fwriction : review
T ABLE OF C ONTENTS Y EAR O NE : 2011
P ROLOGUE : D ECEMBER 2010
M AY : S HORT S TORY M ONTH
Casey Lefante, “Love Letter” Shelagh Power-Chopra, “La Plaza Del Sol”
S.H. Gall, “Miniature Golf” Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, Two Postcard Fictions Alison Barker, “Fact of Life” Julie Innis, “Fly” (Fiction)
Jerry Ratch, “Bike Messenger on Lexington Avenue" Jack Allen, “La Dame du Lac” Adam Sivits, “Letter to the Editor” (Poetry)
S PECIAL I SSUE : F ICTIONAUT S IX
Ann Bogle, “1974, What I Wanted” Len Kuntz, “The Spaces in Between” Meg Pokrass, “The Cooling” Sam Rasnake, “Variation on a Variation of a Mode” Susan Tepper, “Immolation” Robert Vaughan, “Common Password Profile Users: God, Love, Lust, Money and Private” (Fiction)
F EBRUARY (Nonfiction)
Karen Eileen Sikola, “Headlines” Matt Potter, “Flaming Beauty” Marcus Speh, “Mother Burning” Stephen Hastings-King, “Elsewhere”
Roxane Gay, “Girls With Eating Disorders” Anthony Luebbert, “The Education of the President’s Dog Quincy” Nicholas Mainieri, “Landscapes” Jason Lee Norman, “The Goldberg Variations” Frank Hinton, “Sweet Potato Fries Please”
David Kirby, “Grand Ole Opry” David Kirby, “Did You Tell Anyone You Were Coming Here” David Kirby, “The Odds” David Kirby, “The Go-to-Hell Boys” Melanie Yarbrough, “Mother Knows Best” (Poetry)
J ULY : P OETRY M ONTH A PRIL (Poetry)
Howie Good, Four Poems Paul Lisicky, “A House, A Summerhouse” Neil Serven, “Gunplay” Angelle Scott, “One of Those Neighborhoods” (Fiction)
Róbert Gál, from “Waxing” Kelcy Wilburn, Two Poems Keith Birthday, Two Poems Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, Five Poems (Poetry)
YEAR O NE
A UGUST (Fiction)
Myfanwy Collins, “The Whole Deal” Jen Knox, “Types of Circus” Jen Violi, “Salvation” Sarah Malone, “Everyone Wants to Live There” (Fiction)
S EPTEMBER Abby Rotstein, “Shiny People Club” Suzanne Marie Hopcroft, “Miller vs. Winterbourne” Daniel Romo, “Leftovers” Meg Tuite, “Prevailing Winds” Matthew Boyd, “Treasure”
E DITORS Y EAR O NE : 2011
O CTOBER (Fiction)
James Valvis, “Closet Tarzan” Mensah Demary, “The Games We Play” Barry Basden, “We Continue to Evolve” Jack Bootle, “Starlings”
Igor Ursenco, Two Poems Kari Nguyen, “Star Anise” Bill Yarrow, Three Poems Pat Rushin, “Nothing to Fear”
P OETRY E DITOR
LAURA BROWN S PECIAL I SSUE : H IGH S CHOOL W RITERS ’ I SSUE Work by: Bryanna A. Buchana, Cindy Caban, Sharline Dominguez, Stephanie Hernandez, Emely Paulino, Emily Sarita, Sarayah Wright D ECEMBER (Fiction)
Ashley Stokes, “Ultima Thule” Nicolette Wong, “Last Night On Oil Street” Sarah Flynn, “Goodbye To All That”
YEAR O NE
P ROLOGUE : D ECEMBER 2010
L OVE L ETTER BY C ASEY L EFANTE
If you have ever loved something so much that you ache when it is gone, then you know. Three months ago, I visited one of those friends who appears out of nowhere, the sort who you feel you’ve known forever even though you only met a few years ago, back when you thought you knew who you were. Then this person comes along, this brand new idea, and you discover that maybe you aren’t who you thought you were. Maybe things you thought were true are not. You know, one of those friends. After three days of fried food and football, I flew back to New Orleans. On the plane, I played The Distillers to distract myself from sadness. Brody screamed angry words into my ears as I returned to my fragile home. Fragile—a word so often used to describe material things or our own emotional psyches. Things that need protecting, or else they might break and disappear from our lives forever, until one day they never existed. Things like feelings, or friendships, or coastlines. I missed him already.
And the air’s filled with electricity, and the sky is deeper than a dream.
Approaching the Louisiana coast, even though I’d seen it a hundred times before, I was still surprised by the image. Like forgetting about a scar until one day it starts to itch. Or knowing you live in a bowl but not realizing how deep that bowl is until it fills with water on an August morning. I’ve known about the fragile state of Louisiana’s coast since fourth grade, when my class took a field trip in an effort to educate us, the new generation, about what we were inheriting. “Here is what you’re getting,” the trip meant. “Good luck with that.” We didn’t know this, of course. We just thought it was a good excuse to dress out of uniform and maybe see an alligator. On the plane, I thought about this, about all the things that my generation has been given and what we are expected to fix. I thought about the mistakes we’ve made, the negligence, and then I thought of the mistakes that the previous generation has handed us with the expectation that we will have all the tools to do something about it. We don’t. As the plane lowered closer to the marshes, I imagined crash landing in the water. I wondered whether I’d be able to figure out the oxygen mask or the seat-turned-life-preserver. I realized that I stupidly felt safer crash landing here because this was my home. I’d spent years defending it to
people, trying to explain my loyalty. The reasons I’d never left, the reasons I’ll always stay. I silenced Brody and switched to a playlist I created in 2006, when the Saints went to their first NFC Championship. Two days ago, my friend and I watched the former ‘Aints win their first playoff game against the Cardinals, advancing to their second shot at a Super Bowl appearance. For once, it seemed like the impossible might be as likely as the inevitable.
So set him up. Let him fall. Turn him over in your hands. God save the King of New Orleans.
The coast will inevitably, like so many other things in life, disappear, leaving our home defenseless against nature’s harsh influence. So many of us on this sinking ship of a city fear that we will become extinct. That we will become people who used to live here, people who used to be. We are fighting for what vanishes more with every year, for what may one day only exist on paper maps and photographs. All of this, of course, is not something people like to think about. So here we are, waiting. I miss it already. On the plane, a song about my first love slipped through my ears. I studied the marshes, studied the blue.
It’s just ‘cause I never want to be from somewhere else.
I was home, the sort of home that you know like the back of your hand and yet she still surprises you, a home that welcomes your faults because she, herself, thrives on flaws. A home who, like an old friend, teaches you who you are and then flips everything you know around, so that you discover you aren’t who you think you are. Maybe the things you thought were true are not. You are not fragile. You—like your homeland, your love—you are strong.
“Dismantle Me,” The Distillers
“King of New Orleans,” Better Than Ezra
“The Avenue,” Cowboy Mouth
L A P LAZA D EL S OL S HELAGH P OW ER -C HOPRA
Frank checked into the hotel around midnight, swapped weather stories with the clerk behind the counter and stepped outside. “La Plaza Del Sol” was lit up in dirty neon, high above the road; he rolled the words around his tongue and said it aloud in a bravado Spanish accent. He pretended he wasn’t in the middle of swampy, rural Ocala but instead surrounded by dark bosomed ladies bearing sweets and Sangria. The plaza of the sun, of the dirty little sun, sun, sun. In reality, it was a seedy place just off the highway, tucked away in a grove of dying dwarf palms. It had an ornery pool, smack in the center of the plaza, a misplaced pie hole filled with dark, dank water and a layer of green scum on its surface. His room was right before the pool, so close that if he opened his door, one wrong step and he’d be in the pool. Got yourself two showers there, the clerk said when he gave the room key. The room had a refrigerator, two brown paintings of ships on one wall, a double bed and a spiral staircase that led up to a closed door in the ceiling. It was disconcerting, and he climbed the staircase and banged his fists at the door in the ceiling, hoping someone, anyone would come. He had bought a bottle of cheap red wine with him and asked the clerk for some glasses but he didn’t have any. So Frank drank the wine from a yogurt container he found in the trash, said a nimbly cheers to the sky and flipped on the TV. There were three stations, and he soon learned Stuart Pinhope’s wife had triplets and how to knead something doughy. The last channel was full of fuzz and static with traces of a blurred and ghostly figure dancing. He was supposed to meet Dina there and thus begin an affair, begin the stipulation of all rotation and whatnot, he liked to think. He had never had an affair before, but he thought one should always try something once and when she winked at him at the office he was sure something good could come out of it. Even when Sal died in that fire last May, when his body was dragged out and plopped on the lawn and half his skin was peeling off his bones, he didn’t feel too bad about it, Sal had a crappy life, a fat wife and a job down at Croby’s bar, the swill of humanity lying before him at all hours. Dina was late, but wasn’t she always? He was always late, late to life, late to the miserable curls of the cow and the dregs of the fodder in the fields. He had grown up on a farm, not far from here, chased alligators and sweated a musty odor much of the time, up to his knees in the swamp and how he loved the humidity–heck, the humanity of the jungle down here. Once he traveled up North for a holiday trip visiting some cousins mid-winter and the snow trailed him like a relentless stalker, it was exhausting, trying to keep warm and remember who you were, remember that the earth was still kind and loved you, not hated you with its whimpering and ragged claws and when he returned he felt at peace, felt the world had settled down for him, stepped down and buried him with its warm, temporal glow.
He sat on the bed now, studying the brown ships and the brown river reeds and drank more wine and thought about the sex he was about to have, the dribbly glib afternoon kingdom he was about to reign and he felt feverish, hot and stoked at the thought of her body naked—wasn’t much of a body, really but she had a clean mind, could see for miles, through shit, through disasters, and could of canned up his life in a very instant and thrown away the opener, there you go, Frank, there’s your life in a nutshell, in a tin of beans. But what would they call it? His little life? Sardines and crackers or misconstrued romance and rescued reasoning. He used to take the pontoon out and go fishing for skates, dip his finger in the water, test it and thrown in the line just before dusk when it was real quiet out there, no shadows, no wind and the glorious heat of the waves and he wouldn’t catch anything, nothing, he knew it too, just liked being alone in a void, a void of tangent emasculation! There was knock at the door. He opened it, expecting Dina’s tiny frame but instead it was the clerk, sweat streaming down his face: Hey mister got a minute? Got an accident out front! But Frank didn’t hear any sounds, any tires screeching, glass breaking. Need some hands! he screamed now and they ran forward, the clerk deft on his feet and Frank missed the turn and fell hard into the pool, plunging, plunging down. And he thought of Dina and how she told him there was this waterfall that she used to go to as a kid, it was a stunner—a real tsunami, she said, all translucent waters rushing towards me and then one day these teenagers came down and blasted that wretched song, “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” and that beauty just froze and swam away, it was ruined and that’s the song that came to his mind just then: they keep fallin’ keep a fallin, keep a fallin, keep a fallin. Bits of pool scum waved towards him and he thought he saw something dark at the bottom of the pool and he grasped at the water and started sinking more but then managed to clutch the concrete piping and hoist himself up and out and the clerk growled at him from the side, no time for that now, no time! Frank staggered forward, saw the flashing lights and reeled about, drunk and empty, in the plaza of the burning sun.
B IKE M ESSENGER ON L EXINGTON A VENUE BY J ERRY R ATCH
Comes to rest taking a moment in the falling rain Slowly massaging the veins at the top of his bald head Cracking his neck while the yellow cabs start honking behind him Unwilling to move from this spot Unwilling to move He looks like heâ€™s having a Zen attack or else resetting his inner child
L A D AM E DU L AC BY J ACK A LLEN
We came together in a train station. She drew behind her a large suitcase set with wheels, and the other train-goers made no path for us to walk as equals. I led the way, hoping she followed, and our hands, being once attached, somehow broke from one another in the commotion. In my breast pocket sat her ticket. Pigeons slept on pillars. Trains hurried in their ruts, and they made ugly noises that echoed throughout the great cavern. Whether joy danced in her dark eye, I could not tell, for when she sighed I felt at a greater loss than I ever had before. The simplest gestures of discontent can sometimes ruin a man. And yet, I won’t fail to mention that I was cheered up some by what looked to be an orphaned boy, a busking child. I say this not because the poor kid appeared homeless and likely starved, but his song certainly improved my mood: 1
Pêche, pomme, poire, abricot. Y’en a une, y’en a une. Pêche, pomme, poire, abricot. Y’en a une qui est en trop. C’est l’abricot qui est en trop. * Is that how you’d like to die? J’ai me suis presque noyé il était une fois. And is that what you’re afraid of most? Non. Then what? Etre seul. At death? Toujours.
She smiled then, a perfect fence of teeth that stood white and bare, and she practiced a winning sway as she skipped ahead of me. In her hand was her ticket, and while looking over her shoulder she bit down onto her lip. Her eyes emptied, her eyes were empty, and they beckoned me forward though when I went to cradle her a crowd came between us. At first I was disarmed. In that absence
I thought to myself how gutless I’d become, and wondered where my certainty had gone. In that moment of clumsiness, she was borne away. I paused in disbelief. The boy stopped singing and the rush of trains swelled into the quiet. She resurfaced long enough to utter a last farewell: 2
C’est pas facile de m’attrapper.
W. Scott The Lady of the Lake. “Whether joy danced in her dark eye / Or woe or pity claimed a sigh” (i.19.18-19). The myth of Orpheus. “In a moment of forgetfulness, to assure him he was still following, cast a glance behind him, when she was instantly borne away.” Welsh fairy tale The Lady of the Lake. “It is not easy to catch me.”
L ETTER TO THE E DITOR BY A DAM S IVITS
March 19, 2004
Dear Mr. Kelmick, I am writing in regards to your March 18 editorial in the North Synnaquispie Sentinel, entitled “Politics a Game Worthy of the Best”. Please understand, sir, that I would not be running for the office of County Commissioner if I did not believe I could serve the public good. I take serious defense with some of your comments, most noticeably the gaff where you say that I am “[b]olstered by the three-ring circus that was last year’s California Gubernatorial recall, our local auto mechanic/karaoke champion/junkyard abstract artist thinks that City Hall would be a fine place for him to visit in business attire rather than his customary orange jumpsuit.” First, everybody loves my auto Godzilla. It has been a North Synnaquispie institution for over twenty-four months. Second, I was only arrested once, and everybody knows that breaking into your own car isn’t a crime. Even after selling it, I assumed that was true. And thirdly, California did not have a “Gubernator” recall last year as you led some people to believe but a Governor recall. As an educated man (and a journalist, to boot), you should have known better. You also say that “Carl Zuttman didn’t even graduate high school, let alone attend or, God forbid, finish college. For all we know the man might very well be illiterate.” Again, as a reporter, you should have done more research. You make reference earlier in the article to my karaoke triumphs but then suggest that I don’t know how to read? I ask you, Mr. Kelmick, how might I have become The Swill’s Karaoke King if I couldn’t read the words on the screen? I’ll admit that my crowdpleasing rendition of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” was done completely from memory, but do you really think I knew, by heart, the words to my trophy-winning version of Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls”? At this point, my writing of this letter alone should convince you of my literality. I assure you, sir, that my heart and intentions are in the right place. No, I may not have a fancy “college degree” and no, I may not have a fancy “diploma.” But isn’t this the land of opportunity? Isn’t this the land of hopes and dreams, a land where a man can drop out of school in the tenth grade, move in with his brother in Chicago for a few years, live on cans of pumpkin mix and dry Ramen noodles before opening up his own auto-repair shop in the great town of North Synnaquispie? And doesn’t our Constitution constitute that any man, or woman, who is a citizen of this great country can run for public office? Even, as you put it, “a complete and utter nitwit, a boob
the likes of which no government has seen since the days of Calvin Coolidge”? I think it does, Mr. Kelmick. I think it does. Further, you needn’t worry about how I should run my campaign or fund it. Although your suggestion to “charge an arm and a leg for rotating the tires, instead of just an arm” is enticing, I believe I will fall back on the modest savings I have made from my various pool-sharking benders and the gate take from my Power Garden. I have even hired young Jimmy Avers to be my campaign manager. In addition to Psychology 103 and Glassworks 420: The Science of Glass Blowing, he is currently taking World, Nation, State, City, County and Local Government 101 at Dibbson Community College over in Chilney. Quite a bright young lad, and boy, can he take apart a carburetor! As you can see, Mr. Kelmick, I really want to be the best County Commissioner North Synnaquispie has ever had. I love this town, despite what you may think or how much used motor oil I’ve dumped in the St. Berg River. I hereby seek the official endorsement of the North Synnaquispie Sentinel. I believe that, in this letter, I have shown I am the best candidate for the position and not the “worst thing to happen to North Synnaquispie since the Tornado of ‘83.” I mean truly, sir, that twister killed a third of North Synnaquispie’s population and caused catastrophic damage to almost every building in town. How could we be compared? Sincerely,
Carl B. Zuttman
H EADLINES K AREN E ILEEN S IKOLA
He brought me flowers once, three wilted carnations I put in water, though the sight of them made me uneasy. He brought me pictures once, too, of three sisters—ten, twelve, fourteen—straddling dirt bikes. He touched my shoulder once, as I edited pictures he’d taken of those girls after their first race. He brought the photos to me after seeing my name in the paper, above a story I’d written about a youth synchronized swimming team, below a photo I’d taken of young girls on their backs, lifting their legs in printed swimsuits. “She’s my favorite,” he said once, as I zoomed in on the face of the eldest. “A fighter. A tough cookie.” He called himself “Mr. Bill,” and he shook my hand, thanked me before crawling back inside his silver Toyota, rolling up windows with a dark tint I didn’t question because the Arizona sun was relentless. He became a regular in our office, and our receptionist Twyla began to raise her voice when she welcomed him with a “Hi, Bill,” so as to warn me, though she never said so. For a while, I would greet him, ask how the girls were doing, and I soon found out they were not his girls, but girls he “took off the hands” of a busy mother, pregnant again with her sixth, as is common in that Mormon spread of Mesa desert. I warned him once, told him he should be careful, that he shouldn’t drive those girls alone, that my mother was a social worker, that I knew these things, that people might be suspicious of a man who invests so much of himself in the lives of three young girls, that he should protect himself from false allegations. He then asked for Jill, my coworker, complained I’d stopped covering his beat, that he didn’t understand why I had begun merely mentioning race times in the Sports Briefs instead of running photographs with his name under them, why I never used the colored pages of dialogue he’d print out and deliver in manila envelopes, conversations he had with the “Speed Sisters” via a chat room for girls who like racing. I received an e-mail from Jill once, three years after leaving the paper and Arizona along with it. She included a link. “Former bus driver arrested on molestation charges,” it read. I did not know Mr. Bill had driven a school bus, only knew he drove that silver Toyota with those three girls behind the tinted windows, their dirt bikes parked inside a trailer behind them, useless for speeding away.
Mr. Bill brought Jill a present, too, once, and she said she couldnâ€™t accept it, and I remembered the flowers I put in a vase on my desk, the petals as they browned and fell to my keyboard, the smell of the water as I poured it down the drain, the ring that remained on the sides of the glass.
F LAM ING B EAUTY BY M ATT P OTTER
No one around the long table wore a grin or a smile or even a slight smirk. “How did it escape our quality control?” asked Vivian, bristling beneath her Chanel suit and perfect make-up. “And who ordered an entire lake of the stuff?” “You did, Vivian,” I said. “The question was rhetorical, Robert.” Vivian sat down. “How was I to know it bursts into flame when you rub it into your hair?!” An enormous dam of expensive shampoo – our newest product – foamed in the backblocks of the company’s manufacturing plant. It was too costly to dump. And would prove even costlier if we put it on the shelves of every supermarket in Australia. “We’re always talking about niche marketing,” I said. Twenty honcho-heads swivelled in my direction. “So market it to pyro-maniacal beauty contestants.” Twenty honcho-mouths gaped. Okay, it was a long shot, but who in that room wasn’t desperate to shift that shit? All our jobs depended on it. And maybe we could create retail history at the same time. Jumping up, I grabbed a whiteboard marker. “What are some of the words and images we could use?”
Raven-haired, I wrote on the whiteboard. Flowing, someone called out. Volcano, said someone else. Lava. Ash. “I’m thinking meteors, I’m thinking lightning,” I said. “I’m thinking women with their hair on fire being extinguished by hunky firemen.”
Vivian raised an eyebrow. “What’s the slogan?” I looked at all the faces around the table, and paused. “Now you’re cooking.”
M OTH ER B URNING BY M ARCUS S PEH
That’s our mother, our little, lovely old mother, who’s burning there, don’t you see? She’s lit herself for a good reason and now she’s already burnt half down, soon nothing will remain of her— not a bone, not a hair, not a nail—and we’ll have to poke around in the ash for her ancestral ring with the ruby, but we won’t find it, and thinking that nothing remains of her in this world we’ll go home where we notice that she left her stories lined up on the window sill (next to a forget-me-not) like little trophies of contests she had with herself. With her gone, the house will be blazingly empty and we will look at our birthmarks, trying to remember anything worth remembering across the battleground of time, anything worth anything before the beginning of this great war.
E LSEW HERE S TEPHEN H ASTINGS -K ING
1. I do not remember him sitting down across the table from me. He is not from here; he talks about elsewhere. They say that when the surface of a photograph gets like this that it has gone blind and what was captured in it has been let loose again. On the table, he turns over a photograph, a gray square with a white border. But what was captured has grown used to its flat tiny world. go.
Once released, each has nowhere to
He holds a pile of photographs. He handles them like playing cards. The air is an ocean and they are among the plastic things that drift through every town, transparent and disconnected, unmotivated and unnoticed. On the table between us he builds a row of gray squares each of which is identical to every other, each with a white border that is identical to every other. Far from here there is a zone of fog and snow that forms a non-differentiation where the currents deposit them. I watch and listen. They say the zone is beautiful and that going there is like dreaming, so much that all forget most of what they see and many forget to come back. But I know that elsewhere is contamination.
The last town before the zone is made of outlines.
At its edge a tiny store sells supplies. Inside, a circle of faint people was arranged around a woodstove. After I spoke, one of them said: “You probably don’t need that.”
Each item came with a tag on which was written the names of other people. the bottom of each list.
I added my name to
3. He turns over a gray square the same as every other with a white border the same as every other. This is the edge. He is silent and still.
When he places another photograph on the table and says:
I remember walking into a white fog over snow. The gray spreads from the square, spills over the frame. And as he continues: I remember leaving my provisions in a pile, thinking I no longer needed them, that there was no forward or backward, that I was likely walking in circles I am losing my bearings. When he says After I do not know how long I encountered things, enormous serpents made of waveforms shaped from wire that moved in silent groups over the plastic ocean floor I see the enormous shapes swimming through the gray that is all around and Piles made from backgrounds: pastures with bales of hay; the Grand Canyon and Taj Mahal A forest of two-dimensional Christmas trees organized by the color into which each had been dissolving, a sector of flat trees smearing into yellow, a sector into red Tear gas and magazine stands, the stone heads of kings and queens; crop circles and snowmen.
G IRLS W ITH E ATING D ISORDERS BY R OXANE G AY
Peter loved to date girls with eating disorders—anorexics, but not the ones on death’s door who had to be fed through a tube in their stomach. The sight of that sort of thing upset him. He preferred the tall girls who hovered around 105 and spent most of their time sucking their bodies toward their spines. Those girls were generally hot and so busy counting calories and exercising they largely left him to his own devices. Bulimics were a little more trouble but they gave great head. Neither the anorexics nor the bulimics minded when Peter affirmed their worst fears about themselves by telling them the horrible things they wanted to hear. He was giving them exactly what they needed and that made him feel good about himself. Vivian had been dating Peter for nearly six months. She was both anorexic and bulimic. She was maybe his soul mate. Peter looked at her terribly slender body lying next to him, her breathing shallow and weak. He poked her between two of her protruding ribs. She moaned softly, turned toward him, opened one eye. “What?” she asked, the words dry and thick. She was a light sleeper. Peter threw his arms apart. “You’re taking up a lot of room,” he said. Vivian sat up, and gasped. “I’ll be right back,” she said and swung her legs over the edge of their bed, slipped her feet into a pair of waiting sneakers, and ran down to the basement. She ran seven miles on the treadmill, paused, took ten minutes to carefully inspect her body in the adjacent mirror, then returned to the black vinyl conveyor belt and ran another seven. When she returned to bed, sticky and pale, her features even more gaunt than usual, Peter was still awake, watching an infomercial about male enhancement. He looked Vivian up and down. “Better,” he said. Vivian felt the joy spread from the exact location of her heart outward. She smiled at Peter, gently caressed his face, enjoyed the stubble of his beard against the palm of her hand. Vivian climbed back into bed and straddled Peter’s lap, all bone and sweat. He wrapped his large hands around her tiny waist, squeezed hard then flipped their bodies around so she was crushed beneath his girth just the way she liked. She spread her legs wide. Peter pressed his lips against Vivian’s neck. His lips were dry and peeling and it made him uncomfortable. As he came, he said, “Babe, could you get me some Chap Stick tomorrow?” The next afternoon at the grocery store, Vivian bought a gallon of ice cream, some Betty Crocker frosting, Ritz Crackers, soy milk, a Snapple and Peter’s Chap Stick. In her empty kitchen, she made a milkshake with everything but the Snapple. She coated her lips generously with Chap Stick. Her lips were chapped because of the frequency with which stomach acid passed between them. Peter’s lips were chapped from kissing her. It was a vicious cycle. Vivian drank her milkshake, savoring every last drop and afterward, she stared at herself in the mirror. Her stomach was bloated and
bulged away from her body, swollen with a food baby. She loved making food babies. She lovingly rubbed her hands over her food baby belly and waddled around. She smiled for a brief moment as she imagined what she would look like if she were pregnant with Peter’s baby and how she would raise that baby to be skinny and beautiful. Peter was a therapist. While Vivian spent her days making food babies, he spent his days helping girls like Vivian overcome their emotional issues. He tried to teach them to love themselves or hate themselves. Sometimes, he told them they wouldn’t get better and sometimes when they tearfully asked, “What should I do?” he told them what to do. Peter wore jeans and tweed blazers and chic glasses. He sat behind his desk and played games on his iPhone in his lap while his patients sat on a black leather IKEA couch and cried and told Peter about the worst things that ever happened to them. Some of their stories made Peter sick to his stomach, made him certain God hated women. Missy had a standing appointment three times a week at 2:30. She was a mess, would always be a mess, and Peter knew it but she also paid her bills on time and the promptness of her payment really touched him. Today, Missy wore a low cut dress and too much expensive perfume. They spent most of their hour together staring at each other. Whenever Missy looked away, Peter made a small tick mark on his legal pad. He was determined to win the staring contest. He looked up at the clock on the wall behind where Missy sat. In another two hours he could go home. When he returned his attention to Missy, she continued to hold his gaze but her eyes shined triumphantly. Peter felt like he was good at his job. “We should have a baby,” Vivian told Peter over dinner. “I love my food babies but they never live very long.” They were at his favorite steakhouse chain restaurant and Peter was cutting into a thick, bloody steak with gusto. He nodded as he shoved meat into his mouth at an alarming pace. Vivian was only anorexic at night so she cut her filet into a hundred tiny squares and pushed them around the plate until she grew tired from the exertion. Peter took a sip of wine then paused. “You want a baby?” Vivian set her fork down and nodded. He waved his knife in the air. “Won’t you get fat?” Vivian blushed, looked at the couple sitting at the adjacent table. The girl was too skinny like her. She was hot and had long dark hair and sharp cheekbones and sunken eyes. Vivian felt a stirring between her thighs and then warmth. The girl nodded toward the bathroom and Vivian smiled. She reached for Peter’s hand, brushed her fingers across his knuckles. “I want a tiny little baby, Peter.” Vivian excused herself to the bathroom where the girl from the adjacent table was waiting. They pressed their skeletal bodies together in the handicapped stall, surrounded by all that tiled, antiseptic space they could never hope to fill. The girl smelled like steak and mouthwash and face cream and cigarettes. They kissed and they weren’t shy about it. They were all tongue and teeth and Vivian moaned and she liked the echo of it. She was silent when she and Peter had sex because he hated silence. Vivian shoved her hand down the girl’s pants. The girl was wearing thong panties, and Vivian expertly pulled them to the side. She had been to college. She knew what to do with girls in bathroom stalls. When they were done, Vivian and the girl each purged while the other politely looked away.
Back at the table, Vivian’s heart pounded painfully. The heart, she also remembered from college, was largely made of water. When the waiter came by, she asked for a glass of water with a wedge of lemon and when the drink arrived, she sipped slowly. Vivian didn’t want to die of a heart attack in a steakhouse chain restaurant littered with peanuts on the floor. She could feel her knees sweating. She could feel the hot skinny girl staring at her. She wanted to stare back but Peter was eating a generous wedge of cheesecake so her attention was torn. “We can have a tiny little baby,” Peter said, “So long as after, you undo the damage as soon as possible.” Vivian smiled and told Peter what he wanted to hear. “Let’s make the baby tonight after you run,” Peter said. He was feeling virile. He talked with his mouth full, his tongue coated with masticated food. Vivian found this repulsive but she didn’t judge. Life was repulsive.
T HE E DUCATION BY
P RESIDENT ’ S D OG Q UINCY A NTHONY L UEBBERT OF THE
Citing needs of companionship, both those of the dog and of himself, the first President astronaut convinced Congress and NASA to allow him to bring his black and white spaniel, Quincy, to space with him for his inaugural flight. At take-off, the dog and the President sat in the cab of the spacecraft, both wearing bowl-shaped glass helmets and awaiting the launch, with the two dozen swallowtail caterpillars they brought along to test pupation in zero gravity. The President gave the command and he, Quincy, the crew, the caterpillars, and the enormous vessel rocketed through Earth’s atmosphere and relaxed into an orbit at an altitude 250 miles. It was 2045. Quincy and the President, unbuckled, floated from their seats. The sensation of weightlessness startled the dog, who swung his legs at the unreachable floor and let out a yelp. The President took off his helmet and chuckled, saying, “It’s all right, Quincy.” Quincy hung in the air. He looked at the floor below him, at the glowing instrument panels that surrounded him, and then quizzically at his owner who held out his hand to the dog. Quincy raised his paw to shake hands as he was trained to do. Then, propelled backwards by the force of the gesture, he floated away from the President and towards the caterpillars, which were suspended in their tiny terrarium. Quincy admired the insects very much as he moved slowly towards them. When they finally collided, he upset the entire contraption with his snout as it pressed against the glass front. The lid of the box came off, setting the larvae free in the cabin. The swallowtail caterpillars, colored yellow, black, and white, bore the loss of their home well as they tumbled out into the air, but they curled up into small balls when they smelled the man and the dog nearby and realized with their tiny brains that they flew with wings they did not yet have.
