The Emerson Review is an annual literary journal published by undergraduate students at Emerson College in Boston, Mass. All genres of original, unpublished writing and visual art will be considered for publication. The reading period for the 2012 issue runs August 1, 2011 through February 1, 2012. All submissions are handled anonymously. Materials can be submitted to The Emerson Review through our online submission manager at http://emersonreview.submishmash. com. Complete guidelines can be found on our website. General questions and comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. http://pages.emerson.edu/organizations/emerson_review Cover illustration by Melanie Taryn Lieberman. Printed by Excel Graphix, www.excelgraphics.com. ISSN: 2156-2237 ÂŠ 2011 The Emerson Review
Editor in Chief
Doug Paul Case
Fiction Editor Fiction Assistant
Diana Filar Emily Murphy
Poetry Editor Poetry Assistant
Anna Hofvander Brendan Oâ€™Brien
Nonfiction Editor Nonfiction Assistants
Designer Publicist, Treasurer
Nicole Shelby Allison Janice F. Hayden Wright Jordan Koluch Tracy Brickman
Readers Adrienne Bard, Kate Bove, Rachel Brady, Samantha Dupler, Jason Ewas, Alison Herlihy, Gentris Jointe, Hillary Kody, Marissa Koors, Emma Krause, Melanie Lieberman, Karen Loder, Emily Lupinacci, Sean Mackey, Kate Noe, Michelle Paniagua, Rebecca Pollock, Peter Rosati, Vincent Scarpa, Alexandra Schmelzle, Jon Simmons, Jessica Slavin, Ashley St. Preux, S.m. Torres, Elisabeth Webster
Doug Paul Case
Being the curious group of editors we are, we decided to celebrate our fortieth volume by diving into the college archives, reading each of the first thirty-nine Emerson Reviews cover-to-cover. We’ve reprinted and introduced our twelve favorite pieces at the back of this volume. Over the years we saw students react to the transition to digital printing techniques and experiment with lime green paper and nontraditional genre forms. It was an inspiring trek through history, and my ideas about the years in which those writers lived have been fundamentally altered by their creative work. One of my middle school English teachers wouldn’t let us students touch a book until we had researched the time period in which it was written. Granted, this research was often basic — who was president, what wars were raging, etc. — but it cemented the idea in my head that literature is expressly tied to history. Her rationale was that no piece of writing could be fully understood without knowing something about what the author experienced. While it’s certainly true that historical context can help a reader more fully understand a novel, I think the inverse is more important to the mission of literary magazines. History textbooks can teach you dates, names, and events, but they do little to describe how the people of a particular period acted, spoke, or even dressed — how they lived. It’s literature’s job to fill in those gaps. Poets and fiction writers do what historians cannot: put faces, names, and behaviors to a time period. What little contemporary society understands about its past is probably directly related to the anthropological work of storytellers.
Literary magazines, including ours, are perhaps the most diverse collection of, and platform for, contemporary storytellers. Each piece we publish is a snapshot of the way we live. The new work we selected for this volume highlights some of the more pressing social issues we face today. A woman considers an abortion without her husband’s approval, sisters consider their decaying relationship as their mother dies of cancer, a young man escapes his father’s disapproval in a dreamscape, and a college dropout learns to handle mounds of credit card debt. These images are crucial to future readers interested in our society. One of the most curious parts about the reprint selection process was how, as we contacted the writers and editors, we learned at least two of our selections came close to not being published. Years ago, the journal’s gatekeepers were unsure of their merits. Yet something about those pieces caught our attention, earning our respect today. It makes me wonder how readers decades from now will react to the pieces — new and old — we’ve selected. Hopefully in some small way they will speak to the way we are.
Kristine Greive · Two Stories
Peter Jay Shippy · Four Poems
Ryan Baker · Eight Photographs
Nick Ostdick · Storms
Curtis VanDonkelaar · An Acceptance
Sara Zuckerman · The Giggle Machine
Andrew Mitchell · Chicken Blood
Alex Haber · Before I Was Born
Vincent Scarpa · Projecting
Jessie Marshall · Fat People in Love
Matthew Landrum · Cicada
Lindsay D’Andrea · The Mole Tunnel System
Maya Jewell Zeller · Foxglove
Ross Losapio · Scavengers
D. A. Powell & Ryan Courtwright · I Did It for Speckles
Elizabeth O’Brien · Bark
Truth Thomas · South Central
Saeed Jones · Terrible Child
Nonfiction 54 106
Katherine Bennett · Mother Joanna Vogel · Miscarriage Synesthesia
Casey Eisenreich · Milwaukee Art Museum
Casey Eisenreich · Gas Pump
Regina Mogilevskaya · The Sweeping
Nathan Koval · Under the Stars
Cherylynn Tsushima · Paper Lanterns
Mary Williams · Florence
Mary Williams · Katharine
Matt Lowe · Memorial
Thomas Lux · The Antler Dreams
David Gioia · Harpoons
Wilson Brown · Arnold and Paul
Denis Leary · The Rabbits
Lee Ngai · Because of Rule Holmes
Kim Roberts · Slow Lane
Denise Duhamel · Llewelyn
David Zimmerman · The Natural Color of Hair
Sara Barton · Good Book
Alia Hamada · Plum
Yelena Moskovich · Impromptu on “Xpace and the Ego”
Ann Chang · When I Die
I sing of the impassibility of mountains, how the sun is a stylus that presses clay in places where rain holds back the dust. Memory grates, the persistent calling and recalling of the night, never me at all, only skeletal recollections clinging like shed carapaces in a moriche palm. I sing of the invisible but all anyone can hear is a rasping in the overripe mangoâ€‰â€”
Laurel and I are lying naked on the back porch. It helps ease the effects of the relentless August heat, on full even in the evenings. Her head is tipped back against my chest, her caramel-colored hair in a knotted, hippie mess. We’re not saying much. This is normal. With a glass of red wine against her lips, Laurel says the cicadas are chattier than we are, and through the open porch windows we listen to them bark through the steamy rain. Storms are rolling in: thunder and lightning, giving us our newly fenced-in world in flashes. When everything goes bright, I can see the eaves on the east side of our new home clear as day, sagging like Ziploc bags full of water. Even though the house is old, it’s new to us. We’ve just moved in, and we’re getting married soon, and even though there’s much to be done, tonight we’re watching the lighting and counting the seconds between the thunderclaps. Laurel kisses my index finger, asks me what I’m thinking, and I tell her about this time my father told me the thunder was his father and Abe Lincoln and Aristotle bowling through the clouds in heaven, shooting for that perfect ten. Laurel says that’s cute, tells me her old man said it was God dropping ice cubes into an empty glass. The rain, the scotch that goes in. The lighting, God taking the liquid down in one pinched gulp. I tell her I think it’s time. Time we start a family, time to get her pregnant. She tells me she hates how that sounds, the phrase get her pregnant, that we’re still so young. I tell her thirty really isn’t that young and that we have the house now, the space. Laurel didn’t want to leave Milwaukee — she’s still writing her grad thesis, an exploration of gender roles in action-adventure films — but after her father died and gave her the house, it didn’t make much sense to stay in the city. Laurel makes a
pssh sound and rolls onto my stomach, snatching up the murky wine bottle and tipping more red into her glass. She asks me why in the hell I’d want that, then tells me about the perils of pregnancy. Vomiting. Like a lot. Like a lot a lot. Mood swings. Cravings. Heartburn. Stretch marks. Stretch marks, she says again, and traces invisible craggy lines down the length of her pale torso. She downs her glass in no time and gropes around for the bottle, which I’ve pulled from her reach. I keep it at arm’s length, watching her swat after it, telling her she’s so close. Keep swinging. Oh, strike two. You’re behind in the count. She grows frustrated quicker than normal and lunges out with both hands for the bottle. We collide in a dead thump, head to chin, and she moans and covers the site of impact with one hand and says, Just give it, you asshole! There’s something desperate in her voice, and I give up the bottle and ask if she’s alright, and she doesn’t bother with her glass anymore. She gets drunk now. This, too, is normal. I feel her move onto me to apologize, kiss my chest then my chin. She says she loves me, and I say she’s lucky she’s so beautiful, placing my hands at her bare hips while she grinds down onto me. After we’ve finished, everything will seem calm, manageable, but a few weeks on Laurel will find out. She will see someone just to make sure, then tell me that ten-year-olds know to put a fucking condom on. She will decide not to tell anyone, preferring to keep it a secret between us, at least for a little while, until she starts to show. She won’t be happy, and one day early on she will disappear into Milwaukee to meet up with some old friends while I unmuck the gutters or replant a row of dying juniper trees along the side yard, turning up dirt and burying roots. She will come home that night with Styrofoam food containers from my favorite Greek restaurant in the trendy part of town — lamb chops with a bean and rice couscous and stuffed grape leaves. She will plate the couscous and lamb for me, sprinkle it with salt. Something will be wrong, and when I ask what she did all day, she will cry, holding my plate at her waist. She will tell me she can’t describe it how it feels. She will tell me it was safe, that the doctor was well credentialed, that it was just like having your blood drawn. She will say it’s her body after all, and even if I don’t agree, she knows deep down she did the right thing. For us. Outside it will begin to rain and I will sit quietly in the kitchen, and she will drink Jack and coffee and what will kill me is how sober she will look, her face as crystal as
the moonlight. How she can be so cruel, even in the country, even now. It just wasn’t the right time, she will say. I will wonder if the child’s teeth would have been straight or not. I will wonder what color hair it would have had. Most importantly, I will wonder how we move on from this, and there will be this sharp tug in my chest, like pulling dead skin down the length of your thumb, that tells me we won’t. I will ask her if not now, then when? When? She won’t have an answer. This is how it will go. But tonight, we’re just watching the clouds circle around each other, watching the lightning split the sky over our heads. Laurel slides off me and says this is another conversation for another time, and I don’t want to argue, so I let it go. In a flash I can see her lips pull back in a sleepy grin, the enamel of her front teeth smeared red. I put my hand across her forehead as if feeling for fever and tell her she drinks too goddamn much. She tells me to shush. She says we’re due for a big one, a tremendous bolt followed by an even more impressive crash. Laurel sits up, rests her head on my shoulder in a sweet way, and tells me to close my eyes and this time to count the seconds between out loud with her. I ask why. She says just do it. I ask why again. She tells me to just have faith. I think about how everything will go tomorrow and the next day and the next after that, but after a few moments I give in. When the lightning finally hits I get a dull blast even through my eyelids, and right after it goes dark I hear Laurel start to count out loud. She takes my hand, which I don’t object to, and whispers one, two, three, and I mumble each digit along with her, knowing the boom can’t be that far off.
The Mole Tunnel System
My son drives in six months. Moles are at my lawn. I should lie down the grass seed now. People talk. The mole tunnels rise, hark of a hidden maze beneath my home. I don’t believe the grass should grow where it’s not supposed to, in this sandy soil. It should die, I think, with the fall. But I must be held responsible, wow them all with unfatherish doubt, as the years continue to sprint decent times with little change in pace. No wonder long-term goals have collapsed into tomorrow’s worries: if we need milk or bread, how to trick myself, finally, into sleep. Off-thoughts might slip between gulfs in the night. My wife in the next room retreats into a sleep-shaded conversation. Outside screech owls whittle down to the flimsy shells of their who-ing. The rumple on my son’s bed hollows. Bottles, envelopes, everything emptied, punched through to make more space for a purpose. Morning shakes its head in the dark. Something shoves the spreader into my hands and says, start over.
Robbie killed his mother, but I try to think about other things. His floppy sneakers, his T-shirt with its too-big neck hole, his thin, bony shoulders. He stands in front of me in our kitchen with something in his hand that he won’t let me see, and it’s moments like this that I feel particularly ashamed of the things I think and do. Robbie digs his shoulder into the refrigerator. Behind him, a stack of unwashed dishes dirties in the kitchen sink; above that, there’s a curtainless window. Outside, I can see into the back yard. There’s a split oak and my eventual garden and the last rays of what has been a good day of warm sun. We’ve just moved, have only lived in this house four days. I should be making dinner; Robbie’s probably hungry, but I haven’t yet been able to make myself go to the grocery store. Raising a boy alone is hard, hard in the way that hard labor is hard, that chewing rocks is hard. Dried mud trims the edges of Robbie’s shoes like a house’s foundation. One of his hands, the right and grimier one, caresses the fridge. The other hand cowers behind his back. Each of his wide eyes floats as a small green bobber on a lake of tears. “Dad-can-you-fix-him?” he says. He offers me his hidden hand. Cradled within lies a yard lizard, missing a tail and a left hind foot, its lungs hitching. The lizard doesn’t try to escape, tuckered enough by the effort of breath. Spread out across Robbie’s palm, its posterior from hips to toes are as flat and distorted as tiny mockup of a skinned alligator. The lizard drools, and its stomach bleeds from an open hole. “Where did you get him?” I ask.
“Backyard.” Robbie cries two pairs of his stored-up tears. He explores my face, cataloging me as satellites scour the Earth. “It was a brick,” he says. Those patio bricks are heavy. I stacked them beside the garage yesterday, rows of terra cotta squares four high and four deep. They weigh a few pounds each. Robbie was to leave them alone because someday I knew I would find the energy to stop staring at walls and unswept floors and lay the patio, and because bricks aren’t toys. “I warned you to leave them alone,” I say. I mean to be comforting at first, but the words come out of me like a volley of precisely-aimed arrows. “Those bricks are for the walkway. They cost us a lot of money. You don’t make enough allowance to buy more if you break them. Not even half enough. You’re just a poor little boy.” “They fell,” he says. He rubs his eyes before he opens up to me, crying freely. “I saw him, and I reached for him, and they fell.” “You shouldn’t have touched them.” “I-dropped-a-brick-on-him-Dad-can-you-fix-him?” I pinch the lizard between my thumb and forefinger. When I lift him away from Robbie, he doesn’t fight. Like a fat pretzel stick, I hold him, flying him through the kitchen air. White liquid drips from his mouth. Pondering him, so like a piece of food, so alive, I squeeze. I squeeze hard, but not even a twitch. I cup his broken body in my own palm. How could he have not just slid out, come wet and frothy and bawling? He could have, I think, but no. It might be true that my son’s head is big enough to be a complication, but that isn’t the whole truth. He is a complication. His head’s not so big, his rebellion not so small. He resisted, I’m sure of it. He didn’t want. Didn’t love the sunshine and the clean air and his mommy wearing that gingham dress. Didn’t love her, combing out the tangles of his hair and painting his chest with menthol ointment. Didn’t love hugs, scolds over trains left out on stairs, watching him act in a stupid, stupid, little kid play where everyone dresses up like a vegetable. I lean against the fridge and let myself slide down its front, until I can’t slide any more, my back on the white, doubled-paneled door, knees up against my chest. I drop the lizard into the empty space between my feet, where he lies until dead, until he doesn’t even gasp. “No,” I say. “I can’t.”
Maya Jewell Zeller
Again I run these hills to find you, bells of anger. Each bloom where once a hemlock stood. I used to call it bleeding, but the cuts were so sweet. I pulled your coned tubes one by one and placed each base between my teeth, the tip a straw. I drank like bees drink, giddy and high. Sing pink, Iâ€™d hum. Sing your licked petals, your wet rimmed whistle like bottles left to wind. Buzzing shook your faces. My lips glazed numb with fuzz, my tongue funk-electric. I didnâ€™t need a reason. Curious swish of flower to wrist, freckled lips open against blue sky.
Now, your white-splashed necks nod fuchsia in an early sun. You trumpet out my ache, then catch my shaking fingers in your furry stalks. From here I see the river still zags our valley. Zips it like an s-curved spine. I used to pray youâ€™d fold into the breeze, grown bold by your own bad fairies. Take me with you, Iâ€™d say, sail me until I tingle green as drooped wool. Would it have changed if I knew what I learned later, how poisonous you are, how your beauty could burn my muscle tissue, choke my circulation? Again your voice rises. I take you whole, the purple of you already in my throat.
Maya Jewell Zeller
The Giggle Machine
“Okay, here’s one,” my brother said. “Two atoms walk into a bar. One says, ‘Dammit, I lost one of my electrons!’ The other one says, ‘Are you sure?’ and the first one says, ‘I’m positive!’ Get it?” he finished excitedly, looking for my reaction. “No,” I said. “What’s an atom?” My brother was eight years older than I was. At thirteen, this joke made him laugh so hard milk shot from his nose. At five, this joke made my head hurt. “Okay . . . ” he said. Then he got down next to me on our barren front lawn and drew a picture in the dirt with a stick. “So, this is an atom, right? Atoms have things called ‘electrons’ and ‘protons.’ Electrons are negative and protons are positive, like in a magnet. And when you take away an electron, the atom becomes unbalanced, and then it’s positive. Get it?” I stared at him. “No.” My brother sighed and stood up. I remember him towering over me, blocking out the sun and giving him a halo behind a pitch-black head. “You’ll get it when you’re older,” he said. He ruffled my hair and strolled over to the shed where Dad said he could tinker around with all the weird things he tinkered with. It was the one place I wasn’t allowed to go. My brother and I shared a bedroom, and as he went through puberty, my parents told me to give him a bit of space and not bother him in the shed. My dad had gotten one of his electrician friends to rig it with electricity so my brother could screw around with all his machines, so long as he turned everything off when he was done. He was just about to slide the door closed when Mom poked her head out of the door and called, “Boys! Dinner!”
During dinner that night my brother talked about how he was kind of excited for the new school year, since he’d been moved up another grade and would be starting high school at thirteen. I didn’t say much, since my first day of kindergarten was the next day, and I was nervous. “I’ll pick you up at the bus stop when you get home, Max,” my brother said. I made a volcano out of my mashed potatoes and gravy and nodded my thanks. My parents smiled at each other. Even though we were eight years apart, we were close. Two boys, one just starting school with a wild imagination, one smarter than either of them had been when they were thirteen and already moved up into high school. Mom and Dad couldn’t have been happier with us. We couldn’t have been happier with us. “The end of an era,” Dad says for the thousandth time. I sigh and put my arm around his shoulders. He puts his around mine, though it’s a little awkward because I’m a good four inches taller than he is. We stare up at the house I grew up in, now being sold so my parents can move to an apartment in town. Mom fell down the stairs again last year, and they decided it was time to move somewhere with elevators. I’m helping them pack up the last of their things. Dad and I just finished moving everything out of the attic, and Mom is inside wrapping some of her knick-knacks in newspaper. “I’m gonna miss this place,” I say quietly. Dad gives me a gruff squeeze on my shoulder, then turns to the one place I wish he didn’t turn to. My brother’s shed has been abandoned for what has to be twenty years now. As far as I know, it’s been locked since I was seven. But still, we have to clean it out so the new owners won’t find anything in it, like termites or rats. I glance over at the window next to the front door and see Mom looking out at us, her eyes large and lined. She sees me staring and looks down. Dad walks over to the shed and pulls his key ring out with crepeskinned fingers. He searches through the keys, then finds a small one that’s never been used before. My father puts it in the padlock around the handles that slide the doors open and hesitates. He turns to me, looking far older than he should. “Max, you sure you want to do this? I can hire someone else to —” “It’s okay, Dad,” I say. “I’m up for it.” Dad nods at me, then opens the doors to the shed.
My eyes immediately shoot the ground as I brace myself for whatever’s inside. But when I look up, all I see is darkness and a mass of dust that’s accumulated over the years. Dad coughs as some of it seeps into his throat. “Jesus,” he hacks out, then turns to me. “I’m gonna go inside and get a broom or something. Hang on a sec.” He walks past me into the house, looking at the ground so I can’t see his face. I watch him go inside and hear the door bang shut. Then I turn back to the shed and step inside. My brother never failed to meet me at the bus stop after school. Dad was always at work building some house for people with more money than we’d ever have, and Mom was at her job at the grocery store. High school got let out before elementary school, and it was always a relief to see my big brother waiting at the corner. I could fly down the aisle of the school bus, hop over the various legs jutted out to trip me, and rocket into his arms. My brother would take my backpack, swing it over his shoulder, and walk next to me, asking about my day, cracking jokes. My first year of school was like that, him waiting every day after school unless he was sick. Then we’d get home, and he’d throw me an apple and do his homework while I watched cartoons and we waited for Mom to get home. When she returned, my brother would ruffle my hair and then go out to the shed to work on whatever he was working on. Sometimes he’d run back in the house with a contraption he’d managed to fix. Always playing around with stuff that the rest of us couldn’t begin to understand. It was like that until spring of my first year at school. I hopped off the bus and was bragging to my brother, saying I’d been the first kindergartener ever to climb all the way up the Big Kid slide in the playground, when a car drove past us. It was packed with a bunch of high school kids, laughing with their music playing too loud to make out what the singer was saying. One of the boys leaned out the passenger window and yelled as they drove by, “Hey, it’s Kyle McFAGGOT!” The boy in the backseat laughed and threw a soda can out the window. It hit my brother in head, and he yelped. I could still hear them laughing as they drove down the road. “Fuck!” my brother exclaimed, rubbing his head. “Are you okay?” I asked, standing on my toes and reaching up towards him. He jerked away from me. “I’m fine. Jesus . . . ” “Our last name’s McFaggin, not McFaggot,” I said. “Why’d they say that?”
The Giggle Machine
“’Cause they’re assholes,” my brother muttered. “Don’t say ‘faggot,’ Max, it’s a bad word.” He rubbed his head and stared down the road. The car was out of sight, but my brother stood there for a long time, his face turning redder and redder. He looked like he was going to cry. I thought it was because he got hit in the head. “What’re ‘assholes?’” My brother snapped out of it and glared down at me. “Nothing. Don’t say that in front of Mom and Dad.” “Why not?” “It’s a bad word.” “Like ‘faggot?’” “Yes. Now stop talking about it, Max.” “What’s a faggot?” “I said stop it.” “Are you a faggot?” “What did I just say?” he yelled at me. He thrust my backpack at my chest and stormed down the street. I ran after him. “Kyle, I’m sorry! Kyle!” I yelled, but as I turned into the yard the doors of the shed slid shut. I wasn’t allowed inside. Sniffling, I walked up to the house and let myself in. The shed is full of dust, and I cough inside it. Looking through the cloud, I can see evidence of water damage and am grateful that before he had it locked up for good, Dad got someone to come in and take all the electrical crap out of it. My eyes go from the faded Guns N’ Roses poster on the wall up to the ceiling, where there used to be a metal bar. My brother had hung the model of the galaxy he’d made when he was four there. He had won his first science fair with it. I remember seeing it hanging there in the few seconds it took for him close the doors of the shed — a massive, heavy diorama with a basketball as the sun and smaller Styrofoam balls as the other planets, moons, and asteroids, intricately painted. They were all to scale with a metal wire attached to each that had a summary of all the attributes of each celestial body on a white card, written in my brother’s neat handwriting. My handwriting as an adult still isn’t as good as my brother’s was when he was four. I walk around the shed. I haven’t been inside it since I was five and my brother needed someone to hold a wire for him. All of his stuff is gone,
or in one of the boxes against the wall next to his old workbench. No errant wires, no books, nothing. Only an old desk, an old poster, and a few boxes piled against the wall. The summer before I entered first grade, my brother started playing books on tape to fall asleep. It kind of annoyed me, but I got used to it quickly. I found out later that I subconsciously knew the plots to almost all of Isaac Asimov’s books, not to mention Dune, A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and A Brief History Time. It was around this time that my brother started wearing long-sleeved shirts all the time, no matter how warm it was outside. I tried sleeping with flannel pants and a long-sleeved shirt for a while, but I got too hot. I didn’t understand how my brother could do it — sleep with his whole body covered while listening to audio books. It didn’t make any sense. I slept in underwear and pajama shorts, my chest bare. Mom grew worried, saying he would get overheated inside the shed, where he’d started spending all of his time. He ignored her, said he’d make or install a fan. He’d started ignoring everyone. He still picked me up at the bus stop, but only because Dad ordered him to, saying he didn’t want his six-year-old son walking home alone when his fourteen-yearold son was doing nothing but fucking around with God knows what in the shed. He would wait for me to get off the bus, then immediately start walking home, leaving me jogging behind him to catch up. If I caught up with him, he might ask how my day was, but mostly he would go to the yard, make sure I got in the house okay, then lock himself in the shed. Only if he heard me screaming would he come out, scampering in the house and yelling, “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” I found this out by sitting in the kitchen and howling for no reason other than boredom. He smacked me in the head when he saw that I was okay, then sat down next to me and said he was sorry and that I should stop crying. While I sat there and sniffled, my brother gave me his sleeve to wipe my eyes with. I pulled it towards me and dabbed my eyes with it. “Sorry.” He sighed and put his arm around me. “Max, don’t scream like that unless something bad is happening. I thought you got hurt.” “I’m bored, and the remote doesn’t work.” My brother went to the living room where the TV was, picked up the remote and looked it over. “It’s probably outta batteries.” He came back
The Giggle Machine
to the kitchen, opened a drawer, and did something to the remote that I couldn’t see. He took my hand, and we walked to the living where he turned on the TV. The remote worked again. I gazed up at him, wide eyed. “You can do anything, Kyle.” He snorted. “It’s the batteries, Max. Nothing crazy.” We watched Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life until Mom got home. I laughed at the cartoons and kept glancing up at him to make sure he thought it was funny, too. Sometimes he smiled, but he never laughed. I kneel in front of the boxes and rub dust off the top of one. On it in handwriting I don’t recognize, it says ‘SAVE.’ I can feel my chest tightening as I pull out the basketball that used to hang from the ceiling. In this box is the diorama, along with some computer bits that my brother was playing around with. There are books inside, textbooks and instruction manuals. It all looks so old and dated. But at the time, no one understood any of it except my brother. When the toaster broke, when the phone was on the fritz, my mom would yell “Kyle!” and he’d come in and save the day. I think about it sometimes, what my brother would be now. Probably some insane hybrid between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Kyle McFaggin, the technical wizard who would change the world. The boy who was supposed to go to MIT when he was sixteen. I sigh. I rifle through the top box, and underneath the diorama and the books, I find his awards and certificates from school and the local college. I find his yearbook from middle school, where all his friends wrote deeply personal messages about how much they were going to miss him when he went to high school before them and about how much fun he was going to have. I find his ninth grade high school yearbook with nothing written in it at all. When I was in second grade we started learning the names of the planets, and my brother laid on my bottom bunk with me and helped me put up glow-in-the-dark stars. He had a black eye, though he ever told us how he got it. He said he tried out for the football team and didn’t make it. My Dad believed him. Mom didn’t say anything. “Hey Max,” asked my brother as he pressed a star onto the wood, “Why’s an astronaut like a football player?” I thought for a moment, passing a star with sticky-tack on the back to
him, then said, “Because they both want touchdowns?” My brother laughed. It’d been forever since I heard him laugh. “Yeah! Good answer!” I smiled. “I like when you tell jokes, Kyle.” “Yeah? You like to laugh?” “Duh. Everyone does.” My brother smiled and rubbed his wrist. It was a weird habit he’d picked up recently, like sleeping with his body covered and not smiling or talking to anyone. “I like it when you laugh.” He pushed the final star onto the underside of the top bunk and fell back with his head next to mine. “Whad’ya think?” he asked. “I can’t wait to see it in the dark.” “It’s gonna look pretty cool.” He rubbed at his wrist. “Kyle, why do you do that?” He looked over at me, and I saw his face darken. Instantly I knew I shouldn’t have asked, that he was mad and wasn’t going to talk to me anymore. “Because I do,” he said gruffly, then got up and stalked out of the room. I didn’t have to look out the window to know he’d gone into the shed. I sighed and stared at the stars we’d just put up. Then I started rubbing my wrist to see what the big deal was. It wasn’t anything exciting. In the box underneath, I find more books, more unfinished projects, a few tapes by bands like Alice in Chains and Nirvana. The marks of an adolescent boy. I lean back and breath in deeply, wondering where Dad is. Then I notice the final box, shoved almost under the desk my brother used as a workbench. My chest tightens when I see that written on it is the word ‘FRAGILE’ in my brother’s neat, neat handwriting. I pull the box out and rub some dust away. My heart plummets into my stomach when I read, in small letters, ‘Save for Max.’ The tape player on the floor had stopped a long time ago. All I could hear was my brother up on his top bunk, sniffling. Every now and then, he let out a strangled yelp, his throat straining against his tears. I looked around, bleary eyed, my gaze landing on the digital clock. The numbers ‘3:56’ shined back at me. “Oh God,” I heard him whisper, and his covers that usually hung haphazardly over the side of the bed coiled up onto his bunk. I pulled my
The Giggle Machine
knees to my chest and wanted to cry. What could be so bad it could make my big brother whimper like a girl? The stars we had stuck underneath his bunk gave no help, only a dull glow. I got up and moved so my feet didn’t lift from the floor, shuffling silently around the bedpost to the ladder. One foot followed another, and I slowly ascended to my brother’s bunk. My nose poked onto the covers, and I gazed at the huddled form of my brother, curled into a ball at the other side of the bed. “Kyle?” I whispered after forever. My brother’s head jerked up from where he’d had it between his knees. His face was shiny and red in the moonlight from the window, and his eyes were furious. “Fuck off, Max,” he snarled with such intensity that I immediately lowered myself down one step on the ladder. I stayed there a long time. Finally, he said in a quivering voice, “Max, I said fuck off.” “Kyle,” I said quietly, pulling myself so the upper half of my body was clear to him. “Kyle, why’re you crying? Did you get hurt? D’ya want Mom?” “No, I don’t fucking want Mom!” he hissed at me. “I don’t fucking want anything you, fucking jackass, I want you to leave me the hell alone!” I said nothing, just looked at him. His eyes were red, and his breathing was fast. The sleeves of his shirt were wet from him rubbing his face. We stayed like that for a while, him trying to stare me back down to my bunk, me just staring back. He looked away first. “Max . . . please, just leave me alone,” he whispered. He put his head back between his knees and stayed on top of his pillow in a shaking ball. I didn’t leave him alone. I climbed all the way up and crawled clumsily over to him. “Kyle,” I said, tapping the ball that was my brother. “Kyle, do you want a hug?” His head flew up and in his rage he looked like a crushed up tomato. “What the FUCK is wrong with you?” he screamed at me, then smacked his hand over his mouth. We heard Dad through the wall make a grumbling noise, then heard the squeak of our parents bed as he turned over. My brother sat with his eyes wide, tears still streaming down his cheeks, and his hand over his mouth. After what felt like hours, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, hiccupping. “Wanna hear a joke?” I whispered to him.
