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Nowhere Man by Robert Miltner

When Otto Porter leased the second floor sleeping room in Elsie Mueller’s house, she knew she had found a good thing. He wasn’t like that hooligan her neighbor Mrs. Coyne rented a room in her attic to, a foul-mouthed Great Lakes sailor who was usually drunk on the six days a month he slept there on leave. Elsie’s boarder’s rent was paid on time, his room was tidy, his manners refined, and his comings-and-goings quiet and considerate. He took the trash out to the alley all on his own and he cut the grass with the reel mower because he liked to be out-of-doors, he said, days when the weather was inviting. Though the skeleton key opened both the front door and the kitchen door at the back of the brick four-square, Mr. Porter used it only on the side door. Entry into the parlor, he’d told her, was unthinkable and passing through the kitchen seemed intrusive. He found the side entrance into the hallway with its access to the back staircase leading to his room more suitable. Although the room was small, Otto felt comfortable. The iron framed single bed nestled against the wall wasn’t a divan, but with two pillows to bolster him, it provided an extra place to sit. The oak dresser with its beveled mirror was adequate for his clothes, and the closet held his two suits and his overcoat and raincoat while its upper shelf were adequate for his fedoras. Centered in the one, west-facing window was an armchair with a footstool where he liked to sit and read in the sunlight on weekend afternoons. In many ways, Elsie thought, but didn’t tell Mrs. Coyne, her boarder was easier to live with than her children were or her deceased husband had been. * Elsie’s husband, Conrad, worked for thirty-one years on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Plant on Brookpark Road near the airport. He built Chevrolets. A slight man, he was taciturn and reticent. On occasion he was known to say a few words from behind the newspaper that was like a folding screen partitioning him from the world. Praise was not his strong suit. For Conrad’s fiftieth birthday, Elsie spent two days preparing his favorite meal of roasted stuffed capon, mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans, and apple pie with vanilla ice cream for dessert. She watched him fork the meal with mechanical precision into his mouth. When she finally asked how he liked the birthday dinner, he replied, “I’m eating it, ain’t I”? Elsie noticed how his slight figure grew a paunch after years of eating his morning meal of two eggs fried in the grease from four crisp rashers of bacon, served with thickly buttered and marmaladed toast. One morning, a few


weeks after his birthday, Conrad was swinging open the garage door to pull out his Chevy so he could drive to work when his arteries closed up tight and he fell to the cinder floor, dead from a heart attack. Elsie’s grown children, Tom, a nail salesman who had just moved his young wife, daughter and son to the western suburbs, and Terry, who was attending Ohio State on the GI Bill to take a degree in chemical engineering, suggested she take in a boarder so that she wouldn’t have to live alone. The ad for the “Room to Let” which Terry had written, paid for and placed himself, was the one Elsie’s boarder found the two days later in The Cleveland Press. * In the unseasonably cold and drizzly autumn of 1954, Otto Porter was told by his wife’s doctor that the high humidity and the off-lake dampness of Cleveland’s winter would only speed his wife Flossie’s demise from tuberculosis. She was fifty-three, he two years her senior. To provide the best care possible for her regardless of cost, Mr. Porter would have to sell their brick bungalow in Lakewood to pay for Flossie to stay in an Arizona sanitarium where she could be properly treated. Since his position as an accountant with the Cleveland Trolley Line was secure and paid reasonably well, he had no choice but to remain in Ohio and visit her twice a year or more by train. In October some months later, Otto sat on the train returning from his second visit to Arizona. Looking out the dining car window, he saw the dry Southwest landscape blur as the train raced into the night. In the morning, he would see the harvested fields of the Midwest quilting the terrain as if in preparation for the long winter sleep. When he arrived at Elsie Mueller’s house, a telegram was waiting for him. Flossie had died in her sleep the night he left. Otto borrowed against the money he expected from the sale of their home to bring his wife back to Ohio for burial, as she’d wished. The following week, Otto’s supervisor at the Cleveland Trolley Line called him into his office. Unable to compete with the explosion of automobiles that were now everywhere, he said, the company had to cut the fat from its payroll in order to survive. His supervisor laid Otto off. Two weeks later, Otto rode the trolley to his new job at the Koepke Meat Processing Company where he worked at a reduced income as a payroll clerk. With the transaction about to close on his house, Otto needed to make arrangements, so he opened his morning copy of The Plain Dealer to the “Sleeping Rooms” section as the trolley clanged along Clifton Boulevard toward the Cuyahoga River, then downtown Cleveland, where he’d transfer to the bus that took him to his new job. * Elsie was only too happy to tell her son Tom she could watch the children so that his wife Fran could accompany him to the trade show in Chicago; Friday morning through Monday evening would be fine. Elsie loved having Alice and little Tommy visit, especially on Sundays, and the thought of four whole days filled her with delight. On Saturday morning she would pull the children in a wagon the four blocks to the Sears and Roebuck store where she’d get the children new outfits