L ANDSCAPES N ICH OLAS M AINIERI
My favorite photograph of her appears as I lift books out of a box in storage. Pick up a book, stumble upon proof of what has shaped me. There are other things, too. Notes she wrote to me.You are sweeter than fresh cut grass. The natural poetry makes something inside me quake, unearthing fossils from the wash of memory. I snapped the photograph from a corner of the farm’s garden in the gray light of an early morning— think of mud-like coffee in the farmhouse’s brick kitchen, the corn cakes browned in a frying pan. Hand-plowed rows of vegetables slant across the picture, along the slight incline of the garden’s earth, until they meet the slat-board fence and the short, green hedge—sunflowers. There is the whisper of a field beyond that, the specter of trees. In the foreground, an oak tree rises above the others, nearly black against a sky not yet blue. She walks away from me, between the rows, at the high end of the garden. She’s small in the wide shot. Her snug workpants—recall the grass stains— are rolled at the bottoms of her calf muscles. She may walk barefoot or she may wear boots. The rising light falls on the white tank top across her shoulders. She has her hands in her pockets, head bowed, something heavy on her mind. At once solitary and entangled. Know that at any moment she can dam the river of her thoughts and wrench a weed from the dirt of the garden. The photo, taken years ago during a summer break from our university, brings this: the twelve-hour drive from your home to the mile-long driveway of the farm outside Louisa, Virginia. The packed ruts shadowed by trees. Glimpses of fields. Cattle crowded beneath the pole barn—a sign, you’ll learn, of rain to come. The driveway opens into the grass lawn of the enormous house. Park alongside an old pickup. She comes out of the garden, smiling, a sweat-stained bandana holding her hair, and this is your first view of her in this world that, like something tender, she has guarded. Until now, this world has been fragmentary, formed by whispers ventured in the dark of your college apartment. She takes you by the hand through the house—nearly three centuries of people have lived here, and the wood floors, the brick hearth, and the darkening paintings on the walls smell like another time—up the stairs, and to her bedroom. The high summer sun fills the window. Here, on the bed: white linen and sweat and the fresh cut grass clinging to her skin.
In the months leading up to the storage box and the picture, we talked more than we had in the previous three years. We’d speak one night, but because she had poor cell service on the farm she currently helped at, the conversation would cut out in the middle of a sentence, and I’d hear from her again weeks later, words picking up where they left off.
She told me what she had done since graduation: worked on farms around central Virginia; spent time as a cook at a lodge in upstate New York on the slopes of the Adirondacks; worked in Kenya, something involving a weeklong hike and the delivering of supplies to a village; cooked at an Italian restaurant in the Village in New York City. She gets restless and moves, though she never moves from one thing to the next with bitterness in her heart. She moves once a landscape has shaped itself to her thoughts. She gives all that she can and then vacates, and those who had been around her are left, suddenly, to make sense of a new, quivering hollow. She doesn’t intend to leave things this way, but it is what happens—a person lives around you and puts herself into the earth, the things that will grow, something of equal importance, and then she leaves. Deal with this new hollow only by acknowledging that your landscape has changed. Tell yourself it won’t be the same anymore: I live in a different place now. She moved from New York City back to the Shenandoah Valley and a different farm, outside Charlottesville. I know the farm because she took me there during another break from our university. We hiked, I remember, and found an ancient horseshoe buried in the mountainside. We did odd jobs. Through the phone, with a chuckle, she said, “Spent all day painting this goddamn fence.” I could see it, these years later: a horse fence of three horizontal boards nailed along posts, squaring in what feels like thousands of acres of hilly grassland. We spent a day, each of us with a can of white paint and a brush, moving along the fence. She at one portion, myself at another. Paint a section, move on, look up. See she’s moved on, and the distance between you remains the same. “Not that same fence we painted?” “We painted it?” she asked, and by the tilt of her voice, I knew she sifted through her scattered memories. The memories, though, are not what are most important to her. What matters is the act; it happened. You were there. She was there. It ended. Be thankful, and don’t look back. “Yeah,” I answered. “We never went back to finish it.” “Well,” she said with a laugh, “that damn thing’s still not done.”
One morning, on the farm outside Louisa, the man who runs the place tells you both that the cattle must be moved from one field into the adjacent. She looks at you. Your farming ineptitude is a constant source of entertainment. She and the man and his dog—a Border collie you watch from the porch in the evenings as it corrals a poor chicken on the front lawn, walking it in neurotic circles—will push the herd from behind. You will drive the pickup with the bags of extra feed in the bed. The man tells you the cattle are
dumb, but they know the sight of that truck so they’ll follow you right in. Just once you get them going, he says, keep going. Make sure they all follow you in. Don’t stop and let them get around you until we got them all into the field. The electric fence—made from thick ribbons of conductive fabric strung along posts—has been shut off. Gates have been opened so that your path will take you across the driveway, cordoned off, and into the field across the way. You drive along the edge of the herd—brown and black and tan cows—and not one of the hundred or so looks in your direction. Position the truck ahead of them, facing the far edge of the field where the gate is open. You hear her and the man and the dog, faint shouts and barks, and a jolt moves through the herd as the cows turn toward you and start to walk. Drive, and drive faster as the herd begins to run, some of them getting out in front of you. Put more pressure on the gas. Do you accelerate because of the cattle, or do they accelerate because of you? Gun it because you must make it through the bottleneck of the opening first. As you bounce over the ground, the herd spreads out around you, the sounds of their hooves in the earth filling everything, an ocean swell, growing and bearing the truck forward. Just keep going. Make sure they all follow you in. A ravine, a deep, grass-edged cleft in the ground, suddenly appears. Steep walls of red clay. Slam on the brakes before you run yourself, the truck, the whole fucking herd into it. The herd comes to a lumbering, stupefied halt around you. One cow stands just outside your open window. She looks at you with glazed eyes, dumb. The same way you look at her. She takes a step, sticks her massive head inside the cab, and with a long, sandpapery slurp, licks the salt from your face.
I tried not to wonder why I began to hear from her more frequently, because to wonder would be to complicate. Wondering leads to an imagining of a landscape from before she had her hands in it, from before you accepted the new shape of things. It makes it harder to reacquaint yourself in the present. She is a familiar and friendly voice on the phone. Try to only let it exist, comfortable at the other end of the line. Still, as I listened to her tell me about painting the fence, I wondered if her return to the Shenandoah Valley resonated somewhere in the sediment of her own memory. Maybe shook some artifact loose, made her start calling. But I told myself the reasons why are unimportant. I was capable of talking with her, and she was calling. During our last phone conversation, she mentioned a desire to visit me in New Orleans. I believed she meant it, even as I knew intention differs from what will come to pass. The final time I saw her felt like the final time I would see her. I think we both knew it as we embraced on that dark
sidewalk. So, as we spoke on the phone, I could appreciate the sentiment behind her desire for what it was and leave it there. I told her to come on if she wanted to, and I asked her when. She chuckled. She said, “Well,” and told me about the one-way ticket just purchased, departing two weeks later for Amsterdam. There was no plan other than to travel the continent from there and find work as needed. The visit to New Orleans would come after she returned, whenever she might. I wonder if this is why the photograph of her in the garden was buried in a box. To look at the photo is to acknowledge it as a glimpse into that former landscape. The garden is beautiful. She is beautiful, even as she walks away.
During another early morning on the farm outside Louisa, take the camera and go alone for a walk. Find the old cream-colored Ford F-100 in the tin garage. Its engine has been removed, and the truck sits on cinderblocks. Go down to the large pond and the overgrown walking path around it. The fishing rules, handwritten and posted: No boats, No fishing on Sundays. A turtle, a red-eared slider, appears from the water’s edge and crawls up the shore. You’ll swear it walked right up to you to say hello. She will laugh. Take pictures of the hills, the fields. You will come across a small graveyard at the top of a hill. An iron fence still stands in some places around the cemetery. The weathered tombstones jut like crooked teeth. Read the faint and scoured etchings in the headstones of the first two graves, where they share the same earth. The bodies were buried one hundred years after the big farmhouse was built. One tombstone reads: An Unknown Union Soldier. Next to it: An Unknown Confederate Soldier. Imagine these two had been opposed by not much more than latitude. Imagine why the farmers of this property, after finding the bodies, saw it fit to bury them alongside one another. In what now, after all this time and the unceasing turn of the landscape around them, could these two be opposed?
T HE G OLDBERG V ARIATIONS BY J ASON L EE N ORM AN
The last time I saw Glenn Gould he was in a field somewhere in southern Ontario, singing to the elephants. It was one of those farms where they take animals from the zoo that have arthritis or circus animals with depression and let them just walk around some land of their own. Glenn was waving his walking stick like a conductor and singing to them. I think it was Ravel’s Boléro. There he was, singing Ravel to those elephants and wearing his long heavy coat and wool cap and his gloves. Always gloves, to protect his hands. He usually covered the insides of his gloves with talc, and sometimes petroleum jelly. There was a rumour that every night before bed he would soak his hands in warm olive oil. So there he was, the last time I saw Glenn Gould and he was in his gloves and coat and hat, waving his walking stick like a conductor’s baton. He looked at me and said, “These are the happiest days of my life.” The last time I saw Glenn Gould before that it was in Vladivostok. He was giving a concert for the people of Russia. Glenn insisted that his chair was to be exactly fourteen inches off the ground. He wanted to be at eye level with the keys. The piano was the only thing Glenn really loved. He caressed the keys and he would whisper to the piano during his performances. People in the front rows could even hear him humming throughout. His performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations brought all of Russia to tears. They would have given him a key to the city except at that time the Russians did not use keys. They basically just put their fingers into the hole where the key would normally go and then just push it open. Instead of a key to the city ceremony, the mayor and the citizens of Vladivostok all pointed their index fingers in the air for Glenn Gould. He found this to be a moving and suitable tribute. The last time I saw Glenn Gould before that he had just jumped over his last fireball-spewing pit of lava. He grabbed a golden axe with his two gloved hands and burst into the castle’s main chamber to find me standing there. Sorry Glenn Gould, I said, but our princess is in another castle. After that, Glenn and I went to an all night diner and ate scrambled eggs. After our meal, he looked at me and asked if there was a way that we could both become brothers. If one of us could adopt the other. If we could just visit the courthouse and fill out some forms—could we make it official that way? I told him that I didn’t think it worked like that but I thought it was a very sweet idea. I also told him that my two younger brothers should probably have a say in things as well. Glenn agreed with this and reached out and touched my arm with his gloved hand. The last time I saw Glenn Gould before that was when we were standing together at the entrance to Toronto General Hospital where his mother was being treated. His hypochondria kept him paralyzed in the courtyard, unable to enter, even to sit with his dying mother. He preferred to go
back to his apartment and call her on the phone. Glenn saw the hospital as filled with germs that were out to destroy him. Much like an audience whose main function was to strip him down to nothing but his exposed nerves and devour him slowly. Glenn Gould despised germs and despised audiences. After a week I was finally able to convince him, not that the hospital was not filled with germs, but that they were not out to get him specifically. Germs were fickle, I told him. He was then finally able to sit with his dying mother, and she was able to hold his soft gloved hand in hers as he hummed to her some Bach, or possibly, Ravel’s Boléro.
S W EET P OTATO F RIES P LEASE BY F RANK H INTON
There is a sale on fish and chips at a popular, local fish and chip restaurant. The place is strung out with nautical equipment and teal fish netting and dozens of little wooden fishermen with little wooden pipes. There is sea music playing. Every person in the room is fat or, with somebody who is fat. I count fat people in public. We sit at a booth and I order coffee. Katie asks me why I’m ordering coffee. She says coffee and battered fish don’t mix, it’s past five, the coffee is non-refillable. My coffee comes and I play with it. I poke around the menu. Katie pokes around the menu and wonders if they have sweet potato fries. I imagine sweet potato fries. I imagine them and drink down coffee. The coffee is reheated coffee. I think cancer-taste. The waitress comes and brings us water and tells us that there are no sweet potato fries. I feel hurt. We both order the 5.99 special: two strips of battered fish, some fries, a paper cup of coleslaw and the restaurant’s famous tartar sauce. I am upset about the sweet potato fries, just as much as Katie.
“Tonight I will work out for forty minutes,” I say. “I’m going to eat half and take half home,” Katie says. I tell Katie that reheated food is bad for you and that battered fish and French fries taste bad when reheated. A little fat boy waddles into the restaurant with his skinny mother. Katie shows me a message on her phone. I drink all of the coffee. I ask for a refill. The mother lifts the fat boy up into his chair. “There are no refills,” the waitress says. She isn’t our waitress. “This coffee wasn’t fresh. I drank it because I was thirsty,” I say. The waitress rolls her eyes. She looks unhappy. She looks as if she’s passed through the point of no return in this restaurant. She’s been here over a year. She goes home to a shitty environment. She’s had babies come out of her. Things aren’t going well in her life. I’m a little bitch breaking restaurant menu rules. She’s going to get scoffed out by her boss. I’ve added just a little bit of shit to her already shit-filled plate. Her eyes look kind of dead as she rolls them. She’s defeated, she knows it. She already heard us complaining about the sweet potato fries. Katie and I are skinny and young and powerful, in that way. I want to jam sweet potato fries into my mouth. The waitress looks familiar. When little girls are young sometimes they kiss each other and touch each other’s privates.
The waitress reminds me of a play-friend. The waitress leaves to get more coffee. I watch her as she leaves. I sniff the air. Katie asks me about Rich. I tell her he has shiny silk sheets on his bed and he mentioned the thread count when he showed me the bedsheets. Katie asked me if I had a picture. I told her I would take a picture. “I threw up in Rich’s bathtub. We had been drinking ice and rye. He had a cross on the wall with a ceramic Jesus stapled to it. I started praying to the cross in between vomits. I was so drunk. I told myself I would be a better Christian. I promised myself in the bathroom mirror.” “So are you religious now?” “I’m not any more religious than I was before I drank. I’m not religious unless I’m desperate. I don’t know. Religion should be more interesting.” “Did you and Rich hook up?” My coffee comes. Our food comes. We poke at the fish and cut into the fish with our forks. We are silent. All of the grease from the battered cod slides around in my mouth, warm and quick and heavy. Grease. Cancer-taste. Fat boy. I focus on every bite of the meal. I read on zenhabits.com that you should chew each bite of food thirty times to achieve a meditative understanding of your body’s relationship to the food you are eating. By chew twelve the fish is nothing, a strange mire of goo-meat. I finish thirty chews, swallow and take another forkful of fish. I add a French fry to my mouth. I go slow. I feel myself filling. I was a vegetarian last year. I caved. This is my first battered fish in three years. I feel one step away from a bucket of KFC. I am upset but I keep eating and eating. I lessen my amount of chews. Accordion music is playing. I progress through the fish and the fries ahead of Katie. Katie looks at me, she notices, she is thinking about whether it’s okay. She is thinking about breaking her promise to keep half of the fish and chips and take half home. “You should eat it all.” “No. I promised myself I wouldn’t.” “I’m proud of you.” The little fat boy’s food comes. His mother’s food comes. The fat boy has chocolate milk. The mother has water. Chocolate milk and fish don’t mix. The fat boy has a bib, but he looks too old to have a bib. Katie asks if Rich’s friend Mark is single. Mark is a comedian. I tell her Mark is single, but he’s moving to Toronto. Katie says she will try to hook up with Mark some day. I tell her
comedy is a turn on. I tell her misery is a turn on. Katie laughs and a little piece of unswallowed fish shoots out of her laughing mouth. The waitress brings us our bills because we tell her we don’t want pie. We pay in bills and change. I leave a ten percent tip. Katie leaves a toonie. We zip up our coats and leave. We talk about feeling bloated. We walk outside. It’s snowing.
F OUR P OEM S BY H OW IE G OOD
O h, Look The highways running west have all turned back. A poor immigrant swears he saw the pockmarked face of a malicious angel inscribed in a cloud. I eavesdrop on the children drawn by the fire trucks. Someone is always selling someone out. In a small, white room, I find a heart attached to a monitor. I rehearse what I’m going to say but never say it. They were called coffin ships because they were.
Ein Plein Air A crumpled napkin was all Degas needed to do a sky.
Prose/Poem An angel, held up by a string, played Wagner for him as he lay dying. We occupied the time planning a garden, the grayish northern light turning olive trees into the dilapidated backstreets of Paris. He wore his moustache ragged like a brigand’s. The snow deepened, Baudelaire in his famous white face powder, as many people as could dreaming in front of it.
Spring M elt
1 A woman tries on a straw hat like the local peasants wear, the short blue jacket of Parisian street sweepers. It’s not my mother or she’d know what became of the earlier violet man planting in the sun.
2 The train clanks into the station. Sunflowers with purple eyes search the faces for clues.
3 Rain machine-guns down a couple dashing for the shelter of a doorway. A cold voice answers when I call the helpline. My mouth is full of debris. I shouldn’t compare, but Van Gogh also had eighteen teeth pulled and yellow poured through his curtainless window all morning.
4 Libraries had died, and the snow was almost gone. “If the storm within gets too loud,” the man said, standing against the whitewashed church, “I take a glass too much to stun myself.” A general emerged from the woods waving his slouch hat on the tip of his sword. For the first time in months, I could see long, long rows of graves.
A H OUSE , A S UMMERHOUSE BY P AUL L ISICKY
The house had been dead for years. No pants lifted off its hangers, no shirts churning in the washer. I walked through the thick, sweet, mildewed air, room to closed-up room, looking for trouble: jimmied slider handle, humming fuse box, overturned bureau drawer. But who was anyone kidding? The house could have used an intruder, someone who cared enough to covet the stuff in these junked-up rooms, the cracked slab of the jalousie porch. At its best, the house was a glorified storage locker: boxes of sheet music (Finian’s Rainbow, Oliver) sat beside pitted tools, engineering books stored in apple crates. At its worst, it was a mausoleum in which nothing had breathed for years. The floors almost seemed to exhale with each cautious step of mine. I splayed my hand on the piano, played octaves up and down the scale. In terrible tune, but I liked the way it shuddered in the damp drab cave, dissonance buzzing the legs of the chairs, the hat tins filled with buttons, safety pins. Happiness had been here once. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I had the sense that if I sat here long enough and played in my limited, clunky way (I could hear my wife telling me to stop the noise, please stop the noise!) I believed I’d see the children who lived here. I imagined an awkward boy playing Where is Love while his brothers screamed outside, poured a box of laundry soap into an inflatable pool, frothing up the surface like a dessert. Wasn’t that me out there with them? And the mother with her hands on her hips crying, you’ll get a rash from that water. Stay out. I pulled back the draperies from the window. Weeds as high as my waist, and a wooden raft pulled out of the lagoon, boards crumbling like stale wedding cake wrapped in a napkin. Had someone died? Had the children grown up, grown distant from their parents, and spread out all over the country, made lives of their own? Had a brother fought another brother? An argument with the neighbors? Perhaps the answers could be assumed from the basket-weave fence, now greened, warped, and pocked with mildew, clearly thrown up in spite. The question was crucial: why would someone leave a house, a summerhouse, place of pleasure and rest, in this condition? My sister-in-law would have her theory: money. Little houses like these got three-quarter million dollars these days, I knew that. But that explanation didn’t sit well with me. The reason people hold on to things is more complicated than that, more heartbroken and extreme. Maybe it was just a case of stubbornness, someone unable to let go, if not of a place then of a time, and they’d cling and they’d cling until death and the law did what they did to settle things. At least someone was concerned enough to think that the house needed a friendly hand, even if it was only a single day of the week.
I leafed through the contents of a wine box. Beneath the receipts, deposit slips, news clippings, programs, and movie ticket stubs: loose snapshots of a family. A boy in bow tie and blazer, bending over a cello as if he’s protecting something cherished: a brash living thing. A second boy with the pensive expression of a medieval rabbi, already mourning his lost youth, though he couldn’t be a day past thirteen. They weren’t the happiest children I’d ever seen, but they weren’t the most desolate either. So what if they let a little seriousness drag down the corners of their eyes when they smiled? At least they weren’t like my own relatives, people who tried so hard to look happy and strong that they ceased to be human. Well, I’d do it for them, the boys in the photographs. I picked up a cloth and started cleaning. People had no idea how fast things wanted to fall apart if left to what waited for them: rust, mold, rot, tarnish, corrosion. If only they knew, they’d be different about life, I swear it. Those boys— men now—would come running, from wherever city or star. They’d find out one thing: the world was never so easy to leave, however sorry your fortune.
G UNPLAY N EIL S ERVEN
It was when the party hit a lull and a woman wearing too much rouge was going on about her parakeets that Tom decided to set down his bourbon glass and pull out his gun. He had this theory that you could tell a lot by who left the room and who stayed. The ones who stayed were worth getting to know. A tall man in an argyle sweater, one of those who immediately fled, called over his shoulder passive-aggressively: Whoa, pal, shouldn’t we have kept the toys at home? A few folks who weren’t so uptight stuck around and asked questions: Is it loaded? Is the safety on? Tom showed them the switch, expertly flipped the chamber in and out. Ingrid explained, Tom didn’t care much for them until we had our break-in last year. Did Jill tell you about that? While we were up in Vermont someone made off with our flat-screen and a full jar of macadamia nuts. Jill was the hostess. Coming in from the kitchen, she spied the gun in Tom’s hand and almost dropped a whole plate of water crackers. Tom, she said, recovering her poise in front of everybody, is there something you need to talk through? Can I get you a stronger drink? As people grew accustomed to the gun, a few asked to touch it. They set down their cocktails without using coasters. Hands dropped as they tried the weight, slipped their fingers around the walnut handle, lightly thumbed the cold trigger. They looked around for a safe place to point it, and when they couldn’t find one, they instead struck Charlie’s Angels-style poses, long enough for the other guests to snap photos with their smartphones. The man in the argyle said to Jill, I’m sorry, I can’t hang around with that thing here.
Someone said later she could feel the bullet tickling her hair as it whizzed by, but that was one of Jill’s college friends, who had always been prone to exaggerations. Tom was the one holding the thing when it went off. He had been standing near the bottom of the stairs getting ready to put it back in his pocket when he accidentally whacked it against the banister. Ingrid, standing next to him, shrieked and dropped her Manhattan; the man in the argyle, having
never made good on his threat to leave, exclaimed, What the fuck, too dramatically for anyone’s good. By the looks of things the bullet had ricocheted off the wall by the armoire and then struck the back of the couch, near where Jill’s black Standard Poodle had been resting. The poor thing had taken off like a firecracker up the stairs and nearly knocked over Jill’s sister as she was coming out of the bathroom. Jill’s brother-in-law found the slug buried between the couch cushions. The wall now sported a fresh little gouge in the plaster the size of a golf ball, and the first-floor rooms smelled like burnt popcorn. Nobody knew where the dog went. Jill eventually found him hiding at the back of the linen closet, hyperventilating, his head buried in an overnight bag.
On the drive home, Ingrid said, I guess we should be relieved nobody was hurt. What do you suppose was that guy’s problem, anyway? Probably one of these types that doesn’t lock the window to his fire escape, then wonders why he keeps running out of albuterol, said Tom. He’ll go home and write four thousand words about this on his blog tonight. Most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him. I thought the whole thing was pretty funny. I told Jill she could send us the bill for the wall. I suppose the couch may need to be reupholstered too. I’ll call her tomorrow. Spackle and paint should take care of it. It was just a mark. I know, said Ingrid. But it’s the decent thing to do.
T HOSE N EIGHBORHOODS BY A NGELLE S COTT
This is one of those neighborhoods where women braid menâ€™s hair on the porch, where grandmothers with pendulous bosoms watch, where twelve-year-old girls hitch babies on their hips. This is one of those neighborhoods where wizened women scratch lines in their arms, where eyes of men are redder than the tips of their cigars, where babies run barefoot over brown bottle shards. This is one of those neighborhoods where houses have a gangsta lean, where roaches dash from cabinets, anxious in the light, where sidewalks lurch and crack like pedestrians do. This is one of those neighborhoods where two blocks from here, white girls run in booty shorts, where hoopties rust and schools crumble to lead dust, where the interstate cuts off all the old ways out.
M AY S HORT S TORY M ONTH
M INIATURE G OLF BY S.H. G ALL
Was it middle school, when Dad decided he’d been a little on the absent side? I think it was. I think I was in seventh grade. We had to get up extra-early to go out for breakfast, just the two of us, before he could drop me off at school en route to work. He took me off the beaten path, to a dark-paneled seating area attached to an obsolete motel. We drank Donald Duck orange juice from tiny glasses scaly with soap scum, ate cold rubber scrambled eggs, and sausage patties crusted with burnt fat. My mind was occupied with the day ahead, the bullies, the queers. We were silent to each other: silent or dumb, deaf or disinterested. I was confused, and sad in a way I didn’t yet understand. Sadness as foreshadowing. I knew this was called bonding, and that Dad was compensating, whatever that meant. Dad requested grape jelly from a waitress with night-smeared mascara and breath like a distillery. He carried his battered briefcase with those tense pale hands, sat it by his feet on the floor beneath the booth. I studied my elaborately torn cuticles like maps, ways of being. Over the soggy toast and watery coffee, we tried and failed to exchange pleasantries. I could barely look up, to his face, into his foreign pale blue eyes. Instead, I looked at the food on my plate and thought about things that, in civilized society, are best kept under the table. Outside this strange and ordinary place, there was a miniature golf course. It was overgrown and long out of use, but I couldn’t ignore the rust-coated windmill and the algae-limned teeth of the tiger’s maw. It was the desiccation that I’d come to associate with youth. It was the past, and likely the future. To the present, it ceased to exist.
T W O P OSTCARD F ICTIONS D ESMOND K ON Z HICHENG -M INGDÉ
W ait Please Gerard’s mother did say those quips so convincingly as if they were truisms inscribed on an epitaph, with such conviction that you just looked back, with vacant eyes and a gentle nod. My neighbor’s playing his Schrammel accordion. It’s vintage, a steal at $18, a gem he unearthed from St. Baldred’s Flea Finds, its landfill of left-for-dead instruments. He’s jamming with the beatboxer from the club bunking in with him for a bit because he’s been evicted again. He hasn’t even got his concert flutes anymore, which he left in the subway on his way to our building. Interject with “hear it say wait please” before line 16. Follow through with “his leap of faith like mine.” I shuffle my index cards to get a better sense of my newly arranged line breaks and whip abruptly to my right, to face the window for its wan light through the blinds. My battement frappé was always too soft a strike on the hardwood flooring. The Chinese man at the corner of the street plays his erhu every evening with only one string. A passerby muttered under his breath that it sounded like a metal chair dragged across concrete. I thought the instrument was as intact as before, still emphatic, more pained but also more resonant. The end of a song should arrive before it signs its last heave or sigh. A chariot horse, each ghost note as wild a tangent, hanging on its tail by the skin of its teeth. Where will we stay? Maybe with that graphic designer who’s into grunge and tongue piercings and anything even remotely alluding to counterculture. He lives in his uncle’s loft on the West Side, and there’s an empty room.
Dorothea Brooks in H ell’s Kitchen “I’m coming over in an hour,” Gerard leaves another message. “The casserole smells great. Made a coconut cream pie as well, and hid some Ghirardelli squares in it too, the way you like it. Hey, maybe we should stay in this year and chill, you know, hang out a bit? Looks like it’s about to pour outside. What say we watch a century go by from your living room?” His voice sounds soothing, like a flannel throw over my shoulders and back, falling past my waist. Hanging on the bedpost is his pullover from the day he wrapped it around my neck and called it cashmere and a shawl. On the floor is a shoebox of his family photographs that he left behind because he didn’t want it in his apartment. And on the left of that, his diary from when he was in his teens into his twenties, only a few of its pages filled as if all the years in between had been hollow to him. The mirror ball he staple-gunned to the ceiling is still there, suspended above me. Insert line: “blue is this little I know of you and how much blue is filled.” Break. Insert ghost note to round off the image: “the fuller sense still” I turn to the player to put on an audio reading of Daniel Deronda or Middlemarch, pausing, unable to decide. What choice in the matter of chance and destiny, the realism of the roulette, its fixed point of rotation, and ever turning? The radio begins to play Oleta Adams’ “My Heart Won’t Lie,” her voice like warm butter. I should turn up the volume, but this is all right, this moment will do, will seat itself like a barely audible whisper. A soft pause. Like that pensato waiting in the wings.
F ACT OF L IFE BY A LISON B ARKER
Six months into therapy, Marla wanted to know: just what is a person supposed to say when their friends ask, why don’t you two live together yet? And it’s eight in the morning, and you’re gripping the metal handhold of the T car with one hand, and you’re wincing as hot Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drips over your fingers and up the sleeve of your coat. Then the underground passageway fills with squealing brakes as the train lurches so you have to strain when you say:
Taryn is just not ready yet. I’m giving her the time she needs. Marla met Taryn in front of a dusty collectibles stand at the flea market in Dorchester on Cottage Street. On that chilly autumn morning, Taryn held an aluminum travel mug of coffee. Taryn was self-contained: snug windbreaker and tight-fitting, thin wale corduroys. Her nest of straw-colored hair was cut in an asymmetrical bob and careless tangle of ringlets framed her wide, perfect face. They both reached with their free hands for the same vintage timer, a stainless steel egg that glittered brightly in a wooden nest stuffed with plastic Easter grass. Marla touched the smooth curve of its shell just as Taryn grabbed the edge of the nest. Marla’s knuckly hand grazed her long, serpentine fingers. Taryn snorted drily and held her beautiful hands up as if in surrender. Marla’s pulse quickened as her thoughts stretched and curled out toward her, and their rather short chase was on. From that day on, the egg ticked its certain, metallic click from the center of Marla’s kitchen table, delicately chipping away time, as long as Marla or Taryn thought to wind it while they waited for delivery men to bring them pad thai from New Asia or late-night pizza from Bertucci’s. Sometimes Marla liked to bring it into the bathroom and listen to its pulse as she sat in a warm bath.
Taryn wore hiking boots that thudded across Marla’s hardwood floors, in an uncalculated way that inspired trust in Marla. Her ex, Anne, had made small, calculated sounds right before she left Marla for a man named Greg. Her once uncontrollable giggle turned brittle and shrill. She threw her head back and looked down her nose at Marla when she made her new laugh-sound, like a crack in a glass vase blown too thin. Weeks after Anne left, Marla drank hard cider and cried in front of Anne and Greg (fiancé), in the back hallway of a mutual friend’s housewarming party in Egleston Square. She asked Anne Why? This provoked the fiancé to retrieve Anne’s coat and hurry them out the door, as if Marla were some noisy contagion.
Marla wanted to hear more sounds from Taryn—specifically the word us instead of me being at the top of the list—but also I love you and even more intricate tessellations, We will vacation on the Cape when our children are little. A year into their relationship, Marla wanted to follow a plan: move-in together-get-engaged-then-married-procure-a-donor (Marla would be the mom) andparticipate-in-rotating-backyard-springtime-potlucks (Massachusetts-weather permitting). Taryn was the stick in the mud. She stalled. She liked her dingy basement studio, with assorted castoffs from previous sets she helped design, and she wasn’t sure about parenthood, and certainly didn’t see the need to rush a commitment. What’s wrong with the way we are? Often, Marla wanted to cuddle, but Taryn’s arms and legs fell asleep almost every night, a nerve condition on account of her abnormally long neck, according to one specialist. Marla had to be careful so her body didn’t obstruct Taryn’s circulation. They used a body pillow between them in bed so Marla wouldn’t accidentally roll onto an arm or a leg, cutting off Taryn’s sense of feeling. It took months for Marla to teach herself to stop migrating over the pillow onto Taryn’s side of the bed in her sleep. On a recommendation from a couple whose commitment ceremony they attended in Jamaica Plain, Marla and Taryn started seeing a couples’ counselor once a week at the Cambridge Family Services Center. The couples’ counselor gave them an assignment: draw your relationship, she said. Marla nodded eagerly; she loved being on assignment. Taryn sighed and got to work. The fingernail clipping sounds of the clock scraped away the seconds. A few moments later, the counselor held up two doodles, each in blue ink on extra napkins from the Ethiopian restaurant down the street. Little red, yellow and green flags printed on the corners of the napkins fluttered in the counselor’s hands. Taryn: A spiral with a dark gorge at its center where the paper tore a little. Marla: A small box with bars. Behind the bars, two stick figures held hands.
