Embodied Effigies Spring 2015
Embodied Effigies, a creative nonfiction literary magazine, publishes truth in all forms. The magazine proudly gathers work from around the world, thanks to the curiosity, interest, and sharing of our contributors. Information regarding future issues, submission guidelines, and featured writing of Embodied Effigies can be found at: http://effigiesmag.com Please email us with any questions or comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright © 2015 Embodied Effigies, John Carter, and Catherine Roberts. The works presented in Embodied Effigies are licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Typefaces: Trajan Pro, Minion Pro, Cambria, Bookman Old Style, Helvetica, Engravers MT, Znikomit. Cover, Verso, Masthead Images: public domain license, obtained from vintageprintable.com. “French Class” images provided by Kirby Wright, used with permission. All rights revert to author after publication. The views and opinions expressed by authors featured in Embodied Effigies do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editors. Publication of Embodied Effigies is made possible by the out-of-pocket, not-our-day-job workings of John Carter and Catherine Roberts. We would also like to extend our unending thanks to everyone who made this issue possible: our contributors, our advisors, our families, our friends—Thank you.
Embodied Effigies Masthead Managing Co-Editors John Carter Catherine Roberts
John Carter is a 2013 graduate of Ball State University, where he earned his BA in English: Creative Writing. His most recent chapbook, At the Edge of the Fence, was completed in 2013, and his work can also be found in Volumes One and Two of The Ball State Writersâ€™ Community Chapbook Series, as well as The Broken Plate. He lives in the cornfields of Indiana with his wife, Chelce, and cat-child, Emerald, both of whom tolerate the stresses of living with a writer far better than they ought to. A more extensive list of his writing blood, sweat, and tears can be found on his website-- jekcarter.com
Catherine Roberts holds a BA in English: Creative
Writing from Ball State University and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Ashland University. She works part-time in her hometownâ€™s library and balances family, school, and writing during the rest of the day. Her work has appeared in The Prompt. Her current projects include continuing work with language and form. Catherine lives with her husband, Dan, in Indiana. They are expecting a son in August 2015.
Table of Contents
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I’ll see you on the other side. So long. Every muscle in my body clenches, as I brace for impact. No ONE can save me now. This is it. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. Not a care in the world. Not so long ago, that child was me. I hear a child’s laughter. I hear the flap of a gull’s wings. The world is clearer, slower in this moment. I hear chaos and shouting below. People are coming into focus. It’s TWO late now. Then again, I’m glad she’s not here to witness. She could have been the voice of reason. If only I could have seen her, spoken with her beforehand. Oh, my wise and caring mother. That’d show him. I wish he were here to see this. Of course, my father’s nowhere to be found. After THREE months together. I never told her I loved her. She drove me to this. I did this because of her. I’ll never forget the day we met. Dear, sweet girl. The memories overwhelm. My life flashes be-FOUR my eyes. Would it have been quicker? Should I have gone headfirst, instead? Count down from FIVE and it will all be over. Something routine, monotonous, like counting. Focus on something, anything else. My mind’s racing like the world streaking by in my peripheral. Fear’s setting in. Like I can conquer death itself. Like I can conquer anything. So alive. Suddenly, I feel weightless. And, jump. Bend my knees. Say one last prayer. Close my eyes. Let my skin soak up the last few moments of sunshine before the cold silence to come. It’s too late to back out now. As much as I want to. Maybe it was all those steps. My legs have gone numb. Whatever you do. Don’t look down. Scurrying around, oblivious to what’s about to happen. The people below seem like ants. It won’t matter in a few seconds. I have to pee. I can’t breathe anyway. Without taking a breath. On to the other side. Straight down. It will be over before I know it. Yes, I can. I can’t. I can do this. There’s my old neighborhood. I can see for miles. This’ll teach them. Calling me chicken at my own tenth birthday party. Alright, it’s you and me, high-dive.
Embodied Effigies | 1
Janessa had just left the apartment to pick up some Panda Express when a man knocked on our front door. He was carrying a fake-leather portfolio and his shirt mushroomed around his middle. His clothes were a little bit too big for him. His glasses were thick black plastic. He was wearing a lanyard. Evening sir, he said. I’m part of a local program that helps people in their thirties and forties go back to school and build better lives for themselves and their families. I have a son and we’re staying at the shelter off Harry Hines. It’s not as nice as the place you’re in here, sir, it’s not as glamorous, but we’re together, sir, and that’s what truly matters. I’ve been given a scholarship to El Centro and I’m going to be studying radiology. It’s a two-year program, but I’m determined. Do you know what the number one piece of advice people have given me while I’ve been walking around your apartment building today? I stared at him. I thought about how cool it was outside, the first cool day since April. The wind was blowing down the hallway. Determination, he said. That’s what everyone has told me. Determination. So let me ask you. What advice would you give me for improving my life and one day being as successful as you are? Um, I rolled my tongue around in my mouth like I was digging out a popcorn kernel. He opened his portfolio and clicked a pen. Inside the portfolio there was a wad of cash and checks. It bulged against the pocket. Determination? I said. He nodded and wrote down the word determination. Determination. Fantastic, fantastic, he said. Now, tell me, where would you like your magazine subscription sent? The troops? Or Ronald McDonald House?
Embodied Effigies | 3
I thought for a second. Ronald McDonald House, I said. Excellent. Yes, excellent. They will appreciate your generosity, sir. That will be twenty dollars. Do you take a check? I said. Absolutely, he said. I went back to our bedroom, found our box of checks, and I wrote him a check. You wrote him a check? Janessa said when I told her what happened. You realize if he’s even just a little bit smart he could take all the money out of our checking account? Well, I said, good thing he didn’t seem like the type. Of course he didn’t seem like the type. They never seem like the type. I don’t know, I said, I really thought he was telling the truth. Mister. You always think people are telling the truth.