for Sunday mass. They bought fresh-ground peanut butter and crisp apples from Mr. Marzitti, the green grocer in the small market attached by a walkway to Sears. On Saturday night, there’d be popcorn and root beer floats for the children as they listened to the radio or watched one of the television variety shows. And on Sunday morning, Alice and little Tommy, freshly-scrubbed, clothes ironed and shoes polished, would accompany her to church at Saint Ignatius Loyola Cathedral where all her neighbors—the Catholic ones at any rate—would see how lovely her grandchildren were, how well-dressed and well-behaved. Elsie planned to bake an apple pie and two loaves of bread, then roast a stuffed chicken on Sunday for dinner. She could picture Alice reading the Sunday funnies to little Tommy at the kitchen table while she made the gravy. * The girl, about seven years of age with curly mousy-brown hair and a slight overbite, pulled her four-year-old brother, a thin child with cow-licked hair, by the hand until they stood next to the claw foot iron tub. This is the bathtub, Alice told little Tommy. Tommy leaned over to look into the tub. The scent of Ivory soap and bleach made him feel a little sneezey. And this, Alice announced ceremonially, is the sink. Watch, she commanded, as she stepped up on the small step stool so that her short arms could reach the handles, marked H and C, of the pedestal sink. Where’s the under? the boy asked. Oh, like the cabinet? Alice asked. Granma’s old bathroom doesn’t have one. It’s all on this stand. And that’s why the stool is here. So you can stand, Alice professed. Now you try, she said. She stepped down and then lifted the boy on to the stool. His chin was on the edge of the porcelain sink. He could see the handles, but he couldn’t reach them. Tommy, Alice said, in her best mommy-voice, you be sure to wash your hands before and after every meal! Alice! Tommy! Elsie called from the front parlor, come down for hot cocoa! We are, replied Alice. Then she lifted her brother down from the stool and, taking him by the hand, led him from the bathroom out into the hallway. Just before the landing where they would hold the railing to go down, Alice stopped in front Mr. Porter’s room, with its closed maple door and a glass handle. And Tommy, Alice whispered, excited by sharing a secret, this is where grandma’s boarder lives! * Otto Porter had spent a pleasant afternoon at the downtown library. He’d read reading about Hemingway’s latest safari in Life magazine, followed by an hour reading a few passages from the new volume of Sandburg’s Lincoln. Around four o’clock in the afternoon,


after a fried egg sandwich at Pete’s Westside Diner, he returned to Elsie’s house, the Sandburg under his arm, to settle in and read in the armchair while the light from the window was still good. When he stopped into the bathroom just across and down the hall from his room, he found a small, thin boy— ruddy-cheeked, dark cow-licked hair, about four or five years old—standing on the small stool in front of the sink. The boy wasn’t doing anything, just standing and looking at the faucet as though it might provide water merely by his wishing so. Hello, Otto said. The boy looked to him, held his gaze, then looked back at the faucet. Do you need some help? Otto asked the boy. The boy nodded his head yes. Well, what? asked the man. The boy pointed at the faucet. Otto stepped close to the sink, turning the hot and cold handles, adjusting them for lukewarm, a temperature he believed would be suitable for the boy. There you are, then, he said. The boy stared at the water coming out of the faucet. Stepping back, Otto looked at the boy at the sink, asking, Can you reach the water? The boy nodded and lifted himself onto his toes, resting his belly on the rim of the sink. He shook his hands around in the water, then announced, Done. Otto took a small blue towel from the bar next to the tub and handed it to the boy who waited on the stool. The boy shook his hands in the towel in a manner very similar to the way he had done with the water. Done, he said, handing the towel to the man. Otto laid it over the side of the tub. Are you Tommy, Elsie’s grandson? Otto asked. The boy blinked but said nothing. OK, Otto said, tell you what: if you are Tommy, say nothing. Or blink. Either one so I know who you are. The boy blinked and said nothing. All right then, Otto said more to himself than to the boy, this all adds up now. He sat on the edge of the porcelain tub next to the small blue towel, crossed his arms, and studied the boy. Tommy stepped down from the stool and sat down on it, crossing his arms as if in imitation of the man. Who are you? the boy asked. I’m Mr. Porter, the boarder, he replied. Then he chuckled, adding, Doesn’t that sound funny, like a rhyme? You know, Porter the boarder? The boy said nothing, just watched and blinked. Hey, Porter said, Hey—want to see a magic trick? Tommy smiled and clapped his hands twice. OK, he said, taking a buffalo head nickel from his waist coat pocket, now watch! Porter held the nickel up between the index finger and thumb of his left


hand. As his right hand wrapped around it, seeming to sweep it out of his grip, Porter let the coin drop into the palm of his left hand, which he swung down to his side as he swept his empty, closed right hand up to his lips, then blew air from his mouth loudly into his fist so that it opened, showing an empty hand. Where did it go? he asked Tommy. The boy shook his head from side to side. His mouth was open. His eyes were the size of quarters. Maybe, Porter said, reaching his left hand up near the right side of the boy’s head, It is right here in your ear! And as he said this, he lightly touched Tommy’s right ear, brought his left hand down in front of the boy, and opened his hand. There it was, the buffalo head nickel. Tommy stared at Porter, his eyes the size of silver dollars. How? he started to ask, but Porter put his right finger to his lips and made the Shhh gesture. Porter looked left, right, then got up, walked to the door, and looked in both directions down the hallway. Right, he said, and returned to the edge of the tub where he knew the boy would be waiting for him. As if to tell a secret, Porter leaned forward. So did Tommy, so he could hear. It’s a magic nickel, Porter said. Now hold out your hand, he told the boy, who did as he was told. Then the man put the nickel into the boy’s hand and closed it with his own hand around the coin. Don’t lose it, he said, guard it. Can you do that? he asked. Tommy nodded twice. OK, then, put it in your pocket where it’ll be safe. * Tommy, came a voice called from downstairs, Elsie’s voice, Come to dinner, Tommy! You’d better go then, Porter said. Coming, Tommy said to the hallway. Mr. Porter walked with Tommy out into the hallway. As he passed through the doorway, he pulled the string to turn off the light over the mirror. Tommy stopped in front of Porter’s door that was just before the stair case leading downstairs. He looked at Mr. Porter, then curled his right index finger on his right hand in, twice, calling Porter down to him. The man leaned down, bent at the waist, and put his ear near the boy’s mouth. Be careful, the boy said. Why? asked Porter. Tommy pointed at Porter’s closed door. ‘Cause the hotdog man lives in there! he warned. Who’s that, asked Porter, curiously, And why’s he called that? I don’t know, the boy replied, as he turned toward the staircase, but Granma says he smells like hot dogs. *


