused to say aloud — I decided to have the ceremony in Houston, hoping to keep it small. No such luck. The Art World arrived en masse, as though they’d chartered a 747. But I didn’t see anyone who’d been at the farmhouse. Ravi, in all black, kept his sunglasses on the entire time and had such a retinue that I couldn’t get near him until he sat down next to me in the front pew of our church. Months later, he’d hint that Sara did it out of jealousy, which is bullshit. He’s just unhappy that no matter what he does, her shadow will always be cast over him. In her eighties, Jeanette still held court, offering soundbytes to any reporter within shouting distance. She had shed weight as she’d gotten older, become nothing but bone and gristle, and after the service I held her elbow to steady her while she spoke to the man from the LA Times.
“Sara was so gifted, such a talent—” no one used the word genius “—but like
so many artists, she was troubled. The line between inspiration and obsession can be very thin.”
“Being an artist had nothing to do with it,” I said. It took me a moment
to compose myself. I hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but since I had, the assembled, even Jeanette, expected more. “Everyone wants to make this so much more noble than it is. She…” I tried to imagine her standing there, sticking such a huge gun into her mouth — one of the crime scene people told me the recoil snapped both of her front teeth — but I can’t. “It would be just as awful if she
was an accountant, or a teacher.”
The reporter waited a respectful moment — a decade would have been
better — before saying, “What about the rumor that the act was part of her work? I’ve heard that—”
“It wasn’t an act,” I said. “There’s no more work.”
Sara left everything to me, so after the probate I returned to Pennsylvania
and hired three of the men lingering outside Home Depot to crate the painting. Only one of them spoke English, but even he kept his mouth shut, at first, when they came out of the barn only minutes after entering.
“You’ll have to find somebody else,” he said, without making eye contact.
“We’re not going to touch that thing.”
I stood in the doorway and watched them leave, thinking about Jeanette,
the reporter, all the gallery owners who would have been happy to barge into the studio to pour over every brush stroke, every blood splatter, and declare it a masterpiece, or grotesque sensationalism, I didn’t know which. I could have charged admission. Step right up and revel in human misery. For five bucks extra you can take your picture next to a skull fragment.
The canvas had to be eight feet tall by ten feet wide, large enough that it
seemed like an integral part of the building. An exquisitely-detailed painting done in black and blue and gray geometric shapes, like enormous pixels, filled every available inch. The scale was so huge that it took a full minute before I realized what I was looking at. Off-center pictures for an off-kilter girl. She’d painted a triptych of those twenty-year-old Polaroids, blowing them up to fit the canvas, even though that cut off even more of the image, more of the hair sprouting from the top of her turtleneck. Much of the detail was hidden beneath the gore, the disgusting layer of dried brown gunk that thinned as it
moved towards the edges, the skull fragments — smaller than I’d imagined but everywhere —and various other globs and masses in shades too foul to describe. Copies of the Polaroids, blown-up and subdivided into grids, were taped to the wall next to the canvas, and others, without the grids, sat on the stool to my left, beneath a pallet of dried blue, gray, and black paint, still her favorite colors.
I sat down on top of the stains from where Sara had fallen. Fallen. I hadn’t
thought of that. The floor was concrete, unforgiving, but surely she couldn’t have felt anything by the time she hit it, and even if she had, it would have paled in comparison to the pain in what was left of her head. How long had she lain there, her still-warm body cooling, waiting for the police? What could have pushed her to this point? I still had no idea. For too long, I’d viewed Sara as a problem that needed to be solved. Maybe that attitude had been the real problem. I’d failed her somehow, that’s all I could think. Not that Ravi had or our parents or even Jeanette. Me, Auntie. I took the original Polaroids with me when I left the barn and haven’t been back since. Traces of blood have dried on them, though if I stare hard enough I can pretend they aren’t there. I keep them in the bottom of my jewelry box, the safest hiding place in a house full of men. My sons want to turn the farmhouse into a vacation spot for their families, a place where we can gather for holidays and reunions, but as long as I have a say, it will sit abandoned. With any luck it will cave in on itself. Enough time has passed that everyone thinks I should cheer up, go back to work, count my blessings — all that nonsense. But whenever I look at them, my sons, my husband, I see that painting. Well, not exactly. The final touches are the same, but it’s not Sara’s face they cover, it’s mine.
Matthew Duffus is the author of the short story “Shadowboxing,” winner of this issue’s Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence. Here we chat with him about his process and his story. This is Woodshop Talk. ***
BUFFALO ALMANACK: So much of this story feels like a critique of the culture of fine art, particularly those scenes involving the partygoers and hangers-on at Sara’s mansion. Yet we sense a degree of sympathy in your treatment of Sara and Ravi. What are your thoughts on art culture? We’re especially curious about where you see it intersecting with the culture of literature.
An Interview With Matthew Duffus
MATTHEW DUFFUS: I wrote the first draft of this story from my
perspective as an uneducated art appreciator. It was only as I revised that I researched the art world, and what I found matched the literary world fairly well. Both seem obsessed with the cult of youth, with finding the next hot thing. And when you put that together in the form of an artist-couple, look out! So Sara and Ravi get caught up in this PR dream-turned-nightmare where they are feted for their youth, their looks, and, lastly, their art. While Sara has the tunnel vision necessary to keep making art amid all of this, Ravi succumbs to the hype a bit. As Sara says, he hasn’t done anything significant in years. The pressure builds to avoid has-been territory, and he makes the fateful decision to “borrow” from Sara, at least from her perspective.
Robin Black wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the New York Times a while
back that is far more articulate than my thoughts on this subject. As someone who is on the verge of forty, the final dividing line between being a “young” writer and just being a writer, I’m concerned about the pressures our culture’s emphasis on youth puts on writers on either side of this division. Strangely enough, I think the Internet can have a positive effective in this regard. Readers and art appreciators alike have access to so many more writers and artists than they had in previous decades, when our awareness was tied primarily to traditional media and the specific tastes of a handful of other gatekeepers. Youth will always have its allure, but I’m hopeful that the next Sara or Ravi will come up in an art culture that is more open to nontraditional career trajectories.
BA: There’s a looooooong history of culture drawing connections between mental illness and creative energy. To what extent do you imagine Sara to be reflective of the generic artistic state of mind?
MD: I was very aware of this history as I wrote “Shadowboxing.” While
I didn’t want to fall into the trap of writing a story about a character type, I couldn’t escape feeling that Sara’s struggles and successes are completely intertwined. My goal was to make Sara as specific as possible, in an attempt to transcend the generic. When it comes to Sara’s mental illness, I was purposely vague, though she certainly suffers from bipolar disorder at minimum. While I would never say that all artists have to suffer similarly for their art, I do think there’s something a bit unnerving, at times, about the intense focus that is required to make art. When I’m working on a story, I have to forget the bills that need to be paid, the errands that are awaiting my attention, and even my immediate surroundings. I can see where this could lend itself to a manic disposition.
BA: This piece is notable among those we’ve published for closing on a particularly intense downer ending. What challenges (or opportunities!) do these sort of bleak conclusions provide? Did you ever envision a happy way out for a story that begins with the death of a sibling, and if so, why did you choose this avenue instead?
MD: The first draft of this story told Sara’s life chronologically, but early readers didn’t like coming upon Sara’s death midway through, so as I revised, her death became the focal point from the beginning. With that in mind, I couldn’t see any way out of a downer ending, if I planned on staying true to Anita’s role as the narrator. The challenge to such a structure was to give the readers a satisfying experience without the promise of an uplifting finish. Once Anita returns to Houston, the story became as much about her — her role as
An Interview With Matthew Duffus
enabler/support system, her desire for a break from this pattern, her guilt — as it was about Sara. As such, I felt that even though the ending is bleak, it offers readers an accurate portrait of her state of mind. Understandably, this death is going to haunt her for a long time. And even though I, for one, would never fault her for what she’s done for her sister over the years, she’s still left feeling like she should have done more.
Lastly, I tried my damnedest to convince Anita to end on a more uplifting
note, but she resisted every attempt! For what it’s worth, I think she was right.
BA: Where, when and how do you write best? We want to know more about the Duffus rules of writing!
MD: I wrote the first draft of this story five years ago. As with most of my more successful stories, I wrote the draft quickly, in about a week’s worth of long writing days. It took two years, off and on, to revise, largely because of the research I did into the art world after that draft and my desire to pare the story down to its essence. In the meantime, my wife and I had a baby, which has dramatically changed my writing routine. Now, instead of having long stretches of time, I write for an hour every morning, before my daughter gets up, seated on the couch in our living room. It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve shifted my attention to novel writing over that same period. For me, successful stories come out in white-hot bursts. My goal when writing them is just to keep up, to stay in that moment. Novel writing, on the other hand, requires that longdistance runner’s endurance, which fits my writing schedule better these days.
Man and children watching a parade Des Moines, 1970s
Nursing home Des Moines, 1970s
Woman with cigarette holder Des Moines, 1970s
Young men Des Moines, 1970s
Woman with cigarette holder Des Moines, 1970s
Shriners Des Moines, 1970s
Man in trailer park Boulder, 1979
The first time, Melanie had been about fifty feet away as the kid spun around the blind corner, his shiny silver Mercedes drifting on two-wheels, at least for a second. Sun glinted through the sudden spaces under the car. The For Sale sign in front of the Delgado’s house rocked back and forth. Wind blew dried eucalyptus leaves, the edges thin as knives.
She threw up her arms as the car righted itself, the leash yanking her dog,
Remy. Remy whined. The kid skidded hard to a stop, the rear of his car lifting. The smell of hot brakes and tires wafted from under the car as the motor ran.
“What the hell!” she yelled, ignoring the bang of her heart.
The car inched closer, and when he was two feet away, he unrolled his
window. The first thing she noted were his pimples, the shine of grease on his forehead. Might as well wear a sign that reads Hormones, she thought. He smelled like gels and cigarettes smoked by friends in the back seat.
“Sorry?” she said. “I was just about at that turn. Any closer, my dog and I
would have been dead.”
He put on a sullen face, eyes glazed and staring straight ahead.
“You should drive ten miles an hour on this street. It’s basically one lane. Do
you want to run over someone?”
He pushed a hand through his thick dark hair. Then he shrugged, and for
the thousandth time, Melanie marveled that the entire population hadn’t been killed by teenaged boys. Her own hadn’t managed to kill her, and they’d lived in her house.
“I don’t really feel like talking with your mother. Tina, right? But I will. Slow
the hell down.”
To his credit, he looked her in the eyes, dark brown-eyed, white-toothed, at
least two good attributes. He’d probably been an adorable toddler, staggering around the house on chubby legs and with a big smile. Poor kid. Driving was likely his only power, she thought. But still.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You said that already.”
Sullen again. A car pulled up behind him, the driver tapping on the horn.
“Okay.” She stepped back and let him pass, Remy close at her side. “Don’t
do it again.”
She and Remy walked on, Melanie kicking at crushed pine cones. Asshole,
she thought, her word for people who did things wrong. And most everyone up in the Oakland Hills did. Driving was just one. But it was the most obvious, the most egregious, drivers barreling down the skinny, mountainous roads at forty miles an hour, straddling the double-yellow lines or just ignoring them, texting and making calls and yelling at their kids. They slid through stop signs and lights, whipped around corners. They drank big cups of Starbucks coffee and held onto the wheel with slack left hands.
Walkers — dog walkers — weren’t much better, letting dogs off-leash, dogs
that were supposedly “friendly.” The ones that “never bite” or have “never done that before.” Right, Melanie thought, saving Remy weekly from snapping, slavering biters. Or the walkers were just benignly oblivious, using expandable leads, their dogs crisscrossing the street so that it was impossible for Melanie to know which side to stay on. Then there were the ones that didn’t pick up the mounds of dog shit, piles of it everywhere. Or the ones who left the full poo bags on the street. Who did they think was going to clean up after them?
She didn’t even want to think about the bicyclists zipping down from the
regional parks. Toward the end of their marriage, her ex Dan had taken up biking. Two-thousand dollar technological marvel bike, special shoes, fancy helmet. All that damp, smelly Spandex. On weekends, he’d leave for the entire day, riding from Oakland, through Berkeley, into Contra Costa County and the wide-open suburbs with their trails or, at least, wider streets. Or so he said.
Now, half the time, Melanie had the notion of ramming bikers and flipping
them up like poker chips. But instead, she was forced to follow them down the hill, looking at their ghastly ass cracks through their worn-out biking shorts.
But really, no one should live up here at all. The 1991 fire hadn’t taught any
of them a lesson. Big houses built one after the other next to stands of droughtdry eucalyptus and now-dying Monterey pines. Empty lots let go to seed. Clumps of oily, invasive Scotch broom. Budget cuts and closed fire stations. Small streets, barely big enough for the remaining fire engines. Global warming. Off-shore flows. This entire hilly community was one struck match away from extinction. Just like this neighbor kid, people were blind to anyone but themselves.