The doodle exercise ended in disastrous squabbling. A week later, the counselor said oh, I have just the thing, and bent over to rummage in a worn leather satchel until her scarves fell from her shoulders and her gray curls tangled in her eyes. She straightened up, and with reddened cheeks, waved a glossy brochure. Marla and Taryn looked at their cure: a Sierra Club brochure, advertising an observation trip to Little Cumberland Island, where baby sea turtle hatchlings made their way from sandy nests to the wide open sea. Marla’s heart beat faster. Something about their tiny bodies thumped inside her.
Taryn (blond wisps falling out of her barrette against her perfect cheekbone) said she wasn’t sure—if they were endangered, why did people walk around near the nests? Marla (shorter, darker, stronger) stated the case: they needed to be a part of something outside themselves—together—to take this relationship to the next level, to fortify what they had started. Then poof—a plane engine, a rental car door slam and a sputtering motorboat later, there they were, in the dank ruins of an abandoned mansion on an island off the coast of Georgia, paying the Sierra Club to witness endangered babies taking their first tottering steps.
The motor sputtered while Duke, their Sierra Club tour guide, reported facts (wild turkeys and armadillos called the place home; none of the twenty owners of Little Cumberland have spent any time on their land since the 1960’s; mansions built decades ago were crumbling into themselves). The sun ached behind heavy woolen clouds, heating the still air and increasing the marshy smell, which Marla said reminded her of warm piss. Taryn, partially hidden in her orange life vest, nodded intently at Duke and smiled so wide that her mouth became a gaping hole when she spoke. Marla could tell that Duke was one of those guys who pretended to be unfettered yet purchased a lot of gear at overpriced outdoor equipment outfitters.
The two women lay on the floor of the old rented mansion’s living room. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows held the island’s dark chaos from entering, but only so much. An alligator’s eye shone now and then through scraggles of Spanish moss that hung limply from tree branches over the dilapidated pool. How old was the alligator when he first climbed into the pool? And did he—or she—know how to climb out? Has another alligator ever joined? Marla didn’t want to think about it, but Taryn vibrated with questions. She clawed at Marla’s clothes and kissed her neck. Taryn had grown sure-footed and alert since their arrival. She snarled in between kisses, I’m a hungry alligator, I’m ravenous, This alligator’s going to eat you. Taryn pushed her way in between Marla’s legs and ate at her, first prying her open a little with her mouth, nosing into her labia, hands squeezing thighs, hips, pressing into her belly. “Animal,” sighed Marla. Taryn darted her tongue into Marla’s wet, creased space, then slowed the movement, being sure to run it roughly up over the length of the lips and on top of her clit. Covering territory. “Make circles,” Marla demanded. “Stay there.” Taryn grunted and shook her head. Up and down, side-to-side, she rifled Marla unpredictably, until Marla begged. Taryn felt her hands up under
Marla’s butt and settled her mouth squarely to suck and press, press, press into her until Marla felt a something like a beginning and she came with a shriek and a small burst of tears. “I could watch the alligator all night,” Taryn said, and she scooted Marla in her sleeping bag closer to the glass. “I’m so glad we’re here.”
The next night was the midnight ride to the beach. Marla found herself sitting in the back of Duke’s jeep with a woman and her husband from Florida, who said they were fervent believers in ecotourism. They had brought their son, who kicked at the back of the driver’s seat. The family had gathered news about the oil spill in the Gulf from their battery-powered radio, and they peppered Marla with facts. The rupture couldn’t be stopped with the latest device they lowered down there, but BP was pouring chemicals all around to break up the oil. Sea turtles were washing up dead on the Bolivar Peninsula down there near the leak. Marla racked her brain for something hopeful to say about that, but she couldn’t finish her thoughts, distracted by the fact that they weren’t driving on an actual road. Taryn sat right up front in the passenger seat, front row to the nothingness ahead of them. While he drove over the uneven sand path toward the beach, Duke counted the babies’ predators on fingers of both hands: sea gull, raccoon, ghost crab, fox, wild dog, horse, hog, alligator, car. Barring these obstacles and obtrusive artificial lights, the babies’ brains set tiny magnetic compasses to keep the great, deep, gaping water at the forefront of their destinies. Duke swerved around stumps from felled trees based on the shadows they made in the headlights. Marla tried to get her mind off of Duke’s tanned lips that faded into his cheeks, and his crooked smile. She tapped the boy on the shoulder and asked him questions about college and his favorite animals, but he didn’t want or know how to answer most of them, and so they sat in silence. They parked, and the group scattered onto the dark beach. Contrary to Marla’s expectations, woods and shore on an undeveloped island were not quiet. The screeches, the loud pops and whimpers, all of it worsened into a garbled riot after the sun set. Marla stared at the curve of her girlfriend’s neck against the star-reflecting water. rather, an image—paddled into Marla’s mind. A ticking egg.
And then, a crack-pop sound. Like a rip in the seam of the night. Despite her commitment to the process, Marla felt for her flashlight. She pointed it at the ground, saw the damage she had made, then immediately fumbled to extinguish it. Duke called out, “Like I told you, no flashlights.”
A gaping pocket in the airtight night hung over Marla’s head after that: the skeeow sound that the herons made, the crazy scraping sounds of a million bugs, the heavy, sick, thumping of the wild turkey’s mating call—or was it the armadillo who made that sound, and the turkeys that grunted? Indeed, a crack-and-a-pop stood apart from the white noise of the island night, distinct as a dry snort, or a staccato cackle, or a tense footstep on a creaky wooden floorboard.
The husband and wife coached small groups of babies by shooing them around a patch of seaweed. “Come on, champ,” the husband was singing to one. Loggerhead sea turtles’ shells could stretch almost a meter wide. If. In all the right circumstances. While Taryn turned languidly to admire the moon, Marla squatted down and scooped up these refugees, these doomed little fighters. She carried an armful to the water, more careful this about where she stepped. The crack-pop sound rang in her ears. “Marla, that’s not really how we keep a low profile here,” said Duke. “You can’t save all of them,” the wife chimed. They were light as a pencil, but more intricate than a cell phone. Marla wanted to be able to stay with each of them through the most terrifying of all facts she read that day: that the first year in the water, baby sea turtles ride shallow currents, hunting bits in seaweed, gaining strength and bulk to carry them deeper into the worlds where they belong. But that was only probably what they did. Scientists weren’t sure and that’s why they called it the Lost Year. She dropped all but one into the surf, and the water swallowed them whole. Marla choked on a sob and trembled when she realized her right hand gripped too tightly around her last hatchling. Its flippers slowed their stroke. Its eyes were supposed to be its strongest, but the round bulges in its little head hadn’t kept it from soldiering frantically away from the sea, toward the pine forest where foxes waited. “Marla, we’re here just to observe.” Duke’s easygoing lilt had sharpened into marching orders. “The turtles know what they’re doing.” Marla whispered to the tottering shell in her hand. Tough shit. It was something her mother used to say, a talisman of sorts. The baby rocked back and forth. Tough shit, Marla repeated the phrase over and over barely audible to anyone but the turtle. Marla wondered how Duke could focus on this well-protected hatching site when the coast of Texas could be washing up tens of oil-coated females at this very minute. Instead, here they stumbled, useless interlopers, poking at a turtle here, stroking one there, and making observations
about its flipper looking like a tiny spatula (the son) or its shape and size suggesting a happy hour slider (the husband). The space above the water—wherever the horizon was—pressed in over Marla; this body with no form was suffocating to think about. This one, she convinced herself, would make it all the way past the shallow water. She held it up in the moonlight. Its brain would detect both the angle and intensity of the earth’s magnetic field to leave the dangers of the shoreline and eat and eat until it could survive the dangers of the deep. She envisioned it pulling its growing bulk deeper through the leagues of depths. And it would learn to flatten crabs with its jaws powerful as a closed-fist punch. Marla placed it on the sand. It paddled away from the booms of crashing waves, not toward them. She picked it up and turned it to face the water’s edge, just a few yards away. She refused to leave until the turtle entered the edge of the water, and until she watched the undertow pull the dark smudge of an infant into the start of something underwater and invisible. As the group picked their way back across the open beach to the Jeep, Taryn gasped and cried out—she had found the dead baby. The boy poked at the line across its back like a stiff, cellophane bakery container where pressure had sliced it in half, and turned it over to reveal its white underside—like a cupcake—a perfect match with the sand. The oval head lay to the side out of the shell. The wife rubbed Taryn’s shoulder. Duke reassured everyone that tragedies were a part of the process. The husband agreed and acted like he had expected that all along. Marla felt guilt and a little bit of anger that a possibility had been extinguished: this crack-and-a-pop, this rip in the darkness, had loosened something in her that made sense. Inside the Jeep, Taryn bent her head awkwardly to rest on Marla’s shoulder and sobbed squeakily, girlishly, as if trying to contain her moment of weakness from spilling onto everyone else in the Jeep. “That poor little creature,” Taryn whispered. Marla shrugged and inched away from her impatiently. Taryn squeezed Marla’s hand and brushed her earlobe with her lips. It was Taryn’s turn to be inconsolable. “What’s wrong?” Taryn kept her face close to Marla’s ear so as not to be heard by the other passengers. But Marla stayed silent and let Taryn sniffle restlessly. Duke parked and the tourists opened the doors of the Jeep and entered the maddening orchestra of insects and other unseen forces. Under the interior light of his vehicle, Duke paused before shutting his door, and turned to look at Marla before she stepped into the night. Their eyes met and she knew he recognized the difference between a turtle killed in the wild, and one who had been pummeled underfoot by a woman, resolute, even in the dark.
F LY BY J ULIE I NNIS
Not on the mouth, I tell him. I don’t know where your feet have been. I thought we agreed, dip then lip, Fly says. My research of foot-and-mouth disease says we need a dip of two parts bleach to water. But Harold’s gone green and thrown out all our cleaning supplies, I explain. Harold, my husband, had recently taken up with his yoga instructor. Toxic’s out, he said and I suppose this included me. Our marriage had been contentious for years. If not for the recession, I would’ve moved out weeks ago. Instead I quietly suffered through my days with New Harold, from his morning Sun Salutations to his evening Downward Dogs. His preoccupation with yoga postures and new Live and Let Live attitude are what’s allowed my Fly to stick around for so long. Old Harold would’ve nuked him in a cloud of Raid immediately upon sight. I cup my hand gently around Fly and bring him up close to my cheek. He plants his feet wide in the center of my palm as he furiously beats his wings, setting off a tiny current of breeze that buzzes against my skin. It’s our version of safe sex, until I can find a germicidal dip that won’t kill him. Fly says he’s disease-free, swears he’s strictly table scraps and high-end restaurant trash, but I’ve seen Wild Kingdom, seen the swarms of flies that lift and fall from the half-mauled carcasses of gazelle and wildebeest. This is Manhattan, baby, Fly reminds me. You can trust where I’ve been. Full-disclosure, in my reckless youth, there might have been a wild night or two of road-kill. But I’m an adult now and carrion’s so low-rent. Déclassé. Fly’s a striver from Brooklyn. Just a regular housefly, he says, though I know he fancies himself more a champagne-and-caviar type. A regular Mister Musca Fancy-Pants, I tease him and his thorax flushes red with embarrassment and pride. We met on a World Yacht dinner cruise. He’d been circling the shrimp platter while I was trying to decide between a runny Camembert or a moldy Gorgonzola. I was distracted, alone, my husband off checking the coat-check girl. My marriage is a sham, what does the freshness of my breath matter anymore, I figured, drowning my sorrows with cube after cube of odoriferous cheese.
You wield a mean toothpick, Fly said as I skewered another cube. I like finger strength in my ladies. You’re pretty funny for a fly, I said. You’re pretty beautiful when you laugh, Fly said. Cheese? I offered, holding out my cube. No thanks. I’ve got my eye on that oyster, need to get my strength up. It may have been the lighting, but I swear he winked as he said this. What a rascal, I said, flipping my hair back to reveal my bare shoulders. Fly spent the rest of the evening whispering sweet nothings to me, his tiny feet tickling at my ear lobe. So attentive, so entertaining! What ecstasy, what bliss! I forgot completely about Harold until it was time to disembark and he came back to our table, my coat already in hand. I didn’t bother to ask if he’d tipped her. What a loser, Fly buzzed into my ear. Come home with me, I told him. I thought you’d never ask, he said.
At first I took things slowly; after all, a relationship with a fly isn’t viable for the long haul—their short life span, the diseases and high maggot potential during hot summer months. Surely a woman in her prime could do better? I asked myself more than once. Fly understood, said he didn’t want to hold me back. Spread your wings, he said. So I tried other men. I did Tom, Dick, and Harry, then Tom again, twice. Sure, the sex was great, but it lacked the passion, the frisson, the eye to compound-eye contact I had with Fly. I knew you’d come around, Fly said when I told him I was ready to be exclusive. But how can you be so sure? I asked, nervous, vulnerable. Pheromones never lie, he said, ducking his head slightly towards one wing. Fly doesn’t have shoulders to shrug, which made his modesty in that moment even more appealing.
You complete me, I said, letting my breath play softly across his wings. He shivered, his body buzzing. Oh baby, he gasped, shuddering once, twice before slipping into a deep sleep.
Good for you, my friends tell me. They know what kind of husband Harold’s been. What an asshole, they say. They’ve all taken lovers of their own—personal trainers, masseurs, pizza delivery boys. Still, I worry that perhaps an interspecies relationship is doomed. So I do my research, I read my women’s magazines, I watch my daytime talk shows. Oprah says we must take love wherever we can find it. Open your heart, Oprah says, Let love in.
I start by telling Harold to move into the guest bedroom. I tell him it’s because of the yoga instructor, but really it’s because Fly’s jealous and has in the middle of more than one night threatened to throw himself deep into the abyss of Harold’s snoring mouth. I want to choke him to death, Fly says. But it would kill you too. For you, my sweet, I would gladly give my life, Fly says. Move in with me, I say, showing him the room I’ve made for him out of a half-empty jelly jar lined with newspaper. The business section of the Times, Fly notes. Nice touch. You do love me, don’t you? Yes, yes, I say, my voice rising, barely able to contain my joy. What’s going on in there? Harold calls out from the other side of the bedroom door. Fly and I just giggle, and I turn out the light.
The weeks pass as Fly and I settle into a comfortable rhythm—mornings with the Times after Harold goes off to work, then afternoon walks in the park, gallery-hopping, matinees, and later, dinners in the finest restaurants, then long evenings spent holed up in our bedroom, the sound of
Harold’s sad shuffling just beyond the locked door. His yoga instructor dumped him, I tell Fly when he complains that the TV is on too loud. I feel sorry for him, I say. Not too sorry, I hope? Fly asks, his voice cracking slightly. No, not at all, I say, meaning it.
I can’t think of a time when I’ve been happier, but the germicidal dip issue remains unresolved and I start to worry that I’ll lose Fly forever if we don’t take our love-making to the next level. I’ll be so gentle, Fly says, teasing his way across the inside of my wrist, my pulse rapid beneath my skin. You think this feels good? Imagine how good my feet will feel against those sweet sweet lips of yours. I gasp for air. We’ve talked about this, I protest, my voice weak with desire. You know you want it, Fly says, going in for the kill. That afternoon I buy a pack of anti-bacterial baby wipes. Stop if it burns, I beg, spreading one out for Fly to walk across. Ooo, he says, hopping from leg to leg. It hurts so good, baby. Then he lifts himself up into the air, circling twice around my head and once down the long slope of my naked body before coming in low to land at the crest of my upper lip. Oh, I moan. Fly, Fly. Careful with the back draft, Fly says, walking the perimeter of my lips, savoring their plump center before beating his wings in the divot at their peak. But just as I’m bringing my back into a full arch, Harold storms in. It’s midday and I hadn’t bothered to lock the bedroom door, hours to go before he’d be home from work, I’d assumed, blind to the warning signs of his mounting suspicions. Ah-ha, he yells, a baseball bat in hand, his eyes wild as he scans the room for signs of my noon-time lover. I’m so startled that I forget Fly’s warning and with one sharp gasp, he’s gone, sucked deep into my mouth, my swallow reflex too powerful an instinct for my reason to override.
No, no, no, I wail, clawing at my throat. Fly! I gasp, my face red, my eyes full of tears, my windpipe spasming shut. What the fuck? Harold says, clearly confused by my apparent solitude and sudden onset of choking. He’s never really noticed the little things, I think, as he drops his bat and encircles me with his arms. I go limp as he begins administering the Heimlich. One, two, three thrusts to my diaphragm as I pray for a miracle. But it’s too late. The most I manage to bring up is a burp of hot empty air. I’ve lost him, my love, my Fly. I swallow once, sadly, and turn away. I’m here for you, Harold says, his hand heavy on my shoulder. Please, just go, I sob, already missing the lightness of Fly’s touch.
The days of mourning pass slowly. Harold takes sick leave from work and brings me hot tea and toast in bed. I don’t bother explaining to him about Fly. It’s not like he’d understand. He says he’s ready to work on our marriage, that he wants us to see a counselor. I agree, too grief-stricken to protest the futility of it all. My heart will never be his. He wants to move back into the bedroom, but I refuse. It’s too soon, I say. I let him think it’s because of the yoga instructor. He tells me he’s a patient man, that he’ll wait. I’m waiting also. At night I lie awake in the dark, my hands pressed to my stomach, and wait for a buzzing to be born.
S PECIAL I SSUE : F ICTIONAUT S IX
1974, W HAT I W ANTED BY A NN B OGLE
I wanted to earn A’s. And an A cup to protect my tall nipples from fondling at school. It was our first year to be graded. Until then, we had been scored on behavior—what if we were to be scored on behavior or graded today? Then we were transitioning from behavior to performance along academic lines, and once, my head still hurting from the kick it received on May 2, the day before my twelfth birthday, from a boy on the playground, probably Hans, but maybe someone else, maybe Jeff, not likely David, and not the twins, Joel and Tim, and not Charles, never could it have been Charles. Charles was the sort of young man in sixth grade who might grow up to defend a woman against the might of other men, so it was not he who kicked my temple, after the teachers had warned the boys not to kick us there. Surely, someone must have wondered what “temple” meant. There was another David, but for the sake of fiction, he goes by Donald in my books. Donald and I had a relationship history that could be traced to the McGovern-Nixon election in which McGovern won only one state, ours, and Nixon won the rest. In the show of hands, Laurie and I had voted for McGovern. The other twenty-eight kids had voted for Nixon. I planned a childhood memoir called Voting for McGovern or Waiting to Be Hippies. I thought of us dressed for those three years in our elephant pants and mini-dresses, beads and chokers at our necks, long blond hair parted down the middle, recorders, easier to play than flute and clarinet, though we played those, too, and as we got to be better at those instruments, recorder became harder to play, easier to overblow, and the girls with soprano voices, one with long brown hair and pretty bangs, joined the Chamber Choir for which they had had to audition, and due to my extreme height—I was 5’2” by seventh grade—I could not or did not think I could sing the high notes the other girls could sing and no boy, no boy could hit those high notes ever again. Charles appeared in the hall in eighth grade sporting the first beard, and I acted maturely toward it, as if it did not faze me that he had grown a beard over the summer and that his mother, Gretchen, and his father, Father, had allowed him to do it. If there had been arranged marriage in eighth grade, the grade it used to be and still sometimes is when children left school to work in the fields, I would have hoped that my parents would have arranged for me to marry Mike, who was tall and spread his protective arms around me on the sofa in our living room, despite his age, which must have been only thirteen, already a man like Charles, a man like my father, who must have been 49 at the time, and who got mad at Mike, thinking worse things than arms folded around his daughter, because of bad Donald, Mike who could be described even at thirteen as blue collar because to earn a living is what he wanted to do, and Donald, a poor student who had voted for Nixon in the open election yet picked the only two girls who had voted for McGovern to take him to the equation that led to the baby carriage, could take her dream away from her, to get A’s—a bad girl, perhaps, one who wanted to score and score well, an anomaly, a trick in their otherwise orderly progression of nips of vodka to nymphomaniac, not a nympho, maybe a sea nymph or wood nymph, and not an oilyhaired girl, a tall girl, at 5’2”, fast at algebra and sure at science and made for weddings after all.
T HE S PACES IN B ETW EEN BY L EN K UNTZ
She is nine, nine going on something else. Already she has learned to be brave and observant, as well as the correct way to unearth and bury. She’d never liked playthings, but still she bounces a Barbie on the sofa armrest, humming, acting as if she’s studying the doll’s palms when really she’s looking through the space in between Barbie’s perfect fingers where her mother is splayed. The girl knows a little about narcotics and too much wine consumption, but these are not issues for her mother. This is something far more slippery and bleak. The girl wishes she were older and wise. Adults have answers. For instance, her aunt knows things, but she’s a shrug of the shoulders, a secret keeper or just plain greedy. “Why don’t you sing a little softer,” her mother says, even though the girl is just humming without using words to her made-up song. “And could you close the blinds?” She does as told, looks the sun in the eye first. Men have walked on the moon. The sun’s surface is too hot for those kinds of shenanigans, and still it is her favorite thing that lives in the sky. “Momma, can I tell you a story?” “Only if you speak in your quiet voice and don’t get all jumpy at the exciting parts.” Her mother winces, reaching to the carpet, so the girl gets it for her, picking up the damp dishrag and laying it across the woman’s forehead. The girl whispers, “In a grand castle somewhere near Ireland, there once lived a damsel…” Everything is reversed. The girl knows how it’s really supposed to work. Moms get their kids up, make them breakfast, hustle them off to the school bus. Moms are strict but like lots of sunlight. They’re the ones that tell bedtime stories. The girl doesn’t mind. She has an imagination that needs flexing, freedom to roam. As she narrates to her mother, the girl pictures herself as a cement truck spewing golden tar, making a clean new road that the two of them will walk on soon, arm in arm, escaping to a fun land, like the yellow brick road leading to Oz.
Her mother drifts to sleep. The girl’s dad is upstairs in his home office. He is not a mean man, not at all. He is quiet like snow and just as white. It is hard for him to smile and sometimes she hears him sniffling when she eavesdrops. She used to be angry that he wasn’t stronger. Men are supposed to be able to lift heavy weights and fix broken things. She’s not even halfway through her story, or to the good part, when Aunt Sandy comes over. The girl knows it’s her because she taps on the door like a sock puppet might, soft little nudging sounds, before just going ahead and letting herself in. She breaks into a smile when she sees the girl, then the smile goes jagged finding the girl’s mother on the sofa. Aunt Sandy puts her praying hands to the side of her face, closes her eyes and makes a sleeping motion. The girl checks her mother, and nods to her aunt. They go into the kitchen, Aunt Sandy tiptoeing so her heels don’t click. Aunt Sandy hugs the girl, whispers her nickname, “Izzy, Izzy, Izzy.” She’d prefer her aunt use Elizabeth. Izzy is reserved for the girl’s mother and a fleet of make-believe friends that she trusts. Aunt and Izzy sit at the round table with the silver siding and bruised-blue Formica top. They have dark pink fruit punch in clear glasses and Izzy imagines a cartoon fish zipping inside, burping at her and chuckling. Aunt Sandy has a long goat face with chin whiskers. She looks sad today. The girl asks what’s wrong, but before she does, Izzy decides that if Aunt Sandy tells the truth, then it will mean she really can trust the woman. Aunt Sandy shakes her head, the eyes flicking for an answer, and the girl looks at her lap knowing it doesn’t matter now what answer’s given because it’ll just be a lie, no different than the ones her father and the doctors tell. Izzy’s heard the word a thousand times. With each utterance, though, one of the adults will introduce the term as if it’s thin crystal or a hot cake out of the oven. “Depression isn’t forever, Izzy. Besides, there are new medicines,” Aunt Sandy says. “Your mom’s going to get better.” Then Auntie asks would Izzy like to come live with her for a while, hmm? She reaches across for the girl’s palms. Izzy lets her have them and thinks, “Cold hands, warm heart,” but if that’s so, then the reverse must be true, and she snatches her hands back. “Hey!” Aunt Sandy says.
Izzy stands. She flings the pitcher, watches the faded fuchsia fluid loop and curl before splashing her aunt. She runs to the sofa. “Momma, momma,” Izzy says, shaking her mother, but whispering even so, “wake up. We have to go.” Aunt Sandy calls, “Peter! Peter!” Peter, Izzy’s father, bounds out of his room, his footfalls loud on the ceiling. And then he’s stomping down the stairs and Aunt Sandy is pointing at Izzy even though she’s right there, just a few feet away, and Auntie is screaming through her anger at being soaked. “…blouse cost two hundred dollars!” Her father can’t quiet Aunt Sandy and soon they’re both yelling and so is Izzy’s mother, awake now and propped up on her elbows, and then Izzy’s mother shakes Izzy’s grip off and shouts for everyone to stop, to shut up, the noise is too loud, it will kill her if the noise doesn’t stop, it will, it will. And so they all go quiet. Izzy checks to be sure her mother is serious, but the dishrag is pulled over her mother’s eyes. Izzy stands, biting her lip on the inside so they can’t see. She floats over to her aunt and says she’s sorry; she has allowance and will pay for the ruined blouse. She doesn’t look at her father. She sticks out her hand and tells her aunt, Sure, sure she would very much like to spend some time living at her house. When can they go?
T HE C OOLING BY M EG P OKRASS
Todd, her brother’s best friend, has been her only buddy for weeks now… and he persuades Tanya to join him watching the newlyweds in the house on the corner. On weekends, the newly-marrieds fuck late mornings. A yellowish meek curtain frames their bedroom window like an invitation. Days have been so boring, humid and long, and looking around for stuff to do—they’ve run out. Paul has been away at technical camp, gone six weeks, and will fly home tomorrow. The newlywed woman looks to be about a hundred pounds of extra weight or else pregnant, with cellulite on her thighs and butt… and the man has long hair. Plump women like to wear black. Todd and she spy from the crook of the plum tree. Tanya has come to enjoy spying, but sometimes says, “Yawn.” This one though, the one they see today, is memorable. The wife gives the husband oral sex, kneeling on the floor as though by a drinking fountain. Todd catches on to what is happening first, says “Shh!” even though Tanya isn’t talking… his mouth rounding into a nest. Watching it makes Tanya squeamish, so she watches Todd’s mouth and her face gets hot. To quiet her pulse, she thinks about her brother’s face, her brother’s return. They watch until the end. Then they slide off the tree. Todd and she have simply run out of things to do. They’ve played board games and computer games and skateboarded at night. Today is the day—they’d printed and signed a contract to dash across the train tracks thirty seconds before the train the Sunday before Paul came home. They both like the idea of spicing things up and pissing off Paul when he finds out. Overall humidity is nearing one hundred percent, and Tanya says, “We should be wearing goggles and flippers it is so wet.” Todd’s hair is longer than hers and probably makes his neck hot. He looks like a girl, tall and angular with model straight gold hair and see-through skin. His eyes are the blue of pool lights. People think Todd and her brother are fags, and they are used to it. They even laugh. Tanya knows she is pretty because the boys at school do not talk to her. Todd does, and for this reason, until her brother gets back from music camp, Todd is hers. She imagines Todd will notice her electric magnetism when she drinks from the Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill bottle. Todd brought a beat up and rusty corkscrew, and she brought the wine
from her brother’s closet… only she coughs when Todd is concentrating on twisting the corkscrew in just right, and the explosive sound… a cough like her mother’s, messes things up. Some cork penetrates the bottle. “Fuck,” he says, and shoves the bottle into his mouth first, gulping loudly, a lot of it, and spats cork like tiny fish. “What time is it?” he asks. He has a stopwatch, but not a real watch like Tanya. She doesn’t answer and takes the bottle into her mouth, wrapping her lips and slugging it. It tastes like Robitussin. He’s not looking at her, trying to dig something from his pocket. She feels as though she’s going to throw up, and counts silently with her eyes closed. Todd rarely smiles. She feels sorry for him because of his massive overbite which has never been corrected, his only physical flaw. She tries to hear what Paul will say about the two of them watching sex and then, getting a bit drunk and running in front of the train… only she’s losing track of why she’d tell. Todd farts and laughs, then makes a “phhht” sound with his tongue and teeth. Tanya swallows a few sharp cork bits. Maybe she’s never felt so adult. “Hurry,” he says. They walk briskly to the tracks. It is almost time, it is almost. He moves in close to her and touches her shoulder, and she is not her brother. Yes, he kisses her on the lips quick and dry. As in movies, she looks up into his face. He promises to run in front of the train right after her, five seconds later, counting loudly. He says when done right, you can feel cooling in front of the wheels—shade crawling up your legs.
V ARIATION OF S AM R ASNAKE
ON A BY
I’ll begin with Julio Cortázar, “What remains to be said is always a cloud, two clouds, or long hours of a sky perfectly clear,” then turn the camera to my own face. He turns the camera, and the strap falls across his left wrist, and snaps the shout. Suddenly, and it was over before I noticed what had happened, the young boy runs out of the park—Paris or London or Memphis—out of the story, and into my poem, my prose poem, a flash even—Borges must be so proud somewhere. If I listen closely, the pen’s scraping on the page speaks the words. He has to listen closely, bending his ear to his notebook. The furnace has cut on. It’s February though he’s not certain of the year, but he’s sure it’s the year of record snows. There’s a woman in the story—there’s always a woman in the story—and it’s the same woman, sometimes blond, sometimes brunette, though she’s new to me, but her face is familiar, her cheeks sloping marble-like to both exquisite temples, with the softest of ears, and eyes that stop you cold, and lips whispering golden words against your neck, her hand always stretched toward the lens of a Nikon S. I know the man with his black tongue and dark suit is not far off. He’s out of his car now. He’s been parked there for some time, maybe reading, maybe watching. I hear his footsteps and decide to add that sound to the piece, and it’s a good sound: the clomp, clomp, clomp that only thin soles over asphalt can give. The time is unclear, but it’s real, and it’s late. He’s on a sidewalk—his car, a convertible, must be parked nearby. A sea of faces—He writes “sea” but decides against it — sea — I’m on the sidewalk now, a _______ of faces moving in synch—He’ll come back to this part later—on a night, a warm one at that. But it’s not the park, not the story or poem, or even the club he finds himself wandering into—or is it chasing or being chased, I never can remember—and it doesn’t really matter since they’re all the same. Instead, it’s a film. The Yardbirds’ “Stroll On,” at first a low rumble, then, as he gets closer—distinct and loud. There’s a crowd. Most are standing, one couple dances in the back of the room, and no one is talking. He rolls with the reel, the hot light of the projector making everything clear and alive over the seats and heads and onto the screen. He’s very pleased that he began with clouds and ended with a film in a not-so-crowded theater. I am pleased. That’s true, and I don’t know why. What’s that?
Alternate ending, 1: One ends with pigeons or sparrows, one with a mimed game of tennis, and another with a crossed out word. The intent is to go back to the page and write a word that fits, and he will do it. Just not now. Alternate ending, 2: He’s eating waffles with coffee. A paperback and journal on either side of the plate. One pen, one pencil. Alternate ending, 3:
It’ll never be known how this has to be told is his favorite passage. “I can’t do better than that,” he says. These are the only words actually spoken.