Otto Porter sat in the side chair next to the window. The Sandburg book sat on the table next to him, a trolley transfer marking the passage he’d read maybe half a dozen times without comprehending. If he opened his door, even a little bit, he would be able to hear the talk and laughter of Elsie and her grandchildren at the dinner table. He kept his door closed. The golden afternoon light was growing dim. He felt the air coming through the slightly open window turning colder, so he closed the window all the way and pulled his cardigan sweater closer and crossed his arms across his chest, holding his hands under his arms. His head dropped until his chin brushed his sweater. His breathing was deep, with a slight catch as he drew air in. He put his right hand on his forehead, holding it as if the weight was such that he couldn’t hold it much longer. When he looked up, the room was dark. He leaned back in his chair, put his hands on the arms of the chair, and gripped the chair tight. Once, years back, when Flossie was young and healthy, she’d talked him into riding a Ferris wheel at the amusement park at Avon Point. He’d sat like this, gripping with his hands, holding on tight. Flossie, laughing, put her hands over his and gave them a squeeze. Closing his eyes, it was as if he could feel her hands on his. How he wished he could! He felt himself grow so light-headed that he could hardly breathe. Mr. Porter opened his eyes. The room was nearly pitch-dark, with only a faint light coming under the door and through the window. He was gripping the chair so hard his forearms ached. He unclasped his arms, raising his right hand to his mouth. That evening years back on the Ferris wheel he wasn’t sure if he was afraid that the ride would start or that it wouldn’t. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore. His right hand had formed a fist that he pressed against his lips. He blew air from his mouth into the space between his fingers. Where did it go? he said to himself. He didn’t need the dark or the light to show him his hand was empty.

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AKRON, OHIO


Purity

by Mathew Pearlman ~follow on Facebook


Disentangling the Nets: A Vision of

Self in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the Case for Irish Identity PART I by Matthew C. Mackey I will not serve that in which I no longer believe … -Stephen Dedalus By the time A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is published in 1916, Ireland’s self identity is fragmented and inconclusive. Factions are vying for control of the country, and the domineering English empire is waning. James Joyce steps onto the literary scene with a controversial solution to the problem of Irish Identity. Through his closely autobiographical protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce shapes an idea of Ireland that is free, not only of tyranny outside the borders, but also from oppression within. In A Portrait, Joyce refers to “nets” that have been cast by hundreds of years of colonization and civil unrest poised to arrest the social, moral, and cultural identity of the Irish people. The politics of nation, religion, and language, serve as entrapments for the Irish people and causes an overall paralysis for the country, especially in the capitol of Dublin. Joyce propels the idea in his novel that one can only be free to form a true identity by evading these nets. Ireland, in the pivotal, early years of the 1900’s, must detangle the trappings of national racism, religious absolutism, and linguistic sovereignty. Joyce understands his country as one that struggles with racial identity in the context of an English/Irish opposition on a European stage, promoting nationalistic movements, born to define and subsequently control Irish identity, a country suppressed by a despotic religion, and a country restrained by languages neither foreign nor familiar. Disentangling the nets of tyranny is not only crucial for an individual to reach self-actualization, as in the case of Stephen Dedalus, but also, as is the case of Ire-


land, for a country to understand and reveal to the world its true national identity. Born in 1882, it would have been impossible for James Joyce to escape the volatile environment that shaped Ireland at the turn of the century. Indeed, much of the happenings and interests of the time can be readily discovered in his writings. It is widely accepted that, although A Portrait may not be a truly accurate account of Joyce’s life, it is understood to be highly autobiographical. And, as such, one can ascertain that Joyce’s representation of self in Stephen Dedalus is a projection of developing identity. This carries certain implications for the formation of a national identity. This is, after all, is a bildungsroman not only for Joyce, but also for Ireland. Stephen states, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Joyce 220). Ireland at this time is undoubtedly confused as to a specific definition of “Irish.” For hundreds of years the people of Ireland have been oppressed by the British Empire; thus, any formative notion of identity is marred by the occupation of a foreign presence. On one hand, Ireland has a very strong need to form an identity apart from its oppressor, and on the other hand, Ireland has been nearly deprived of a cultural context for which to base an identity. As is often the case with colonization, race becomes the standard to define a people. England, as the colonizer, sees Ireland as an inferior race and works to eradicate the cultural practices of the uncivilized savage. Vincent J. Cheng, author of Joyce, Race, and Empire, quotes Robert Knox as serving to illuminate the racializing of Irishness: The source of all evils lies in the race, the Celtic race of Irel and. There is no getting over historical facts… The race must be forced from the soil; by fair means, if possible; still t hey must leave. England’s safety requires it […] The Orange club of Ireland is a Saxon confederation for the clearing the land of all papists and jacobites; this means Celts. (qtd. in Cheng 30) Written in 1850, this excerpt from Knox’s The Races of Men gives clear perspective on the racial oppression which daunted Ireland for nearly six hundred years. Many times colonizers claimed that the