But who was she fooling? Despite the danger, she and Dan had moved to
the hills for the view; for the neighbors with kids, the block parties, the nearby parks, the swim club. Now Melanie was the only one left in the big house, rolling around it like a marble in a matchbox.
Back at home, Melanie took off Remy’s leash and gave him his dried bull’s
penis, marketed as a bully-stick dog chew. He trotted outside to his spot on the outdoor couch and started gnawing.
Sitting down at the kitchen counter, she clicked onto her laptop searching
the neighborhood watch list for Tina Simmons’ email address. After what
Melanie saw today, it was clear Tina needed a new script. What kind of advice was she giving that monster? From what Melanie had gathered at block parties, the father wasn’t around and hadn’t been for years. It must have been Tina that taught her son to drive like a maniac.
Melanie scrolled through, finding Tina’s name and address. Settling in her
chair, Melanie clicked and started writing, but then she sat back and stared at Remy in the sun, the dog oblivious to bad parenting and near-death experiences.
How many times had Melanie’s older son Robert driven while drunk? Or
while on some other substance Melanie would only learn about years later? He’d sneak out of the house, first to run around the neighborhood with his friends, and then later to drive like an idiot, lights off. He’d siphon gas from Melanie’s and Dan’s cars, speed around until he ran out, and then steal more gas from someone else. Robert and his friends destroyed the local soccer field and had to do community service for weeks at the nearby assisted living facility. He was lucky Dan pulled a few lawyer strings and kept him out of juvenile hall.
Melanie clicked on “to” and then “subject,” writing Your Son.
She sat back. Her sons. Robert, okay now. And Will, just into his life, almost
independent at 27, a firefighter recently hired to a district. Finally. All she paid for was his health insurance and his phone. A miracle, really. He hadn’t learned to read until halfway through second-grade, even though Melanie and Dan had known he was smart. Then there were those disturbing drawings in third grade. The bombs and blood. That black and red ink. All the meetings with teachers as exhausted as Melanie was at her own school district, with her own students and their hyper parents. Twenty-two years of it. It was endless. The forms. The IEP programs. The teacher notes home, the calls, the after-school check-ins. Being a teacher hadn’t made it any easier to be a parent. How she and Will
wrangled about homework, both of them red-eyed, wild-haired by night’s end. The pages of reading. The long essays. How he’d stalk off, slamming doors, his eyes averted when he slunk into the kitchen in the morning, submitting to the daily routine. His stiff, battle-ready back as he walked out the front door, hefting his fifty-pound backpack. If it hadn’t been for the resource room (special education) and the therapists (for the whole family) Melanie might be making weekly visits to Lompoc prison with all the other mothers and wives.
Will probably didn’t even remember half of it. Or that she’d been there the
whole time, standing behind him.
Melanie glanced back at Remy, his black eyes on her as he chewed. So much
better to have a dog. You could screw up and dogs forgot. You could do your worst, and they still loved you. You could fill a bowl of water with an old garden hose. You could feed them hard pellets of food. You could lock them in a cage for four hours with only a rawhide bone and a blanket and all was forgiven.
Melanie sighed, closed down her email, and shut her laptop.
She woke up, something covering her eyes, maybe her whole head — her
body immobilized, the world muffled. Melanie licked her lips. The warm air around her was filled with noises but empty of anything she understood enough to hear.
“Water,” she said.
Water appeared, a straw on her lips. She sucked but couldn’t see who held
She released the straw, sank back, but even that tiny movement seemed
impossible. The tendons on the sides of her neck pulsed and burned. Each vertebrae of her spine screamed on the stiff mattress.
“Where?” she asked.
Then there was a muffled blur, an itchy scratch of sound, and she could hear.
She breathed in hospital — bleached cotton, isopropyl alcohol, her own body, a kind of dead skin cast smell she remembered from when she broke her arm in second grade — but she didn’t know which hospital (Highland? God. Kaiser? Lord). Or who was with her. Robert was in Berlin fomenting political change, and Will was in the Cascades of Washington State, fighting wildland fires. Dan? Dan had left years ago, so—
“My dog!” She thought to sit up, but tubes, wires, and her own body
constrained her. A hand steadied her on the bed.
“He’s fine, I promise,” the somehow familiar voice said. Melanie turned
toward it, her, but her eyes were still covered, the world a vague yellow. “We’re taking care of him.”
Melanie let her heart calm, felt someone tugging the blanket around her
shoulders. As she exhaled, she focused on finding her body. Closing her eyes against the yellow (something oily covering them) she searched out her right foot. There it was at the end of the bed. And then her left. She tried to wiggle her toes, and she might have, but there was pain, something that radiated up her legs into her dead center, which felt achy and deep, a well of blood, maroon, glistening.
But other than that, she felt okay, her normal feeling from chest to fingertips.
She moved those, too, scratching the sheet as she did.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You don’t remember?” a second voice asked.
A slash of sun on Remy’s white fluffy fur. A click of dog tags. A pine cone,
a scrap of paper. A sound, like thick packing tape ripped fast and hard off
cardboard. Then something she could not really describe, not even now that it was over: a bump, her body screaming and flying. A wrench in her arm, her whole side, a crack of spine and skull, a hard white flash. Then she was here.
That little shit.
She breathed in and held it, trying to see the car as it smashed into her, the
hard wing of his front bumper, the bull of his grill as it wanged into her torso.
Maybe she was inventing this part, but she imagined his wide eyes full of
terror and completion.
“Dammit,” Melanie whispered.
“He didn’t mean to,” the first voice said, Melanie starting to remember
where she’d heard it before.
“Shhh,” the second voice said, clearly in charge. A nurse. “Let her rest.”
Melanie thought of the t-shirt a man at the gym wore daily: I’ll rest when I’m
She could hear and feel. She could move her toes.
“He hit me,” she said to the voices.
“He didn’t mean to,” the familiar first voice repeated.
“I warned him,” Melanie said.
“Didn’t pay you or the law any mind,” the nurse voice said.
There was a pause, whispers, hospital sounds in the hall. Melanie
swallowed, her throat parched. “Am I all right?”
“Your doctor will be in to see you soon.” The nurse moved close, adjusting
things around Melanie’s pillow, machines clicking and beeping.
“I know what that means,” Melanie said, her words coming out of her
mouth in whole, slow pieces. “I watch TV. I’m blind. Or disfigured. I’m not
paralyzed because I can move. See.”
She wiggled her toes again, the sheets scratchy. She moved her fingers, and
that was when she noticed the casts.
The familiar voice was crying now, and if Melanie weren’t in casts, she’d slap
her. Who was she, anyway, worrying so much about the “he” who hit her? Why did she care some much? Why was she defending this stupid ignorant kid who didn’t listen? Why was she sitting next to Melanie instead of Robert or Will? What about Melanie’s friends and family, her sister and cousins?
And then she knew. Tina.
“It’s all your fault,” Melanie whispered.
“I know,” Tina sobbed back. “I know.”
The news wasn’t as bad as the television show she watched on Thursday
nights would have made it, no paralysis from the waist down, no surprise brain tumor along with the concussion or incipient MS, exacerbated by stress. The show would have included emotional visits from her mother, admitting finally that Melanie was adopted or a child of rape. This fine episode would have had her sons calling from the tops of mountains or from small submarines at the deepest ocean depths. The doctors would plead for them to get to the hospital without delay. They would hurl themselves home, bringing gifts and their hearts on platters. They would have kneeled at her bedside and forgiven her all her mothering mistakes, handing back her wrong words and moves in brown paper bags she could throw away. Possibly, her ex would have seen the errors of his ways, leaving his young bride for the true comforts of the good woman he’d spent half his life with.
But Melanie only had two fractured arms (apparently she flung them upon impact, trying to protect herself), a concussion, scratched corneas, and random lacerations from rocks and branches, tossed as she was onto the steep hillside on the left side of the street. They were still watching for internal bleeding. She would feel this way for a long time. According to Tina, smart Remy dodged and avoided collision. He hadn’t run away, either. Waited by Melanie’s side until the paramedics came, went placidly with Tina after the ambulance roared off. Now according to Tina, the shitty murderous driving kid was dog-sitting and dog-walking and being very helpful. “Steven has a good heart,” Tina said, again, but for the first time today, day four of Melanie’s hospital stay. Melanie’s arms were elevated on pillows, and she had strict instructions to avoid movement, which meant that the nurses came in with a bedpan when necessary. Tomorrow, though, she was to be moved to a convalescent facility where she would actually convalesce. Her eye bandages would come off sometime later today. Even better, the nurses promised her a sponge bath before bed. “Really? Again?” Melanie said. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” “He’s always been a good boy.” “Good? What’s that even mean?” “He stays with me.” Tina’s voice was almost a wail. “Good that way.” “Right.” Melanie turned to the wall before remembering that with the gauze, no one could see her cry. Go home, she wanted to shout. Get the hell out of here. “It’s Steven’s father.” Tina said. Melanie heard rustling tissue and the blowing of a nose. “It’s always the father,” Melanie said, though it wasn’t. On bad days, she
worried she was the dark heart of her sons’ faults, personality quirks and moral lapses. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, she ran through her litany of errors: antibiotics, hot sauna, sex, glass of wine while pregnant, inability to say no, inclination to yell, general and persistent fatigue during their childhoods. Too much imagination (all those trips to tide pools and the hollowed out redwood trees and the jellybean and salt water taffy factories) and too little (wanting them to play sports and take dance lessons). “He left us both,” Tina said. “Join the club,” Melanie said. “But my boys don’t drive forty miles an hour around blind turns on tiny roads.” “He didn’t mean to,” Tina whined. Melanie hadn’t seen Tina for a couple of years, not since that last neighborhood barbeque. Afternoon breeze blowing Tina’s dyed red hair, brown and gray roots. Too much laughter for too little happening, a clutched glass of white wine in her hand, skin pale and brittle and too much of it exposed in that black t-shirt. Looking over her head for someone to what? Come up to her? To tell her that her suspicions were right. She’d made every possible mistake and would continue to do so. Tina’s whole life? A failure. Tina sniffed, the wet, wangly sound of her rubbing her nose. “He really didn’t mean to. It wasn’t on purpose.” More tissue, more blowing. What was the definition of mean to anyway? There was the attempt to do something — drive fast — and the outcome. Steven could just have easily ended up at home, parked in his own garage. He might have slammed into the kitchen, kissed Tina on the cheek and asked what was for dinner. Instead of breaking bits of Melanie’s body, he might have played video games and then told his mother stories about water polo practice over dinner. He didn’t mean to bang her up
into the air. Melanie didn’t mean to be in that exact spot at that moment, waiting to be split like kindling. “I’m going to drop the charges.” Melanie said, as if this plan had been approved by her lawyer and accountant. Tina stilled. Then, “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to sue you for your umbrella policy. That and the car insurance.” Tina’s gasp stabbed the air. “And?” “You’re going to take that car away. He’s got to walk or get a ride.” After the drugs and the soccer field incident, Robert took the bus everywhere. Finding rides home from the movies and dances and football games. Girlfriends driving him home after parties. Long after Robert left for college, Will clung to rules not made for him. He never received a warning, much less a speeding ticket, his body stiff and hyperaware in the driver seat. Just last year when he picked her up from the SeaTac airport, Melanie patted his shoulder as he merged onto the highway, hoping to feel his bones and muscles sag under her cupped palm. But he stayed tense, every part of him still afraid, as if he believed that at any moment he would start making his brother’s mistakes. “Anything else?” Tina asked, a small hope in her voice. Something swung in Melanie’s mind, an idea she grabbed onto. “I’m going to collect the money and move.” Tina inhaled. Melanie surprised herself with a smile, feeling the stiffness of the pillowcase against her cheek. She flexed her foot, her hand. She felt the healed parts of her deep insides. “I am going to move.” Tina breathed out and then settled against the chair.
She was quiet for so long that Melanie found herself falling asleep behind her gauze. She dreamed about her sons. Not the way they were now, all grown up and far away. Not the men they’d become with women who had naturally taken Melanie’s place. And not the long-boned, big-fisted, baby-faced teenaged boys to whom she’d fed plates and plates of food. Not the boys who sat with her in movie theatres, science-fiction blasting bright on the screen, their eyes fill with story. Not even the grammar school boys with their lunch boxes and bad jokes, jabbering on the way home from school about who farted at recess. No, in her dream Robert and Will were little again, curly haired and wet from the bath. Their skin shiny and slick, their bodies smooth, perfect, and round. White smiles. Red bow lips. She could feel them against her body, warm from the bath, wrapped in a towel, pressing their faces against her neck. They were it. They were the only reason she was here on the planet. The well of them filled her. All her failures and hopes and mistakes broke away, her face full with a smile that yanked on her bandages. Melanie tried to ignore the pull of tape, but that’s when she came back to the room and heard Tina still next to her, sniffling. “Thank you,” Tina said, her voice easy, spoken from a place not made of fear. Melanie waited for the sound of her butt lifting from the chair, heels clacking toward door, the sound of Tina walking away from whatever part of this was her responsibility. But there were only more sniffles, the whiff whiff of the tissues yanked from the box.