I M M OLATION BY S USAN T EPPER
There was a hole when you left the secret marriage. I tried filling it with gas-soaked newspapers (flammable), oil-stained rags (flammable), lit candles (quite flammable), and a pipe bomb kit I bought off the Net. But you were gone in such a flurry of winter flakes and I sat at my table and the bread tasted stale. I ignored butter. It seemed a luxury or worse a sense of the cream rising. Butter in many wars is a rationed item. Are we at war? I tried not to think about you in your fatigues, a soldier about to embark on another secret mission when this secret remains unsolved. There is nothing worse than one cup in the drainboard. I tried staying busy, keeping the secret going on my own. Ever try that? The thing is there were hugs and love up to the dying hour. I never saw it coming. It rose up red and licking its flaming lips at my heels.
C OM M ON P ASSW ORD P ROFILE U SERS : G OD , L OVE , L UST , M ONEY AND P RIVATE BY R OBERT V AUGHAN
God She never misses church on Sunday, leads Wednesday night Bible Study class. Her kids call her a holy roller. When her husband moves south, she starts a Christian Online Dating Service, screen name is kittykitty. She struggles between saving money for Botox or Jesus. Love He’s been burned so many times he’s crispy. Downs Miller six-packs at the Trysting Place Pub. Writes sonnets that he’ll burn later in the firepit. Waiting for money at the ATM, he wants to remove his heart-shaped tattoo, cover it up with a pitchfork. Lust What the hell kind of name is Penfield? she wonders while he takes a leak off the back porch. She leans to see fresh bruises in the dawn’s early light. She rolls too far, ends up on the bambooplanked floor, giggling. Creepy-crawls under the bed to dial 911 on her mobile phone. M oney He can’t recall the last time he was paid. Money doesn’t grow on trees, his mother had told him. And yet, he glances out the fingerprint-smudged patio door and there, in place of leaves on his prized beech, are hundred dollar bills fluttering like iris in the lukewarm breezes. Private Those first days back. Horrible insomnia. 2 a.m. in their guest room, night sweats, bombs bursting in mid-air attacks. No proof, except those hacked memories he wishes he could erase. But he can’t. He opens the adjacent bedside table, retrieves his dog tags. Cradles them in his palm.
G RAND O LE O PRY BY D AVID K IRBY
What if Aida were set in Memphis—not their Memphis, but ours? Verdi’s Egyptians are about to go to war with Ethiopia, so they’re praying to Ptah. In our Memphis, they’d pray to Elvis: “Ptooey on Ptah!” say the Ethopians, but they wouldn’t say that to Elvis. Every guy has a gal in Memphis, even the skinny dancing slave guys. Or whoever they are. Anyway, Radames has two, Aida and the pharoah’s daughter—uh-oh! Psychologists say excitement equals attraction plus obstacles, and Radames has more obstacles than the pharoah can shake his staff at, its gold and ivory inlays and ability to turn into a snake notwithstanding. In our Memphis, Radames and Aida rendezvous on the banks of the Mississippi, not the Nile, and the enemy is not the Ethiopians, but the Folks From Nashville, hicks with missing teeth and pitchforks. Lots of intermissions in Aida! Not in life, though. A nap’s not the same as an intermission. A nap’s hard work, or at least yours are if you’re Radames. Or Elvis: one minute you’re getting ready to sell out your whole country, and the next, you’re heading down to Whitt’s Barbecue on Antioch Pike to get you a slab of ribs, dinner roll, and two sides, only you don’t know whether there’s going to be two women at your table or just one. Besides, the Folks From Nashville have had it up to here with your perfidy, not to mention your iniquity, your ignominy, and the fact that you’re both pusillanimous and jejune. And you? Aw, hell, you’re transubstantiating like a sumbitch,
bypassing the whole bloated druggie phase to go straight for the younger, sharp-edged Elvis, and even if you charter a jet for $14,000 to fly your whole entourage not to Giza or Luxor but Vegas to get peanut butter and banana sandwiches, that, as Roy Blount, Jr. says, is the decision you make when a certain kind of sandwich means more to you than a certain amount of money. And when Aida waddles down the aisle, her behind jiggling like jelly ‘cause jam don’t shake like that, you’re as wild as a bug, boy, your hands are shaking and your knees are weak, you can’t seem to stand on your own two feet, you’re in love, whoo! You’re all shook up.
D ID Y OU T ELL A NYONE Y OU W ERE C OM ING H ERE BY D AVID K IRBY
They always ask that in horror movies, and the person who asks it is never someone who looks like your Aunt Agnes or softball coach or the guy from the Lions Club who tried to sell you a broom the other day but instead has thick glassses and wears either a lab coat or a tuxedo and has bad posture, bad teeth, bad hair, bad everything, and you, instead of saying “Of course! I told everyone! They all know: my family, the people I work with, even the cashier at the convenience store down the hill when I asked directions to your operating room / castle / torture chamber,” you say, “No, I didn’t mention it – why do you ask?” Scientists say it’s healthier to belong to a church or bowling league or stamp club than to live a life of miserable isolation, though if you were on Death Row, your social group would consist of other killers, so what’s the point? No wonder those guys order what they do for their last meals: before Kenneth Biros was executed in 2009 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, he asked for cheese pizza, onion rings, fried mushrooms, Doritos, French onion dip, blueberry ice cream, cherry pie, and Dr Pepper. It’s the French onion dip that gets me: anyone who likes French onion dip is someone who never learned to look at life, as Isaac Babel says, “as a meadow over which women and horses wander.” The most popular request is a cheeseburger and fries, and fried okra shows up a lot. And then Dr. Pepper again: W.W. Clements, a former CEO and president of the Dr Pepper/7-Up Company, described
the taste of Dr Pepper as one of a kind, saying, “I’ve always maintained you can’t tell anyone what Dr Pepper tastes like because it’s so different.” Different from what? First served in 1885, Dr. Pepper was invented at the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, and the recipe written in cursive in Alderton’s ledger book is hard to make out, but ingredients seem to include mandrake root, sweet flag root, and syrup. At first, Alderton’s drink, inspired by the smells in the drugstore, was called “a Waco,” and people would come in and say, “Shoot me a Waco, Alderton.”At 3:00 a.m. last night, I wanted to blow my brains out, but by 5:30, I’m thinking like a software company: “Solving Tomorrow’s Problems Today!” So I get up and put my boots on and go for a walk in the park, where I see a woman with her dog, but she’s on her cell phone, and the dog runs up to me, hungry for attention, and I look on his collar to see what his name is, and it’s Cody, but I leap to my feet when the owner approaches because I don’t want her to think I’m trying to find out her address, which is also on the collar, and that’s when I realize it’s my friend Patty whom I haven’t seen in years, and we talk for a while, and I say, “You and Cody have a good day,” and she says, “How did you know his name!”and I say, “You know, I have a thing for dog names,” which is kind a mean trick, because what if I never see Patty again? Maybe I’ll call her up, see if she wants to go get a Waco. It’ll just be two of us, me and Patty— well, and Cody, too, depending on where we go. We’ll get whatever we want, and I’ll walk them home. Everybody’s got to be somewhere. Wherever you are right now, that’s just fine. It’s America, after all. You don’t have to explain a thing.
T HE O DDS BY D AVID K IRBY
“Let me see if there’s sheets and stuff before she goes,” says Barbara as I chat up the London landlady who’s telling me that the professors before us left a ring in the bathtub, and then she says not to stain the mattress the way they did, and I think, since she’d already told me they were swingers, just how grimy were these people, and what combination of jizz, salad dressing, diarrhea, menstrual blood, and hobo dick cheese had they stained that mattress with? And, then, as I hand the landlady our deposit and she hands me our keys, I realize, I’ll never be poet laureate. People beam at me all the time and say, “David, you’re going to be the next poet laureate!” but that’s because I’m the only poet they know, and I want to say to them, Thank you, that’s very kind, but you don’t get to be poet laureate by writing about jizz and hobo dick cheese. Oh, I know poetry’s about things besides nymphs and flowers and shepherds piping in the meadow, but I don’t known any laureates who’ve written about diarrhea and menstrual blood. Well, maybe menstrual blood in a kind of sacramental way. But not diarrhea. In Tom Jones, Fielding writes that whereas an unsuccessful gold-finder would be laughed at were he to insist there is no such thing as gold, an unsuccessful truth-finder, “having raked out that jakes, his own mind, and being there capable
of tracing no ray of divinity, not anything virtuous or good, or lovely, or loving, very fairly, honestly, and logically concludes that no such things exist in the whole creation.” You got that right, Henry! Yet I have been such a one myself: a student told me,
“Everybody likes you because you’re really nice, Dr. Dave,” and I think, Sure—now. Though when I was younger, I was, not arrogant, but unaware that others saw the world in a different way and thus asleep to the pain I caused as I went along as though there were only one way of doing things, the right way, the Dave way, mine. I was really unpopular in high school: our senior play was a drag version of The Diary of Anne Frank with me in the title role, and I was so awful that when the Germans came on stage, someone in the audience yelled, “She’s upstairs!” Just kidding. Anyway, something happened between then and now. Or maybe I just stack up better compared to the other professors: the Duchess of Orléans noted of the philosopher Leibniz, a great favorite of hers, that “it is so rare for an intellectual to dress properly, not to smell, and to understand jokes.” Oh, ha, ha, Duchess—you’re right, too! I mean, maybe I don’t have to try that hard! Take the new assistant professor who came to our welcome party last spring and overserved herself liberally and began to argue with everybody and is now talking to Barbara and whose last job was at a pricey college where you don’t have to go to class so much as roam the world doing internships with sheep farmers in Australia or ceramicists in Italy and then writing about them—the internships, that is, not the farmers or the ceramicists—in unpunctuated sentences that some on-campus mentor or monitor or proctor reads, i.e., not, and Barbara is saying something about the horrors of clitoredectomy as widely practiced
in sub-Saharan Africa, and the young woman is saying, Yes, but it’s part of their culture, outsiders from the West can’t just step in and criticize another’s culture, and Barbara is saying, Well, in general, yeah, but not when it comes to slicing off your unanesthesized clitoris with an unsterilized knife and sewing the labia
together, and the young woman, who will never suffer anything more painful than having her credit card turned down at Henri Bendel, is getting madder and madder and can do little except keep saying Yeah, but it’s their culture, and finally she says, Well, I can’t talk any more, I’m too mad, and Barbara says, That’s all right, don’t worry, you’ve just never had anyone disagree with you before, and it’s true, because on the campus of the kind of college the young woman taught at, everybody agrees that white people are bad, that it’s not their fault if parents sell their children as sex slaves, that it’s better to go without live music if only rich people can afford to build concert halls, please have another drink. And this is when I hear Barbara whoop, so I say, “Excuse me” to our London landlady and go back to where Barbara has started to remake the bed, and she says, “Look,” and I say, “What?”and she says, “What’s that?” and I say, “It’s a mattress pad.” “Wrong!” she says and lifts a corner and points: “It’s two mattress pads,” and I think, You know, those people could be right—I could be poet laureate.
T HE G O - TO -H ELL B OYS BY D AVID K IRBY
When my students can’t figure out how to write their poems, I tell them the go-to-hell boys are in the building, that you can hear them even now on the staircase, shouting “Go to hell!” and letting off rounds. “Go to hell!” say the go-to-hell boys. “This Dr. Kirby is a very bad man! We are going to suicide him, also his students—no one will survive!” By now they’re on the second floor, and we are on the fourth. What next? Our weapons are imaginary, and we’re nowhere nearly as angry as they are. There’s only one thing to do, and that’s to write the poems. At the very least, let them be written in English, not only a rich sea fed by two rivers, one Latin and the other Anglo-Saxon, but also an ocean in which we splash happily, poet and reader alike. After that, let the poems consist of complete sentences, or, if fragments are used, let that be for emphasis or special effect. Let the poet use sound mechanics, including standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling, for, as Ezra Pound said, a poem should at the very least be as well written as prose. Let the poems be paraphrasable, for the poet should be able to tell a six year-old what his or her poem is about. Further, let the poems rely more on images and concrete language than abstractions and argument—on brick and mortar, that is, not the architect’s idea. Let the poet control line and stanza using enjambment, end stops, meaningful breaks. And now let the poems use repetition for poetic effect: rhyme, assonance, consonance, anaphora, and so on.
Let them use language in extraordinary ways! Let there be sustained and complex metaphors throughout, a mix of popular and high culture, rich vocabulary, leaping, duende. Finally, let the poems marry form and content in such a way that, as Emily Dickinson says, they take the top off your head when you read them. There, we’re finished. We’re ready to show our poems to others. And return fire.
M OTH ER K NOW S B EST BY M ELANIE Y ARBROUGH
He could’ve been lighting a cigarette, and at first, that’s what I thought he was doing. I had begun going deaf that winter, so the pop of the bullet leaving the gun, the already muted sound of it hitting my flesh, the squish of its burial, my own gasp or the scream right after, could all have been louder. There are things to be grateful for. My mother told the reporters that my stepfather wasn’t normally a violent man, a statement that wasn’t true and that they did not believe. “Normally?” they said. “How often was he abnormally violent?” they’d ask right before going to a commercial break. She never changed the channel, even as they berated her with their clever, legally-advised accusations. She sat resilient through the commercials—her thirty to sixty seconds of reprieve. In the mornings, she made me breakfast—sausage and eggs, chocolate chip pancakes, biscuits and gravy. I knew these were not her apologies so much as her way of showing she did not blame me for being involved in my stepdad’s imprisonment. Eventually, I started getting up before the sun rose, leaving the house before she woke. I tiptoed more out of habit than necessity; she rarely budged before noon from where she was splayed out, her bottom lip loose, mouth open, her frame gaunt except for the pop of a stomach underneath my stepdad’s t-shirts she’d taken to wearing. She met my stepdad at a bar years before she left my dad and, she said, years before anything happened between them. He’d spilled a full pint of beer on her and made her buy him another one. She told me, repeating the story when she was drunk like some family legend, that his eyes were dark pools. She shook her head when she said this, nudged me with an elbow. She knew then, gripping the pen as she signed the credit card slip for her bill, that it was the beginning of something. “His nickname was Bukowski,” she said, slurring and spitting, proud of that man as though she’d given birth to him. Each time she told me this story, my shoulder burned. She would forget her keys in the ignition, forget my birthday, but she always remembered to talk into my good ear when she recounted that night they met. “He was an asshole, you know,” I said once.
She slapped me then, and more than the sting, I remembered the dullness of not being surprised. “And he was a damn good writer,” she said. “Not a bad shot either,” I said, when I was out of her reach.
J ULY P OETRY M ONTH
F ROM “W AXING ” BY R ÓBERT G ÁL
Always a certain reticence toward the coherence of lines. Point-like flashes. “That’s my game,” I say. “That’s my game,” they say. And so on. To enter the world like the penis enters the crotch. Absorbed by one goodness that immediately assimilates all the good. To strip the truth of its rights, to use it as an argument (which is not mine, yours, and so on). A virgin wound. First to ironize sorrow, and then—when we see how it works—continue by ironizing joy. What depth does the darkness have? When I don’t feel resistance I don’t feel anything at all. Literature is the hardest thing I’m able to do. To understand life always against its course. Favoring one system of paradoxes over another. To reduce the body to one core sense and wait for other senses to join it. Investigative manipulation. Intelligence as a manual of untruths. To land on one’s own feet. And to raise above what we generated. The years of youth: thoughts freed of the body and politeness.
Can anxiety be the cause of life? If so, what kind? Congealing rocks, a restrained flow of the expressed. Pockets empty of cigarettes I no longer need. Just like everything else. I believe in the future, for there is no other. Death as something that must be postponed and the death we are part of and with which we learn to live ever since we’re born. Something as intimate as the language. And they dare to reproach your grammar. One must smile at luck. During the day searching for a way inward and at night a way out. And vice versa. And every thanks as an impulse to reevaluate thankworthiness. One cannot believe concluded opinion without delusion. To support a cripple in his handicap perhaps means to cripple him twice. To search for exceptions, yet not confirmations of the rule, but for the possibility of their critical mass. And people fall as enemies. The past that repeats is proof we did not yet grow enough for what is to come. It is not a word game but a new way of narativeness. A lifemotif. I seek slowness and find only slowing. The world, despite all retouching. The art of infertility. To know how to write or to know how to structure a sentence? A self-propelled despair. Who hasn’t settled yet has nothing to export. When we settle, we can also import.
Incomplete children left behind. To what degree can others leave us even in that which is “our personal”? Empathizing in isolation. A solid structure of the expressed leads to the point in which one truth can predict another. A story re-told into the logic of tautology. The fragility of the real, the unbreakability of an expression. The unbreakability of the real, the fragility of an expression. An aphorism is the author’s form of training in taciturnity.
Translated from the Slovak by Michaela Freeman
T W O P OEM S K ELCY W ILBURN
Photos He is all black coat zipped over collared shirt, dark jeans hanging just below his waist, hat with earflaps swallowing his face, mouth open with tongue stuck out in playful jubilance at the photographer. The girl is buried in his shoulder, arm not seen, holding onto his back, all grey pea coat and light scarf, right hand in pocket, only showing half a smile, hair in her face, eyes intent on someone, smiling for someone on the other side. To their right and behind: nothing but a void, four specks of light deep in the distance, the road at their feet the color of their clothes. And she, me, now on the other side, sitting, staring at it, the photo, which just replaced one of you and me—the one they said we were sure to love, the one you thought was just okay, of the two of us in the restaurant the moment before the waiter dropped a tray and drenched me, the camera on the table obviously spared in the mess, the camera full of photos I had taken of my new baby brother, the one we’d both been so excited to meet, the one you will surely never see again.
The Catch The skin along my thumbnails is hard, torn, dirty with dried blood. My nails’ constant picking ticks as a metronome not hushed by song. Association is the debt collector that calls, calls, calls despite the change of address, phone number, last name. Despite the debt paid. There is no place to go that is not you, she said. My skin, torn fresh from my thumb, rolls and splits between my front teeth. My tongue shifts mercilessly, catches the broken skin, readies it for another bite.
T W O P OEM S K EITH B IRTH DAY
Ledakhod I think itâ€™s possible that the river has melted today. They said it would be cold and it is. I want to go to the river hop on a floe float towards Chyornaya rechka that is a village near this city. There I would lose my accent and find myself a Russian bride. Have 2-5 children cause sometimes home is a river crossing maybe a bigger river, though. Yesterday I was told that this city has grown to 850,000 probably not enough ice floes. Kind of feel like my floe is here faster than I anticipated like the river should not have melted yet.
Sklad I kissed this girl but her tongue didnâ€™t move right and then she went home. Before I got her number and I saved it on my telephone but I did it in the wrong alphabet. so I wrote down all of the possible permutations in order to decode her name so that I would know it if we ever kissed again.
F IVE P OEM S B RETT E LIZABETH J ENKINS
1:26 And I can’t concentrate on anything except how green your face looks, illuminated by the light from the dashboard numbers, and how lonely the talk radio always sounds at such an hour. And I know right now that we’re not going to make it—how unpainful a process it will be to retrieve my things from your house, to give back the ring and some socks you’ve left.
Love M e H ere Take a left at that big tree, then another after Mr. Jameson’s old barn, now abandoned, but which had so many first greenings, lilacs. Stop here. Touch my hair under these late blossoming trees where Jason used to get beat up. Then drive past the cemetery, past the retirement home. Help me step from the car here on this mound of dirt where my childhood home burned. Where no more families made Christmas breakfast, no children climbed into bed with their parents.
Genesis The order, you see, is the wrong part. Everything else happened more or less the way they say. In the beginning there were words. And the words made the light; light made man, and that man made a mess. God, in his illimitable grace and mercy, turned himself into dust and threw himself up over the mess like a tarp and made darkness. And then he made a sad village out of dirt and dreams, and he named her Israel. And Israel undressed herself like the trees are known now to do, and She forsook her God, the way the leaves of those trees are known now to do. And God continued to be dust, and kept watch. He slept there, in the night sky, over the men, the women, which unmade him.
Eighty-five Degrees October is burning this year the leaves fall fast and fiery red like autumn snowflakes it darkens crickets again they hush with the crunch those dying leaves beneath our bodies lamps are out in the house enveloped in night we don’t talk we cover ourselves in leaves without signaling to each other this is what we should do we simply know i’m swept to sleep under the leaf blanket only waking when i feel your lips on my forehead
while the crickets unchain themselves song of legs rubbing leg
July Even the crickets have become weary. Heat lightning opening the dark corners of the room. The fields thunder idly outside. This feeling Iâ€™m having without you leaves me with nothing. What this heat would feel like with you in it, unstitching yourself inside me. How long would it take you to make my voice well up?
T HE W HOLE D EAL BY M YFANW Y C OLLINS
On his way back from collecting the mail, Mike noticed a gray lump on the snow bank next to the old barn. Unsure of what it was, he bent over its body for a closer look. An owl. He leapt back, hand to chest, the mail falling at his feet. He picked up a twig and poked at it to see if it would move. It remained still, dead. He’d never seen a dead owl before. Couldn’t imagine they even died, really. Obviously, they did but wouldn’t they fall gently onto a bed of oak leaves, deep in the forest? Here on the dirty snow bank the owl seemed out of place, like seeing a lifeless child by the side of the road. Mike picked up the mail and used a flyer from Market Basket to scoop up the bird. It was small, kitten-like. Nancy was loading dishes into the machine when he came in. “Look what I found,” he said. She turned, already irritated with him. He could see that she was ready to say, “What?” in that way she said it, fast and angry, teeth like a jail cell. But she held herself back when she saw his hands and bent over closer to the flyer, doing what he had not dared to do: touch it. “What happened?” “Search me,” Len said. “Was out next to the old barn.” The barn his grandparents had raised head after head of cattle in, now falling down and empty. Nancy taught school and Mike worked a couple of jobs: driving school bus, doing people’s taxes. They had never been farmers there together. They had been given this house after his grandfather and then grandmother died. They fixed it up bit by bit. Granite countertops. The whole deal. Nancy picked the owl up and cradled it close to her chest like a newborn. “Maybe if I warm it,” she said. “Do you think?” The heat ticked on, filling up the silences in the room. Nancy walked with the owl into the front room and sat in her rocker—a rocker that had once belonged to his grandmother. A rocker that had rocked generations of children, soothing, sleeping. Mike followed, stood nearby. “Maybe we could have it stuffed,” he said. Nancy held the owl’s face up to her ear, checking for breath, he thought. Nothing. Mike bent toward her and held his hands out for the owl. She hesitated but handed it over to him. It was cold and lighter than he’d imagined, it’s wings tucked up close to its body protectively. He’d never seen an owl so still and close.
Once when he and Nancy had taken the dogs out into the oaky forest on a cloudy day an owl had swooped low over their heads. Not expecting to see one in the daylight, Mike had ducked fast, his heart clambering. Heâ€™d thought it was a ghost or an angel come to take him. Often now he heard owls off on the edge of their property at night. Some of them screeched and others seemed mournful, calling out to each other with the hoo hoo and still others sang out: Where are you, my friends? Where? Where are you, my friends? Where?
T YPES OF C IRCUS BY J EN K NOX
The last day I saw Michelle she weighed 325.2 pounds. She used to greet me each morning by reading her weight as it was recorded earlier that day in a small black notebook. If she was losing weight, she’d treat herself to a glazed donut and give me a high-five. If she was gaining, she’d shrug and leave the cream out of her coffee. Michelle drove an airport shuttle bus then, and I drove a taxi; I trailed behind her all day long, watching her body closely. Michelle averaged around 310, but even when she got up to 330.7, her highest weight, she was damn sexy. Michelle’s leg strength, flexibility: remarkable! Driving an airport taxi and being—well, hell, I’ll just say it—a handsome man makes for a nice selection of partners. But no woman was as ecstatic, as fully committed to lovemaking as Michelle. I wanted her all to myself, all the time, even though I knew it would never happen. When I asked Michelle to marry me, I was a little drunk, but I meant it. We were sprawled out on the floor, sweaty and happy. She was sober, and I worried she might laugh at me. I didn’t think she’d actually consider my proposal. She was silent a long time before those black-lined grey eyes locked my gaze. She spoke slowly. “I was born in 1952.” Sure, I was a little younger than her, but this didn’t matter to me. I was about to slur something to this effect when she continued. “I was pregnant in 1969, 1972 and 1974 in Wyoming and 1977 here in Montana. The fathers are assholes. My kids are all half-asshole. With so many people in my family already, marrying me would be like joining the circus. It’s the type of circus where none of the performers get along, and the trapeze act is painful to watch.” She laughed and put her mouth up to my ear. “I’ll spare you.” I hated those fathers, though I’d never met any of them. I imagined how remarkable it would be to share something so precious with Michelle, and how stupid they were to leave her alone. I thought often about my bad timing; how different could things have been if only we’d met in our younger years? Michelle had taken to the bottle heavily while her children were young; consequently, she was blamed for their emotional scars. But, she worked the 12 Steps and made Amends. She became a sponsor, mine, and found me the job at the airport. I left the program soon after meeting her, but Michelle hadn’t left my side, hadn’t scolded me the way I imagine others might’ve. She said she’d always be there for me because she knew I’d get my shit together. I wasn’t the only man who knew about Michelle’s leg strength. She was known around the way. Sex was sacred to her, like praying or the Steps, and I knew I’d never be lucky enough to have her exclusively. I used to watch the way she’d work. I’d be parked behind her; she’d step out of the
shuttle and make her way around it to open the trunk. Her pants would cling to those perfect thighs as she bent over to retrieve a traveler’s baggage. “People can be incredibly simple,” Michelle once told me. “If you treat them like they’re complex anyway, they’ll love you.” When Michelle was offered a management job that required a lot of travel, she wasn’t thrilled. When she was offered a thirty-percent increase in salary, she’d damn-near fainted. The last time we made love, as I draped my arm around her, settled my fingers on her hip, she spoke confidingly of her children, especially the two that weren’t speaking to her. She said that only her youngest daughters had forgiven her for being a drunk, and this was only because they were too young to remember her worst days. She told me that she was an utter failure as a mother, but at the same time, she said she knew some things most other people didn’t—she had figured out that living wasn’t about keeping score. She said this was no small realization, even if it seemed simple. I told her that this comment made me want to drink, and she laughed. Michelle died shortly after accepting her new position. She was mugged and stabbed over twenty times in Chicago, and I guess this is how things go in the big city—when she screamed, apparently no one heard her, and so she died in a grocery store parking lot and wasn’t found until a few hours after her last breath. It was an elderly man who had wanted a cab that found her there, slouched on the side of the vehicle. When her children—the two that had stepped up to arrange a funeral— recreated the scene for me, I told them that I loved their mother, and I knew it sounded odd, but I would be honored to own that little notebook of hers. They looked at me like I was a creep, but a week later the notebook arrived in a manila envelope. Michelle had kept record in her notebook for two years straight, and still there were blank pages. She’d written in small, blocky letters, and she remained consistent. Each entry was dated and in purple ink. Apparently, she started losing quite a bit of weight after leaving town, and I wondered what this meant. I examined each page, looking for something extra, a note or a doodle in a margin, a hint of what her life was like on the road. But there were only numbers; next to smaller numbers she drew smiley faces; next to larger ones were devil horns. She only pretended to be this simple. It was the only way she could endure the rest of us.
S ALVATION BY J EN V IOLI
You listen to him start the joke for probably the hundredth time. You stopped counting last Lent around time seventy-five because your neon green post-it note, the one you keep stuck beneath the Saint Agnes Parish office calendar, ran out of space on both sides for hatch marks. “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?” he asks the couple in to plan their June wedding. All three sit at the conference table across from your desk, where Reception is written in faux gold on faux wood. Not your name, but what you are there for. To recept. The couple says nothing. You remember when you thought he was attractive, really something to take in. His zeal, his faith, his insistence on using three names—Gerald Paul Andrews— convinced you that he must have plenty to share, even an extra moniker. Something to give you, who has only and ever just wanted some measure of love. Now you watch Gerald waiting for something, wanting something. The woman looks at the box-shaped purse on her lap. She touches the latch. The man says nothing, but shrugs a little. “You can negotiate with a terrorist,” Gerald says. Met with blank stares, he says, “It’s funny because, as I’m sure you know, most liturgists are real sticklers.” He says sticklers like he’s getting stabbed or stabbing someone. Either way, someone’s getting stickled. He uses this joke to break the ice, to show that he’s not like those other liturgists, that he’s a traditionalist (don’t even ask about Wagner and his pagan overtones) but open, modern. That he’ll definitely suggest Bach’s Jesu, Joy of a Man’s Desiring, but he’s fine with a little John Michael Talbot, too. Progressive. Most couples laugh, at least a little awkward giggle, but not these two. The woman sits like a mannequin, except for a slight twitch in her nose.
The man shifts in his chair, and after Gerald’s laughter at his own joke fades into silence, the man claps his hand on the woman’s knee like they’re hunting buddies, and finally says, to Gerald, “Okay, should we plan something?” “Right,” Gerald says, opening his thick binder, licking his index finger to turn the page. Once, this finger licking fell into your category called Sexy, but right now, it turns your stomach. Soon Gerald’s rattling off prelude and postlude possibilities, and the man is saying, “Yes, that’ll work just fine.” What neither of them notices yet is that the woman is crying, tears in a slow stream, staining her navy silk shirt with black streaks. You think of saying to her, let’s get out of here. This place is poison. Let’s go run naked in the woods and listen to all the Wagner we want and have martinis, dirty ones. But you don’t. Despite what Gerald Paul Andrews thinks, you can’t save someone else. What you are realizing, though, watching this woman’s tears and feeling the flow of them loosen you like a branch long stuck in a dry riverbed, what makes you stand now, without explanation, taking your purse and leaving the peach colored raincoat which you’ve never liked but Gerald said was really smart, what you know with certainty as you walk away from his nasal voice and snorty laugh, into the air with hints of tulips, hoping that the weeping woman will come to her own clarity, what carries you forward is the truth that becomes the recessional song you don’t need approval for: that you can only save yourself. So you do.
