FIVE QUARTERLY SPRING 2015
POETRY Andrew Collard 5 Steven Perez 6 Jemy Francillon 7 Kendra Anne Bartell 13 Rachel J. Bennett 14 FICTION Kaj Tanaka 24 Ron Burch 31 Willie Davis 33 Crystal Galyean 43 Lina Patton 59 GUEST EDITORS Drew Crownover Yovani Flores Heather Freudenthal Dalton McGee Jess Schmonsky FOUNDERS Vanessa Gabb Crissy Van Meter
CONTRIBUTORS Kendra Anne Bartell received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Washington, Seattle, where she taught poetry and composition. She currently lives in Ithaca, New York and contributes poetry reviews to monologging.org and writes about yoga at kendrabartellyoga.com. Rachel J. Bennett's chapbook, On Rand McNally's World, will appear through dancing girl press in 2015. She is from Illinois and lives in New York City. Ron Burch lives in Los Angeles, where he is the Co-Executive Producer for DINOTRUX, a TV show for DreamWorks Animation. Andrew Collard lives in Madison Heights, MI, attends Oakland University and co-edits SiDEKiCK LIT. Willie Davis is the winner of Willesden Herald International Short Story Contest (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel). Jemy Francillon lives in Manhattan's East Village is a member of the stageless arts collective. Crystal Galyean's writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Fiddleblack, HeadStuff, and the Village Voice. Lina Patton is currently pursuing a MFA in Fiction at George Mason University, where she also teaches Composition and serves as Assistant Fiction Editor of the literary journal, Phoebe. Steven Perez is a poet and musician (Grounded, allscum, Swell) currently living in Tallahassee, FL. Kaj Tanaka received his MFA from The University of Arkansas. He is the nonfiction editor for BULL. Â
Andrew Collard To Be That To slip my arm around your arm in the presence of something that won’t be moved. To be that boy who bought you Christmas lights, start calling and not stop calling. To drink once more: a coke, a coffee, then a coke. To read the whole map of our history as if fresh sex would re-write it: to pretend that plans get forgotten, that days get forgotten, that files disappear from their folders. To know the temperature in Dawson City is 47 below: to look together out the window while the snow falls. To stare at my shadow on the wall as if a mirror, and bleed into the bucket knowing it won’t hold water.
my best friend, eat Burger King, and take our coffin to the shore, crossing on what sand rises to the surface. To stop bees flying out of lip balm. To stop the furnace from turning on. To be that boy, and spared the sound of water running through the pipes alone in the early morning stillness.
Steven Perez Curative Be good or well or water or sand or shell or itch in a house where I sat on a patio behind the laundry room. The washer had to be bleached when the pile of shit was found inside. The wall, in red paint, said "RESPECT THE T.P.," so we all made sure to really wash our asses. / My mother told us to fold for every wipe, porque siempre vamos a ser pobre. The sweat of lotto factories, country clubs, el supermercado Latino, and the house to clean was all she knew to love her child. I wiped windows with Windex, for her wrists couldn’t be dipped in ant piles anymore. / Her eyes were carrots, their roots at the neck of a bottle. I would stare down at my drink and vomit. All over my desk, the water, and the sand were children pilfering vulcanized rubber. / Dirt lives in my missing lunulas. Draw a picture of an America underwater and tell me there are lemons to put on my head. I want to dance with my mother, but I hate my own signature. En unos años, she'd say, todo será diferente. There are too many beach chairs and I have frost bite. On my palm is a map of interstates.
Jemy Francillon The Conductor He stole all the bridges and put 'em in a bridge museum. Now he charges everyone a buck and half just to see 'em. He claimed he was only borrowing and we believed every lie he'd tell. Now he's got a few bridges to sell. This diabolical diablo used to be a good guy, blushed at off color jokes, and wouldn't even tell a white lie. He had a big ‘ol soft heart, dwarfed only by his ears. They were huge. Poor guy suffered constant jibing from his peers. It was no matter to him though—he preferred to listen to the whims and woes of the world, listened so well in fact that he was tuned in to the music of life. To him, it sounded like a symphony—eliciting sympathy in concert. He loved it best when everyone cared about the same thing -‐ nothing made him more alive. It was better, he thought, than the beat made by a hundred beating wings of bees busy building a hive. Even better still than a thousand tiny ants raising a brand new hill. It carried a baseline packed with more thrill than the guttural grumblings of hungry wolf pack fresh on a kill. Shared global mood meant harmony. He noticed it worked better when times were good than when things were bad, even though, sadly
it was always easier for things to go badly. Eventually the music began to change. No one was in sync and everything was off key. People started thinking only of themselves and lost the voice of the group. It's tough to have a chorus of solo artists. Individualistic thinking threw off the notes. Everything he heard sounded like a constant warm up, like, "me, me, meee". He loved music and we were ruining his favorite song. The cacophony and discord struck a chord with our catastrophic conductor and he knew what he had to do. He would orchestrate his own music. The Maestro donned a big yellow tracksuit. The grand plan was to pull the most decidedly dastardly capers just to get the beat going again. Sure it'd be a bit bellicoso at first but it would be just to get the world back in rhythm, then gradually move into a steady crescendo when he began to let the good guys win. As these things often go however, the plan quickly fell apart. He got carried away on the new sounds his evil doings would create. Oh the melodies synthesized maladies could produce! He’d play Canon with cannons. He got jazzed when folks got sad—deftly rendered blue notes when he docked his U-‐Boats. The Great Barrier Reef was an underwater paradise—from space it could be spot—until he turned it into a parking lot. He was able to disturb the peace and keep the pace for many years.
But then too the music began to sour—it started to sound like the same looping song. It droned and droned, on and on it seemed to go—he was bored with what he got and wanted it gone. Sure, he’d have an occasional tire pyre camp fire, but his heart wasn’t really in it. He grew disconcerted. Even the birds wouldn’t sing for him anymore. He knew happy people made the best music but he’d long since forgotten what that was. The now miserable maestro wades into waist-‐deep waters, floats on his back with ears submerged. The closest he could get to silence, he lets the sound of dull drums drown out his doldrums. Each day grew worse than the last—regularly waking up sadder than when he fell asleep, he grew meaner. He caused a ruckus when all he heard was raucous. He was considering the merits of pulling a Van Gogh while ruining Rembrandts when she walked in. Her footsteps sounded like timpani to him as it bounced through his chest, knocking into his heart and making it skip a few beats. He stopped, turned, and stared—stunned. Going limp, the Sharpie fell from his hand, hit the floor and didn't make a sound. For a moment, the maestro went deaf. She was strolling the museum in hopes of finding something lovely. Noticing he was struck senseless and possibly unable to properly conduct himself, she introduced herself. She said her name was Gwendolyn but all he could hear now was a mandolin. Her voice was perfect. She went by G for short and had a cleft lip. He found her beautiful. The only thing more glaring than her awkwardly exposed tooth, of course, was her eyes. They were huge. So much so in fact that she was prone to jitters due to the animated nature of stationary objects -‐ in her world nothing was still. Atoms in a constant frenzy—shucking and jiving to a
rhythm only the conductor could hear. It was no matter though, the jitters were worth it. She was most at ease when the world was pleased. Only then could she see the beautifully chaotic kaleidoscope generated from the sun’s rays bouncing off our smiling faces. But lately with all the unpleasantness in the world she found herself in a funk, a sort of blue period. G hoped to find something worth looking into, but instead she found a master in pieces. She knew who he was. She could always see the way his particles danced. And she loved it. At his very happiest his every being was divine. Finally he was able, again, to conjure his words. The ensuing exchange was magic. A paintbrush and a flute going note for stroke. G's jitters were of a whole new tempo—even her tongue moved in step with the rhythm of his bits of matter and oh, every bit of him mattered. His prancing protons were only dancing to the tune of her voice, the beat of her heart, the ocean he hears when the blood rushes through her veins and crashes into her cheeks as she blushes. For the first time, they neither saw nor heard anything other than what was right in front of them. The conductor found his joy again. From that moment he knew no other mission; his sole charge was to make the world beautiful again. He would do it for her. He would induce the most wondrous tunes. So brilliantly crafted would they be that the planet itself will join in the celestial line dance, an intricate choreography of worlds reflected in the immense orbs of his wide-‐eyed world watcher. Music was again his governor; it regulated every fiber in his body, every synapse fired to direct each grand sweeping stroke of his wrist. He'd use his baton to play her a tapestry—weave together pastoral piccolos blaring pastels with cellos streaming yellows and tambourines dripping greens all over her daydreams.
By God, he loved her. He needed her to see the infinite wonder of our cosmic dance. And to dance with her to that old familiar tune he cherished so much. He began with retracing his steps, making right all the planetary plight he had generated. He strained with cranes to relocate trains he'd stolen to keep as his own personal set. He granted public access to his precious private beach stretching from San Diego to Anchorage. And as much as it tickled him, he had to give up his new favorite hobby of splicing C-‐SPAN broadcasts into children's cartoons. As the world cheered up, the music began to change. The tempo increased, the rhythm picked up and the world began to rock. They loved him and he loved their voice and he loved her and she loved him and she saw it all. Over time the planet started taking on an interesting shape and sound. As all that love grew an evolution took place. During the course of his song’s reprise, while the world was chanting its enchanting hymns a metamorphosis took them completely by surprise. The music began to amplify and reverberate, hitting off of ear drums playing staccato through their bodies knocking them in tune with each other starting from the base of their souls. G sat back and watched with glee, utterly delighted at the changes taking place before her. For little did the conductor know, the song he led the world to sing was but of one verse. One spellbinding, one unending, one marvelous verse. A Universe. He was leading the world in speaking the language of the Universe -‐ it just happened to be his favorite tune. She could see the notes that were now bouncing forth from every being on Earth were of a familiar jam, precisely tuned for the acoustics of clanging against star stuff, whether hidden in the innumerable chambers of distant galaxies or the four of our hearts. Collectively communicating with a new tongue, the earthlings renounced their citizenship and were naturalized into the nature of the heavens. The celestial chatter filled their ears in surround sound. They bore witness to stellar two steps with their vision now unbound. The maestro knew what a tone meant to a piece, and as such he won atonement through peace. The result of the bond shared between G and her conductor brought about a change among the people. Every child, beginning with their own, from that point on could see and hear the notes and music of existence.
There was nothing to make fun of—they were all bug eyed and satellite eared. It was no matter to them because all around them was lush with multiple symphonies in concordance with each other and playing layered melodies with spread out harmonies in a round. Biologically tuned, they played by ear the whimsical notes they could see playing by the ears of all they came across. They lay back and watched worlds get peppered with asteroids landing perfect somersaults as they took repose from their drum circles praising the summer solstice. The music man and his vision grew quite old together. They strode all the bridges, he still had a thing for them. They were on a behemoth of metal and cable—strings were always his favorite. It was here that they would have their last dance—as he played his requiem song. He was always sheepish about his dancing, but that night he moved with joyful abandon. G could see swirling about him the energy with which he moved the world. He listened closely to her heart, his most reliable metronome, to keep his rhythm as together they slipped out of tune.
Kendra Anne Bartell
Interchange Winter: I to You Can you write your name down without apology? I will give you the keys and codesâ€” there are two shadows leaning against a wall, remember? See how they pitch and swerve, this jumble of limbs. Remember this compactness of form, this centering. You are unsure. You live in this moment of monument and feel the air around you shift to hold a new formation. Can you state the first letter of capture? Of invariance? If you stand in the center of the house and hear mother weeping, be firm. Open the door. If you accept this, my message, I will see you in my own name.