By the time she’d been transferred to Apple Valley Convalescent Facility,
Melanie’s sight had returned, though she wished it hadn’t. Oh, for the gauze, she thought, gazing down her body, the sticks of her legs, the T of her set arms. She did not want a mirror, but she felt the shape of her hair, tangled around her head, slightly dirty, needing a dye job, a week past due. Gray roots for sure. Or maybe she’d stop all that now. Thirty years of chemicals on her scalp had been enough. She was scared to think about her toenails, and had not asked for anyone to take off her hospital socks. When she raised the head of her bed, she could see out to the nurses’ station and toward reception, the back of a squat young girl hunched over a book, a trickle of visitors marching past. The action was slower here than the hospital, less urgent, the end for so many of the patients known, expected, anticipated. Some would get better, some not. But everything was going to take time. The buildings fanned out over the campus, surrounded by water, trees, tended lawns. She was too well acquainted with the soccer field next door, the very one Robert ripped to shreds with his used Infiniti, he and that mad bunch with their beer cans and joints. Afterward, the new sod replaced, the green soared all the way up to Apple Valley and its smooth asphalt traffic circle and stately trees. Every day, a doctor came to check on her, as did a physical therapist, an older woman named Anne, who barely smiled but moved Melanie around the bed, worked her legs, her shoulders, massaged away the tense knot of headache where her skull met her neck. She thought to tell Anne about her plans to move. First and most obviously, the casts would have to go. Then the house. And the job. But under all the plans and details lived something else, a tingly feeling she couldn’t name. “I’m moving soon,” Melanie told Anne during one of her last sessions.
Anne looked down at her, one of Melanie’s cast arms in her hands. She reached up to Melanie’s shoulder, feeling muscle, her fingers strong. “I hate change,” she said, gently lifting Melanie to a sitting position. “But sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Then Anne went back to her work. Melanie’s body. Her body. The work of so many people. They all came in for something. The squeeze of the blood pressure band, tight above her cast. The beep of the thermometer. The slap of plastic food tray on plastic bed tray. Her boys checked in. Her mother called from her own assisted living facility every other day to parse the extent of Melanie’s injuries, the physical therapy treatment plan, the disability benefits. Three friends from work arrived with plants and candy and gossip about which teachers were retiring at the end of the term. The kids were acting up. Recess had been cancelled three times last week. The big news? Someone stole the copy card. Get well notes slipped in from neighbors and old college pals living in other states and countries. But mostly it was just Tina and her, rain beating on the windows in the afternoon, the snores of her roommate with the two knee replacements punctuating the stale air. Tina had stopped defending her son. They passed the days watching television or reading from a local paper that Tina brought in. They laughed about the police blotter from Piedmont, the enclave tucked into Oakland like an ancient walled city: Dead squirrel found in yard. Officer called and Man knocking on doors without permit and large bag discovered on sidewalk. Outside, willow branches swayed. Two weeks later, Melanie was sitting on the edge of her bed, her re-casted arms in slings. A cab was coming for her, an attendant hired from the online service awaiting her arrival at home. Her lawyer filled in all the insurance claim
forms, the money soon to be wired into her account. Melanie had her mind on a particular real estate agent, and part of her occupational therapy was working on a computer. Something to occupy her when all she could do was tap, tap, tap. She searched for somewhere flat. Somewhere with big streets and sidewalks. Somewhere with dog parks. Sonoma. Marin. Napa. Mendocino. San Diego. Maui and Oahu on the back burner. Maybe not the back burner. Why worry about her children visiting her when they haven’t done so here? The neighborhood? Teaching? She’d let it go as if it were a blanket, a throw, a half completed afghan, crochet hook skittering across the floor. She’d pick up what was left of her old life and flick it, let it billow up once, twice, and then let it drift away. A man walked down the hall, and she imagined it was the cab driver, but then there he was, in the doorway. Steven, the boy with the stealth Mercedes. Melanie stared, expecting to see Tina slump down the hallway after him, but he was alone. “Why are you here?” “God,” he said. His misery and pimples glowed. Melanie struggled to speak, as if something were hitched on her vocal cords. It rested there on her larynx, her howl. Her yell, her scream at him about how he’d wrecked her daily routine. Her orderly fashion. Her to and fro. How he’d broken the solid circle of her solitary life she’d bent into place after Dan left. How dare he! How dare he! But how dare he not? How dare he not live, all those impulses inside him? They stared at each other, Melanie watching the beat of his breath in his throat. “Here, help me up,” she said.
He plodded toward her, his mouth turned down, eyes solemn. Other than this expression, he looked the same as always, but here — out of his car — he was so tall, all arms and legs, his body stretched out like a plank. He was a flicker away from being a man, off into the life that would take him away from all this. Away from Tina, too. “I’m so sorry.” He reached out for her arm and then flinched when he touched cast, his hand inching toward her shoulder. Melanie leaned forward like the physical therapist showed her, planted her feet, used her quads. “Do you need a wheelchair?” “Don’t want it,” Melanie said. “Let’s get out of there before they catch me.” Steven glanced at her, his eyes wide, lips pressed together, but his step matched hers. “You drive too fast,” she said, as they shuffled together out of the room, Steven picking up her bag and slinging it on a shoulder. “It was a stupid game. I tried to see how high I could jump the car. That’s what I called it. Jumping. Sort of like flying. That time you caught me, I swore I wouldn’t do it again.” “But you did,” Melanie nodded to a couple of the patients she’d spoken to during her stay. She’d never know if they got out. Or where they’d go if they did. “My mother took away the car,” he said, holding onto her so gently, she thought she could feel his pulse through his fingers. “I’m not going to drive again for a year.” “How did you get here?” “Mom called a cab,” he said. Melanie let him steady her as they walked down the hall, past the nurses,
the squat receptionist, the other patients lined up like wheelchair soldiers in the dayroom. Steven was taller than both Will and Robert, his gait lope-y his arms long, hands and fingers thin and pale. But he smelled like they used to. Soap, thick white patches of deodorant under each arm, undeterred hope with a layer of fear, the tang of arrogance, the surety that he would never die. Walking with him down the hall began to feel familiar, expected, so much so that she almost pressed her head against Steven’s chest, even though his thin bony rib cage wouldn’t feel the same as either of her sons’. But for one stride, two, she imagined it would. Out in the air, Melanie blinked against the light and then saw the yellow cab, Remy in the back seat, his tail wagging. Steven lowered her into the back seat, and as she sat down, Remy crawled into her lap. “All set?” Steven said. “Ready?” Melanie nodded, surprise tears as she put on her seatbelt. Remy licked her cheek, her ear. She wiped away the tears along with his saliva, his panting warm dog breath in her face. The cab driver started the motor. In the seat next to her was the boy who plowed her down and smashed her flat, leaving her broken. As Steven talked to the cab driver, she thought him so far into the future that all of this was only memory. That lady and the dog. The lady I hit with Mom’s car. The lady who left and never came back. Melanie’s breath was shallow. Her broken arms ached. Here she was again, smack in the moments that change everything. Robert before leaving the house for a night out with his drunken, noisy friends. Will before going to college. Even earlier. Dan before he got on his shiny new bike and rode all the way to a
new wife. The driver pulled into traffic, Remy’s head in her lap. “First semester senior year,” he said, “I’m going to England. Study abroad.” “I guess you’ll really be flying them. Jumping across the pond as they say,” Melanie said, surprised again by the tightness in her throat. He wasn’t her son leaving, but she thought of Tina, alone in her house with her tissues. “Will you be there for the holidays?” she asked. He shrugged. “Your mom could fly over. Do Boxing Day in London.” Steven petted Remy. “Maybe.” Steven started telling her about school. His best class chemistry. His mother so worried all the time. He petted Remy some more, and then they looked out the windows, the air blowing through his dark hair, through Remy’s fluff. What was changing? Melanie didn’t know. Her whole life? Nothing? It should feel bigger than this, wider than the small thing cracking open inside her as she sat in the backseat of the taxicab. More than just hope, the same hope she felt in Steven as she clutched him in the hallway. There should be a clear outcome in sight. Nothing ambiguous. Something to interpret and understand. A big, Oh, yes! But all she knew for sure was that this pimply, gangly, and still growing boy smashed into her and flung her up. There she was caught by the heavy car, tossed skyward, arms out in front of her. There she was, moving away and moving closer. Moving.
The Kingdom of Dust. Toil and transformation in the Central Valley. Featured photography by Matt Black.
Weeding cotton. Allensworth, California.
Former cotton migrant at home. Teviston, California.
Jobless man bathes in a ditch. Mendota, California.
Texas migrant in her yard. Teviston, California.
Brother and sister play near their home. Teviston, California.
Fallowed tomato fields. Corcoran, California.
Tomato harvest. Firebaugh, California.
Home of unemployed farm workers. Plainview, California. 81
Zero Fahrenheit outside and Jake is determined to flood his system with rye
whiskey soon as he sets foot inside the Brokenwrist Lodge.
The wind’s just out-and-out mean, sawing against his head, slipping beneath
the cuffs of his jacket. The howling Alaskan gale rips at the skin of his face.
Sun ain’t even down yet.
He grabs a hold of that frost-sticky door handle and yanks. A grip of suction
seals the door tight, but Jake tugs hard and steps into the safety of the bar with a swirl of white light and snow, like some angel come down to protect and save or to sit and join the ragged few at the zinc-top bar. The door whips in behind him and the light and heaven and snow-roar shut off. Sad, tinkling Christmas music murmurs from a speaker. The smell of mold thickens with each step into the lounge. Old Carl stoops behind the bar and rubs a rag against a glass.
Carl nods at Jake and Jake can’t tell if the look is bitter or not. It seems a little
“Jake,” Carl says.
“Hiya, boss.” Jake sits down, pulls off his gloves and jams them in his coat
“Your usual?” Carl says.
Jake, almost delirious now for that drink, slaps the bar top and says, “Yessir,
that’ll be fine.”
Carl doesn’t trust Jake and Jake knows it. Jake, at twenty-two, is about a
thousand years younger than Carl. But that’s not the reason.
Last week Jake did get a little out of hand again. Jake doesn’t remember the
details but he knows it’s true. Something about the jukebox. Did he kick it? Best not to think about it. It’s probably water under the bridge. Bartenders are used to people making a little bit of an ass out of themselves from time to time. They should be anyway.
Carl pours a shooter of Beam and Jake’s night begins.
Jake drains a few and pretty soon his head is all alight. His lungs feel like
they’re blooming anew inside him. It feels good. It’s what he comes here for.
After the dinner hour the locals start to pile in.
Jake leans on his elbow like an apostle at the Last Supper, except he’s jawing
to Mandy, who tends bar here herself when it isn’t her night off.
Jake talks about the music he’s paid the jukebox to play. Johnny Cash.
David Bowie. Johnny Cash again. He’s proud of his choices. Talking about it like Jake himself composed the song. Hell, in a town of nine hundred what’s the difference? Jake might as well be Cash.
Jake falls silent when his eyes alight on the old guy across the room. He’s a
stocky man with gray blonde hair and a cragged face.
Jake stops dead cold.
“What?” Mandy says. “What’s your problem?”
“Who is that?” Jake says, jutting his chin at the old guy.
Mandy scrunches her face up real good to see through the smoke and bar-
light. She shrugs. She doesn’t know. “Maybe he’s in from Yellowknife?” she suggests.
That ain’t it.
“I know him,” Jake says. “I know that sumbitch.”
His mother named him Jake after the doctor that delivered him. As far as
namesakes are concerned, Jake guesses there were few male contenders.
Jake’s not from Alaska. Not at all.
Jake was born in Texas. The other big state. He doesn’t know which is bigger.
Texas is its own country, his brother used to say. Its own country with its
own deep languages and awful tribes. Jake was born in Lunsun. His mother already had a son, William David — BD — and he was already nine when Jake was born.
Mom did her best. She’s had it hard. No parents of her own, a string of bad
boyfriends a mile long, more baggage than an airline.
She raised BD in Jurvis, then moved to Lunsun just before Jake arrived. She
worked at the Tuckery’s Doughnut Shack all through Jake’s kindergarten, first and second grade. She landed a waitressing job at the country club and BD and Jake went to school. She stripped at night. Jake knows that now, but did not then.
She met the Frog at the strip club, not at the country club like she said — BD
told him that years later. The Frog was what they called him, but his real name was Fred Francis Fuller and they named him the Frog for the Fr sound, yes, but mostly for the broadness of his face, the meanness of his eyes and the slackloose skin of his throat. He was a prickly iron worker from McShale. Mom and Frog got married and moved into his narrow two-story townhouse between the highway and a Circle K.
Jake didn’t really have an opinion about the Frog one way or the other.
Frog never said much to Jake and Jake never had a real reason to say anything to Frog. Only remarkable thing about Frog was that he kept a little room in the basement decorated with framed prints of WWII aircrafts. He had a few standing mannequins dressed in authentic military uniforms. BD and Jake were banned from the basement but they stole in every so often to play among the frozen soldiers saluting in the shadows.