Which is true. I go along with things. Like four years ago when a man on my train convinced me to get off my train, walk to an ATM, withdraw forty dollars, and then meet him at Starbucks where he would give me a fifty-dollar bill. I remember how he scurried off into the darkness. I knew I was never going to see him again but I went to Starbucks anyway. I waited on the patio, sipping a decaf coffee while the SMU students studied microeconomics.
I read a study recently that said 94% of homeless people actually do buy food with the money you give them. But then I read a story about a homeless couple in Sacramento who made $182 an hour panhandling in a Macy’s parking lot. The story called them Gypsies. 4 | Embodied Effigies
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, Josh said, it’s that you never know who you’re dealing with. We were talking on Josh’s porch, drinking bourbon and smoking pipes. It was 1:30am. The sky was glowing and the trees were silhouettes. So what then, I said. Never trust anybody? Well I think that’s probably the smart thing to do, he said. The thing is, I said, I feel stupid when I give people money, and I feel heartless when I don’t. There’s no way to feel good about anything. I haven’t felt good about anything for years, Josh said. I think the last time I felt good about something was my junior year of high school. Josh blew out a mouthful of smoke and it glowed white in the dark. Nice night though, he said. Beautiful, I said.
But if we can’t trust each other where does that leave us? We can be saints or suckers and the difference is out of our hands. One night a man was standing in the lobby of my office. His trench coat touched the ground. He wrote me a note that said he was deaf and needed diapers for his daughter. He asked me for ten dollars. I gave it to him. And then I walked to 7-Eleven and bought him a hot dog and a Dr Pepper. He looked me in the eyes when he shook my hand but I still had no idea what was going on or whether he was telling me the truth.
And even us, Josh said, sitting here drunk, telling each other things. Who knows what we’re going to do with this information. Who knows how we’re going to fuck each other over. We can’t be trusted, I said. Embodied Effigies | 5
No one can, Josh said. We might as well come to terms with it now, I said. Yes, Josh said, sooner rather than later. We swirled the bourbon around our glasses and held them up like we were toasting something. It was almost 3am and the moon was rising above the trees.
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Once there was a little boy born smack in the middle of the country, close to some lead mines. He didnâ€™t have a choice you see. First he lived in a square concrete house that was prone to mildew. His grandmother feared for their health. Then the family moved to a wooden house beside a creek beneath a railway trestle. The trains ran day and night. He counted the engines. Sometimes there were five, but usually fewer. Once his brother kicked his tricycle tire. The next morning it was doubled over, as from a blow (His father had backed over it in the car when he left for work). Later the family moved to a grey two-story house beside a pasture. The dog chased the cows and got shot, but lived anyway. Later the dog killed a mother opossum with nine babies. They put a cross upon their grave. At school the flag was on his right hand side. He was not color blind. He did not like playing with the others. Once he gave his teacher a paddle for Christmas. His father brought it to school himself. He played a king in the play and a circus master in the variety show. The girls ran around him in a circle like horses in a ring when he cracked his whip. His brother sang a song and a black boy tapped. His parents took him to a fundamentalist Christian church where everyone was saved. He was saved as well, but he could not make himself believe it. He thought he was a moral coward. If he were not a coward he would get up in the middle of the night and go up to the â€œhaunted houseâ€? in the woods at the end of their road. What he would do there he could not imagine. Nor was it important. Nor does it matter, for he never made the trip. Perhaps the devil was telling him to do it. He could not be sure. Perhaps the charcoal drawing of Thomas Jefferson in the living room was telling him to do it. The picture seemed to him the source and center of all evil. He wanted most to be a martyr. In church he prayed for the coming of a war. He wanted to suffer for his convictions. He hated that they did not matter. He was impatient for tragedy, something to level the playing field between adults and children. He did not like being a child and he did not like children.