Rachel J. Bennett Zork: The Great Underground Empire an erasure of one of the earliest text-based computer games, Zork: The Great Underground Empire (1980) West of House you are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. A secret path leads southwest into the forest. SMALL MAILBOX North of House You are facing the north side of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are boarded up. To the north a narrow path winds through the trees. South of House You are facing the south side of a white house. There is no door here, and all the windows are boarded. Behind House you are behind the white house. A path leads into the forest to the east. In one corner of the house there is a small window which is slightly ajar. Roof Forest Path This is a path winding through a dimly lit forest. The path heads north-south here. One particularly large tree with some low branches stands at the edge of the path. Up a Tree you are about 10 feet above the ground nestled among some large branches. The nearest branch above you is above your reach. On the ground below you can see BIRDâ€™S NEST JEWEL-ENCRUSTED EGG Forest (1) This is a forest, with trees in all directions. To the east, there appears to be sunlight. Forest (2) This is a dimly lit forest, with large trees all around. Forest (3) This is a dimly lit forest, with large trees all around. Forest (Mountains) (4) The forest thins out, revealing impassable mountains. Clearing (1) You are in a clearing, with a forest surrounding you on all sides. a path leads south. PILE OF LEAVES GRATING there is a grating securely fastened into the ground. there is an open grating, descending into darkness. Clearing (2) You are in a small clearing in a well marked forest path that extends to the east and west. Canyon View Â
You are at the top of the Great Canyon on its west wall. From here there is a marvelous view of the canyon and parts of the Frigid river upstream. Across the canyon, the walls of the White Cliffs join the mighty ramparts of the Flathead Mountains to the east. Following the Canyon upstream to the north, Aragain Falls may be seen, complete with rainbow. The mighty Frigid River flows out from a great dark cavern. To the west and south can be seen an immense forest, stretching for miles around. A path leads northwest. It is possible to climb down into the canyon from here. Rocky Ledge You are on a ledge about halfway up the wall of the river canyon. You can see from here that the main flow from Aragain Falls twists along a passage which it is impossible for you to enter. Below you is the canyon bottom. Above you is more cliff, which appears climbable. Canyon Bottom You are beneath the walls of the river canyon which may be climbable here. The lesser part of the runoff of Aragain Falls flows by below. To the north is a narrow path. End of Rainbow You are on a small, rocky beach on the continuation of the Frigid River past the Falls. The beach is narrow due to the presence of the White Cliffs. The river canyon opens here and sunlight shines in from above. A rainbow crosses over the falls to the east and a narrow path continues to the southwest. POT OF GOLD Kitchen you are in the kitchen of the white house. A table seems to have been used recently for the preparation of food. a passage leads to the west and a dark staircase can be seen leading upward. A dark chimney leads down and to the east is a small window which is open [slightly ajar]. BROWN SACK glass BOTTLE Attic This is the attic. The only exit is a stairway leading down. ROPE NASTY knife Living Room you are in the living room. There is a doorway to the east, (a wooden door with strange gothic lettering to the west, which appears to be nailed shut,)/(to the west is a cyclops-shaped opening in an old wooden door, above which is some strange gothic lettering,) a trophy case, and (and a large oriental rug in the center of the room.) (and a rug lying beside an open trap door.) (and a closed trap door at your feet.) (and an open trap door at your feet.) TROPHY CASE CARPET SWORD BRASS LANTERN TRAP DOOR WOODEN DOOR Cellar
you are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading north, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable East of Chasm You are on the east edge of a chasm, the bottom of which cannot be seen. A narrow passage goes north, and the path you are on continues to the east. Gallery This is an art gallery. Most of the paintings have been stolen by vandals with exceptional taste. The vandals left through either the north or west exits. PAINTING Studio This appears to have been an artist's studio. The walls and floors are splattered with paints of 69 different colors. Strangely enough, nothing of value is hanging here. At the south end of the room is an open door (also covered with paint). A dark and narrow chimney leads up from a fireplace; although you might be able to get up it, it seems unlikely you could get back down. The Troll Room This is a small room with passages to the east and south and a forbidding hole leading west. bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls. Maze (1) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (2) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (3) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (4) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (5) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. a skeleton, probably the remains of a luckless adventurer, lies here. SKELETON RUSTY KNIFE BURNED-OUT LANTERN SKELETON KEY leather BAG OF COINS Maze (6) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (7) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (8) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (9) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (10) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (11) this is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (12) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (13) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (14) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Maze (15) This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Dead End (1) You have come to a dead end in the maze Dead End (2) you have come to a dead end in the maze Dead End (3) You have come to a dead end in the maze Dead End (4) you have come to a dead end in the maze Grating Room You are in a small room near the maze. There are twisty passages in the immediate vicinity. Above you is a grating locked with a skull-and-crossbones lock. (Above you is a grating.)
(Above you is an open grating with sunlight pouring in.) Cyclops Room This room has an exit on the northwest, and a staircase leading up. The east wall, previously solid, now has a cyclops-sized opening in it. CYCLOPS Strange Passage This is a long passage. To the west is one entrance. On the east there is an old wooden door, with a large opening in it (about cyclops sized). Treasure Room This is a large room, whose east wall is solid granite. A number of discarded bags, which crumble at your touch, are scattered about on the floor. There is an exit down a staircase. THIEF CHALICE East-West Passage this is a narrow east-west passageway. There is a narrow stairway leading down at the north end of the room. Round Room This is a circular stone room with passages in all directions. Several of them have unfortunately been blocked by cave-ins. Narrow Passage This is a long and narrow corridor where a long north-south passageway briefly narrows even further. Mirror Room (south) you are in a large square room with tall ceilings. On the south wall is an enormous mirror which fills the entire wall. There are exits on the other three sides of the room. Unfortunately, the mirror has been destroyed by your recklessness. Winding Passage This is a winding passage. It seems that there are only exits on the east and north. Cave This is a tiny cave with entrances west and north, and a dark, forbidding staircase leading down. Entrance to Hades You are outside a large gateway, on which is inscribed Abandon every hope all ye who enter here! The gate is open; through it you can see a desolation, with a pile of mangled bodies in one corner. Thousands of voices, lamenting some hideous fate, can be heard. The way through the gate is barred by evil spirits, who jeer at your attempts to pass. Land of the Dead you have entered the Land of the Living Dead. Thousands of lost souls can be heard weeping and moaning. In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself. A passage exits to the north. CRYSTAL SKULL Engravings Cave You have entered a low cave with passages leading northwest and east. ENGRAVINGS (There are old engravings on the walls here.) Dome Room
You are at the periphery of a large dome, which forms the ceiling of another room below. protecting you from a precipitous drop is a wooden railing which circles the dome. Hanging down from the railing is a rope which ends about ten feet from the floor below. RAILING Torch Room This is a large room with a prominent doorway leading to a down staircase. Above you is a large dome. Up around the edge of the dome (20 feet up) is a wooden railing. In the center of the room sits a white marble pedestal. A piece of rope descends from the railing above, ending some five feet above your head. TORCH Temple This is the north end of a large temple. On the east wall is an ancient inscription, probably a prayer in a long-forgotten language. Below the prayer is a staircase leading down. The west wall is solid granite. The exit to the north end of the room is through huge marble pillars. BRASS BELL Egyptian Room This is a room which looks like an Egyptian tomb. There is an ascending staircase to the west. GOLD COFFIN Altar This is the south end of a large temple. In front of you is what appears to be an altar. In one corner is a small hole in the floor which leads into darkness. You probably could not get back up it. pair of candles BLACK BOOK North-South Passage This is a high north-south passage, which forks to the northeast. Chasm A chasm runs southwest to northeast and the path follows it. you are on the south side of the chasm, where a crack opens into a passage. Deep Canyon You are on the south edge of a deep canyon. Passages lead off to the east, northwest and southwest. A stairway leads down. (You can hear the sound of flowing water from below.)/( You can hear a loud roaring sound, like that of rushing water, from below.) Loud Room This is a large room with a ceiling which cannot be detected from the ground. There is a narrow passage from east to west and a stone stairway leading upward. (The room is deafeningly loud with an undetermined rushing sound. The sound seems to reverberate from all of the walls, making it difficult even to think.)/(The room is eerie in its quietness.)/( It is unbearably loud here, with an ear-splitting roar seeming to come from all around you. There is a pounding in your head which won't stop. With a tremendous effort, you scramble out of the room.) PLATINUM BAR Damp Cave This cave has exits to the west and east, and narrows to a crack toward the south. The earth is particularly damp here. Stream View
you are standing on a path beside a gently flowing stream. The path follows the stream, which flows from west to east. Stream You are on the gently flowing stream. The upstream route is too narrow to navigate, and the downstream route is invisible due to twisting walls. There is a narrow beach to land on. Reservoir South You are in a long room on the south shore of a large lake, far too deep and wide for crossing. You are in a long room. To the north is a large lake, too deep to cross. You notice, however, that the water level appears to be dropping at a rapid rate. Before long, it might be possible to cross to the other side from here. You are in a long room, to the north of which was formerly a lake. However, with the water level lowered, there is merely a wide stream running through the center of the room. There is a path along the stream to the east or west, a steep pathway climbing southwest along the edge of a chasm, and a path leading into a canyon to the southeast. Reservoir You are on the lake. Beaches can be seen north and south. Upstream a small stream enters the lake through a narrow cleft in the rocks. The dam can be seen downstream. You are on what used to be a large lake, but which is now a large mud pile. there are "shores" to the north and south. TRUNK of jewels Reservoir North You are in a large cavernous room, north of a large lake you are in a large cavernous room, the south of which was formerly a lake. However, with the water level lowered, there is merely a wide stream running through there. You are in a long room, to the north of which is a wide area which was formerly a reservoir, but now is merely a stream. You notice, however, that the level of the stream is rising quickly and that before long it will be impossible to cross here. You are in a large cavernous area. To the south is a wide lake, whose water level appears to be falling rapidly. you are in a cavernous area, to the south of which is a very wide stream. The level of the stream is rising rapidly, and it appears that before long it will be impossible to cross to the other side. There is a slimy stairway leaving the room to the north. hand-HELD AIR PUMP Dam You are standing on the top of the Flood Control Dam #3, which was quite a tourist attraction in times far distant. There are paths to the north, south, and west, and a scramble down. (The sluice gates on the dam are closed. Behind the dam, there can be seen a wide reservoir. water is pouring over the top of the now abandoned dam.) (The sluice gates are closed. The water level in the reservoir is quite low, but the level is rising quickly.) (The sluice gates are open, and water rushes through the dam. The water level behind the dam is still high.)( the water level behind the dam is low: The sluice gates have been opened. Water rushes through the dam and downstream.) There is a control panel here, on which a large metal bolt is mounted. Directly above the bolt is a small green plastic bubble [which is glowing serenely].