native race lived a barbaric existence whose customs, systems of government, and religions were either non-existent or not worth sustaining in the face of a “superior” civilization (Tyson 370). For example, the Irish were forced to give up their language and adopt the speech of the oppressor as a civilized tongue. Ireland was told that it did not have a cultural identity before England came to their aid. It is this very idea that sparked movements such as the Gaelic League, founded by Douglas Hyde, Sinn Féin, and the Celtic Revival, better known as the Irish Literary Revival. At the end of the 19th century, Ireland is scrambling for bits and scraps of a pre-colonial race in order to form a strong sense of identity. The Gaelic League focused on revitalizing the almost dead language of Ireland (Gaelic) in order to establish a completely Irish race and culture, getting rid of all traces of the oppressor. Sinn Féin carries a similar idealism with their motto, “We ourselves,” implying that Ireland needs to be devoid of English influence and rule. Many other figureheads, including William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, started the Irish Literary Revival in order to forge a present Irish definition of nation by resurrecting a romantic idea of an ancient race. In so doing, these movements would circumvent six centuries of important Irish history and ultimately alienate many of the uneducated and poor of Ireland. Eugene O’Brien explicates on these movements that “the implication here is that if one is interested in anything outside of Ireland, one is, by definition not Irish” (O’Brien 65). Of course, Joyce took serious reservations with this as demonstrated by his exile. Even if these oppositions to the colonizer weren’t crippling enough to Ireland, factions within the country vied for power over each other and railed against Irish movements that were supportive of English involvement. While Joyce concedes that British imperialism is a fundamental factor in the Irish political chaos of the time, he cannot support the premise of racial superiority. Tracey Teets Shwarze elaborates in her article, “Silencing Stephen: Colonial Pathologies in Victorian Dublin,” by saying, I would assert that Joyce’s primary purpose in depicting this discord is not so much to condemn British mistreatment of Ireland as it is to expose and deride Ireland’s oppression of its own sons and daughters as it attempts the impossible task of “purifying” or “deanglicizing” Irish culture. (Shwarze 244)


Another reason Joyce disagrees with Irish nationalism is Ireland’s history of betrayal. Every time Ireland came close to electing a national leader, betrayal was often the response. There is no unifying notion of state, and it is here, in the middle of this disorder, we find young Stephen Dedalus fashioning his identity. Shwarze states in her article that Irish history “is a repetitiously bloody and complex colonial heritage that Stephen Dedalus must decode, a national experience characterized by six centuries of British occupation and Irish revolt” (Shwarze 244). One of Stephen’s earliest encounters with politics happens in the first chapter over Christmas dinner. Here he sees firsthand the violent perspectives of Irish patriotism. In this metaphorical civil war, Stephen begins to understand the deplorable state that Ireland is in. He begins to realize that his family is dominated by political ideals. “The real tragedy,” as William O’Neil states, “is not that the family does not get along, but that their ideals of themselves have been formed entirely by the institutions that govern them” (O’Neil 386). Stephen identifies the servility of his family to these ideals as disheartening. It is clear that he grows more and more disappointed by the Irish sense of nationalism as he grows older. Stephen begins to recognize the recurring theme of betrayal in Irish history, and he wants no part in any system that controls the minds of those who subscribe to it and so easily turns on its supporters. He says to his college companion, Davin, after being solicited into joining a nationalist movement: No honourable and sincere man has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first. (Joyce 220) Stephen makes it clear that Irish nationalism is no nationalism at all, but rather a nauseating attempt to feed a


forced ideal. He says to Davin, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (Joyce 220). His contempt for the Irish idea of nationalism is born out of a history of disappointment. Very near the end of the novel, Stephen remarks on his people as “a race of clodhoppers!” (Joyce 272). This is, of course, his final break with Irish nationalism. If he cannot stand the people, there is no way he could stand for the people. Seamus Deane expands on this sentiment in his notes to A Portrait by saying, “the servility and the bad taste of the Irish disgust Stephen. They are sentimental in the cheapest way towards their oppressors” (Joyce 328). Whether the oppressor is England or Ireland itself, Stephen refuses to subjugate himself to any oppressor. By way of disdain, Stephen has disentangled the first net that serves to stifle the formation of an identity by overcoming national racism, implying the victimization of Ireland and requiring a complete will to serve national interest. In this respect Joyce sees, or would like to see, Ireland free from the definition of race. His hope is that Ireland, like young Stephen, will create an identity that is formed out of a present dilemma and free from the notion of superiority. This gives way to his treatment of the Irish Literary Revival of the time. He struggles with an idea of an ancient Celt supplanting the modern Hibernian. He is afraid of the implications reviving a long dead ideology of race may bring. In A Portrait, Stephen affirms Joyce’s problem with resurrecting ancient Ireland, and subsequently of the consequences of the Irish Literary Revival. In a journal entry, Stephen reports of John Alphonsus Mulrennan returning with news of encountering an old man. The implication is that the information gathered while Mulrennan is with the old man is that it will be used to further the Irish Literary Revival’s need for folklore and mythology (O’Neil 389). Stephen says, “I fear [the old man]. I fear his redrimmed horny eyes. It is with him I must struggle all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead, gripping him by the sinewy throat […]” (Joyce 274). Joyce himself states in “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages,” taken from his Critical Writings, “Ancient Ireland is dead just as ancient


Egypt is dead. Its death chant has been sung and on its gravestone has been placed a seal� (qtd. in Watson 158). Even Stephen’s last name, Dedalus, gives us a clue as to his assumed identity, for it is neither English nor Irish, but, being borrowed from the Greek master artist and craftsman of legend, has a European root.