Embodied Effigies | 7
It is eight A.M., and everything Bill does, he does in the slow, pre-coffee confidence of hardened routine. Bill kills his Harley Davidson’s engine, and they both breathe a heavy sigh. He pushes his sunglasses on top of his American flag bandana, revealing stern blue eyes. His wispy Fu Manchu curls at the edge of his mouth. Other than his jeans, he is decked out in leather and black – leather jacket and vest underneath and black sneakers. Bill is average sized, five foot seven at most, but very stocky. He fills his outfit completely. Bill leaves his motorcycle behind and starts towards one of his favorite haunts: a Dunkin Donuts on the border of Yonkers and Mount Vernon. Bill’s gait is a deliberate, authoritative waddle, sort of a confident lurch which, you might (correctly) deduce, conceals a great many past injuries. When Bill walks in, the regulars at his table – a broad looking Vietnam vet, a slick-haired basketball player, and a large man with a small brown moustache – are having a frantic conversation about 9/11. They interrupt each other as if to get in a word before Bill collects his breakfast and his booming Yonkers-accented voice takes the entire restaurant hostage. Once Bill is settled in, he gets the look of someone well at home. When Bill’s mouth opens, he becomes less of a coffee-shop regular and more of a bard performing the story of his own life. He leans in to make his points. Everything Bill says commands a frantic intensity. His voice has a brassy tenor and it carries to all corners of the restaurant, even penetrating the bathroom door. The regulars sit enraptured, speaking ostensibly when Bill takes a bite of his muffin or a drink of his coffee. But Bill doesn’t eat or drink much. You won’t see him with more than a small coffee and a pastry. It is more Bill’s style to keep dominion over his table for several hours, going back periodically for several small courses. Presently, Moustache gets him going on welfare: “You know what they did in Louisiana? Anyone who wanted welfare had to have a drug test. They passed a law. And you know what happened? They lost sixty eight percent of their welfare patients. Sixty-eight percent were on drugs. That’s sixty-eight percent they didn’t have to pay.” “You think that’s fair?” Slick-hair asks. Bill’s blue eyes go electric as if to confirm that, fueled by caffeine and attention, he planned to rattle on all day. “Do I think that’s fair? Listen, if you smoke a joint, if you take illegal pills. If you’re dumb enough to get addicted to drugs, you deserve what you get. Look. It says right on the bottle: Take Embodied Effigies | 9
The Motorcycle Man
ONE pill with food. So if you’re taking two, three, four pills a day, that’s your own fault. If I had to get drug tested to make you your relief money, you should have to get drug tested to earn that money. It’s just common sense. People are just making excuses. “My one friend broke his toe a few years back. Guess what? He’s still not working. You cannot tell me that his toe is still broken after all of this time. He’s just milking this toe thing for all that it’s worth, and that’s the problem. That type of person.” “Well what if he really can’t work, though?” Moustache is playing devil’s advocate now. Slick-hair and Nam-vet shake their heads, already wishing he hadn’t provoked Bill. “Can’t work? Bullshit. I’ve had two herniated disks in my back. Two in my neck. Broken collar bone. I’ve had two heart attacks. Broken ribs. And I haven’t taken one vacation. I went to work three days after my first heart attack against doctor’s recommendations. I have so much vacation time stacked up that I could take off of work tomorrow and not work for a year. Yeah, don’t tell me he can’t work.” Eventually, Bill’s listeners will scatter or he’ll have an errand to run, and he will clear his trash and mosey out. What follows his departure isn’t a silence, just sounds that had been previously drowned out that fill the ringing emptiness. The gurgle of pouring coffee stands out. Counter workers laugh and chat quietly. Chairs scrape against tile. The clock ticks. Outside, an engine roars and purrs into the distance, its voice lost to the day’s clatter.
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We are sanctimonious, self-righteous. Simultaneously too young and too old. We contradict ourselves and sabotage each other. We are uncensored and unconcerned, but our true motivation driving us to such reckless abandonment is our desperate desire to keep the secret we all silently share: that we are scared to death. Tonight we go into the out-there, telling each other and ourselves that we can navigate through the darkness. (There’s a certain assurance that comes with being dumb.) We don’t have enough know to display our individual superficial vulnerabilities, but don’t hesitate for a moment to grab onto each others’ shoulders when we stumble over something unseen in the dirt. One day we look back and recall the way the thin sliver of the moon so composedly positioned itself in the sky, ready to cradle something. We remember the one of us that didn’t it make it to the now. The one of us who, at that point, was still most prominently defined by her ability to swig vodka straight from the bottle without making an expression, rather than the way her father fell so openly in love with the middle school math teacher. The two who kissed that night and giggled through their teeth. When we look back intricate details that defined the time will have smoothed over like a finger over a charcoal-pastel picture. We will find ourselves groundless when we realize the things keeping our feet planted have since been dispersed into particles. When we discover people never know who they’re going to be, even if they know. In the future our aimlessness will fixate itself on someone else, or something else, obsession serving as a distraction for what we don’t know how to do. For now, though, the acid-soaked colors of our dreams have not yet dripped like melted frosting. They are alive and, like the laughter, real. Our names are written in permanent marker; they’re scrawled across the stars. They spell our unambiguous desires, illuminated for all the world to see.
Embodied Effigies | 11
For A.G., hope you’re enjoying college I am not the one who pulls him aside at lunch to scold him: Beards are against the rules for students. I am the one he tells in the learning center as we struggle over Chicago Style formatting I haven’t done since college eighteen years ago. I am the one who does not tell him how many years it’s been since I’ve compiled an annotated bibliography. I am the one who lets him believe, as I hope he believes, I am closer to the age of his elder sister. MLA I know like the back of my hand, but for this assignment I’m consulting handbook pages for internet citations we didn’t have when I was an undergrad while he checks his phone. He has a dress code violation. The subject heading reads: Strike One. Not shaving is listed as the reason. This is his first semester on campus. I am the one who hears his gasp, then his fist meeting the desk. He asks, “Have you heard of these rule? Ridiculous! I tell these teacher: ‘But for the mans, these is natural!’” His palm opens, gently rubs the fine ebony scruff across his neck and cheeks. It’s the first time I’ve seen his often-smiling face grow petulant. I am not eighteen anymore or a boarding student in a foreign culture. I have shaven enough dark hair from my legs and armpits to know it takes consternating upkeep to remove from skin as pale as ours. I am the one who thinks You could be my son. I am the one thinking, I know the official line, but then there’s practicality. But then, rules are also rules.