Dam Lobby This room appears to have been the waiting room for groups touring the dam. There are open doorways here to the north and east marked "Private", and there is a path leading south over the top of the dam. TOUR GUIDEBOOK MATCHBOOK Maintenance Room This is what appears to have been the maintenance room for Flood Control Dam #3. Apparently, this room has been ransacked recently, for most of the valuable equipment is gone. On the wall in front of you is a group of buttons colored blue, yellow, brown, and red. There are doorways to the west and south. GROUP OF TOOL CHESTS WRENCH TUBE SCREWDRIVER Dam Base you are at the base of Flood Control Dam #3, which looms above you and to the north. The river Frigid is flowing by here. Along the river are the White Cliffs which seem to form giant walls stretching from north to south along the shores of the river as it winds its way downstream. Frigid River (1) You are on the Frigid River in the vicinity of the Dam. The river flows quietly here. There is a landing on the west shore. Frigid River (2) The river turns a corner here making it impossible to see the Dam. The White Cliffs loom on the east bank and large rocks prevent landing on the west. Frigid River (3) The river descends here into a valley. There is a narrow beach on the west shore below the cliffs. In the distance a faint rumbling can be heard. Frigid River (4) The river is running faster here and the sound ahead appears to be that of rushing water. On the east shore is a sandy beach. A small area of beach can also be seen below the cliffs on the west shore. RED BUOY Frigid River (5) The sound of rushing water is nearly unbearable here. On the east shore is a large landing area. White Cliffs Beach (north) You are on a narrow strip of beach which runs along the base of the Cliffs. There is a narrow path heading south along the Cliffs and a tight passage leading west into the cliffs themselves. White cliffs Beach (south) You are on a rocky, narrow strip of beach beside the Cliffs. A narrow path leads north along the shore. Sandy Beach [in darkness] you are on a large sandy beach on the east shore of the river, which is flowing quickly by. A path runs beside the river to the south here, and a passage is partially buried in sand to the northeast. SHOVEL
Sandy Cave This is a sand-filled cave whose exit is to the southwest. [BEAUTIFUL JEWELED SCARAB] Shore You are on the east shore of the river. The water here seems somewhat treacherous. A path travels from north to south here, the south end quickly turning around a sharp corner. Aragain Falls You are at the top of Aragain Falls, an enormous waterfall with a drop of about 450 feet. The only path here is on the north end. On the Rainbow You are on top of a rainbow (I bet you never thought you would walk on a rainbow), with a magnificent view of the Falls. The rainbow travels east-west here. A beautiful rainbow can be seen over the falls and to the west. A solid rainbow spans the falls. Atlantis room This is an ancient room, long under water. there is an exit to the south and a staircase leading up. CRYSTAL TRIDENT Cave This is a tiny cave with entrances west and north, and a staircase leading down. Twisting Passage This is a winding passage. It seems that there are only exits on the east and north. Mirror Room (north) You are in a large square room with tall ceilings. On the south wall is an enormous mirror which fills the entire wall. There are exits on the other three sides of the room. Unfortunately, the mirror has been destroyed by your recklessness. Cold Passage This is a cold and damp corridor where a long east-west passageway turns into a southward path. Slide Room This is a small chamber, which appears to have been part of a coal mine. On the south wall of the chamber the letters "Granite Wall" are etched in the rock. To the east is a long passage, and there is a steep metal slide twisting downward. To the north is a small opening. Mine Entrance You are standing at the entrance of what might have been a coal mine. The shaft enters the west wall, and there is another exit on the south end of the room. Squeaky Room you are in a small room. strange squeaky sounds may be heard coming from the passage at the north end. you may also escape to the east. Bat Room You are in a small room which has doors only to the east and south. JADE FIGURINE BAT Shaft Room this is a large room, in the middle of which is a small shaft descending through the floor into darkness below. To the west and the north are exits from this room. Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached. BASKET (At the end of the chain is a basket.) (From the chain is suspended a basket.)
Smelly room this is a small non-descript room. However, from the direction of a small descending staircase a foul odor can be detected. To the south is a narrow tunnel. Gas Room This is a small room which smells strongly of coal gas. There is a short climb up some stairs and a narrow tunnel leading east. SAPPHIRE-ENCRUSTED bracelet Coal Mine (1) this is a non-descript part of a coal mine. Coal Mine (2) This is a non-descript part of a coal mine. Coal Mine (3) this is a non-descript part of a coal mine. Coal Mine (4) This is a non-descript part of a coal mine. Ladder Top This is a very small room. In the corner is a rickety wooden ladder, leading downward. it might be safe to descend. There is also a staircase leading upward. Ladder Bottom This is a rather wide room. On one side is the bottom of a narrow wooden ladder. To the west and the south are passages leaving the room. Dead End You have come to a dead end in the mine." SMALL PILE OF COAL Timber Room This is a long and narrow passage, which is cluttered with broken timbers. A wide passage comes from the east and turns at the west end of the room into a very narrow passageway. From the west comes a strong draft. Drafty Room This is a small drafty room in which is the bottom of a long shaft. To the south is a passageway and to the east a very narrow passage. In the shaft can be seen a heavy iron chain. BASKET Machine Room This is a large, cold room whose sole exit is to the north. In one corner there is a machine which is reminiscent of a clothes dryer. On its face is a switch which is labelled "START". The switch does not appear to be manipulable by any human hand (unless the fingers are about 1/16 by 1/4 inch). On the front of the machine is a large lid, which is closed[open]. MACHINE [LARGE DIAMOND] [SMALL PIECE OF VITREOUS SLAG] Stone Barrow you are standing in front of a massive barrow of stone. In the east face is a huge stone door which is open. You cannot see into the dark of the tomb. Inside the Barrow As you enter the barrow, the door closes inexorably behind you. Around you it is dark, but ahead is an enormous cavern, brightly lit. Through its center runs a wide stream. Spanning the stream is a small wooden footbridge, and beyond a path leads into a dark tunnel. Above the bridge, floating in the air, is a large sign. It reads: All ye who stand before this bridge have completed a great and perilous adventure which has tested your wit and courage. You have mastered the first part of the ZORK trilogy. Those who pass over this bridge must be prepared to undertake an e
RESERVATION KING Kaj Tanaka
The woman sitting beside me on the bus stirs in the blue early morning light. The sun comes up. She shifts her head down onto my shoulder. I don’t do anything about it. She showed up in Iowa, during the night. She is sick with something—her eyes have this animal-like quality. We stop at a multiplex gas station somewhere west of Sioux Falls, the woman gets up from her seat and pushes her way off the bus. I watch from the window as she limps toward the neon lights of the truck stop. Everyone else is crowding to get off now. I see some men smoking in the parking lot. There is something in the way these men—three of them—stand together in silence, smoking under the cool red haze of the South Dakota dawn. The bus breaks down at seven AM. It limps over to the side of the highway and stops. We wait in our seats for a while until the driver tells us to get off. All of us pile onto the side of highway like freshly hatched moths, and we blink in the morning sun, and we dry ourselves. We shuffle soundlessly around the shoulder of I-90. I watch the cars pass. The sun is up now, and these people driving their cars down the highway, they must be going to work. I assume there is a town just beyond the horizon, full of businesses which are not hiring and expensive restaurants and cheap liquor stores which are also not hiring and dogs and green golf courses and foreclosed houses and empty parking lots and parents and their terrible misbehaving children. Just because you cannot see a thing does not mean it is not imminent, does not mean it is not approaching at you at a tremendous, breakneck speed.
Don Two Bulls, the school superintendent, rises when I walk into his office. He gets up slowly with a kind of delicate grace—his leather blazer’s sharp angles, his bolo tie like a noose around his neck, his cowboy hat. He cuts the room down the middle like a piece of furniture, like a table, say. He pulls a piece of paper from a folder on his desk, and he finds my name on the list. “You’re early,” he says. “Why are you so early? You aren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow. We aren’t ready for you.” I explain there must have been some kind of miscommunication because I thought I was four hours late. I show him my calendar. “I ran into some trouble with the bus getting here,” I say. “It’s fine,” he says. “We don’t have much for you to do until tomorrow, but there’s a lot of paper work, so I guess you can get started with that. Go to the front office and ask the Jayden to print it out for you. It will take you a few days to get through it all. But don’t put it off just because you have a head start.” “I won’t,” I say. “Don’t worry about me,” he seems to detect something in my tone and curls his lip. “I know your type,” he says looking down at some papers in front of him. “Special treatment’s over, you understand? You plan to teach seventh grade with those tight pants? Get some new clothes,” and he looks at me across his huge desk. “I’ll think about it,” I say. “Tell Jayden you need a ride over to the Baptist Mission. You’ll need to stay there tonight. Housing won’t be ready until tomorrow.” Don Two Bulls walks around the table and stands near me for a moment. I can hear his breathing. He acts like he is preparing to say something, but then it’s over, and he opens the door leading back to the hallway. “Office is that way,” he finally says. “Don’t put off that paperwork.”
The secretary, Jayden, is young, pretty and visibly pregnant. She stares at me like I’m the idiot. “I’m a new AmeriCorps volunteer.” I say. “I’m supposed to pick up some paperwork.” She does some quick and efficient typing on her computer. The printer in the corner of the room screeches and shakes, and begins spitting out paper. “This is it here,” she finally says to me after a few minutes, and she reaches into a folder and hands me a thick pile of papers. “What’s all of that then?” I asked, pointing to the printer, which was still spitting out pages. “That’s something else,” she tells me. Jayden can’t give me a ride to the Baptist mission until the office closes in the evening, so I wait around for six hours. I haven’t eaten since before the bus breakdown, and my stomach is making noises. I fall asleep in the corner of the office, propped up against the wall because there is no furniture besides her desk, and I am afraid to leave the building because I am afraid of the entire reservation. I wake up when Jayden shuts down her computer and dims the lights, and I get up quickly, and I get my bags. She locks the office door behind us. We drive in silence. She opens her windows and the wind is hot, and the dust burns my throat. The sun is setting. “I need some food,” I say as we drive through Pine Ridge. “I haven’t eaten all day.” Jayden seems not to hear me.
“Will they have any food at the mission?” I ask. She ignores me. “I’m hungry now,” I say, but she doesn’t say anything. “Just stop here,” I finally yell, and I kick the dashboard. She doesn’t say anything, but she pulls in to the Taco John’s . I go inside and buy some tacos. Jayden is on the phone when I got back. I try not to listen to what she is saying, but the way her mouth moves, it is like the lapping of warm milk or the motion of a pendulum clock. I watch the bump on her stomach and imagine the creature that is about to be pulled from her body. On the side of the road near the Baptist mission, we both see a badly mutilated goose. It looks as if it has been dragged under a car. I only catch a glimpse as we drive by—its beak upturned in rigor mortis. Its eyes, open to the red horizon. When we arrive at the Baptist mission, I don’t move at first. I’m not sure why, but I hover there in the passenger seat like I’m waiting for something. I feel Jayden’s body filling the air—she, her terrible baby, and I. I almost say something, but then I don’t because I hate her. “They won’t respect you,” she yells out the window as I am walking away, and then she is gone.
The Baptist mission itself is built like a fortress with heavy on locks and bars and bolts. A guy answers the door, an older white man who introduces himself as Verlaine. I notice that everything is secure here, even the interior doors have these impressive locks on them. “The reservation gets scary sometimes,” Verlaine tells me. “This edge of town especially. People always hitching rides up to White Clay for booze,” and he points up the road toward White Clay. “We can’t always trust the people.”
Verlaine is just a guy. He lives there with his wife Marla. She is just a woman. In my room that night, I look out the window. It is covered with a heavy-duty iron mesh. Outside, in the security lights, I see a number of men waiting around, drinking from bottles in the shadows. In the morning, I see them sleeping in the grass. Verlaine tells me that the mission gives out food a few times a day, so the winos use the yard as a kind of hangout. “It isn’t a problem,” he says. “They need somewhere to go. They were here in this lot before we built the mission,” he says, “and they’ll probably be here after we’re gone, so I guess you could say we have this space on loan from them.” “Oh so that’s why you have the locks?” I ask. “To keep them out?” We are standing around, waiting for the coffee to be done. It is six in the morning. “I wish it weren’t true,” he says.