To be continued


JULIA AND DREW by Phyllis Green

Her Great-Aunt Hortense used to sing a little ditty which began and ended with this admonishment, “Never marry a man prettier than thee.” But Julia did. She married Drew Bellenderbilt, the prettiest man on the planet. Ah, he was pretty and stood like a prize show horse. He looked good from front, back, and sideways and even upside down. Nothing was amiss on her Drew. He was pretty perfect. But he loved plain Julia and in ten years they had a brood of five boys and five girls who all looked exactly like Drew. Julia was busy cleaning and polishing and getting the children to do their homework so she didn’t notice that she had been somewhat airbrushed out of family photographs either by casting her in a dark shadow or perhaps cutting her off at the neck or one of the children, probably Phoebe, leaping in front of her to cause Julia to become a blur. They didn’t do it to be mean. They loved Julia but they had to face it, she was not as pretty as they. In fact she was not pretty at all. She was most plain and the prettier they were, she became plainer still. So a plan was devised and Julia was sent off to Acapulco to have something done with her jaw and then she was put on a plane to Paris to fix those tangled eyebrows, then driven to Miami to puff up the cheekbones, then shipped off to Tokyo for the smoothing of wrinkles and bumps and toning of neck and all sorts of finishing touches so that when she came home she looked just like them (which meant just like Drew), pretty. Which was fine for awhile and they paraded around town like the pretty family they were. The townspeople were struck with their prettiness. They were awed. They were wowed. They were envied. And the Bellenderbilts were pretty pleased. Well, maybe not Drew. He recalled when he was the only pretty one and he missed that. So he went off to various countries and had a tuck here and there and a nip here and there and when he came home he was prettier than the rest of the family. They didn’t mind too much, well a little bit. But soon they had no problem with it because his nips and tucks started slipping and it wasn’t long before his nose looked like a fist and his lower lip swelled up like a small pale balloon and he began to weep and put a balaclava over his head (it was the children’s idea). And when guests arrived to party Julia and the children made Drew lurk behind a screen covered with Chinese drawings of cherry trees. And they made Drew promise to not weep and sob until the guests went home. Then he was permitted to let it all out and he did, bawling until the sun came up.


The children built him a little house down by the lake and he was sent to live there and contemplate his failing prettiness. So he spent his days pining and thinking what life was about and after several months he took some baby steps to changing his thinking. He began to clean up the lake and to take care of the landscaping and to make where he lived prettier. He started off slowly then speeded up and worked for fifteen hours a day on his little hut and his surroundings. And he began caring for the wild animals that lived around the lake. He bathed and groomed coyotes and raccoons and pollywogs and the occasional opossum. He brushed their teeth with peppermint toothpaste so they even smelled good close up. And the family noticed. Julia was pleased. The children were nonplussed. But they saw that because of Drew’s unprettiness he had become a different, yet admired person. And soon pretty Julia (whose own toning up was slowly toning down) and the pretty children (who would be pretty until they hit 60 or so) joined him in his efforts to make the world pretty. They started with their town, painting the houses bright colors and mowing the lawns and building attractive fences and playgrounds and cutting the hairs out of the townspeople’s noses and plucking their eyebrows and washing their cars and building new walking paths and planting spring bulbs. Then they (the plain and pretty Bellenderbilts) moved on to other towns and other counties and other states and what they left behind were clean buildings and neat landscaping and colorful (pink, yellow, purple, green, blue, magenta, and white) wildflowers everywhere and, of course, smiling, toothy wild animals with peppermint breath.


THAT YOU EXIST


Enlightenment by Mathew Pearlman ~ follow on Facebook


I’m a Waiter by Saul Duluth

Recently, adjunct English instructor, Tom, applied for a full time position at the college he teaches for. Tom teaches at four different institutions throughout the year, and Tom has been teaching at this particular state funded college for just about 15 years. He has taught every class the English department has offered, worked as an advisor for new students, and has logged over 5,000 hours in the school’s Writing Center for the past three years. He has a Master’s degree in Composition and Rhetoric and a Master’s degree in Education. Not only does he have an abundance of experience and education, he has paid his dues, working in the trenches. As an adjunct, his plight is not unique. Thousands of adjuncts across the nation are facing near exploitive conditions because, quite frankly, they don’t have a choice. Okay, right, no one held a gun to their head and said, “You better pursue a higher degree in a field you love in hopes of working at an institution of higher education! And, so help me god if you want to change people’s understandings of the world and themselves, I’ll pull the trigger right now!” We get it. It’s their own fault. Seriously, why would anyone waste money on a graduate degree. Why would anyone pursue the subject matter they care about? And, why would anyone want to step in front of a classroom and help students acquire a practical skill or change their view of themselves and the world? Dick is in grad school. He is working on a Masters in Composition and Rhetoric. He is scheduled to pass with honors this spring. He has traveled extensively, published, and participated in conferences as much as possible. He and his nine year old daughter live in a cramped trailer. It’s all Dick can afford while working through grad school. Dick loves writing, but has settled on this degree because he felt it would better his chances of securing a job in the field, especially since he has heard rumors that English departments are skeptical of an MFA graduate’s teaching abilities. He would love to teach composition because above all else, he loves writing. He can’t get enough of it. In fact, when he’s not writing his