Embodied Effigies | 13
But what difference does it make to his academic performance? Days ahead of time he checked his schedule and because of his soccer game during our usual meeting contacted me to reschedule for Friday. That is not the work of a careless student. But he has been careless in comportment which, although antiquated, is an important sign of respect on campus. I am the one who reminds him that it’s not worth another violation and a campus court case before the dean and student jurors for such a silly omission. I tell him that a student of mine last year was a juror and she said they get out the rule handbook to prove a student knew better. “All those students, they speaking against me?” he asks, his eyes widen for a blink. I do not want him in trouble: this is the never-mother but still-a-mother part of me. I admit I’ve never been in student court, although that’s what I’ve heard happens. Along with testimony from faculty and sometimes dorm deans. “Scary,” we say, almost in unison. “Yeah, not worth risking,” he admits. We both could name male teachers raising money for charity with their Movember facial hair. I am the one to whom he confides, “When I see these teacher now, I always will thinking to myself, ‘I hate you.’ Each time.” That he trusts me makes me feel as if I really were his sister’s age, that I am young enough to be a confidant. I find myself chuckling, and he, too, laughs. The way he whispers hate is almost cartoon comical, with no malice in his tone. He is again the student responsible enough to let me know about his game, worried that his grade will suffer. I refrain from asking which teacher. I am careful to say nothing against other teachers. I sign his hall pass after the citations are alphabetized and he thanks me twice for helping him so that 14 | Embodied Effigies
now he is off to an electronica dance in the student center from 8-11. “It is good, these night in front of big game, to feel these freedom a while.” I nod, although I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve played a team sport outside of gym classes, the number of times I’ve felt free of rules in my lifetime. I pay my bills before late fees; I visit the dentist twice yearly; I have two private-college degrees instead of fancy belongings. I am the one locking up and returning home. Alone, in a woolen coat and scarf walking on pavement into a brisk wind, my boot soles crumble bus-yellow elm leaves. I am the one smiling, repeating this phrase at each step, “’But for the mans, these is natural!’”
Embodied Effigies | 15
Caught in the tempest. Waking in darkness, alone. A blast of noise and violence inside my skin. Hold my own hands tight, repeat my thanks. Thankful for the lightning fire love that makes me miss her. Thankful for the pin sharp joy of the taste of living fruit and for the texture of flowers. Stop to breathe. Endless dark odorlessness. Clutch at the shirt that is hers, but now it only smells like me. Mind like a knife in a blender. Can’t hold these hands of mine anymore, clammy cold. Can’t keep my body still, a hurricane that my sheets attempted to confine, fighting through twisted cotton. Not one person can know this, the me that terrifies. Please. No one, but me and I am not enough. Try again for thankfulness. Thankful she doesn’t know this orphan-hearted need. Thankful to still bring the memory of her flesh and touch to my scared fingers. Thankful for the taste of her hair that I have clutched in my teeth. Crying. I am all flesh, all the time. Scratch claw and teeth to bite. I want nothing, but the scent and taste of her now. Nothing unfolds in front of me. The box of my home and its hell of products to make me feel. The box of my things, returned, and I won’t unpack them. No. The carefully folded underpants she washed for me. Can’t touch them without too much feeling. Oh, and I feel. This vacancy I took, but cannot fill. I am lonesome as an animal kept half dead and forgotten, staked out in the storm. Wet cold with tears and the vomit sadness of my stomach. It is 4 AM.
Embodied Effigies | 17
The Panic Ritual
Thankful for the rain swollen window ledge, smelling like nights of my childhood. Thankful for the abrasion of the cats tongue licking my forehead into the hairline, her small body, a dark vibration. Thankful for heat and cold and light and sound. Thankful to live now when so many are already gone, thankful for my turn, my chance, the youth and fortune to still stand. Please. Please be still. My heart pumps slower; my stomach stretches; my tears that are scatter-shot all over me begin to feel only damp. See the plum edged peach flame filling me. Light. Hope. Heat. Love. Gentleness. See it. See it. Do not twist my hair. Do not pick the imperfections of my skin. Do not fixate. Peach plum flame. Breathe evenly. Regulate. Regular. All the worries fade out at the edges like an Instagram and for a fast second I am perfect, measured calm. It happens out of nothing, just like it came from. I sleep until it happens again. Thatâ€™s the ritual. Once, I was radiant; and she was asleep in my arms. Once, that was true. I tell it to myself, again and again.
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THE CLASS WAS SPLIT in half, with two rows of chairs facing each other. Miss Davies, a heavyset teacher in a tailored blue muu’muu, rambled on in Parisian behind a podium fronting the chalkboard. Speaking English was interdit. Students were supposed to keep their eyes on Miss Davies. The boy gazed across the room at the girl opposite him, the one with the short aqua skirt. Her blonde hair spilled past her shoulders but her ears seemed to hold everything in place. She wore a necklace of irregular puka shells that reminded him of jagged teeth. Her beauty mark hinted at Marilyn Monroe vulnerability. She stretched brown legs into the aisle between rows—it was as if she was tempting him to touch her. He saw green streaks in her hair. He knew that was from the Punahou pool, where she practiced synchronized swimming. There was the scent of chlorine whenever she’d pass him in Dole Cafeteria. The boy had felt like a creature obsessed, sneaking past the gym and squinting through the cyclone fence trying to catch a glimpse, his fingers clutching wire. He’d seen her lift a leg out of water, high arch the foot, and point her toes at the sun. He despised himself for spying without taking action. His days were meha and dark before he had known she was alive. He’d listen to love songs like “Ma Belle Amie” on his transistor trying to imagine a girlfriend. Now the belle amie had arrived. It felt as if his very life hung in the balance of having her but he believed his fear of losing her would tip her away. Was he even worthy? He hated his dark complexion, average build, and the slanted eyes that came with being hapa haole. He wished there was a magic lever he could pull to swing her into his arms. He imagined being alone with her on a deserted beach, where he held her in the shallows as the trade winds toyed with her hair. The girl tapped a slipper on the tiled floor of the class. She pursed her lips and appeared to be humming. The boy pretended to be on a street in Paris. “Bonjour, mademoiselle,” he whispered. She met his eyes and smiled a crooked smile. It was the kind of smile that made him look away because it cut through to his soul. His heart pounded. It was earthquake ground. Had she really heard his whisper? Or read his lips? His skin trembled with desire as he struggled for a foothold on an earth rocking with waves of emotion. Embodied Effigies | 19
Miss Davies stood at a table beside the podium, one where a slide projector and record player were perched. Someone turned off the lights. Davies pressed a clicker and a circular tray of slides perked to life. She put on a record. Images of a cartoon couple played on a screen unfurled in back of the room. Davies advanced the slides to match the narration coming off the record. Monsieur and Madame Thibaut lived near the Eiffel Tower, shopped at the boulangerie, and existed on baguettes and steaks with fries. The boy saw himself as Monsieur Thibaut and the girl as his wife in an alternate universe, one where he spent his days worshipping Madame Thibaut while strolling hand-in-hand along the Seine. The boy looked away from the screen. His eyes met the girl’s in the flickering half-light. This time he didn’t look away. He recognized a longing in her that mirrored his own, a hunger to be held and kissed. Her lips parted. Here was the acknowledgement he’d wanted, a communion that made him feel desirable and flicked on a switch that turned his future into a bright place. The needle slashed the record and the narration ended. The screen froze on a scene of the Thibauts entertaining guests in their flat. The lights came on. Miss Davies ambled down the aisle between rows, stopping in front of the boy. She crossed her fleshy arms. “Monsieur,” she groused. “Oui, Madame?” “Prenes vos yeux de la jeune fille.” The boy recognized yeux and jeune fille and put it together. He heard snickering from his classmates. The bell rang. Miss Davies reminded her students to check their mimeographed schedules for the next assignment. The girl glided past the boy with her crooked smile and headed for the door. She was gone. But she had found a secret passage to his mana. He realized, no matter what happened in that world beyond the door to French class, she would be a part of him until the day he died.