My brother was silent for a long time. Finally I whispered, “What’s ‘Mary’ short for?” My brother said nothing. “She’s got no legs.” There was no sound in the room. I wasn’t sure if he heard me and was about to tap him again when he said, “Ba-dump shh.” He stretched his legs out and lifted his arm, beckoning me to crawl over to him. I did, and he pulled me to his wet chest, burying his face in my hair and nearly suffocating me. I was going to say something when he whispered, “I’m sorry, Max.” My “why” came out muffled. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered again, and I felt his tears drip onto my head. I struggled against him a bit and pulled my head free. I curled up on his lap, and he held me. He was so much bigger than I was. “I just . . . ” he breathed. “I just feel like everything I do is so fucking . . . every night I hear myself, and I keep saying things that are . . . that I can’t . . . ” He hiccupped again and held me close to him. “Everyone tells me I’m so smart and that I’m gonna change the world and that I’m . . . that I shouldn’t . . . but I can’t. I’m not smart like everyone thinks I’m gonna be, I’m just . . . good at . . . machines and math and stuff. And everything counts, everything counts and I don’t . . . ” He lowered his head next to mine, and I watched a tear get trapped in his long blonde eyelashes and then fall. He was quiet, and I thought that if I said anything he’d be quiet forever. “Something’s wrong with me, Max,” he whispered, his voice so soft and so small. “Something inside me is all broke.” I reached over and wrapped my skinny arms around his neck. He cried into the crook of my neck, and I rubbed his back and ran my fingers through his hair the same way Mom did when I cried about something. He cried and cried for a long time, his whispers running together as he blubbered, “I hate everything, I hate Mom, I hate Dad, I hate myself. I don’t know why though, I don’t know why, I want to die, Max, oh god, I don’t want to be here anymore, I can’t stand being inside my own head. Every night . . . God, every night I hear it, even with the tapes are playing, sometimes I can’t focus on them because I keep hearing . . . it’s my voice but I keep saying . . . ” He gasped for air. “Max, I’m so sorry. I’m such a fuck up, I can’t do any-
The Giggle Machine
thing, I can’t . . . I just want . . . everyone at school hates me, they think I’m just some little suck up and Mom and Dad think I’m so great and I’m just not and I don’t want to try anymore and I don’t . . . ” I tightened my grip around his neck. “I don’t want to try anymore,” he whispered. And then he stopped talking. He just cried and cuddled me into his chest. I let go of his neck and let him hold me against him. I didn’t know what to say, or if I should say anything. But being held by my brother after being pushed away for so long was enough. I curled into a ball in his lap, and he eventually stopped crying, just breathed heavily and held me. Soon my exhaustion took hold of me, and I felt myself being lulled to sleep, my brother’s arms secure around me. Before I was whisked into unconsciousness, I heard my brother whisper in a small, hoarse voice, “I wish someone would turn me off and fix me.” My hands are shaking as I open the box. Inside is layer upon layer of crumpled up newspaper. I dig through it and pull out a ridiculouslooking contraption. It looks like my brother’s old bike helmet fused with a colander. There are multicolored wires poking out of different places and an old, old hard drive attached to the back, making it look uncomfortably heavy. I can see the back of the remote, where the batteries were put in, hooked up to the hard drive and to the colander. On the front there is a dark visor, and there are two big puffy headphones that I recognize as the ones Dad lost when I was seven and nearly tore up the house looking for. All together it looks like something a six-year-old would bang together with a hammer and Super Glue. I notice an on/off switch on the side. Then I notice a folded piece of paper not covered in newsprint in the box. I reach in, take it out, and read it. Soon after that night, my brother got a lot happier. He still wore his longsleeved shirts, he still played the tapes at night, but his entire demeanor was just more positive. He started hanging out with me a lot more. In reality, it wasn’t so much hanging out as it was observing. He would watch me watch cartoons, take notes on what made me laugh and what didn’t. Read the comics I read. Ask me who was funnier, the Genie from Aladdin or Timon and Pumbaa. Then he would take what I had said, along with the video cassettes and the comic books I was reading, lug it all into his shed, and stay in there for hours on end.
I asked him about it once. “Kyle, what’re you doing?” “I’m making something for you.” “What?” “A Giggle Machine.” I stared at him. “That sounds really stupid.” “Yeah, well, fuck you,” he said. “Don’t worry, it’ll be cool. You’ll love it. It’s pretty special.” “When’s it gonna be done?” He rubbed his wrist and smiled at me, a small, sad smile. “Soon. Really, really soon.”
Dear Max, the note said. This is The Giggle Machine I promised you. I worked hard on it, so you better like it. It might be too big for you, but don’t worry — you’ll grow into it. Just put it on, make sure the visor covers your eyes, and push the ‘on’ switch. I hope it always makes you happy. Don’t ever stop laughing. Love, Kyle. I read the note with shaking hands, then look down at the contraption in my lap. I had all but forgotten about The Giggle Machine. After everything that happened, after all the therapy, after moving on with my life, I forgot that my brother had been building this. I had thought it was a joke. I whip my head around and stare at the house. I can see Mom and Dad in the window. Mom has her head buried in Dad’s shoulder, and he’s stroking her hair. I look back down at The Giggle Machine and lift it up. My hands are shaking in time with my rapid heartbeat. Part of me wants to smash it, wants to throw it on the ground and jump on it, stomp on the last remnant of my brother’s genius. Wants to spit on it, crush it, destroy it and, by extension, him completely. The other part of me puts the helmet/colander on. The headphones fit securely over my ears, and the visor plunges me into total darkness. My fingers are quivering as I reach up and switch The Giggle Machine on. It was the hottest summer since I had been born. You could see the heat rising from the pavement outside, our already depressingly bare front yard now nothing but dirt and a few patches of dry, yellow grass. My brother must have been boiling in the shed. He’d been cooped up there for hours, hadn’t even come in for lunch. It was twilight, and Mom had
The Giggle Machine
just put the meatloaf on the table. Dad looked up from the sports page, his eyes tired. “Max, go get your brother.” “Naw, honey, I’ll get him. Max, start setting the table, okay?” Mom said. She wiped her hands on the front of her grocery store apron, which she hadn’t taken off, and went out the door. I stood on a chair and pulled plates out of the cupboard, then placed them on the small kitchen table around the meatloaf in the center. “Kyle!” I heard Mom call. She rapped on the shed doors. “Kyle, dinner’s ready, let’s go bud.” I went to the silverware drawer and pulled out forks and knives. “Kyle,” Mom said outside, and I could hear the irritation in her voice. So could Dad. He sighed and flicked away a fly that had landed on his paper. “Kyle, come on.” I heard the shed door slide open, and then dropped all the silverware in my hands when I heard Mom scream. I had never heard a noise like that before. All my bad dreams would end with that scream. “Jesus!” yelled my dad. He jumped up from his chair and ran out the door. “Annie, what is it? Kyle?” he yelled. I scampered after him. Mom was in the center of the lawn, screaming, her nails scratching into her cheeks. She stared into the darkness of the shed, her scream echoing around the neighborhood. “Annie!” my dad yelled running to her. He looked in the shed and said, “Oh god,” then immediately picked me up and held me to his chest, his hand covering my eyes and my body facing the house, away from the shed. “Oh god,” he whispered again, and my mother’s screams erupted into sobs. “Oh god.” His hand covered my eyes, but I could still see it. My legs dangled off the ground as my father held me, dangled the way my brother did from the bar that held up the diorama he made when he was four. I had only seen him for a second, but I would see him forever, hanging shirtless from an extension cord, his face blue and bloated from being suspended for so many hours, the inside of his arms covered in scars, bright red against his pale, dead skin. At first there is nothing, just darkness and a low hum that I can’t really attribute to The Giggle Machine. I think there’s no possible way this can
work, that this thing has been down here for twenty years in humidity and frost. Even though my brother was a genius, there’s no way that some kid in the ’90s could make a contraption like The Giggle Machine work. Then in my ear, I hear it. Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase! And before my eyes flickers to life a scene from The Lion King, which fluidly melds into a scene from Goof Troop, then The Loony Toons, then a Garfield comic. My mouth hangs open as all the things I thought were funny when I was seven fill my head. I sit on the floor and gape as the images wash over me. Spaceman Spiff fights off Bowser, the Smurfs dance with the Seven Dwarves while singing ‘Be Our Guest.’ A voice says, “How do you make a dead baby float? Two scoops of ice cream and a dead baby.” My hanging mouth turns to a smile. I laugh at that one. My disbelief makes me more susceptible to laughter. Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because it’s time for Double Dare! Ay, what a guy like Gaston! A baby’s gotta go what a baby’s gotta do! HOW DARE YOU? Knock knock who’s there banana banana who . . . I’m laughing now, laughing so hard I have to clutch my side. It isn’t possible. There’s no way. Tears are running down my eyes, from disbelief, from laughter, from sadness I thought I got over years ago. I laugh and I laugh and I start to laugh harder when I hear his voice, my brother’s recorded voice floating through the background of all the hilarious chaos in front of me. I hear him, his voice echoing throughout the images and sounds. I love you. I’m sorry. Over and over again, he says it, and I laugh so hard my fall over on my side, clutching my stomach and tears streaming down my face. Everything he put into this machine is too much for the batteries to take, so after about five minutes of what feels like forever, the Duracell’s die, and I’m left lying in the shed where my brother killed himself with a colander mashed with a bike helmet on my head, laughing and crying. I’m still lying there when my father comes back in with the broom, but now I’m staring into the darkness of the visor, and my tears of laughter have changed into sobs. I haven’t cried like this since the funeral. My chest is bursting, and I’m screaming, crying out low keening wails. I stare into darkness as my father shakes me, my face red and wet, and
The Giggle Machine
even though the power has gone out of The Giggle Machine, I can still hear my brotherâ€™s fifteen-year-old voice, cracking with puberty and sadness, saying I love you. Iâ€™m sorry over and over again, far too late for me to take him seriously.
The eyes, of course, were the first to go, claimed by the vultures, their wickedly curved beaks. Darkness peered out of the stricken doe — the eyes, of course, were the first to go, then tongue and jaw as it lay by the road. I paused for a look at it, haunted and meek; my eyes, of course, were the first to go, claimed by the vultures, their wickedly curved beaks.
I pulled into the parking lot of this little one-level motel — the Sleep Easy — and went to the office to pay for a room. Kim stayed in the car and cut a dead hornet in half with a quarter. It was almost midnight. The sky was all stars and darkness. When I entered the office, a bell chimed and a dog barked in a back room. There was nobody at the front desk. I sat on a foldable metal chair and waited. I leaned over my knees and let a string of spit fall onto the carpet. Outside, Kim honked the horn. The office smelled of bleach. There was a framed black-and-white poster on the wall of Muhammad Ali smoking a cigar. By the door, a Coca-Cola machine hummed. I stood up. Jesus, I thought. I’m covered in blood. And I was. Feathers stuck to my shoelaces. It looked like I’d played hide-and-seek in a slaughterhouse. On the ceiling — rattling against a rack of flickering fluorescent tubes — a fly buzzed, swooped down, and droned around my head. Smells the blood, I thought. Jesus. In the back room a man shouted something in Chinese. The dog barked. Then a man emerged from behind a brown curtain and said, “Okay, okay.” He nodded, smiled. “Room for you?” he said. “Yes, one room,” I said. “How many night?” He held up three fingers — as if three nights at the Sleep Easy was standard. “One night,” I said. “Okay, okay,” said the man. He had a nightmarish grin filled with bro-
ken black teeth. He reeked of bad shrimp and gin, and the stench hung between us like a poltergeist. I leaned on the counter, closed my eyes. My brain felt like an orange pulled slowly apart, section by section — white light burst in my eyes like a flashbulb, and I thought of the lightning storm we had seen on our way through Texas, the storm that erupted in the red clouds like electrified guts, lightning like crooked nails, rain thumping the windshield like knuckles, the way Kim said, “It’s really beautiful, isn’t it Paul?” I signed the receipt, and he gave me a room key: Room 7. “Thanks,” I said. The man said nothing. He folded the receipt and put it in the breast pocket of his dirty white T-shirt. Then he went into the back room. The dog barked again. Kim was sitting on the hood of my Civic, smoking a cigarette. The bleached shine of the sodium-arc lights made her skin look sunken, gray, nearly translucent, as if she’d been wrapped in wet newspaper. She let smoke leak from the corner of her mouth and said, “Get the room?” I said, “Yeah, I got the room.” I sat next to her. The hood of the Civic was still warm. The radiator hissed and cooled. It was the only car in the parking lot. Kim took my hand, squeezed. I inhaled the dry antiseptic Arizona air and looked out at the orange belt of industrial light which throbbed over some distant city — Tucson, maybe — and suddenly felt as though we were the last two people on earth. As though everybody else had disintegrated into dust — dust that now spun over the parking lot in ghostly yellow-brown curlicues — and hell, I thought, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I said, “Let’s go to our room, Kim.” I showed her the room key, as if to release her from some trance. She flicked her cigarette onto the pavement. “Okay,” she said, and she brought my hand to her lips and kissed it. Our room was hot and stale. I turned on the air-conditioner; it wheezed and rattled and eventually coughed up air that smelled faintly of vinegar. Kim walked around the room with her fingers interlaced behind her back — like she was looking at abstract art, trying to figure the whole thing out. “Isn’t this lovely,” she said. She pulled a Styrofoam box from the minifridge. She opened it and screamed; a rotten chunk of steak fell to the
floor and filled the room with the fetid stink of old meat. I held my breath, picked up the steak, and tossed it outside. “Why’d you open it?” I said. “I didn’t know what it was,” said Kim. “Why was that in there, Paul? Doesn’t this place have housekeepers?” “Guess not,” I said. I wanted to laugh. “We’re only going to be here a night,” I said. “All we need is a bed to sleep on.” “I bet these sheets are dirty,” said Kim. She lifted the flowery green comforter and bent down to sniff the pillows. “Smells like smoke,” she said. “You smell like smoke,” I said, smiling. “You just had a cigarette. The bed is fine, okay? Let’s take a shower and sleep.” Kim nodded. She bit her lip. She put a hand to her neck as though feeling for a pulse. She said, “Paul, you’re covered in chicken blood. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?” “It means I need a shower,” I said. “That’s the only thing it means.” Kim kissed my forehead. Then she went into the bathroom and shut the door. I had met Kim two days earlier in Peaton, Oklahoma — at a Friendly’s adjoined to a gas station. She sat alone at a booth. I sat down at the table next to her and ate my hamburger and french-fries. I watched Kim pour salt on the table and rub the granules into the laminated wood. “Where you from?” she asked me. She had brown eyes, and a fauxdiamond nose ring that winked in the harsh light. I told her I was from New Hampshire. I told her I was driving to Los Angeles and God-only-knew what I’d do once I got there. She said I was like every other East Coast kid she’d met. I asked her how so. She said we all drove cross-country to California. Like dumb birds. We graduated college and then tried to run away from our good lives. Then she said, “Can I come with you?” “What?” I said. I was twenty-two years old. My mother was dead, and my father might as well have been. “Can I come with you?” she repeated. Her eyes watered. “I’ll split gas.”
I said, “Yes, of course. Sure.” “Can we go now?” she said. She slung her purse over her shoulder. “Now?” I said. I laughed. “I’m still eating. What’s the rush?” Kim stood up and said, “My husband’s in the bathroom.” Kim turned on the shower. I heard her metal belt buckle clink on the linoleum floor. The room still smelled rotten, so I opened my suitcase on the bed and sprayed a few squirts of cologne. I turned on the television. The picture was grainy and tinted a strange bluish color, so that the news anchor speaking of the earthquake in Peru looked like he’d come from a dream. Only a few hours earlier we’d been on the interstate. We’d stopped at a gas station for Red Bulls and a package of beef jerky. Kim had the radio on; she was listening to some Evangelical preacher compare Christ to a motorcycle helmet. If you are to crash on this winding road of life, the preacher said, then the only protection is Jesus Christ. And you will crash without Him. The preacher spoke slowly, as if his words were made of honey. Kim giggled. I didn’t ask her, but she seemed like the sort of girl who’d been fed big spoonfuls of Faith as a child, and, now that she was older, was simply sick of the taste. It had been almost ten o’ clock. The world was flat and open and dark, except for a streak of pink light that clung to the horizon like raw animal fat. Fireflies blinked like little beacons. One hit my windshield, and green slime oozed on the glass like radioactive spit. Kim looked over the top of the map and said, “That’s sad.” She smiled, kissed my cheek. Ahead, an eighteen-wheeler had jackknifed across the interstate, emergency lights flashing. I pulled to the side of the road. “What are you doing?” said Kim. She squeezed my thigh. “Somebody might be hurt,” I said. “Don’t,” she said. “I have to.” I heard the chickens as soon as I opened the door. They screamed, squawked. They jumped like fat ghosts. Feathers floated like snowflakes. I walked toward the truck. I did not see the driver of the eighteen-
wheeler. I saw only chickens — dozens of chickens — scrambling and bobbing on the pavement. The truck had been carrying a whole flatbed of cages, and, when the rig tipped, the chickens were dragged across the pavement; charred meat was smeared in grizzly paint-strokes over the interstate. My feet splashed in rivulets of blood. I smelled gasoline and shit. The chickens hopped away in different directions. A bloody feather stuck to my lip, and I spit it out — vomit churned in my guts. Then the driver of the truck appeared in the embankment between the highway going east and the highway headed west. She held a flashlight. Feathers spun in the cone of light like moths around a streetlamp. The woman raked her fingers through her hair. She did not look at me. She staggered like a drunk. Chickens scattered. The woman fell on her knees and wept, as if the overturned semi-truck had been the casket of her father, as if the chickens splattered on the pavement were her children. “Paul!” said Kim. She stood on the road. It was July, close to ninety degrees, but Kim had her arms crossed over her chest like a freezing child. Blood trickled toward the Civic in oily tentacles. Eastbound, I saw the whirling blue lights of a police cruiser. I bent down and dipped my fingers in the blood. It was warm. It smelled like a dirty penny. I wiped it on my shirt. Then I got back into the car. I drove around the massacre and watched it fade in my rearview mirror like a nightmare will sometimes fade after those first cold moments of consciousness. In the shower, Kim coughed. I turned off the television, undressed, and threw my clothes on the dresser. I opened the bathroom door and went inside; the steam getting sucked into the grating vent overhead seemed almost tropical. I pulled away the shower curtain and stepped into the hot spray with Kim. She had her back to me and I wrapped my arms around her belly. She handed me a miniature bottle of shampoo, and I emptied it in my palm and washed her hair and took handfuls of soapy foam and rinsed her shoulders and breasts. She turned and pressed her lips against my neck. She bit my ear. I looked over her shoulder — bloody water ran down the drain. After, I put on boxers and got into bed. I turned on the television again
and watched a rerun of the Diamondbacks game in the same bluish haze. Kim put on the same clothes she’d been wearing at the Friendly’s in Oklahoma: blue jeans and a baggy red T-shirt that read: ����� ����� ��� ���������. She said, “Do you want anything to drink, Paul?” She pulled her hair into a loose ponytail. “I’m gonna go grab a Coke or something,” she said. I sat up in bed. “No thanks. I’m fine.” Kim nodded. She hesitated at the open door. I saw it. I’m sure. She hesitated.
D. A. Powell & Ryan Courtwright
I Did It for Speckles
I’d rather have “Midnight Cowboy” than “Honesty” any day of the week. Uneven Anne is watering her SkyMall garden and I don’t care if she sprays my dolphin or any of my many trolls (I have many trolls); they dance brilliantly, and swallow things so I don’t have to. The garden is lit by undershirts and noisy with windup radios, and I could learn Farsi if I wanted, but I don’t. I need an army of batteries, the brass monkey knocker for my pontoon boat. Balls to you! Fan boat rides ain’t free, though the fans can sometimes be had cheap. And be had cheek to cheek, long faces on every troll as it rolls the marbles in its Keebler wheelbarrow. Such lazy mouths singing “Up Against the Backside of Love.”
Before I Was Born
The blood that is in him is red. I have seen it, soaked into our motherâ€™s carpet, leaking from his mouth and nose. I have worn it on my clothes and fingers. Watched it disappear into the drain beneath my feet. In the water, blood turns into smoke. Things were better back before you were born, he told me once, wading inside the mucky river. He has seen me naked, and I have seen him. There is a picture of us framed in our parentsâ€™ bathroom. The two of us, pink and smiling, our penises blurred in soap. It used to be out on the living room mantle, until we grew old enough to know it should not be around. What do you mean? I asked him, following. His reflection overlapped my own. I could feel the movement of his legs kicking away from me, the mud rising over my toes. How much difference could twelve minutes make? But my brother kept swimming away from me. He plugged his nose, sank down deep beneath the mucky water.