E VERYONE W ANTS TO L IVE T HERE BY S ARAH M ALONE
Gillian was tall and thin with white-blonde hair trimmed close, tipped pink and moussed on end, raw eyes, and such taken-aback brows that, my first morning in the office—it was my only interview in New York—I thought I’d mistaken my day to be there. “No, you’re on time,” she said. “You’ll get used to that.” Most mornings her boss—soon mine—didn’t arrive until eleven. I read The New York Observer, which was slipped under the door early enough for me to re-fold it and wonder what people up and down Manhattan were doing to be worth ten, twenty, two hundred times more than I was. I was a month out of art school and had decided, too late to apply for fall programs, that I wanted to be an architect. Gillian was a month out of school, too, but she’d studied in the city and interned for a year. Our office did not have Internet. We had a sour air conditioner in the painted-shut window between Gillian’s and my desks. On the phone for records of utility lines under construction sites where we would never be able to afford apartments, we lifted paint off the sill with our fingernails. I’d started it. On dry days the flakes were brittle; on rainy days they curled off like skin. “What’ll we do when we meet?” I asked. “One of us will have to quit,” she said. My second or third week, we were sent to the City mapping office. Gillian knew which end of the platform to walk to. The tracks hummed uptown to a florescent vanishing point in the blackness. The station ads were all for Rent, which had opened that month, ticket prices optional: ten, twenty, forty—you decide. Overhead, buses growled and behind us a midday crowd thickened, unbuttoned, fanning magazines, frizzed, with damp backs, and book shapes pressing from totes. Gillian had on black East German army surplus boots under cuffed pinstripe trousers. Berlin was the place to be now, she said. “What do you do there?” I asked. “Anything,” she said. She’d gotten an apartment on Rivington Street with her friend Kat. “Not dating,” she’d said. “I should be so lucky.” Gillian’s girlfriend lived in Astoria. I was staying with my friend Greg in
Cobble Hill—the suburbs, Gillian said—in his childhood bedroom. I slept on the top bunk and he used the bottom, when he slept. He ran a website I hadn’t visited. I knew I should find my own apartment, but every evening I thought how I’d done nothing to be paid for that day. I couldn’t tell Gillian. She wasn’t one to fear, or wait. The mapping officer was out when we arrived. From behind two oversized monitors, a woman’s voice said she could help. “Molly.” She had purple lipstick, a pale, uninflected face, dark hair. “This is Elizabeth.” Gillian touched my shoulder. “Liz,” I said. Molly stepped straight-skirted to the next workstation. “Let’s find your address,” Gillian said. “The guy you’re living with.” “I did that for a while,” Molly said. Her printer clunked and zipped and edged out a long slice of paper. “He’s just a guy I know,” I said. “It’s hard, when you first get here.” “Uh huh.” Molly handed me the paper, in a neat, tight roll. Outside, air conditioners roared from big apartment buildings on the corner. Far down Madison, bus and taxi glass flashed in paused intersections. I followed Gillian to the shady side of the street. I tried to picture Molly smiling, smiling at me. I pictured her putting on lip-liner in dusty morning light, hair up, hair down. I pictured Gillian telling her friends about me. I pictured myself running down the street, undressed. “Molly’s kind of hot,” I said. “What?” Gillian searched my face. My tongue felt unmovable. “You could have just told me,” she said. “If you can’t tell me—” “I know this is late for you,” I said. I was shaking. I couldn’t stop. “I know,” she said.
That was my fear; that I never would.
The next day we took the map to the engineering company, with notes on yellow adhesive paper. “So hung over,” Gillian said. Kat had brought home a new girlfriend and they’d all gone out until four. The train thudded us under half of Midtown. “I envy short girls,” Gillian said. “You know?” I said I did. “We don’t have to go back to the office,” she said. In a tenth floor lobby, all black stone—veneer, Gillian said—we were met by a tall man in khakis a few sizes too big, cinched with a woven belt. He pumped my hand and before I could look aside his eyes found mine. “Elliott,” he said—mid-forties, still-dark hair, smile lines, slight stoop, no doubt from too much opening doors for women; a pouched stomach. He padded around grey corners to a daylit, mango-scented conference room. “Please.” He motioned me to the side of the table facing across the street towards M-A-C-Y-S. “We have an architecture division, too,” he said. I felt a push at the small of my back. “Look at you.” Gillian sat next to me. Elliott had left and shut the door behind him. “I don’t know.” I drew my hair up and let it fall. “Doesn’t matter.” Gillian sounded amused. She pulled the maps from the tube. Elliott returned with hot water and a plastic tray of tea bags. “How cute,” Gillian said. “Tea for two.” “None for you, correct?” he said. “Correct,” she said.
His fingers were long, with black hairs all going the same way. He sat at the head of the table. Bright wedge shapes crossed the wall behind him; reflections, I realized, of windshields in the intersection. The entire room seemed to be turning. He kept glancing up at me, smiling as if pulling up the corners of his mouth on a string. One of his eyeteeth was pointed. “So.” He leaned into the table, fingers folded like crab legs. “What did you bring?” Gillian slid him the site plan. “We would have emailed it,” I said. “That would have been too bad,” he said. “Elizabeth, isn’t it?” “Liz,” I said. “Call me Liz.” On the walk back to the subway, Gillian strode ahead and took the stairs two steps at a time. Next to her on the next train’s gunmetal bench seat, I made sure we didn’t touch. She swung her crossed leg and stared across the nearly empty car at her windowed face. At every station when the train slammed to a stop, I slid into her. “Everyone tells me what to do,” I said. “Not me,” she said. “I didn’t mean you.” “That’s just Elliott,” she said. “With everyone but me.” “What did you say to him?” “Nothing. He didn’t try. Really, why would he?” “Lucky,” I said. Walking from the subway, we mocked three tourists holding hands as if at any moment a mugger might spirit one of them off. Gillian pointed out her favorite light post. She was thinking of going back for her Masters in lighting design. “What about your girlfriend?” I said. “We broke up,” she said. “Like two weeks ago. You must have forgotten.” ***
Long after the house was sleeping, I would wake to Greg’s fingers like mad raindrops on the tiny laptop he fit into his satchel and left with in the morning before I’d even finished in the bathroom. He had a pin on the satchel that read our city can kick your city’s ass. I’d thought about asking if he could get me a pin until I thought what Gillian would say. One night as I climbed the ladder to bed, I saw Greg writing out a check for his parents’ mortgage. “Sweet Jesus,” I said. “If you add up my hours, I get paid less than you do,” he said. “I can sleep in the sitting room.” I didn’t know what to call the upstairs room where his sister watched Law & Order. The house had been a factory and when the upstairs had been divided—I never knew into how many rooms—only Greg had gotten walls up to the ceiling. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s not like you’re staying that long.” I bought that week’s Village Voice. Back page ads shouted: HUGE! Sun-drenched! Won’t last!Gillian said her friends were all going to move out to Park Slope. Rents were cheap, spaces beautiful, Prospect Park way better than Central. I made an appointment. Gillian said which subway to take. At the top of the stairs most people—men and women in suits, with brass-buckled briefcases—turned right, into the neighborhood, past the big-boned sandstone houses. A few straggled ahead. One of them was Molly. I was certain—the hair, the little steps. She had an umbrella in a tote under her arm. At the next corner, she looked back. I raised my hand and she continued out of sight. She had to have seen me. She had to know. What I’d said about her to Gillian was true, but I’d said it because it was convenient. From Greg’s house, I called the real estate agent. I was so sorry; I’d been detained. “Well,” the agent said. “Everyone wants to live there.”
The next week Gillian and I were sent to Brooklyn for a meeting. A new project. By the time everyone shuffled their papers into their bags it was past five. We sat on the low wall along Prospect Park West, feet dangling out of the park. “Was anything decided in there?” I said. “Zero.” She sounded delighted.
Clouds were shredding across the harbor. It was long-sleeve weather, dim for July, the only summer sound a loudspeaker through the trees. Gillian leaned into me and lit a cigarette. “There’s a concert,” she said. That seemed suddenly one of the chances I had come to the city for. We would prefer the same songs and whisper in the twilight, and afterward need dinner. “I didn’t tell you about Elliott,” I said. He had phoned that morning. When I’d said hello he said he didn’t remember why he’d called. The weird thing was he’d called my direct number. “Which I didn’t give him,” I said. “Lizzie has a boyfriend,” Gillian said. “I do not.” “Kat and I were thinking of dinner,” she said. “You should come.” The wind had worked under her cuffs and was billowing her white buccaneer shirt. I decided the point when you belonged to the city was when you chose not to do what other people—maybe you— were looking forward to. When out of all the vast city you only had attention for where you were going.
At the restaurant we were seated at Kat’s favorite table, in a sunken room under the front window, with pillows and throws and red kindergarten chairs across from them. Gillian and I ended up facing each other from the far ends of the table. She mouthed something to me. Kat ordered plates for everyone to share: hummus, pita, olives, grape leaves, chicken kabobs and tofu. “Did you see them filming?” she asked me. There’d been a music video shoot in the park. “I wonder what video it’ll be,” I said. “What video.” Kat snorted. She asked where I’d gone to college, how long I’d worked with Gillian. “No one works there very long,” she said. “Unless you know who to go down on.” “Twenty, forty, eighty—you decide,” I said.
Gillian looked at Kat. Kat looked at me. “What?” “I—” “I’m just teasing,” Kat said. “You’re fine.” By the time we tripped outside, the pavement was wet. A woman I remember as Eva, no last name, caught herself on my sleeve from falling. It was fine, all of it. We were friends, drunk and full. At the corner, I waved. I was the only one who had to go back out to Brooklyn. “You’re not coming?” Rachel said. “Is it OK?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t it be?” Gillian said. Kat and Rachel leapfrogged puddles past shuttered shops, bodegas, dark, yelling bars. One, then another, then the last of Kat’s friends said goodnight. I, too, could have been competent, alone, on the subway platform, ignoring slumped whiskey-scented men; and then it was only Rachel, Kat and I, following Gillian through a green door and up five flights of stairs that shook when she grabbed the banisters. On the top landing she jiggled the lock on a green, dented door and shouldered into a kitchen. There was a bathtub, sink, short counter, and butcher-block table. “Mine.” She patted the table. “All mine.” Through the kitchen was a narrow room with a couch and red shag rug and a television on milkcrates, and past it two doors to diagonally barred windows. Gillian got water-spotted mugs from a curtained cabinet, filled them with tap water, and offered one to me. Kat walked past us without looking. Rachel leaned on the butcher-block, chin in her palms. “So you work with Gill,” she said. Her voice did round things with her ‘r’s and ‘l’s. “How is that, all day?” “A treat?” I said. “You know what I think,” Gillian said. Kat called from her bedroom. “Well, goodnight,” Rachel said. She stretched in Kat’s doorway, bit her lip, and softly closed the door.
Gillian had her hands in her back pocket. “I have something, if you want,” she said. Her bed was hard against the open window. She’d hung a sheet on a pressure rod across a shallow closet. She held up a sleeveless shell on a wire hanger. The shell might have been grey. It was coated in metal scales like fish skin so that even in the bare light of the ceiling bulb as it clung to itself the scales made rainbows and I couldn’t be sure of a true color. “From my ex,” Gillian said. “It’s short on me. I thought you might fit.” I saw myself bare-armed, talking with Elliott, shimmering, ignoring Molly. Gillian said to lay my things on her bed. She slid the top from its hanger and pushed her hands up through the neck. Her nails were pink and bitten. I sat on the edge of the mattress. She stood her leg between mine. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I held my hands up like a diver’s and felt her scrunch the top down and guide them out the armholes. I shook my hair free and she smoothed my sides. “Open your eyes,” she said. “I’ll have to trust you,” I said. “You don’t have to trust anybody,” she said. Her palms fit mine. I felt the pop of sprung coils under my spine. I felt the scales on end against the sheets like fine comb-teeth. I’d never worn anything so tight except to exercise in; but in the morning when we woke sidewise in plaid light, heads on opposite corners of her pillow, I didn’t want to return to my old clothes. “It’s yours,” she said. I couldn’t wear it. Even as I scrunched it off over my head and felt the air clamp, shockingly cold, around my breasts, and her fingers step up my back, I knew I’d chosen correctly. I folded the top, smoothing the scales the best I could. “Come on.” She kissed my nose. “It’s almost nine.” In the kitchen, Rachel was blowing on a bowl of coffee. Kat was gone. Rachel smiled, the smile of high school girls who knew all the news first. I laid the shell on the table. Gillian emptied the coffee pot into our mugs from the night before. “We’ll have to keep our mouths shut at work,” I said.
Gillian looked at me sharply. “I live for that.” Rachel got a plastic deli bag from under the kitchen sink and slipped the shell into it. “So pretty.” “Someone needed to wear it,” Gillian said. On the subway uptown we got seats together. Everyone behind newspapers must have been watching. After Rockefeller Center, Gillian said she wanted to get out one stop early; she needed breakfast. I asked if I could come, too. “If you want,” she said. Of course she was right. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission for anything else. I followed up a long escalator to a dingy mezzanine. A man in a floppy yellow and green cap was banging upside-down paint cans. Gillian tossed him a bill. His beat seemed to ripple into a new pattern: da dum dum dada, dum dum, dum da-da dum da. “I hope you didn’t give him more than a dollar,” I said. “I gave him enough.” Gillian took the stairs two steps at a time. “You go ahead,” she said. “I’ll bring you something.” “We have time,” I said. “We shouldn’t arrive together.” “Is anyone going to be there?” “I don’t want to,” she said. “OK?” We were on a sooty block between Fifth and Madison, outside a shoeshine joint. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Why don’t you figure something out for once,” Gillian said. I’d like to remember having words ready. But I didn’t. I said I would see her at the office. I walked across Madison to Park and didn’t turn to see if she was following or looking. The sidewalks pumped with people bound to any number of places where they would do, earn, and laugh more than I did. But I had one thing. I had an hour—at least—in which no one would wonder where I was.
Elliott would already be at his desk. Pay attention, I would tell my young self now. You think you know what will prove important. You have no way to know, ever. You have no way to know what a job with Elliott will mean: Kansas City, L.A., Frankfort; Rachelâ€™s smile, years ago, in a kitchen on the Lower East Side.
S HINY P EOPLE C LUB BY A BBY R OTSTEIN
When I was a kid, I talked to Michael Winslow on the phone. He did all the noisemaking— impersonating fighter jets and ambulances—while I looked on in amusement. He was making a video with the company my dad worked for. Or perhaps they were trying to recruit him. Whatever the circumstances that brought him into my life, they weren’t the ones I usually dreamed about. When I imagine meeting a celebrity, I concoct impossible dreams that end with a stalled elevator. I don’t want to be a fan asking for an autograph; I want a conversation. What better way to do so than corner them in a broken elevator? Of course, my impossible dreams don’t involve finding ways to lure celebrities into an elevator I secretly rigged to stop. That would happen by chance. The impossible part of these impossible dreams involves the person I’d like to be: a superhero, or at the very least a charming girl even a celebrity could love. I like Charlie Sheen and even Lindsay Lohan. But I much prefer Tom Cruise. Before I see him, I’m trying to hide the book in my hands because I’m embarrassed about toting around my own novel, which is about to be made into a movie: I’m at the movie studio and ready to climb inside an elevator when an out-of-breath Tom Cruise rushes inside. I’m overwhelmed; I’ve always loved Tom Cruise and, unlike everyone else in Hollywood, I loveCrazy Tom Cruise even more. I vow not to call him Crazy Tom Cruise out loud. While we ascend, I can’t stop looking at him—or, rather, toward him—and realize he really is a member of the Shiny People Club. These are people who are so beautiful they shine, making it impossible to look at them directly. As I shade my eyes, the elevator stops abruptly. Mr. Cruise calms me, saying, “Don’t worry. My superhero Scientology powers will get us out of this mess.” He then does what any other human being would do: pushes every button on the elevator panel twice. When this doesn’t work, he picks up the emergency phone and learns that help is on the way. I have a strange sort of crush on Crazy Tom Cruise. I don’t want to sleep with him. I just want a conversation. Mr. Cruise doesn’t know when help will arrive, and I wonder if he’s disappointed. I imagine he wants to take the situation into his own strong hands—climbing into the elevator shaft, shimmying up the cables and opening the doors above. I imagine him reaching down to retrieve me, teeth glinting as he smiles.
Instead, Mr. Cruise sits down. I thought we might start singing Kumbaya or participate in an arcane Scientology ritual, but he just introduces himself. This is unnecessary, but Tom (we’re on a firstname basis now) is that sort of guy. I ask about his breathing and he tells me he’s just finished a triathlon. That’s the first time I notice he’s wearing bike shorts. His shiny exterior makes our conversation difficult; I’m constantly looking just to the right of him. When Tom catches on, I look at my hands, pretending to be shy. He talks about himself a lot, but the conversation finally turns to me and my book and movie. Tom’s impressed but not so much that he wants to star in my movie. That’s okay; there are no parts for Shiny Crazy People. I don’t ask about his wife because that would be rude. I don’t wonder about his philosophical outlook because I think I know. I’m happy he thinks I’m charming, and pat myself on the back for not ever saying he’s crazy out loud. When I’m not stuck in an elevator with Crazy Tom Cruise, I imagine getting stuck in an elevator with a pregnant woman who’s about to burst. When her water breaks, I save the day. Other times, I’m a journalist about to unearth a major conspiracy in Washington, D.C. Still other times, I witness a car accident and help a woman through life-saving CPR. In the background sirens are blaring, though I can’t be sure if they’re real or Michael Winslow. In my current situation, Crazy Tom Cruise is still conserving his breath. I find it odd that he comes to work after completing a triathlon, but perhaps he’s getting into character. I stare at Tom just long enough to see him wink at me. Crazy Tom Cruise adores me, too.
M ILLER VS . W INTERBOURNE BY S UZANNE M ARIE H OPCROFT
Waits wants only a little sad she is watching under plate glass the ruffles and pant creases that saunter past flaneur comfort all anonymous of course none is what/whom she has been waiting wanting watching for there so beneath the eyes of the city’s nine basilicas all of which she ought to be praying to statues inside of because he is not coming or else not in the way that she wants she instead flirts with faces whose main defining characteristics are a mustache the reflection within its mass of bristles of a flower stalk tucked hastily out a button-hole and the sort of monocle cheaply manufactured in the North that screams I am not an American gentleman not to mention the way this little flower is dangling her own breathing in and out over the precipice while fate watches from a corner of the piazza so much enjoying visualizing the push the rapid descent from ruins old gladiator haunts to blackout fever more precisely then death this is what waits round those coliseum corners and all because the boy who bears winter won’t be suffered to mill a few daisies now really?
L EFTOVERS D ANIEL R OM O
My palms are a mosaic of breadcrumbs and nacho cheese. Sack lunches are bagged nostalgia. I recall butterflies pinched from petunias; dusty wings painted my fingertips the color of crushed sun. I kept tally of their bodies shish-kabobed through needles in the neighbor’s cactus, and those slammed to the cement—two checks for breaking the creature in half. Scurrying ants in grass were singed with a magnifying glass throughout sixth grade: crackling kiln of thorax. I experimented with smoke and other plants a year later; sometimes my eyes still sting from the fumes. I like to think I’m a better person now because I’m no longer a lonely only child. I like to think my children will be better than me because I’ve never had to give Child Services a guided tour of my home. I see my dad’s clenched hands when I raise mine to my face. Spy a hangnail. Rip it from skin.
P REVAILING W INDS BY M EG T UITE
Winds of words howled inside Gerald’s head as he sat silently eating his supper. “You’ve just never been a people person.” Gerald’s wife picked at her lima beans, while behind glass, a panorama of juniper and blazing mountain ranges surrounded them. Gusts whistled past the house without giving anything away. “You’ve got to play the game,” she said. “Yes,” said Gerald, picking up a potato. “What about McCarthy?” she asked. “He’s doesn’t do a damn thing. Why not him?” “Would’ve made more sense,” Gerald said quietly, while wind chimes clanged outside. The front swing jangled on its chains. “You let them walk all over you,” she said. He looked up at her, then back at his plate. His teeth ripped at a chicken leg. “And Carl? He knows how to play it. His wife gets her fingers done at Nails Unlimited, over by the bank. She’s got nerve sashaying in and out of there, like he’s already got your job.” She poked at the food on her plate. “They could care less if we starved.” Gerald continued to eat. “What the hell are we going to do now?” she asked. “I bet you just stood there while your boss handed you the walking papers?” Gerald narrowed his eyes and worried his way through a series of facial tics. The bitch never worked a day in her life. Everyday, this endless badgering. Outside the sky was darkening. Unidentifiable creaks and bangs sounded from a distance. “You’re just going to have to grovel. Nobody’s going to make our bed for us,” she continued. “You listening to me, Gerald? Back on that horse, first thing tomorrow.”
She was the horse and he hadn’t ridden her in years. Gerald walked to the refrigerator, opened it, and grabbed a six-pack. He sat back down and watched his wife’s jabbering mouth. He took a long swig from his can. The raging storm continued to knock over anything that gusted in its path. Gerald sucked in the last of that liquid gold, popped open another and chugged it down. His wife’s judgment surged forward like a mutiny. She waited all day to obliterate him as soon as he walked in the door. Maybe he could trade her in for a black cat. Her teeth were yellow and her mouth an open, fucking chasm. A savage, uncontrollable urge blazed out of Gerald as he grabbed her throat and started to throttle her like a tree branch swinging back and forth. “I could snap you in two right now, old bag,” he hissed through tightened lips. His wife’s eyes swelled into huge purple orbits. Her bulging face ignited from within. She reached up and embedded her fork into Gerald’s cheek. He screamed and lurched back, pulling at his face. His chair knocked over and Gerald fell with it. His wife dropped back into hers, clawing for air, while the prevailing westerly’s gyrated around them, spiraling and twisting their world into one rabid knot.
T REASURE M ATTHEW B OYD
He is eight years old. On vacation with his parents in Cancun, he wanders off by himself down the beach. It is very hot, so he walks in the shallow water. He is wearing red and blue board shorts and goggles. He stops to pick up a shell, and when he stands up again, there is a man looking at him. The man is dark-skinned, bald. He holds a metal detector in one hand and a pail in the other. His white t-shirt is sweat-stained. His khakis are torn. He tells the boy he is looking for treasure. He shakes the pail. All he’s found so far are centavos and barrettes. He is convinced, despite these disappointing results, that there is treasure here, on this beach, under the sand, and that it can only be found at low tide. His metal detector softly beeps, beeps, beeps. As for the boy, he is silent, afraid. He watches the man stoop down and scrape at the wet sand. He once found fossils on the school playground, dinosaur bones, behind the soccer field, by the fence. He put them in a glass of water by his bed. This meant dinosaurs once roamed through the playground. There is a whole world under this world. The man wipes his hands on his pants. He looks down into the hole he has just dug. He says there is gold down there. He says there is gold for the taking. He sits and takes a bottle from his pocket. He offers it to the boy. That’s when the boy finally runs. He runs without daring to look back to see if the man is chasing him. At one point, he loses his footing and falls into the water and waits for hands to grab him, his arms, his hair, lift him up and carry him to God knows where, underground maybe, under the sand. He makes it back to the hotel safe. His parents are reading their magazines.
That night, he sits up in his bed and looks out the window. It is dark, and he can only hear the ocean. He thinks he can hear a faint beeping, too, the sound of the man’s metal detector. He thinks he hears the beeping grow quicker, more insistent, warm, warmer, hot, until it is practically one long note. He pictures the man digging in the darkness, but it is hard to know exactly what happens at night. All he can really be sure of is the ocean is out there, and he is in here.
He is still awake when the sun comes up.
He is lying on his stomach, playing a video game. It’s not hot out yet, so he’s wearing a sweatshirt. His mom is drinking coffee next to him. His dad has gone running. His mom asks him if he is having fun, and he says, Mmm-hmm. She asks what he is playing, and he says, Nothing. She says, Isn’t it beautiful down here? So relaxing. Just then, he hears the beeping. He pauses his game, looks up. There, paddling a canoe across the water, is the man. He’s dangling the metal detector above the water, careful not to get it wet. The man sees him and waves.
Hola! he yells. Hola, mi amigo! The boy doesn’t say anything.
Hola! the man yells again. High tide! He points at the water and laughs. His mother looks down at him. Do you know him? she asks. The boy shakes his head and goes back to his game. But he turns down the volume, listens for the beeping instead, listens as it floats away down the coast. He thinks to himself: Hola, gracias,amigo, uno dos tres.
The bus is crowded, bumpy, air-conditioned. Outside, people are selling rugs and fruit. A baby is crying in the seat behind them. His mom took his videogame away. He has nothing to do but look out the window. They pass people carrying water, sweating. The people are dirty and don’t even look up at the bus. Children are playing tag in a field. They are laughing and running. He is thinking of ways to get his video game back without his mom knowing. Finally, the bus stops, and they get out. People are taking pictures. He stares at his feet, shuffles along. His mom says, Look! But it is too hot to look up. He kicks at stones, steps on bugs, spits between his teeth. All around them are ruins. His mom takes his hand and leads him to one. He sees another boy, about his age, looking at him, wearing a Dodgers hat. He pulls his hand away from his mom.
We’re going to walk up, she says. Okay? He shrugs. You can stay down here by yourself, but you can’t go anywhere. Okay. We’ll be back soon. Stay right here where we can see you. They start up the crumbling stairs. He leans against the wall, watches the kid with the Dodgers hat. The kid has a cell phone and is playing a game on it. He wonders: Snake? Tetris? Crash ‘n Burn? Arkanoid 3000? He decides to climb up the ruins, too. He can see his parents halfway up already. The stairs are so steep that he leans forward and crawls some of the way. He passes people coming down, cameras around their necks. He is catching up to his parents. His mom has stopped to sit and fan herself with a brochure. He starts taking the steps two at a time. She sees him, smiles, calls out to him, but he can’t hear her. He’s sweating. The stairs get steeper and steeper. He catches up to them, and they start clapping, but he climbs past without a word. He wipes sweat out of his eyes. He slicks his hair to the side. He gets to the top of the ruins, exhausted but happy. He looks around. There is nothing to see but dirt and more ruins. There is nothing else to see. The dirt stretches off forever. He is at the top of everything.
At dinner, he falls asleep at the table. His dad carries him up to their room, saying, Come on, kiddo, hold on tight. He knows he’s getting too big for this. Not yet, but soon. The boy with the Dodgers hat, is he staying here, too? He wakes up embarrassed in the middle of the night. It is dark in the room, but the hallway light creeps in under the door. His parents aren’t there. There are voices somewhere far away, but otherwise it’s quiet. He gets out of bed and puts on a sweatshirt and opens the door. The hallway is bright, empty. He hears his mom’s voice by the elevators, but when he gets there, it’s not her. It’s a girl with curly blond hair and her friends. They’re holding towels and cups. They look at him in his pajamas and his sweatshirt and say, Hey there, are you lost? He shakes his head and walks back to the room. But that was her voice. He rubs his hand along the wall as he walks. He tries to imagine his mom at his age, but he can’t. His dad, he knows, has always been old.
The door is locked. He left his card key inside. He doesn’t panic, doesn’t cry. He sits against the door and waits. The hallway is silent except for the garbled sounds of TVs in other people’s rooms. He almost falls asleep waiting, but the beeping of a metal detector wakes him up. He’s not surprised to hear it. In fact, part of him’s been expecting it. He follows it down the hall, stopping occasionally to listen for it again. It’s soft, but it’s somewhere in the hotel, maybe even close by. He comes to the end of the hall and puts his ear to the wall. He pushes open the door to the stairs. Now he can hear it better. The stairs are gray and stretch up as far as he can see and down as far as he can see. There are lights on the wall, but they’re dim, and if he squints hard enough, leaning over the railing, he can see a red light flashing many flights down. He begins to walk down, holding onto the railing, and the beeping gets louder and louder. He hears someone breathing heavy, wheezing almost, and he stops. There is just enough light for him to see a leg sticking out in the stairwell. It’s barefoot. He thinks maybe he should go back upstairs, wait for his parents, and go to sleep. The man in the stairwell coughs and the leg shakes. In the silence that follows, the boy whispers, Hello? At first there’s no answer. The lights buzz softly. Mi amigo. It’s his voice for sure. Low and rough. Mi amigo, he says. I have found it. I have found the treasure. The boy continues walking down until he is only a couple stairs away. The man is sitting against the wall, holding the metal detector across his lap. The red light flashes on, off, on, off. Where is it? the boy asks. The man nods. He takes a drink of something, winces. Out there, he says. Tonight we dig it up.
The ocean breeze makes him shiver. He looks back at the lights of his hotel. Is it too late to get a sweater, tell his parents where he’s going? The man is running ahead of him, and he’s struggling just to keep up. He hears the waves, but can’t see them. The man stops, turns to him. Here, he says. It’s just under us.
How do we get it? Did you bring the shovel? No. Then we’ll have to use our hands, won’t we? He gets on his knees and begins clawing at the sand. The boy watches him for a moment, then bends down to help. He digs like his dog at home does, with both hands, throwing sand behind him in a high arc. The man smiles and says, Bueno, bueno. We’ll split it all eighty-twenty. I never would have found it without you. What’s down there? Gold, silver, jewels. Boxes of it. You can take a pretty necklace for your girlfriend. The boy shakes his head. I don’t have a girlfriend. For your mother then. The man winks. The hole is getting deep. The man puts his feet in and uses his pail to dig faster. Soon he’s chestdeep. Get in, he says. I need all the help I can get now. The sand is thicker this far down. He digs with his hands, and the man lifts the loose sand out with his pail. Soon he can’t even reach the top of the hole. He keeps digging. The man takes a break, leans against the wall of the hole, takes a sip from the bottle. He offers some to the boy. Agua? he says. The boy is thirsty. He pours some into his mouth. But it is not water. It burns his mouth, his throat, his stomach. He coughs, reeling backwards, and throws up, twice. The man laughs. He pats the boy on the back. Congratulations, he says. You’re a man now. He digs the vomit out with his pail. The boy wipes his eyes, spits. He is telling himself not to cry. Breathe, says the man. Breathe, hombre.
The boy takes a deep breath and holds it. He lets it out slowly. Then he takes another deep breath. His throat still burns, but he is okay now. He feels warmer than before. They both start digging again. The man now has to jump to throw the sand out. The boy begins to feel damp sand, and then pools of water appear. He keeps digging. The sand down here is muddy. The water rises up to his wrists. Above him, he hears the man whisper, Shit. His feet are wet and cold. He has hiked his pajama pants up above his knees. He stands up and wipes his muddy hands on his shirt. What do we do now? he asks. The man is frowning, staring at the bottom of the hole. Let me think, he says. Give me a moment to think. Just then, there is the sound of yelling. The man jumps up to see over the ledge. He jumps again, this time trying to hold onto the sand, but he slides back down. He curses under his breath. He punches the wall of the hole. He looks at the boy. Tomorrow night, he says. Meet me back here. There is no treasure tonight. Come back tomorrow and we will both be rich. He extends his hand and the boy shakes it. He jumps up again, grabbing onto the ledge, and kicks at the wall for a foothold. Give me a boost, he shouts down at the boy. The boy grabs one of his feet and pushes upward, and the man wheezes and kicks and finally is out and the boy is alone. He tries to climb out himself, but the holeâ€™s too deep and the sand crumbles under his weight. He hears the yelling getting closer and closer. In the distance, he hears a truck rumbling along the beach. He is about to try to climb up again when he notices something at his feet. He bends down and reaches into the water and comes out with an old gold coin. He puts it in his pocket and scans the water for more. He gets down on his knees and tries to dig further, but the water keeps filling in where he has just dug. He pushes his sleeve up to his shoulder and reaches his entire arm into the sand, but he canâ€™t feel anything other than more sand. He tries again and again. He tries with his other arm in a different part of the hole.
The yelling is louder now, and he realizes that what they’re yelling is his name. He stands up and shouts as loud as he can. A man’s face peeks over the edge of the hole. He shines a flashlight down at the boy. Marco, the man says. Come here. Another man’s face appears. Is that him? the first man asks. The flashlight shines in his eyes. It’s me, he thinks. It’s me. And as he’s lifted out of the hole, he thinks, there is treasure here. There is treasure under everything.
His mother’s been crying. She’s wearing a black dress. His dad’s shirt is untucked. His sleeves are rolled up. They take turns hugging him. They want to know what he was thinking. He shrugs. His dad carries him back up to the hotel. In the lobby, there are policemen, hotel employees, other guests. They clap when they see him. He hides his face against his dad’s shoulder. Someone flashes a picture. His face burns. He wants to push away and run back out to the dark beach. He hears his mother whispering, Thank you, everyone. Thanks for all of your help. He’s all right. He’s just scared. When they get into the elevator, he can’t help himself anymore. He starts crying. He makes his dad let him down. He can’t look at either of them for the rest of the night.