Notes: interdit: forbidden hapa haole: part Hawaiian and part white mana: spirit, divine power meha: lonely puka: hole
20 | Embodied Effigies
Embodied Effigies | 21
There are ghosts in this house. There are ghosts and they do not fly, they do not float, they do not walk with creaking steps up and down the landing. They develop like mist, slowly turning from nothing to something. They are Polaroid pictures hanging on the walls, vacillating from empty white to image, image to empty white. They cling to the low-lying parts of the house: the basement, the den, the bottom shelf in the pantry. On chilly, humid nights, they drift to the second floor. Some of the ghosts I built by hand, but many were handed to me, gifts murky and opaque. One uncle’s mental disability. Another’s mental health. The phantom limbs of the stunted apple tree far in the back of my grandparents’ backyard, the one branch a perfectly horizontal gymnastics bar. I don’t remember how old I was when my grandfather, too old to bend under it when mowing, took the saw and cut off my hanging branch. The fruit-wood seeped around the scar and sent out new shoots. They went up, not horizontal. When I was a sophomore in college, my mother, crippled by unknown pinches and pulls, was forced to crawl up the stairs to her bed. This was how things were now, my father said, this was the routine. And there stood I, the guest back from school, at the head of the steps, at the goal of the climb, and I looked down at my infant mother and knew this was not something she wanted me to see. The worst ghosts are the accidental ones. At night I count backwards from the day-numbers to the night’s, and with each decreasing digit I banish a specter. It is a silly custom, but it is mine, and with the diligence of a duckling I follow. I Embodied Effigies | 23
There are Ghosts in This House
pee. I wash my hands. I climb under the sheets and if it is cold I warm my toes under the backs of my knees. Then I count to the end. Some evenings I never get there. Some evenings I’m stuck, tightchested, in the crepuscule of digits between 201 and 183, and as I lie with twitching feet, one little ghost wanders in and sits. She does not make a sound. When I was a child, rational, logical, perhaps eight or nine, a child who liked to count the pennies and glass stones she kept in a wire-latched mason jar, I liked to imagine what kind of a number “Molly” might look like. My mother did not understand. If, I argued, there is an infinity of numbers, then every word in the English language, every word in every language, every sound or grunt or exclamation with no alphabetical representation, was the name of a number. How many zeros, I wondered, did a “Molly” have? My mother told me she didn’t think it worked like that. I went back to my room to count my pennies and my stones.