I leave earlier than I need to, and I carry my bags down the empty road, back toward the town, past the Pizza Hut and the Taco John’s. Verlaine tells me to keep going the same direction and I’ll get to the school where our first day of orientation is to begin. No one is on the street—hardly anyone. I see one car filling up gas. It is still around six thirty. I make it to the school before seven. Things have picked up by then, there are more cars, and people are getting to work at the Tribal offices, and the lights and the human sounds are like the lights and sounds of any other small town. I wait outside the school at the main doors with my three bags. The door is locked, so I wait. People drive by slowly, and they look at me. We were supposed to start at 7:30, but I am still sitting there at eight o’clock. By chance, Don Two Bulls finds me. He is wandering around smoking a cigarette. “We’re set up over here,” he says, waving at the side door he has just come through. “How long have you been waiting here?”
I tell him. “Get inside,” he says, “before they eat all the food.” I ask him about the people at my worksite in Manderson. He tells me I need to wait. “You’ll meet them,” he says, “there’s two of them here today,” and he doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t look at me either, just smokes and looks off toward the main road. Don Two Bulls never liked me. It was clear that day, but I couldn’t know for sure because these things take time to establish themselves, so I go inside and I smell the sour stink of every school, and down the hall in the library, I find all of the other AmeriCorps volunteers and some staff members. It is overwhelming, the entire terrible bunch of them—it is made worse by the fact that no one else seems as ill at ease as I am.
I finish my food and coffee, and a fellow named Gil directs us to sit in this circle. There are chairs already set up. We look at each other blankly and wait. This white fellow, Gil, is from Cincinnati. He was the one who hired me over the phone. He is running the training today. He told me over the phone that he is a Dominican Friar—that he is part of the community of Dominicans here. They help with the AmeriCorps stuff. They help with lots of things. So Gil has everyone introduce themselves, and he asks us to tell a story about how we got here, which is exactly the kind of thing he would do. He starts with me, because, I don’t know why, and I tell the story about how I showed up early by accident, and how I’d spent the night at the Baptist Mission with the heavy-duty mesh stuff on my windows and about how I saw those winos in the yard. I think Don Two Bulls can see that I am affected by this, that I am out of my depth here, and he seems to roll his eyes.
The volunteers are an odd bunch. I am the only normal one among them. The introduction circle takes a long time because everyone wants to tell these involved stories. Gil cuts a few of them off, because they are taking too long, and by the time everyone is finished, we have killed two and a half hours, and we are behind schedule. Gil is visibly annoyed. He passes out these binders full of training materials. There are always binders; there are always training materials. This binder is full of smiling Native American children, and official AmeriCorps policies, and more forms we need to sign. I look out the window of the school cafeteria, and there is my future selfâ€”he is already out there near the trees, and through the door there are other rooms beyond this one, and my future self is already in those rooms as well, awake, moving unafraid.
THE AMAZING ALFREDO Ron Burch
I get drunk and go to this amusement park with a woman I've been seeing. We don't have much in common except drinking so it's a diversion. I lose her as soon as we get there. She disappears into the families pulling on each other. I buy a beer, one that costs me three times what I can get at the corner bodega, and sit on a green bench, content to get fucked up until she wanders back this way and finds me. Across the fake street that they've made here, a man in a white shirt with green pants and suspenders eyes me. He slowly waves me over. I look away, taking a drink, watching a mother herd her son onto a merry go round. The man is now furiously waving at me, beckoning me. His placard announces that he is "The Amazing Alfredo." He kind of looks like a dick to me, hassling families who happen to get too close to him while heading to the Tilt N Whirl. Leave me the fuck alone, I yell across the street to him but he is undaunted -- he is the Amazing Alfredo. He cares not what I want. Also, he has no one else to harass but me because everyone else ignores him as they walk by. Come over here and let me guess your weight, he yells. I ignore him and watch the kids on the merry-go-round as they hang on tightly to their chipped horses as tinny music plays and the go-round creaks along its journey. Come on, dude, the Amazing Alfredo yells over. If my boss doesn't see me getting customers over here, he's going to dump my ass. Work harder, I yell back. Alfredo seems to be anxious, walking around back and forth in front of his big scale. I'll buy you a beer, he says. I figure what the fuck and cross over to him.
Is this gonna cost me money? Nah, he replies. Your sign says two bucks, I reply. Don't worry about it, he says. Just stand here until my boss moves on. And then I'll get my beer? Yeah. He's a tall guy, thin, with a soul patch on his chin. Probably in his late 20s. Your name really Alfredo? Nah, he says, it's John. How you get a job like this? Couldn't find anything else, he says. It sucks but it's okay for now. Kinda old for this to be a summer job, I say. He doesn't reply. He's watching a middle-aged guy in a blue tie talk to a cute woman at a concession stand. I assume it's his boss. We gotta go through the motions, he whispers. Okay, fine, whatever, I reply, but I'm still gonna get my beer, right? Yeah, he says, but I can't get it now. That's my boss at the concession stand. So then in a louder voice, he says, Only two dollars, only two dollars, I can guess your weight, what about you, sir. His boss now seems to be watching us, the woman no longer holding his attention. Sure, why the fuck not, I reply. Awesome, sir, just stand back and let me take a look at you. I take two steps back and he makes a big show of walking around, eyeing me from various angles like I'm some prize dog at one of those kennel club shows. Hmm, he says, this is tricky! His voice carries across the fake street and a couple, early 20s, with matching bad skin, stop and watch.
So whaddya think? I'm guessing around 195, he says, finally, after a long dramatic pause. You sure? Yeah, he says, 195. Already I know that he sucks at doing this. How much you gotta be within? Ten pounds, he says. And I know he's wrong. I don't weigh more than 180. Never have. And if I win, I get some cute kewpie doll that I can impress this woman with, maybe get to go home with her after this, but I look at the Amazing Alfredo, who seems young and unemployable and wears a cheap wedding ring and probably has a kid who is always sick, if not two kids, and drives a beat-up piece of shit car and lives in a terrible apartment complex where his neighbors probably beat each other and his wife hates him because this is what he does for a living because he doesn't have anything else going for him and I lie and say, You got me, dude and his boss smiles and Alfredo smiles and I'm not even going to try to get my beer out of this guy because when I was young I knew what it was to be an Amazing Alfredo.
BATTLE HYMN Willie Davis Anyone who speaks in my accent grew up primed for destructions. It comes as common to us as the knowledge to snarl during pain, so we try not to mourn. Each of us got swaddled at the base of exploding, headless mountains—chopped down first for the coal, then for the highways, and now out of tradition—and all we knew of homes was they were meant to change. I changed too. The question I field the most from any number of bitch or son thereof is, “What happened to you? What happened to you?” I don’t imagine they’re looking for advice. The truth is nothing happened. I was born up a holler-head, ran wild a spell, and I always sung when I could. I never known my father, which, all things considered, is not as uncommon as a three-nutted horse. I heard once that he wound up as a commercial fisherman in Maine, which is high on my list of places I don’t care about. My mother got her tongue cut out by tongue doctors when I was twelve, babbled around for a year and a half, and then bid us adieu. At least, I assume it was adieu—without her tongue, it was hard for her to say much at all except for one long vowel sound. It’s sad, but I heard sadder. Learning guitar taught me a new way of fighting. Me and the Salyer boys would go snort a line or two, then they’d holler at me until I sang. I sang old songs— the type of weepy ballad that is to East Kentucky what the National Anthem is to war. When I played on street corners in front of strangers, everyone acted kindly, but I figured that was mostly surprise at hearing a young boy sing old songs. So I sang their “Methodist Pie,” their “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew,” or their “Diamond Joe” and all the while shuck and grin. I meant it as spoiling for a fight, but I didn’t know what kind yet. Then one night when I was singing a gospel tune to some
friends in my backyard, Oliver Penny, who’d just done three tabs of acid, misheard “Come now, Jesus, break this wall” as “Come now, Jesus, take this waltz.” As soon as Oliver could remember which way was inside, he fetched us a piece of paper where we scribbled our first song, “I Can Outdance Jesus.” We liked it so much that the next Sunday my buddies and I went to The Episcopal Church to sing it for the people leaving the sermon. As the Church folk filed out, I hit a few high strings and waited as they gathered around. Finally, I had enough of a crowd where I could begin. The song has a slow build: “I was in a nightclub in Jerusalem, in 22 AD,” I sing. “The band started playing, and on the dance floor, it was just Jesus and me.” The me in the song wins the dance contest with God’s eldest, and just as he receives his thorny dancing crown, the chorus begins: I can outdance Jesus So won’t you dance with me? You can’t shimmy, and you can’t shake With your feet nailed to a tree. I can outdance Jesus. O babe, I’m on a roll. He might be the king of the Jews, But I’m the king of soul. Oliver Penny got spooked at singing blasphemy within earshot of the lord, but the way I figure it, I’m Christlier than most people. There was a slight pause before the heckling. I thought they were going to swarm me, but I still had another verse. So I sang it, but before I belted out three lines, someone beamed me in the forehead with a shoe.
It didn’t hurt, but made a loud pop, and the surprise more than the smack made me stop singing. It shut the crowd up too. I didn’t know what to do, but I had an audience. Because the man was already on my mind, and I hadn’t written a second song, I strummed the first few heavy chords and sang “O What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” No one reacted, so I segued straight into “Angel Band.” Now they laughed like that was the joke song. ‘Cheer up my brother, and sit down beside me/We’ll understand better in the sweet bye and bye.’ I can’t say for certain if now’s the bye and bye, but I do understand. I’d made those folks believe. They heard my songs and took them as a declaration of pandemonium, and when I reverted back to form, they knew I’d been changed. I’d acted as baptizer and lamb all wrapped in one delicious gyro. I’ve got no urge to sway a town to righteousness, but I can’t resist a ruckus. Once I saw how quick my songs could throw folks off balance, I knew that was one talent I couldn’t ignore. Every Saturday, it was a double nostrilful of whatever we could snag for the thirty something dollars we had when we pooled our money. Then each Sunday morning, I parked in front of the church, singing about Jesus on the dance floor. The first two weeks, they were annoyed. I was pulling last week’s salvation show, and they didn’t want to sit through it twice. Soon, however, they stopped hating me, barely noticing my song, even as I added verse after verse. They walked by me with smiles as blank and bright as light bulbs, like I was doing nothing more than wearing a sandwich board. I tried writing new songs, secular ones this time. The next week, I wrote a song called “My Wife Ran Away With a Jew,” which explains how some son of Abraham son of a bitch pries away the poor singer’s beloved. “As he stole her away, she yelled from his car/‘He controls the media and controls my heart.’” I detailed the singer’s plans to regain her good graces. “If you come back, babe, I’ll stop eating swine/I’ll cut off my
foreskin if it means that you’re mine.” I sang it in front of the Chinese restaurant where the reformer types eat, and even though some tuxedoed Chinaman shooed me away, I suspect it was for the noise and not the words. I then decided to make children’s music. First, it was a song to help children whose parents are going through divorce called “New Mommy.” ‘The new mommy’s a lot prettier and she don’t make you clean your room/she didn’t keep you locked away for nine months in her womb.’ I followed it with an ode to the marathon masturbation sessions we used to do in middle school when we were too sick to go to class. ‘Come on, let’s have a sick day, there’s no one else around/Think of a girl and disobey God and spill your seed on the ground.’ It took Chuck Holloway, the principal’s layabout brother, to clue me in. Chuck was the only one who sought out my music. On warm days, he sat on the curb in front of me and bobbed his head to the beat. He didn’t have much sense of rhythm, but sometimes I found myself slowing the song to match how his head weaved. I didn’t know Chuck Holloway well, but he struck me as the lucky sort, the type people want to shield. “I know what you’re after,” he said one Sunday morning. “It’s got to kill you, right?” I tuned my D string. “You know why folks ignore you, right?” His teeth were so ragged and his gums so bloody that he looked like he’d just eaten a bowl of Chiclets and raspberry jam. “Whatever else you are, you’re a kid without a mother. Not a word yet invented you could sing that can make us think anything other than you’re acting out.” I hated Chuck Holloway for telling me that. They thought of me as the Collier kid, the last best reflection of Rachel Collier before she lost her health. I might as well have been her afterbirth.