Milwaukee Art Museum
Under the Stars
Jane is still mad that I killed the dog last year. My sister can be impossible in this way, and in many others. She is the kind who won’t believe you when you say that Hitler had a love of animals, or that Nancy Reagan sold dime bags in college. She either already knows or disagrees with whatever you tell her. “Ellen,” she’ll say, “that’s old news.” It wasn’t even her dog. It was our mother’s. See, our mother is taking a very long time to die. The doctors gave her a year, four years ago, and she is still holding strong. It’s a medical miracle of sorts. Doctor Rosenberg, her oncologist, cannot explain it. I sometimes wonder if he brags about it to his colleagues, keeping a stage four patient alive this long. I couldn’t say I’d blame him if he did; there really is no explanation for it. Though my mother would disagree with my saying that. She accredits it all to astral projection. She’s an avid follower and claims each day to have had at least three out-of-body experiences by breakfast. Last week she called me and said that the Grand Canyon was actually quite disappointing. A year ago, she astral projected to the Everglades and claimed to wake with mosquito bites on her legs. She has also been to Paris, but doesn’t wish to return. She said the anti-Americanism really spoiled the trip. My mother has lost her mind. Which is why I killed the dog. She had Dean, a whiny Jack Russell terrier, for fifteen years. He was taking a very long time to die, too. As my mother got sicker, so did the dog. It was a kind of sympathy pain, like husbands whose nipples harden when their wives are pregnant. Rarely a morning went by that I didn’t wake to the smell of puke on the couch
or shit on the linoleum and find myself guessing if it was human or dog. Dean was the only thing keeping her from moving into Holly Acres. The week before I ended Dean, I took my mother on the tour. She fell in love with the place. My mother is still sexually active — as she loves to remind us — and saw a potential in Holly Acres for a string of raunchy affairs. I knew I’d be forced to hear every intimate detail, but if that was what it took to finally get her out of my hair, it’d be a small price to pay. Unfortunately, as my mother pointed out in the brochure later that night, they were a strictly animal-free community. She highlighted the passage — “no dogs” in bold typeface — and left it on the counter. I called Jane the next day to tell her the news. She, of course, couldn’t be bothered with such trivial matters. Jane is a copyeditor for GNC, and often forwards me e-mails about organic antidepressants. Jane likes organic things — food, shampoo, medicine. She is the kind who won’t buy a rug until she researches the UPC to see if it’s been touched by the hands of slaves. We are different in that way. I only take pills I recognize, and I voted for George Bush. Both times. “So we’ll find a new senior home then?” she says, in between sips of herbal tea (in an eco-friendly bottle, I’m sure). “What do you mean we’ll?” I ask. “Well, if you want me to take time out of my day I can do a Google search. The same way you can.” “You’re really satisfied with her living with me, aren’t you? It tickles you.” “Oh, Ellen. Always with the drama. You act like she’s Kathy Bates in Misery.” “She can be, Jane.” “Well, write that sequel, why don’t you?” Jane often thinks she is funny, especially when she is not. “I just wish that dog would die already. What do I do?” “Listen. I’m busy, Ellen. Do what you want.” She hung up, and then I did what I wanted. I spent an hour amassing an incriminating list of Google searches. What kills a dog? How do I kill a Jack Russell terrier? What is lethal to dogs? The last search led me to a list of medications to keep away from dogs. I skimmed the list of pills, three of which I’d taken in the last eight hours. The site said if little Spot were to somehow get his hands on even one Ambien, to imme-
diately bring him to the local vet. It meant sacrificing what was left of my prescription, but I would be due for a refill in a week anyhow. Because I take generic, I popped six out of the bottle, crushed them in the garlic press, and crammed them into a Reese’s. I waited until my mother was asleep to do it. I held out my hand to Dean, and as I felt his sandpaper tongue lick my palm, I have to tell you — I felt nothing. I woke to the shrieks of my mother. I could hear it from the basement. I ran up the stairs and feigned shock. Later that night, Jane called. I let it go to voicemail because I knew I’d want to save her reaction for archival purposes. It went something like this: What the fuck is your problem, Ellen? I know you did it. Dean is fine for fifteen years, and the second you don’t get your way, he drops. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean, either. You really sunk low this time. Pick up the phone, Ellen. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable. Call me back. In yet another lesson in karmic retribution, Holly Acres burnt to the ground the week following. The fire made national news. This was all in June of last year, and I hadn’t talked to Jane directly until sometime last week. Following Dean’s funeral, Jane wrote me off entirely, which is an easy thing to do from a thousand miles away. Still, she is flying in from Vancouver today, because this might be the week. The doctors think so because my mother’s white blood cell count was at its lowest yesterday; my mother thinks so because she can only project to the continental forty-eight. I park on the side of the highway that leads to the airport in the hopes of avoiding the eight-dollar parking. Jane’s flight is delayed an hour, so I decide to get some much-needed shuteye. Ten minutes later, I hear the knocking on my window. The cop that asks for my license and registration looks familiar, but I can’t place him. I am hoping it will be one of those encounters where he will recognize me first, and I can use context clues to figure out where he fits. And also get out of this ticket.
I hand him my papers and wait. “Onofrio?” he asks, looking at my outdated license. “Any relation to Jane?” And so the game begins. I perk up and take my sunglasses off. “Actually, yes. She’s my sister. That’s why I’m parked here, Officer. Her flight is delayed.” “Where’s she living now?” he asks. “Vancouver. Making the family proud!” I am trying my best, but I can tell the officer sees right through it. “I haven’t seen her in probably twenty years. Does she have any kids?” I begin to get frustrated, partially because he continues to write me a ticket, and partially because I still can’t place this guy. “Nope, no kids. She works. A lot.” “Interesting.” “Is it? I never thought Jane would make much of a mother.” I’m done being nice, seeing as him knowing my wonderful sister did not get me out of the forty-five dollar ticket he rips off his pad. “Yea. Well, neither did she.” He takes a long pause, one that would end the second act of a community theater production. “Anyway,” he says, “you can’t park here. There are six signs that tell you that.” “I must have missed them!” I say, swearing under my breath. He walks slow and sad back to his car as my phone rings. It’s Jane. She’s landed. Terminal K. Somewhere around Terminal E, I place the officer. It was difficult at first. He’s gained weight. He had dated Jane years and years ago; she was a senior in high school, he was a junior in college. It was the summer of my seventh grade year. The way he walked back to the car, I could see him doing that same sad walk in front of our house. I was maybe twelve or thirteen, but the night comes back to me. I remember Jane in hysterics. I remember my mother smoking a cigarette above our oven, letting the smoke curl and dissipate into the fan. Jane wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, but she cut off her hair the next day. All of it. I barely recognize Jane in front of the sliding doors. She is pale and aggravated, that part is familiar, but she’s thinner than I remember. Thinner than I am now. Her hair is bottle-blonde, and I’m surprised to see her smoking a cigarette. This part is a relief; it means I will not have
to “run to the store” while she is home to sneak in a cigarette or three. It was an art I perfected at fifteen — keeping fabric softeners and strawberry gum in the glove compartment — but it makes for quite the inconvenience when a craving hits. “You look like hell,” is the first thing Jane tells me. “Absolute hell.” I tell her I haven’t been sleeping well — I am tempted to make an Ambien joke, but don’t. This isn’t the case, of course; I just didn’t bother to shower. But Jane wouldn’t stand for that. She’d try to hock organic shampoo on me again. We load her three suitcases into the backseat of my Volkswagen bug. “Nice car to pick someone up from the airport in,” she says. Classic Jane line. She expected me to rent an SUV for the day, so long as it was a hybrid. “Since when do you smoke?” I ask her. “Tell me it’s organic tobacco.” “Pardon me for succumbing to stress, seeing as our mother is dying. And yes, it is organic tobacco. You should switch over.” “So glad you’re back. I got a ticket for you.” I am very good at giving guilt; it is my favorite present. “The cop knew you.” “He did?” “Why do you automatically go to he? Bad feminist, Jane. Bad feminist.” She grabs the yellow ticket off of the dashboard and examines it. I’m hoping she’ll offer to cover it for me; I’m low on cash this year. “Jim Henry gave you a ticket? Jim Henry is a cop?” She acts like Jim Henry was once paralyzed, deaf, dumb, and mute. “You dated him, right?” “No.” “Yes, you did,” I say. “I remember him coming to our house that night. The one on Derby Street.” “I didn’t date him, okay?” Jane is fast to change the subject. “How’s Mommy?” she asks. “Mommy? You still call her Mommy?” “How is she?” “She’s in South Dakota.” “Don’t mock her, Ellen. It keeps her busy.” This pisses me off. “Yet she never projects to Vancouver.” “You read her e-mail; she can’t get out of the continental U.S. this week.”
“You read those e-mails?” The biggest mistake of my life was agreeing to get my mother a computer. We went to Best Buy early in the morning, and we were still there as they were closing. She needed to understand every last detail. And then she tried to haggle for the price, like it was a flea market. Now she sends us six e-mails a day, most of which are forwards. Forward this to fifteen of your friends or a small boy will kill you in your sleep tonight. Stuff like that. I had to block her. “Yes, I read the e-mails. I do what I can, Ellen.” We get home to find our mother spread out on her living room floor, the lights off and candles lit. She doesn’t move when we enter, so Jane is sure she is dead. She runs toward her, but I stop her before she hits the hardwood. “Oh god, relax. She’s projecting,” I say. “Ten bucks says she can’t break the tri-state area.” Jane gives me a look that asks how can you be so callous, and I return with a look that says you haven’t lived here for years. “Mom! Wake up. It’s your daughter. Jane.” She shakes her, and finally our mother wakes from her trance. “Hello, dear. Can you get me a jacket? I’m freezing.” “Where were you tonight? Minnesota?” Our mother smiles. “Not quite. Upstate New York. But I’m trying.” After the three hour visit, we leave our mother to her final trip of the day. Before she begins, she reminds us about family dinner tomorrow. She asks Jane and I to cook. “Can you drive me to the hotel?” Jane asks. “You booked a room?” “I didn’t wanna impose.” Translation: I don’t want to stay in this house, for fear I will never leave it. “That’s probably wise. We use Suave shampoo. Lots of chemicals.” We are great at arguing, Jane and I. When we spent the summers in Cocoa Beach, we would write stories together, passing a notebook back and forth. She would set up nice stories about camping in the woods or days by the shore, and I’d kill off the narrator as soon as I could. That we are sisters sharing the same genetic code is a mystery I will never solve.
I drive her to the hotel. Jane doesn’t eat meat. Or fish. Or anything with gluten. Because I cannot find a vegetarian gluten-free meal with ingredients that I can pick up at Price Chopper, I decide to make pasta and salad and let Jane figure it out herself. When she asks if the pasta is gluten-free, I tell her yes. What is gluten, anyway? She picks out the tomatoes (high in acid) and the croutons (carbs), and fills her plate with lettuce. Our mother, on the other hand, has three plates of pasta, two helpings of salad, and six slices of bread, buttered on both sides. It is the most I have seen her eat since her diagnosis. And I have taken her to buffets. I sit at the table wondering how much of it she will be able to keep down. “I have some news,” she announces, finishing off her third slice of chocolate cake. “I cannot leave the house.” “What’s wrong?” Jane asks, missing the point entirely. “She means project,” I say. “She can’t project outside of the house.” “Precisely,” she says, touching my chin. “I cannot project outside of this house. I can hardly get out of the living room.” “So this is it?” I both ask and say. “Ellen!” Jane snaps at me, and it all comes out. It’s messy, and it’s loud. The synopsis: How could you leave me here (Me); You expect too much from me (Jane); I never got the chance to experience my life (Me); That’s your own damn fault (Jane). All of it is laid on the table. Jane cries in the annoying way she always has, and I swear enough for the both of us. We try to place blame on each other, but we get it all over ourselves. Before I get the chance to call my sister a cunt, our mother breaks us up. “Come here. Both of you. I want you two to sit next to me,” she says. “Turn off the lights.” The way she says it, the pleading in her eyes, we know she’s serious this time. We can sense it almost cosmically. So we indulge our mother one last time. We light candles and get the pillows off the couch and place them on the hardwood. It looks ridiculous, the three of us sprawled out in the living room, hands interlocked in a triangle. My mother is the hypotenuse, Jane and I are the opposite legs. We follow our mother’s lead, as we always have. We are ambitious. We pet polar bears in the Arctic. We climb Kilimanjaro. We travel The Great Wall, from beginning to end, and wake up parched after the long walk. We do it for our mother, and maybe even for ourselves.
The next morning, when I wake up at nine and the house is silent, I know. I call the ambulance before I even walk upstairs. I find our mother on the living room floor, like every time before. But this is the part you’ll never believe — I swear there are specks of sand in her hair when I lean down to kiss her. She does not smell like death; she smells like the beach. I call Jane in tears. Jane and I will spend the afternoon planning out the service. We will drink cabernet in our mother’s house and go through three packs of Marlboros. She will tell me about the abortion and about the noises Jim Henry made when he begged her to keep the baby. I will tell her about Peter, the man who tells me he’ll leave his wife eventually. We will go through old photo albums and yearbooks to see whose names we can remember, and point out the guys we lost our virginity to. We will read the drafts of stories we wrote together years ago, and Jane will joke that we should be studied. It will be the night Jane and I stop being mad. We will take our mother’s advice after all these years and finally let it go. And, for shits and giggles, we will decide to turn off the lights, arrange the candles, feel the cold of the hardwood floor against us, and travel all across the strange and beautiful world, laughing the whole way home.
Step lively, cowboy, the moon bears secrets far from pistol range.
My funk hangs over telephone lines high top slippers wagging tongues. My funk is milk crate nailed, plywood backed, regulation height. Low ride cars get hops in my funk, dance like caffeinated Chihuahuas. Helicopters spotlight blocks, roam streets like runaway dogs. Christmas comes with palm trees gangster leaning white Santa in a Kevlar vest. Preachers dress in Chick-O-Stick suits, see saw women in choirs pray Godâ€™s
anointing over Mercedes Benz, Saint Rolls Royce — Onstar. All the barred up windows, where do they all come from — and guns? Many sirens to cross long time passing, Wilshire, on Rodeo heading south — and blood, red rags blue flags, trail of tattoo tears — bodies limp as popped balloons, wake of drive-by arrows. My funk is battered, fried, served, like Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. King Kong ain’t got nothing on me and my funk — Sir Michael, Stymie’s Choice, Lord Harvey — Lord, have mercy nothing on me, high blood pressure, high sugar. California, knows how to party. California, knows how to cardiac arrest. How polished are ambulances that take too long to come. How detailed prowling police cars
rolling hurt in shine. Holy, Holy, are their gleaming hoods — Holy Holy, their sheen on trunks of my funk. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord Car Almighty, early in the morning, erections rise to thee, thy car washes, thy block long power rinse temples. Wax on, wax off — worship. Pitt Bulls put on shades under Alka Seltzer sun of my funk. Under plop plop fizz of my funk, rainbows wear wife beaters, fire up joints of smog — and there are seas of onlookers, who will not jump in killing fields of other peoples’ funk. My mother staggers Central Avenue, burn marks from an iron pressed in her cheek, like Play-Doh — and I know I know I know this funk like soul beds know Bill Withers. I know sounds of blouses ripped, bras torn earthquakes of
trembling ribs, when he hits her — and he always hits her. I know teeth she will pick up from concrete — seed in pockets like dimes. I know funk she will carry in baskets — try to wash just like his laundry — that funk, born into dresses, will always be much worse than mine.
I know that she only loves me because she needs me. After downing a bottle of cheap wine last month, my mother cut off most of her hair with my younger sister’s purple rounded-tip scissors. The light from the streetlamp outside reflected off the exposed skin on her head, and she told me, “Katie, I’ve always wanted to look like Mia Farrow.” I helped her up the stairs to her bedroom, laying her down on her bed and removing her shoes. Before she passed out, she pulled me closer and whispered, “I’m your new mom.”
Fat People in Love
They had ordered the hungry man’s special: four yolky eggs, buttered toast with jam, coffee, ham, sausage, pancakes, hash browns, and a slice of blueberry pie. There wasn’t room for the napkin dispenser on the table, so the man put it beside him on the vinyl seat where it was joined by the salt, pepper, and ketchup. The condiments bounced slightly as he ate, as if they were an audience, cheering him on. This was almost a year ago, three months plus a winter. It was your typical Pennsylvania autumn, with bright yellow maples dropping saucersized leaves and spinning their helicopter seeds to the sidewalk. I grew up in the hills around that diner, and as I get older I can see the land has left its mark on me. If I reach the end of October without finding a leaf bigger than my face, I am terribly disappointed. I had nothing to do while waiting for Stanley, so I watched the people in the booth. They were fat. So fat it felt wrong to watch them eat, as if they were engaged in a kind of kinky behavior. I wanted to hear them talk. What did they do for a living? Did they have any kids? But they were too busy to talk. They put the food on their forks and put the forks inside them. The door to the diner opened. I sat up straighter, but it was only a guy in a hunting jacket who slung his camouflaged ass onto a stool and flirted with the waitress. I looked out the window. Three years I’d been sleeping with Stanley, and he’d been driving the same janky Jeep the entire time. I couldn’t imagine him pulling up in anything else. Stanley is skinny, and his hair is starting to thin. He’s the closest thing I’ve known to a genius, and I’m pretty sure he hates me. I fell for him several Novembers ago, when the leaves were crunchy and brown and
I should have been miles away, wearing a college sweatshirt and reading Goethe. Instead, I was at the supermarket, reading the frozen food labels and looking for something my mom could keep down. I’d settled on chicken nuggets and peas when I felt a tap-tap on my shoulder. Stanley had something to show me. He drove us into the trees, parked the Jeep on a fire road, and told me to follow him through the Alleghenies. There, stuck between pine trees and maples, was a replica of an Austrian castle he’d made out of bamboo and brass and balsa wood, a thing so big you could walk inside it. The walls had been blown apart by wind and the entire structure leaned heavily to one side. Dried leaves piled in the corners. But despite the mess there was obvious care in the joints of the wood and such precision in the parapet that I knew the castle was a manifestation of love, an obsessive kind of love I’d never seen before. I ran my thumb against the planks and down the shiny twists of brass that dripped along the walls. There was something grossly sensual about the castle. “Damn,” I said, pulling my hand away. Stanley thought I was impressed. But really, I was terrified. “Damn,” I said, thinking, Now I have to love you. That winter we hiked up mountains and sledded down them, screaming. In summer we threw old inner tubes in the river and drank beers with our butts in the water, waving at trains that tooted their whistles. Right before Stanley left town, my mother started dying, really dying, and I grew thick branches of need that shot out of my chest. They were hot branches, sticky with the sap of loss, but Stanley didn’t want to be stuck. He decided to move to the city where he could be a real artist. I helped him load up his Jeep with fresh-cut tree stumps and cardboard boxes. I didn’t feel sad. I knew then that lovers are like food; you can’t enjoy them when you’re starving. Back in the diner, my phone rang. Stanley. Running late. “The traffic on Eighty was crazy!” The wind whipped through his window and into the phone. A country song played on the radio. “Don’t wait,” he screamed. “Go ahead and order.” Stanley worked for a photographer who shot for National Geographic. Sometimes instead of e-mails he sent me postcards: Zimbabwe, Galveston, Sweden. None of the postcards said Wish You Were Here. I re-crossed my legs and ordered more coffee. The people in the booth ordered scrapple, which is not a meat worth explaining. The man also
Fat People in Love
got a tall pink milkshake he sucked through a straw, and the woman borrowed a sip of it, burped loudly, and giggled. The man smiled and touched her shoe with the toe of his boot. I saw him reach down and stroke her knee. His fingers looked like balloon animals tied tight at every joint. “Hey, baby,” the woman mouthed. The man formed a kiss with his lips. It occurred to me then that there’s no such thing as being unlovable. Only unloved. A few months after I met Stanley at the diner, I put my mother’s house on the market and moved to a town on the Hudson. The new town was smaller than the one I left behind, but the things in it were better: a gallery with art, a bookstore with chairs, and a permanent escape route via the Hudson. If I built a raft and floated downriver I would end up in New York City, which had infinite galleries and infinite bookstores, and which therefore did not require an escape route. I moved just after Christmas. This turned out to be excellent timing because the librarian’s assistant, a local girl, had just run off with the Massachusetts boy who’d brought the giant pine that sat shedding in the lobby. She was skinny and blonde and had left without notice. I walked into the library around noon, spent a long afternoon vacuuming up needles caught between the floorboards, and left that evening with a job. The gallery was only a few blocks down the street, and I went there on my mornings off, at a time of day when the tight-faced wives came in smelling of hempy shampoo. I believe they intended to find a sensitive man for a discreet affair, but there weren’t any men in the gallery, just art students. That’s how I met Leon. He had a beard exactly like Stanley’s, dark and unruly and overgrown. I went and stood next to him, more for the beard than the conversation. “It’s a cartoon,” he said, holding up his sketch pad. “I like to stand in front of bad art and draw. I guess you could say it inspires me.” He handed me the picture, a boyish scrawl of pain and busted guts. I flipped through the notepad, looking for evidence of genius, while he watched me and tugged at his beard like a doctor discovering a new disease. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that a face can be so similar to a field or a tree or any thing that grows?”
He wasn’t a genius. At least, not at this. I returned the sketchbook and said it wasn’t bad. He said that his name was Leon, that he took art classes at the community college, and that he needed to get out of this town. I told him there were worse places, but he hadn’t seen them and refused to believe me. He said the town was hick. I said no, the town was good, there was the hick side and the artsy side, and they lived together without killing each other, now wasn’t that amazing? He shrugged, and I thought I’d won until we looked out the window, where a woman was passing in an electric wheelchair. She was fat. So fat it was hard to see where the chair ended and her body began. A cyborg of lethargy and excess. “That’s Mary.” Leon said her name softly, as if she were a super-villain who could hear us through walls. “She kills cats. Like, on purpose.” We moved closer to the window and watched her zoom down the middle of the street, slowly but with unwavering intent. I wanted to pose the obvious questions regarding the cats — when, why, how many — but Leon watched Mary with such intensity, it was like a holy moment. His pupils drove from left to right, monitoring her progress. “These people are not like us,” he said, and followed it with a sigh. I took out a tissue and pretended to blow my nose, when really I was wiping sudden tears from my eyes. I couldn’t believe this kid. Knew me three seconds and already we were “us.” And it was the good “us,” the kind of “us” I wanted to be in. And yet — oh Mary, fat and with a bald patch, must we leave you behind? I glanced at Leon, whose beard glowed red in the sun. He looked noble and beautiful, and as we gazed out the window I pretended we were a pair of Spanish sailors headed for the New World. We were incredibly bold, but our ships were heavy, and if you got sick or killed our cats we’d have to toss you overboard. “Swim!” we shouted from the poop deck. But you were sick and could not swim. We said a prayer and watched your head drop beneath the waves. I decided to love Leon, despite the fact that he was nineteen, engaged, and showed no interest in me whatsoever. When he stopped by the library the following week, I knew it wasn’t for me. He came for the dead bodies — a German photographer, perhaps? We went to the stacks, third floor. The photographer was there (American, not German), and Leon squatted in the aisle to examine him. “Look,” he said, “at this cow heart
Fat People in Love
in a jar.” I looked. My knees fitted neatly around Leon’s spine and my hair blended in with his. Oh, how wonderful to be a young man, with a young fiancée, who doesn’t need to notice such things. In the photo, a masked dwarf with thick, cottage cheese thighs shoved a cow heart at the camera. Leon turned his head. “Thanks.” We were nose to nose. His eyes became alien eyes, blurring in the center. I imagined us clinging, right there in the stacks. The hardback books would fall from the shelves, flapping in protest, while we groaned and got rug burns, mixing our scents. “We should have coffee sometime,” I said. “Sure.” He lifted the book. “Can I check this thing out, or what?” “It’s a reference book,” I lied. “It doesn’t leave the library.” “Okay.” He smiled kindly, as if he knew what I was up to. Then he stood, burped lightly, and smacked me on the arm. “See you tomorrow, then.” “See you tomorrow.” He handed me the book and walked away, backwards. The fat people in the booth had finished their meal before Stanley arrived at the diner. The food on their plates — the ham, the sausage, all of it — had gone into their stomachs. It was a circus trick, too many clowns getting into a cab. The waitress asked if the man wanted the check. He thought about it, then requested a Mountain Dew and a Diet Coke. The waitress was about to leave when the fat woman stopped her. Biscuits and gravy, she said, mouth half-closed over half-chewed food. Mishkits n greyee. Her lipstick was a pale pink made for little girls who like to play dress-up. It formed a jagged ring around her teeth that expanded to let in bites, then bunched together no bigger than a frosted Cheerio. I looked at myself in the reflective plastic of the tablecloth. I was not quite fat, but Stanley would see I’d gotten bigger. He always noticed the details, from the thickness of my wrists to the color of my lip balm. I could joke about my diet, how it consisted solely of things in packets, but I wouldn’t tell him why — that for a year and a half I hadn’t been able to do much more than boil water. Stanley called. He was having a brain fart. Did I know the exit? Yes, I knew it, but not by number. “It’s on the right,” I said. I couldn’t remem-
ber anything else. When I drove around that town, my body and the car became a single mind. We slowed together, signaled together. I didn’t need to read the signs to know I was home. “I can’t believe you forgot,” I said. “Is it before or after the exit for Lewisburg?” I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. “The road curves to the left a little.” I’d lived there all my life, and that was the sum of my knowledge: a curve, slight and to the left. Stanley said he’d stop at Sam’s to get some gas and ask directions. I told him Sam’s was gone, that Sam’s had become a Sheetz. Stanley swore into the phone and said something about industrialization. I told him I’d see him soon and hung up. The hunter at the counter gave the waitress a dollar tip and headed for the john, but when he saw the fat people in the booth, he walked over to say hello. I leaned in to eavesdrop and heard that last week Eddie Kohler went hunting with Donny’s brother Brian and Champ’s uncle’s boy, but that they didn’t get nothing. The people in the booth listened with interest. I signaled the waitress and asked for more coffee. Conversations in the diner were not conversations. They were lists of names. By a stern force of will I’d forgotten who most of the names belonged to (choir directors, substitutes, unpopular classmates), but I still heard them every day. I wanted to leave that cramped, incestuous valley and find a place where the fat people and I could walk through the world without rubbing shoulders. But the planet wasn’t big enough. I would always remember where and who I’d come from, and if I saw them somewhere else — Europe, China, the surface of the moon — when the fat people heard where I was born they would treat me like family. I hated them for that. In my new, hand-picked hometown on the Hudson, I took my new, nineteen-year-old friend out for coffee. Over mugs of bad mocha, Leon explained the plan: get married (her name, horribly, was Rachel), move to New York, meet people, become a painter, have dinner parties, move to the country, become a sculptor, build a house, buy wine, be a good grandpa, and leave behind amazing pieces of art. In the meantime, he saved cash by working in his father’s garage. Really? Could he fix my car with the funny noise? Maybe. We drove it around.