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The rhythmic patting of hands on skin drums and the tinkling of bells at the far end of the farmer’s market draws my attention. I pay the farmer for a bag of green peppers and then stroll to the open space near the fountain where a small crowd has gathered. In the shade created by the north wall of the Amtrak depot are bright, moving colors, mostly red and gold and turquoise, a flowing stream of scarves and skirts and veils. Women dancing. Women dancing in midriffs and low, hiphugging skirts. Belly dancers. Middle-aged belly dancers. I know their age not from the lines on their faces (in truth, I haven’t yet looked at their faces) but by their bare, jiggling bellies. Bellies thickened by changing levels of estrogen and androgens, which slow the metabolism and send new weight to the abdomen instead of to the butt and breasts. Bellies once stretched taut over hard, full wombs, now hang soft and loose. Bellies scored by pink or silver stretch marks. Why are these women dancing here and why have we stopped to watch? One dancer steps forward for her solo. Rising in a mound around her navel is loose doughnut of pale flesh. Silver-white stretch marks radiate outward from the navel and along the sides of the waist. As the dancer shimmies, these lightning bolts fly in a stormy sky. I lift my eyes. Her eyes are ringed in black eyeliner. Her cheeks and the corners of her eyes crinkle as she smiles. A string of gold coins frames her face. Her long blonde hair hangs in dozens of skinny braids. A man on the edge of the audience watches with delight. His own belly is round and protruding, a real bay window, a big enough shelf that he could sit his coffee and half-eaten kolache on it and have his hands free to clap to the music. Big enough that it’s probably been years since his sandaled toes have seen sunlight. I try to imagine his belly without the striped polo shirt (this clothing choice is the opposite of camouflage!). It looks firm though I suspect that it jiggles when he laughs or coughs or walks; the omphalos probably looks sad and sunken. This isn’t a belly that gently laps over the belt buckle. No, this paunch is out there for all to see, like that of the laughing Buddha, Santa Claus, President Howard William Taft, Jackie Gleason, the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island, John Candy, and Homer Simpson. It’s the drawing of a man accompanying an article about the link between heart disease and a deadly sin; it’s the before photo accompanying a weight loss ad; it’s half the reason why restaurants have placards in the window warning customers: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” There are all of those other bellies, too, each beautiful in its own way: a baby’s, smooth, Embodied Effigies | 25
Ode to Bellies
rounded, and kissable orb; a puppyâ€™s, pink, taut, milk-filled drum; my ex-husbandâ€™s, more of a flat tire than a basketball, in spite of all the jogging and weightlifting, and still inexplicably sexy; old cats, with their sagging burden that swings from side to side as they run; the bud of a belly sported by young women in their low-slung jeans and shirts that do not cover all; my own concave belly before my two pregnancies; my own mid-life belly that has lost its edge and will never, I mean never, again appear in public in a two-piece swimming suit. The grand-bellied man watches, too absorbed in the show to finish his prune kolache. Oh the delight, he must think, of holding a pond in oneâ€™s belly, cradled by rocking, swirling hips, that roil the water, that stir the pond-bottom mud, that spin the waters into eddies, that raise waves too high and energetic for your little boat; that send the silver-white fish darting in turbulent waters.
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There is a small café in Sydney Road, Brunswick, barely a hole in the wall with a few tables and chairs and a menu no longer than a page with large, child-like printing on it. Inside the café it is warm when it is filled with customers. Because the pasta and the sauces that go with it are famous along the umbilical strip of tar with traffic teeming into and out of the city of Melbourne. On a mantelpiece, above the heads of the diners, sits a pair of boots, they are old boots, the leather is cracked, torn in places. They are small boots that once belonged to a boy, who drowned in the Hunter River near Newcastle in NSW. The boots sit there and some of the customers, when they look up from their meals think they can see the small remains of river sediment encrusted in the leather. Others fancy they can trace the shapes of the small boy’s feet in the leather. Everyone who dines in the café knows about the boots because the owner of the café, Mary James, is the owner of the boots and she tells any new customer her story about the boots that belonged to the boy, who was only seven when he drowned. The mother of the drowned boy gave Mary James’s great grandmother the boots, and they were eventually handed down to Mary. But the real interest that arises amongst the regular customers is why the mother of the drowned boy gave the boots of her dead child to Mary’s great grandmother. The customers can never really decide why the boots were given away. But whenever a conversation is struck up on the subject of the boots, Mary always comes from the kitchen because she senses that words are being spoken about the mystery. It is something that has bothered her ever since her mother handed her the boy’s boots, through the car window just as Mary was about to drive out of Newcastle to settle in Melbourne. And there is that rich-red-silt smell to the leather of the boots that reminds Mary of the Hunter River when it is in flood. An odour Mary used to smell when she lived near Newcastle. The smell haunts Mary, even when she is in bed, upstairs, trying to sleep after a hard day and long evening in the café below the bed. Sometimes Mary wakes with fright because the flood-river smell has her convinced that the Hunter River is flooding, rising up through the floorboards of the top storey of the tenement in Brunswick. It is then that Mary’s husband, sensing her fear, wakes, reaches out in the dark and pats Embodied Effigies | 27
The Boy’s Boots
Mary’s stomach, plump from child-bearing, strokes it tenderly until he hears the soft snore of his wife begin. But sometimes the gentle hand of her husband is not enough to soothe Mary; she gets out of bed, walks softly along the corridor, checks on her three children sleeping soundly in their bedrooms. Sometimes she will go into one of the rooms if she cannot see the face of one of her children. She leans over the bed, finds the face, turns her head sideways, close to the face of the child, checking that her son or daughter is still breathing. The next morning, after such a night, Mary is wan, tottering about the café and kitchen from lack of sleep. She looks as though she has been taken from deep water by a fishing net, she looks as though the loams of water have washed away any sign, any feature that identifies her as Mary James. The customers sense it, word seems to spread along Sydney Road and the café won’t do the business that day it usually does most days. When Mary is ovulating, when the blood is thick between her legs, she cannot rest at all during the night, she constantly checks on her children and the next morning she is a ruin barely able to cook the pastas for her customers. Not that the customers say anything. The women, sitting at the tables, look with concern at her, they dare not even glance at the boots sitting like small tombstones on the mantelpiece. Female hands reach out, as Mary, carrying full and empty plates, moves amongst the tables, the hands touch her, gently. No words are spoken. It is a communion of grief.