For a long time after that, I thought about Tennessee. Oliver Penny asked why I wouldn’t show up on Saturday nights anymore. He missed my company, he said, and he missed my songs. Also without my seven dollars and thirty-six cents they had to go to a lesser class of drug that was at least sixty percent baking soda. Ray Lofton thought he’d pissed me off, and got midway through his apology before he decided I was stuck up and full of shit anyway, and if I wanted to be mad, I could rightly fuck myself. But I wasn’t mad; I had a strategy. A song in itself is nothing but a three-minute bit of say-what-you-see. Look, there’s a pretty girl; Look, there’s a well-publicized injustice in Alabama; Look, there’s upcoming death. But the reaction to a song can crack marble. As I saw it, it’s only a matter of what halls do I want to shake. It’s commonly known by thinking folks that Tennessee is a piece of shit state, barely worthy of being Georgia’s asswipe. The men smell like a hobo’s ballbag in the second week of August, and the women have that cross-eyed distracted look that God’s bestowed on redheads and the mildly retarded. The sum total of all that bullshit is Nashville, where the whole city is Christian rock and virgin country. And then there’s the Opry, which is nothing but a hillbilly minstrel show. All those be-hatted queers playing the coon so the rest of the world can laugh at us. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was true—for me to get peace in this world, the Opry had to burn. I stopped playing my songs on street corners. Actually, I played the beginnings of them, but as soon as soon as someone stopped to listen, I quit singing and just stared at them until they went away. Most folks crossed the street when they saw me with my guitar. “You all right there, honey?” Chuck Holloway asked me. He called everyone honey, man or woman. “Been hearing stories about you acting all out your head.”
“Did you know that George Jones was such a miserable drunk that when his wife hid the keys to his car, he drove his lawn mower to the liquor store?” I shook my head. “What sort of state celebrates a degenerate like that?” I tried working my way back to my circle of friends, putting my guitar and nostrils good use each Saturday, but the Opry had killed my conversation. When real slander didn’t cut it, I made stuff up. “Did you know Minnie Pearle hated Mexicans?” I said. “She calls them mud-people.” “You’re not Mex,” Ray Lofton said. “She’s not calling you mud.” “And Dolly Parton beat her kids,” I said. “In her memoirs, she talks about holding her daughter’s hand to the stove.” “Right,” Oliver Penny said. “And Osama Bin Laden helped fund Hee Haw, and Elvis Presley’s the one who sold us this weak-ass dope. Why you got such a hard-on for that place anyway?” “The music,” I said. “The people. Everything.” “That song ‘Rocky Top’ is kind of catchy,” he said. “You’re just trying to piss me off.” “What about James Polk?” I spat on the ground. “I hate that pop-country shit.” “James K. Polk was president,” Oliver said. “I don’t know how good he was but president, you got to have some friends.” “It’s hard to explain,” I said. But it wasn’t. I’d already explained. “I wish it wasn’t there. I want it not to exist.”
Claude Salyer swiped his uncle’s hatchback to go to Bristol to visit some girl, and he offered me a ride. “You talk about Tennessee so much,” he told me, “you may as well say it to its face.” Claude and I didn’t much like each other, which put him at
odds with approximately no one, and I suspect he gave me the ride to get rid of me— he let me know up front that the ride was one way, and I could find my own way home or not—but I took it. On the ride down, Claude kept asking my plans like he was my guidance counselor. “I want to see Nashville,” I finally said. “Nashville?” He laughed. “It’s like five hours away. It’s another time zone.” I blinked at him. “You know what Tennessee is, right? A state. A big one with lots of parts to it.” Something in the back of the seat was prodding into my spine, and I reached behind me to get it. I’d never really said my plan to anyone, not all the way. “You know my music, right? You like it?” Claude tilted his head in a manner I decided to call a nod. “I can’t say I care for the cussing, but you got an okay voice.” I looked out the window. His side mirror was cracked. “Sometimes I think, What if I got good? And big, you know, just singing those sweet old songs people want to hear. Can I make it?” “No,” he said. “Nothing personal, but you’re not the first man with that idea.” “But say I did. Like big enough to play the Opry.” I readjusted in my seat. “I just had this vision, you know, of everyone in one place, them listening, really listening to me. And I start singing my songs, the dirty ones, would they riot? Try to take the stage? Trample each other? I don’t want to jinx it, but burn stuff?” Claude Salyer looked at me, ran his thick tongue over his corn colored teeth and started cackling. “You’re nuttier than a can of Jif,” he said. “You think a whole town’s going to commit Hari Kari because you said the F word?” “Stranger things have happened.”
“They have not,” he said. “Here I am thinking you’re just a weirdo when it turns out you’re flat crazy.”
He dropped me off in Bristol just before sunset. “Near the bus station,” he said, but when I asked which way, he admitted he didn’t know if Bristol had a bus station. It didn’t matter. I didn’t have money for a bus yet. The people were starting to get out of work and into the streets. I stood on the corner and tuned my guitar. A man across the street in a green jacket stared at me. Because of the color of his clothes, I thought he might be a veteran, so I sang a song about America. It was going to be hard to sing it sober, but I had no choice now. The song had a quick bouncy rhythm, and it tries to unravel all of American history at once, starting with the Pilgrims sailing into Plymouth Rock and meeting the Indians. “We gave them smallpox, but they stole our tea, so we decided to call it even.” It goes on to include The Revolutionary War, slavery, and Manifest Destiny “We took the west from the Indians/And Texas from the Mexicans/Now they won’t take it back again/Although it would improve both nations”. It leads to the chorus, optimistic and gloating, which is how music is meant to sound: America, America, Two cars for every house We never eat our cats or dogs, Can’t say the same for Laos. America, America With forty acres and a mule Our women have fake plastic tits. Take that, Istanbul.
We each of us have our own wars and our own weapons. I had my gospel, and the more I sang, the more I believed. The Opry would die with or without me—all buildings fall. But if I could get the song right then you and me could both taste the wood-smoke and smell the panic sweat. I’d live as long as recorded history, people shaking their heads in awe, saying, that kid’s a beast, that kid’s a nightmare, that right there’s a man worth regarding. And if I ever got home again, I’d tell about it.
ROYALS IN THE WILD Crystal Galyean
The green in Pointe Coupee Parish needs a special name. It’s deep and everywhere, persistent through space and season. It’s wet, as much as a color can be wet. When it rains here you don’t even notice, because the swamps seem to come up into the air so it seems like you’re swimming all the time, even while you’re dreaming, you’re swimming through water and green, forever waiting for the moment when you will touch dry land.
The cemeteries here are of a different sort. When you put the dead in the ground—the shifting, watery, layers of mud we call ground—they don’t stay put for long. Here comes a heavy rain, and there go the dead, shifting with the mud into other graves or further down into the greedy earth or, in violent weather, up out the ground altogether. This is an unwelcome sight, especially on moonlit nights when the rain leaves behind a thick fog and makes the Spanish moss and cypress branches so heavy with moisture they droop imposing over all life below them.
The cheap coffins, those for the passed whose family could not afford proper houses for the living let alone the dead, don’t hold in the mud and moisture. They come up, askew and battered, letting out the remains, skeletal and undignified, rainwater flooding out empty eye sockets. My grandmaman would tell me that this was the dead’s way of saying what we were giving them was not good enough, so we had better try again. After my grandmaman told me of the shifting soil, I used to wake up thrashing in bed, dreaming of the earth opening up in a black hole that breathed in rows of graves and then spread toward our town, threatening to take our cabin into the yawning ground.
When the Union soldiers fought a battle near here, they buried their dead in the wet muck. Anyone who has tried to dig a grave in these parts knows that the water seeps in as fast as you can dig it. But the soldiers were tired, so they covered their dead in shallow swamp graves. That night, as they rested around the campfire, the sky opened up with one of the brief, terrific thunderstorms only the Louisiana summer can summon. The fire fizzled, and they saw the ground begin to move. When lightning strikes a cypress branch in the swamp, sending it crashing into the water, the swamp ignites in a supernatural green that spreads outwards from the fallen limb, illuminating everything in a momentary, blinding, glow. Only then does the swamp allow you to see it, know its every nook and cranny, glimpse into its dark recesses. They call that la feu feuille. When the lighting shone up that swamp, and the soldiers saw their dead brothers coming back up out of the ground, they ran like mad men, stumbling in the dark and rain, falling to the gators. The storm that night did more to the Union than the rebels could have done in ten battles.
It didnâ€™t take our people too long to figure out that if you wanted to bury the dead, bury them proper, they needed real houses, made of stone and marble, not wood and dirt. The cemeteries sprouted up around the city and the outlying parishes like stone flowers, dotting the landscape with tombs of marble, brick, and plaster. Those tombs cost more, so families learned to make do by letting the Louisiana sun work its magic on the brick and stone, decomposing the lost ones and making room for the next souls leaving this world.
It was when multiple kin died at once, like when the yellow fever swept through town late summer, that burying became difficult. The wealthy boarded up
their houses and fled the lowlands, away from the wetness and the disease. Those left behind tried to protect their children, but August took away so many young. My grandmaman used to say grave rent went high every August and the grave robbers cashed in every September.
August was also the time men’s minds weren’t right. My husband always said that the city folk should have their guns taken away during the hot summers. He said there was too much excitement in New Orleans, too many smells and sounds and movement, not like in the country, where you had more time and room to think things through. I said I don’t know. Country has its crazy just like the city has its crazy, and all crazy needs is a gun and a reason. And August, with the disease and the heat, usually gives somebody a reason.
At least now the dead stay buried. Today you can walk through the cemeteries and you know without reading a thing who was who. Who was having ballroom dances and who was king of Carnival, rows and rows of the resting dead, secure in their tombs and their legacies. We have our own smaller cemetery here in the Parish. It’s worn down but it’s ours. My grandmaman is in a vault just on the southeastern corner of the plot. The stone has all but chipped away, exposing the plaster and the brick, but you know her grave from twenty plots away by the rum and cigarettes and beads, offerings from people who know her name and came to pay their respects. I will be in the tomb just next to it, with my mama and my papa. They cleared room for me a long time ago.
Sometimes my maman used to call us the forgotten people. She said we come from a time nobody remembers but in fairy tales, and it’s true that sometimes
I feel like a statue in a museum with the world spinning by while I sit still. When the tourists wander down False River, with their rucksacks and thick socks, looking for the real Louisiana they say, they take pictures of me on my porch. I used to smile and wave, but now I pretend like I donâ€™t see them or their cameras because they seem to like it better that way. When they are done with their pictures I say welcome to Point Coupee Parish and I sell them a quilt. Some quilts tell the stories of the Creole people and some tell the stories the Creole people tell about themselves, because those are two different things.
My people kept coming up and up from New Orleans, past Baton Rouge, away from the coast into the belly of Louisiana until they finally settled, or hid or reinvented, however you want to call it, in Pointe Coupee. As the war with the North approached, and more colored Creoles were pushed out of New Orleans, the Parish grew and they lived like royals in the wild. I am the last one of my line left here in Point Coupee Parish, and I will leave soon too. My final quilt will be ready by the time the man comes and these will be the last stories I tell. I cannot put words on paper so well, but the fabric of these blankets, these colors and the pictures I make with my wrinkled hands, will last just as long.