Fat People in Love
“See, it only happens going up hills.” The engine coughed — brghuhpgh — and shifted its gears. “Especially if I speed up.” Leon stuck his feet out the window. It wasn’t spring yet, but he wanted it to be. Dried mud flaked off his boots and hit the side of my car. “You should probably move,” he said. “Nothing to do in this town but drive up hills and speed.” We crossed the river, then crossed it again. On one side you saw the Catskills, and on the other side you were in them. Both views were stunning, but Leon snorted and shrugged — he’d seen it a bajillion-trillion times. He directed us back and forth across the river, shouting over the metallic hum each time we crossed the bridge. He wanted to talk about his painting teacher at the community college. She was Swedish and strong, an oak tree with breasts, a Barbie on steroids. “Six-foot-four in lambskin slippers. I once watched her eat two bratwurst sandwiches, a bowl of potatoes, sauerkraut, and a pitcher of beer — for lunch!” He squeaked with delight. I took a hard left and cursed myself for being human-sized. “One night I saw her on the street. She’d had ten shots of tequila — ten! ‘Oh ja!’ she said, ‘One too many, ja!’ But she wasn’t even drunk. She rode home on my handlebars.” I could picture this woman gliding through town like a boat with a really nice ass, smiling at the men who left their little homes to run beside her rudder. “She’s so happy,” said Leon. “So big and so happy.” He wanted to test the car on steeper terrain, so I took an unpaved road that led deeper into the forest. It occurred to me that we could have sex at any moment, just park in the shade and start clawing. It would be our first time, which meant he’d have no idea what I used to look like or how my legs used to feel when they parted. If I pressed our heads together hard enough, we would feel the skulls beneath the skin that kept our brains apart. We rose into the mountains. I thought I could run there, maybe, if I were careful. A new pair of track shoes lived in the trunk of my car, purchased last month in a moment of idealism and guilt. I hid them under a blanket so their whiteness wouldn’t hurt my eyes. “I love these roads,” Leon said. “They’re always different. Rocks move, holes form, the mud slides down the side. Trees get hit by lightning,
split right through the middle.” He pointed off the ravine where a broken white trunk raised its branches in surrender. “Summer after junior year. I was dating Katie Stevens, smoking dope, and quit the tennis team.” He tapped on the window and waved. “That’s what it means, growing up here. I recognize trees the way you recognize people.” Leon leaned back and pulled at his beard. He said something about shaving it, and I grabbed his arm — No! “I’ve got to do it anyhow. For the wedding.” The car made its noise — brghhupugh. I decided I was wrong about the sex. There is never a first time. An object of comparison always glitters from its sturdy position in the past. If not my thighs, then some other girl’s thighs. “You should keep the beard,” I said. “It looks good on you.” “I’ll shave it when I get to New York. You know — a new face for a new city.” Brghhupugh. I wanted to tell him that it’s never a new city, it’s never a new face. It’s just you, you, you, again you. You in a funny hat, you with food in your mouth, you fumbling and failing to speak a strange language. You in Taos, Rome, Cleveland, Japan. You can sell your house and move to a town on the Hudson, but you’ll still wake up in the middle of the night heavy from dreaming of the same damn things. A rap song came on the radio. I went to change the station, but Leon stopped me. “You don’t like Eminem? Really? But he’s so badass. Listen to the words. Can you hear them?” I shook my head no and let him turn up the music as far as it would go. When Stanley finally arrived at the diner, he was inexplicably wet. “You don’t want to know,” he said, struggling out of a dripping sweater. The waitress came by, and Stanley ordered a rare burger with a side of slaw and fries. I ordered pancakes but knew I’d only pick at them. “So, what are you up to?” he said. I watched him ring water out of his jacket. “What are you doing?” I shrugged. “Reading. Cleaning. Clearing things out from the garden.” Stanley laughed, and I wanted to punch him or have him kiss me, quick, like a plug.
Fat People in Love
“Things are great.” I crossed my legs under the table and pulled my shirt down to cover my belly. “It goes by fast.” “Ah,” he said. “But what is ‘it?’” The food arrived. Stanley took big bites while he talked. “Three months out west,” he said, “And then who knows! I’ve always wanted to go to Venezuela. Or Vietnam.” “It’s monsoon season in Vietnam,” I said, which might have been true. “Great! I need pictures of wind.” The last time I’d seen him had been at my mother’s funeral. He looked pretty much the same then, though instead of a wet sweater, he’d worn a dry suit. The black jacket and dark shirt had made him seem skinnier than he was, and his eyes were too blue to be real. But at the diner they were the color of titanium, like the Atlantic ocean right after a storm. Though their appearance changed, Stanley’s eyes were constants in my universe, fixed stars by which I measured my own plodding progress. How did I feel about his eyes now? How did I feel about them then? I poured too much syrup on my plate and cut my pancakes into squares. Across the table, Stanley nodded at his stories and took the same-sized bite of burger each time. I’d seen him go for days eating nothing but raisins and river water, and I’d seen him put away a 48-ounce steak followed by a baked potato. He said that he never felt hungry, or maybe he always did, but whatever it was, the feeling did not change. The people in the booth scooted across the vinyl and pushed up onto their feet, which looked small and mousey beneath their massive legs. The couple waved goodbye to the waitress and walked past us on their way out the door. I heard the gentle swish-swish of their jeans over the clanging noise of the diner. Stanley shook his head. “That’s what America looks like.” “I think they’re in love.” “If that’s love, you’d have to kill me first.” I laughed, a single squeezed huh from my throat. “Did you hear about the fat lady who got stuck in the Tunnel of Love?” Stanley put his credit card on the bill and began buttering the toast I hadn’t touched. “She was there for hours. Two dozen people trapped behind her on the ride. They had to float ham sandwiches in on a log.” I leaned forward and pressed my elbows together to make a cleavage mountain, but sex with Stanley did not seem likely. The last time had
been in the field behind his uncle’s barn. We had sat on the grass and Stanley had napped while I brushed paint chips off my hands. I watched him sleeping and felt a strong urge to knock him on the head. I wanted to bury him in the ground, put dirt up to his chest at least. I wanted to come every day and feed him, cut his hair once a month, and rub SPF 15 on his nose when it was sunny. “How did they get her out?” “Liquid paraffin. The manager told her she might be too big for the ride, but she insisted on trying. They were stuck for ten hours.” I nodded. Lunch with Stanley had lasted forty-five minutes. “Well,” he said, stretching, “I want to hit Toledo before midnight.” I followed him through the door of the restaurant, which had a little bell that rang, ding-a-ling. Out in the parking lot, we lingered by his truck. “Are you sure you don’t want to drive around?” I said. “The houses on Elm are being renovated, and they’re building up the dike near the Fourth Street Bridge.” “See,” he said, “there’s something you’ve got to understand about this town.” He stuck a pair of sunglasses on his face and looked at me through tinted lenses. “Every podunk place off Eighty has a new dike or renovated mansions or something else that makes it special.” He gave me a dry kiss and stepped into the driver’s seat. “But they’re not special; they’re the same. And I don’t care to see the same old stuff, you know?” He slammed the door and waved. When the engine kicked over, I backed up, waving faster as the Jeep got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see his head behind the wheel or the point of his elbow sticking out from the rolled-down window. A month after Stanley went out west, I had my mother’s house appraised, and just after Christmas, I moved. I figured once the house was sold I’d be able to live quite comfortably in the small Hudson town, especially with my job at the library. And I wanted to stick around for awhile. I wanted to know if the guy who’d brought the Christmas tree would be back next year, and whether he’d bring the skinny blonde. I suppose you could tie the two together — seeing Stanley, leaving home — and reduce my life to a simple recipe of cause and effect. It’s not that seeing Stanley made me want to leave, exactly, but it did push me forward and helped me to slide away from the tunnel of love. Of course,
Fat People in Love
the tunnels are connected and the ride never ends, but what can you do? After Stanley it would be nineteen-year-old Leon, and after that I would cling to someone else. It seemed to be a pattern: if I didn’t have a man to break myself against, I might get an uninterrupted picture of who I was. And why would I want that kind of vision? I want to know as little possible. Sometimes I think if I could go back to that day at the diner and show myself a movie of the next six months, with Leon replacing Stanley as the romantic lead, I would get in my car and leave immediately. Either that, or I would never leave at all. The day before he moved to New York City, Leon shaved his beard. It was the middle of April then, and the library was overrun with Easterthemed events. It was easy to pretend to be busy when Leon stopped by the stacks to say goodbye. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail with a JPEG attachment. In the photo, a man and a woman stand at a pier, smiling dumbly, all noodle arms and teeth. The tip of the man’s tongue sticks out, and the girl wears a funny cap. Who are these people? I sent the e-mail to the trash. Hours later I realized — Leon — someone I love — and dug it out again. The e-mail said they were living in Brooklyn with his new wife’s sister. They both, together, wished me well. That afternoon I went for a drive. I crossed the humming bridge, but the view of the Catskills failed to impress. Outside the car, it was spring again, that time of year when men all across the country shave their beards and drive away. At the top of the mountain, I popped the trunk and took the blanket off the sneakers. They blazed like sun on snow. I grabbed their laces and walked to the edge of the ravine, where the treetops glowed with that electric green that appears at the beginning of a season. The mountains rolled out in gentle waves, so beautiful, and yet — so what? In a few hours the sun would be down, and then it would be up again, and it wouldn’t matter if I wrote Leon back or ignored him completely. The rubber on the shoes bumped against my leg, begging to be worn. Instead, I tied the laces together and swung them in high circles, lifting them like a lasso above my head. The shoes would either sail over the ravine or they would end up a few feet away, trapped in the rocks and branches. I swung the shoes faster, trying to decide where I wanted them to go.
Spotlights New Work from the Emerson Community
Undergraduate Spotlight: Fiction
Kristine Greive is from Houston, Texas. Her favorite things to read and write about include jerks, ghosts, road trips, ghosts that are jerks, haunted road trips, and bad detectives. She will graduate this spring with a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. She spends most of her time imagining dialogue for stock photography shoots.
“Where were you?” Clarissa asks, sitting on my couch and plucking her eyebrows. I hate that. I wish she would do it in the bathroom. I shrug. “I was just out.” “Out,” she repeats. “That’s specific.” She lives in my guest bedroom, I want to say, because she’s out of luck, even though she’s twenty-six years old and I’m her younger data-entry-worker sister and I’m not so lucky either. She shouldn’t get to be annoyed at me just because she’s unemployed and lonely and doesn’t know what to do with herself except dream up ways the people she knows ought to change to suit her better. “All right,” I tell her. “Fine. I went to an estate sale.” She mimes vomiting. “You told me to get a hobby. You said I was always lurking, bothering you. Here, in my apartment.” “When I said a hobby,” Clarissa says, “I was thinking yoga or something.” “Don’t be so goddamn picky. A hobby is a hobby.” Only this one is mine. I have some vague notion it would be nice if we could share things, Clarissa and I, but what I need more than anything is a way to not share anything with her. The more I share with her, the sooner we have to talk about how there’s only one name on my lease and my landlord’s reaching the upper limit on exclamation points in her threatening notes. The more I share with her, the more likely it is I will make her cry. “Who is this guy, anyway?” she asks. “What’s his name? John?” I swipe my forehead. “Jim,” I say. “It’s Jim. He owns that junk shop down the street. I don’t know, we talk sometimes. He invited me.” “Why the hell would you want to go to an,” she pauses, pulls a face, “estate sale?”
I know the right answer to this question. The right answer is, “I was hoping to set it on fire.” The real answer is something I feel behind my teeth but cannot say. “You know what? Yoga is disgusting,” I tell her instead. “The last time I went, the instructor told me to imagine my spine as a pearl necklace. I went to an estate sale. Maybe I’ll go to a few. Deal with it.” Hardly anyone comes into Jim’s shop. It’s a dusty thrift store that sells things like paper dolls of old Russian princesses and thin plastic Jimmy Carter face masks, and the whole thing has a layer of dust he doesn’t even bother cleaning. I asked him once about sales, and he said he mostly gets his income from dealing antiques and yo-yo competitions, which apparently sometimes adult men enter. Then he showed me his $250 yo-yo. I go to the shop and walk around all morose until he asks if I’d like to go to another estate sale, and I act surprised and a little reluctant, but I always say yes. I like the sales. I like being looked at suspiciously. At the first one, a woman said I was in her way and threatened to step on me. She called me “honey,” her voice hard. I find her at sales and follow her. She smiles at me, lipsticked lips stretching, like she hates me. I smile back. She doesn’t know I don’t know a damn thing about antiques, but she knows I don’t belong. I like her. I pick up the camera lenses and brooches and leather-bound books after she puts them down. I raise my eyebrows, looking at them appraisingly. I wait for the occasional flicker of doubt in her eyes. If the stuff is cheap enough, I buy it every now and then, so I can walk out looking smug. It’s like wrapping myself up in someone else’s life for a while. There are still tissues in the trash can, and a pill bottle in a drawer, and maybe there would even still be food in the fridge. It’s intimate. It makes me wonder what a bunch of shoppers would make of my place. I ask Jim if he knows the dead woman’s name, and he gives me a concerned look. “No,” he says. A minute or so later, he asks if I want to leave. I shake my head vehemently. The last thing I want is to leave. Jim doesn’t talk for a few long minutes after that, just looks around, pressing down on an end table to see how strong it is. Then, as I peer through the viewfinder of a dusty camera, he says, “Don’t get emotional about it; it’s only stuff.” And, sure, he’s the junk shop guy, and a shrewd
shopper, but it’s not what I expect Jim to say. It’s cold for him, the guy who sometimes lets me tell him things I know can’t possibly be interesting, like what I don’t like about my boss or what kind of rain makes me saddest (the weak, drizzly kind). I start calling the “I will step on you” woman Honey in my mind, making it my mission to ruin her shopping trips. I want to wreck her smug, warped smile. This woman acts like we’re in battle. She shoves in front of me, reaches around behind me, kicks pieces of fabric into my path. She catches my eye and puts one of her claws on my shoulder and starts asking if I’ll be at upcoming sales, all nonchalant faux-sweetness, like she wants me there. It’s nice to be openly aggressive, to treat her exactly the way I want. I make sure she knows I’ll be at the upcoming sales. Honey wants to step on me? All right then, fine. I’ll get her first. Only a couple of weeks in, it starts to bother me that the apartment is getting that estate sale look: littered with weird, anachronistic objects with no real use, like broken teal typewriters and other people’s photographs. I get to thinking it has that dusty smell. I am very serious about isolating that smell to places outside my home. I’m not ready to come home and not know whose apartment I’m looking at. This is right around the time I take it upon myself to vacuum the rug in the living room for the first time in maybe four months. In other words, the first time since Clarissa flew into town with her oh-my-god-thosepeople-were-killing-me-hey-you-have-a-spare-bedroom-right? routine. Clarissa lives for the fresh start. I’ve already seen her with continuing education pamphlets, like she’ll go back to school or something, when all she ever does is dig holes and fill them in again. The vacuum drags. There’s cardboard under the rug. I stomp on the vacuum’s power button and retire to my room. Then I search the whole place. The news is not good. Clarissa’s been shopping again. I imagine thirteen conversations. In one, I say, “So I guess you’ve got the cash to move out,” which leads to a screaming match. In another, she carefully unfolds a winning lottery ticket, beaming. I think about piling up all the boxes on the kitchen table for a dramatic reveal, but in most of my scenarios, we just sit awkwardly and avoid each other’s eyes most of the time. In the most realistic visions, we change the subject fast to something about Mom’s parenting style, which we waver between call-
ing too loose and not loose enough, when really we’re just grateful to her for being someone we can blame because the idea of not doing well for no reason in particular is just too terrifying. In the vision that lingers in my mind as I fall asleep at night, I put my hand on her shoulder and say, “Clarissa, this again?” and we cut up all her credit cards together, and she cries. It’s a sweet, gentle, touching scene, and it makes us both grow up a little. This one is pure fantasy. If only there could always be sales, and I could never be sitting on the couch next to my sister trying to figure out how to dip my toe into this conversation without actually having it. “Clarissa,” I try saying, unusually kindly. She notices, tenses her shoulders. “What?” “The boxes.” This is the shortest way I can think of to say, “Hey, sis, what’s up with all the flattened UPS boxes underneath the rug? Hiding some purchases? Because there were quite a few under there, and last I heard you were broker than broke, which is why you’re living in my spare room.” She nods. “This going to be a thing?” There are a lot of things about her hiding delivery boxes. Chief among them, to me, is the helpless sadness I feel when I imagine her carefully breaking the boxes down and finding a nice flat place to hide them instead of just putting them in with the recycling. The kind of guilty habit of it all. Like I’d say anything. I can barely say anything now, even with additional boxes having popped up behind the refrigerator, mashed between the entertainment center and the wall, and even one Tyvek envelope cut into little pieces and sneaked in with the soil and rocks of our potted plants. The financial aspect makes my throat seize up when I think about it, so I don’t. Instead, I wonder if I’ll open the pantry one morning and find a homemade cereal box with a painted-over shipping label just to cover up the purchase of a pair of shoes. Yeah. It’s going to be a thing. It’s going to be a lot of things. I say, “I don’t know.” Clarissa opens and closes her mouth. She says, “I don’t have to take this.” She bolts. Clarissa and I, we don’t want to have to take anything. We don’t want people imposing on us. We’re just alike that way. I check the estate listings. I’m pretty sure Honey said something about tomorrow morning.
I go to Jim’s store to ask if I can recycle some stuff. He says, “Sure.” Jim has the kind of face that begs people to talk to him, and he’s my sale buddy, right? Plus, he’s a shopkeeper. They’re supposed to be good at talking to people. “Don’t you want to know what all this cardboard is for?” I feel dangerous. I am vibrating with secrets. He performs the yo-yo equivalent of a shrug. “Not really.” “My sister has a shopping problem.” He doesn’t say anything. He’s more of a listener. “She hardly even uses any of it.” My voice is getting higher. “Your sister.” “Yeah, my sister.” He slides the yo-yo onto the counter and looks me in the eye. “I’ve seen you at a lot of estate sales recently. Maria says you go to as many as she does.” I smile, proud. Then I wonder: “Who’s Maria?” “Tall, skinny, always wears that sand dollar necklace?” “Oh,” I say. “Honey.” “Listen. Maybe you should take a little break.” “No. I like it. It gets me away from my sister. I don’t care if Honey doesn’t like it.” He picks his yo-yo back up again. “Sure,” he says. Then, in a different voice: “Did you know this thing is made out of aircraft-quality aluminum?” As I’m watching the morning news and putting on my shoes for work, Clarissa chews a bite of toast and then says, “You don’t understand.” She’s clearly been working on that statement for a while. The look on her face makes me uncomfortable. She looks like that, and I feel just fine, and that just seems wrong somehow. Un-sisterly. So I confess, “I’m still going to the estate sales.” I hope this will make us even. She looks pointedly at a tapestry I picked up a few days ago, looking very tacked-on to my otherwise austere wall. “I realize.” She narrows her eyes. “What, you like that guy? What was his name?” “Jim. No. Don’t be stupid. We just go to sales sometimes. I mean, he yo-yos.” Clarissa smiles. “At first I just wanted to —” get out of the house. Get away from you. Talk to someone who didn’t even know you. “get a hobby, you know.” “Yeah.”
“I really like them,” I say. “You don’t get it. There’s something about them, like —” “Exciting,” Clarissa says. I shake my head. “Not really. Something mean, maybe.” “Exciting,” she repeats. We leave it there. I get my shoes on and go. Part of why I don’t want to talk to Clarissa is just that I’m terrified this will come out instead: Clarissa, I love you, you’re my sister, I think I love you. But if this is what is going to happen, you will not take me down with you. I’d be like Honey and step on you first. I would. I don’t think the better impulse is in me. I want you to move out, and I don’t want to see you until you’re right again. That’s what I want. That’s the worst part of all this. Knowing exactly the thing I want, and hating it worse than anything else. I would keep all the rest of it and take a little extra, maybe a limp or something, if I could just reach inside myself and cut that instinct neatly out. Instead, I go follow Honey around like a shark, and she tries to knock a pile of books over into me, and we bare our teeth to each other. We both know how we feel. We feel good. And Jim can do whatever he wants with his sympathetic looks. If he knew the relief, the way the air feels better the second I’m standing in line outside a sale, he’d keep his mouth shut. I come home with a chandelier because I leaned into it and saw Honey’s greedy eyes widening. Except Honey wasn’t even there, that day. Neither was Jim. It was just me and mountains and mountains of someone else’s things asking to be taken. But I thought I saw her, and then I was holding it, and now I’ve brought it home. Clarissa sees me and says, “Huh.” She doesn’t know that I peeked into the guest room the other day and saw the carnage. Leather, crystal, silk. Pools of fabric with little glittering islands of accessories. A bunch of garbage she doesn’t even wear, probably because doing so would give her away. A space cleared on the bed for her to sleep. If she knew I’d looked she’d throw a fit about her privacy. She wouldn’t mention all the money. Clarissa doesn’t care what she messes up as long as no one bothers her about it. I’m not interested in what she thinks of my chandelier. “Where are you going to put it?”
I shrug. “My room, probably.” An impulse hits: “Unless you want it in yours.” She bites down on a smile. “No thanks,” she says. “I’m good. You keep it.” I’m feeling loose, so I push: “Nice sweater.” She looks down at it faux-casually and shrugs. This, I think, is good enough. We were raised around dinner tables like this, where mostly we communicated by waving our forks and making vague noises. We got along okay, even when we didn’t, even when it was all done by sheer force of will. Why should I keep pushing it? But I’m having this weird vision of me and Clarissa out together, like maybe at Jim’s shop, and she keeps knocking everything over, and no one else notices; Jim just keeps walking the dog with his stupid overpriced yo-yo like nothing’s the matter, and I’m the one cleaning up after her. It puts a metallic taste in my mouth. “Where’d you get it?” She sits very still for a moment, then reaches out to hit the mute button on the remote. “I don’t remember,” she says carefully. “Oh, okay. Just. Did you get it, like, from a thrift store or something?” She looks at me. I’m adjusting the height of my new chandelier. She says, “No.” I am, of course, unsurprised. But I say, very elaborately, “Oh,” as though she’s being shocking, and the look on her face makes me itchy. It makes me want to leave the room. She leans in to un-mute the TV. I say, “Clarissa.” My sister looks at me with perfect understanding, and I know she knows, just then, what a mess she’s made. Maybe she even hasn’t forgotten the other times. “Everything evens out,” she says. “Believe me.” We watch a show about Antarctica, just so we can make fun of the way one of our uncles pronounces the word. I notice my entire entertainment budget is spent buying things I don’t want someone else to have. “How do you stay afloat?” I ask Jim, as I watch him pay for a stack of musty books. He shrugs. “I know my antiques.” “But you’re always buying stuff.” “If you want to know the truth, my house is a mess. You think the shop looks cluttered.” Sometimes when I’m at the shop I have to kind of step over something and jump at the same time. Yeah, the shop is cluttered. “Can I see?”
Jim narrows his eyes. “My house?” This is as good as a response, so I don’t ask again. But I don’t stop thinking about Jim’s house. Does he have to clear a space on his bed to sleep? Is it that bad? Does he have to find inventive storage solutions? Are there inedible things stored in his pantry; is his silverware drawer full of old women’s jewelry? Does he ever wonder how all of that would look to someone who didn’t get it, who didn’t keep everything covered and layered and dense? Does he ever want to take it back? “Sorry,” I tell him. “I can be nosy.” And although he opens his mouth for a minute and I hold my breath, he ends up just smiling at me. He cradles his books in one arm and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Wait,” I say. All he does is stand next to me while I pretend to be interested in the garbage around us, but he stays. I’m so thankful I almost start blabbing about everything. Instead, I just stare unfocused at a clock’s face and think about how nice it is to have Jim around, to have someone who understands. “What about that summer?” I ask her finally because the alternative has finally become worse than actually trying to talk about it. “What summer?” I close my eyes. “When you graduated.” “Oh. That was . . . yeah.” She looks at me seriously, as seriously as she ever looks. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” “I don’t know what you mean.” “I know what you’re feeling. You don’t really know anyone here, you don’t know what you’re doing, all that. We’ve all been there. It’ll even out.” I nod, although I’m not sure what exactly I’m saying yes to. She’s giving me that look again, like she knows. Only now I’m wondering if it’s about what I thought it was. “Clarissa, I check the estate sale listings like ten times a day,” I confess. She looks at me for a long, serious moment. Then she starts to laugh. “I know,” she says, gasping. “And you have a problem. There’s an envelope in this pillowcase, and you’re wearing four rings. That’s not okay.” She keeps laughing, head tilted back against the wall, a little wrong,
maybe, but happy. I laugh too. It feels good, like the laughter is something that’s happening to me, like everything is figured out. And I know that feeling. I know, then, how to keep that going. I hear myself saying, “Do you want to go shopping?” “Yeah! Oh my god, yeah!” So Clarissa and I go to an estate sale, and we wait in line outside and say mean things about the people waiting with us. “That one,” she says, pointing to Honey. “She really . . . belongs here. Wow. Those nails.” We wave to Honey, who flexes her talons back at us. Inside, I hold a strangely furry necklace I suspect to be a valuable antique up to my face like a mustache and pretend to be one of our more unfortunate-looking cousins. Clarissa nonchalantly grabs a book just as Honey is eyeing it, and then goes to hide it in the considerable sweatpants pile. She catches my eye and winks. She’s a natural at this. I smirk back at her. This has potential. Yeah, yeah, none of this is healthy. I’ve started planning sale strategy while I toil over spreadsheets at work, and I imagine Honey’s face in all sorts of sad, twisted shapes as I lie in bed at night. The debt and boredom could maybe ruin my sister, and all I can do is make it worse. But this is alright for now. Right now we’re on a team. We’ve got something to do and something to hate. It’ll all even out.