One winter, BD and Jake played hide and seek in the house. It was cold
outside. Not as cold as it gets in Brutus but cold enough to keep two kids indoors. Mom boiled the water for mac and cheese in the kitchen.
Frog came home from work and didn’t say a word. He removed his union
jacket and hung it in the front closet. He wore his glasses. Real fleshy face. Almost no personality to look at. He stepped out of his shoes and marched upstairs and that was it. BD and Jake continued their game. Jake sat on the living room couch, planted his face in the cushions and began counting aloud to fifty. BD scrambled away and stomped up the stairs. When Jake finished counting he knew BD was still up there because he hadn’t heard him come down. Jake zipped up the stairs and searched their shared room. Not there, not in the closet. He checked the bathroom, behind the shower curtain, even the cabinet beneath the sink.
Jake supposes he should have known better, but he opened the Frog’s
bedroom door and there Frog stood, in front of his bed, alone, totally naked. He just stood there, looking at the floor. Jake still has no idea what he was doing exactly. In that split second, Jake saw the Frog’s whole body. His round, pale gut. His stubby, fat dick. Everything. Actually, come to think of it, Jake thinks
Frog was still wearing his glasses.
Jake’s stomach knotted up and, unthinking, he looked down at the floor
too, as if he were trying to find the same thing Frog was looking at. Frog said nothing. Jake muttered, “Sorry,” and shuffled out of the bedroom. Jake shut the door behind him. Frog spoke: “Jake.”
What would you have done? Frog was calling him back in there. Jake was
Jake opened the door again and put his head in, but kept his eyes on the
floor. Now, Jake guesses he’d assumed Frog had put his clothes on but still, Jake didn’t want to look. “Look at me, Jake,” Frog said.
Jake slowly tipped his head back up at Frog, and there he was, had not
moved an inch. Just standing there all strange and naked and pitiful and powerful. Didn’t even cover himself.
“Jake,” Frog said. “I don’t know how you did it at your old homes. But at
this house, we knock before we open doors.”
“Okay,” Jake said. “Sorry.”
“Look at me.”
Frog held eye contact with him. Just made him stand there. Jake didn’t know
what was happening.
“Okay,” Frog said. “You can go.”
Jake ran out of that room and shut the door behind him. He trampled down
the stairs with his heart hammering in his chest. Jake gave up on BD. Let him hide.
Jake stands and pushes his barstool back behind him. Make a fuckin’ kid stand
He swaggers over to the old guy and gets down real low in his crinkled face.
“You remember me?” Jake says to the old man.
The old man looks over at the customer beside him and rolls his eyes, as if
to say, another drunk local lookin’ for trouble. It’s that kind of attitude that ratchets Jake’s rage all the way up.
Jake stands back and says, “Mister, I’d like a word with you outside.”
The old man brushes Jake off and says, “Honey, piss up a rope.”
Old Carl pipes up from behind the bar, “Jake, get the heck outta here. Leave
the customers alone.”
The old guy grins, “Yeah, Jake. Leave me alone.”
Oh, so he is looking for trouble.
Jake juts out his index and middle fingers together and drives ‘em straight
into the old man’s Adam’s apple. The motion — he hasn’t planned this — is similar to the way you might pop a balloon or point to an X on a map. “I’ll leave you alone when I—”
Jake doesn’t get to finish his sentence. The old man stands and slaps Jake
broad across the face. Slaps him like a child.
Jake’s face burns. He is so insulted he cannot react. His ear howls like
someone’s blown a whistle into it. The flesh of his cheek is hot with pain and embarrassment. He’s been made speechless.
The old man reaches back, balls up a fist and delivers into Jake’s nose. The bone pops aloud and hot blood pours all down Jake’s chin, fills his mouth. Where is all this blood coming from? he wonders. Jake and the old man tangle up and go down hard on the floor. Customers scream and call out.
The Johnny Cash song ends.
The old man wrestles like an Olympian. Every knuckle, elbow and dig of his
chin is spring-loaded and tough tough tough. He’s a mean sumbitch.
Jake’s thoughts cut out when the old man gathers up a handful of his
greasy hair and jerks Jake’s head upward once — then slams it down into the hardwood. …
Jake is lights out for five seconds maybe. Ten, tops.
He comes to as Mandy and Carl peel him from the ground.
Carl rants to Mandy that he’s “had it up to here with this a-hole” and Jake
“ain’t never allowed anywhere f’ing near here again.” Mandy nods and mutters some apologies for her kind-of friend.
Jake collects himself, shakes his head to clear the foam that’s filled his skull.
His nose aches — broken and all twisted up on his face. Hot anger still flashes in the raw lobes of his brain. It got handed to Jake good. And public too. And by an old guy.
The old man drops money on his table and pushes out the front door. He’s
had it. He’s leaving.
Well, to hell with that.
Jake fights out of Mandy and Carl’s grip. He goes after his man.
“Jake!” Mandy calls.
But he’s already at the door — kicks it open and shouts, “Hey! Come get
The tundra glows blue in the moonlight. The screaming wind shears layers
of icy snow from the ground, paints a ghostlike fog on the visible rim of land in all directions. Brutus, Alaska might as well be the top of the world.
The old man stands at his rig: a mammoth Chevy, a broad and bent
snowplow bolted across its grill like a jawbone. He’s got his keys in the door — so close to leaving. He looks back at Jake and the expression on his seamy face is a smug kind of annoyed. The look says to Jake: Didn’t I clean your clock already?
Jake marches in the snow and ice toward the Chevy. He squeezes his
fists, squints his eyes, steels himself. He’s ready to kick some ass. The night wind pierces the canals of his ears and gnaws at the exposed skin of his face. Temperature is probably negative thirty and Jake left his coat in the bar.
The old man shoves his car keys back into his pocket and starts his walk
It is clear to each man that they will make war in this parking lot.
Jake slips on a spit of ice. Maybe it’s the alcohol, or the cold, or the dizziness
still fresh in his head from his most recent beating — whatever it is, Jake goes down hard. His legs fly up and his head shoots straight down. Skull. Ice.
Reeling on the ground, Jake’s just vaguely aware that this hasn’t stopped the
old man. He kneels down right beside Jake and drives fist after fist into Jake’s head. Between each punch, Jake catches a clear glimpse of the man’s swollen
face and Jake thinks: I’m not so sure this is the Frog after all.
Jake would like to say that the Frog was arrested for child abuse, child pornography, back taxes, whatever, but no. What happened wasn’t actually Frog’s fault, though BD and Jake both wished it was.
They lived with him there for another four or five years. Quite a while,
actually. Jake was a student at the local junior high. One day in November, Mom disappeared. Just didn’t come home. Frog responded to this by unbuttoning his work shirt, cracking open a Stag and flipping on the television. In the morning, it was BD that called the police.
For three days, she was a Missing Persons Report.
When the police called and said she’d been found, Frog had already packed
his bags. He’d had enough, he said. To hell with it. Didn’t need the drugged-out wife. Didn’t need her white-trash kids.
Mom returned the same day the For Rent sign went up in the yard. Her
eyes were glassy and she walked and spoke a hair slower than they’d ever seen. She explained to Jake and BD that she’d been kidnapped. Held captive by some customers from the laundromat she’d begun working at a few months earlier. The customers had kept her locked up and they’d done things to her.
It was years later that BD explained to Jake what really happened. Mom was
partying with these men — smoking their rock and she’d run out of money. For three days she traded her body for rock.
The Frog left her. Mom, BD and Jake moved into an apartment downstate.
Mom worked in a kitchen in a rest home and spent a lot of her time in a recovery
BD left his job at the batting cages and enlisted in the Army.
After Mom finished unpacking her last box at the new apartment she looked
at Jake and said, “And then there were two.”
Jake slips in and out of consciousness.
When he does come to he finds his nose taped up and a towel duct-taped
around his head like some kind of crazy turban. He’s splayed-out flat on a cold stone floor, trapped behind a wall of chain-link.
He sits up, the whole world spinning, and he knows: Sheriff’s station. Well, a
cell in the sheriff’s station. He’s been here before.
Jake sees no one out there in the office. Most of the lights are switched off.
Must be late. He’s alone. A headache like none he’s ever known, geological in scope, bisects the back of his skull. If he had a shotgun, he would erase the pain in one trigger-pull. But Jake’s got no shotgun. Got nothing.
He starts to slip the turban off his head but some of his hair’s caught in the
tape and a sudden white-hot lance of pain spears through his head. He drops the turban and it falls back — why’s it so heavy? — hanging from the duct tape in his hair. It feels like he’s getting fucking scalped. He screams out and drops to the floor, the blood-wet towel slapping on the concrete as Jake lays tethered to the mess.
A door opens somewhere and a tentacle of dry ice-wind slides into the cell.
The door slams shut. Boots tramp in the office.
“Wakey Wakey, Jakey Jakey!” the sheriff shouts.
Jake worries about his dignity. He gets to his knees and tries to pull the cold
towel from his bloody hair.
Two mustachioed men stand before Jake’s cell. One’s the sheriff and the
other, Jake can’t quite say. Both men wear sour, exasperated faces. Jake has troubled them.
“How’s your head?” Sheriff asks but does not wait for an answer. “Only
sawbones I could get this hour was the good vet, here. I trust you’ll be payin’ his fee.”
Still kneeling, Jake tilts his head to look at the vet and then something awful
happens: Jake begins to cry.
This offends the men to the point that they shut their eyes and turn their
Jake left high school before the end of his senior year. Mom was sick by this time. Jake worked days at BD’s old job at the batting cages and got a night job as a doorman at a local bar — Smitty’s High Dive.
Jake liked the night job. He checked IDs some nights, bar-backed others. He
usually got out of there by three-thirty in the morning at the latest.
One night, as Jake dragged a mop bucket from the bathroom to the bar,
someone shouted his name over the music.
BD stood there, holding a Budweiser, looking at Jake. He was heavier than
Jake had ever seen him — both muscle and fat. His hair was tied back in a ponytail. Jake hadn’t seen or heard Word One from him in four years.
BD smiled at him. “Hey, brother.”
After closing, they sat at the bar and drank a beer.
“How’s the Army?” Jake asked.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Haven’t seen it in a while. How you like working
“It’s good,” Jake said. “Mom know you’re back?”
He shook his head no.
“Just arrived tonight.”
“Where you gonna stay?”
“I got a room across the street. How’s Mom?”
“Uh, not good, BD. She’s got lupus.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Disease. Makes her sick a lot. She’s almost bald now.”
“She gonna die?”
“No. But she needs help,” Jake said. “What are you gonna do?”
He looked at Jake, then the bar and asked, “Is this place hirin’?”
Jake knew BD was making a joke. But he must not have been a hundred
percent joking because when he did get offered some doormen shifts he said yes.
BD moved back in with Jake and their mother. Mom was in and out of the
hospital a lot during this time. Over the next three years, the brothers worked at the bar and BD got moved up to bartender and day manager. Jake stayed at 95
doorman and bar-back. Jake didn’t complain about that though because BD was older and that made more sense. BD was a good manager and things were okay for a while. They were good even — except of course for Mom.
BD and Jake would have moved out. They would have rented their own
apartment, they could afford one, but neither could bring themselves to leave her. BD and Jake stayed there. They stood by her.
Jake never really thought much about the future. Jake guesses if he did, he
would have said BD would take over the bar one day and make him a manager. That might have been his dream, if Jake admitted that he had one.
Tuesday night was Ladies’ Night at the bar, which of course was a joke.
It was a dingy place and some nights there wasn’t even a need to mop up the Ladies’ Room afterward since no one had been in it. So when BD and Jake closed up that Tuesday night there wasn’t much to do. That’s when BD looked across the bar and said, “I have an idea. If you wanna say no, I won’t blame you. But I have a way to make some money.”
Jake could have predicted what BD was going to say. Jake stared at him.
“I’m leaving here, and I want you to come with me,” BD said.
“What about Mom?”
“We can leave her some money. She can hire some help. You wanna stick
around here forever or no?”
Jake didn’t answer.
“I’m gonna rob this place,” he said. “Some night, I’m gonna wait till late,
when I’m the only one here and I’ll take the cash from the safe, bag it up and throw it on the roof. I’ll call the police and tell ‘em I was held up at gunpoint. All
you’d have to do is come pick up the money in the morning. After that, we wait three months…leave. Mom will be okay.”
Jake didn’t give him a solid answer for two weeks, but in the end he agreed.
When it finally happened, Jake believed the police probably knew the score
within five seconds of walking inside the bar. BD didn’t come home till five in the morning. He looked badly shaken. All he said was, “Wait an hour.”
At dawn Jake drove to Smitty’s, parked three blocks away and skulked back
in the alley behind the bar. Jake climbed the dumpster onto the roof and found BD’s backpack full of cash (nine thou, Jake later learned).