Out of all of the women in my family, my grandmaman Dora grew up most completely in the grip of the spirit. Dora had her first vision a few weeks after Christmas, when all the townspeople came together for the Papegai. Every year, the women sewed a cow made of hay and cloth and dirt, the town butcher divided cuts of meat with red paint, and the men raised it on a tall pole. The children and slaves of the village lined up to take shots from the same old rusty musket. They aimed for
the prime cuts, and if they shot true, they would enjoy the taste of the real cow the elders bought just north of the Parish.
That night, Dora watched with glee late into the night as man after man took aim at the stuffed cow flailing wildly up on the pole, right up until my great grandmaman told her to go on home and get to bed. A group of white men, strangers traveling to Baton Rouge, stopped Dora on the road, and she came home the next morning with her face bloodied and her dress torn. The family did not discuss it, but cleaned her up and went on with their living. Soon after, at the dinner table, Dora dropped her fork and raised her hand to trace something in the air. It was crawling on the wall of the kitchen nook where they ate, leaving a trail of sweat beads in the cracks of the log cabin walls. At first the creature was brown and knotted like wood, so it looked as if the walls themselves were slithering toward heaven. Then it turned black, gold smoke emanating from its tail. It peeled away from the wall and floated over the table, tilting its belly upwards, sweating toward the ceiling. It had one eye and no mouth, only two dark nostrils emanating that same sweet-smelling gold smoke. It paused and coiled over Dora’s head before vanishing out the cabin window. It was Zombi, life itself, transmitter of spirit.
My grandmaman described the vision to me when I was a child, and I remember how it gave me nightmares. Not nightmares of the normal childish sort. These dreams were thick with awe and even hope, terrifying but intoxicating too. My sister, god rest her soul, said she would wake in the middle of the night in the cot we shared and hear me tossing and moaning. I would lie and tell her I couldn’t remember what I was dreaming of. I was jealous of my dreams, protective. I did not
want to share them with anyone, because if they brought knowledge or power it should be mine alone, earned through a childhood of night sweats.
The snake my grandmaman described was not the snake that led Adam and Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. It did not speak or communicate in any other sense. It was merely present. But its presence had a weight to it. This snake had intuition about this world and the next, and brought us closer to what had passed and what was to come. My grandmaman told me that as it left and the last of the smoke cleared the room, only then was she able to breathe again. And as she took that breath, she told me years later, she felt every fiber in her body strengthen, as if someone had built tiny reinforcements in her tissues, even lining the walls of her heart.
My grandmaman grew into a powerful woman. Women came from all over to see her about their sick children and wandering husbands. Sometimes white women from New Orleansâ€™s finest families trekked all the way to the Parish in search of roots that would prevent them from bringing another life into their great cruel houses. During the day they lived beautiful lives. At night they crept through the swamps to beg mercy from my grandmaman.
When I was still very young I waited until my parents and sisters had gone to sleep, and I snuck out of the cabin through the kitchen window, like Zombi, and walked in the dark to where I knew my grandmaman would be at work under the moon. I came to a clearing in the swamp where I saw our neighbors, men and women I knew, gathered around a beautiful black chest. I sat behind a charred tree
downed by lightning and looked through a hole in the trunk, smelling the burnt wood as I watched.
My grandmaman stood near the chest with her eyes closed and her chin tilted toward the sky. Shreds of clothing, dolls, and other trinkets writhed in the flames of a fire before her. The men and women I saw around the fire were faces I knew from church and the market. But their features were different now. Like they were looking at something that was not there. Eyes wide open, staring at the fire, pupils large and lips moving in silence. Beyond the fire was a small goat hanging from tree branches, throat slit, blood pouring into a trough on the ground below. A woman I had never seen cupped the blood in her hands and carried it around the circle. It dripped through the cracks of her fingers as she walked, leaving patterns of droplets on the dirt that shimmered in the firelight.
My grandmaman began to sing; the words I did not understand but the melody I felt I had heard before, maybe in my dreams. She untied her robe and let it fall to the ground, moving her feet from one side to the other as the crowd murmured with her. They too began to undress, and I looked away as the men removed their pants and danced close to the women. Some of the women had swollen bellies, shiny with taut skin that they rubbed as they danced. The murmurs grew into shrieks as they moved naked around the fire. My grandmaman dropped to her knees next to the trunk and lay her head on its black shining surface. The box looked as if it was sweating from the fire, nearly bulging from the inside. I know you might not believe me, seeing this as I did with a childâ€™s eyes, but that box then began to shiver, then quake, then jump, rising off the ground in violent jerks as they danced.
My grandmaman climbed upon the chest, planting her bare aging feet on its lid while it rattled beneath her. Her head rolled and bobbed on her chest and she writhed from feet to head in the pattern of a snake. Out of the fire came a flame in the shape of Li Grand Zombi. Its skin glistened, melding with my grandmaman’s sweat in a scaly fleshy glow. A man came closer to the log behind which I hid, his nakedness swaying before me as he danced wildly with his face to the sky. The lightning struck right behind me then, and as I turned for one brief moment I could see the green glow spread far and deep through the swamp waters, illuminating everything for one bright moment. I ran back to the cabin where my parents slept their calm Catholic sleep, leaving the firelight behind me.
When I was a child, I often heard papa telling my mother that grandmaman would bring shame on our family. When my father was not around, though, mama pulled roots from our garden and sent me with packages wrapped in brown paper to my grandmaman’s cabin in the back of our land, and there she taught me some of what she knew.
My mother grew into a woman in the decades before the war with the North, and she saw troubled times for our family. No one knew for sure who mama's father was, but my aunt told me that my mother’s skin was so light, and her eyes so fierce, most were sure that she was the legacy of a blue-eyed Cajun who had passed through the Parish one summer. He had brought fighting cocks and gathered the village men during the day to watch and drink and gamble. At night my grandmaman cooked him supper and asked him to tell her the Acadian tales she
remembered hearing from the Cajun children of her youth. In the spring my mama came, skin near lily white and pale eyes shining like fire.
Mama had eight sisters to compete with for suitors, so when a strong young man named Fanchon came to Point Coupee from New Orleans, she took notice. Fanchon built a distillery near False River, along with a one-room cabin for himself. During the day he worked and at night he strolled the town with his fretless mountain banjo, singing songs of love and rebellion to any girl who would pause to listen. He was short and broad-shouldered, nearly square and solid on the ground. He seemed to joke more than fight and his eyes were the lightest color mama had seen on a dark-skinned man.
They took strolls on country roads with grandmaman walking behind, giving them enough space to talk but not enough to touch, and after courting through the summer they planned to marry. The night before the wedding, grandmaman woke screaming in her sleep. When my mother came to her bedside, grandmaman gripped her tight and forbade her from marrying Fanchon. Mama soothed her back to sleep and crept out of the cabin early in the morning to Fanchonâ€™s cabin. They rode to a priest in the next Parish and returned as husband and wife. Within a week she had bruises on her arms, then on her legs, then her face. She vanished from Parish life, only appearing for ghostly moments on the front porch of the cabin beyond the distillery, while Fanchon continued to tour the town with his mountain banjo, singing to girls and drinking with men. Grandmaman went into the woods more often, conducting her ceremonies with a meaner passion.
Those years just before the war, the enchantment of life for Creoles in New Orleans had begun to fade. The whites looked with suspicion on the free coloreds around them, even those that owned slaves themselves. More colored Creoles moved outside New Orleans to live quieter lives in the country. But when the war came, the fear crept throughout Louisiana. Free coloreds hung from trees and burned alive in their back swamp cabins. Mama taught at a school for colored children, instructing them as best she could while men died by the hundreds outside school walls. Fanchon sold his drink to passing soldiers but just as often they took it without payment. When he saw soldiers coming he hid my mother in the cobwebs under the porch, and after they left, his face red with humiliation, he beat her hard.
The peace that came was even worse than war. Freed slaves wandered the villages, looking for work. The whites in New Orleans, bitter and scared, boycotted colored businesses and the distillery fell into disrepair. Fanchon traveled miles on foot for a few hoursâ€™ wages doing odd jobs, coming home sullen, embarrassed, angry. My mother twice lost her babies before they came to term but I survived. The night I came screaming into the world a fire burned the distillery to the ground. Whether it was from Fanchonâ€™s carelessness or the white sheets no one ever knew. The air, normally thick and wet and slow, was unseasonably cold then, and grandmaman shut herself in her cabin for a week after my birth, smoke stealing out from between the logs, calling on Zombi for help.
Radicals from the north agitated for a new state constitution, one that did right by the freed men. The week the new assembly was to convene, rumblings of resistance were everywhere. The state was under martial law, with northern soldiers at every corner, but in every household rebels drank and nursed their wounds and
dreamed of an uprising. One August day, Fanchon was called on to paint the statehouse in preparation for the constitutional assembly. Halfway to New Orleans, he doubled over on the road with terrible stomach pains. He stumbled home and collapsed on the bed in fevered sweats and shivers, lifting himself only to vomit in a tin bucket or gasp for water like a man possessed. My mother tried her best to take care of both him and me, still new to the world, and he cursed her for her distractions. The day the assembly was to start he woke early in the morning with the color returned to his face and calm in his stomach. He felt strong, he said, stronger than usual even. He gathered his painting supplies into his cart and again set out on the long journey into New Orleans.
By the time he reached the statehouse the assembly had convened. He didnâ€™t notice the silence that had fallen over the city. He began with the gate, which was peeling from age and the passing of bullets. Inside, past the statue of Commander Jackson and through the windows shattered by war and neglect, Fanchon could see the radical republicans sitting around a long table in the central hall. He was shocked to see that some of the men sitting at that table, and others standing, talking and debating, stabbing their fingers at manuscripts, looked like him. He did his work slowly so that he could watch them, and, as he made his way down the fence toward the building, maybe hear the secrets of justice on their lips.
As he finished the last pole of the fence and turned to begin the walls of the statehouse, he heard the faint sounds of a horn band floating down the street. A black marching band was touring the city, celebrating the coming constitution with excited, trembling songs. Fanchon whistled with the music, painting faster as the band rounded the street corner and neared the statehouse. He could see the pipers
and the trombones and hear the bang of the drums from the rear of the parade. The statesmen came out to cheer the band, and Fanchon joined, raising his paintbrush in the air. When the shots began Fanchon saw the musicians start to crumple, eyes wide and knees buckling, mouths still on their instruments, knuckles white around drum sticks. One by one they fell, revealing a band of white men standing behind them, and the bullets continued to come. Fanchon dropped his paintbrush and ran into the building where he huddled under the windows alongside the colored women and children who had gathered to watch the band play.
The fire started in the corner of the convention hall and within minutes the smoke was too thick to breathe. Fanchon ran upstairs toward the air of the second floor. He grabbed a screaming woman and held her in front of him to ward off bullets. In the corner they cowered as the smoke thickened and the building shook. Gradually the shots slowed, and then stopped. He crawled toward the window to peek outside, pausing to untie the dead womanâ€™s apron. Huddled near the floor, his head down and eyes closed in fear, Fanchon waved his white flag above the window frame. Silence. The building would collapse soon. Several had already jumped from second-floor windows. Some met bullet holes before they hit the ground. Others lay broken on the grass. Hopeful, he stood and waved his white flag out the window with all his might. The bullet felt warm, not really painful, and on his chest the red blossomed over the cloth in the most beautiful pattern he had ever seen. The blood curled on his painterâ€™s suit like a fleur de lis before wrapping itself into the form of a snake. He died with terror in his eyes.