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
There’s one part of the cafeteria we always sit in, near the mural of a rabbit running from a hat in terror. It’s nice to have a plan: find these girls and sit with them, no matter what. We’re the only cabin of girls, of course, because magic is supposed to be for boys. Everyone knows that. Girls are the ones who climb into boxes and get cut up or wave cloths around. Girls are the ones in shiny clothes. Lori would clearly like nothing better. When we’re supposed to be practicing tricks, she practices different smiles in the mirror. The counselor half-heartedly scolds her: “Hey, take out some cards or something,” she says, clearly ignorant of how much more there is to magic: silks, linking rings, trick coins, boxes with hidden panels, topits. Our counselor is the kind of person who neither knows nor cares what a topit is. (A topit is a special kind of pocket we use to trick you, and that’s all I’m saying.) The boys have counselors who teach them things and do tricks for them and give them gentle life advice. We have Counselor Julia. Lori says, “This is a real magic trick,” and she tilts her chin just a little so she looks mysterious and cool. I have rarely met people less interested in talking about magic than the girls from my cabin. Alexandria at least has tricks and knows how to use them, even though most of the time she’d rather talk about boys. Liz and Lori don’t care at all. Liz goes to a different camp every year so her mom can shop for her birthday presents without having to sneak around, and Lori prances around camp in shiny outfits she talked her mom into renting, hoping to attract attention. I don’t want to be a sparkly assistant. I want to do magic. Magic is how I got my best friend to talk to me in sixth grade. I picked her out and
found a coin in her ear, and then suddenly she wanted to talk. It’s how I give my dog treats, palming them from hand to hand, laughing. It’s what I say on the first day of school when we have to tell the class something about ourselves. The camp gets in plenty of magic, anyway: a showcase every day after lunch and dinner, where they force a different camper to attempt their act. “Craft time,” in which we make homemade props. Magic tutorial DVDs, a documentary on Houdini, hand dexterity exercises. Maybe that’s why even Alexandria doesn’t want to talk magic, because the camp is trying to drown us in it. I think magic camp might be where parents send their kids when they really don’t want them doing magic tricks any longer. There are rare fits of interest in my cabin because the boys of magic camp aren’t really enough to hold anyone’s full attention. Most of them are kind of pale and sneering. When the boredom starts to be too much, Alexandria absently sorts through a suitcase, looking for one of her trick decks. “Has anybody seen my blue deck?” she asks. “Shut up,” Liz shrieks. Alexandria bites her glittery nails. “It’s just the pattern — it was really perfect for —” Even higher-pitched: “Shut up, or we’ll throw your stupid cards in the lake.” I’ve seen that deck of Alexandria’s. It’s got swirling little flowers on the back, and the number of petals tell you the number of the card. It’s nice. But you know when all you want to eat is grilled cheese sandwiches, so you eat them ten times in a row, and then even the word cheese starts to make you sick? It’s the same way with the props the girls keep finding in their pockets and the card suit T-shirts they packed in brief fits of excitement. They throw them across the room and then complain that that isn’t enough, and sometimes I do it, too, because I can’t believe I’m at camp with a bunch of people who know about magic and don’t think it’s anything special. The girl with the bed in the far corner does not talk. She doesn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when she’s offered food in the dinner line. She doesn’t tell us when she’s going off to the bathroom and will be back in a minute. Nothing. She just stares at her pale hands, dirty hair falling in her eyes. But she still sticks close: This cabin stays together. When she’s gone, we talk about her.
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
“Is there something wrong with her?” Liz asks, cutting out patterns from one of her decks. Lori snorts. “Is there anything right with her?” Alexandria has a theory the whole thing is part of some mime-influenced act, but the rest of us think it’s way too weird to be an act. It’s funny. You’d think they would like weird. And sometimes, in some ways, they do. They like ghost stories. They like the bizarre mosquito-swatting device one of the boys built out of secret rods and an ace of hearts. But they don’t like this girl who doesn’t talk. I think it’s anti-showmanship. It’s anti-magic. It’s uncomfortable. She acts like she doesn’t need us. If I could use her in an act, I’d say hocus pocus, and then suddenly she’d be babbling like crazy, saying all the things she should have been saying throughout camp: Yes I’d like some broccoli, hold on, guys, I’ll be right back, my name is . . . I’d finally have the answer, and I would feel the most incredible relief. But I can’t say this to the girls. They would stop looking at me like they wanted to hear me talk, and besides, we don’t talk much about magic. Instead, I say, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and I swear she was watching me.” It’s not true, but it’s the kind of scary thing I feel when I’m looking at the silent girl. There’s no knowing what’s in her head. It’s a mystery. And I like to be the one who knows the trick. The girls shudder and theorize about what she wants from us. Alexandria says, smiling slyly, maybe the girl works for the camp as a spy. It’s an absurd idea, but it’s comforting; her silence would make sense if she were spying. Lori and I put together a spy outfit, black and swishy and vague, so we can play at being the silent spy. For a few minutes we get along. Cooing with her over the crushed velvet, I feel like we could be friends, like maybe she’s more fun than I’ve given her credit for. Then she grabs Liz and asks if she thinks some boy from their school would like her in the outfit, and it’s all over. We start talking about throwing magic tricks in the lake. We have been told already in Counselor Julia’s monotone that the camp grounds are our responsibility as campers, and we should treat the cabins and surrounding land like they belong to us. The boys and all their stupid enthusiastic counselors glared at us during the lecture, mad because they would never defile camp property. They’re all
perfect campers. We’re not like them. We’re the disgruntled cabin, the freaks — magic-haters (and me) and the silent girl. I feel a twist in my stomach thinking about how I treat the things that belong to me: my magic, the foam balls I pick at with a mechanical pencil when the girls and I are talking, the silks I tie and untie until they’re rumpled messes. The silent girl takes a bath, which is an excellent opportunity to talk about her. We can hear the water running. Alexandria smiles and says maybe we should take her towel, and she’s really mostly kidding. Then Liz soberly offers to flush the toilet and ruin the water temperature. Then someone smiles and says, “I have a better idea.” It’s me. It’s my idea. I’m the one who says it. But once I say it, it belongs to all of us. I’m not allowed to take it back. To be honest, the whole idea strikes me as a little wrong. My tricks are my friends, and throwing out someone else’s is weirdly murderous. But I know enough about showmanship to be able to throw them like they’re nothing. Liz sneaks the ace of spades from every single deck the silent girl has while she’s asleep, while the rest of us hover nervously near the cabin door. She fans them out and smiles. Then we tiptoe outside to the trash bin, and Lori holds the bin open while Liz lets the cards flutter down one by one. “She’s gonna cave now, for sure,” Liz says. “She’ll talk.” “My cards,” Lori whines. “Nah,” Liz says. Her impression is much better; she learned how to go from low and manly to humiliatingly high-pitched at a theatre camp last summer. We trade ideas for a few minutes, standing around the trash bin and whispering. Popular consensus is the silent girl will be mad. I have the sinking feeling she’ll just be disappointed. Neither, it turns out, is correct; she acts like she doesn’t notice, even when I catch her fishing cards out of the trash after curfew one night and talking — actually talking — just the way we wanted. I lean closer, breathing fast, trying to hear. She’s whispering to herself, and her voice is very normal — a little low, but smooth, like she knows how to use it. She’s counting. I think for a second she might be counting up her aces, making sure she gets the one from her plain deck and her tapered deck and so on, but she goes way too long.
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
That’s when I see it: Alexandria’s deck, the blue one, with all the little petals on the backs. The silent girl’s got it. And she’s got another I immediately recognize as mine: an ace you can put a pencil through without leaving a hole. I could have sworn that was in my back pocket. “Don’t worry,” she says, spreading the cards out in her lap. “I’ve got you.” She’s touching the cards like they’re her friends, and my mouth is very, very dry. I say, “Hey, there.” She doesn’t even nod. “What are you doing?” I ask her, in my very best casual voice. She shrugs. For a second, her mouth opens, like she’s got something to say to me. Then she closes it. I want to talk to her. I want to know if she thinks the same things about the girls I think. I want to apologize for the spy outfit and the impressions and all the awful things I’ve said, and I want to call her Allison; I think I heard her say her name is Allison. I really want to cry. Instead, I say, “Good luck on your showcase,” and I go crawl into my stupid sorcerer bed and pull the moon-and-star patterned comforter over my face. The girls notice her warped, dirty aces. “How could she find them?” Alexandria asks, as though the trash can were some secret fortress. This is when it comes up that we should go ahead and dump the rest of her tricks in the lake, where they’d really be ruined. The first thing I think of is her showcase. She hasn’t done it yet. If we throw out all her tricks, she won’t be able to. Silent girl, like most of the campers, is here to do magic. She’s doing coin tricks in her lap while the rest of us chatter. She’s using fishing line to make things levitate. She’s pressing my old trick card flat under a biography of Doug Henning. I remember that feeling I got in my fingertips when Dad’s car pulled into Abracadabra, like maybe this could really be something cool, after all, even though my stomach was burning and my mouth was dry and my fingers kept twitching. I pouted for a solid week about coming here. I had nightmares where I turned my parents into toads and got thrown in jail for daring to put me somewhere where I wasn’t the only person with magic. But being here now, all I can think about is how well I want
to do at my showcase, even if it is stupid, and it makes my fingers start trembling all over again. And here’s this girl who doesn’t need to tell her cabin mates where she’s going, or tell them anything at all. I don’t want all her stuff to be muddy and wet and ruined. She needs that stuff, and she doesn’t need anything else. When Lori’s looking at me and asking, “Claire? What do you think?” I can feel that I’m nodding. But I feel a lot of hidden things, too. My showcase is toward the end of camp. We girls have been kind of lame about them, because we’re so over the whole magic thing. Well, all right: I still like it, still think about it in almost every instant I’m not watching the silent girl. But we are over it. Lori’s showcase was kind of more of a dance, and even Alexandria ends up flubbing most of her tricks. So I can’t really rehearse, and boys from other cabins whisper about me all day. I lean in as much as I can and can’t hear what they’re saying, just the gross, dismissive tone. I’m nervous, and I’m mad, and I want to show every last one of them what I can do. I end up just doing card tricks. They’re all I trust. I ask people to pick cards, cut decks, et cetera, and almost every time someone volunteers, he does it kind of snidely, like he’s waiting to see one of the magic-haters fail. The group isn’t really watching. But then I ask if someone will come rip a card in half so I can restore it and the silent girl appears by my side. Then they’re watching. I know a lot of the kids here have fantasies of being charming and fascinating and, well, magic. Me, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. When I’m doing a cut and restore, what I’m really thinking about is how you really can’t undo things, how a cut tie is cut forever. I guess what I’m saying is, the camp employees take this attitude with us like magic is some mystical dreamland thing. They decorate the place like we’re into fairy tales, star patterns and bunnies on everything. They give us a velvet-curtained stage to practice on. They whimsically reference magic acts in the food (jerky “wands,” onion linking rings, cookies shaped like every prop possible). But my act isn’t about wishes coming true. When something gets fixed, the audience is awed, because that’s not what happens in real life. It’s a reminder. Things aren’t supposed to be this way.
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
Watching the silent girl solemnly rip up the nine of spades and spread the pieces out in her palm, I think she gets it. I make her stand on stage while I wave my hands around, then: “Hocus pocus,” and the card is whole again. I hand it to the silent girl, who accepts it, and walks back to sit with the girls, card in hand. That’s my act. Things break, and I pretend I can put them back together, when all I’ve got are hidden duplicates. Later, the nine of spades from my act (I don’t know that it’s mine, but it feels like mine) is hidden between my comforter and sheet, down near the foot of the bed. I find it when my toes touch something cold and I stare at it, trying to decode the message. It might be approval — I want it to be, so badly, for her to be saying, “Well done.” That’s what I would wish for. That’s how I decide it must be something else. We only have a couple of nights left at camp when the girls decide to ruin the silent girl’s showcase. None of this playing around with taking cards out of her deck or anything small like that. This time, we’re taking everything. I hold my backpack open and hesitate. “Come on,” Alexandria says, and Lori reminds me how all this stuff was my idea in the first place, and I need them to stop talking like that so much I shove a handful of stuff into my bag, ripping a trick card in the process. Weirdly, once that’s done, it’s easier to do more; I’ve ripped a card, so I might as well stuff my bag full of the silent girl’s things. We take everything but some of her clothes, the plain ones. Anything magic-related has to go. She has a really nice pair of gloves, white and soft, silky. I can tell they’re not cheap party store polyester like mine. I jam them down into my bag with the rest. We march to the lake, single file, giggling just a little. The camp looks creepy at night, full of spindly trees and paths that, as far as I know, don’t lead anywhere. Lori and Liz talk about regular velvet versus crushed velvet the whole way, but I just listen to the sound of jingling metal in my backpack as the heavy stuff drifts downward. We don’t make a ceremony of it. Lori isn’t wearing a special outfit, and no one says anything important or meaningful, and we shake out backpacks out into the muddy shallows of the lake. “Cool,” I say, and I don’t sound hollow or sad. I’m too good a magician for that.
I walk a little slow on the way back. I fall behind. Then I turn around. When I stand at the edge of the lake, I see silks floating across the surface, foam balls bobbing, coins shining in the mud. Nah, I think, and I catch up to the girls. I can’t have them looking back and seeing I’m gone. We only laugh about it a little before climbing into our beds because we don’t want to wake the silent girl. That’s good. I’m having a hard time giggling. I lie in my bed and remember stretching out and feeling that nine of spades at the foot of the bed. It has to have been the silent girl who did that, right? Who else would do something like that, try to send a message through a card? I remember my secret, the night I found her whispering, her totally normal voice. I’m freezing under my covers. I can see the top of the silent girl’s head from my bed, and I spend a few minutes just staring at her shiny dark hair. Then I get up and put on my quietest shoes. I’m so nervous I probably make a half-dozen wrong turns on my way back to the lake, but I find it. Most everything’s started to sink, I guess, but I still see foam balls and a few scraps of silk on the surface. They’ve been drifting inward, and I can’t reach, even when I find an impressive stick to reach into the water with. We only have one rowboat and it looks kind of warped. Counselor Julia gave us stern orders to leave it alone, but I drag it to the edge, and I grab an oar, and I pray it doesn’t have any leaks. I look for moonlight caught on a linking ring, fabric drifting along the surface. The rowboat starts sinking pretty much the minute I get it in the water, but I figure it’s something, and I row steadily, lower and lower, until I’m in the middle of that pathetic little lake standing in water up to my waist. I find the silent girl’s top hat and start trying to scoop up everything I can, big scoops of brown water I splash into the sinking boat. My hair gets filthy when I bend down trying to catch coins, and some of them aren’t even trick coins, just regular quarters and dimes. I cast a big piece of fabric like a net and get everything I can, anyway. I don’t know how long I stand in the middle of the gross lake trying to rig up the boat. I try to drape silks over the holes to keep rescued tricks from getting out. I try bailing out the excess water with the top hat. I wring the muddy globs out of her stage clothes, even the velvet cape I think might actually be someone else’s. I’m not going to leave anything behind.
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
In the end, I pull my shirt out like a little hammock and carry all of it back to camp one load at a time, where I put it back under the silent girl’s bed. It’s not exactly good as new, but it’s something. I think, If the girls find out I did this, they’ll cast me out. I’ll be on my own. That makes me pause. I’ve never done well on my own. It makes my throat itchy to think of not having the girls, not having a seat and a name and people who will listen to me. Then I finish shoving the muddy tricks under the silent girl’s bed, and I scrub my dirty hands, and I concentrate on taking even breaths. Invisible wires, I think. Sure, it’s just fishing line, but you can rig it up pretty nicely. I will myself to let that be enough. The silent girl is, somehow, the last to have her spotlight, as if Abracadabra has deliberately tried to infuse a little mystery into our camp experience. We’ve been whispering about it for days: Will she talk during the act? The charming imitations from earlier come back out, even more exaggerated than before. Alexandria changes her fairly mundane interpretation into a Dracula voice. I put my hand in front of my face and try not to give myself away. I don’t participate in these discussions any more. It’s hard being part of their group. Here, the way to stand out is to take out a deck of cards and start playing solitaire. That’s silent girl’s territory. She figured that out before I could. She’s smarter. I know, I know, why did I go along with all this in the first place? I don’t know. It just popped into my head. I thought maybe it would get her to finally talk, and then I’d pop up and say, “It was me. I stole your stuff.” And I wanted to see what she’d say, if she’d finally have anything to say then. I wanted her to look at me like I mattered. I like it better now, sitting with them quietly, smiling because it’s still a little too early for the reveal. The silent girl isn’t giving anything away, not even talking onstage. Personally, I’ve got a few different magic words. For kids, it is always, always abracadabra. For adults, it varies. When I’m playing the lovable screw-up, the little girl you think could never get a trick right, I say abracadabra but mess it up a little: cabratadabra. Makes it somehow cuter when I do the trick right. Sometimes I say shazam and then wonder why I said it, usually around older folks. But my default is hocus pocus. It’s
classic, a little occult-sounding in its Latin seriousness, and a little cute, too. It makes me feel like I’m winking at the audience. For cynics, I just say and, and then the magic bursts out before they’re ready to dismiss it. She’s empty-handed, and characteristically quiet, surveying the audience with her hands tucked under her chin. When she gestures for a volunteer, I don’t wait to be picked, just walk past all the boys and counselors and stand next to the silent girl on the stage. She smiles at me and offers me her sleeve. A little red silk peeks out of it like a tongue, and I grab it and pull. I never would have called up a volunteer for this kind of trick. Really, I wouldn’t have done it at all. A trick like this says, Keep going, you’ll get to the end, but it just keeps taking longer and longer. And instead of being the collected magician, the silent girl plays the fool. She doesn’t act like she knows any better than I do when the end of the silk will come. We’re both caught in a moment where either outcome is equally likely: we go on pulling or we don’t. When I do a trick, the audience knows exactly what is coming. They just want to see it happen, to imagine that it could. Here, the reveal is a little less expected. The silent girl looks at me, her light eyes focused despite her comedic pose, and I know she knows: what I did, how I feel, all of it. It’s a little sad, and mysterious (how does she know?), but satisfying because at least I’m in on it. She stops being the magician for a second and gives me a little encouraging smile. So I keep pulling. Cards start falling out. Then foam balls, and plastic cups, and small metal linking rings. A T-shirt I recognize: W����� ��� ����� ����? in blue sparkly letters, P�����! on the back. Ropes. More silks, in every bright, obnoxious color, only a little muted from their time underwater. The clinking of a burst of coins on the floor. Everything from the lake that could possibly fall out of a sleeve is here, scattered around the silent girl, dirty and accusing. Lori and Liz and Alexandria and I carried out all this stuff, so many hours of work and delicate hidden panels and sparkling rings and balls, all of it gross and ruined. Here it all is, saying, Listen, you were kind of a jerk, you know that? And I do know that. Lately, I know that, and I want to be able to fix it. The silent girl — Allison, I remember — looks at me, and the corner of her mouth twitches up. Her arm is still thrust out at me. I twitch back at
Magic-Haters and the Silent Girl
her, and I grab her hand, and together we sweep into a bow. This trick is mine as much as it’s hers, even if I didn’t know about the sleeve. I made this happen, too. There weren’t any magic words or sleights of hand and if there was any crushed velvet, it was limp and muddy. But I made this happen anyway; somehow, I gave the silent girl her magic back. It doesn’t mean I’m not a jerk. I’m still kind of a jerk. Nothing is the way I wished it would be when I stared at the camp pamphlet in sick anticipation. Most of the front row has been flecked with dirt, and foam balls bounce all the way back to where Counselor Julia’s sitting. For once, she’s looking at us and not her phone. The boys just stare at the stage, confused. Lori’s got a linking ring perched on her head like an off-balance halo. She’s the loudest, but all three of the girls are shouting: “It’s Claire! I knew there was something wrong with that girl! Look at all this mud,” and they look at me with perfect derision. They look at me like a girl who isn’t welcome at the table, whose impressions are not needed, whose ideas will not be listened to. I stare right back at them, smiling. It’s still not right, exactly, but I’ve rearranged things the best way I can manage. Allison and I link hands, and we take one last bow.
Faculty Spotlight: Poetry 88
Peter Jay Shippy is author of Thieves’ Latin (University of Iowa Press, 2003), Alphaville (BlazeVOX BOOKS, 2006), and How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press, 2007). He has received fellowships in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has published his work in journals including The American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and Iowa Review. Shippy was born in Niagara Falls and raised on his family’s apple farm. He was educated at Northwestern University, Emerson College, and the University of Iowa. While at Emerson, he co-founded Gangsters in Concrete and was an editor of The Emerson Review. Shippy’s most infamous move as editor of TER was his design for the Fall 1983 cover: a shocking pink backsplash featuring the rotting corpse of a rat . . . or a possum . . . or a pampas cat? Rumors persist that design stirred Robert Smith to compose “A Pink Dream.” Shippy lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife Charlotte and their daughters Beatrix and Stella.
With his tragic acrobats
His spiders Wove sugar apples, Ferris wheels, And a corn moon — Now Lucas waits Like a tug in a cove For you to fall Into his spin.
Remember when you were a child And you chose your cereal brand Based on which chintzy toy was sunk Inside the box of sugary fluff? Same with Lucas. He always went for Berry Beast Folk, hoping to find One of those kits for designing Your own embryos. Of course, after Lucas grew up and bumped into Some of those test tubulars, those Demi-semi-hemi-beings, those Creatures more humus than manus With green, bioluminescent fangs Jutting through lips slash gas Bladders below tentacled snouts And unblinking eyestalks covered In tumescent frills that smelled Like Coney Island sauerkraut
He wondered: Are the Purists right? Should kids be banned from creating Humans in the breakfast nook? Then Lucas laughed for sounding just like The old man and he kissed his iPhone Where his Popâ€™s soul now resided.
Peter Jay Shippy
Somwhere else another stops
In Lucas’s digs lived Bjorn, A Norway rat, who had resolved To become a Lucas. Bjorn worked At this for many months — which is like, Decades to a rodent from Oslo — Until he could take a piss standing On two legs while reading Krapp’s Last Tape And nuking pizza samosas. Lucas was so impressed he left The rat in charge and went to Vegas. After a few weeks he returned home To find Bjorn’s beautiful neck In a shoelace noose swinging from The rafters. That was a wake-up call. Lucas absolved his fridge of frozen Indian before he too was late.
The Physicist came out of nowhere To slug Lucas. “Now imagine My fist traveling 9 million miles Per second until it metamorphs Into protons, then you wouldn’t feel One damn thing. Suck it up,” he said, And stomped away. He always pulled stuff Like that. But, what could Lucas do? The Physicist was like a god, Albeit, a minor one, one prayed to For a thimble of espresso, or To clean ketchup from check creepers. And to complicate matters The Physicist’s sister was Rosetta! — Lucas’s old flame. She tended bar At Crazy 8s. When Etta saw Her brother’s knuckles in black and blue Up and down Lucas’s sore arms
She poured him an extra finger In a clean glass and apologized: “He suffers stranger anxiety. Too much lab and too little nookie. He’s clingy and angst-ridden, like A positively charged argyle sock? Approach him with slow, calm movements, Humming, Also Sprach Zarathustra Then use the sleeper hold. And Luke, Don’t be distracted by his scatting As you kick his fat ass.” Her advice, As always, proved dead wrong. A few weeks later, as Lucas fed Catfish in the town pond, he saw The Physicist fishing. Lucas crept His way, purring the Strauss, But before he could wrap him up The Physicist poofed into thin air Then reappeared behind Lucas And applied an atomic wedgie. “Time travel!” the Physicist cackled. Lucas steamed. “Oh, please — get a grip. Quantum decoherence proves The many worlds theory. Somewhere
There’s a universe where you’re laughing And I’m crying in my warm beer, Hell, there’s even a cracked universe Where you and Rosetta are married And I’m Toto, your toy terrier!” Lucas grabbed the scientist by his ears, Kissed him square on his snout and danced home Singing: Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho!
Peter Jay Shippy
Undergraduate Spotlight: Photo 96
Ryan Baker has a hard time throwing things away. He creates art that explores beauty, decay, quiet, and rebirth. He will graduate this spring with a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing and a minor in photography. He is the managing editor of [Nerve], an online arts and literary magazine published by Threewaxbirds Press. He is a sleepyhead.
Terrible Child Papa, I’m going to be famous. Jean-Michel Basquiat
In the field, one paw of the lion-clawed bathtub glints in the light. Lukewarm buckets of water carried for miles. And I will pay brightly for this slick body. Unclean under a back-turned sun, I sing the sins that brought me here: I turned the family portrait face down when he was on me, fed gasoline to the roots of forsythia, broke a mirror to slim my reflection’s waist; what he calls me is not my name and I love it. Damask chair beside the tub and on it, hand-made armor of bone. Out of the water, in a wet wheat towel — I wake in my unlit room. Father screaming at the door. 105
On the platform of the subway, 53rd and Lex, an old man in a leather cap pumps baby-colored tears out of the scarlet ribs of a dusty accordion. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t look at anyone. I hide behind the peeling, rust-colored paint of one of the steel pillars and pretend we are the only two on the platform. We breathe his melody out of the damp air and, even when the train clamours in, he doesn’t stop playing. The world is a ragged, purple dream, like a deep bruise. Daylight is sharp and glances off my skin, doubles back on itself like a cartoon; I try to stay in the dark. Babies are pink and wrinkly: Would everything have turned bubblegum color, would the air have taken on a cotton candy softness instead of chilling past like sandpaper? Would I have bled clear and clean as the new spit of an infant? On an evening train in New York, the last few moments of a stumbling summer, a young homeless man with scabbed, swollen calves, parks his grocery carriage, full of empty bottles and sticky cans, next to me. We are screeching uptown as fast as a Tuesday evening E train is wont to go, and he nods at me before stepping out onto the space between the cars to scream back at the tracks that slip away beneath us like slime. He comes back in, panting, to stand next to the doors when we pull in to 23rd Street and Ely Avenue in Long Island City, just as the Asian girl across from us falls asleep, tucking her face into her hair like a drowsy bird. Her shoes make the ivory sound of new bones against the speckled floor, and I imagine how long the baby’s fingers would have been, feel them wrapped around my own. . . Fact: There could have been a baby.