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“Its short feet are tipped with suction pads that enable it to tirelessly climb slopes and walls.” The time I slipped off the rocky ledge and pulled her down with me: I wish I had a clearer memory of it. Where were we hiking that day? Watkins Glen, maybe. Or Ricketts Glen. Somewhere in Pennsylvania or upstate New York. I was holding onto her arm because I do not trust my own footing. The ground was slick with the dew coming off a nearby waterfall. I cannot summon a clear picture of the geography. How far did we fall? What stretched between us and the ground? How did we land? Where did we have scrapes or bruises? Our fall happened so quickly I almost couldn’t believe it was real, couldn’t process the cause, didn’t store an imprint of the images in my brain. She must feel disappointed and frustrated with me sometimes. In six years together, she has never understood why I can’t run down hills, or jump over rocks, or cross certain bridges. I blame my temporary paralysis on my upbringing in the New York City, where every terrain I knew was a sidewalk along a paved road, and every “hike” was a well-trodden path through a manmade park in the center of a network of steel buildings and subway trains. I choose green for the color of my walls and blankets because to me it seems exotic; to her, green is home, familiar, who she is, the world and her in it. She can cross a streambed or a sand dune or a field of boulders as easily as if she had suction cups on her feet. Meanwhile, I straggle and struggle yards behind, or I insist that she slow down so that I can clutch her arm as I calculate my careful footsteps. She always says things like, “Just trust your sense of balance,” but I lack that kind of mutual understanding with my body. As a child I had no forest in which to train my limbs for outdoorsy environments. But we both know my urban birthplace is just an excuse for my stubborn immobility. On a podcast I heard a man describe his fear of heights, and I realized the same was true for my own anxieties and limitations. It’s so obvious and senseless at the same time: standing near an edge, looking down, I have the feeling—not a desire, but an impulse—that I might throw myself off. It’s so easy and so possible that it seems likely, even inevitable. I don’t expect her to understand that, or feel it, too, but I need her to know that I might fail, that danger is real and present. Every time she says, “You won’t fall,” those words do nothing to reassure me, no matter Embodied Effigies | 29
how many times she is proven right. I have fallen before, so I must fall again. Remember that time, I want to say to her on each new hike. I slipped off the rock. I pulled you down with me. I feel myself the anchor tied around her ankles. We all fall down.
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Q: I like your necklace. What’s it called? A матрёшка doll? A: The name Matryona was a popular women’s name before the Revolution, derived from Latin’s mater, mother, like a portly Russian peasant. “-shka” to make the word diminutive—“dear mother.”
Q: Does it have a smaller doll inside it? A: The first матрёшка doll was made in 1890, inspired by either Japanese nesting dolls or Russian nesting Easter eggs, at a time when Russia was searching for her artistic North, for her soul.
Q: Did you get your necklace when you were in Russia? A: I found it in a plastic bag taped to my bedroom door, unlabeled. It was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, and I returned to school with gifts for my friends, матрёшка dolls and rubles laminated into bookmarks. Whenever someone mentioned Russia, I snapped to attention, “like a puppy,” said my friends.
Q: What does your Russian friend, Irina, say about your necklace? A: Mатрёшка dolls are made from lithe hardwoods—linden, aspen, birch. Aged and dried. Carved Embodied Effigies | 31
with a turning lathe, a knife, a chisel. Smallest doll first, complete set formed inside out. Painted with disproportionately large faces to emphasize eyes, expression, soul.
Q: Do you think матрёшка dolls are kitschy? A: My Russian friend Irina says Americans don’t understand the Russian soul. American movies like War and Peace and Anna Karenina are naively presumptuous. When I ask her to describe the Russian soul, Irina smiles and shakes her head. “I can’t,” she says.
Q: What do you love about Russia so much? A: Once, I saw fireworks coming from the direction of Red Square. I was alone with my friend Abby in the hostel’s kitchen, and we pressed our cheeks against the window, trying to find a dome or spire of the Kremlin. The sky was still pink, even this late at night; against it, the fireworks looked pale, almost translucent. Other people crowded around the window, pressing against my back, so I wriggled away. I never found the Kremlin spires from that window, only chimneys and the tops of cottonwoods and fireworks that matched the sky.
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I’d hoped that Germany would fill some of the holes I had remaining every day I was awake. Like the ones in black lava rock, when air gets trapped and the hot lava dries and you’re left with a strange texture that looks unearthly. The structure of a sponge but the material is new and rough and resistant to your fingers. The rock is black, the blackest black you can imagine, so any light shining on it doesn’t get reflected; it just seems to disappear into the ridges and cracks. (Later my mind finds the word for the stuff: pumice. Doesn’t sound dark and intricate enough.) I went about filling those empty spaces. My back braced hard against a wall scrawled with a question I refused to see: what will satiate something like me? At seventeen, knowing less than ever, I made an attempt with honey and bread—new flavors, maybe stronger than pain. My healthy mother had shunned our country’s filtered junk in plastic bear-shaped bottles. But here in Europe was the real stuff, gritty and tangy and sweet, in a jar whose metal lid clamped sticky with richness, from bees on a farm not far away. And the bread, not my hometown’s kind, those rectangular blocks of pre-cut slices sealed in a bag with a twisty tie. These fresh roasted loaves greeted me each week with hope and yeast, their crispy outer layer flaking like a hard-earned sunburn, with an untouched inner white fluff, just begging to be dipped or coated in the golden mush. The combination melded like an angel joining heaven. Why had I been banned this panacea all my life? I sat on the tiled kitchen floor, after taking the bread from a lower cabinet and the honey from an upper one, and indulged. All while watching the oven’s electronic clock for a sign that someone might be close to arriving. I’d eat and eat, my eyes suspended between those lit red digits and a vague space in front of me. Sun flowed through the big windows, trimmed with thin greenand-beige checkered curtains. But my height put me below the counter, and like a mouse, I could watch the evening’s shadows progress undetected. Not yet...not yet...I could pretend...two more bites...it wouldn’t be obvious, if I left a few inches of the loaf, didn’t finish it entirely, that the family hadn’t simply had an unusual need to balance one dinner’s cheese. Or that an unseen guest had gobbled up some polite offerings. My host mother, the most frequent shopper, wouldn’t wonder what had happened to a piece she’d just bought. Not silly at all; nothing like an alcoholic hiding bottles. Embodied Effigies | 33
The Taste of Consolation
But once while imbibing, I encountered an unexpected appetite. The family’s cat came over, interested, sniffing, wondering what I might give him. Here, Berlin, was my first taste of life with a feline; during childhood my mom had only conceded to guinea pigs. I’d heard animals weren’t suited for people food—even chocolate could kill a dog—so I attempted a wave I hoped translated as shoo in any language. But the cat returned to my side even after I’d wrapped the last few bites of bread and found the honey a place to hide. What did he want? I checked: water, yes; enough of his dry pellets. I went to sit on the couch, stretch out my intestines a bit and go over some homework. The cat jumped up to my left, close, fur almost brushing my jeans. Black and white, curious eyes. I lifted my papers from my lap like it was natural and he padded over. His weight settled me. He began kneading my thighs as though he knew I had pain that needed massaging away. Then he rested, cozy as a cushion. Looking down at his contented circle, I knew there was no going anywhere for a while. And despite the family headed my direction, the people so kind and open they seemed even more foreign to me, despite the chill outside that threatened to turn biting, I agreed to just be.