The police were waiting for him by the time he got home. Somebody must
have seen him, called the police, who knows?
They took BD, and Jake had never seen his mother look so scared. Her bones
shook. All she could do was ask hopeless questions. The police ignored her, BD ignored her, Jake ignored her.
Jake confessed in under an hour. Just rolled over on BD. In return for his
confession, Jake got one year of probation. BD got three years at the Men’s Facility down in Bowster.
BD was killed by his cellmate the second day of his incarceration. Mom got
real sick and went back into the hospital. Jake doesn’t like to think about that year.
When his probation was up, Mom had healed up enough to live on her
own again. But Jake didn’t say goodbye. He just boarded a train for Seattle. He worked a couple bar jobs in town, then went up through Canada and washed
dishes, just working his way north, not really knowing what he was doing.
The vet cuts away a strip of hair at the back of Jake’s head. He cleans the
wound with alcohol pads and knits the flesh together — a lucky thirteen stitches. The vet slaps a pad of gauze against the slit in Jake’s head and tapes it around his forehead so that Jake feels like he’s wearing a sweatband, as if he just came from the gym. Jake feels like throwing up. His face is all punched-up to distortion and his head has a new window in it, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the acute pang of shame that rips up from his testicles to his sinuses when Mandy walks into the office with the sheriff.
She stands, hands in the pockets of her faded pink parka, her face so
softened by exhaustion that her skin looks like clay.
“Fella that handed you your ass,” Sheriff — that asshole — says, “will press
Sheriff rolls back the chain-link and the vet gathers his things.
“Fella’s already on his way out of town, anyway,” Sheriff says. “That’s how
little of an impression you made, I guess.”
Vet steps out of the cell, nods at Sheriff, nods at Mandy and leaves.
“I thought the old man was somebody else,” Jake says. Sheriff blasts one buckshot crack of laughter. “I guess you musta, Jake!” He looks to Mandy, then back at Jake. “That fella
clear up your confusion for you?”
“Hi Mandy,” Jake says. 98
“Hi Jake,” she says.
“I can’t even begin to guess why,” Sheriff says, “but Mandy’s offered to buy
you off my hands. So, you now owe her and the vet.”
It’s after one in the morning by the time Jake’s processed out. Mandy gives
him a ride in her rusted-through Galaxy. She keeps the windows up and smokes a Parliament Light, tipping ash into the little console tray. Jake sits shotgun, pressing ice (wrapped in his own bloody towel — thanks, Sheriff.) against the back of his head. The headlights sway in the dark fog. Motes of snow glitter at the rims of the high-beams.
“How much was it?” Jake asks, wincing before she even answers.
Jake waits a minute, then offers, “I’m sorry, Mandy.”
She inhales on the cigarette and the red light of the ember swells and reflects
on her face and in the discs of her eyes.
She drives him to his two-room rental at the edge of the scrap yard.
He looks at the swath of frosty gravel where his truck should be.
“It’s still at the lodge,” Mandy says.
The digital clock reads ten minutes to two. “Mandy, would you come in?”
Mandy straightens, inhales to deny, but Jake interrupts, “Not like that. I
just feel bad. I just want to give you somethin’. A cup of coffee or a drink or something. Please. Please?”
There’s nothing to the house. Two stacked twin mattresses and a twisted
pile of blankets. A coffee table littered with tobacco and candy wrappers. Plastic 99
wrap and sheets of newspaper taped over all the windows.
Mandy’s never been inside before.
Jake’s got half a bottle of red wine sitting uncorked between the sink and
the toaster. He cleans a coffee mug, fills it to the brim with wine and hands it to Mandy.
Jake shovels clothes and a blanket off the couch.
“I know it’s late and you already did a lot, but I just want you to stay for a
minute, if that’s alright,” Jake says. “Not like that. But just, you know, I want to try and say thanks somehow.”
His voice trembles and he half-expects to take to crying again. The rip in the
back of his head begins to burn. The headband makes him feel silly. Every inch of his busted-up face hurts. Maybe he’d feel better if he did cry. Jake sits down on his couch and rubs his hands on his jeans. He spiders his hands and spreads and retracts the fingertips, tracing the edges of his kneecaps.
Mandy sits down beside him and sets the mug on the coffee table.
“Jake,” she says, “how long have you been here, in Brutus?”
Jake sees where this is going. His left eyelid flutters. A twitch rides along
the length of the nerve across his eyelid. A teardrop gathers there beneath it. He coughs and mashes the tear back into his head.
“Working at the plant the whole time?” she asks. “Right?”
“Well, yeah,” he says. “Mostly.”
“Where are you from? Lonesome somewhere?”
“Lunsun. T-X.” Jake says.
Mandy lifts the mug of wine with both hands but does not drink. “Why
don’t you go home?”
Jake inhales for a moment, looks at an ash stain on his carpet, then says, “I
wouldn’t know what to say if I did.”
“Yeah,” Mandy nods. “Who would?”
Jake looks at her and squares his jaw. He chews the flesh of his inner cheek.
She sets down the mug. “I have to go.”
“I’ll pay you back as soon as I can,” Jake says, turning away from her face.
She stands and lightly rests her hand on Jake’s shoulder. She squeezes once,
then leaves out the front door.
Jake watches her headlights illuminate. The guttural engine revs and the
Galaxy performs a wide, slow arc back onto the road and he watches her taillights until they wink out of sight.
He stands in the little kitchenette. He rubs his swollen cheeks. He touches
the bruises on his face with the dry pads of his fingers.
After a while, he sits back down on the couch. He lifts her mug of wine from
the coffee table and holds it close to his lips. He smells the pepper of the wine, the old fume of coffee. He tips the mug to his face and drinks, spilling most of it down the skin of his throat.
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Canon P Rangefinder with 50mm F/1.4 lens Inkslinger Award Winner
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Canon P Rangefinder with 50mm F/1.4 lens
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Canon P Rangefinder with 50mm F/1.4 lens
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Kevin Michael Klipfel
Canon P Rangefinder with 50mm F/1.4 lens
Kevin Michael Klipfel is a photographer and winner of this issue’s Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence. Here we chat with him about his process and his art. This is Woodshop Talk. ***
BUFFALO ALMANACK: We’ve referred to your photography as being rep-
resentative of the “aesthetics of everyday life.” What is it about an ordinary, inanimate street scene that calls your attention? What makes a key drop box worthy of a photo? 107
An Interview With Kevin Michael Klipfel
KEVIN MICHAEL KLIPFEL: I don’t mind that description at all; I’m very
interested in creating images that highlight the interestingness of everyday life. I spent a lot of time at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up, and they have one of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can paintings in their permanent collection that I used to look at all the time. I always thought it was really cool that something like that could be art, and I think this is probably the central lesson of Warhol for me: that the ordinary stuff of everyday life is terribly interesting, even if many people don’t necessarily see that.
People will sometimes say stuff to me like “Oh, these flowers are so beauti-
ful, you should take of picture of that!” and for the most part that doesn’t really interest me. But last night I was at a Krispy Kreme, and I was sitting there with my fiancée, and the sun was going down, and the light coming through the window was just amazing, and I was blown away by the greens and reds on this Krispy Kreme box. I just thought it was so beautiful and I pulled out my camera. That process, in the moment, is a completely emotional one: I’m just really moved by these little concrete details of my experience, and it’s hard to explain why.
Photography is a very therapeutic means of expression for me. It’s some-
thing I love to do and it makes the difficulties of everyday life more bearable to me. A friend of mine came across this Van Gough quote and sent it to me recently: “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony, and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.” I think that summarizes things for me nicely.
At a more intellectual level, there’s that famous line in Flannery O’Connor’s
Mystery and Manners where she’s talking about William James and she says that it’s the aim of fiction to reveal mystery through manners. I take her to mean that what fiction does is start with the senses, by describing these little concrete details of our lives, and through these empirical realities we can develop some kind of understanding of the way we live, and what it means to be a human being. I think that’s probably the closest objective statement you could give of what makes a U-Haul key drop box worthy of a photo. It says a lot more to be about my life than the Ansel Adams landscapes they showed us in art class in high school.
BA: Many of your photographs — particularly the Happy Garden shot — have an off-kilter, impromptu composition. Is this something done intentionally as you take the photograph, or do you shoot more at a snapshot pace? KMK: You know, that kind of subtler, snapshot style of composition was very carefully calculated in these pictures. I had previously been interested in a more rigid, geometrically precise composition, doing that whole Cartier-Bresson thing where you turn the picture upside down to see if the geometry’s right and all that. I was trying to move away from that a bit here. In an interview in the new edition of Uncommon SpacesStephen Shore talks about the idea of being “consciously casual” in terms of photographic composition. What I took from that was an interest in a kind of visual organization of the elements of a picture that appeared as “everyday” and haphazard as the subject matter. Could I compose a scene in such a way so that it didn’t particularly look artfully composed, so that it seems like a natural extension of everyday life? The irony I suppose is
An Interview With Kevin Michael Klipfel
that doing so, in fact, requires very careful composition. I see that “casualness” at work in all the photos here.
BA: The one person who makes an appearance in this collection has her back turned to us. Are you deliberately avoiding face-to-face interaction with live subjects, and if so, what value do you see in that approach?
KMK: That’s interesting, I had never really thought of it that way. Now that you ask that, I recognize that when I photograph people, I do have a tendency to approach it obliquely, whereas a lot of “street photographers” tend to be more interested in capturing people more directly. What’s going on there, I’m not entirely sure.
Maybe part of that has to do with the fact that I view my work as more of a
personal record, so I don’t take too many pictures of strangers. Because of that, I suppose I’m always trying to capture different ways of photographing the same person (usually my fiancée). But part of it must also be that at some level I just find that approach more interesting. There’s a Cartier-Bresson photo, for example, of his wife Martine’s legs that I’ve always absolutely adored: you can’t see her face, but the geometry and the composition are really wonderful. William Eggleston does this a lot, like in that famous picture from Los Alamos Revisited of the girl at the ice cream counter with the red hair covering her face; or on the cover of the original Los Alamos book of the girl in the skirt where just her legs are showing; or the two teenagers sitting in their car eating at McDonalds where their faces are kind of partially obscured by the windshield. A Stephen Shore photo from Uncommon Spaces of his wife in a hotel pool with her back turned 110
also comes to mind. I like all of those pictures a lot, probably more so than their straight-up portraits in most cases.
In terms of that particular shot of mine you mention, though, I wasn’t real-
ly thinking anything. It was just an emotional response to all the compositional elements of the picture, the way her hair looked, the soft pink on the shirt, that particular blue of the sky and having a sense from previous experience of how the Portra would end up rendering it, the strange geometry of the Sierra Nevada being a little too high in the frame, just a very quick intuitive response to all of that. But that intuitive response is also the result of a larger process of having taken thousands and thousands of photographs and having spent many hours looking at the books of established photographers and painters I love. So a lot of deliberative practice and hard work goes into that kind of spontaneous, snapshot quality!
BA: Can you describe your post-shoot process? Do you edit using Photoshop or other software? KMK: The post-process can depend on whether I’m shooting film or digital. One thing I like about film is that there’s almost no post-processing required on my end. When I make physical prints of my work they are always done straight from the negative. Making scans from film can be a little more complicated. The most I ever do is use Lightroom to make the scanned image look like the little 4x6 print I get back with my negatives. If I’m shooting 35mm (as opposed to medium format) I just get my film developed at Costco since they do a good job and it’s the only place where I live that develops color negative film with111
An Interview With Kevin Michael Klipfel
out sending it out. I own a pretty cheap (Epson Perfection V550) film scanner that scans film negatives but I can’t even be bothered to scan the actual negatives most of the time. Instead I just put the 4x6 print I get back from Costco on the flatbed of the scanner and scan it in full auto mode with no color correction or anything like that. If the scan doesn’t look like the Costco 4x6 I may make a couple adjustments in Lightroom but mostly that’s not necessary. So basically what you get is whatever Costco has their developer set to in conjunction with the characteristics of the film I’m using (either Kodak Ektar 100 or Kodak Portra 400). All the images published here were shot on film.
I never crop images in post. The compositions are always exactly as I shot
them. If I didn’t get it right, oh well. I try not to dwell too much on any individual picture. There are lots of other pictures to take. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important to me: I just like to take pictures.
North Fork of the Yuba River
Two things. One was that the guy I was with would beat me up.
The other was that I stuck around, that I played the part of a person who
believed him when he swore he’d change. That thing to me, afterwards, was the most damning of the two. I was humiliated by the fact of it.
When it had finally been ground into me that this guy had no redeeming
qualities at all –he was thoroughly bad and getting worse – and when I had become not only increasingly afraid but bored (the cycle: so repetitive, predictable), and at last when I was helped along by a small windfall of money that brought with it a pretty exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility, I summoned up the guts from somewhere and left. I wanted to live.