Fact: There isn’t a baby. Fact: For a moment all the world turned red, like the wing of the seagull that got tangled in some impossible fishing line near my father’s old apartment building and nearly rent itself trying to get free. Off the train in Queens, the still-green leaves fall through damp, cool air; I can smell the autumn already and with it, feel the toxic chill of yet another winter. I hear the leaves wither and turn brown and disappear like a sharp inhale, see the naked tree-bones shiver and bend in my mind’s eye, and everything is at once crooked and then straight. In the post-dusk dark, the sidewalk, the street-signs, small dogs walking their owners all jump and blur, like the pictures alive inside the small television we had to hit repeatedly to shock the tubes into order, and I wonder: maybe if I bang my head against the solid surfaces enough times they will stay that way — solid and stationary as stones. This isn’t difficult: I go to college away from my family; I work two jobs, but my parents still help pay my bills; I drink far more than is reasonable. There isn’t room in this foggy life for a baby. Something so fragile, small and soft as a sparrow cracked fresh from its gooey cocoon, deserves more safety, less psychotic dancing. Deserves a yellow more like buttercups than nicotine, a pink like cake frosting, instead of the blood in my toothpaste. Fact: At a bar I’d never been to before, I spent an hour in the restroom with a strange man. Fact: I don’t remember his name or what he looked like, just that he wasn’t exceptionally tall. We were somewhere in mid-July. Fact: Once, when I was eleven, I cracked an egg into a white bowl. A chick fell out, curled like a string, soaked feathers clinging, matted and limp to its body. When I was very young — even younger than this drunk and sagely twenty-one — when my grandmother was still dressing me in things that involved white stockings, and I had to stand on a chair to reach the dishes to set the dinner table, I thought a baby would make everything alright that wasn’t. I thought a baby would create something stable, create a love I could depend on in my loud and chaotic childhood. I thought lilacs might grow in my garden, and I could shake the boughs, and petals would fall, like a delicate, purple snow in the buttery sunshine. Fact: Lilacs won’t grow in my garden; the sunlight is wrong. Fact: The buttercups are cut down by the lawn mower. Every time.
Fact: For a moment, all the world turned red, like carnations, like poppies, like withered poinsettia. There is no baby. It was a whispered, summertime dream. The world remains more red, maintains its wilted, carnival tilt. Back in the subway, in the damp city where the streets exhale deep-bellied bellows of steam, I imagine the train doors closing on the accordionist’s final evening notes: They trickle down between the rubber like bird’s blood, ooze out onto the floor and get trapped in the sticky black, among the red and blue speckles. He doesn’t notice my absence, nor the baby’s. He doesn’t know the reality of a baby was over before I knew it had even begun. The old man with taut skin, knuckles pressing beneath like stones, neatly clicks shut his accordion case, and disappears.
Retrospective The Best of the First 39 Volumes
introduced by Anna Hofvander What comes to us in dreams is often unexplainable, distinct impressions that mix a nostalgic remembrance and a strong element of synesthesia. Difficult to decipher and even harder to convey, dreams are as personal an experience as humans know. “Antler Dreams” was first published in 1970, and its style attracted me immediately. Although the poem is gently tied with linked, brief images, it is not dreamy, a pitfall of many ambiguous poems. Its statements are authoritative and specific. The lines are active, violent, and joyful, and with each new scene Lux pulls our hand, leading us quickly by each line. We trust him. This isn’t a dream diary entry, this is weightier. The jar which holds those thoughts is heavy in our pocket; the weight is reassuring and curious. After graduating from Emerson, Thomas Lux went on to study at the University of Iowa. He returned to Emerson to be the Poet in Residence from 1972 through 1975. Since then he has received several awards, including the Guggenheim, for his works and is the current Bourne chair of Poetry at Georgia Institute of Technology.
The Antler Dreams
You like these rides: all night cruising the logging roads. You know that eventually we’ll see deer. And we do, 8 of them, poking from the trees that fence a hayfield. You get out of the car and watch them, dreaming only of antlers, your arms spread out before you as if you were about to wrestle something enormous . . . I find a small glass jar in an old mailbox and write on the label — these are the same dreams, the same dreams . . . When I slip this jar into my pocket it fits perfectly! I follow you into the field — the hay is nearly up to our waists and bends itself into our clothes . . . In another part of the field we watch a woodchuck being purposely run down by a hayrake. We are not far away, still, neither of us recognizes the man pulling the hayrake with a tractor. And the deer? — they leap continuously over the tractor, until, one by one, their frail ankles begin to fall off, quietly, like a woman undressing, underwater . . .
introduced by Diana Filar I read “Harpoons” a semester after I read Moby Dick and a semester before I read The Old Man and the Sea. I was drawn to the story because of its simple repetition and magical take on the classic theme of whale hunting. This story shows that modest words like “harpoon,” “whale,” and “lashes” can have a big meaning. The words in this piece flow together in tune with the main character’s journey that brings him closer to, and then away from, whale hunting. The protagonist, Jack, succeeds in capturing the reader’s attention with his small adventure, and I was more than happy to follow him to sea, then inland, with the neverending feeling that the sea was always just a step behind. David Gioia graduated from Emerson College in 1972 after transferring from the Berklee School of Music, and he later attended Boston University to study creative writing under Donald Barthelme and Dan Wakefield. His numerous related interests led him to a career in marketing communications, working to establish his own company in the Boston area. His work later won top honors in creative competitions, such as the International Film & TV Festival of New York and the U.S. Industrial Film Festival. He moved to California for a position as Vice-President of Marketing for a client company. He currently lives in Irvine, California, where he writes short fiction and works as a real-estate investor.
The first time Jack had to hunt a whale, he went about it all wrong. He hadn’t had to until now, so his confusion came as no surprise when he woke up one morning with harpoons in his lashes. After he’d carefully picked them all out, he decided to take a walk down to the wharves and talk with the old hands. They were always telling stories about whales, so he figured they knew what they were doing. Out on the street, everyone smiled and said, “Hello, Jack,” as if nothing were the matter. But Jack just nodded and slid past. He was suddenly aware of concealed weapons. As usual, the old hands were sitting around trading tales. Cook was explaining the whereabouts of his missing leg. “I finally had to eat it!” he chuckled and slapped the little stub that still longed for its mate. They laughed so hard their seabags turned pink, red, and purple. Cooper leaned sideways and cleared his nose on the floor. He never liked any of the jokes. When Old Andy saw Jack coming, he winked at Black Moses. “Harpoons,” he murmured. It was plain to see Jack had been picking at them all morning. Black Moses decided to have some fun. “Now you take Jack here. Not like us at all . . . the way he walks around withoutaworry somekindofa . . . goddamn . . . lemmetell you! Must be beautiful, I don’t know.” Cooper sat next to Cook, fondling his hammer. He was thinking of the time he cut his tongue in his wife’s ear on Larry the Lamplighter’s wicksnipper the day before he killed his first whale. “What’s the matter, Jack?” asked Cook, sucking his whalebone pipe, the bowl bearing a more than passing resemblance to Black Moses’ wife, though no one ever mentioned it. “You look a little gray.” “Harpoons,” sighed Jack. “Hmmm . . . that so?” “Well, you come to the right place,” assured Dick the Deckhand. “After all, whales are our business.”
“Dick’s right there,” agreed Moses, trying to dig some advice out of his left nostril. “None of those other slobs you see walking around know the first thing about it,” said Cook. “They all hide their harpoons. Everyone of ’em’s got a closetful, but you’d never think it to look at ’em.” “So . . . the first thing you do is stow some clothes, so you won’t freeze.” Coming from Dick, this was sound advice. His left arm was solid ice from the elbow down. “And you won’t want to end up eatin’ your leg,” advised Cook, “so bring some biscuits.” “But how do you go about killing a whale?” asked Jack. “Smash the dumb . . . bastard’s head in!” snarled Cooper, bringing his hammer down on the missing part of Cook’s leg. “I did it the first time and haven’t hunted a whale since! Haven’t had to!” “Agh . . . you do it any way you can,” insisted Cook, dismissing the others with a wave of his hand, “Any way you have to. It’s all the same anyways. Always wrong.” The sun appeared as he was stowing provisions in his boat next to the harpoons, and followed him out to the open water beyond the seawall. How the hell am I going to kill a whale? Jack wondered. He conjured up a whale and studied the harpoons in bow; the blades were sharp alright, but they seemed awfully small. I wonder if I have enough of these things . . . I wonder how many are enough? As he rowed, he thought about Cooper and Cook and the rest and got so confused he finally stopped thinking. By the time he hit the middle of the sea, the sun was disappearing. Wide-eyed, he watched a cow give birth to a groundhog and then a tightrope walker jerk along the edge of the world. He was getting tired and didn’t think he’d ever really find what he was after. Quite by accident, it found him. When he untangled himself from the lines in the bow and turned to look, there was the whale. Luckily, it was dozing. “Oh, Jesus,” pleaded Jack, retangling himself. A mound of gray rose before him. Gulls strutting around on the hump were beginning to notice him and made scratchy noises and flapped their wings. Jack realized that sooner or later they would wake the whale and tried to think of what to do next, but his brain refused to work. The whale rolled in
the waves and Jack caught a glimpse of a tooth and saw the list of scrimshawed names on it. I’ve gotta get away, he thought. The gulls were becoming excited. “Kakka-kakka-kaw-kakka!” they warned. Jack grabbed a harpoon, stood up in the bow, steadied himself, held the harpoon above his head, preparing to launch it into the whale, but he froze; if he threw it, he thought, he’d surely wake the whale, and it would probably kill him. He slowly sat down, stowed the harpoon in the bow, and rowed around to the back of the whale. He took out his pocketknife and began delicately sawing away at the thinnest part of the whale’s tail. They whale didn’t stir. It was hard long work, but finally, the whale’s tail fell away, and the whale began to sink. The gulls on the hump became more and more agitated as the circle around them closed. They flew away screeching as the whale followed the last of the sun beneath the waves. Jack watched the gulls until they were lost in purple dusk, then threw his harpoons overboard, so he wouldn’t have to explain how he killed a whale with a pocketknife. Exhausted and half-asleep, he rowed home to bed. The next morning, he stood for a long time at his mirror trying not to notice the new crop of harpoons. Somewhere down in the town, a crowd was gathering. He could hear laughter and cursing, and as the laughter slowly died away, the cursing grew louder until it was no longer somewhere down in the town. “Get out here, Jack! And get your stinking whale out of the harbor!” He ran to the window and looked over the heads of the crowd. There it was: a mound of dead gray — tailless — looking as if it were about to burst in the sun. He could see why they were mad. Even from here he could smell it, and there wasn’t much room in the harbor for any industry but whale watching. “Come on, Jack! Quit stallin’ and get out here!” He followed the crowd down to the boats, rowed out to the whale (which wasn’t far), threw a harpoon into it, and slowly towed it out to sea. The old men were sitting on the seawall rocks waving and shouting. Cook was barking at Black Moses’s ear, pointing to the invisible tail and then to his own invisible leg. In striking contrast to the townsfolk, they were enjoying the show — all except Cooper, who was intent on destroying the seawall with his hammer.
Dick the Deckhand tried to cheer Jack up. “Don’t look so glum!” he wheezed. “We’re not like those jackasses over there! They forget too easy!” “You stupid . . . son-of-a-bitch!” screamed Cooper. “You’ll never forget!” And with that he bashed what wasn’t left of Cook’s leg. That night, Jack decided to pluck out the new crop of harpoons and hide them in his pillowcase. The whale made a surprise reappearance the next morning and the morning after that. Each day the crowd appeared and jeered as Jack towed the whale back out to sea. By the fourth day, surprise was gone, and the stench was unbearable. Desperate, Jack decided to try sinking the whale in the harbor. The next morning, he filled his boat with rocks, rowed out to the whale, carried the rocks up onto the hump, and stuffed them into the blowhole with the butt end of a harpoon. It was a pitiful thing to watch. The old hands doubled over laughing, and the crowd on the shore jeered through handkerchiefs clutched tightly to their faces. After many trips, the whale was gone. Jack went home, dried off, and dressed himself in bed. He wanted nothing but to sleep, but it was impossible on his pillow of harpoons. He decided to jam them into his boots, where he’d be sure to forget and step on them. Feathers oozed into his ears and stuck to the back of his eyes . . . the whale crashed through the window and swallowed him whole . . . clouds that had been waiting for a chance to occupy the room ever since they’d become aware of the window followed closely behind . . . Cook’s missing leg swung through the clouds and kicked him in the head. The old hands appeared, placed Jack in a coffin, and carried him to the water’s edge, where the whale was waiting, staring at them. It slowly opened its mouth, received the coffin, then, closing its mouth, slowly turned and swam out to sea. “Take care, Jack!” shouted the old hands, waving. “Jesus!” screamed Jack, swinging out of bed into his boots and cutting his feet. Harpoons littered the floor of the room. He stumbled and fell, but managed to reach the closet, where more harpoons waited. “Tide must have rolled it over . . . all the rocks fell out,” chanted the crowd angrily.
There can’t be many of them out there yet, thought Jack, I’ve still got time. And just as the crowd reached the front door, Jack slipped out the back. Jack travelled inland, far from the sea, settling in a town on the plains. People there knew nothing of killing whales and had never seen the type of harpoons he described to them, although some said they seemed familiar. One morning he awoke breathing whale and felt the sting of harpoons in his eyes. Down by the railroad depot, the town was cursing the flatcar’s freight. No one had counted on a strike when they’d purchased a whale carcass cheap for its oil, and now they were stuck with a rotten tailless whale they couldn’t unload. “We ought to hang everyone in the goddamn town who sold us this thing!” said one man through his handkerchief. Everyone agreed. Jack noticed plowshares under peoples’ coats and didn’t like the look of it. He packed and headed out, settling far away in a mountain town, where the mines collapsed unpredictably, but with whale-like regularity.
introduced by Doug Paul Case The experimental nature of this piece — how the section breaks split the prose into unorthodox segments — evokes the film editing techniques Wilson Brown studied as an undergraduate. As the editor cuts film to eventually splice it together with glue, here we see a writer cutting scenes at their peak, to reassemble them moments later with increased tension. The effect, while slightly dizzying to the reader, increases the intrigue already experienced by “Arnold and Paul”’s characters. Like the story’s paperboy, I find myself returning to Paul’s house time and again. I am captivated both by its seclusion and by the attachment Arnold feels towards its disrepair — and its owner. Though Arnold’s fascination is never spelled out, something snaps within him upon Anne’s visit, a clear signal the house could never be his. And what remains in her wake is a mystery only the paperboy can unravel. To this day, Brown lives in Cambridge, where he moved upon graduating from Emerson in 1974. The recent grandfather performs regularly as a musician and operates a small recording studio.
Arnold and Paul
I Because Paul had to travel, he was relieved when Arnold accepted the invitation to look after things at the house. The building’s disrepair attracted Arnold, who was delighted when the gutter fell from the garage, when the weeds finally pushed through the cement walk, when the cat aborted. It was an isolated house near the marshes, set back twenty yards or more from the road. There was silence for Arnold as he worked at the piano. It was routine for Paul to return after a period of ten days and find a slew of newspapers untouched since their delivery. Arnold hated the news, and during their evenings together, he would sit quietly in front of the radio, Paul thumbing through a week-old edition. “Five thousand miles of track being pulled this spring; they’d never do that in Europe.” “No.” “How’s the furnace?” “Fair. Cold shower feels good now and then.” II The paperboy arrived at a time of day when Arnold’s piano seemed to express itself. Secretly he would sit under the open window as Arnold played and cursed. He would remain for an hour or more, waiting for an especially loud section in order that his escape be less threatened. On a Friday evening in early fall, Paul returned from New York with Anne. Introducing her to Arnold, Paul sat down with the papers. Anne made tea, and Arnold wrote letters. Anne remembers the odor of the kitchen, as if an old couple had lived there alone for several years. Anne and Paul went to bed early. Arnold remained in the living room, listening
III to music. Paul considered the weekend “rather pleasant.” He left with Anne Monday morning in a hurry. Arnold avoided his breakfast and returned to bed. The rain stopped. IV The paperboy arrived at two-thirty, and hearing no music, dropped the paper through the broken screen door. The wind made him shiver. He pedaled harder, imagining once again his escape from the mysterious old woman that dwelt in the attic of Paul’s house. He wondered if she would miss Arnold’s music, or if she could even hear it, being locked up V as she was. VI Through the week, the paperboy arrived at the house hearing no music. Arnold may have left with Paul, but there was a light through an upstairs window. Thursday night he dreamt the old woman had lassoed him with a clothesline and pulled him into the house through the attic window. He was convinced he should explore the place. VII On that Friday afternoon, the paperboy stepped onto the porch. He noticed only four papers on the floor. He looked through the scattered pile. Monday was missing. He was certain he had delivered it. He opened the door and stepped inside the hallway. There were candies in a dish, and he took one. The house smelled. Maybe there was a cat that stayed inside. He looked into the piano room. Dark. He studied the books and manuscripts, a pile of candy wrappers. A noise from upstairs — the old woman!
Arnold and Paul
VIII No, it must have been that stinking cat. Across the hall, a living room, the door half closed, what a stink! Heading through the doorway, the room became light, then darker. He stared at Arnold, in the chair so still, Monday’s paper in his hands. The boy vomited into the hallway. The screen door jammed; he pulled, and pulled for the bicycle and ran — no longer the old woman in the attack he’s escaping from Arnold’s soft chords in his ears, getting softer.
introduced by Jordan Koluch Through a child’s eyes, even the most simple of life’s problems are confusing at best. In “The Rabbits,” the young narrator finds solace from his parents’ marital conflicts and his father’s death through the pets in the backyard. This piece captures the innocence of ignorance and anger at the uncontrollable that carry well into one’s adult years, despite their childlike nature. This poem impresses me every time, as it is a single snapshot that unravels into an exposing narrative of familial bitterness and blame. Denis Leary graduated from Emerson College in 1979 with a BA in Mass Communication. In 2006, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in the Fine Arts. Leary is a five-time Emmy nominee for his roles in HBO’s Recount and FX’s Rescue Me. Leary also wrote Why We Suck — A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, which spent six months on The New York Times Bestseller List. The Leary Firefighter Foundation, founded in 2000, provides funding to fire departments for equipment, training, and technology.
it didn’t take long for papa to find his place. he sat down on the coffee table and pulled out his matches. the first one lit easily so he put it on the floor between his feet and the flame sandwich ate him up. mama came in screaming and running about like my rabbits in the backyard. they live in a cage. that’s where i went when the policeman came. i went out to the rabbits. they knew, like me, that it was all mama’s fault. she always told papa that he smelt like a bucket of gasoline when he got home from the station. someday you’ll go up in flames she shouted.
introduced by Anna Hofvander “Because of Rule Holmes” is a private poem, not only because of its obvious violence and fear, but because of its brevity and its title. I do not know Rule Holmes, nor is it important that I do, but instead the speaker here admits to a feeling that is sadly familiar. This is a poem in which we are not asked to participate — and even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. Instead, we must stand helpless at the shoreline and watch as the speaker is once again pounded by a storm that will not let him go. This poem is simple, without being simplistic, and this trait brings it an honesty not often found in writing. And although the dynamic of man and nature is a familiar one in poetry, “Because of Rule Holmes” complicates this plain reading. What we have before taken as a comfort, the shore of the powerful sea, instead serves as the final punishment for our speaker — it is here that he is picked up and dropped. What is unseen in this poem is the most powerful: the undercurrent, the darkness of the storm, and the inescapable Rule Holmes. Eva Lee Ngai was a member of Emerson’s literary scene and published in The Emerson Review in 1980. She was also a member of the school’s newspaper, The Berkley Beacon. Ngai is currently the Writer-Editor for the U.S. Department of Transportation Website. She remembers her advisor James Randall fondly.
Because of Rule Holmes
On stormy days I was Overwhelmed and Taken under. A helpless body Tossed about and finally Taken away by Undercurrents. They would slowly push Me towards shore. I would be picked up and dropped Picked up and dropped Picked up and then dropped.
introduced by Nicole Shelby What immediately attracted me to this piece was the writing style, a mix of simplicity and frankness that worked perfectly for recalling childhood moments from a mature standpoint. The events Roberts highlights are not necessarily dramatic, but are all significant to her young self: the sudden knowledge of a motherâ€™s unsanitary habit, the first time a friend is naked, a kiss between two children. All these separate events gain a special, almost melancholy weight in Robertsâ€™ hands. During her time at Emerson, Roberts studied with Jim Randall, Jack Gantos, and Bill Knott, all of whom she cites as major influences. She co-founded Gangsters in Concrete, a literary journal which continues to be published on campus each year. Since her college years, Kim Roberts has gone on to become a very accomplished writer of poetry and short fiction, and she currently edits the online magazines Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Delaware Poetry Review. She has been published numerous times, and her most recent book, Animal Magnetism (Pearl Edition, 2011), won the 2009 Pearl Poetry Prize. She edited the print anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010). She currently works as a freelance writer, editor, and researcher in Washington, DC.
I was taught to wait for the walk light even if no car was in sight, and to always put paper down on the seats in public toilets. I was shocked at age nine to find out my mother actually picked her nose. Cutting jalapeno peppers, she forgot to wash her hands before putting her finger in her nostril. Mother entered the room holding her hands to her face, her eyes watering. Of course, she had to explain. Everyone laughed, but I remember being disappointed. Waiting for the train this evening, I began to watch a group of four couples at the other end of the platform. At that age, the boys always look so much younger than the girls, which places them, I would guess, in the fifteen-to-eighteen-year range. The girls were dressed in light summer dresses which revealed newly-rounded legs and high-pointed breasts, and the boys looked lanky and awkward beside them, standing at selfconscious distances. Only one couple was touching and this they did with much bravado, embracing as they talked to their friends. The girl of the couple especially struck me, as I recognized myself at that age in the sly look in her heavy-lidded, mascara-ed eyes. She wanted to tell everyone, “I am sexy. Look at my boyfriend. All the boys watch me. I am not a virgin.” My mother once told me that she considered raising us children as the most important thing she had done in her life. I suppose that might have been a compliment if she hadn’t been saying it because I forgot to call her on Mother’s Day. I remember the time Mother told me I had been a mistake, that she and Dad had only meant to have two kids. She wasn’t saying it to be cruel; she was saying it to teach me a lesson. She said they were using condoms, but she had gotten pregnant anyway. The moral was supposed to be ‘condoms are not safe, don’t have sex until after you are married.’ I told her not to worry, that I was on the pill.
The next day she asked me how many men I had slept with. “I’m not going to tell you, Mother.” “That many?” “Mother, I’m not going to tell you because you don’t want to know. Let’s leave it at that, okay?” “You’ve slept with a lot, haven’t you?” “What do you consider a lot?” “I don’t know — ten?” I didn’t tell her that I considered ten a small amount and that I had passed that number long ago. It made me wonder how many men Mother slept with in her life. Only Dad? She never had any boyfriends after her divorce. I was the only girl in the fifth grade to have a boyfriend. His name was Robbie Davidson, and he was in the sixth grade. The teachers didn’t know what to do about us. We would meet in the hallway and at recess and kiss and hold hands. They told us, “No P.D.A.” — Public Display of Affection — but didn’t know how seriously to take our “offenses” when we disobeyed. Robbie lived down the block from me. We used to sit at the top of the big tree in the woods in back of my house and kiss. We would sit up there for hours, our hands sticky from pine sap. We were in love. When I need commiseration late at night, I call up Alison. She listens, I feel better, and then I can get to sleep. A couple of nights ago I called her, and she had a man there. “Go to sleep,” she said, “We’ll talk in the morning.” I could hear him in the background, “Who is it, honey?” “Who’s there?” I asked. I felt betrayed. “We’ll talk later, okay?” But I never need to talk in the morning, only late at night. I remember the first time I saw Alison naked. We had gone swimming together at the YWCA. Alison goes daily to the six a.m. swim because there are less people then. We swam laps for half an hour, she in the medium speed lane, I in the slow lane. Afterwards, we took warm showers in the exposed stalls and stripped out of our suits, washing away the chlorine smell. Alison’s body was so perfect, so rounded, bright pink nip-
ples like pencil erasers, as she reached for her towel, and I was amazed. She was beautiful. Then she wrapped herself in clothes that made you forget she had a body. Once I went with her to her acupuncturist. He left the needles in for so long, sticking straight up like the spine of some prehistoric beast. Alison has a weak bladder. As a result, she rarely laughs. She smiles. I imagine tickling her until she squeals. Alison cannot control how she wets her pants, although, since she’s been in acupuncture, it has gotten much better. Whenever we go shopping together, she always picks up a few pairs of underpants. She buys the kind I used to wear as a young girl: cotton, in white or pale yellow. After an accident, she throws her panties out. She is forever buying new panties. I was a fat baby. You can see it in all my baby pictures. Mother used to tell me I would eat anything. She had to keep all the bathroom doors closed, or I would eat the toilet paper. Mother’s big extravagance was going out to restaurants. About once a week or so, she would load all of us kids into the station wagon. I have always been impatient, and Mother ate slowly. So when I finished eating I would slide under the table and sit on the floor and scream. It never failed to make Mother eat faster. Mother looks beautiful in her old pictures. There is one in particular. She is wearing a dress that leaves her shoulders exposed, and she has her long hair tied back. Her neck is thin and graceful, and her skin looks so white. Her eyes are dark; they stare off to the right. Her features look refined. High cheekbones, dark red lipstick. The picture is in black-andwhite, but you can still tell it is dark red. She wears a chain around her neck, a small locket shaped like a heart hangs from it. She was sixteen when it was taken. When they got back from their honeymoon, Dad’s mother told my mother, “The day Dickie got married, all the girls in Brooklyn cried.” They had a large wedding; it was filled mostly with Dad’s relatives. Uncle Eddy sat up front between his mother and father. He was dressed in a suit, and he looked fine.