assignments or creative work, he doubles part time as a tutor in the writing center of a nearby college. Of course, he can’t work full time because the school doesn’t want to pay benefits for him and his daughter. He would love to parlay his studies into a practical and rewarding source of income, but he is worried about his career prospects. Unfortunately, academia may be have just begun to burst. Students are realizing they can make close to $30,000 a year working in a restaurant depending on their position or meet their needs as a car salesman without incurring large debts from student loans. They realize opportunities exist, albeit a little more difficult to come by, where they can make a decent wage on a high school diploma. They have seen the crippling bondage of student loans, and they don’t often equate a bachelor’s with more financial freedom. But, low enrollment and rough economy aren’t really the issue. Society has effectively traded the spirit of education for the spirit of capitalism. And, sadly, higher education is becoming synonymous with big business. Cuts are rampant (usually starting with the humanities), tighter restrictions are enforced, and new policies are created that ultimately result in lesser pay for those struggling to hang on. Honestly, why pay someone salary and benefits when you can pay an army next to nothing for the same job? When the preferred parking for faculty is for winners of the annual fund raising event, its obvious education has shifted its priorities. Harriet teaches freshman composition and developmental courses as a full time instructor. She is one of the lucky ones, who, after chasing the carrot for so long, has finally had a bite. Harriet received her MFA from one of the most prestigious programs in the US. As an MFA graduate, Harriet knows the value of her skill and consistently refines her abilities. She has her first book slated for publication and her work has appeared in journals and magazines around the nation. She has also participated and been featured in national literary con-


ferences. She has also applied for an open position as a Professor of Creative Writing in her department. She is hopeful. After all, she knows the college, has the qualifications, and has the experience. Still, she too is becoming disenfranchised. Cuts to her department have left working conditions less than amenable while administrators continue to enjoy increasing benefits, perks, and salaries. Each year her contract is up for renewal, and the department makes her and every faculty member aware that administration will act with the best interest of the school in mind, and years of service are no guarantee that a contract will be renewed. Even though Harriet has a full-time position, her many years as an adjunct make her cringe when thinking of losing her hard won place. She knows that many part time employees of higher education wait in fear of the chopping block. One false move could be their career’s fatal touch. So, faculty members walk around with broad smiles, cursory compliments, and puckered lips. In essence, they must behave. Voicing an opinion, asking questions, or expressing emotions could be deemed as “inappropriate behavior” subject to punitive measures. Every adjunct faculty member knows that a single complaint from a student could be the beginning of the end, that any uncrossed t or undotted i could spell disaster, and often who you know means more than what you know. Faculty must report on who has been attending their classes, who has not, who is in need of academic alert, who needs academic assistance, who is in the right place, who is not. They are glued to their email, anticipating, dreading, sending, and receiving ad infinitum. In certain cases, faculty must upload every assignment for the scrutiny of their departments, and most don’t even have options for assignments or requirements, but must follow predetermined departmental syllabi. Now, adjuncts must report every hour spent grading, conferencing, driving, checking emails, etc. related to their work, so they don’t go over their hourly limit, which prevents them from receiving benefits. Some schools have even severely limited the amount of classes an adjunct can teach in fear of losing money


on employee assistances. Tom couldn’t sleep the night before his last interview. After making it through a preliminary hiring round, the decision came down to Tom and one other candidate, also an employee of the school. Tom and his wife, who has one Master’s already and is working on a second, have struggled to keep their small family afloat as Tom teaches up to eight classes a semester at as many as five institutions, some private and some public. Sure, it’s a cutthroat economy and everyone is looking for a job. The market is saturated with candidates waiting in the wing for someone to step out of ranks, and with institutions running on adjunct armies, those spots are highly contested. There are many possible jobs for English majors out there, but when years of a person’s life are spent trying to land a full-time job in academia, gaining necessary experience elsewhere is hard to garner. Many faculty, full-time or otherwise, work hard to support themselves and their families. Many schools are closing. It’s rough for everyone. The fact is that without enrollment, schools must shut their doors. So, adjuncts will just have to fight harder to keep their place in academia. It’s that simple. But, without these armies of adjuncts, schools could not function, and when it’s possible to make more money managing a craft store than it is teaching as an adjunct, the future of academia is uncertain. Dick doesn’t let low enrollment in colleges and universities slow him down. Though he may be worried, Dick focuses even harder in his last semester, hoping that his scholarship will pay off. He hears from his peers who have been adjuncting and fellow classmates in his program how exploitive the system is and how disheartened they have become. One of his friends who has been an adjunct instructor for years has recently abandoned his career track to work at a collections agency. He jokes that he calls adjuncts more than any other borrower. Dick shares his colleagues’ frustration, and hopes things get better as he wraps up his graduate experience. When you ask a student why he or she is in college, you typically hear, “to get an education” or “to get a job.” Most of the time, “education” is just an elaborate word for job training. And, students always want to know how English or math is going to help them as a social worker. Sadly, the view of academia has shifted, and as high-


er education may be seen as becoming increasingly more like the corporate world, education becomes more a means of securing a job, which leads to a lot of the inherent frustration. Education is thought of as a monetary correlation. The formula works something like, the investment of education should be equal or less than the value of the return. If it is not, then education is often considered a waste. Abbie Hoffman writes, “The truth of it is, [students] are there to get the degree, so they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks,” and this was 44 years ago. So, what exactly is the university, the college, the academy? Whether the view of a corporate academy may or may not be the view of the populace, it doesn’t change the fact that the institution of higher education is experiencing a disconnect with society. Is academia a place for intellectual cultivation? Is it a place for social commerce? Is it a place to receive job training? A little of everything? The definition of “higher education” is ambiguous at best, especially for students who hope that going to college will prepare them for “a better life.” But, how can schools offer the allure of a better life to students, when it can’t even provide the majority of its own employees with an improved standard of living? Tragically, the problem isn’t always a financial one. Tom did not get the job despite his qualifications. No, instead, the institution awarded the full time position to the spouse of a preexisting full-time faculty member in the English department who happened to be good friends with the department chair. Tom may have been more qualified and experienced, but he couldn’t compete with the longstanding friendship. When Tom expressed his discouragement over the situation, he was not asked to continue his decade and a half long relationship with the school. Finishing up his degree, Dick remains hopeful, but not confident. He has seen too many of his friends’ dreams