The city remained under martial law for weeks after the assault. Newspapermen glorified Fanchon as a simple workingman martyred by madmen, a
symbol for the new South. His name rumbled out of the mouths of black leaders and white radicals all through the country. Every day mama received visitors from across the state carrying their condolences, and the house piled up with flowers and meats and candies. Even our neighbors stopped by to offer comfort and praise. It was as if the rest of the town had forgot Fanchon’s character, or as if there was an unspoken agreement, never broken except by my grandmaman who told me only truths years later, not to mention what Fanchon really was.
I think often of what my grandmaman told me about that day. One of those men playing their instruments lived to describe to her that scene. He would always remember, he said, amid all the screams and sudden death, the faces of the white men who directed their bullets into the building, bullets that took out paint and wood and glass in order to burrow their way into flesh. These men, he told grandmaman, had hair so white on faces so young. Hair that stood out on all ends like a wild fire, circling in on faces void of wrinkles, casting jagged shadows over pale, empty eyes, shadows that looked like scales on their white skin.
A year after Fanchon’s death my mother married the man I think of as my true father, Martin, a Union soldier who stayed behind when the rest returned north. He was a much quieter man than Fanchon, and he walked into a house that, as far as he knew, was full of the ghost of a slaughtered saint. I don’t know if mama ever told Martin the truth about Fanchon, or whether she let him believe he had big shoes to fill. If she did leave Fanchon’s ghost unsullied, I don’t blame her for it. It was about time for her to receive the love of a good man, and Martin did not mind trying hard to please her.
Martin died when I was thirteen in a railyard explosion, and I missed his quiet presence every day after that. My brothers worked in the cane fields for thirty cents a day, and I brought in some money tailoring out of mama's home. We got by out in our Parish, but in the city, things turned ugly for the Creole people when the northerners left. The Night Riders came, and then the White Liners, and finally the Klu Klux Klan. More and more of our people moved deeper into the state until they camped at Point Coupee Parish.
We stopped assembling at church, for the Night Riders didnâ€™t believe we were worshipping and not scheming. Instead we met on Sunday mornings in small prayer groups, a different house every time. Back then most families still had private altars in their homes. The wealthy had crosses of glistening gold and candles eternally lit. The poor had crosses bent from tin, shined until nearly worn through. We had a tiny painted wooden statue of the Virgin Mary in our altar. Her nose and mouth was chipped, and I still remember watching her lopsided, vacant-eyed smile over breakfast.
When I was sixteen I married a fisherman who grew up just outside of Point Coupee. He was shy, spoke softly and looked at the ground a lot, and I liked that. We lived on a houseboat on the river where he could gather crab, crawfish, gator, anything that swam or crept by. When the season changed and we needed to move downriver he would call for the tugboat to drag us along nice and slow to a new spot. When mama died we moved back into my childhood home. He left every day to go fishing, and I raised our children in a quiet spot in an increasingly unquiet world. My husband started coughing one day when the children were still young, and he never stopped. He never complained once, just coughed and coughed when
he got up every morning to wade his way through those muddy waters. He died on the rocking chair on our front porch. He said he wanted to have a vision of the cypress trees imprinted on his eyelids when he closed them for the last time.
When our kin die we weave bracelets from their hair to stay close to them. We wear white and play music so they go into the afterlife smiling, not in a haunting mood. We leave rum and tobacco on their graves to keep them satisfied. You can bury your dead and your mistakes along with them and try to move on, like most of us do, but sometimes the dead will refuse to cooperate. I imagine this whole country has dead beneath it, waiting for a chance to reassert themselves, waiting for a chance to make sure they will not be forgotten, to take up our places. That is why we tread lightly, and whisper, and feint at the moon in a storm when sometimes we would rather curl up underneath it, soak up the rain and sink into the mud, and become one with those who came before us.
I’m alone now. My children and my children’s children have gone far from Point Coupee Parish. My daughter, she went to New York where she works at a factory sewing dresses. She met a nice young man whose people are from Haiti. They married and live in Brooklyn raising a little girl of their own. They say sometimes it gets rough there, nasty at night. The Polish don’t like the Jewish and the Jewish don’t like the blacks and nobody likes the Irish or Italians. I tell her—she’s light-skinned, like me—I tell her if people bug you about what you are you just say you’re Creole. Now days, when people say Creole, you know they mean colored Creole. It’s probably the only word I heard that means colored and means it in a proud way. When some Creoles say they are all white Creole I laugh. That’s like saying you’ve been swimming for hundreds of years and haven’t gotten wet.
My son also left Louisiana, chased a skirt all the way to California, where they had a house full of babies and grew oranges in endless rows. Most of their children died or scattered, but a few still take the time to write to their grandmaman in Point Coupee Parish. My grandson, he’s stationed in France where he’s been since the end of the war. The Kaiser fell, and there’s been peace in Europe for nearly two years now. My grandson writes me on postcards with drawings of French ladies holding dainty umbrellas. He says our people are coming over to Paris to play Dixie jazz and the French people go crazy for it. He says the musicians come in through the front door, just like the patrons, and they blow their horns into the early morning, and when they’re done they go to parties at French apartments and drink French wine and speak with French women about music and art and America. He says Paris is not so different from New Orleans, or at least not so different as New Orleans is from the rest of America, but he says the Parisians are a strange kind. They act as if the war never happened, or at the very least as if it was a play they watched in between parties.
When the man comes for me I know I will not be forgotten, because I will lie with my mama and papa in the marble house built for my people. On the graves are piles of honeysuckle and flowering quince and all kinds of other flowers, some that grow wild around the Parish, and some carried here from far off. The petals of flowers lain before the tomb play with the soil, making it soft and dark. Wandering lines of white conch shell and broken glass and beads adorn the grave beds. They don’t do so much of that anymore, but I’ve told my children to tell their children’s children that when they come to visit their great grandmaman in Point Coupee Parish, don’t be afraid to break a glass or two for me.
AMONG RICE PADDIES Lina Patton
Whenever Mila and her mother pull up to the entrance of her grandfather’s retirement community—the one marked by the big, metal globe that looks like it could just roll away—Mila feels like she is entering a different world. One where you need a key, a password, whatever her mother says as she leans out the driver’s side window and speaks to the man in the little house, which makes the bar in front of their car pull away, lets them in. Each time they drive on, Mila leans back in her seat and smiles as she watches everything pass by. She feels she is special now with the rest of the world closed off. Also, routinely, as they drive past the perfectly green golf course and creamcolored dance hall, as they rise and fall over low speed bumps, Mila looks up at the apartment buildings and asks her mother how they are so tall. Her mother has come to ignore this question and today is no different. She glances at Mila as she turns to check the road behind her but does not say anything. But when they come to the next stop sign, her mother looks into the rearview mirror, smooths her short, black hair, and looks at Mila again. This time she says, “strength,” and laughs a little in her throat, the small laugh Mila thinks sounds like someone saying “ta-da.” Mila nods and they keep driving. It is not a surprise this question becomes routine because as they weave through the community, the number of buildings increases. They become crowded and pushed together, each a tall stack of windows reaching toward the sky. Mila feels comforted by their presence and her typical question, though, because today is not routine. Usually, they only visit her grandfather on holidays or occasions where the rest of her cousins will be there. Today it will only be Mila. Her mother has warned her there will be no outing for Peking duck this time—she will not be licking the sweet plum sauce from her
fingers or fighting with Billy over the last thin pancake today. Her mother tells her this trip will be different—quick—he’s just babysitting. Babysitting makes Mila think of Jenny and Lisa and playing games of “Guess Who,” but her mother has explained that they are in school. That her interview is in the city but will only last a few hours. That this is just convenient. Even though Mila is not used to being alone at her grandfather’s, this plan does not bother her, because Mila and her second grade class are still on their spring vacation, and her grandfather still has 330 television channels. At home, they have seven, which she has not yet proven unfair. And, while her grandfather is quiet, always sitting back in his worn leather recliner drinking hot tea or ginger ale, she likes the apartment. It is warm and full of couches and has a coffee table with a glass jar always filled with hard butterscotch candies. She also likes how the apartment always smells the same, although she will not be able to describe this smell until she is older, one she will decide is a mixture of wool and dust and olives. When Mila and her mother finally reach her grandfather’s building, they park, check in with the doorman, and her mother lets her push the elevator button to the ninth floor. Mila loves the soft orange glow of the button, and she always touches it again to see if it is hot. Once they arrive on the ninth floor, they walk fast to the very end of the hallway, the last door marked Tsung-Yuan Lee. Mila watches as her mother knocks three times and steps back. She thinks her mother looks nice today. She is wearing a different coat over a black skirt and a pearly white blouse. The necklace with the gold coin she always wears is resting in its spot against her chest, but now it is matched with gold earrings. Mila looks at her from head to toe. Her shoes are so shiny they reflect the patterned carpet.
A minute later—the time her mother says it takes him to get up off his chair—her grandfather pulls open the door. He is wearing his typical outfit: gray pants that hang slightly too long, a loose green sweater over a white collared shirt, the same wire glasses that move as he smiles to greet them. He nods at her mother and hugs Mila quickly, then moves to the side to let them in. Mila steps in and looks up at him, perhaps staring too long as she notices how his soft brown skin falls slowly black to place around his cheeks, his eyes, from where it creased together when he smiled. “I appreciate this, Dad,” her mother says as she places Mila’s backpack on a chair. Mila stands next to her, dragging her finger along the crystals that hang down from the ornament glass lamp on the entry table. The prisms hang in a perfect circle from the lampshade and always clink together in a singsong she loves. This lamp is one of her favorite things. She knows it is beautiful. Years later, after her grandfather has been dead for some time, she will ask her mother, her uncle, her cousins, what happened to that lamp, but no one will know. This, in a small way, will break her heart. “Not a problem,” her grandfather says. He walks back into the living room following her mother. Mila grabs her backpack and follows too, sits down on one of the couches and takes a butterscotch from the jar. Her mother stands in the middle of the room turning in circles with her arms open and palms up as if she is trying to feel raindrops. “Oh, Dad,” she says. She walks to the coffee table and picks up a pile of napkins, two dinner plates, and a few half-full glasses. “Is everything okay?” she asks, turning her head to stare at him as she picks up another plate from the bookshelf and walks to the kitchen. “Of course,” her grandfather says. He sits down in his recliner. Her mother reappears and looks at him. Then she goes down the hall into his bedroom and office. She comes back with her hand on her forehead. “I’ll be back in a
few hours. I’ll pick something up for dinner. I can help you with the wash.” She runs her hand through her hair and looks at Mila. “I’m fine, Mom,” Mila says. She swings her legs against the couch and unwraps the bright yellow cellophane of another butterscotch. “June,” her grandfather says. Her mother walks to Mila and kisses her fast on the cheek. She grabs her purse from the floor, straightens her coat, and says to have a good afternoon. She looks at her watch and leaves. Once her mother is gone, Mila becomes uncomfortable. The air feels different now, like it is heavy and waiting, another silent person in the room. Mila is not used to the apartment being so empty. Usually, at least her older brother is there, fighting over the remote or lying on the carpet with her trying to guess just how many books line the shelves across the walls. “Are you hungry?” her grandfather asks. He tilts up in the recliner and she hears it squeak. Mila shakes her head. She puts her hands under her legs on the couch. She opens her backpack and gets out her coloring books, then sits on the floor. She still does not like the silence, and as she sharpens her aqua colored pencil, she thinks it sounds too loud. Mila breathes when her grandfather gets up off the recliner and goes to the kitchen. She turns to face the windows behind her and presses her face closer to the glass. She loves how high up they are—how she can see down through the bright green trees with their waxy leaves and thin branches. She can see everything from here: the parking lot, the golf course, the roads that wind like sketches on a map to the world outside the gates. One time, she saw a couple kissing up against a car in the parking lot. She couldn’t tell if they were kissing at first but then she could. The lady
had on a red coat and the man was tall. Every time she is here, she looks for them below. When her grandfather returns, he brings her a glass of water. He leans down as he sets it on the coffee table, and up close, Mila can see again just how worn his skin is, how thick his glasses are, how his earlobes seems to stretch forever and look like apricots. “Thanks,” she says. When he straightens up, he hands her the remote. Mila waits a moment before she turns on the TV, finishes coloring in the flower she has started, but then she pushes the top button and types in 263. She rolls onto her stomach, and with the noise around her, her grandfather back in his chair, the tightness she felt under her skin before begins to fade away. Half an hour later, her grandfather asks her again if she is hungry. This time she thinks for a moment, pictures the shrimp dumplings he always keeps in his freezer, and says yes. “Good,” he says. He stands and looks at her. “You can help if you’d like. Or watch.” Mila does not say anything. “Why don’t you bring your drawings to the table. It may take a bit.” Mila does not think she will be able to help, and does not want to watch, but she obeys and follows him into the kitchen anyway. She brings one coloring book and a handful of her favorite pencils. Mila sits at the small wooden table and watches her grandfather open and close the refrigerator doors. The kitchen is cramped with pale yellow counters and almost white cabinets, and she would rather be in the living room. “So,” her grandfather says as he puts a few frozen packages on the counter. “How is school going? What is it, grade two?”