Uncle Eddy and Dad had been playmates when Dad was a little boy, even though there was nearly a twenty-year difference in their ages. They grew up together. Eddy was a mongoloid. His head was large and his features were flat, and he was severely retarded. When Mother first met Eddy, Dad’s mother told her, “You must forgive Eddy. He’s not quite right. When he was very young, he was hit by a door.” And she stuck with that story. In my dream, I am not old enough to drive but old enough so that my feet can touch the pedals, about twelve or thirteen. Mother leaves the car idling in the driveway while she runs back to the house to pick up something she has forgotten. Suddenly, the car begins to move. I quickly slide into the driver’s seat and press down on the brake. I know where the brake is; I’ve watched Mother do it. But something is wrong, the brake doesn’t work, the car won’t stop. I steer it out of the driveway, down the road it keeps going, going. At the traffic light, I have to drive up on the sidewalk to avoid hitting other cars. The car doesn’t slow. I steer away from the center of town, stick to the side roads, the ones that aren’t busy. I grip the steering wheel hard. My fingernails dig into my palms. I check the gas gauge: half full. I know what to do. Keep driving, avoid an accident, until the car runs out of gas. I wonder how long it will take to use up half a tank.
Denise Duhamel introduced by Allison Janice Before Denise Duhamel’s name could be seen climbing the spines of poetry collections on bookstore shelves, it appeared printed across a diploma from Emerson College. The first published pieces of this acclaimed poet, whose name has been synonymous with feminism and satirical American poetry since the 1980s, appeared in back issues of this very journal, and among those first works was “Llewelyn.” Some of her most recent published books are Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (2005), and Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005). As an exchange student at Trinity College in Carmathan, Wales, Duhamel visited the castle Llansteffan and was inspired by the crumbling fortress, the tumbling hills, and the picturesque bay below. Her poetic sensibility was inspired, perhaps by the lyrical Welsh language or the people she encountered on her pre-college travels. This piece, a story of a woman trapped by circumstance and responsibility, is a precursor to the sort of resonant poetry with a feminist bent for which Duhamel would gain notoriety after graduation from Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program. The Woonsocket, Rhode Island, native is at work on a new poetry collection and is currently based in Hollywood, Florida, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University.
Those few sheep fixed flat on the hillside, still staring. If she could only throw rocks at them, watch them fall like tombstones in a landslide. Then, in their confusion, she’d get in his boat, row and row. Leave this island that’s so hard to leave no matter how many magazines mainland cousins send. Llewelyn rips up the letters so her husband won’t read them and scatters the pieces under supper with fallen potatoes. All the extra smoke. He complains about ventilation, how she should be more careful. And she thinks about Llanstephen, the castle in her back yard, and what keeps her here. Inside facing the low wall by the sea, she fears those grey waves that will not stop. Herons are like white priests but too far to hear her cries.
When she must go back, she doesn’t see where she’s going, only high castle walls. Unlike the sea, those hills are too soft to begin eroding Llanstephen. She climbs out forgetting the green she’s longed for and looks only at sheets on a clothesline dusted with coal soot and billowing like storm clouds.
introduced by Emily Murphy “The Natural Color of Hair” is a piece about a mythical love affair that spawns into obsession. Evoking Moby Dick, it is filled with smart details and close observations, following a man’s search for a woman who disappears time and time again. I was drawn to this piece from the first paragraph, experiencing the unyielding hold Althea has on Avi; his determination to possess her once more; and the desperate tale of love lost. The story is both haunting and beautifully written. David Zimmerman is currently teaching in the MFA program at Iowa State University. His first full length novel, Sandbox, is being published by Soho Press this April. His second novel, also published by Soho, is due in the spring of 2012. It was during Zimmerman’s years at Emerson College that he discovered his passion for writing, and brought Gangsters In Concrete back into print. He is happily married, and likes to fly the occasional kite.
The Natural Color of Hair
The cover of the postcard has a picture of an old man kissing a sevenor eight-year-old child. No little smooch, either. The girl has her eyes closed. It falls out of a three week old copy of TIME Magazine sent to me from the States by my mother. I turn it over and forget to light my cigarette as I walk up the stairs to my apartment. Avi, I spoke to Jenni Randall on the phone last night. She mentioned that you were living in Wien and doing the computer thing. I live outside Budapest now, and it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump. Come visit. I know it’s been a while. A lot of water has burned under the bridge since the last time we were close enough to touch. Things change, but I still think of you when I light up. My number is 097-765-9887VG. Don’t hesitate. Lost but not forgotten, Althea. Third floor. I turn the knob, lift, and kick. Once inside, I set down the mail and light up. I exhale hard. The smoke goes drifting across the dining room table, over the sofa, and out an open window behind the television. I sit down in the middle of the kitchen floor and reread the card. Four years ago in Burlington, Vermont, I took off my clothes behind a Toyota Tercel. It was the last day of June. Althea sat at the edge of a pasture in an abandoned Lazy Boy drinking Purple Passion from a Shell station coffee cup. I walked through the grass and stood in front of her blocking the sun. All she said was, “Your dick is still green.” I’d met her the night before at Matt Rainer’s annual Bare-As-You-Dare party. Althea had come in saran wrap. I had worn a Yankees cap and smeared my dick with green finger paint. We exchanged names. That was all. The next day she had picked me up walking on the side of the road and offered me the hair of the dog. She had three cartons of it. “Ah,” I had told her. “A whole dog.” We drove to a place she knew, where you couldn’t hear the sound of other people’s voices. “I like to get away from everyone.” She shifted from first gear straight to third at a stop light. The car jumped, the wheels
shrieked, and Althea laughed. It was a laugh that started deep in her throat and swirled out of her mouth like the smoke of a clove cigarette. Sitting in the sun and listening to the soft lowing of cattle, we whiled away a grape-flavored hour of grain alcohol. I unzipped my jeans behind an elm to take a piss and decided to get rid of the rest of my clothes. It was hot anyway. After noting the color of my cock, she slowly put down her drink and leapt from her seat, knocking me into the clover. “Now you’re going to get it.” She sat Indian style on my chest. In the sun, her eyes were the color of crushed brown glass. She tied me to a fence post with jumper cables and sang an off-key rendition of Stevie Wonder into my mouth before she fucked me. She didn’t stop when I came. She rode me til her stomach quivered and her eyes closed. We left a circle of mud in the grass, and my dick was pink again. Extinguishing my cigarette, I leave a round, black mark in the sink. I read the postcard two more times, making eleven total, and set it down on the gas range beside a half-full can of tomato paste. TIME Magazine falls off the counter. I pick it up and take it to the couch. While looking at advertisements for cars, I wonder, Can I take time off of work? Should I take time off of work? I haven’t had sex for two months. That shouldn’t be a consideration. What color is her hair? I don’t have the money for a trip. Do I want to take the chance of it happening again? On page 33, there is a small blurb about the rise of autoerotic asphyxiation among midwestern adolescent boys. I put down the magazine. I will not go. All during the week, I carry the postcard. Tuesday, it’s in my briefcase. Wednesday, it’s a bookmark. Thursday, it’s riding in the back pocket of my pants. Friday before work, I put it under my mattress and try to forget about it. On the way to work, just out of pure curiosity, I buy a Berlitz guide to Budapest. It doesn’t mean anything in particular. My boss is an American named Stu. An ex-patriot of IBM, he says. He has big ears and bushy sideburns. Sometimes, when he’s feeling jocular, I call him Norman Mailer. More often than not, I just call him Stu. We program the computers for Vienna’s public transit system. Today is check day, and when he hands it to me, I tell him I need to take a few days off next week. I’m going to visit an old friend. I stress the word friend, but he doesn’t notice. I almost want him to hassle me a little.
The Natural Color of Hair
“Hmm,” He twists a pinkie in his ear. “That’s fine, but don’t stretch it into a week. The Mariaplatz line needs to be worked out.” On the way home I get my visa.
The jumper cables left scabs on my wrists and Althea left for New York the next afternoon. She had a cousin named Lawrence who lived in Sheep’s Head Bay. Jenni told me. Otherwise I would have been clueless. I was clueless anyway. The summer ended, and I was eating pumpkin seeds the next time I saw her. I bought them at a roadside stand that sold cider and other New England autumn products. Ass on the curb. A handful of seeds crunching between my molars. I heard her voice. “That’s disgusting, why don’t you just buy peanuts or something.” My dick got hard. I looked up. Her hair had changed from black to dark burgundy. She was wearing large, blue plastic sunglasses and a flannel nightshirt tucked into jeans. “I will not eat green eggs and ham. I should not, could not —” I finished, chewing noisily. “No, I’ve tried them. I just hate things that get stuck between my teeth and other stuff like that.” “What do you like?” “I like red wine.” She also said she knew the whereabouts of a hidden cache of it that was apparently waiting to be consumed. She said it with such conviction that I didn’t hesitate to ease onto her ratty old leather upholstery. I forgot about my pumpkin seeds. They stayed on the curb when I got in her car. We drove out north of town and a mile off the highway on a dirt road. She wouldn’t tell me what she’d been doing for the last couple of months. “It’s nothing you need to know.” She told me, looking over the rims of her sunglasses. So I stopped asking. You usually find those kinds of things out when you’re not looking for them. We rounded a curve and a big white farmhouse with plywood in the windows came into view. The lawn was waist high, and the cicadas could be heard over the engine of the car. A cardboard sign tacked to a pine tree declared that this property was up for auction November 17. “How did you find this place?”
“I spend a lot of time exploring.” The car was parked and we went into the house through the cellar doors in the back. Stacked beneath the stairs leading up to the main house were at least fifty bottles of wine. “Jesus,” I said. “Yes. This is a good time to pray.” Althea filled both of our arms with bottles, and we marched upstairs. She was humming something I couldn’t recognize. We opened the bottles by pushing the corks in with a stick. The room filled with cigarette smoke because the windows couldn’t open. Althea talked. I listened. She talked about menopause and dwarf stars and the way good orgasms come in cycles that parallel the size of the moon. I started to stare at her as I got drunk. She was thin limbed and fragile looking, but when she spoke, her arms whirled about in the air. She seemed to take up the space of a much larger woman. “You know, I always wanted to be a mermaid when I was little.” “Why’s that?” My voice was starting to slur. “People would love you just because you were one.” “I wanted to be a truck driver.” “I would never trade fins for wheels.” The sun went down, and we kicked out the back window for light. When we could see our breath, she said, “Let’s start a fire.” “Sure. I’m freezing.” I piled kindling from beside the mantle in the fireplace and looked around for tinder. “No, I mean let’s really start a fire.” She led me into the kitchen where there was a pile of broken chairs on the floor, ripped down a curtain and stuffed it in the middle. “Give me your lighter.” She lit several folds of the curtain. The material was dry and crumbly. It caught quick and soon I could feel the heat on my face. We left the way we came in. Out in the tall grass, we watched as the house began to glow. Smoke started to drift out of the second story windows and then the flames, like little spiders, darted around the corners of the blocked up windows on the ground floor. Althea took off my pants. We rolled around crushing the grass with our backs and losing articles of clothing between breaths. She pulled me into her. The skin of our bel-
The Natural Color of Hair
lies made the sound of applause. Behind us the house began to roar and the field was lit up like noon. She lifted her whole body off the ground so it pushed me up in the air. We were wet as hell, and the heat of the house made my back sting. The kitchen collapsed with an explosion of bright orange sparks. We gathered our clothes as the field caught flame and got into the car naked. The paint on one side of the car was bubbling. Driving back to the highway, I wondered how far away you could see the fire. “When will I see you again?” I asked while putting on my pants. I was breathing hard, she wasn’t. “Soon,” she said. “But not too soon right? I suppose you’re going to New York.” “I don’t know, Avi, but don’t think I’m going to be your lover. I like you, but don’t be mistaken.” “Does it mean I want to be your lover just because I ask when I’ll see you next?” She left me tingling. My lips were dry and cracked. “Believe me, if I saw too much of you, I’d get pretty damn sick of you, and I’m sure you’d feel the same about me. Once in a while with anyone is more than enough. I’m not the emotional type. I don’t swoon.” At a stop sign, she took my head in her hands and ran her tongue across my lips. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.” She dropped me off in front of my apartment and drove away smiling. I was covered in soot, and even though my hair was cut above the ears, it had been singed. The police never caught the culprits, but you could see the house burning for miles. People thought it was an advertisement for a circus or something and gathered around the dying farmhouse until the fire department came and shooed them away. I stuff a pair of jeans and a T-shirt in an old backpack and catch a tram down to the train station. The next express to Budapest leaves at 11:00, so I have two hours to kill. I drink a cup of espresso and pace back and forth across the upper level of the station. The cities on the arrival board spin: Köln, München, Bern. I sit down and nibble a hangnail. My pinkie starts to bleed. A German woman sitting beside me begins to sing the new David Hasselhoff song, “Dreaming of a Capricorn.” I get up and buy a nippet of Jägermiester. Walking past a display window of antique toy trains, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. Jesus, my hair is long. Lon-
ger than it’s ever been. I look so old. She won’t recognize me. 9:13. Just enough time to get it cut before I go. Across the street and down four blocks on the left is a barber shop. I can speak German, but any barber can be a menace, especially if you have to translate. The door jingles as it shuts behind me, and when I see the barber, I’m tempted to make it jingle again. He is smoking a cigarillo and fingering the ends of a long, white, waxed moustache. There is a peculiar malicious gleam in his eye that leads me to suspect that he pines for the days when barbers let blood as well as giving the occasional trim. “Good morning.” I sit down in a chair, and he drapes a plastic smock around me. “So, what will it be?” Yellow tendrils of cigarillo smoke leak out of his nostrils. “Uh, shorter,” I tell him. “Shorter all around.” “American.” He smiles and nods his head while wiping his scissors off on grey tweed pants. Thick brown curls drop in clumps. He whistles a German carnival song and pushes down my ears with coarse fingers. I watch his moustache bob in the mirror. As the hair disappears, I look younger. My face seems thinner. I can see my ears. I almost look the way I did before. Should I call her? No, I’ll wait until I get into the city. “So, do you have a boyfriend?” His moustache rises above stained cigarillo teeth. “What?” I turn suddenly and he cuts off too much, leaving a little patch of skin on the side of my head. “Sit still. Look what you made me do.” I turn around. He continues snipping. “I only thought that a pretty young man like yourself must have a boyfriend.” My head is beginning to look like a lop-sided hedge. “I think that it is good now.” I dig in my pants for money underneath the smock. “Good enough.” He complains that he is not finished, but I am. I stand up and hand him 15 marks. “No, no, take your money!” I stuff it in my pocket and gallop out onto the sidewalk, knocking over a man drinking beer. “Go shove a finger up your ass,” he says and makes an appropriate gesture with his beer bottle.
The Natural Color of Hair
Back in the train station, I try in vain to brush the little prickly hairs out of my shirt. I drink another nippet, another cup of espresso. I board the train and rush to the middle of the car looking for an empty compartment. There are none. I sit down across from an old woman who is asleep and slide the door shut. On the seat beside me is an Austrian car magazine called Zoom. I flip through it. The train pulls out of the station, and the woman across from me stirs. She is wearing an orange mohair scarf. Suddenly she opens her eyes. “Do you mind if I eat sardines?” No, of course I don’t. She smiles. The train follows the Danube for a while, and then it cuts up into terraced hills covered with grape vines. I run my fingers through my hair. It feels like a dog brush. The woman takes out her sardines and slips them into her mouth by the tails. When she smiles, I notice that there is a piece of skin caught between her teeth. I force a smile and try to make my hair lay flat with my hand. There is not enough there. I wish I had the foresight to buy another nippet before I left. Austria slips quietly past the window, and I doze off. Not too deeply though; there are little bits of hair stuck in my ear hole. The train stops at the border, and soldiers go from compartment to compartment stamping passports, laughing among themselves, and smoking brown, unfiltered cigarettes. After a half hour or so, the axles creak, and we’re in motion again. Crumbling one story cottages flash by between fields of scarlet paprika that flicker when the train passes. What am I thinking? The smell of sardines fills the compartment like smoke. Here I am, my head butchered, heading out to see someone — someone I should never speak to again, much less visit. I touch the bald spot on the side of my head. God, I wish I had a hat. Jenni Randall told me about Althea. They had gone to a private boarding school together in Bennington. Since then they had sporadic meetings every three or four months that consisted of talking non-stop for twelve hours and drinking. “She’s one of my best friends, but I wouldn’t expect too much in the way of a relationship. That’s just not the way she is.” Jenni bent over the pool table as she said this. Her hair brushed the felt as she lined up the shot. She had short, thin arms, but when she let loose of the cue things happened.
“How’s that?” “She has lots of money to play with. Her mother edits Bride magazine in Boston and stuffs her pockets to get her out of the way. She’s never had a steady boy since I’ve known her. She just flits around.” “Flits around, huh?” I took a good pull at my beer and scoped out the table. “Don’t do the jealous thing. Just think of it as a fuck; I’m sure she does.” Jenni knocked the eleven and the thirteen in and winked at me. “I’m just . . . I don’t know. I should be satisfied, but I’m not.” “Well, be careful; don’t get too swept up in it all. She loves a good performance. Once in high school, she tried to burn herself at a football game by pouring gasoline all over her clothes in the end zone. She knew all along that she wouldn’t have to light a match. I love her to death, but sometimes you just have to stand back.” The farmhouses and fields taper off and turn into suburbs. Huge concrete apartment buildings the shape of Legos and the color of winter clouds. Avenues lined with blossoming fruit trees. At 6:45, we arrive at East Station, and I leave the fish woman. The station is filled with Arabs exchanging currency. Women in bright scarves sit on their luggage and scold flocks of raggedy children. I push my way out of the station and sit down on a bench near the bus stop to smoke. I buy a scoop of pistachio ice cream from a kiosk by the road. Mr. Berlitz says that the number 62 bus will take me into downtown Pest. It won’t hurt to look around some before I call. I jump on the bus and take it all the way to the river. Barges pass on one side and squat little Yugoslavian cars on the other. At the bridge that crosses the river into Buda, I stop and lean against the river wall. It’s getting dark. I should find a telephone. On a Saturday afternoon in April, Althea called me. I was sitting on the back porch eating Ramen noodles. I almost didn’t answer it because I thought it was Frank calling me to ask for his VCR back. I was a little worried because I had spilled coffee on it the previous night. “Hello, Avi?” She sounded smug. “I haven’t heard from you for a while.”
“I’ve been in Colorado skiing. How have you been killing time?” “Working.” “That’s a drag, but hey, why don’t you take some time off of work? I’ve got a plan.”
The Natural Color of Hair
“Hmm.” “Come on. At worst, you can find another job. You’re an industrious young man.” “What would this plan of yours entail?” “Are you up for it or not? I mean I’m not desperate for company, but I wouldn’t mind at all if it were yours.” She started to cough, and I could hear her take a long drag on a cigarette. “Maybe.” “Yes or no?” She picked me up in a new car. A lime green Rabbit convertible. Her hair was platinum blonde, and she was wearing lipstick. When she opened the door I noticed a thin S-shaped scar on her arm. There were still pink dots from the stitches. “So,” I said. “Have you ever stolen anything before?” The top was down, and the heater was on. The combination made her hair levitate behind her in the air. “I steal a lot of used tapes. Once I stole cheese from Star market.” “I’m talking about stealing, not shoplifting.” She laughed. In an empty pack of Marlboros sticking out of her shirt pocket was a thick joint. She put it between her teeth and lit it with the car lighter. “What do you have in mind?” I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to know. “Don’t be silly. Do you think I’m going to tell you before we get there? That would ruin all the fun.” She handed me the joint, and I let it fill my head. We drove all afternoon and stopped at a diner when the sun set. She had just finished reading Moby Dick and exclaimed repeatedly that it had changed her life. “White, man, it’s all about white.” She ordered boiled eggs and milk. By midnight we had reached the coast of Maine. It was dark, and I was very stoned, so I don’t even remember the name of the town, but it was small. A fishing village with manicured lawns and a single Exxon station slash convenience store that marked the center of town. We drove out past the street lights to the shore line, and she parked the car down the street from the marina. “This is it, sailor boy.” She put up the roof and ran ahead of me toward the docks. I walked. “This boat is beautiful.” She lit up a whole book of matches and held
them until the flame touched her fingers. “Can you sail, Althea?” “I can do anything.” She jumped aboard the boat and set about trying to start the motor. It wasn’t really a boat, more like a yacht; it was thirtyfive feet long. I rubbed my hands together and wondered how long the jail sentence would be. My hands were shaking, so I shoved them in my pockets. I could have left at any time, but I didn’t. I tried not to think about it. The motor sputtered and Althea yelled down to me to untie the ropes. She slammed into the boat on the left, and then we backed into the channel. Out across the harbor, there were little flashes of yellow. A lighthouse maybe? The sky was clear. I could see the moon. We cleared the harbor and moved into choppy water. There were green halos around the underwater lights. I stayed on the deck. Smoking. Flicking cigarettes as hard as I could. They made long orange arcs that seemed to stay in the air for a few seconds after they had fallen into the waves with a hiss. “I’ve come to cure your boredom.” Althea was standing with her hands on her hips. She had taken off the overalls she was wearing in the car and underneath was a white cotton summer dress. When the wind picked up, I could see that this was all. “Who’s steering the vessel captain?” The wind tore the words out of my mouth and shred them into garble. “God.” She walked down onto the deck. “But —” “What are we going to hit? A whale?” “I’m just afraid we’ll lose sight of the coast and get lost. That would be a bit of a suck, huh?” I put my hands in my pockets. “There is a compass up there. It’s kind of hard to lose something like North America. Anyway, I made the wheel stick. We’re going around in circles. Don’t you recognize that wave?” “Aren’t you cold?” I was. My nipples were hard underneath my T-shirt. “Sometimes it’s nice to be cold.” She turned around and picked up a brown paper grocery bag. A wave slapped the prow, and she stumbled. “Hold out your hand.” I did. She kissed the center of my palm. Behind her the sky lit up. It wasn’t a lighthouse. Thunder made the deck vibrate beneath my shoes. “I love thunder.” She clapped our hands together over her head. Still holding my hand, she led me into the cabin and pulled her dress
The Natural Color of Hair
off. On the floor, it seemed as thin as crepe paper. Her hand went into the bag and came out with a plastic container of blue grease paint. She spun around on one foot and sat down on the floor. “Paint me blue.” “Like the sea.” “No, like a whale. I want to be a whale tonight.” I sat down beside her and cracked the cap. Scooping out some paint with two fingers, I drew a line from the tip of her chin to the edge of her pubic hair. She leaned over and licked my nose. “Do you have any siblings, Althea?” I rubbed my lips blue and left a circle around her nipple. “No. I have a blow-up doll for a mother.” “How’s that?” I filled in the rest of her breast with smooth circular strokes. “Do you ever masturbate? It’s something I’ve been wondering about a lot lately.” “Frequently. Where’s your father?” “My mother doesn’t know who he is. She would of aborted me if she could of, but that doesn’t keep me from being an abortion. We have an economic relationship. My fifth birthday present was a hundred dollar bill. What do you do with a hundred dollar bill when you’re five? I still have it.” I covered her collarbone, saying nothing. Neither did she. Thunder cracked. She became a whale. We went back out on the deck. The wind was hard enough to make her sticky blue strands flutter. She raised her arms above her head, stretched, and walked to the tip of the prow. When she turned around and faced me, she said, “There she blows,” fell backward without looking, and vanished. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. My teeth chattered. I ran to the side. There she was floating on her back. Singing or shouting. I couldn’t tell which. The wind carried it away. I stood there watching her shrink. I grabbed a life preserver, but she was gone. I stayed there sinking my fingers into the Styrofoam. She’s dead. The radio. I ran to the steps at the prow. The boat was cutting a tight circle, and she suddenly appeared again on the right side. I climbed the steps and killed the motor. The boat drifted. In the distance I could see a flicker of lights on the shoreline. A lighthouse? “Althea!”