crushed by the practices of academic institutions. He is starting to think that his hard work, scholarship, and patience means little in his field and that maybe he should have spent more time greasing the wheels instead of burning the midnight oil. Harriet, too, lost her bid for the Creative Writing Professorship when it was granted to the department chair’s old college buddy. She finished up her contract and resigned, not because she wanted to stop teaching or was bitter about not getting the job, but on the principle that she does not want to be associated with an institution of unethical practices. It may be a typical habit of big business to treat its employees like every other Tom, Dick, and Harriet, but it isn’t quite expected in academia, or at least it shouldn’t be. What is the place in society of higher education when the institution adopts corporate mentalities and partisan moralities? What happens to the people who have spent their lives working in, working for, or working towards a place in higher education? What is left for those who have no incentive to stay and no reason to think they ever will? What happens to those who have tried for so long to carve an identity out of their field, who once believed in academia? “I’m a waiter ,” they say. “That’s who I am now.”


A Ghost Story by Bob Kunzinger Several years ago poet Reetika Vazirani read at the campus auditorium. Nationally recognized, award winning, beautiful, humble, funny Reetika read to six people because no one showed up. The college has tens of thousands of students and at the time she read there were a few thousand on campus, and in that building hundreds of students wandered the halls talking on cell phones and talking trash. The auditorium was a ghost town. No one was there to listen to what I heard when Reetika read: Little by Little, I’ll figure it out I’ll say to them, Relax, we’ll live to be a hundred I’ll sort things out And her child danced down the steps toward the small crowd. He climbed on our laps and held our hands and clapped for his mom. It was an afternoon of symmetry and balance, the way things should be when you think of a poetic afternoon. And later, we went to dinner and told stories about what we were working on and what was next. Her son laughed hard often for no reason at all. And a few weeks later, for what seemed no reason at all, Reetika, in a bout of depression and anger, killed her son, then killed herself, supposedly to “punish” her husband, to get even with him for reasons I never knew. Time passes. The next poet I heard read in that auditorium was the award winning, deeply moving Yusef Komunyakaa. But, what a tragic night. First the sound system kept blinking on and off, and he went from yelling to whispering until he finally moved the podium right to the large, engaged, and patient audience and read in an unassisted voice. But then the lights flickered on and off until they went out completely and the poor man read by the light of a cell phone. Still, he read: Here you are, still Reposed behind glass Like a work of art. The lights flickered and the speakers buzzed, and I turned to a friend and said, “It’s like the place is haunted. You know the last person to read here was Reetika, her last reading before she killed herself and her son, just to ‘get back’ at her husband.” And my friend turned and asked if I was joking, and when I told him it was true, his eyes widened, and he paused in disbelief, and said, pointing to Yusef, “Komunyakaa was Reetika’s husband, her boy’s father. She killed herself and their son because of him.” Yusef, with no lights and no sound, graciously thanked the audience for their patience and fumbled his way out of the dark to the lobby, offering to sign his new book, Talking Dirty to the Gods.


Coffee or Tea with Allan Ginsburg by Robert Balla

Twenty years ago in 1994, I got to spend a day with Allan Ginsburg. I only wish had paid more attention. The early to mid ‘90s were heady days of political activism and neo-hippyness at Kent State University, and The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Union at Kent State University, of which I was the publicity and marketing director, was hosting Ginsburg as part of a lecture series. We were ecstatic to get a gay role model of Ginsburg’s stature and charisma on campus. His entire professional life, he had railed against the forces of oppression, governmental and social, through his poetry, his public speaking, and his daily actions. I was a huge fan. You see, in addition to my attachment to gay rights, I was also a budding political activist, and more importantly, an English major. He was my perfect storm of a role model. And I was going to be part of the contingency to show him around campus and our quaint college town. Never before, or since, have I been that close to greatness, to fame. I remember bits and pieces from that day, but it’s disjointed. I can’t really associate what we talked about with where we were or what we were doing, but I remember how sincere Ginsberg was, and how he connected with us. He asked us all where we came from, and not just what part of the country, but what our heritages were. I told him I was the son of Yugoslav immigrants. He lit up, or I believe he lit up. The two of us then talked at length about the Partizan resistance in WWII and the subsequent Hungarian anti-Soviet revolution. I’d never met a non-Eastern European who knew anything or gave a damn about the region. And I wasn’t the only one he connected with. He made sure to speak with each of us in turn, at length, about the things that interested us. Not about himself. He wanted to know us. The day before Ginzy (he asked us to call him that) arrived, the half dozen or so of us went and bought pocket editions of “Howl” in the hopes that he might sign them for us. At lunch, I think, someone, I don’t remember who, got up the nerve to ask.


When Ginzy saw one or two others look sheepishly at their bags, he insisted on signing all of them. Then he drew each of us a different self-portrait. Mine is him opie-mouthed, wide-eyed, “Howl”ing. Who does that? Allan Ginsburg, that’s who. He gave us each something special and uniquely ours. To this day, that copy of “Howl” with the howling, bearded Ginsburg on the inside flap is one of my most prized possessions. His lecture consisted of him reading a number of poems, in part or in their entirety. I assume he read “Howl” and “America”, but I don’t recall. He spoke of war and sexuality and drugs and freedom. But I don’t remember exactly what he said. I’m sure it was moving. Late that evening, or possibly the next morning, we took Ginzy to Denny’s. I don’t remember what he ate or how he took his coffee. Or did he have tea? In the rider to the speaking contract, his agent specified he ate only a macrobiotic diet. I still don’t know what that is, and I’m sure that Denny’s didn’t serve it. So what did he eat? How did he take his coffee or tea? I spent a day with the man, this role model of mine, and I can’t remember most of it. As we said our goodbyes, he thanked us each by name for the hospitality we showed him, for taking time out of our busy lives to drive him to Denny’s. At the last, he called me by name and gave me a full, earnest kiss smack on the lips in parting, and while I can’t remember the details of the day, I think Ginzy would be happy knowing I’ll never forget the love I felt in his presence.