So there I was, 24, newly sprung and on my own after four years of shit. I
had things going for me too, besides my youth. I was pretty and lively, but still I was paralyzed by feelings of social ineptitude. I’d been kicked and down for so long that part of me believed I didn’t deserve any better. There was a sort of ‘if it happened to me it must be because I suck’ kind of feeling, irrational maybe, but it stuck. Anyway, I was confused about how to re-approach the world now that I was free –a raw, exposed nerve– wanting to be liked but not sure if I would be. A volatile enough combination. I felt doomed.
But I was still, strange though it seemed to me, attracted to men. I hadn’t had
a good time, any fun, for years. The need to live, to be in the world, to be loved and fucked and adored, was stronger than everything that troubled me, stronger
than my fear, I guessed. So one afternoon, tentative and unsure, I walked down the main street of the little mountain town where I lived and approached a couple of guys where they stood on the street corner, watching people go by. I’d seen them around before. They were young and good looking, a little rough around the edges maybe, not too clean.
–Hi, I said.
–What’s up, said the taller of the two, turning around.
He looked me up and down, then turned back to the street. The other guy
looked hard at me for a second. He didn’t smile. I stood there rather lamely behind them.
–What are you doing?
The first guy turned toward me a little.
–Watching the pretty girls.
He shrugged and turned back around.
–Oh, I can see that.
I waited. They didn’t say anything. This isn’t going very well, I thought. I
stood there for another minute, waiting.
–What are you doing after?
–We’re going to the river.
He glanced at me. He had a big mop of curly brown hair, blue eyes.
–Cool. Can I come?
–Sure, he said. Let’s go.
I followed them across the street to their car, doubting, half–hating them.
What the fuck am I doing, I thought. These guys are assholes. But I got in the car.
North Fork of the Yuba River
We drove out of town, up into the mountains. The guys introduced
themselves. Jesse, the curly-haired one who drove, and Mike. They talked to each other about their band, an upcoming show. I sat in the back and listened. I wasn’t having a very good time. Then I realized that they were showing off, bragging to impress me. I felt a little better then.
We stopped at a gas station for some beer. When we got back in the car Jesse
turned on the radio. Stairway to Heaven was playing. I’d been into Led Zeppelin since I was a kid. I knew every guitar solo by heart, but I couldn’t stand that maudlin song.
–This is the best worst song ever dude, Jesse said. He laughed and turned it
–Dude I know, said Mike.
He started doing an air guitar solo along with the music, contorting his face
–This is the extended version, I said. A fifteen minute circle jerk.
–Fuck yeah, said Jesse. That’s all they needed to do, take a horrible thing and
make it worse.
We listened to the shitty song all the way to the river. I decided that I was
having a good time.
It was hot. The windows were open. I stuck my arm out and I could feel the
breeze pushing through my fingers. The road wound up through the canyon, shady in the hollows, the trees were tall along the creek. Higher up, the dry
silver needles of the sugar pines, the manzanita, red-limbed and brown in the afternoon sun.
We stopped at the bridge. Below it the river, a swimming hole. Sunburnt
women lay flat on wide yellow rocks, plastic pool toys floated purple and pink, kids screamed in play, the sound of jocks laughing, too casual – the sneer in their voices. The smell of cigarette smoke, drifting up.
–You couldn’t pay me to go down there, said Jesse.
–I know, said Mike, it’s a fuckin’ cesspool.
–We should go higher up, said Jesse. To the north fork. Is that cool with you
–Hell yeah, said Mike.
–Okay, I said. I’d never been that far up the river.
We got back in the car and drove a little further. We were pretty high up
now. Jesse parked on the side of the road and we got out. I could see the river, way down at the bottom of the canyon.
Jesse led the way. A little trail, dusty. I looked down at my ankles, brown
–You haven’t been up here yet? You’re gonna love it.
–It’s such a rad spot. Huge swimming hole, definitely my favorite. Nice
shorts, by the way.
It occurred to me that we wearing the same kind of shorts, brown Dickies
cut off at the knee. I looked at his legs. He was wearing skate shoes, no socks. A skater. For a moment I thought about my predilection for skaters. There was the beauty and the grace and the speed of it, of course, but mostly it was the anarchy of the sport, the overt rebelliousness of the act, the constant run-ins with stuffy, irate citizens, with the police. I had skated a little myself. I thought about that,
North Fork of the Yuba River
looking at him, then looked away.
We walked for a while. The two guys were in front of me, talking about
people I didn’t know. Jesse slowed down for a second, turned to face me.
–We’re almost there. It’s just around that next bend.
–Okay, cool, I said.
We turned a corner. The trail veered steeply down toward the river.
I looked at his t-shirt, thin and full of holes. I could see his back, the bone
and muscle of it, underneath.
–It’s a little gnarly right here, he said.
We scrambled down the hill, scraping our hands and legs on the rocks. The
air was cooler at the bottom. Huge boulders worn smooth by the river. The water flowed between them, cool and bright. You could hear it splashing. There was a big swimming hole – blue water, clear. It sparkled in the sun. On one side, a small beach. The sand glittered, gold.
The guys took off their clothes. I tried not to look. Jesse climbed onto a rock
in front of me. His boxer shorts were blue and threadbare, pictures of Snoopy. They were almost transparent. He passed so close that I could have touched him. I wanted to touch him. The feeling was overwhelming, a blow to my independence. I took off my shorts. Jesse didn’t look at me. Holding his nose, he jumped. I watched his body arc through the air, a long line. He landed hard and surfaced nearby.
The water was warm. I floated on my back. Pine trees grew out of the canyon
wall above me, long shadows across the rocks. Someone opened a six pack. Jesse tossed me a beer. The trick, he told me, is to drink it quickly while it’s still cold.
Later, we lay on the sand. There were half-drunk cans of warm beer all
around. The bees buzzed, drowsily, above them.
"I love taking photos of empty, abandoned, or forgotten homes. Even if they are falling down. Once they were new and full of life and promise, but families grow, change, move on...â€?
â€œ...What I hope to capture are ghosts of the past â€“ not of the supernatural kind, but someone's memories of the past in the places they called home."
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
Chantal Heijnen Photographer Bronxites
A Review of What Lies in Wait Novel by James H. Duncan Review by David S. Atkinson PAST PERFECT Review: The Alchemist Novel by Paulo Coelho Review by Kristin D. Urban-Watson
Trenton Lee Stewart Author The Mysterious Benedict Society
hantal Heijnen is a portrait and documentary photographer based in New York. In 2000 she received a B.A. in social work, and worked for 10 years as a refugee counsellor in the Netherlands. In 2008 she graduated with honors with a B.A. in photography from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam. Her love for photography is what brought her to New York City. She has worked as an editorial photographer for international newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Stern Magazine and Vrij Nederland. She’s passionate about her long-term personal projects, creating portraits - through people and landscapes - of rarely seen communities. Chantal carefully uses color and light. Using Rembrandt-like ochre and lustrous crimson lighting, her portraits breath the ambiance of the old Dutch Masters. Chantal is an educator and is part of the Faculty Team of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Photo by Marije Kuiper.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: How do you feel about artist collaboration? What are some collaborations you have undertaken in your career, and how have they impacted your work as a whole?
CHANTAL HEIJNEN: I really appreciate artist collaborations. My last
collaboration was with artist Bami Adedoyin. She hand-painted my “Legacy of Fela Kuti” portraits and made an animation for one the video installations. Her American-Nigerian background contributed an extra layer to this project that I
An Interview With...
could never have done myself.
The collaboration not only has an impact on the final product but also on
the process. As a former social worker I love to work with and for people. The biggest challenge for me as a photographer is working in solitude. Collaborations, with other artist, writers/journalists or designers are a welcoming change! BA: New York City, and in particular the Bronx, has a long and detailed photographic history. Which New York City documentarians/photographers have most informed your current efforts?
CH: My biggest inspiration for my Bronxites project is Bruce Davidson. I love
his ‘East 100 street’ and ‘Subway’ work. It breathes NYC to me. Diane Arbus is another photographer who inspired me. Here portraits of the less fortunate NYers have a big impact on me. And Mary Ellen Mark, who sadly passed away this week. I appreciate her early documentary work and the people she focused on.
BA: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background in social work? How did your passion for helping others lead you to the United States?
CH: I worked for 10 years as a social worker before I moved to NY in 2008. I
was a case manager for refugees and immigrants. I loved working with a divers population. It inspired me and I felt grateful for the opportunity to work closely with people.
When the refugee policy changed drastically in the Netherlands I lost my
job as social worker. It was an easy choice to pick up my teenager’s dream of becoming a photographer. Ever since my first darkroom experience in the
An Interview With...
early nineties I wanted to be a photographer. But after high school I had the opportunity to be part an amazing exchange program to Kenya that changed me as a person. While in Kenya I worked with refugees. This experience let me to change my mind of wanting to be a photographer and study social work instead. But photography has always been a huge part of my life. I see the world in ‘frames’ and always have the urge to document special people and places.
In 1999 a Kenyan friend invited us to come and celebrate the millennium
with him in NYC. At that time he was living in the Bronx with Gilbert, a gentleman originally from South Carolina. My husband and I became close friends with Gilbert - he became our NY family. In 2008 we took the leap of faith to move to NYC. We lived with Gilbert for 6 years so I could continue to work on my ’Bronxites’ project. This way I was able to map my new community in the South Bronx through Gilbert’s life. He’s an introvert person and a bit camera shy. The fact the he let me photograph his life and introduce me to his neighbors is a true blessing. His life story as an African-American man was an extraordinary introduction into the complexity of the American society.
BA: One of the most remarkable qualities of your images are their luminosity. The color and light in your photographs provides such a vivid window into place and time. How have you achieved this, on a technical level?
CH: Photography is writing with light. And during the magic hours at
night the light becomes radiant. Therefore I love to work when it is dark. It brings an almost magic atmosphere to images. I make a lot of effort to create a beautiful setting. My ‘Bronxites’ work is shot on a tripod, combined with an off
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camera flashlight. By using a tripod I slow down in my process and it allows my subjects to relax. We both pause and wait for a beautiful moment to unfold. My video portraits are done in the exact same way – creating a photographic portrait by using minimal movement of the body or the surrounding. For example focusing on the breath of a sleeping child or blinking of the eyes. The still portraits come to ‘life’. Because of the low light condition and the use of video I choose to work with a digital camera.
BA: What advice do you have for photographers who worry about the potentially selfish or exploitative aspects of documentary photography? How do you cope with the aestheticization of people’s lives that the art form requires?
CH: I think this was my biggest struggle while I started to work as a
photographer. I missed my role as a social worker, which slowed me down in my process of ‘being’ a photographer. In the beginning it felt selfish to ‘only’ photograph. Especially since almost everything has already been photographed. So what was the use of my images in this world? My biggest blessing when I moved to NY was that, visa wise, I was only allowed to work as a photographer. This ‘forced’ me to focus on my art and immerse myself in it. Now I AM a photographer and I know that sharing stories of other people can make a difference in this world! Making aesthetic images allows me to communicate best with my viewers. Besides this I know that the people whom I photograph, appreciate a beautiful image of themselves. They are proud to see how beautiful they and their surroundings look. Being able to create portraits for people who normally are not being photographed is a beautiful thing to do.
I love my new identity, as a photographer and my social work background is still part of it, just in a different way!
BA: In 2013, The New York Times published your “Salsa Veterans in the Bronx” series. How enormous was that??
CH: It was fantastic! It all started with a publication in 2011. The New York
Times published my Bronxites project on their LENS Blog. It was my very first American publication. In 2013 they published “Salsa Veterans” a co-production with writer Susan Hartman. Not only did they publish my images in the paper they also showed my video portraits with the online publication. Being published in the The New York Times is a huge honor and it gives your work a lot credibility and exposure, which helps in getting assignments and invitations to for example give guest lectures about my work.
BA: What do you think is special about the United States? What makes it unique to you?
CH: This is a hard question. Because from a Dutch perspective the United
States is huge! It feels more like a continent than a country. So I guess I can only speak about NYC. What I love most about this ‘crazy’ city is its diversity of people. As a former refugee counselor I’m interested in migration and identity. With so many different groups, communities and individuals in NY the inspiration is endless.
What I didn’t realize before I moved here, is that I’m actually an immigrant
myself. I thought the differences wouldn’t be that big. But the opposite is true.
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Especially after my son Lou was born I felt that the society is so completely different than where I grew up in. This experience made me a richer person and allows me to understand immigrants and even refugees a bit more.
BA: Can you tell our readers about any future projects you are developing?
CH: Our son Lou was born in 2014. That was a beautiful life changing
experience. I noticed that I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. So I decided to move with a slower pace in my assignment work. Besides working on editorial assignments, I’m teaching at the International Center of Photography and I continue to work on my personal projects. Together with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb I am working on the edit of my Bronxites book. Hopefully this book will see the light of day next year. This fall the Fela Kuti Legacy project will be exhibited in Lagos, Nigeria, which is also the birthplace of this project.
And my latest personal project arose with Lou in my arms looking at
Harlem out of my window. The people passing by our window mesmerize me. The many cultural vibes of both the old and the new Harlem are very tangible. It reminds of Jane Jacobs’ Sidewalk Ballet – which is the working title of this project.