I threw out the life preserver. She paddled over and grabbed on hard. Her face was still blue. As I pulled her toward the boat, the sky opened up. Rain made dimples in the waves. She scrambled over the edge, awkward and stiff, and collapsed on the deck. I helped her up, and we went back into the cabin. After wrapping her in a blanket, she huddled against the wall. Her whole body was shuddering. I just stared at her. I said nothing. I was livid. When she caught her breath, she looked up from her chest, “That was the coldest I’ve ever been.” Her lips were purple. “What the hell . . . what were you . . . what’s going on?” The lids of her eyes wrinkled. “Don’t pretend you give a shit. I sure as hell don’t.” An ashtray slid across the table and fell on the floor from the motion of the storm. A trail of silvery dust followed it to the carpet. “And now you want me to say I feel so sorry for you because you’re rich and neglected.” I held my breath. “Fuck you.” She pulled her knees up against her chest. Her voice was trembling with her body. “You don’t know the least of it. You’re the pampered one. You look at the world like you’ll be here forever. I know I won’t, and I’m not living what I’ve got for you. I brought you along because you entertain me. I fuck you cause you make me feel good.” I clenched my hands inside my pockets and bit the inside of my cheeks. She stood up and walked over to me, glaring. Taking hold my shirt with her fists, she put her head next to my cheek and whispered, “It’s bullshit. Everything they’ve told you. They’re lying.” Her breath was warm. I was so mad I shook, but my dick started filling up with blood. She stuck her tongue in my ear and sat down on my lap. I wanted to push her away, just not enough to do it. With her other hand, she unzipped my pants and navigated my dick out of my underwear and into her. She fucked me ferocious, like a slap in the face. Pounding my thighs with the rhythm of the waves, she stared me in the eye. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I wanted to say. I wanted to scream it. And then we heard the screech of metal tearing. The boat turned sideways, and the tip of a rock pushed the wall of the cabin in like a pyramid. She fell off my lap. Water came rushing in. It was so cold, it smelled like iron. Althea darted across the wall and out the door. By the time I got out, she was gone. I couldn’t see more than five feet in any direction. The salt got into my eyes. I struggled
The Natural Color of Hair
through waist-deep water to get to the shore. The surf broke two feet over my head. When I got to the sand, I had no shoes. I walked up and down the beach screaming her name, looking for the white flash of her body in the breakers. Forty-five minutes of “Althea!” and my voice was nothing in all of that sound. I had to get somewhere. I couldn’t stand out in the rain all night. She was dead. I had to tell somebody. I climbed up wooden stairs set in the hill. Lightning turned the trees into black construction paper silhouettes. Up at the top I saw a house. I ran. The windows were boarded over until I kicked them. There was no furniture. I sat against the wall to rest for a moment. In the morning, I no longer had a shirt. Beside me on the carpet was a wet mark the shape of a body. It was blue. Before I left the house, I took a two-by-four and broke the windows, smashed holes in the walls, shattered all the mirrors. Wrapped in a drape, I stood on the side of the highway with my thumb out. Everything, even the asphalt made me angry. “Mother Fucker!” I shouted every time a car wouldn’t stop. It took twenty hours, two pick-up trucks, and a station wagon to get back to Burlington. I pick up a beer bottle from the gutter, cock back my arm and hurl. It whirls up into the sky, brown against burgundy, almost invisible, and then it lands with a satisfying smash in the back of a barge carrying ore. A thin violet haze rises from the river as the sun fades. I keep walking along the water until I reach a street lamp, where I consult my handy pocket guide. It directs me down two narrow side streets and up an avenue. Throngs of rickety bicycles block traffic, and women carrying woven shopping bags scurry underground to catch the subway home. I follow the pack. Down the steps and through the gates. There are no turnstiles and no one appears to be paying, so I walk on through. For whatever it’s worth, it makes me feel smug. I go down another flight of steps into a large circular arcade. The ceiling is high and domed. All around the edges are little shops selling tobacco and newspapers, fried dough, and wiener schnitzels. A woman with wispy red hair strolls past playing a recorder. She is carrying a box of yellow flowers held by a strap of leather around her neck. After a couple of laps, I find the phones. They are right next to the bathroom. I take a quick peek at the guidebook for phone instructions. A discreet one. Who wants to be hustled? And then I deposit the cor-
rect coins, turn the dial to the right numbers, and wait. The line clicks a couple of times, and then a storm of static fills the receiver. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. I hear a series of electronic beeps like an English police siren. I stay on the phone. The sound continues. Her line must be busy. The receiver goes back on the cradle with a crack. Damn. By the time I got back to Burlington, I could have killed Althea. All joking aside. Sometimes the thought of her eyes, splintered and sparkling with unknown agendas, would slip into my head. It drove me to such fury that my only relief was to fire my roommate Jacob’s .12 gauge into the old oak at the back of the yard until bits of wood sprayed up into the air. By summer it was dead. But then I also wanted to see her more than I ever had before. For months after, a breath of wind could get me hard if I was thinking about her. Every woman I saw seemed to have a little bit of her. One had her pug nose. One had her high cheekbones. Once I thought I heard her laugh. Mellow and raspy from cigarettes. I got goose bumps all along the inside of my arms. I never saw her all in one piece again. Jenni did, but I didn’t want to hear about it. That’s what I told her, at least, and she obliged me. Then after some summers, a new car bought and sold, two jobs and a broken engagement, I get this postcard. This damn postcard. Even being in the same city with her right now, I can feel her pulling me. I’ve seen all the red lettered signs exclaiming, “’Danger! Strong Undertow!’” and still I walk right into the water whistling and smiling, with both hands wrapped tight around my cock. The old pecker’s pointing straight out to sea, and I’m kicking up my heels behind it. I go into the bathroom. The men’s side and the women’s side are separated by a little guy at a desk with curly black hair coming out of his short sleeves in tufts and ending at the joints of his fingers. He catches my eye as I walk in and gives me a careful grin. His teeth are brown. I go to the trough against the wall. The air is thick and moist and the smell of urine makes my eyes water. As I leave, the attendant shakes a tray full of coins and says something in Hungarian. Sorry, I mumble in German and throw a crumpled wad of bills on the tray. “’Danka, danka, danka,” he says in a high-pitched voice. I guess I over-tipped. I turn to go, and he grabs my sleeve. “One second, one second.”
The Natural Color of Hair
“What?” “One second, one second.” He holds out both palms and motions emphatically. A woman comes in, buys a handful of toilet paper for a few coins and goes into the bathroom. I stand and wait. When she’s gone, he gets up and starts into the room behind him. I stay put. “Come see!” He curls his index finger and nods. His greasy curls flopping up and down. I follow him into a narrow aisle that goes behind the bathroom. He cocks his head, puts a finger to his lips, and widens his eye. What sort of treasure does a bathroom attendant keep guard over? The attendant leads me down a ramp, and the passage gets smaller. The only light comes from a series of thin cracks along the middle of the wall. He stops in front of one of these cracks and listens for a moment. With a smile, the little guy reaches up, grabs me by the nape the neck, and lifts the slot. Ah, this guy likes to peep. Well, God bless him. It’s one of the few pleasures of his life no doubt. I can’t help but to be interested, so I lean up against the wall and look through the slot. I am positioned right behind a porcelain bowl. I can see a thick head of beautiful brown hair and two calves held as far apart as the waist of an underwear band will allow. The hair falls in ringlets down past her shoulders. About as long as I imagine Althea’s to be by now, and it’s the same texture. Thick, but not coarse. It looks like it could even be her natural color. No, it can’t be her. A hand drops to the calf and gives it a lazy scratch. I lean in closer. Old hairy gives me a pat on the back and leaves. Is there a scar on the arm? It could just be the light. No, there is a scar on the arm. I want to whisper, “Althea,” but I hold it in and wait it out. Maybe I’ll pretend to bump into her when she leaves. Funny meeting you — She stands, wipes, and pulls up her panties. When she turns to flush, I see her face. It’s wide and pinched, and the nose is flat. She coughs and spits into the toilet. I let the flap fall with a bang and step away. I slide down the wall into a squat. Jesus. I rub my face with my hands. They’re slick with sweat. I stay in the corridor a few moments imagining the woman passing the bathroom attendant with a glare and stomping out. Pervert. I pick myself up and walk out of the bathroom. The attendant smirks and waves as I go. He says something, but I keep on walking. Straight to the telephone. Coins, dial, clicks, and the line starts to ring. I’m breathing hard. “Hello?” It’s her.
I say nothing. “Hello?” There is a pause, and I think I can hear her bracelets jangle together. And then to someone with her, she whispers, “This is the second time today.” “The least you could do is give me a couple of deep breaths. No? Well then, goodbye.” The dial tone returns, and I remain standing with the phone to my ear. My face is hot. Relief sweeps over me. I have heard her voice for the final time. “Hello? Hello?” Her voice in my head as I get onto the subway heading to East Station, but I am ignoring it. The doors slide shut, and the subway whisks me away.
The Natural Color of Hair
Sara Barton introduced by F. Hayden Wright Writers in Boston have the indispensable luxury of riding the T. Few experiences have the capacity to become so singular, human, and inspiring. A ride home from class can provide endless material — both for the specific, odd things people do in public, and for the subtler ways we make connections with strangers. Good nonfiction lends readers a clear sense of place. Sara Barton’s “Good Book” goes a step further, and captures the absurdity of public transportation without judgment. With stunning precision, Barton navigates the guarded realities of riding a Green Line train. She shows us what we fear most about taking the subway: that the experience will be anything but unremarkable. That no one will whisper to us or evangelize us, and that we will mind-our-own-business. Barton expertly identifies the MBTA as an arena to share in our humanity. A weaker writer would have passed judgment. That writer might have said, “How pathetic Sheila is, that she eats her Bible and thinks it heals her. How crazy she must be.” Barton expertly identifies the person in Sheila, who “smiles like a child being caught eating a bit of icing off a cake.” And furthermore, Barton sees Sheila as someone we can learn from. The story gracefully turns from a portrait of discomfort to one of rapt fascination and an eagerness to know more. Ultimately, we are stared in the face by every boring subway ride and what they might have been.
I watch Heather working on the Globe’s crossword puzzle as we take the outbound B line to her apartment. We sit at the front two joined seats, contemplating a six-letter word for a famous poetic couple. I hear the man in front of me say something. He is in a single seat facing the other side of the aisle. I pretend I don’t notice, making a show of helping Heather with my suggestions. Then he touches my knee, lightly like you might when tapping on a table with the back of your knuckle. I sigh, ready to shout to the conductor if this guy tries anything funny. Yes? That lady is eating her book, I hear him say, although I’m sure he has just said something lecherous that I don’t understand. My defenses are up. He points across from him at a woman who looks normal and doesn’t seem to be eating anything, literary or no. She glances over and sort of smiles like a child being caught eating a bit of icing off a cake. I know, I always get looks. It’s the Good Book, I’m not crazy. People’ll always think I’m crazy. She takes a small book from underneath her purse. It is maybe two inches by three, stout, with very thin pages. I’ve been doing it for five years now. I go through one a month. Why? This from the knee-touching man. It cures me. Once I was in a really bad state, my back was ’gainst the wall. I ask my pastor, What should I do? He said, I don’t usually recommend this but, ya know, sometimes people eat it. She shakes the pocket Bible. You see, my back was ’gainst the wall. So I tried it out, I ate a few pages every day. And on the third day, BAM! Just BAM! I feel better, ya know? Two hundred percent. The world is better. Five years ago, and I haven’t stopped since. Her speech is attracting more than Heather, He-who-touches-knees, and me. The people around us are listening, even if they aren’t looking up, I can tell. Three days, and you’re healed. My father, he has really bad joints, real bad. Can’t even walk hardly. And I told him — Papa, you should eat this, just try it, three days is all ya need for it to work. And ’im saying, Nah,
nah, nah, it’s all right. I say, try it! And ’im all, nah, won’t help. So I leave it with him. In case. Sure enough a few weeks go by, and my mother calls me up, says, Sheila, don’t let your father know I told you, but he’s been eatin’ the Bible, and he feels so much better! You see my mother had been eating it, too, right after I started. But it’s not for everyone. It is for when it’s all real bad. Backs ’gainst the wall and all. Sheila looks so normal, looks like a bank teller or like one of the ladies in Macy’s that could sell you beauty supplies. And I try to reconcile this fact with her behavior as she rips out a page and stuffs it in her mouth. The whole time with her mouth full, chewing on some Psalm, she’s going on with glee shining in her eyes and voice full of wonder at her own remedy. It isn’t like if you believe, it will work for you. Ya know? Some people it works for, others it doesn’t. No tellin’ why. But three days, I tell ya, three days. The first day you start to feel a little better, the second a little more, you wake up on the third day and bam, BAM! It is like you see a bit better, and a huge weight is just taken off your chest, off your heart, and it is just a little more free. Two hundred percent better. Five years since, since my back was up ’gainst the wall. Hasn’t been since. At this she laughs, for joy I think. She takes out a liter of Diet Pepsi Twist. About half of it is gone. She puts it to her lips and takes a swig, washing down the Scriptures. She sees me eyeing the large plastic liter. Yeah, she says, nothing like a chaser of Diet Pepsi, huh? It’s the best stuff. I smile at that. Who needs holy water when you got Pepsi with lemon flavoring? I think. Heather and I lurch to a stop where we need to get off. We regretfully say our good-byes and leave He-who-touches-knees with Sheila. As the train rolls away, I wonder what other wisdom and stories this woman has to offer. What will He-who-touches-knees learn that Heather and I miss? I turn to Heather, but she is already talking in an excited tone about what an amazing experience it was. And I’m agreeing and thinking, wondering if one day when my back’s against the wall, would I be buying pocket Bibles and Diet Pepsi Twist, and most of all, would it work for me?
introduced by Brendan O’Brien I’m not going to tell you how difficult it is to write a sestina. But, if you want to truly appreciate Alia Hamada’s “Plums,” try writing one for yourself — six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet with the same six words ending every line, except in different orders, and then throw all six of those ending words in the final tercet. The form is dizzying, and I can almost guarantee that by the time you reach your third stanza, you will come to two realizations: 1. You screwed yourself over by ending a line with “mayonnaise.” 2. “Plums” is an incredible poem. The real triumph, though, is not that Hamada has written a sestina, but rather that the final product feels effortless, even expert. Despite the intense restrictions, she has managed to craft a poem that is as refreshing as a kiss. For best results: Read aloud. Savor. Repeat. Hamada was The Emerson Review’s undergraduate poetry spotlight in 2007, after earning her BFA in December 2006. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Lesley University and volunterring with 826 Boston.
a plum I once ate dripped down my chin. juice that was held in bloom, is flowery sweet and cleansed in violet. a violet the color of a plum dipped in blue. sweet scented and shy. I pick eight of them in happy bloom and set them in natureâ€™s juice. a juice stain on my white dress. violet stain and a girl in bloom, ripe like a plum. red grapes on a vine I ate all of them. they were so sweet. a sweet I once kissed under moonlight, juice shared between our lips. eight oâ€™clock and shielded by twilight. violet roses and an umbrella tree. plum shadows surround us. love in bloom.
a bloom bright white and hidden. sweet like plum — passion fruit juice. mom says Violet be home at eight. eight? already plucked by then. my bloom fades a hazy violet. temptation rang sweet sound tonight. the juice we made was perfect plum. a plum, a violet, a sweet. juice so soft at eight o’clock, a new moon in fresh bloom.
Yelena Moskovich introduced by Michelle Cheever “Impromptu” feels like a chaotic party where each guest is equally beautiful and equally intriguing. There are no constants, apart from the monster, whom we’re told not to focus on, anyway. But there he is: perhaps something to tie together these gorgeous images and destructive people. There is a temptation on the reader’s part to ask what it all means. Yet I believe it speaks to Moskovich’s skill as a writer to tell us though a sly self-awareness that if we give up on focusing on the elements, we will find at least a grain of truth in the dizziness. Originally from the Ukraine, Yelena Valer’evna Moskovich graduated from Emerson College in 2006 before attending Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She has written over twenty-three plays, some of which have been produced in the US and Canada, as well as a stage-read in Paris. Her publications include Kaktus Magazin #18, Thread Script Anthology, Львиные Песни (Liong Songs), Collision Literary Magazine, Hanging Loose Literary Journal, and Gangsters in Concrete. In 2003, she was awarded The Claudia Ann Seaman Award for Young Writers and the Blank Theatre Company Young Playwrights Award. In 2006, she was granted The Nicole DuFresne Playwright Scholarship. She currently lives in Paris.
Impromptu on “Xpace and the Ego” by Robert Matta Centre Pompidou, Paris
I was ready for your monster and all the reds that held their breath so tight they started to bruise. And yet, we couldn’t find anyone to blame. Justine sprinted melodramatically divine, leaving footprints on the dotted line, while Greg popped Vicodin and cherries, enough for his pupils to harden into two coffee beans. Nina pried them from his face and fixed herself a mug in the early morning and nestled it as long as she could. The last drop went down with the sun that went down each vertebrae of Justine’s bent back through the chipped window, as she chipped Nina again and away. Justine meant something. She read Emmanuelle Arsan, she read her Nin, she could quote from The Story of O, because she knew that classic French erotica meant something. The monster sinks back into the wallpaper. Greg swears Jean Arp, through some glitch in time, was completely inspired by play-dough. The monster lingers. Why is the monster more symbolic than Justine or Greg or Nina, who also sink into the wallpaper every now and then? Nina’s upholstered with prints of intricate gold and olive flattened bulbs. I pulled the covers off, and she lies naked on the scattered wine blotches of her sheets. It was obvious that when Klimt left his atelier for sleep, she quietly stepped out of his painting and moved to New York. Don’t be so caught up with the monster. Justine breaks hearts into saddles and rides them into her lovers’ guts. The monster, comparatively, is not so bad. Greg wants to fall like the last page of Othello, and hit the cover and make the binding hum. He sleeps with Justine instead. Justine digs him a slot and files him away. She accidentally flipped the radio to one of Chopin’s etudes. She listened and decided to practice piano until her hands tore off and played by themselves. The etude
finished, and so did her dream. The reds go tender, the reds blush blue . . . Nina hangs herself like laundry, day by day. Justine’s hands break off from time to time and go wandering for the ivory feel. Greg jots down ideas to wound them first — they’ll jot you down if you give them a chance. And being the only one left, the monster, a little bored and hungry, decides to take the blame.
introduced by Brendan O’Brien Coming in at thirty-seven words, Ann Chang’s “When I Die” is a testament to the mantra “less is more.” With equal amounts of macabre (contemplating one’s death) and playful absurdity (contemplating the role of squirrels postburial), the poem creates a balance of conflicting emotions and ideas — all of which grow more complex with each reread. But the poem’s “x factor” is its lines. While methodical, each line is embedded with mounting tension. Dear reader, if you are looking for relief in this poem, you should look elsewhere. Chang is no stranger to the Emerson literary scene, having published a collection of short stories, Taking it All Off, with the Emerson Undergrad Publishing Club. Currently, Chang writes articles and blog posts about Boston for dguides, an online travel website. Additionally, she has gotten involved as a substitute teacher and a substitute aide for special needs classes in the Oak Grove School District.
When I Die
When I die, lay me in a cemetery with a number of squirrels, so that every spring they may bury nuts atop my grave, and every winter they may dig me up acorn, by walnut, by bone.
This issue of The Emerson Review is set in Junction and Constantia. Junction was designed by Caroline Hadilaksono in 2009 and is available online at the League of Movable Type, part of the open-source type movement. Itâ€™s a little bit fancier than your average sans serif. Constantia was designed by John Hudson in 2008. Itâ€™s a tad less flowery than the other serifs. They were made for each other.
Contributors Katherine Bennett is a sophomore English major at Skidmore College. She likes to pack her rucksack with her journal, a thermos of lavender Earl Gray tea, Kerouac paperbacks, art supplies, and some snacks (cheese curls!), then gather friends and acquaintances to venture into the woods with. Ryan Courtwright’s poems have appeared in Pistola, Pleiades, Shampoo, Line Break, and Lo-Ball. He lives in Chicago and is completing his MFA in Poetry at Columbia College. Lindsay D’Andrea is a senior Writing, Literature and Publishing major at Emerson College. Her poems have been published in The Allegheny Review, The North Central Review, and The Susquehanna Review among others. She is originally from Medford, New Jersey. Casey Eisenreich is a true Wisconsinite, currently studying Studio Television Production at Emerson College in Boston. She loves traveling, both playing and listening to music, being outside, and of course, photography. Alex Haber is a fiction writer from Ypsilanti, Michigan. His stories have most recently been published in Quick Fiction, Elimae, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Saeed Jones received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University — Newark. His poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in publications like StorySouth, Jubilat, West Branch, The Collagist, and Line Break. His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press. Nathan Koval is a junior BFA Musical Theater major from Portland, Oregon. He can sing really loud and jump really far. Matthew Landrum’s poems and translations have appeared in The Potomac Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Red Wheelbarrow. He teaches Latin and literature in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Melanie Taryn Lieberman is pursuing her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in The Connecticut Review
and The Emerson Review, and she has received international recognition for her prose, poetry, and playwriting. She was born and raised in Connecticut, and is excited for further adventures in the literary world. She also really likes birds. Ross Losapio is a New Jersey native and currently attends the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. His poems appear in Italian Americana, Interrobang?! Magazine, Naugatuck River Review, Verse Wisconsin, Milk Money, The Chaffin Journal, and other publications. He has also self-published a chapbook entitled The Measure of Healing. Matt Lowe is a sophomore film production major back from a semester abroad at Emerson’s Kasteel Well. Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Matt has always enjoyed incorporating his passion for film and photography with his love for the outdoors. When not working on films, Matt enjoys playing Quidditch and riding his bike in Boston. Jessie Marshall teaches English in Honolulu. Her fiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review and the Mid-American Review and is forthcoming from Night Train. “Fat People in Love” was the first story she workshopped at NYU, and she thanks her MFA friends for all the support, wine, and feedback. Andrew Mitchell is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He has had work published in Aegis and A cappella Zoo. In his free time, he writes short bios about himself in the third-person. He lives in Dover, New Hampshire. Regina Mogilevskaya is a sophomore Writing, Literature, and Publishing major and photography minor. She’s the assistant photo editor of The Catharsis and a photographer for em Mag. Her dream job is a cheese connoisseur, a fashion photographer, a writer, and a back up dancer for Britney Spears, rolled into one. Elizabeth O’Brien studied creative writing at the Harvard Extension School. Her work has appeared in Versal, Pank, Juked, Flashquake, Glide Magazine, and The Charles River Review, and is forthcoming in Red Line Blues. She can be found online at elizabethobrien.net. Nick Ostdick is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University, where he also teaches freshman and intermediate composition. His fiction has appeared in Sheepshead Review, Prairie Margins, Annalemma, Storyglossia, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for the Best of The Web series and three StorySouth Million Writers Awards. He lives with his wife outside Carbondale, Illinois. D. A. Powell is the co-author, with David Trinidad, of By Myself: An Autobiography (Turtle Point Press, 2009) and co-editor, with T. J. DiFrancesco, of Lo-Ball. He is a two-time nominee for the National Book Critics Circle and Thom Gunn Awards in poetry, as well as recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Prize for his collection Chronic (Graywolf, 2009).
Vincent Scarpa is pursuing his BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. His fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, decomP, The Battered Suitcase, apt, and other journals. Truth Thomas is a singer and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee, raised in Washington, D.C. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Party of Black, A Day of Presence, and Bottle of Life. Some of his work has appeared in Alehouse and The 100 Best African American Poems. Cherylynn Tsushima is a senior Print and Multimedia Journalism major from Pasadena, California. She enjoys sushi and dancing. Mary Williams is studying Writing and Human Rights at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in New York City. In her spare time she goes on picnics, attempts to perfect her sangria recipe and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Madrid. Curtis VanDonkelaar lives in Michigan with one wife, two hermit crabs, and three cats. Before fiction, he played the violin and worked in libraries and pizza joints. He now works studiously on two collections and two novels, one or more of which might someday be finished. Until then, see curtisvandonkelaar.com. Joanna Vogel feels a particularly strong affection towards the anglerfish. Maya Jewell Zellerâ€™s first book, Rust Fish, is due out this April from Lost Horse Press. Individual poems have won awards from Florida Review and Crab Orchard Review, and can be found recently in Rattle, Camas, The Meadow, and Mississippi Review. She teaches English at Gonzaga University. Sara Zuckerman is a full-time Writing, Literature, and Publishing major at Emerson College and a part-time fountain of useless information. She is all but hulking out at being published for the first time.
Tracy Brickman is a junior from Merrick, New York. She likes bad movies and does not like cucumbers, despite their apparent flavorlessness. Also, she is good at making up words, like “contemptful.” Doug Paul Case is a senior from Plantsville, Connecticut. He likes chocolate chip pancakes with butter and does not like tall escalators. Also, he is good at recognizing the background music at shopping malls. Michelle Cheever is a senior from Norwell, Massachusetts. She likes unmade beds and does not like cilantro. Also, she is good at catching the very last train. Diana Filar is a junior from Krosno, Poland (via Wolcott, Connecticut). She likes wearing oversized earrings and does not like raisins in her trail mix. Also, she is good at Tang Soo Do. Anna Hofvander is a senior from Boulder, Colorado. She likes things that are well made and sturdy and does not like when you almost sneeze but then you don’t. Also, she is good at walking dogs.
Allison Janice is a recent Emerson graduate from Middleton, Massachusetts. She likes spending hours shopping for the perfect letterpress greeting card and does not like overhead lighting. Also, she thinks it’s okay not to drink milk. Jordan Koluch is a sophomore from Chandler, Arizona. She likes bacon and does not like wet hair. Also, she is good at sewing buttons onto cardigans that have lost them. Emily Murphy is a sophomore from Leverett, Massachusetts. She likes painting her nails bright colors and does not like notebooks without perforated lines. Also, she is good at collecting useless objects. Brendan O’Brien is a junior from Woburn “The Wu,” Massachusetts. He likes Boston Celtics floor general Rajon Rondo and does not like responsibility. Also, he is good at catching mini donuts with his mouth. Nicole Shelby is a junior from Harleysville, Pennsylvania. She likes eating Nutella and does not like when there is no Nutella to eat. Also, she is good at appreciating any movie Colin Firth has ever been in. F. Hayden Wright is a sophomore from Wheeling, West Virginia. He likes Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletters and does not like your hair color in this light. Also, he is good at making scrambled eggs.
Acknowledgments For their support and guidance, the staff would like to thank our advisors Bill Beuttler, Lisa Diercks, and Melissa Gruntkosky; Sharon Duffy, Kathleen Duggan, and Steven Martin at the Office of Student Life; Christina Zamon and Brian Hatch at the Iwasaki Library Archives; Stephanie Morrison at Alumni Relations; the department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing; and the Student Government Association. The photos of the executive staff and of Kristine Greive were taken by Cherylynn Tsushima. A special thank you goes to Michael FitzGerald and the entire team at Submishmash, who made sorting, reading, and responding to submissions easier than anyone thought possible.