He is not allowed on the beach the next day. He has to stay by the hotel pool. He holds his breath and sits at the bottom of the deep end for as long as he can. He learns that you can breathe the air that comes out of the hot tub jets, so you never have to come up to the surface. When he gets dressed for dinner, his skin is wrinkled and his eyes burn. That night, they watch a movie in their room. His dad falls asleep halfway through. His mother does a crossword puzzle. He stares out the window by his bed, watching the last of the sun skim across the water. He listens for the beeping, thinks for a moment that he can hear it, that amazingly it is somewhere in the room with them, but it’s just his dad’s cell phone running out of batteries.
He holds the coin in his hand as he tries not to sleep, thinking of the best way to get out to the beach without his parents knowing. It’s still there when he wakes up in the morning. He has held it so tightly that the foreign words are printed red on his skin.
He tries to catch a glimpse of the man as they take a cab to the airport. He looks out of the plane’s window as they fly out over the ocean and looks for the man’s boat. He half-expects to see him waiting for them back in Michigan, wearing a suit, holding a card with their name written on it. He shows his friends the coin and tells them the story. Some of them believe, but most don’t. He keeps it in his desk. He looks at it when his teacher is writing spelling words on the board. When he’s called on in social studies, he says he didn’t hear the question. The whole class laughs at him because he comes back late from recess and has to sit up front by the bathroom. It’s rainy and cold. They have indoor recess for a whole week. He plays Connect Four, UNO, Apples to Apples. No one’s allowed to play video games at school. He watches the rain by himself, sitting on the radiator. On Friday, after lunch, he sneaks outside when the rest of his class is lining up in the hallway. He runs up the muddy hill in the rain. By the time he gets to the top, he’s soaked. He looks for the place where they found dinosaur bones last year. He walks across the empty baseball field and along the fence that separates the school from a neighborhood. He starts digging with his hands, pulling out plants and roots. Digging in the ground is harder work than digging in the sand. He finds a big stick and uses that for a while, sitting on the edge and scraping the dirt toward him until the hole’s wide enough for him to stand in. He wipes the rainwater out of his eyes and keeps digging. The sky suddenly flashes bright, and he covers his ears until the thunder’s passed. The ground is muddy and runny and his hole keeps filling up no matter how quickly he digs. It’s only ankle-deep, but he’s sure there’s something down there, just a bit farther, fossils, treasure. He’ll bring his friends up here and show them, but he won’t give them any of it. One wall collapses, and he quickly digs it back out. The rain makes him shiver. He tips his head back and drinks some. His shirt clings to his chest. Little streams run down into his hole. His feet splash every time he takes a step. A sharp burst of thunder startles him and he slips and falls hard on his hand and hears a pop. He clutches at his wrist, which is bent backwards, and opens his mouth to scream, but doesn’t. He wonders for a moment if he can dig with only one hand, but the pain is so intense that all he can do is kneel in the hole and rock back and forth and try to forget about it.
He can see the pale yellow lights of the school down the hill, but he doesn’t know if he can make it there. He wonders if they have noticed his absence yet, if anyone’s started looking for him. He sits in the hole, holding his wrist, and takes a couple deep breaths. Someone is coming, he thinks. The important thing is not to be crying when they find you. He knows he was close to finding the treasure. He’ll have to come here again, at night maybe, and with a shovel this time. No one can know. His mom and dad will certainly be angry again. They’ll want to know why he keeps doing this. He won’t tell them. He’ll keep quiet. There is something under us. A world beneath ours. He closes his eyes and waits. For a long time, he sits, listening for the beeping. Somewhere past the grey schoolyard, past the rain-soaked town, away from the storms and the cold, it’s there, soft and steady, getting closer, coming for him, he’s sure of it.
C LOSET T ARZAN BY J AM ES V ALVIS
Tarzan was in my closet. I didn’t know if he was the real Tarzan, but he looked the part. Leopard skins over taut muscles, a square jaw, miraculously white skin. How he ended up in Toms River, New Jersey was anyone’s guess. Every hour he laid a hand on the side of his mouth and howled that annoying Awwwyaaayaaaayadiyaa! I asked him what it was supposed to do since we lived in the city. There were no wild animals and not even the cat came running. Tarzan replied, “Me hungry.” I admit I tried correcting his grammar. “I’m hungry,” I said. “Then eat,” he said. “I like eat too. But not much fruit in jungle closet.” I dropped the grammar lesson. Considering he was raised by apes, it was amazing he could talk at all. Truth be known, I felt sorry for him—such an icon once and now all but forgotten—so I’d been letting him live in my closet for two years. Rent free. That howl every hour on the hour. The constant worry I had lost my ever-loving mind. It wasn’t so bad until I got married. “It’s me or Tarzan,” she said. “He’s got no place to go.” “What about Africa? What about Jane?” “What’s he harming?” “My sanity. Not to mention our love life. ” From the other room: “Awwwyaaayaaaayadiyaa!”
“The cat hates him,” my wife said. “I don’t know how to tell him to leave.” “Try this,” my wife said. “Tell him: ‘Leave.’” The next day I gave him the bad news. “Me stay,” Tarzan said. “Jungle closet’s Tarzan home.” “No, it’s not. It’s where I keep my shirts.” “Shirts no fit no more,” he said. “Bill get fat.” “Hey, watch it.” “Not really Tarzan in here,’ he said. “All in your head.” “What are you saying?” “Tarzan imaginary,” he said. “Bullshit. My wife hears you. The cat.” “Wife humor you. Wife think you joking. But she start to worry. Start to think you believe in Tarzan.” “I do.” “You crazy.” “What about the cat?” Tarzan shrugs. “Cats crazy too. Maybe you talking to closet make cat crazy.” I tried to process all of this. Imaginary friends are not unusual—why not imaginary freeloading literary characters? “Have you any proof you’re not real?” “Tarzan in your closet. Proof. Right there.”
“So what are you saying?” “Tarzan stay. Tarzan stay living in jungle closet.” “Will you at least be quiet?” “No.” I realized he held all the cards. I couldn’t make him leave and he wasn’t going to move on his own. I had to outsmart him. It shouldn’t be too hard. He was, after all, Tarzan. If you can’t outsmart an ape man, you’re better off being a monkey. Three months later my wife and I moved into a new apartment. It was everything we ever wanted. Privacy, quiet, plenty of alone time. All that extra closet space. Even the cat adjusted quickly, as did the Lone Ranger, who moved comfortably into our pantry.
T HE G AM ES W E P LAY BY M ENSAH D EMARY
Mike looked up from his glass of water, watched Elle ride the cold winds into the bar, and motioned to the bartender for a refill, a replacement. Confident that she’d meet him, Mike arrived thirty minutes late and sipped water to preserve his lucidity. Elle appeared an hour late, made small talk with a few patrons by the pool table, bummed a cigarette and lingered while Mike stroked his beard and nodded. She knew he was there, waiting. Sandwiched between two drunks, Mike turned back to his new beer, caressed the damp, green glass, and considered the miscalculation. He walked up to Elle earlier in the day, talked with gyrating hands and knowing half-smile. Newly promoted, Mike wanted to share the confetti and fireworks with a pretty face. With smaller victories, lesser joys, Mike chose easier prey. The ugly women from his office, their eyes waterlogged with moist, private remorses, walked arm-in-arm with Mike to the bar, drank martinis and guffawed at his jokes. Later, underneath the shade of midnight mornings, the women found themselves hunched over a dining table or bathroom counter, their skirts hiked, their legs splayed, waiting. “I gotta story to tell,” a drunk said to Mike. His thick hands slathered in black, greasy paste, the drunk maintained his balance by propping his elbows onto the bar counter. “You look like an upstanding fella and I think you’ll appreciate my story.” “No thanks,” Mike said and sipped his beer. He frowned as he swallowed. “I’m waiting for someone.” “Good. Splendid,” the drunk said. “You got time.” Unable to reproach the drunk, unwilling to reintroduce himself to Elle, Mike said, “Fine. What’s the story?” “Well, I don’t wanna disturb your plans. If I start and your company shows up, then I gotta stop and I don’t wanna stop once I get started. That’s no way to tell a story.” “Fair enough.” “Whoa, man, whoa,” the drunk said. “I gotta throw up.”
“Is that your story?” The drunk leaped from the stool and sprinted to the door, a hand latched over his mouth. As the door opened and closed, Mike found Elle still by the pool table, cue in hand and small hips in the air as she aimed her shot. A cigarette sizzled in an amber ashtray placed on the pool table’s rail. Elle kept one blue eye opened as she struck and broke the triangular platoon of billiards. Elle thumped the butt of her cue onto the hardwood floor. “Fuck it to hell,” she said while a lanky, shaggy man chortled. The charming rogue sunk the 2-ball, striped, into a side pocket, chortling and winking at Elle. “Fuck you,” she said as she smiled and stroked her stick. Mike failed to notice the drunk’s return; he wiped his mouth with a napkin and reached for Mike’s discarded glass of water. “Can I get a swig?” Mike nudged the glass toward the drunk. “How are you feeling?” “Brand new,” the drunk said. He gulped the water and belched. “Back to my old self.” “So,” Mike said as he loosened his tie, “how about that story?” “What story?” “Never mind.” “Aw man, did I promise a story? I owe you one. But which one?” “I don’t know, Aesop. Pick one and be done with it.” “Oh wait. You said you were waiting for someone.” “She called while you were indisposed. I got a little time. Go ahead,” Mike said, his hands in the air, “regale me with your best adventure.” “You talk white,” the drunk said. “Anybody ever tell you that?” “K through twelve,” Mike said. “Not so much in college.” “That’s such a racist thing to say. I’m no racist. I’m sorry, my friend.” The drunk placed a greasy hand on Mike’s shoulder. “I mean no offense with my nonsense. You know that brick building on the corner of Eighth and Robin?”
“Eighth and Robin,” Mike said and furrowed his brow. “It’s a vacant lot.” “Aw man, they tore it down?” The drunk leaned over and touched his reflection against the bar counter. “It used to be our headquarters. We used to be revolutionaries. We used to be nationbuilders.” “I see. How did that work out for you guys?” “We fucked it up. Everybody wanted to be king. No one wanted to follow. Someone had to be the grunt. There’s no shame in being a grunt. I’m a grunt. I grunt all day underneath cars, behind them—grunting until quitting time. See I’m smart now, but not so young so, you know, I can’t time travel.” Mike spun a bottle cap on the bar counter and said, “Being an Uncle Tom ain’t easy.” The drunk raised his empty water glass and said, “To Willie Lynch, that goddamned mastermind.” “Power to the people,” Mike said as he clinked his beer bottle against the glass. He polished off the beer, grimaced and rose from the stool. “Here,” Mike said as he slapped a twenty onto the counter. “Enjoy.” “I’m a grunt, but I’m not broke, but I’m not one to turn down handouts, so thank you,” the drunk said and pocketed the money. “What about your company?” “Fuck her,” Mike said. He donned his trench coat and gave the drunk a pat on the back. The night behind the clouds conflated with the snow to create the hue of a gray movie. A cab slowed as Mike hailed it with an outstretched hand. In the backseat, Mike reached over to close the door, which suddenly jerked open. Her blue eyes illuminated the taxi’s unlit cabin. “You’re just going to leave?” “I didn’t realize you were here,” Mike said. “I was at the bar.” “Yeah I know,” Elle said. “You didn’t see me?” “No. Did you see me see you?” Elle shivered and shook her head. “Hey boss,” the cabbie said. Mike saw the cabbie’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “You goin’ or comin’?” Mike glanced at Elle, waiting.
W E C ONTINUE TO E VOLVE BY B ARRY B ASDEN
Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards. The mimosa is oozing sap. Wasps of all kinds—red, black, striped—gather there to fuss and worry the dove from her nest. It’s mostly quiet now. Cicadas have stopped singing and the pump was turned off weeks before Melissa left. I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves. They are quick, these creatures, darting along the bottom, away from my efforts to save them. They bob up to gulp the fiery air and watch me for sudden moves. Waiting in the shade, I sip my beer and encourage them. Climb out, I say. Come ponder the cloudless sky with me, the birds of prey. Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.
S TARLINGS BY J ACK B OOTLE
“I’m so sorry,” said my mother, as Mrs. Norton opened her front door. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea you were at home.” Mrs. Norton was wearing a dressing gown. She smiled and winced at us in the morning sunlight. “I’m so sorry to disturb you. You see, I thought you worked during the week.” “Oh, I do normally,” said Mrs. Norton, and she coughed into her hand. My mother’s eyes widened in sympathy. “You must be unwell!” she said. “Not exactly,” said Mrs. Norton. Mrs. Norton was married to Mr. Norton. They’d moved into Number 11 in the summer. It was a large house, the largest on our street, which was due to the fact that Mr. Norton was big in publishing. “Of course, they don’t have our view,” my mother would say, whenever the subject was brought up. “I’ve actually taken the day off,” said Mrs. Norton. Then she leant forward into the cold air and shouted, “Shoo!” A black swarm of starlings had descended upon an ornamental holly bush in her front garden and were stripping it of its berries. She waved her hand helplessly. My mother smiled in the thin November sunshine. “I was hoping to speak to that lovely girl you have,” she said. “Katie?” asked Mrs. Norton. Katie was a nanny who took care of Mr. and Mrs. Norton’s three-year-old son. They didn’t call her a nanny, though. They called her an au pair. “Do you know she actually lives with them?” my mother used to say to Mrs. Hooper at Number 9, and Mrs. Hooper would make noises of awe and disapproval. “Katie. I was going to go for a walk in the marsh with Matthew here. It’s such a lovely day for this time of year, and I thought I could show her all the secret paths down there. We could put
your little boy in the stroller, get some fresh air. It’s completely safe, you know. And it’s really such a lovely day.” Mr. and Mrs. Norton’s son went by the name of Gabriel. Everyone agreed that they felt sorry for the poor boy, with a name like that. “Oh, that’s so kind,” said Mrs. Norton. “But I’ve given Katie the day off.” Mrs. Norton wasn’t like the other mothers on our street. She worked in London. Every morning, she would walk to the village station, get the branch line into town, and there transfer to an express train which took her into Victoria. It was a journey that, not allowing for delays, took just under ninety minutes. “She says she doesn’t mind,” my mother said to Mrs. Hooper. “She says that the commute gives her a chance to gather her thoughts.” Mrs. Norton was a TV producer. “She works so hard,” said Mrs. Norton, smiling and blinking in the sunshine. “Poor girl. So I’ve let her go shopping in Hastings.” “So do you have Gabriel for the day?” “Oh no, no, God no, not today,” said Mrs. Norton. “Charlie’s taken him out on a trip to the seaside.” My mother smiled charmingly. I sat down on the doorstep at her feet. “Charlie’s working from home this week,” Mrs. Norton added. Mr. and Mrs. Norton used to live in London. “Clapham, the nice part,” said my mother. Their reasons for moving to our village were a subject of great debate, and the topic would be chewed over endlessly with Mrs. Hooper, on the telephone: “Well, she says the schools are so good here. And I can’t blame her. Who’d want to bring up a child in London? Not that she’s really bringing him up. She barely sees him. You know they have a live-in nanny?” In London, Mrs. Norton was known not as Mrs. Norton but Ms. Philips, and the name Daisy Philips would occasionally appear in the credits at the end of a program we were watching. It would roll slowly across the screen, and my mother would say: “You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Mrs. Norton from Number 11.” Sometimes she would add, “Oh God.” “How lovely,” said my mother, as she stood on the doorstep in the November sunshine.
A faint air of scandal clung to Mrs. Norton. I was aware of it even then, at the age of seven. She kept a flat in Kensington which she stayed in when working late on one of her many television projects. My mother and Mrs. Hooper spoke in hushed tones about a rumored affair with a younger man. The phrase toy boy was bandied about with great delight. “Yes, it’s so good of him.” Mrs. Norton was grimacing. “I was supposed to be looking after Gabe today, but I’m just not really up to it. The thing is, we had our wrap party last night. For the show I’ve been producing. I’m afraid to say it went on until the early hours. Actually, I have no idea what time it finished. And I took the day off especially to spend time with Gabe, but what can you do?” As she spoke, I saw a look forming in my mother’s eyes that I didn’t recognize. It was a strange look, hard, and it gave her face a polished shine, as if it were a mask. I peered up at Mrs. Norton to see if she had noticed, but she just kept smiling and wincing in the sunlight, and when I glanced back to my mother, the look had gone. “What fun!” said my mother then. “How did you get home?” “Oh, I was very naughty,” said Mrs. Norton. “I got a taxi. I made a resolution not to take any more taxis home from London, and I suppose I could have stayed at the flat, but I just thought to hell with it. Just this once.” She smiled apologetically, then coughed. “Well, well,” said my mother. “A wrap party! What a life you lead!” She yanked me to my feet. “I can’t even remember the last time I went to London! Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy your day off. It sounds wonderful. Matthew, say goodbye to Mrs. Norton.” “Goodbye,” I said. “Goodbye,” said Mrs. Norton. “I’ll tell Katie you called by. Oh, go away!” The starlings had descended on the holly bush again. “They’re a menace, aren’t they?” “Oh, they are,” said my mother. That strange, polished look was back in her eyes, and she pulled me by the hand towards the street. Swiftly, we picked our way through the vast pile of leaves that had collected in Mrs. Norton’s driveway and had not been swept away. *** “She says she was at a wrap party last night,” said my mother, relishing the phrase. “She
obviously has a stinking hangover. She actually came to the door in her dressing gown.” She was on the telephone to Mrs. Hooper at Number 9. “This is the best part, Sue. She says she got a taxi all the way home from London! I couldn’t believe my ears. I said ‘Did you?’ I know! It’s ridiculous. It must have cost her well over a hundred pounds.” I picked listlessly at the marsh mud that had stuck to the bottom of my trousers. It was halfterm, afternoon now, and I suppose I was bored. “I’d say at least seventy miles. At least. Well, I lived in London for a while, you know. Just for a year or so. Before I met Ted.” Mrs. Hooper was talking now. As my mother listened, I saw the strange, polished look pass once more across her face, quickly, the way a shadow could move over marshwater in summer, changing it so that it became something dark and unexpected, before the light returned. “Yes, well, I did have fun. I loved it. But it’s no place to have a family. Oh, by the way, she calls him Gabe now. Her boy. You can’t help wondering if he’d be better off at a school in London, with a name like that. They all have silly names there, don’t they? Ted met a girl called Tiger.” I sat on the floor and began playing with my latest birthday present, a Transformer, changing it from a car into a warrior robot and back again. “Why she chose this little place, I’ll never know. Anyway, Sue, I can’t chat. The kitchen is a state. Oh, it is.” My mother tried her best to keep the kitchen perfect; it was, according to her, the most important room in the house. “It’s the place that guests naturally gravitate to,” she would proclaim, folding and refolding the tea towels into rectangles of different dimensions. “Oh, it is, it really is. OK, Sue. See you tomorrow. OK. Bye. Bye.” She went through without looking at me. The kitchen floor was tiled, and the grouting between the tiles required constant scrubbing with a bleach-soaked toothbrush. Above the tiles, under the window, stretched a low row of cupboards capped with a Formica worktop; in that worktop a stainless steel sink, polished to perfection, gleamed beneath the tube lights on the ceiling. Next to the sink was an oven with a fashionable overhead grill. Next to the oven, a fridge. All were spotless, and all seemed to tense and quiver beneath my mother’s restless gaze, as if steeling themselves for another brutal bout
of cleansing and scouring. My mother had an apron on now and was fishing around in the cupboard under the sink for the toothbrush with which she would punish the grouting. She talked to herself all the time, in her usual fashion, a kind of constant background noise that often irritated my father. The odd lines reached my ears, as I sat playing with my Transformer in the corridor outside: “I went to a wrap party last night.” “It gives me a chance to gather my thoughts.” “I’ve given Katie the day off. Actually, I’ve given Katie the day off. I just thought to hell with it.” “A girl called Tiger!” Every so often, I would simply hear: “London!” The best thing about our kitchen was the view. Everyone agreed. “It’s the best view in the village,” my mother would say to Mrs. Hooper. Standing over the sink and looking out, you could see our garden slipping away down the green hillside and into the valley below. There, it ran into a disappointing housing estate, squatting at the bottom of the hill like an enormous grey toad. But look beyond it and the marsh, wild and unpolluted, stretched out for five or six miles, as far as the eye could see, all the way across the valley floor. I rearranged my Transformer’s limbs so that it stood upright, shaking its fist at an invisible enemy. It was that time of day when afternoon starts its slow slide into evening, and it suddenly occurred to me that my mother hadn't spoken for some time. I moved into the kitchen to investigate. My mother was standing at the sink, her eyes fixed dead ahead, and she was smoking a cigarette. She rarely smoked, but now she was smoking a cigarette. She was smoking it in long hard drags, and every now and then she'd flick ash into the washing-up bowl. I realized then that she was watching something. Something vast and black was moving in the air outside, in the sky high above the marshes. It was a black thing, a black cloud, and it moved so fast and, as I watched it, the black thing broke apart into a million tiny pieces, then cohered, broke apart, cohered again. I had seen starlings swarm before, of course. They did so every year. But I’d never seen a swarm like this. It was nothing like the flock that had ravaged Mrs. Norton’s holly bush. There
were thousands of them, perhaps hundreds of thousands, twisting and shifting in the darkening air, gathering themselves into a towering black column which broke and crashed against the side of the valley, before gathering itself up and crashing down upon the valley again, like a wave battering endlessly against the face of a cliff. I knew that if my mother opened the window it would sound like that too, like a wave, like the sea. I had been told at school that the birds massed together mindlessly for protection, a safety-innumbers policy to ward off hawks and falcons. I accepted this explanation. Looking into the valley at that moment, though, I knew it could not be true. It had thought and intention, that swarm, it had purpose, and it was furious. It would swallow you up if you stood in its path. It would smash you into fragments if it found you. I trembled, as I stood there on the kitchen floor; and the hillside and the waters beneath me, they trembled too. I was sure of it. Behind me, I heard the front door opening and my father shouting his usual, cheery hellos into the silent caverns of the house. My mother didn't turn to face him. She kept watching the starlings swirl and swoop in the purple sky, and her eyes were strange and hard and polished.
T W O P OEM S BY I GOR U RSENCO
MEMENTO: “Pure literature is nothing but nonliterature or the death itself” —Jacques Derrida
MEMENTO: “Literatura pură nu e decît nonliteratură sau moartea însăși”,
under the convergent sign of lightning in shortage of serotonin the Word could have been my friend but We answer
sub zodia convergentă a fulgerului în penurie de serotonină putea să-mi fie prieten Cuvîntuldar răspundem
to different names and fates
întotdeauna ajungem prin linia despărțitoare a samsarei la unica amantă ce-o împărțim frățește: ea ne vizitează
la nume şi sorţi diferite
we always get through Samsara’s breaking line to the unique mistress that we share
la diferite capete fraternally she visits us ale morții vine la mine Lucrezia Borgia doar de nodurile nervilor ei încinși se dezbracă: în patul meu karmic o perioadă rămîne dezgolită în giulgi transparent îmi acoperă ochii obosiți de atîta albastru
at different edges of death comes to me Lucrezia Borgia only by the nodes of its nerves hot she undresses in my karmic bed for a while remains naked in a veil
transparently she covers my tired eyes with so much blue overflowing with delicate phalanges hidden delicate in her palms of ice growing more and more pale
ea vine cu falangele pitite gingaș în palmele ei de gheață tot mai palide
“The Trial” (with and without) Kafka
”Procesul” (ku și fără) Kafca
you could have been in turn: the useless defense lawyer the optimist corpse in your own body the prosecutor with the wig greasy from trials marathon of conscience and the formal guilty murderer you could have anytime been: at the court the person suspect of caution the depressive witness and often the weapon confessing the crime you could have been in parallel as you have been always: the heterotopic Divinity familiar to everybody at the same time who makes a choice can be immediately recognized and dies for sure in the end the sentence of the day is cancelled when the night sneaks in the body of the resigned pope and dare by the faith crunched in contumacy but even then with a lot of cruelty and the silence as accomplice
puteai fi pe rînd: avocatul inutil al apărării cadavrul optimist în propria persoană procurorul cu peruca năclăită de procesele maraton de conștiință și ucigașul formal din culpa puteai fi oricînd: la tribunal persoana suspectă de rezervă martorul depresiv adesea și arma confesivă a crimei puteai fi în paralel așa cum ai fost dintotdeauna: Divinitate heterotopică familiară tuturor în același timp cine alege poate fi recunoscut imediat și condamnat cu siguranță în final sentința zilei e anulată cînd se furișează noaptea în trupul popîndarului resemnat de credința ronțăită în contumacie dar ș-atunci cu multă multă multă cruzime și tăcere complice
S TAR A NISE BY K ARI N GUYEN
I It is hot. Her black hair, like everyone else’s, is fraught with steam. Sweat collects at her hairline and sits above her lip. They need hats, she thinks. Hats would help. It is the first hot day, and the third at sea. The wind has stopped, for the moment, but the boats carry on. Lang sits quietly. She wears a yellow collared shirt rolled up at the sleeves, back streaked with perspiration. Her cotton shorts she made herself, like much of her clothing. Thanh, her sister, sits beside her. She looks asleep, reclined as she is, head back and eyes closed, but Lang knows she’s just resting. Minh, however, has long since dozed off, overcome by the heat and the boat rocking. He sleeps beside her in his little basket, shaded by the brim, and cooled by her hand as she waves a palm frond back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The breeze is pleasant to him, or so it seems, his little face pulled together in a sleepy, contented expression. Back and forth. Back and forth. Lang feels a hand on her shoulder, and realizes she’s been sleeping too. “For long?” she asks Thanh, who has shaken her awake. “No. Just a moment,” Thanh says, although it has been over an hour. She had sensed Lang falling asleep, and had opened her eyes to take the frond from her hand to fan Minh. “Thank you,” says Lang, and she turns to lift Minh from the basket. Lang had dreamt of her father. While asleep, she’d watched him slipping out of the family house, returning very late, swaggering in quietly to drop into a sleep on his mat, overwhelmed by Tiger Beer and the exhaustion of worry. He’d reeked of cigarettes and booze. “This business must be done when drinking,” he had told her many times. “That is the only way.” The men would meet late, in back rooms of big houses, talking of boats, of timetables, of money. You had to have money, and Lang’s father had a little saved up, just enough for his two daughters. He resolved to get them out, especially now that Lang’s husband was gone, gone, gone. But in the dream she’d seen him, her husband, in a back room somewhere, though she’d never been, but he was there, in her dream, clear and alive. He was looking tired, his shirt rumpled and hair longer than she’d remembered it to be, falling near his eyes, deep brown, but empty eyes. How long had they been empty now? He was in a room she’d never been to, never seen, but she could remember the color 130
of the wallpaper, the pattern of faded red roses on eggshell white, and the table in the corner with a giant bowl of—and then she lost the dream memory, just like that. She thinks again of her father. She pictures him in the family house, the one she’d grown up in, the one where they’d laid out her mother and her grandfather and her husband in death robes and kept quiet vigils with incense and flowers and beautiful portraits of the dead. It was home, but she was running away, as many others were, from a place where they could never grow. Minh starts to cry. She juggles him softly in her arms, and falls to rocking him and talking softly of cool green jungles and singing dolphins. “It’s for a better life,” she whispers. “Forever.” Minh falls back asleep, and so does she. She’s dreaming of hats this time. II We are standing in her kitchen. I’m leaning up against a counter, watching her work. It’s a small, dark kitchen, but she doesn’t need much room. An outside observer would note the quickness of her movements and think she has known this place, this house, this kitchen, her whole life. Her long, black and slightly silvered hair is pulled behind her in a tie, following her feet in acquiescence, an old, trusting friend who knows the steps too. She moves from cupboard to cupboard, from fridge to freezer and back to cupboard, and now to the dishwasher where she stores clean bowls and spoons. We don’t usually talk when she cooks, I just look on, studying her movement and the way her clothes, the ones she still makes for herself, fall about her: the short pants with the patterns in black and gold, and the matching shirt with no sleeves. She’s making Pho today, Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was the first dish she ever made for me, and since then I’ve had many bowlfuls, both of her making and from other places. I’ve come to learn that hers is the best. I know why she cooks Pho. It’s love. It’s home. She turns to me. She asks me if I want to help. III The girls run screeching out of the house. Thanh, seven years old, is first, hollering to raise the dead, as her grandmother would say, feet beating the dirt, headed for the path toward the river. Lang, though older at ten, is slower and smaller, but she’s determined, and she chases behind as quickly as her legs allow. “Slow down!”she yells. “Come on Lang!” Thanh shouts back.