Trenton Lee Stewart
Trenton Lee Stewart is author of the novel Flood Summer, as well as the award-
winning, New York Times best-selling series of children’s books that begins with The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was recently included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest young adult novels of all time. His short fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review and elsewhere. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: You began your career at the celebrated Iowa
Writers’ Workshop. What tools did you pick up there that later informed your writing, both in your adult novel Flood Summer and the Mysterious Benedict Society series? What does Iowa have to offer writers, and especially authors of children’s fiction?
TRENTON LEE STEWART: Producing so many critiques of other writers’
work (something I’d have been required to do in most programs, not just Iowa’s) improved my ability to identify what’s working well in a given story
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and what needs improvement or deletion. I also developed a better sense of various aspects of craft – showing versus telling, what to dramatize and what to summarize, ways to push your work to be evocative and original, etc. – even if I don’t consistently succeed at incorporating what I think I know when I’m actually writing. But then that’s what revision is for.
I should note that what I learned about craft at Iowa came to me from
multiple sources, not just the instructors but also from classmates and books. I might well have picked up the same tools in similar ways at other programs – or by attending writing conferences, joining writers’ groups, spending a lot of time in the library, and so forth. Also, I was in the program twenty years ago, so it probably isn’t for me to say what Iowa has to offer today, except that, because of its reputation, the program always attracts talented writers, and because of its size (fifty fiction writers and fifty poets), it offers a good chance of meeting a few kindred spirits – writers who see what you are trying to accomplish, who want you to succeed, and whose suggestions you respect. Friends like these are rare and valuable, no matter what you’re trying to write.
BA: The first Benedict Society novel deals so heavily in cryptology. There are the light, fun brain-teasers that Reynie and the readers must together crack, like those associated with Mr. Benedict’s recruitment exam. There is the Morse code that they master for clandestine communication while undercover on Nomansan Island. Then there are the “signal and the noise” behind Mr. Curtain and the Institute’s evil plot, which feels like a very adult lesson in media manipulation. It’s not unusual for children’s books to incorporate puzzles, but this profound emphasis on reasoned, analytical thinking feels different. Were you trying to send a ‘signal’ of your own about growing up in
Trenton Lee Stewart
the Information Age?
TLS: When I was a kid I loved mystery adventures that had riddles – or something riddle -like – at their center. The life-or-death riddle contest in the chapter titled “Riddles in the Dark” in The Hobbit is the most straightforward example, if the most self-contained. A more narrative-sustaining example would be the enigmatic “four signs” that Aslan gives young Jill in The Silver Chair (one of the Narnia books), things she must remember to look out for on her quest, and which sometimes require her to be creative or bold in her interpretation of them. I was charmed by the idea of having to figure out things that might not be what they seemed – not just once but several times in the course of an adventure. With The Mysterious Benedict Society I wanted to produce that sort of sustained charm, and in the attempt I wound up creating a story in which pretty much everything has some sort of secret or twist to it (including character and place names). Though the child protagonists become spies, I didn’t want them to have fancy gadgetry, because a big part of the charm for a young reader, I think, is trying to solve the riddles and mysteries along with the protagonists – or even if not really trying, then still believing that in the same circumstances he or she definitely would try, and might well succeed, and therefore be just as special as the heroes in the book. Any kid can flip a switch on an electronic code descrambler, but only a clever kid can solve a riddle.
So I wasn’t trying to send a signal so much as create an experience for the
young reader. But it’s also true that the book offers no love for television, media manipulation, fear-mongering, jargon, rigid notions of intelligence, corrupt authority, narrow-mindedness in general. I gave myself permission to entertain my adult self as I wrote, and taking comic cracks at such things turned out to
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be part of that process. The Institute has its Orwellian aspects, for sure. But I’m pretty sure the book holds up much better as an adventure story than as political statement or sociological commentary.
BA: The protagonists of children’s literature are so often groundless kids, the orphaned and abandoned, left alone to find their own path in the world. We’re thinking of course of Harry Potter, but also other esteemed figures like Kipling’s Mowgli and Dickens’s...well...Dickens’s everyone. The same is true for all four members of the Benedict Society who, like Harry, Mowgli and Pip from Great Expectations, are eventually taken in and educated by an older mentor. Where do you think this trope comes from? Was your choice to engage with it conscious, and if so, what of it appealed to you?
TLS: You’re right, there’s a long tradition in children’s literature of dispatching parents and guardians as quickly as possible, preferably in the opening lines. But to be more specific, it’s really the children’s adventure story that calls for such ruthless set-up. The engaged presence of loving, protective guardians tends to preclude a child’s taking a dangerous journey or solving a dangerous mystery
Trenton Lee Stewart
– or even, as you say, simply finding his or her own path in the world. So in order for a young reader to experience that delicious sense of what it would be like to be making one’s own decisions, often very important ones that will impact the lives of others, the author has to boot the guardians tout de suite.
Of course, plenty of wonderful writers – Eleanor Estes, Judy Bloom, Beverly
Cleary, et al. – have produced marvelous books in which the kids’ adventures are grounded in their own loving homes and tight-knit neighborhoods. They’re just different sorts of books. And I’m sure there are lots of adventure stories in which the kids’ parents are fellow spies or wacky fellow travelers, but those are different sorts of books as well. In a certain kind of make-believe world, the mom and dad can dress like garden vegetables and take their kids along for adventures in a flying pumpkin. That’s pure whimsy. But though young readers might find a story like that delightful, I don’t think they’re as likely to daydream that it could actually happen to them. The books you cite, and the kind of book I was trying to write, attempt to ground the fantastical in the real. Reading an adventure story, however strange and implausible, that retains significant attachment to reality as young readers know it – that provides its own particular sort of wonder.
I think the wise mentor trope is probably a natural outgrowth of any attempt
to write this sort of book. In the real world, kids – even spectacularly talented ones – do depend on the guidance and help of adults. They might prefer to be more powerful and autonomous, but a wise and caring grandparent, aunt, uncle, or schoolteacher is always welcome, and sometimes even necessary.
BA: We can’t ask you to pick favorites, but which of the four Benedict Society members – Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance – is your favorite
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to write? Which is the most challenging? (Full disclosure: We totally adore badass Kate Wetherall.)
TLS: Thanks for saying so. Badass Kate Wetherall was probably my favorite to write. She was probably also the easiest, because she’s the most straightforward; her personality of cheerful confidence and optimism is the simplest to convey. Not to say she lacks depth – she has as much depth as anyone, it’s just that she’s Kate all the way down. With Kate I didn’t have to contend with crushing self-doubt or a worldview in turmoil; I could just find amusing things for her to say and incredible physical feats for her to pull off, and give her opportunities to reveal her huge heart and irrepressible spirit.
Constance, on the other hand, was a challenge. It was tricky to create a
character who annoys everyone around her without (I hope) annoying readers so much that they want to throw the book away. Plus, of all the characters, she is probably the least like me – I can be annoying, but not in the ways that Constance is annoying, and we don’t think alike. So getting inside her head and doing her character justice was harder for me than it was with the others. But was it fun to come up with rude poems for her to spout? Yes. Yes, it was.
BA: For those who have read and loved the original book, it is impossible to separate the Benedict Society series from the lovely art style of Carson Ellis (since picked up by Diana Sudyka). How did Ms. Ellis come to be attached to your work? In what ways have the illustrations changed the way people approach or think about the Benedict Society?
TLS: Great question. Believe it or not, when I wrote MBS, my first children’s
Trenton Lee Stewart
novel, it never occurred to me that it would have chapter illustrations. I simply didn’t think about that. So I found it both pleasing and disconcerting to see my characters as Carson Ellis portrayed them. I don’t know the exact process by which my editors arranged for her to illustrate the book, which was her first (though she had done lots of other great work, and has since illustrated several books, including her own, all of them beautifully); I probably asked how it came about and have now forgotten the answer. But luckily it did happen, and luckily too Diana Sudyka took up the torch with the remaining books and did such a fantastic job.
What I love most about Carson’s illustrations is that she nailed the
atmosphere I had hoped to create in the book. Just nailed it. Whimsical and slightly dark, but not so dark as to be grim. Her cover illustration is brilliant, I think, every bit as clever and sly as anything I attempted in the text, probably more so – and I know for a fact that it has drawn many a reader to the book. (I know because readers have told me.)
But in the early stages I had to get used to seeing another artist’s conception
of the characters I saw so clearly in my mind. I finally came to understand Carson’s illustrations and my writing as sort of parallel texts that complement and inform each other. If they were anything other than that, her illustrations might not be the miniature masterpieces that they are. It’s hard to guess all the ways they’ve affected readers, but I do know that because she chose to portray Kate in a red and white striped shirt, an awful lot of girls have gone to school on “favorite character” day, or gone trick-or-treating on Halloween, wearing red and white striped shirts (accompanied by Kate’s red bucket full of useful items). I’ve been sent many photographs. And now I always picture Kate in that shirt myself, even though I don’t recall describing such a shirt in the text.
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BA: How does the writing process – in planning, in plotting, in crafting, in editing – differ between a novel for adults and a novel for children? Or do these items vary more around the intricacies of a given title?
TLS: More the latter, I’d say. In some ways the Benedict books are probably more akin to suspense novels for adults than they are to, say, Charlotte’s Web. In writing them I borrowed from (and noodled around with) several different genres – mystery, suspense, science fiction, etc. Because I wanted them to be about the solving of riddles, puzzles, and clues, they are necessarily plotdriven. I wanted them to have texture and life, though – to be about more than the plot – otherwise they wouldn’t have interested me. So I paid as much attention to character development and language, for instance, as I did in writing Flood Summer, which is realist literary fiction with a much different vibe. Still, developing characters in a puzzle-focused children’s novel occurs under different constraints. In composing a literary work, writers may discover something about a character that will force them to rethink the entire story. With the Benedict books I had to keep such revelations on a shorter leash – at the end of the day, Kate still needs to be someone who can climb a drainpipe, and Sticky still needs to be someone who has memorized the dictionary. But some of the greatest children’s books ever (the Frog and Toad books, the Moomintroll books, The Secret Garden, and many more) are beautifully wise explorations of human character, and as such surely have far more in common with literary novels for adults than they do with Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown. I imagine the same could be said about the process of writing them.
Trenton Lee Stewart
BA: You’ve indicated in past interviews that you intend to return to adult fiction, or at least step away from the Benedict series that you’ve been engrossed in since at least 2006. Yet now we have stumbled into a spin-off series, centered around a young Nicholas Benedict (himself an orphan!). Where do we go from here? Are there still more yet unknown corners of the Benedictverse to discover?
TLS: I actually started writing The Mysterious Benedict Society twelve years ago this month, strange to think. At the time, I intended to write only that one book. Never suspected I was actually starting a trilogy, to be followed by The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict – but I do believe we’ve come to the end of the Benedictverse, rather than to the beginning of another series. It’s interesting, people tend to ask me if I’m starting a new series, rather than a new book. I suppose it makes sense; lots of writers move from one series to the next. And a lot of series are great. But at the outset of a project, I’m always thinking in terms of single books.
It’s true that having reintroduced Nicholas Benedict as a boy, I could send
him on more adventures. A number of readers have suggested I do that. But I
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don’t really want to, for the same reason that I made his boyhood story more of a coming-of-age mystery than a high-stakes adventure like the previous books: I don’t want to risk diminishing the specialness of what has come before. It’s bittersweet for a reader to come to the end of a beloved series – I’ve experienced it myself – and yet that reaction is the best a series writer can possibly hope for. Far worse to write a few books too many, or even one. If you really care about the books, that is, and I do care about the Benedict books.
Anyway, I still intend to write more for adults, but right now I’m finishing
up work on another children’s novel called The Secret Keepers, due to be published in the fall of 2016. Like the Benedict books, it involves mystery and adventure, quasi-scifi elements, and a certain degree of atmospheric weirdness. I’m hoping it’s good. If it isn’t, please don’t feel obliged to tell me.
BA: Oh! And might there be a Mysterious Benedict Society film adaptation in the future?
TLS: There might be. Film industry folks have expressed interest, anyway. Over the years I’ve been approached (via my film agent) by a number of directors, screenwriters, producers, and playwrights. I’ve had good conversations, and the book has been optioned a few times – but that’s as far as it’s gotten. Still, a couple of the directors who expressed interest did so because they had a child who was a fan of the books, so maybe a film adaptation just has to wait for the current generation of kids to grow up and become filmmakers. Who can’t wait one little generation? This thing could happen before we know it.
Trenton Lee Stewart
Editors’ Note: Let it be known to posterity that Maxine originally referred to Mowgli, the loveable loinclothed scamp of Jungle Book fame as “Mogwai,” the technical name for the gremlins from Gremlins. Mr. Stewart, well-versed as he is in both Kipling and 80s movies, was kind enough to point out the error.