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Hello, I’m John by John Bellamy There at the bottom of my satchel, I found my travel wallet. Countless times I slid an index finger over the long edge of my passport. I constantly checked. When I boarded, when I “deboarded,” while I waited, while I hurried, when I could, and even when I couldn’t, I traced the outline, the neat little spine that stuck up from the pocket of the unzipped case. I tried to be inconspicuous. I tried to hide the fact that I was checking my papers, my identification, the tangible proof of my existence, which states where I’ve come from and how long I am allowed to be going. I didn’t want to lose this. I didn’t want it to be stolen. I tried to hide my relief when the hard, rounded corner met my worn smooth fingertip. How romantic, I thought, traveling to Prague for a few days before classes begin. I wanted to make the most of my first time overseas. I mentioned Prague to friends and family before I left as a possible weekend excursion. I heard great things. “The architecture alone is worth the trip,” someone said, “because it’s never been destroyed in a war. Medieval buildings right next to modern architecture. I’d love to go to Prague.” “Oh, yeah, go see Prague,” another said. “It’s supposed to be beautiful and Kafka is from there. You like Kafka?” “Prague? That’s in the Czech Republic, right? I think that beer I like comes from there,” still another said. “Oh, Prague…” someone else said, “I think Hitler was going to make that his second capital or something.” I wasn’t not exactly sure what finally made up my mind about Prague, but as I exited the train, shifting my backpack, I quickly came to the realization that I may have made a mistake. I had traveled six hours from Munich and, like everyone else, was ready to stretch my legs. I wanted to get to where I need to be, have a drink or two, and relax a little before bed. The sun was starting to sink, and I wanted a hot shower. I stepped on the platform. The air was thick, almost too thick to breathe. Europe had been experiencing record high heat that summer, and the dense crowd, food vendors in the station, and city air wafting into the open terminal created a heavy pungency. Train stations are noisy as a rule it seems, but


Praha hlavní nádraží was rumbling. Standing on the platform, I couldn’t tell which way to go, and if it hadn’t been for everyone clamoring to get around me, I would have stopped dead in my tracks. I moved out of the crowd and stood by a wall to gather my bearings, but there was a problem. I knew nothing of the Czech language. I didn’t know how to speak it or read it. I couldn’t tell where the exits were, where the bathrooms were, or where the ATM was. I had no clue how to get to my hostel, and I couldn’t hail a taxi without first having the money to pay for one. What was I thinking? How foolish, I thought, traveling to Prague without knowing how I was going to manage the language barrier, and dusk was falling fast. I felt a slight tightening in my chest, and I knew that I was beginning to panic. Luckily, I was starving, and what I did recognize was a Burger King sign further down the terminal. It was like a vision of the Holy Grail leading me onward and bringing comfort. Okay, I thought, I’ll grab something to eat and figure this out on a full stomach. I couldn’t order but for making a number two with my fingers. Greasy burger, limp fries, flat Coke. It was one of the best meals I had ever had, and I immediately felt better about my situation. From the booths of Burger King, I ventured out in search of an answer to my dilemma. Since I was still in the train station, I figured a good place to start looking would either be “Information” or a gift shop. I found the Information Center first, or I presumed I did because I recognized the word “ticket.” It was busy, and I waited in line for about 45 minutes before I was beckoned to an open window. “Hi, uh, do you speak English?” I asked with a desperate smile. I couldn’t understand the young lady’s response, but she smiled as politely as possible, and I knew that those dimples in her round face meant “No, I don’t speak English. I speak Czech because we are, actually, in the Czech Republic.” I felt my embarrassment and foolishness. Ashamed to think that I wouldn’t need to prepare for a stay in a foreign country, I thanked her and moved on, hoping to come across a souvenir shop. I didn’t know what else to do. In the shop, I quickly looked around for a map and pulled


one off the shelf, but had no idea where I was or where I was heading. The map was 78 korunas. I had ten euros. I didn’t know the conversion rate, and before I presented my purchase to the lanky man behind the counter, I asked again, “Do you speak English?” “Yes,” he replied, pronouncing it “yis.” His head nodded as he spoke, and a thin smile spread across his broad face. We spoke back and forth as best we could. I gave him the address of the hostel, and he gave me kronus back as change. He circled on the map where I was and a circle around 916/8 Cimburkova. I bought a water and thanked him excessively. I had folded the map so the exposed part was all I needed for the roughly two kilometer hike to the hostel. I shifted my book bag and started to walk away from the station. I slid my hand back in my satchel and groped around for the familiar leather rectangle and the passport tucked into the pocket, wondering who I was in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. If I said, “Hello, my name is John Bellamy,” would it have any meaning to anyone but me or would I be greeted with a polite smile, hands up, and a shake of the head? Without having “John,” written neatly on my passport, how do I, or anyone for that matter, know who I am? Can I really only “be” if I have the language to document my existence? I was thankful, at least, that my identity was still safe in the bottom of my satchel, underneath all the clutter of my travels.


Buried Letter Press March April 2014  

The Identity Issue from the extravagant arts and criticism bazaar.