Lang breathes hard but she tries her best to close the distance between them. They race down the path to the river, and Thanh stops when she reaches the top of the bank. Lang arrives a minute later, breathing deeply, the sun glinting off the water. “Why are you running?” Lang shouts once she catches her breath. She holds her hand to her face to shield her eyes from the sun. Thanh grins. “Because I know you’ll follow!” And she takes off like a shot down the bank. IV Lang has been saved, so far, by Minh. His cries in the night have saved them both. Tonight she sobs softly alongside of him, knowing Thanh, across the boat and down the stairs, is in a hell. It had started the night before, and she’d known right away, had woken up, eyes adjusting to see that her sister was gone. She hadn’t heard anything, hadn’t heard her being pulled away, across the boat, down the stairs, but she’d heard the rumors whispered about others, nearly right from the start, had seen tears on stoic faces in the light of day, and had feared. She wonders if Minh knows fear, if it is something that forms in the womb, like fingernails. She is awake later as her sister creeps back to her, crying silently, and Lang knows her cries not because she hears them, but because she can see her body slumped over beside her, the dark outline of her side heaving up and down. She places Minh in his basket, then pulls Thanh closer and holds her, stroking her damp hair and holding her hand, until nothing else matters, and the anger, for a moment, can’t touch. Later that night the sisters hear a fall to the sea, just across the boat. First it is a cry—mournful yet light, and falling away—and then they hear the heavy drop in the water. Some men call from the boat, and someone moves a light over the sea, but it is too late. A young woman had tied bags of rice to her feet with rope, so that her weight would carry down quickly. A heavy flight. Lang wonders if she’d regretted her fall, in that last moment. She thought she had heard something in the falling cry that wished it back. The next day, the crew members confiscate rope and secure heavy objects. Thanh holds Minh to give Lang a break. She tells Lang that no matter what happens, she will never leave her. V In her kitchen, I’m cutting beef into pieces. She looks over my shoulder, and tells me to put the beef into the water, now boiling in a stockpot on the stove. I carry the cutting board to the pot, and use the knife to gently slide the pieces of meat into the bubbling water. She dips in a spoon and stirs the beef, and then she is taking the pot by the handles to the sink, where she drains out the liquid. She sets the pot back down, and handing me a pair of tongs and a plate, asks me to take the meat back out. I’ve done it wrong already, I think, and my face flushes as I pull out the pieces, one by one, and place them on the plate provided. “It’s part of the cooking method,” she says, as she fills
the pot with new water, and she tells me to return the beef to it when the water boils again. I feel better, glad I haven’t failed just yet. This second start of liquid will be the base of the broth, the key to the whole dish. “Once it is boiling in the pot,” she says, “we turn it all down to a simmer.” She takes some ginger, three-finger lengths worth, and smashes it once on another board. “Into the pot,” she says, and I toss it in, the strong scent of the ginger sticking to my fingers. Now she shows me star anise. The smell is deep and pungent, like licorice. I pick one up and hold it between my fingers. I’m taken with its star shape, its small size and weight, and the way it contains all of itself so delicately. We take ten pieces and lay them on a paper towel, which she then wraps up in a bundle and secures at the top with a rubber band. I place it down into the simmering liquid, this compact little package set afloat, and I think how nice it is that all the little stars are kept together, able to release their spice and scent without the fear of dissolving away in the heat and water. We toss in some cinnamon sticks, some salt and sugar, and the carrot, onion, and daikon radish she’d sliced up earlier, the vegetables floating. We leave it all simmering, three to four hours, and wait for the meat to cook. Every now and then we tend it, skimming the skin from the top, dumping the foam down the sink drain, watching the steam rise. VI The boats stop in the water, no shore in sight. A larger boat has come to meet them, ready to collect the refugees for the longer journey. They know it is late in arriving, so its presence is a relief. The crews work to secure the smaller boats to the new vessel. Lang and Thanh wait their turn to jump aboard, standing with the others near the rail, keeping close. Lang holds Minh tight to her chest. She has heard about this. He will be thrown. Thanh tells her everything will be okay. “You won’t be able to jump while holding him,” she says. Then she reaches over to Minh, who is awake, eyes wide and alert, and he takes Thanh’s offered finger in his hand and squeezes on. “Pretty boy,” she tells him, and he giggles. It’s their turn now, and Lang is to go first, to be on board when Minh is thrown. There’s no going back. She hands the child to Thanh, and then, with the help of a crew member, she climbs over the rail, and jumps lightly to the new boat, where she’s helped on deck by strong arms. Thanh hands Minh to the man beside her, saying something to him that Lang cannot hear. Lang’s heart is pounding and she’s praying and suddenly she feels the boat beneath her feet, she feels it taking her out to sea, breaking away from the small boat, away from the only family she has left. It’s a fleeting moment but she knows it won’t work, it can’t work, and her baby will be lost, fallen to the sea floor, his brown eyes empty like his father’s. But she’s standing on firm footing and she watches her prayers flying as Minh is tossed into the air, and it’s a good throw and he’s high up there and everything else is stopped and it takes just a moment but the moment is eternal and then he’s
landed, cushioned, in the arms of the man beside her. She can breathe again. He’s back in her arms. Minh laughs, and he’s still smiling when his aunt jumps aboard. Lang wipes her tears with Minh’s hands. VII Good broth is essential to Pho. It is that blend of spices and flavors and smells that makes the dish. Once the meat is tender, we pluck out the bundle of star anise. It has steeped long enough. We add fish sauce and more salt and sugar to the pot, to taste. It’s nearly done. We take rice noodles, boiled earlier, and heap them into huge bowls. To the bowls she ladles spoonfuls of broth, meat, and vegetables from the pot, and I set the bowls on the table once they are filled. We spoon hoisin and chili sauce into smaller bowls, self-serve style, and add these to the table as well, along with a plate of mung sprouts, cilantro, mint and basil from the garden, and limes we’ve cut in quarters. I place cups on the table, and she pours green tea in each one. The door opens, and Minh walks in from outside, dirt stuck to his forehead but he doesn’t know, so she goes to him, standing on the tip of her toes so she can reach him, using her thumb to edge the earth from his face, then pats his cheek in approval. “Mom” he says to her, leaning away from her hand, still her son but thinking he needs this less, you know, and he heads to the kitchen to wash up. A moment later he comes back with chopsticks, spoons, and napkins, and he puts them on the table. Then he walks over to me. He’s sweaty from yard work, but I love that he does it for her, and I wrap my arm around his waist. “Is he sleeping?” Minh asks me, and I nod my head yes, looking back toward the room off the kitchen. He follows my gaze, says, “That’s good.” The three of us sit down to eat, and I tell him I helped make it this time. His mom says, “If it tastes bad, blame it on her!” Her eyes sparkle a bit when she says this, and soon her smile betrays the joke. “You did a good job,” she tells me, and I’m happy as I pile my Pho high with basil and mung. I breathe it in. I start with the broth. It’s warm going down. VIII The sea was there to save them. It transported their boats, orchestrated their escape, and pushed them toward a free life. But the sea was a living thing, and something that couldn’t be counted on.
Lang still has the nightmares. She always will. Sleep for her is far more dangerous than waking. It is often the same dream, played out with slight differences as to plot or appearance, but always real. Another black night, the moon tucked out of sight by black haze, but still she can see. Thanh is walking along the ship’s low railing, unable to sleep. The sea is restless, churning in ancient conversation. The boat dips sharply to the side, and Thanh loses her footing, then regains it, grabbing the rail for support, grateful not to have fallen overboard. But the thought is short-lived. The dip comes again, the other side of a roll, and sharper this time, and her hands release the rail, tossing her off, discarded, to dark water. In her dream Lang is standing on the deck of the righted boat, looking down to the sea, and her husband is down there, pulling Thanh under, and Thanh struggles for only a brief second, and then they are gone, under the waves, and Lang hears desperate cries and looks around her— But she’s home now, and the crying is all hers. IX There are some stories you want to tell. There are some stories you don’t. But they are all there, just below the surface. It takes just a scratch, sometimes, to reveal a gash. I am lucky. I’ve never lost a sister, or a husband. I’ve never had to leave my family, or my home. I’ve never feared for my life, or a child’s life. Lang made it. And now she’s here, cooking Pho. She wonders, afterwards, why I wrote everything down: the ingredients, the directions, the special tips. Why I want measurements. She doesn’t cook that way, she tells me. It’s all in her head. The soup, the stories, even her family. I understand, but still, I want to write it down. To pass on. To remember. Because it’s important. And I don’t ever want to forget. “When you lose so much you never forget what you have,” she says.
I write it all down. X We’re done eating now, and Minh pushes himself away from the table. He’s going to shower. Lang and I take up the bowls and the spoons and the chopsticks and the leftover toppings and bring them back to the kitchen. I offer to do the dishes, but then I hear a little voice from around the corner. He’s talking to his dad. “Did you have a good nap, buddy?”
“Mmmhmm,” says the little, sleepy voice. I can picture him on the edge of the mattress, the one on the floor of the guest bedroom we use when we stay over, rubbing his eyes, perhaps one sock about to come off of his foot. “Are you hungry?” “Yes.” “Let’s go see Mom and Grandma. They’ll give you something to eat.”
Author’s Note: The story is fiction, but much of it is inspired by actual events. The family Pho recipe has been altered slightly, to suit the story.
T HREE P OEM S BY B ILL Y ARROW
Babble We had a family copy of Isaac Babel’s stories out of which my dad would read aloud when he was home, which owing to his employment issues was very often. I had no idea what I was listening to, but that’s just another way to fail to define childhood, I guess. Anyway, the stories were short, some just a page, and I let my imagination sail away on some word that jumped out at me (one always did) and then, for those few minutes, I was outside the battered gates of self, alone in a city empty of rockets and God, where I saw tower after tower of arrested escape.
Chapel Access Every tunnel’s a piercing, every road’s a tattoo. The billboards are pimples, road signs are scars. Cranshaw said he saw eternity last night wearing a sarong and smoking a cigar. “You’re full of shit, Cranshaw,” I said and stared at the fraudulent broken line that stuttered in front of me. Madeleine in the back seat touched me on the neck. Why so ornery? she asked. “Because time crossed the road. That’s why,” I snarled. I don’t know what was eating me. Maybe everything. Definitely Cranshaw. I didn’t like his smarmy teeth and mildew jitterbug. And I didn’t like his dragonfly belt. It shouted poseur.
Eleutheria Eleutheria bent in the hedge searching for asters for the Sunday wedding of her son. She was thinking about the letter she had just received from her hobbled father. It was incoherent. He was failing. She watched an inky cloud suck all the color from the trees. She watched a conspiracy of garden moths circle The Rock of Prayer. Walking over to the frog pond, she stared at her reflection. Something had congealed. Her childhood was gone. His had returned. There was nothing to be done though there was much she had yet to do. It began to rain. She stared at her reflection. It continued to rain.
138 Â Â
N OTH ING TO F EAR BY P AT R USHIN
FADE IN: INT. BEDROOM - MORNING MAX, 20s, big and muscular, thrashes in bed, tangled in the sheets, tormented by a nightmare. The alarm clock BUZZES, and Max jumps bolt upright, eyes wide, GASPING. He clutches a pillow to his chest, cowering. SHRINK (V.O.) Are you taking your medications, Max? INT. BATHROOM - MOMENTS LATER He stares at his twitching, hollow-eyed face in the mirror: MAX (V.O.) Yes. But they’re not helping. Max opens the medicine cabinet, grabs a prescription bottle, opens it, spills a couple of pills in his shaking hand. He takes three deep, ragged breaths, then swallows the pills dry. He grimaces, reaches for another prescription bottle. SHRINK (V.O.) We can adjust your dosages if need be. INT. PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE - DAY Dressed in long-sleeved white shirt and loosened tie, Max lies in a fetal position on the couch, eyes shut tight. MAX Nothing helps. I can’t go on like this. SHRINK, a primly-suited woman in her 30s, sits in a chair beside him, his back to her. She writes in her notebook. SHRINK Patience, Max. A year ago you were catatonic. We’ve made progress.
Series of shots - Operating room, kitchen, highway — Max, strapped glassy-eyed on a gurney, surrounded by TECHNICIANS. A tech fits him with a rubber mouthpiece. Another tech, behind him, touches his temples with two electrodes. Max arches his back, convulsing violently. — Max crouched in a corner of his kitchen, terrified. On the counter, a cockroach roams toward a plate of fried eggs. — Max slowly driving a busy highway at rush hour, nestled in the right lane, hands death-gripping the steering wheel, face washed with sweat. A semi’s HORN BLARES, and Max crumbles, pulls off to the side, covers his face, SOBBING. MAX (V.O.) I’m still afraid. INT. PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE - DAY Max’s Shrink taps her pen on her notebook, smiles icily. SHRINK You’re not afraid of me anymore… Max hugs himself tighter. SHRINK (CONT’D) Look at me. Max slowly turns to face her, opens pleading eyes. MAX You have to help me, Doctor. SHRINK You have to help yourself. MAX (desperately) Hypnotize me. Regress me. Help me. Shrink stands primly, makes her way to her desk. SHRINK I’m a behavioral psychiatrist, Max, not a Freudian. I’ve explained this. The so-called “source” of your pathology is therapeutically beside the point.
She opens a drawer, takes out a clear plastic prescription bottle. Inside, a cockroach scurries furiously. SHRINK (CONT’D) The only cure is to face your fears. Every day. Day after day. Max closes panicked eyes, turns away, draws knees to chest. INT. MAX’S OFFICE - DAY Max sits alone in front of his computer, a colorful 3-D schematic of an intricate electrical system on his screen. SHRINK (V.O.) Let’s get to work, Max. Deep breaths… His eyes shift nervously. His hand hesitates above his mouse. He takes three deep breaths. His door slams open. Max nearly faints from fright. Enter Max’s SUPERVISOR, 50-ish, overweight and overbearing. SUPERVISOR Done yet, Max? What’s the hold-up? Max points a trembling finger at his monitor, breathless. MAX This is bad. This will kill people. SUPERVISOR No shit. We do missile guidance. Missiles kill. And if you can get this one to plop a warhead in the middle urinal of the Al-Qaeda men’s room… well, what’s so bad about that? Max closes his eyes, shaking, fighting for control. SUPERVISOR (CONT’D) You’re not cracking up again, are you? Supervisor softens, touches Max’s shoulder. Max flinches. SUPERVISOR (CONT’D) You look bad, Max. Go home. Get it together. I’ll finish this job. EXT. CITY STREET - AFTERNOON Max’s car drives slowly down a slummy two-laned street, an impatient pick-up truck tailgating him. 141
SHRINK (V.O.) Our time is up for today, Max. INT. MAX’S CAR - CONTINUOUS Max grips the wheel with both hands. A traffic light turns yellow. Max stomps the brake. A SCREECH from behind him. Max looks in his rearview. A long-haired TRUCK DRIVER curses (MOS), lays on his HORN, and gives Max the finger. Max grabs a paper bag from his console, covers his mouth, breathes. He stares at the red light. Then he notices: EXT. CORNER OF INTERSECTION - CONTINUOUS (MOS) Three BOYS hanging on the corner: mean kids smoking cigarettes and LAUGHING at something the biggest one, BULLY, is saying. A SMALLER KID approaches the corner on his bicycle, school backpack slung over his shoulder. Bully smirks, flicks his cigarette into the street, and, as Smaller Kid tries to pass by, shoves him, toppling him. Smaller Kid gets up, scared and angry, fighting tears. Bully grabs Smaller Kid’s backpack, tosses it to his Boys. Smaller Kid protests, and Bully pushes him down again. SHRINK (V.O.) We’ll continue in our next session, Max. INT. MAX’S CAR - CONTINUOUS Staring at the scene, Max huffs violently in his paper bag. EXT. CORNER OF INTERSECTION - CONTINUOUS Smaller Kid picks himself up. He’s crying tears of rage. The Boys pull books from his backpack, tossing them about. Smaller Kid looks around desperately for help… but there is no one… until he spots Max. SHRINK (V.O.) Until then, remember: I want you to face at least one of your fears each day.
I/E. MAX’S CAR - INTERSECTION - CONTINUOUS Their eyes meet through the windshield for a long moment. Smaller kids eyes are questioning, beseeching… Max’s eyes are panicked, but the more he meets the Smaller Kid’s gaze, the more his terror softens. SHRINK (V.O.) Step on a cockroach. Drive in the fast lane. Speak to a stranger. Do something that terrifies you. Anything. Bully shoves Smaller Kid again. He stumbles back. Then, in a flash, kicks Bully in the balls. Bully falls in pain. The other Boys stare at Bully in shock, then quickly wrestle Smaller Kid to the ground. SHRINK (V.O.) (CONT’D) There’s nothing to fear, Max. Not in our real world. When you realize that, you can get on with your life. Max fights his fear, his face a mask of conflicting emotion. Then, decisive and hard-eyed, he reaches to open his door. LOUD HONKS interrupt him. Max looks in his mirror. Truck Driver is soundlessly cursing: the light is green. Max looks at the street corner: Smaller Kid is on his feet, outnumbered, but he’s still fighting tooth and nail. Max closes his eyes, takes three deep breaths, each punctuated by the loud HORN behind him. He opens his eyes, a grim smile on his face, and calmly puts his car into reverse. He floors it: CRASH! Into drive, up a few feet, then reverse again: CRASH! The Boys on the corner have stopped fighting, afraid and confused. Smaller Kid stares at Max in wonder. Again: CRASH! Suddenly, Truck Driver is at his window, crazed with fury. Max takes one breath, then glances at the corner. Boys are gone, except for Smaller Kid who still stares at him. Max nods a warm smile to him, turns, rolls down his window.
The muzzle of a pistol is aimed straight at his face. MAX (sweetly, innocently, calmly) Yes, sir… May I help you? FADE TO BLACK. The sharp sound of a PISTOL COCKING. SHRINK (V.O.) And don’t forget to breathe, Max. FADE OUT.
S PECIAL I SSUE : H IGH S CHOOL W RITERS ’ I SSUE
H IGH S CH OOL W RITERS ’ I SSUE
Broken Toys by Bryanna A. Buchanan People remind me of broken toys. When I first get my toys, they’re of top importance; I always want to play with them. Then one day, they suddenly break. The warranty claims good for a lifetime but proves faulty. It’s always when I love the toy the most, too, that it breaks right in my hands. My broken toys always want to get fixed, so I suit up and run to aid them. My tool kit— heavily equipped with duct tape, scissors, and glue—performs dual surgery to mend my broken toy and broken heart. Once broken, though, both stay broken. They prove stronger in the afterlife. The saddest part, now, is how hard I tried to fix my toy. Giving it my all and coming up empty. So, I retire my tools back to their kit, collapse into bed. And, as I should have done from the beginning, I toss away my broken toy.
M y Voice by Cindy Caban My evil voice sings to you at night; ravaging the beast inside you, awakening your soul, and making you scream and shrill in your bedsheets. Yet when the sun begins to bloom, it becomes tied with innocence, sacred to the bone. Its lovely harmony makes you smile and you follow its melody day after day, wondering if it’s real. And as you try to figure it out, my voice begins to shut down as I’m afraid that the dungeons in my world are trying to escape. It slithers across your shoulder making your heart beat faster. Everyone else is afraid, but you ask for more. You look deeper within the black caves and dust. You become wrapped inside my throat and your bacteria starts to engulf me, weaken me. My voice fights back; it lunges you across the walls, spits blood on the surface of your eyes. You begin to reach closer, past my voice and into my mind, where every enclosed thought is written. There are no barriers to protect myself any longer. You have reached what I’ve tried so long to keep from the world. You try to understand, try to decode the message that I breathe into my lungs each second but you fail, like everyone else you fail. I am the hidden language beneath your tongue. Read me in Braille, you won’t see. Read me in Morse code, you won’t see. I am the water that tempts you to jump in, fleeing from reality. As you try to become a part of me, and remain a memory, your desire is filtered back out into the world like a baby with no place to go. My 145
memories try to build up, but they remain stiff, stuck in a times stance. The past is what contains me, sealed in a jar. My memories transcend themselves back and forth, not letting new ones blossom. And even if I can’t have them all I’d rather have the ones I began with, to replay the moments that make me not want to escape but relive them. If they were all gone, I’d be nothing, because who are we without our memories but a lost voice looking for an identity?
Theft City by Sharline Dominguez Shrill sounds insidiously climbed into my resting thoughts, but I could not move on my bed. Mesmerized by the cacophony flowing in through the bottom of my open window, I allowed for the sinister night to cradle me in its arms. The alarm sounds coming from a vehicle somewhere down Rockaway Parkway were as loud as they could have been that night. But I was too far gone in my sleep to realize that the next morning would be a living hell. I did not wake up to the cries of our car, and the men had run for their lives, and ran with our possessions, and tucked the last ounce of faith that I had of this neighborhood into their pockets. But I had let them—just like that. The next morning, I awake and night clouds no longer hang over my window. Mami is making pancakes and the aroma of the coffee brewing on the kitchen stove swarms my nostrils. As if entranced in a wicked spell by the ringing of my alarm clock, my body moves up from the comfort of my bed without the permission of my consciousness. Inevitably, I crash into the closet next to my bed, condemning it for the pain that is beginning to eat at my toe’s fragile nerves. Out in the living room, I make my way to the wooden bathroom door, six steps away, and I open it, hoping to find a mirror. Impenetrably dark and disheveled strands of long hair feast upon a face that I do not recognize. Although it tells me to leave it alone, I can’t help but trace the figure with my fingers. With massive bags under her eyes, complemented by vision-obscuring eye boogers, the being appears as if she has had recurrent insomniac episodes. Like any other weekday, I proceed to take a shower in an attempt to cleanse my tired being. After getting ready for school, I open the apartment door and walk down the two sets of freshly polished stairs. My eyes immediately catch sight of the Lincoln Navigator in the morning sun and I cannot believe the presence before them. Broken windows, scratched doors, and popped tires. Signs of unlawful activity decorate the car’s exterior, and the condition is so awful, that I cannot gather the will to open the unlocked doors to peer into the interior. “Mami, mami! Come look at this!” I yell at the top of my lungs, hoping that my frail voice will travel into the open outside door and echo off the walls in our second floor apartment.
Just a minute later, she is downstairs, standing on the concrete sidewalk, oozing with panic, her mouth contorted into the shape of a disk. My mother is not even done drying her hair, she is halfdressed, and her face is unmade by the red lipstick it so beautifully wears every day. Before I know it, she transforms the sidewalk into her very own stage in the midst of her anger, raising her hands to plant them on the sides of her head, showcasing the intensity of her heart’s sorrow for all of Brooklyn’s residents to see. “Ay dios mio, ay diosito mio, oh my god, pero que paso aqui?” she frantically asks the warm morning air. In replacement of the air’s response, I struggle to find the right words to soothe my mother’s nerves, knowing that it is impossible to do so at the moment. Unable to answer her question, I look around to seek solace in the honks of the cars driving by on Rockaway Parkway, purposely letting the noise distract me from the scene that now confronts my mother and me. Incapable of coming to the notion as to how someone robbed us of our rightful possessions, I edge away from my mom’s cries and begin to wonder, How will I get to school? Right then and there, it is clear to me that our routine is finally broken by an unfortunate event that should have been anticipated by us before, as we foolishly played the music too loud. We should have anticipated it as we happily rolled down the windows for our neighbors to see us hysterically laughing, unaware of the ephemeral summer days. It’s as if someone has used a knife to carve the insides of a watermelon clean, but this is not a fruit. It’s a car that has been illegally invaded in these treacherous streets of Canarsie, streets that were once home to Irish and Italian Americans. As if to remind us that we are not welcome, and will never be, on an avenue where everyone knows who’s slinging what and where not to go at the height of the endless nights, the marauders skillfully pried our radio out of its place. They left us with nothing but our shoes to recollect on the matted floor—a concave emptiness—meaningless. Upon my inspection of the car’s carcass, I lay eyes upon a gleaming pocketknife underneath the passenger seats. Goosebumps form along my arms once I realize that only five or six hours ago, men completely unrelated to me were sitting right where I am sitting, probably armed. My mom’s Vogue magazines—always available for my sister and me to leaf through whenever we wanted to criticize our favorite fashionistas for being a little too perfect—are no longer neatly stacked inside a side compartment. Instead, shattered bits of glass touch my trembling fingers as I search, courageously looking for another weapon. Sand from when we went to the beach last week remains on the carpeted floor, unharmed by the practical men of action. Our damp towels are unmade and stained as if the men had purified their hands with them after taking what they wanted. Perhaps they became envious when they speculated us driving away in our car to a new place, convinced we had more than enough money to spend. Perhaps they lived by the law that said they had to get rich or die trying. Perhaps they unleashed all of the pain encased in their struggles against the luxury of our car, thinking that they were beating the system. Perhaps I am wrong and these
men never really meant us any emotional distress. Maybe all they really wanted was a better audio system. That night, after everyone is fast asleep, I arise from my bed as the overhead fan gently hums and refreshes me, while I pray that my footsteps do not awake my younger sister Cindy from her deep slumber. Propped against the safety of my window, I squint to see if it is possible to catch the thugs who live across the street engaging in criminal behavior. My eyes follow them to the corner store where they make yet another illegal transaction. Untouched by fear, my curiosity urges me to approach them and ask questions, but not as a friendly gesture. Instead, it is a means for me to find closure in a case I thought would never present itself to civilized people like my mother and me. Better yet, I want to challenge the stereotypes that pertain to these types of men, proving to society that there are modest motives behind their actions. In ridding my soul of the depictions I see of them—big, buff men with lavish clothes, expensive cell phones and diamond-encrusted watches—I want to persuade my mother, and maybe even myself, that they are not all the same. However, the damage is done and questions are left unanswered. The cops do not come, and they never come, because it seems as if car robberies regularly happen in a predominantly West-Indian neighborhood. Only two months later, my mom and her boyfriend found a new apartment. Overnight, we feverishly gathered our belongings, only taking necessities, leaving behind picture frames, kitchen utensils, and even bedroom sets that my mom superstitiously deemed as curses in our new home. She wanted to have nothing to do with anything, for after settling in Gravesend, family-oriented and peaceful, I was forbidden to even utter Canarsie in her presence, again.
Ping and Bang by Stephanie H ernandez When did it start: not enjoying the dream Why’d it happen, not what it seems The oldest fable hanging on a side, An elderly mother before her time. Is life so long as the rowdy sea? A ping and a bang then jealousy. I was fine and now I’m lost Crossing a street where the ground is soft, Too many roads I’m solely lapsing: The boot lace, and the leather jacket
I’ll fall for a reminder no matter how small, take my dignity for collateral, slowly forget the admirable. I want to remember who I am I want him back all over again.
Push Tape to Signal for Stop by Emely Paulino On Tuesday, January 11, John Valdez crosses the busy intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue without looking both ways. Before making it to the other side of the street, he contemplates whether or not today is a show day. Oh god look at that line, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like inside. Without slipping on the remaining ice from the recent snowstorm, he briskly sweeps in front of the first person on the lengthy line for the Q65 bus.
They’re watching, he thinks to himself while trying to keep a straight face. Stop! His brain shrieks. John sighs heavily, takes a step back as the Q65 opens its doors and lets the passengers out. I better make this face quick, John decides. He purses his lips and scrunches up his face as if he took a 125 whiff of something unpleasant. Popeyes, McDonald’s, Burger King, Tai Pan? “All on the same block,” he announces to himself. “Excuse m—” the woman who was originally first in line begins to say. “Hmph!” John scowls as he steps in front of her and pays his fare. All the seats on the bus are taken. Shuffling down the tight aisle, John cringes. It bothers him to look at the obscenities keyed into the bright blue plastic where so many people sit. For some time he keeps his head bent down, Table 2, Table 6, and Table 5 need refills, quick! until he remembers where he is again. All of these people are disgusting; I don’t know how I’ve been putting up with this since high school. Holding on to the top rail, John jerks his left arm. The woman next to him scoffs and shifts away. That’ll teach you. Stay off the bus if you have more than two bags with ya, he thinks as he relaxes his left arm. Trying to contain a smile, he glares at the man to his right as the bus swerves, nearly causing him to lose balance. “Do you have a problem, sir?” the man asks John as he checks his watch. Next to him, a senior coughs into his sleeve. John continues to glare, Kelsey, Sam, August 2006… When would I see them again? This bus always smells like piss, maybe if I twitch like this, ha! and grunts back into the present. I’m a pro, pro, produce, professor, Prozac… I don’t need that, shoots his brain. “Sir,” the man repeats; but John refuses to speak. Instead he resumes doing what he’s been doing for eighteen years. Once in a while, John takes a cab, but that’s only when the tips at his job are good. He works as a caterer for a restaurant in Manhattan, and is sick of it. He never eats French food or drinks wine. Care for another glass, red or white, anything I can help you with? I’m sorry, that
won’t happen again… red, white, glass, pass, grass, and these people drive me crazy! Another thing that drives him crazy is the bus. “Would you like a seat, mister?” offers a girl who looks about sixteen. John looks at her hands, covered in crumbs from the chips she was just eating, and clenches his fists. Would you like a napkin, Kelsey? When is my stop going to come, for god’s sake! Stiffly he sits down, analyzing the bulky sweaters and stained coats that the people around him are wearing. Looking down, he sees their wet shoes, a result of the slush that has seeped its way onto the floor of the Q65. He crosses his arms and begins to mouth words to himself. Ha, this will get them to move for sure! Why can’t everyone in the bus just leave, leave me alone! “Mom, let’s sit there!” exclaims a boy, tugging on his mother’s jacket. She takes one step forward and hesitates. “Not there, sweetie, that man is not normal,” she murmurs loud enough for John to hear as she ushers her boy to another seat. For a second, he pauses. His thoughts cease to bubble as he blinks at the passengers. “Did they hear that too?” he says aloud. Not normal, what is she talking about? I am normal, I am… right?
It’s Not Christmas W ithout You by Emily Sarita She only walked through the neighborhood during Christmas because it reminded her of her mother. Her mother’s green eyes would shine every time they passed by a house that was overly decorated with ornaments, plastic reindeer, and multicolored lights. She would smile at the beauty of Christmas and close her eyes while faint snow hit her cheeks lightly. Then her mother would grab her hand, and they would dance through the neighborhood singing Christmas carols. She opened her eyes and smiled slightly at the memory of her mother. She stomped her way through the snow, feeling her soggy socks in her boots. She shuddered and wiped her runny nose as the wind blew. She never liked going out during the winter. She felt like winter was the only season when people should stay in and relax. She’d rather be curled up in a ball in her room, drinking hot chocolate and reading novels. But today she had the urge to walk out in the neighborhood. She felt like she owed it to her mother. Christmas was her mother’s favorite holiday, and it was their tradition to walk through the whole neighborhood together to see the houses decorated. She stopped when she arrived in front of her house, and cringed. It was a two-story colonial with faded white paint. The screen door was broken with screws sticking out, the plants were overgrown, and there was no trace of Christmas. No trace of her mother. Since her mom had died, her father no longer seemed to care about the state of the house…or Eva, for that matter.
When she entered her house, everything seemed untouched, and that meant only one thing: she was left alone on Christmas, yet again. She swore in Spanish under her breath and couldn’t believe her father left her alone once again. Eva had never been close to her father. He was a strict man devoted to his career, and he was barely there while she was growing up. He was always in another country handling business. Once her mother died, her father devoted more time to his job than to Eva. She was taken care of by her aunts and uncles while she was growing up, and her father would send her postcards here and there. This aggravated Eva. She needed someone to console her since her mother couldn’t. Her dad just walked away and dealt with his emotions by taking on more work. He barely thought about Eva. She thought he was selfish. He never thought of how she felt and never tried to be there for her. He wasn’t the only one grieving. She needed someone. She needed her father, and he wasn’t there. The phone suddenly rang and Eva went to pick it up. “Hello?” she said. She heard loud breathing and the person began to speak. “Hello, Eva,” a deep voice said. “Hello, Dad,” she said coldly. “I was calling to let you know that, um, I won’t be able to be home for Christmas. I was called suddenly to go on a business trip to Tokyo,” he said awkwardly. He could tell she was upset because of her tone. “I already got the memo, Dad, since you weren’t here at all. Once again, Christmas all by myself and you don’t seem to care since you are heading to Tokyo and never considered me in the first place!” she said, her voice rising. “Do not raise your voice at me, young lady! I am your father and I am sorry I won’t be able to make it for Christmas. To make it up to you, I left presents in your room,” he said in a calm voice. “Presents are not going to make anything better, Dad. For once in your life, act like a real father and be there for me!” she said as she hung up the phone. She rubbed her temples and marched up to her room. She opened the door to her room, revealing her light walls, white canopy bed, and white desk where her laptop was lying. On her bed, there were five boxes of every color, shape, and size.* She walked over to her bed, sat at the edge, and knocked over a small box. It opened and a small necklace slipped out. She jumped off her bed and picked up the necklace. She stood there stunned as she recognized the initials on the locket. M.S. Her mother’s initials. She opened the locket and there was a picture of her, her mother, and her father. She simply fastened the locket around her neck and swore that she would never take it off. Then she walked over to her window and watched
as the tree branches danced to the wind’s rhythm. It’s not Christmas without you, Mom, she thought.
From a Q ueens W indow by Sarayah W right She roams the street with her cart everyday—once in the morning then again at night. I watch from my window. I hear the rubber wheels scrape against the concrete, the tinkering of pebbles hitting against cold metal. She quickens her stride; the cart almost flies down the sidewalk. She must hurry before they come to collect. She needs this. Her skin, the color of old age and labor: she works too hard, I can tell. It becomes too much to watch, but my eyes stay glued, trying to uncover the truths hidden behind the acid of her skin, the bottles in her hand. With wrinkles in her forehead, small body, back in a forever-yielding position, she bends down grabbing the plastic lifeline. One by one, she picks them up. “Five cents, ten cents, fifteen….” It’s not enough. She scavenges the mountain of black disposing bags. Her cart—once vacant—is now a sea of scattered reds and blues, a collection of labels she cannot afford but wants for her children. It’s hope. She needs this. The smell burns tears in her eyes and with the fabric of her sleeve, torn with holes running up the arm, she wipes them away. “Keep your head up. Move on.” Her calloused, olive hands grip the faded-red plastic of the cart as she shuffles down the street. All she needs are a few more, and then maybe she can buy some rolls or sweet bread from the bakery. “Yeah, they’ll like that. It’s been a while.” She stops again. Bottle after bottle, she repeats the mantra: five cents, ten cents, fifteen. She digs. Beads of sweat trickle down the side of her collar. Webs of oil-covered silk hair stick to the back of her scaled neck, but still she digs, ignoring the snickering and blank stares from those who do not understand. From those who watch from windows. Soon, there’s enough for food. Freeing her shirt from a few crumbs, she drags her cart down the street. Hope flickers in the crescent of her eyes.