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Contributorsâ€™ Notes Don Adams recently has published in Contemporary Buddhism, Anak Sastra, Crunchable,
Radical Orthodoxy, The Qouch, Luvah, Hyperion, disClosure, Genre and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He is Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and spends a part of each year living and working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he has been a Fulbright Scholar and a Visiting Professor of American Studies.
Rachel Belth is an instructional designer, creative nonfiction writer, and poet. She holds
a BA in Technical and Professional Communication from Cedarville University. For work, she pieces together powerpoints, elearning modules, and other corporate training materials for a variety of companies. She is a fairly recent transplant to Columbus, Ohio, and she enjoys reading as many good books as she can get her hands on. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, *82 Review, and The Jewish Literary Journal, among others.
Greg Bogaerts is a writer who lives in Australia. He has had many short stories published and five books.
is a writer, educator, public speaker, and consultant living in Westchester, New York. He holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and writes predominantly nonfiction. Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at age six, Dylan often writes and speaks about his experiences living with the disorder with the goal of promoting understanding for and improving the quality of life of individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Dylan works at a community college as well as with charities teaching reading skills to underserved children.
Melanie Faith enjoys warm weather, snail mail, and collecting shoes and books. She
is an auntie, tutor at a college preparatory high school, and freelance writing consultant. Her writing has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and most recently published in The Writerâ€™s Monthly Review Magazine. Her flash fiction placed in the Bevel Summers Prize for the Short Short Story and was subsequently published in Shenandoah (2014). Her Tiny House chapbook was published by Porkbelly Press in 2015, and her WWII-era poetry collection, Catching the Send-off Train, appeared at Wordrunner eChapbooks (summer 2013) and is now available at Amazon. 36 | Embodied Effigies
Ryan Frisinger is a professor of English, holding an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood
University. He is also an accomplished songwriter, whose work has been featured in numerous television shows, such as America’s Next Top Model and The Real World. His nonmusical writing has appeared in publications like Foliate Oak Literary Magazine and The MacGuffin. He resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his more-talented wife and couldn’tcare-less cat.
Leah Givens’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in The Healing Muse, Camroc Press
Review and the ethics section of the journal Surgery, among others. She is currently compiling a collection of essays. She received her MD from Washington University in St. Louis and has worked primarily in medical research. Her photography is also widely published, and a selection can be seen at www.leahgivens.com.
Kara Goldfarb received her BA in Creative Writing from Ithaca College. She is a native East Coaster presently living in sunny California. She is currently a freelance writer and an editorial associate for an independent poetry and art press. She’s very into music and very into candy.
William Hoffacker was born and raised in New York City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cartridge Lit, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Sundog Lit, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, and others. He currently lives and works in Tempe, AZ.
Lisa Knopp is the author of five collections of essays. Her most recent, What the River
Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte was the winner of the 2013 Nebraska Book Award in the nonfiction/essay category and tied for second place in the 2013 ALSE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) book awards for environmental creative nonfiction. Currently, she is completing two books: Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home and Bread: A Memoir of Hunger. Her essays have appeared in numerous literary quarterlies, including Missouri Review, Michigan Review, Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Northwest Review, Cream City Review, South Dakota Review, Connecticut Review, Shenandoah, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, and Georgia Review. Six of her essays have been listed as “notable essays” in the Best American Essays series (1990, 1994, 2001, 2002, 2008, 2010). She is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction.
Embodied Effigies | 37
Mike Nagel’s essays have been published by The Awl, Apt, Curbside Splendor, Switchback and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.
Molly Rideout is a writer and the Co-Director of Grin City Collective Artist & Writer’s Residency. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published in the book Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press 2014) as well as journals such as Bluestem, Marathon Literary Review, Dirty Chai Magazine, WarBing Magazine, The Grinnell Review, and The Wisconsin State Journal. Her visual art fiction piece “Due Date” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year by Driftwood Press.
has most recently been published in Monkey Bicycle, Black Heart Magazine, and Skin to Skin. She holds an MA in English from Central Michigan University and is currently completing a second MA in Film Theory. Her work is forthcoming from Gone Lawn, Cactus Heart, Your Impossible Voice, and Whiskey Island. Find her at www. typefingertapdancer.wordpress.com.
Kirby Wright was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong
Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii and lectured with Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Mass., the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic, and the 2014 Writer in Residence at the Earthskin Artist Colony in New Zealand. His futuristic thriller, THE END, MY FRIEND, and his second poetry collection, THE WIDOW FROM LAKE BLED, were both released in 2013. His third poetry collection, NOTES ABOVE WATER, was published in 2014.
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The fifth issue of Embodied Effigies, a creative nonfiction literary magazine.