Review – What Lies in Wait
Anyone familiar with James H. Duncan would not be surprised to find the
exploration of the unknown figuring into his writing. It’s present in his short story collection The Cards We Keep and reflected in his status as the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, a literary magazine centered around the traveling word. That obsession with exploration is also present in his new short story collection, What Lies In Wait.
Considering the title on its own, someone unfamiliar with Duncan might
expect this to be a collection of horror stories. Yet Duncan’s work resists genre, as his words pass through the conventions of apocalypse, noir, whimsy, zombie alternate history, and the uncanny. What Lies In Wait shows that though Duncan
David S. Atkinson
can maintain a focus, he doesn’t stay in one place for very long.
Let’s consider the character Claire in the story “Game of Life.” Claire has
had a tough life, but as she leaves college things have become too easy. She needs a new challenge and decides to spend a summer in isolation manning a fire watchtower. (Yes, Kerouac’s experience on Desolation Peak is mentioned.) This becomes a little unsettling when her radio, her only contact with the outside world, suffers a mishap:
Her morning check-in was even more hacked and static-filled than the night before, and that evening Claire didn’t leave it on after her evening check-in. The worry she felt over her handicapped communication with the outside world surprised her. It wasn’t the end of the world, but every time she thought about the radio she felt like a large open pit formed in her stomach, even with the knowledge of Bundy’s arrival on Friday with new supplies and hopefully a new radio.
Of course, this story begins at a point in the near future where Claire is at
her home collecting firearms and supplies before heading out of town, the only person apparently left there. The reader knows what Claire does not: that she’s actually cut off by a lot more than a broken radio.
Later in the collection, we move from Claire’s solitude to a different kind
of isolation with “Hello Down There.” In this story, a character named Mike regularly escapes his grind of a job to hide in an isolated, relatively unused office bathroom. This bathroom has a window that obsesses Mike, but not because it leads outside. Instead, the window leads into a darkened airshaft. Peering in one
Review – What Lies in Wait
Friday afternoon, he sees a wallet on a ledge in the shaft and goes for it:
Mike then reached down and scraped the tip of his middle finger against the skin of the wallet, pulling away a layer of black grime. Pretty damn close. With another heave, Mike pushed himself out and wavered downward, the blood rushing to his head as he reached beneath him and held the wall below with his free—and now blackened—left hand. With his right he snatched the wallet—just as the window frame slipped down with a wobbling THOOHOOHOOD and slammed against his hips.
Mike is trapped. His coworkers cannot hear him as they pack up for the
weekend. Mike faces the possibility that he might die of dehydration before being found. Then, a voice begins to speak to him from the bottom of the shaft, providing a powerful setup to a strange and inscrutable story.
However, as I’ve noted, not all of the stories in What Lies In Wait are dark. In
“Circus,” a lonely young boy named Manuel strives to get away:
Denied each time he asked, he could only sit on his bed and picture all the clowns and animals boarding their train, waving and smiling and heading to the next city to play their hypnotic music and perform their tricks. He refused to let that opportunity pass him by. He wanted to learn to walk the tightrope, to breathe fire, to make lions bow and leap into the air, and the games, and the food, and more, so much more.
David S. Atkinson
Happier though it may be, â€œCircusâ€? still explores the theme of what lies in
wait. In this case, Manuel realizes that his circus dreams mean he would have to turn his back on the beloved sister who needs him to return home.
The stories in this collection demonstrate Duncanâ€™s wandering spirit in
the impressive variety of ways that he explores the meaning behind his title. Whether zombies, lost children, or the police, Duncan implements his mysteries with rich description and a marvelous knack for keeping the reader focused on both the moment and the foreboding possibilities of what comes next. eing asked to review contemporary fiction occasionally drives me to employ the cor What Lies in Wait James H. Duncan Hobo Camp Press 312 pages, $12.99
Past Perfect Review – The Alchemist
Written like a fable, The Alchemist is a jewel of storytelling. The accomplished
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho penned this magical masterpiece in 1988. It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was photographed carrying the book that The Alchemist began to achieve its well-deserved popular reputation. Today, The Alchemist has sold 150 million copies worldwide, and has been translated into 80 languages, and at the time this review was written, and twenty-seven years after it was first published, it was number two on the New York Time’s Paperback Trade Fiction list.
Kristin D. Urban-Watson
The Alchemist follows the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy.
Santiago has a recurring dream of a treasure, located at the Egyptian pyramids. As he so eloquently puts it, “it’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” After consulting a gypsy and an old king, Santiago decides to sell his sheep, leave his life as a shepherd, and begin his quest for treasure. He travels from Spain to Egypt, although not quite as directly and swiftly as he was anticipating. Along the way, Santiago meets a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and eventually an alchemist. It is through the important relationship with the alchemist that Santiago realizes “that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
The book resonates strongly because of its idea of the “Personal Legend.”
The old king explains to Santiago that the Personal Legend is “what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.” Coelho causes the reader to reflect upon their own Personal Legend, and whether they, like Santiago, need to go on a quest to recover it. Coelho is such a gifted writer that he shapes Santiago’s character in such a way as to allow the reader to imagine that she is walking alongside him, on his journey of fulfillment. When Santiago recognizes omens, so does the reader; when he contemplates love and his destiny, the reader does likewise. While The Alchemist is an adventure story, it is also an extraordinary novel of self-discovery.
The topic of finding one’s own path was not a new one for Coelho, as simi-
lar themes can be found in his book The Pilgrimage (1987). Here, Coelho also explores self-realization and discovery. In fact, this book has even been considered a sort of companion book to The Alchemist. Yet because of its heart and adventurous narrative, The Alchemist remains the most beloved book of all of Coelho’s novels.
Past Perfect Review – The Alchemist
Simple as a fairytale, The Alchemist is a cup of wisdom from which read-
ers will gladly drink for eternity. Through his simple storytelling techniques, Coelho manages to bring the reader into the story, and the beautiful imagery he paints further transports the reader into the North African terrain alongside Santiago. Nearly three decades out from when it first hit bookshelves, the old king’s proclamation that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” still rings strongly within readers. The Alchemist (25th Anniversary Edition) Paulo Coelho Harper One 208 pages, $17.14
Kristin D. Urban-Watson
avid S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt (a 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist) and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review and others. His writing website is www.davidsatkinsonwriting.com and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.
essica Barksdale is the author of thirteen novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, the Coachella Review and elsewhere. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.
att Black is a photographer from California’s Central Valley. His work has explored themes of migration, farming, poverty and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. Recent photo essays have been published in the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and Vice magazines. He was named Time’s Instagram photographer of the year in 2014.
ruce Louis Dodson is an American expat living in Borlänge, Sweden, where he practices photography and writes fiction and poetry. His most recent work has appeared in Breadline Press West Coast Poetry Anthology, Foreign & Far Away – Writers Abroad Anthology, Blue Collar Review, Barely South Review and numerous other publications.
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
atthew Duffusâ€™s work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Cimarron Review, Natural Bridge and New Ohio Review. He received an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Minnesota and currently lives in rural North Carolina.
hantal Heijnen is a portrait and documentary photographer based in New York. Her love for photography is what brought her to New York City. She has worked as an editorial photographer for international newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Stern Magazine and Vrij Nederland.
anya Kanchana teaches yoga. Through her non-profit, she creates yoga projects for under-served communities, particularly in rural or special needs settings. She treads softly and errs on the side of poetry.
ane Kareska studied writing at Columbia College Chicago and received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Lane traveled Europe and South America to research his graduate thesis. His fiction has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, ThugLit, Sheepshead Review and elsewhere. His novella North Dark was recently published by Sirens Call. He also reviews classic X-Men comics at his website, www.lanekareska.com.
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.
evin Michael Klipfel was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently lives in California. His photos have recently appeared in F-Stop and Lenscratch, and a profile of his work appeared on the European arts and culture blog Mutantspace in March 2015. More of his work can be seen at www. kevinmichaelklipfelphotography.com
ammy Ruggles is a legally blind photographer, finger painter and writer who lives in Kentucky. Her profession in the arts began when Retinitis Pigmentosa forced her to retire from social work. She enjoys spending time with family and friends. Some of her credits include Writerâ€™s Digest, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Art Times Journal, Weird Tales and other publications.
nna Schott is a violinist and teacher in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and assorted pets. She recently had a midlife crisis and, instead of having an affair or buying a motorcycle, decided that she would try to write. This is her first story. She may get that motorcycle yet.
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
renton Lee Stewart is author of the novel Flood Summer, as well as the award-winning, New York Times best-selling series of childrenâ€™s books that begins with The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was recently included on Timeâ€™s list of the 100 greatest young adult novels of alltime. His short fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review and elsewhere. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
ristin D. Urban-Watson is a writer, art teacher, book reviewer, and yoga enthusiast. She enjoys good books, nature walks, and spending time with her black lab.
M axine Allison Vande Vaarst is the founder of Buffalo Almanack and serves
as its Fiction Editor. She received her B.A. in English and History from Purdue University. She currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming and is pursuing an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Wyoming. She is currently at work (she means it this time!) on her debut novel Isle of Noise, a story of witchcraft in the English Civil War.
Katie Morrison serves as Visual Arts 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.
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
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 art piece of each issue, as selected by our editors. The cash prize as of June 2015 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 or money orders will be delivered to the winners via the U.S.P.S. sometime during that same month.
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
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 the visual arts, we invest in a diverse range of subjects and styles. We are attracted foremost to strong composition, skilled technical craft and assertive authorial presence. We want art that tells 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 brush, pencil or camera ourselves.
CHECKING IN ON #BUFFALONATION ANDY BAILY (“The Parlay,” Issue No. 4) I’ve got a few new stories published, including pieces in Tupelo Quarterly, Infinite Prairie and Sippy Cup Magazine. I’ve also just finished another draft of a novel and am about to begin the cold, dark process of querying, so hopefully next update I’ll have more news!
KATHERINE FORBES RILEY (“What the Sea Brings,” Issue No. 5) I’ve had stories accepted for publication by Literary Orphans, Eclectica, Whiskey Island and BlazeVOX. I am also revising my first novel (again).
PAUL HAMILTON (“From the Blog of Exceptional-Man, Issue No. 2) Since Issue #2—my first publication!—I’ve had nine other stories published,
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
some literary, some speculative, in print, online, and even as audio on a podcast. I joined the staff of Plasma Frequency Magazine as an assistant editor, first reads. I received an honorable mention in the “Writers Of The Future” contest. I also have a story coming out next month in the anthology Torn Pages from Weird Bard Press.
GRANT JERKINS (“EBT,” Issue No. 5) Done in One, my fourth book, came out in January. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it a “high-powered, bone-rattler of a novel.” And my short story, “Regular, Normal People” is in the newest issue of Blight Digest.
NICHOLAS LEPRE (“Violator,” Issue No. 5) I have a story coming out in upstreet this summer, and stories coming out in the Minnesota Review and Paper Nautilus in the fall. I’m trying to finish my collection of linked stories this year (those three are linked). I think I have all of the stories drafted now, and they all sort of fit together.
BRANDON McIVOR (“Foxhole,” Issue No. 1) Since my publication in Buffalo Almanack’s first issue, a few other journals have picked up my stories. Specifically: Existere, Linguistic Erosion, Gravitrons, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and the Caribbean Winter, which is quite a significant publication in my next of the woods. Outside of strictly publications, my sister and I have begun a populist Creative Workshop Series under the banner of “People’s Republic of Writing,” back in my home country of Trinidad (to which I’ve since been ordered to return). It’s good fun; think MFA type workshops, except with way less qualifications in the room and approximately 100% less expenditure--which is to say it’s free.
SHANNON PERRI (“My Sister’s Maid of Honor,” Issue No. 6) Since my publication with Buffalo Almanack, I’ve had a story, “To Be For Something” included in Fiddleblack’s second print anthology, Nights Like These. I also had a story called “You’re Never Alone Until There’s Nothing” published by Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
REBECCA ANNE RENNER (“The Nonquitt Key,” Issue No. 1) I’ve published a short story called “Drift” in Pinball. I also just got a job teaching high school English and I’m working on a few novels, though nothing’s finished yet.
ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL (“Born to Ramble,” Issue No. 2) My chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out was recently published by WhiskeyPaper Press. In addition, I have a Western novel, Mesilla, due out this September from Dock Street Press. I am currently an Artist-in-Residence for the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
CHRIS VONJONACK (“The Last Times You Saw Jenny McCreary,” Issue No. 6)
Since my story ran last December I’ve been student teaching full-time to finish out my English Education degree at Colorado State University. It’s been a blast and at least a little overwhelming. As far as writing news goes, New Haven Review published my short story, “Last Letter Home” in February, and I’ve been working on a few new fiction pieces in my spare time. Looking forward to summer when I can do some heavy editing!
Issue No. 8 - June 2015
Published on Jun 15, 2015
Interviews with Trenton Lee Stewart and Chantal Heijnen. Photography by Matt Black. Short fiction from Matthew Duffus and other cool people.