“It’s good,” Mila says. He nods and fills a pot with water, puts it on the burner. Mila opens her coloring book and begins to work on her flower. A few silent moments pass before she decides to speak. “Before vacation,” she says slowly, “we dissected owl pellets. It was disgusting.” “Really? Owl pellets. What did you find?” “Oh, mouse skulls. Some tiny bones.” She pauses. “Tommy Hart almost threw up.” “Oh, really.” Her grandfather smiles, and Mila realizes she hardly ever seems him smile except for those first few moments when he greets them at the door. She continues. “Yeah, the teacher had to bring him out into the hall. I felt bad for him, though. Even though it was really, really gross.” Mile keeps coloring. When steam begins to rise from the pot of boiling water, her grandfather places the bamboo rack filled with dumplings above it. He secures the lid and turns down the heat. “Owl pellets. You know, I thought the only thing they did in schools these days was a frog. I remember your mother doing that in high school. She didn’t like it.” He sits down across from her. “I never liked that, either. I have fond memories of frogs,” he says and touches the corner of his glasses. “You like frogs?” Mila looks up at him as she tilts her chin down. “Yes, I used to catch them. When I was your age, even.” “How? They’re slimy.” He laughs silently, his shoulders moving. “Where I grew up, we were rice farmers. So when the rice was harvested, the paddies were drained and you could see all these frogs then, just waiting to jump up and catch insects and things.”
“So you just grabbed them?” “No,” her grandfather smiles again. “We had these bamboo rods. They were simple, really. Just had a string attached with a piece of meat tied to the end.” He holds his hands a few feet apart, showing her the length. “Anyway, it was easy, too easy. We would just dangle the string over the rice stalks and the frogs would jump up and eat the bait.” He leans back in his chair and hits the table. It makes Mila jump. “But then,” he continues. “This was the hard part, once the frog caught the bait, we had to swing the rod very quickly over a basket, because of course, he would spit it out and drop down. It was a special basket, too. Made for fishing.” “So what did you do with the frogs?” Mila begins to draw a frog in the corner of her page. He grandfather looks down at it then answers. “Oh, I don’t know. Some people would eat them, I suppose. They were a delicacy in ways, but I never liked them. The catching was more fun.” The pot begins to boil and her grandfather gets up. He takes a few plates from the cabinets and uses chopsticks to place dumplings on each. He brings them to the table and sits back down. “You know, there were a lot of fun things to do when I was young. Things you’d probably like. Like fishing when the dams were drained, or the New Year’s festival.” Her grandfather coughs into the back of his hand, pauses, and pushes his dumplings around on his plate. “Was it as easy to catch fish?” Mila asks. Her grandfather looks at her directly for a moment. “We tried to catch them all the time, but only twice a year was it easy.” He starts talking faster, and keeps going. For the rest of lunch, even when Mila’s plate has only soy sauce left behind from the six shumai dumplings she eats, her grandfather continues to tell her stories. She thinks she has never heard him talk so much, and wonders if he always has and she just
never noticed—the room always filled with other voices—or if this is new, for her. But she doesn’t mind, it’s almost like when she is being read a book out loud. He tells her about how he grew up with four sisters and two brothers, how they were poor but happy. He describes his village, explains to Mila how it was surrounded by flat rice paddies but had a mountain in the background, a creek that ran along one side, a pagoda—which he explains is a like a temple, a building—that brought good luck. And he tells her how every house in the village had one or two dogs, and how once he was attacked. He explains, laughing a bit, that at one time he and a group of boys were playing near a yard when a dog came at them, and, being the slowest runner, he was knocked to the ground. He says he was ill after, and that his mother believed he had lost his spirit during his fright. He explains to Mila how the next evening, she went to the spot where he fell, lit incense and chanted his name all the way home, and the next day, she told him he was ill no more. He tells her other stories, too, getting up in between to get Mila a bowl of orange sherbet even though she doesn’t ask. He describes how once when he was little he cut his finger with an axe and his dad bandaged it with spider webs. How he raised tiny silkworms and loved to feed them mulberry leaves, watch them grow from silk cocoons to caterpillars. How his teachers would use bamboo rods to smack students’ desks, how he read under an electric light for the first time when he was eleven, how he went to high school, how his brother joined the army. Her grandfather seems to be bursting with stories, and Mila begins to get tired. She is losing track of what the stories are about, and she begins to fidget in her chair. She closes her coloring book and scrapes the last orange melting sweetness from her bowl. Her grandfather takes a long sip of his water and looks at her. “Anyways,” he says. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Do you want more sherbet?”
Mila shakes her head no. She looks down the hall toward the living room. “You know, also, I didn’t even tell you about my little sister’s dancing. She was just about your age when she was first in the parade.” He sips his water. Mila looks back down the hall. Her grandfather nods. “Go ahead,” he says, his voice lower. Mila picks up her book, stands up, and says thank you. Her grandfather does not respond, and she is not sure if he does not hear her, but standing there, she feels confused, like she is doing something wrong. She feels again like she did when her mother first left, and it makes her want to leave. Mila looks outside and notices how the sun has lowered, the parking lot lights now on and reflecting in spots off the hoods of cars. She bites her lip and walks back to the TV. Half a show later, her grandfather comes back into the living room. He does not say anything when he enters and sits down in his chair. Mila looks up at him and smiles, but he is staring straight ahead as if looking at the numbers displayed on the black box under the TV. Mila stares at them too, the numbers made of bright little red lines. Her eyes start to blur and she looks back to the screen. At the end of the show, she asks her grandfather when her mother will be back. He tilts his watch, brings his wrist to his face, and says about two hours. Together, they silently watch a commercial about Kool-Aid. “You know,” her grandfather says, making a drumming sound in his throat as he clears it, “my brother, the oldest, the one I told you was in the army, is sometimes on TV. The Chinese Network. I’ve seen him twice. Have you ever seen the Chinese Network? He left China after the Communist victory in 1949, went to Hong Kong and then the US, but he’s back there now. In Beijing. He was a great success in the war, is still invited by the government to meetings and ceremonies.”
Her grandfather does not seem to be looking at her, and Mila looks from him to the TV, which he is talking over. She is again confused and wishes her mother would come sooner. “And,” her grandfather continues, “you know, we all loved him. Respected him. Such a life without any college or education. We were lucky to have him, the money he sent home. He was lucky in ways, too. Once,” he says, still staring straight ahead at the TV now showing a cartoon, “he just barely missed a bullet. He was wounded several times, but one time, when he was in the front directing the fighting, he bent down on a hill to answer the field telephone. And his assistant, who stood behind him and passed him the phone, took the bullet instead. Died.” Mila lies completely still. She does not like to imagine bullets or people dying, and she feels for a moment like she might cry. She is relieved when her grandfather does not continue talking, and she does not turn back to look at him until the cartoon ends. When she finally sits up, decides to get another sheet of paper from her backpack, she looks at her grandfather and sees he has taken off his glasses, is pinching his nose, his shoulders moving slightly. She stares. His cheeks seem to be wet, like he is crying. She looks away quickly and digs into her backpack. When he notices her, he picks up the newspaper beside him. They do not speak again until her mother arrives, and when she finally hears her knocking, Mila jumps and rushes to answer, hugs her. Her mother is in a good mood and Mila is relieved for her smiles. Her grandfather acts as he normally does and thanks her mother for the white bags of takeout she has brought him. Mila wants to leave and get back home, and she scrunches her face when she sees her mother take off her jacket and start moving
around the apartment. She complains to her, but her mother tells her sharply to hang on. Mila and her grandfather sit together in the living room while her mother moves around them. She picks up random items and books and puts them in other places, shoves clothes in the washing machine, and runs a damp towel over the tables. She moves fast, but Mila is impatient. The windows are fully dark now, the dotted lights of the outside world bright in the distance, and Mila wishes again that they would leave. She is hungry for dinner now, too, but does not want to say anything in fear they would stay longer. Her grandfather does not look at her even as she walks closer to him to get another butterscotch candy. He is still reading the newspaper held close to his face. Finally, her mother stands in front of Mila. She blows air up at her forehead to move her bangs out of her eyes. “Ready, little one?” she asks. Mila nods and grabs her backpack, which she has already packed. Her grandfather sets down his newspaper. Together, the three of them walk to the door. They stand in a triangle and Mila watches her mother and grandfather stare at each other above her. Her mother tells him to take care of himself, and names a few dates when she can come back. They both look so old to Mila in that moment, her mother’s skin slick with sweat from her day and the cleaning, her grandfather’s shoulders heavy, his sweater loose. Mila touches the lamp’s crystal prisms one last time as they speak. “What do you say to your grandfather?” Mila’s mom asks her as she turns to her and helps her with her coat. Mila looks up at him. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for the sherbet.”
He nods, touches her on the head. Then, as normal, he bends down to hug her. It is quick as usual, and Mila is already picturing walking back down the hallway when he releases her. But his hand lingers on her shoulder when he stands, and in a moment, one she will not be sure really happens, he squeezes her shoulder so hard it hurts. Mila looks up at him and he looks back. In the car ride home, Mila stares out the window. She feels like she wants to cry, and when her mother asks her what is wrong, she says she does not know. Her mother asks Mila if she had fun, and Mila says she did not, but when she asks why, she says nothing. When they exit the community, the bar letting them out, Mila wants to tell her mother something. But it is not until they are halfway home that she tells her she saw him cry. When Mila says this, the car slows, and her mother looks at her in the mirror. “Never lie, Mila,” she says. This makes Mila bite her lip and stare farther out the window. She touches her own shoulder. Years from then, when Mila is older, when her grandfather is gone and her mother and she are in Mila’s first apartment unpacking boxes from his storage—trying to find what could be useful—she will unwrap his bamboo steamer, his chopsticks, his bowls, a picture she knew used to hang behind the television, and she will think back to that day it was just them. She will try to remember what was said, what was told. But all she will remember is that there was a lunch with dumplings and sherbet, a distant hurt and a story about a bullet, a vague image of a frog she drew, one that seemed to be alive and belonging elsewhere.
FIVE QUARTERLY COPYRIGHT 2015