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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues



ture that mysterious kinetic. After all, as the great-grandchildren of Hemingway, we hold language suspect, impoverished, thin; what we talk about when we talk about love is, well, everything and anything but love. But here, in graceful prose that begs to be read aloud, in sentences both sinewy and terraced, we feel love’s tonic energy. As Mitchell shows in line after stunning line, language may be secondhand, but it is like a hand-me-down gown that still lights up the room. But, as with Melville, Mitchell cannot ignore the hard reality of our vulnerability. Sophie manages The Naked Scrawl, a cavernous bar (actually a converted two-car garage) with cheap beer and dayold cupcakes that provides area artists, poets, and musicians a reassuring space wherein to share their passions and their dreams. Unlike James Joyce’s shabby Dublin hacks or Woody Allen’s pretentious Manhattan narcissists, Mitchell’s Carolina artists are tenderly, dedicated to their craft, to each other’s welfare, and to the bold ideal that art itself is a culture’s vital and necessary energy. Late one night, however, that space is shattered by three masked, armed robbers. Abruptly, Mitchell’s elegant prose shatters into concise reportorial brevity. Doug must watch helplessly as one of the robbers shoves Sophie back to the manager’s office to get the night’s take. Doug never knows exactly what happens back in the office (nor do we), but he knows that he did nothing. Days later, he


sees the purple-green bruises all along Sophie’s breasts and arms. After the robbery, Sophie coolly retreats from Doug, and when she accepts an artist residency in Colorado, the lovers drop into deep space for what will become more than eight years apart. Then Doug, now an established writer, receives a phone call telling him that Sophie is in the closing stages of leukemia. Veteran readers initially wince at such a contrived and hokey narrative premise. A beautiful woman, an artist, so passionate and so vibrant, dying so young surely risks tacky sentimentality. But Mitchell is too clear-eyed for clichés. The weeks that Doug spends tending to a dying Sophie are rendered with unblinking realism and deep-felt compassion. Sophie, like most of us, does not want to die alone in deep

space; indeed, she initially asks a shocked Doug to help her arrange her suicide. And as she slips away (Mitchell creates a most heartbreaking and bittersweet last date), we share Doug’s gathering epiphany that for his heart at least there won’t be a next time, there won’t be another One. After Sophie’s memorial service, alone now with his cat and his story drafts, Doug closes his cloud diary with a single dazzling memory/image that we know must now console him: he and Sophie dancing in some forgotten parking lot under the stars, an image both animated and still, two figures both together and apart, falling carelessly, helplessly, but catching each other. Mitchell understands that incandescent moment, as much memory as invention, is the only happy ending for a love story set in deep space. n

ABOVE Steve Mitchell at his co-owned bookstore, Scuppernong, in Greensboro, NC, 2018

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.