U LTIM A T HULE BY A SH LEY S TOKES
Ansbro crossed a deserted market square, wary of slush and ice, the weight of his overnight bag and The Product drawing down on his shoulders. In what he assumed was the city’s main drag he passed pubs and bars, all empty. Behind the windows of pizzerias and restaurants untouched wineglasses were arranged in shining squares on circular tables. It was Thursday evening. It was still snowing. The cold latched itself to his face as he paused on a traffic island to check his street plan. According to the chatty buff on the train the whole city had once been an island, an inland island that resisted The Conqueror. After it fell, no later campaigns followed, no skirmishes, uprisings or even an air raid. Ansbro didn’t find this surprising, given its remoteness. It was only surprising, and more so inconvenient that his esteemed client was headquartered up here. Ansbro, representative of Bastion—the publishers of usually low-quality military history books—had left London early for an appointment that had taken over two years to arrange, the breakthrough being the acquisition of The Product. It would have to snow today. The train would have to stop about fifteen times and then, after an incident on the line, huddle for hours at the white outskirts of the city. Moving off in the direction of his hotel Ansbro thought that if Big Dump, his manager, were here, he’d be too cocksure with The Product beside him. He’d eat a lot now and then guffaw through the appointment. On Monday he would crow that he’d rolled up the flank in a faceless divorcee’s bedroom. He’d boast to Leonard Lovestone, Bastion’s owner, about his acumen in placing The Product. The Product was Big Dump’s name for it. Ansbro wanted to stop thinking about it like this. He wanted to stop thinking about Big Dump as well and Big Dump’s massive bowels. Big Dump and his bowels were envious that Lovestone had given Ansbro this job. This dealer had been out of circulation for years. Lovestone thought he was dead and had taken his lists and contacts with him. Communication with Ansbro had been by letter only, a genteel way of doing business. The dealer had agreed to view The Product tonight, at his premises, a place called Ultima Thule. The street forked ahead, as if parting for the Hotel Aachen. From this angle it was a triangular wedge that tore the road in two. Snow swarmed in the orange glare of its carriage lamps. It would be a short walk from here to Ultima Thule. There was still enough time to make the appointment, if Ansbro was quick, snappish, sharp, a proper seller.
It seemed hardly warmer inside as he found himself shivering on a thin electric blue carpet identical to those he’d seen before in a hundred or so budget hotels. The carpet and the over153
bright spot-lamps seemed at odds with a Victorian staircase with banisters as wide and sleek as funpark waterslides. It was as if the hotel had been only half refurbished. Maybe they had run out of money. Even the canniest of businessmen were running out of money these days, even Lovestone. That’s why Ansbro was here. He rested his other luggage in front of the reception desk but kept hold of The Product, afraid that it might walk if he put it down. He rang the bell and waited. He experienced a twinge as he imagined that he’d left The Product at home or in the office, or if after the stupor of the journey he’d abandoned it to some lucky opportunist on the train. Footsteps approached from an outer office. He put the case down and sank to one knee to check on it. For a second he felt that he could no longer remember the combination and only noticed that his teeth were chattering when the number came back to him. “What are you doing down there, Mister Ansbro?” When he bobbed up the woman wore a smile she asserted with mind and industry. She was a petite reddish-blonde and probably no older than he was. She wore faded jeans and a black, off-the-shoulder top that overlaid a lacy, turquoise vest. Something—like a crack in the surface of a sheet of ice—glinted in her right, blue eye. “I’m Kay,” she said. “Your concierge. I’ve put you in The Salon.” “The Salon?” said Ansbro. “I didn’t book The Salon.” “I upgraded you,” said Kay. “Same tariff.” She placed a swipe-card on the desktop. Her fingers spidered over it. He had difficulty with the eye and focused instead on her unevenly varnished cherry-red nails. “Oh yes, and before I forget, you had a phone call this morning. A Mister…a Mister Tool called for you.” Resting his knuckles on the counter, Ansbro said, “No, it’s Thule, like hula.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, Elliot.” “It’s not important,” he said, even though it was, and then it struck him. “What did he say?” “He apologizes, says can’t make tonight, but he’ll be there for you same time tomorrow night.” The crack in her eye shifted. “I am your concierge, though, if you need The Salon for another night, or if you need anything else, Elliot.” ***
Concierge. She wasn’t a concierge. This was not the sort of hotel that employed a concierge. She’d used his first name as well; she was flirting and dressed like she worked in a smoothie bar. And the room that he stood in now was not a salon, just a room at the top of the hotel with slanting ceilings and a round window like a porthole. When he thought of a salon he pictured a vast, plush-carpeted affair with ornate mirrors and chandeliers and high windows that overlooked a deer park. Evidently, the word meant something else for Kay. He left The Product on the bed and was now standing by the porthole. Snow thumped against the pane and half-obscured his view of the spires and gables and the lit-up buttresses of the city’s cathedral. He would have to stay here longer than he wanted. The appointment would impinge on his weekend. There was a woman he was supposed to meet tomorrow night. He wondered what was wrong with Kay’s eye. The snow reminded him of a piano tune he could no longer name, music that felt like falling down the stairs in slow motion, painlessly, without impact. He suspected he’d been sent here to fail. This mission was a pretext to get rid of him. That call could have been from Big Dump. This was cross-double-cross. Big Dump was setting him up. Perched on the bed, he took out his mobile phone and left a message on Lovestone’s ansamachine. Then he took The Product from the case. He’d bound it in a black silk wrap. He suspected that he might unravel it now to find half a paving slab in its place. That’s the sort of thing Big Dump would do, or at least it was the sort of thing he said he’d done in the past. But from under the silk emerged the white custom cloth slipcase. He used the drawstring to coax out the book and then, scared he’d drop it if he opened it on his lap, knelt with it resting on the bed. He’d memorized its vital statistics, its contents, its accumulated sales. Seventeen and half inches by thirteen and a half inches of jacket. Four point two inches thick. One thousand and eighty-eight pages and one thousand and forty six illustrated plates, all by the same celebrated hand and only published within these covers. A uniformologist’s delight, the Holy Grail of Napoleonic Buffdom, it had been much coveted since it first appeared in 1931. It had been reprinted only once, in the late 1980s. A mere two thousand were left. The American publisher had gone bust recently and Lovestone acquired the stock in the fire sale. It would never be reissued. La Roche’s Imperial Codex retailed at £799. This would seem a reasonable price to Mr Thule, Ansbro was sure of this. Everything he knew about Mr Thule came from Big Dump and Lovestone. Whenever Ansbro discussed sales with the old boss he would mutter ruefully about Ultima Thule. In the sixties and seventies both the shop and the mail order catalogue had sold thousands and thousands of Bastion Books. Lovestone would often pine as if some El Dorado or retail Atlantis still existed up here in the once-island city. He’d collapsed into a sweaty rapture when Ansbro confirmed that a meeting had been arranged. Ansbro was to sell the whole consignment of the Codex, play nice with Thule and suss out whether the shop or the list, or both were for sale. Ultima Thule was to be annexed to the Bastion Imperium. Elliot Ansbro was the outrider.
During an informal man-to-man strategy session in Big Dump’s hutch of an office BD’s Shredded Wheat hair looked especially wheaty and his Barbour jacket was still the colour of duck shit. “Don’t get up yourself here,” he said. “The Codex is just another product. Pricey, like, but just product. Product for Buffs.” For Big Dump the readership was divided in two. There were the Grunts, who would buy anything, literally anything, even SS Underpants and Sock Suspenders of World War II, or Hell’s Coming to Breakfast: Field Catering from White Mountain to Afghanistan. Grunts were, in Lovestone’s words, people who got “hot about nuts and bolts.” Buffs, on the other hand, were more likely to get hot about Sexy Wars. They were of higher rank, rarefied and wealthy readers, attachés and ex-brass, the elite corps, the sort of people on the Ultima Thule mailing list. Big Dump could bollock on all day about Buffs and their buying buttons. He pronounced “Buff” with a hard, punchy emphasis, as if the B was a projectile that wiped out not only the rest of the word but also the whole of the sentence. For Ansbro, the word Buff conjured only nakedness. He frequently pictured naked Buffs reading Bastion Books in their shabby armchairs, curtains drawn at midday as they slotted and sliced their way across the ghost battlefields in their heads. “Thule is the King of the Buffs,” Big Dump had said. “Only met him once. Frankfurt. Weirdo. Must be about eighty now. Told Leonard he’d rather have been one of Napoleon’s generals. Thinks he missed his time. Should have been born two hundred years ago. Don’t go AWOL up there, you. This is the big tickle.” Ansbro opened the Codex. The binding creaked. The pages smelled like fresh paint. He felt like a little boy again, kneeling by the bed, nose pressed to an annual or comic. The image on the plate was of General Massena, upright with his palm resting on a globe in a proper salon of hardwood panelling and august bookshelves. His face was stern and inquisitive and his hair short and Caesar-like. Scrupulous brushwork gave a tactile quality to the sash, the sabre and the gauntlets. The intensity of the colours amazed Ansbro, the nobility of the navy blue tunic, the shimmer of the braid and the fluid brown of the general’s pupils. Originally, La Roche’s designs had been cigarette cards. During the First World War, all French army issue fag packets included one of these inspirational reminders of the nation’s military past. At first La Roche concentrated on the ordinary soldiers: The Old Guard, Chasseurs, Marines, Lancers, the Elite Gendarmes. Later he painted the more exotic elements of the Grand Armeé: the Squadron of the Mamelukes, the Empress Dragoons and the Vistula Uhlans, and later still, during the twenties, he painted the personalities, the Marshals, Riskepanse and Kleber, MacDonald and Massena. This is what Ansbro had learned about the origins of The Product. You learned a lot when you worked for Bastion Books.
Massena’s eyes seemed to blink the longer Ansbro stared at them, as if the General conferred some approval or understanding. Was it one of these pictures, or even this picture in the Codex that had once told Mr Thule that he’d “missed his time,” that he should have been one of Napoleon’s generals spreading Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité by cannon flash and cavalry charge? Was it Massena who made him hear the whisper, or was it St Cyr, The Owl, who smashed two Russian armies one after the other? Or Rapp: so wounded in campaigns that his men called him “the piece of old lace?” Ansbro would ask Mr Thule. This wasn’t part of the pitch he’d prepared. It was another discussion he was now planning. Most of the dealers Ansbro sold to were arch-Grunts, bayonet-obsessives, bowel-irregulars and para-military fantasists like Wolfgang Carver of the Onslaught Bookshop in The Wirral. Big Dump was right about one thing only. Thule was not a Grunt. But he was not the King of the Buffs either. He was the Emperor. Ansbro felt a sudden heat at his temples and dryness coat his tongue. Outside, the snow was still falling, thicker now, creeping up the windowpane. He was going to have to stay inside the Hotel Aachen tonight.
Later he found the bar at the rear of the hotel, an array of dark green padded alcoves and stained glass partitions that wheeled around a circular serving area. No one was drinking here, no other reps or lorry drivers. Kay was standing behind the counter in front of a wall of shining, yellow-tinged glasses and glimmering bottles and spirits. Around the walls were hung framed images of fairywinged nymphs promoting aperitifs and infusions. As he approached, he felt that he was somewhere else, some other city and century. Prague maybe, 1921, or Vienna, Montmartre, Bourbon Spain. It was wrong, he knew, to think of the past as a more charged and exciting atmosphere. But what else was there to do with history? He didn’t want to think of it as Sexy Wars. Nor did he want it to be an accumulation of overlooked lives, the biographies of unsung boys and lonely girls in service to this or to that now defunct institution. He pulled up a stool and ordered a single malt with ice. He was glad to be alone. He wanted to brood. “You’ve had a terrible time getting up today,” Kay said. “And all for a cancellation, poor you.” “Not a cancellation. A rearrangement.” In the mirror beneath the optics he noticed her hand shake as she poured his drink. The ice cubes clattered against the sides of the tumbler. He had long since ceased to think of these trips as holidays or adventures. He was not Big Dump. All that kissing and telling. The not kissing and still telling. He was not, he hoped, going to park and ride. What were those lines in her eye? Would it
be rude, intrusive to ask her? She put the tumbler in front of him and smiled again, this time as if she anticipated that he was going to suggest something. “Kay,” he said, poking his finger at the ceiling. “Can I ask you something a bit private?” “Fire away,” she said. She clapped her palms softly together, then wiped them on her hips and ended up dipping them into the back pockets of her jeans, a motion that pushed out her chest. “You’re the owner, aren’t you?” he said. This had occurred to him earlier, considering that she was so far his small-talking concierge and now barmaid. “Sort of,” she said. “Family business. We’ve been here for a hundred and fifty years. Just about.” “That’s nice,” he said, and sipped as she began to tell him about the history of the Hotel Aachen, its beginnings as a coach house; the haunt of Red Hector, a famous highwayman; an Edwardian heyday; an inter-war reputation for integrity and cleanliness. He wasn’t really listening. He kept thinking back to Massena and the piece of old lace and Thule and manoeuvring Thule around to discussing a change of management. “These pictures here,” said Kay, “are insured for …” “Kay,” said Ansbro. “Do you know where Ultima Thule is?” She looked baffled and tapped her cheek with her thumb. “It’s a shop.” “I could ask Dad?” “He might know my client.” “Mr. Tool.” She rested her elbows on the bar and leaned in close to him. The lines in her eyes were tiny lightning strikes radiating from a central core. “Thule like hula,” he said. “Vidkun Thule. Like the unpleasant Norwegian.” “So what does the unpleasant Norwegian do?” “He’s not unpleasant. Or Norwegian. He’s going to offer me a job.” Staring into her eyes, he tried to catch his reflection there. He shouldn’t be doing this, and wanted to lean back but he couldn’t. “Confident,” said Kay. “Like it. So we might be seeing more of you?” She lifted her shoulders and spread her arms along the bar and her knuckles paled either side of him. “Maybe,” he said.
“More?” said Kay as she reached for his now empty glass. “Dutch courage for the interviewee?” The light behind turned her hair to golden coils, and then he was certain of himself, of what was going to happen, and he didn’t care about anything else.
Upstairs, back in The Salon, he lay face down in the bed with his arm draped over the shape beside him. It was the middle of the night now. He couldn’t sleep. Things that had been said came back to him and he found himself sniggering in the band of grey moonlight that cut across the duvet. He kept mulling over a day in the office a few months ago. Two nights before Big Dump had swallowed a king prawn vindaloo and fifteen bottles of Oranjiboom with someone possibly called Norbert Pogrom from Beer Hall Putsch Books and Figurines in Frisby on the Wreake, Leicestershire. The king prawn then fought a dogged rearguard action in the Wookey Hole-like cave-system that was Big Dump’s bowels, morphing and mutating into a gigantic basalt millipede that slithered out segment by segment all morning and all afternoon, on and on while Ansbro was forced to take BD’s appointments. One of these was the pitching of a new list to Maggie Dunderness of the Broadside Naval History Bookclub in Leigh-on-Sea. When Big Dump returned from sentry duty he looked pinched and peaky. He said, “what you think of Maggie then?” “Buff,” said Ansbro. “No. As a woman. What did you think of her … as a woman?” He made a mauling, claw gesture. “I was thinking about naval books,” said Ansbro, even though he hadn’t been. “Wuss,” said Big Dump. “Me? I would have taken her to a lay-by and done her.” Big Dump and his lay-bys and his stonk-on for Broadside Mags of all people. Even Mrs. Dump was a more attractive proposition, and she was a gas mask fetishist – she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? Each time he replayed the Lay-By Declaration Ansbro cracked up. If all went to plan he would never have to stomach this sort of idiocy again. The Codex was beside him, under the covers, safe and concealed. The Codex would now play a subtler role. He found himself laughing again, then heard something and stopped. Tentative footfalls approached in the corridor outside. He sat up and held his breath. He waited, sensing that the softened dark corners of the room had shrunk in closer to him. He mustn’t laugh. She would go. If it was her. Could be another resident, but he’d seen no one else. And she’d made him stay in the bar for so long and seemed crushed when he went off to bed. The steps trailed away. He started to laugh again. Tomorrow he would capture Ultima Thule. ***
Then the time was finally upon him. He was about to ring Ultima Thule’s bell, a big stubby black button that had in all likelihood once been the first ever, newfangled doorbell contraption in the once island city. Shoulders back, chest in, he focused on his breathing so he wouldn’t appear nervous or intimidated by Mr. Thule. He held the Codex in his left hand to keep his right one free for the introductory shake. The iron grill across the shop front was still in place, though there was a mess of slushy footsteps and zigzag bootprints around the doorstep. People had come in and out today. Buffs, probably. It was dark now. Ansbro could make out even less of the interior than he had this morning. The window was so dusty that he could only imagine the shelves of bulky, cloth-bound spines and showcases for lead soldiers and dress-uniformed dummies that he was sure lived inside. He would get these windows cleaned. It would be the first thing he would do as manager. This had occurred to him during his earlier reconnaissance mission to find the shop. That had been at midday, after his lie-in and after he’d paused on the mezzanine and then tiptoed out swiftly while Kay was in her office, but before Big Dump called with some gruff threat about what would happen if Ansbro was having a day off at Bastion’s expense. To get off this topic Ansbro explained that he’d done the concierge in a lay-by last night. “Good drills,” said Big Dump and recommended a Mongolian AllYou-Can-Eat in Crouch End. There was only an afternoon to waste before the launch of Operation Thule. He’d walked the Codex around a snow-struck, half-hidden city deserted of people. He mooched cathedral cloisters and a covered market where the stalls were all shut for the day. Then in a fresh snow flurry on a hump-backed bridge he watched a wizened woman with her mouth smeared with thick red slap push a tricycle up the slope towards him. He thought then of the girl he was supposed to meet tonight – her name was Selina and she’d been to Peru – and he suspected that she would like him more if he could fix a lawn mower engine. He sent her a text and cancelled. He ate lunch in a pub called The King’s Shilling and pondered the Sexy Wars and how Lovestone thought that some wars were sex: Napoleonic, Zulu, World War Two in the West. And some were like a bad date where you got nothing because you couldn’t fix a lawnmower: Bosnia, Latin American death squads, Nazis off the leash in Belarus and the Ukraine. There were readers who got hot about nuts and bolts: caterpillar tracks and weird bits of kit and special spoons. He would ask Thule all about this. Thule would have an opinion. Thule, he imagined, was tall and lean with a tight slot-like mouth and unruly eyebrows and long, silvery hair. In a local paper Ansbro compared the rents of one-bedroom flats and flicked through stories about the snow and the closure of the schools. Someone had won twenty-five quid for a photo of a red setter going mental on a sledge. The incident on the line yesterday had been a fatality. There were still no trains south. He walked the streets in the late afternoon. TheCodex no longer felt heavy. He’d become used to its weight. As the light began to fade and the sky became a blue screen he stood transfixed by an evening star, delta-shaped, an arrowhead, glinting and distorted. He sat in another pub and drank coffee and waited for seven o’clock and made plans. Now it was seven o’clock and he was outside Ultima Thule, pressing the doorbell, waiting for Mr. Thule to emerge.
*** On the yomp back it started to snow again. Unable to see, he nearly lost his footing twice and the handle of the case started to chafe the calluses that had long ago formed around the joints in his fingers. An upwardly swiping ache in his right shoulder blade became a spearhead of pain that had dug in around the top of his spine by the time he stumbled into the Aachen. The lights were off. The reception was unmanned. He dropped the case. The calluses stung and crinkled. His last girlfriend had complained that his hands felt scratchy when he touched her. An occupational hazard, he’d explained, when you heft a load of old cack around all day. When the case banged on the carpet the light in the outer office flashed on. He picked up the case and, head down, strode towards the stairs, his shoes greasy with snow and seemingly pressing on nothing. Halfway across, the spotlights above him sprayed the darkness beneath him electric blue. He kept on walking and didn’t look at her. “Elliot,” Kay called out. “Oh Elliot … wait.”
Upstairs in The Salon he sat down on the bed, still in his coat and with The Product lodged between his ankles. He still couldn’t feel his feet and his hand stung. He should run it under the hot tap but didn’t have the energy. Snow pounded the porthole window again. He thought of the piano music, but this time saw himself smashing his elbows and chin on the stairs as he fell. He had rung the bell for an hour. He had thrown snowballs at the dim, upper storey windows. This was all a set-up. Big Dump knew Thule wasn’t here; or that Thule was a crank or dead or bound to muck about any minion of Leonard Lovestone. And all the time he’d thought there was something else over the escarpment, another promontory, something beyond or improved. Better. He realized that he was going to have to go home. He would have to slouch into the office on Monday and explain this. Even if he didn’t end the day putting his stuff in a cardboard box he would have to keep this up, wander the streets and the shops and talk about books for Buffs and books for Grunts and Sexy Wars and nuts and bolts, and Big Dump would still lie about his conquests and his mobile phone would still have an 1812 Overture ringtone and his bowels would still be massive and Lovestone’s head would always be the shape of a sweet potato. He’d left the door open. Kay said something courteous. He didn’t answer. Her footfalls approached and she sat down on the bed beside him. Her feet appeared next to his. She wore cute flat-soled, leopard print pumps. “I’m sorry, Elliot,” she said. “What on earth for?”
“What happened.” “Happened?” “You don’t know yet?” She took his hand, the left, uncallused one that didn’t throb. “I asked my dad about Mr. Thule this afternoon, and he did know him.” “Did?” “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mr. Thule was the man who died on the track yesterday.” His ankles clamped against the case. The snow outside the window seemed further away. Kay gripped his hand a little tighter. “Apparently, he stopped trading ages ago and put all his money into stocks and that. Recently, you know, debts, nothing. Must have got on top of him. I am sorry.” He bowed his head. Pressing his knees together compressed the case and hurt his shins. He tried not to, but couldn’t help it and pictured Thule on the track. The barren white expanse on either side. The snow. The oncoming rectangle. The blue smudge. The rails hum. Gravel jitters. Thule in Massena’s uniform as depicted by La Roche. He wondered whether in his last instants Thule considered himself fooled, perverted by spiel and oratory. He must have ended as tatters, wisps. “I didn’t want this for you,” said Kay. “You couldn’t have known.” “No, but I didn’t want this for our last.” “Last what?” “Guest. We’re going, you know. Going under. All this time we’ve been here, and now …” “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a grand hotel.” “I saw your name in the reservations, Elliot Ansbro. Bookseller. And I just thought, pull out all the stops, Kay. Make sure he has a great time.” He sensed that she’d turned her head towards his, but he was staring at the case, the black oblong of it. He could sell the thing inside. Pawn it. Flog it to some second-hand merchant in the city. Cut some cash. Stay a few more days. Keep the Aachen open. He turned to her. There was still something in her eye.
She let go of his hand. They both sat there, hip to hip, and outside the snowflakes swirled, drifting down in the top panel of the porthole and then caught in an updraft in the lower half sped away out of view.
163 Â Â
L AST N IGH T O N O IL S TREET BY N ICOLETTE W ONG
The Commune Spray paint ecru to heat searing through my fingers I’m leaving this block of farce we’ve inhabited and lost: the rights to sleep facedown on canvas, away from red taxis and men shuffling in and out of banks, briefcases in hands to waste their lives; the rights to swing glass doors to the garden, benches to roll beer bottles and halve embraces to dark bird songs. Some left the commune long before their doors were plastered. Scurried for a new shelter where they could play statues besides their art for visitors. Tomorrow the authority smashes. Tonight we march, splash, carve letters in wet paint from room to room until steel blades bend. The letters will tilt in shadows gliding over the walls to mask our tales born of fractured wrists and the ghosts, our keepers.
The Ghosts We’re the last departure before the sea rips for sand to kill surf and stretch the land our neighbors have feared. People who tread shaky ground while we snooze behind tree trunks in sunlight and sit on tree beds at night to look for scars that seep through our skin every time one of us cracks to a token of forgetting or betrayal by a living beloved. The hurt reaches us. You just don’t hear it. Our home has been transit for heaps of the dead the drifters the children smearing paint on their lips, their colored fingers our joy when our eyes are shut. Until we wake crackling. Our last night so lost in searchlights in alchemy of fury the children we’re losing at dawn. We lose them. We’re gone.
The Trees Everybody hurts to scratch our songs like sandstones. We grow bleeding oxidized bands to break free, leafy rhythm on the swing. The dead strum us; we lift each other. To their missing weight we’ll shed to touch stone benches. To leather boots on dried leaves and hammers smashing across the corridors to our breath rasping in the garden. Red bricks shooting out of the windows to clutter of handrails, chairs, stained white bathtubs in the backyard to gape: “Our companions have left us.” Cracked down the middle. Electric air to hum. The broken fellows will call to us but we’ll turn deaf while we shrivel in the afternoon. Our magic will dissipate just in time for the saws to cut through us and we’ll bleed and bleed to show who’s grounded.
G OODBYE T O A LL T HAT BY S ARAH F LYNN
[Adapted lovingly— "covered"—from the essay of same title by Joan Didion] It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a creeping and warm blush of embarrassment, when my life in music began, but I can't quite tell you exactly when it ended, when I lost the sense of success-is-just-over-that-hill wonder that is necessary to set foot each morning in an office lined with gold and platinum records. When I first caught sight of that world I was twenty, in the crisp early days of fall when New York seemed cozy and wide-eyed mere days before 9-11 happened. I got off the ferry at the Staten Island terminal and even the boat itself seemed romantic, cutting through the water in clean lines towards my uncertain but promising future. Everything about this arrival indicated that something, after all these years of almost-being, was about to happen to me. Years later, I would come to find myself close friends with the men who at that time were my brand-new bosses, and I would say, when asked how we met, "Oh! I used to be his intern!" in a voice that indicated that this was an event that felt recent, though I could not at all remember what it felt like to be that new. Of course it is like this with any career. I could have been a doctor or a stewardess or the philosopher that I'd intended on being, and I would still wonder what happened to that girl, the one who first stepped into the operating room, onto the plane, up to the podium. I didn't yet know that we all feel like this eventually, that somewhere after twenty-three or twenty-five or I'm not really sure when, we forget to keep looking behind us for the person we used to be. Because I chose the ferry terminal and Staten Island and a teeny tiny record label office with terrible carpeting, it is that beginning that I find myself unable to feel all over again. That first day, I rode home on the ferry to Manhattan, watching the sun set over the sparkling water, and I felt as though I had been granted a secret window into both the music that I loved and the city I was still coming to know. The Manhattan skyline looked so iconic as to seem unreal as it grew closer and, eventually, swallowed the boat as we docked. I had a simple internship, but it felt good, and I thought that I would flirt with the music industry for six months, or a year, while I was busy finishing other things. As it turned out the skyline would be destroyed in under two weeks and I worked at record labels for the next ten years. In retrospect, as I sat down to write down my favorite memories of those ten years, most seem to come from that early period. Part of this is tied to the way it feels to be young and as though you have some say in what happens in the world around you. At twenty-one, still an intern, a publicist asked me to write a eulogy in the form of a press release for one of my favorite bands, who had just called it quits after twenty-odd years. Today, I recall this moment as perhaps the best and brightest in my career to date; it is hard to imagine getting that excited about a simple task now. This is in part a function of age, but also something greater. What I want to explain to you - and what I need to work out for myself - is why I gave up on the music industry. It is often said that music is a place for only the very talented and the very optimistic. It is 166
said much less often that it is a place with a definitive time limit. Recently, I brought up the writing of that band eulogy to the friend who'd assigned me the task, suggesting that I could have quit then and there and been satisfied. He, who had been doing PR for nearly ten years himself at this point, had just casually allowed me to draft what I saw to be the definitive last word on a very important band. He'd sent that draft to the bandleader for comments and received enthusiastic approval. I took the approval of the writing, of course, as an approval of myself, that people in bands I respected were glad to have me on their side. My friend laughed. "I don't remember that at all," he said. "Why was there even a press release? Who the hell read it? Who would have covered that story?" Back then, at least in my mind, I had just done a great thing, and it would be a long time before that feeling would fade. It would take me years to learn that "on the band's side" is not enough, and it took that long because quite simply, I was in love with music. I was in love with music in a way I never had been with anything else, least of all a man, and when I walked through the streets of my city it was the songs that paved my way. My days were punctuated with late nights at clubs, discovering new bands and new ways of thinking on the strength of the five or eight dollars that were left of the modest paychecks I received from my "other" job as the computer lab supervisor at my university. I was broke in those days, but it all seemed part of the charm at the time; I earned first, as an intern, nothing but an increase in muscle tone from lifting 30-count boxes of CDs all day, and later, as a part-time employee, $100 a week for a job I spent more than twenty hours working at not including my two-hour-a-day commute. There would be moments, like when I visited my friends in their East Village apartments filled with bookshelves and nice things, when I really felt poor, but mostly it seemed to me that I was paying my dues and starting from scratch. It didn't occur to me, either, that there would be a point at which I would have to choose between this new venture and the chosen career I was still investing most of my time and money studying towards. I had the feeling, then, that I could wake up in the morning and do any of it. I could continue down the music industry road, or I could graduate and begin to teach graduate philosophy, or I could indulge my brief forays into music journalism and become a freelancer. I could do any of it, I thought, because at that moment I was doing all of it and I had no way of knowing there would be an end to that. It never occurred to me that any of the things I was doing were really real. Music then felt like a dream, like a game I was playing because I could. I'd arrived on the whim of the friend who brought me into the office of an independent label and announced, to me as much as to them, that I belonged there. I fell concurrently into the music journalism game because a boy who ran a magazine had a crush on me. Philosophy was the only thing I had actively pursued, which is probably why in the end it was the easiest to give up. That was the point of it, right? That in the end I chose the thing that seemed like it had most chosen me? I remember walking in the park with a co-worker at lunch a few years into the whole game. I was at the point where graduate school was becoming economically insane and my workload seemed slightly less than healthy: the point where it became time to choose. I have a vague recollection of us working through a pro / con list on a napkin in a bar on the Brooklyn Waterfront; I no longer remember what that napkin could possibly have said. Now, I can't walk through that park or past that bar without thinking of that day, but no
167 Â Â
matter how many times I do, there remains a mental blank in the space where that list might have been. I suppose this is normal, and that it is too late now to wonder whether this decision had been the right one. There have been plenty of friends who have echoed that same sense of "how did I get here?" throughout the years, but rarely have we given it real pause. In a way, our careers have shaped themselves in the form of the nights that once shaped us. We went to shows at small clubs on the Lower East Side, where we drank the cheapest beers and worked to endear ourselves both to the bands we most wanted to work with and the ones we already did. We ended up wherever: at other bars down the street, at cooler bars in Brooklyn, at diners at 5 AM. On one night in particular I woke up after the subway went above ground and watched the sun rise on a station far, far from my own at as my phone chimed to tell me that a friend had just done the exact same thing. It was easy in those days to sleep for two or three hours and roll into work; it felt like a continuation of the game if we were still drunk when we did so. To us, those nights were the best of what the music industry meant to us, and the days spent in front of computers in an office were mere formalities. During those days, I made phone calls, worked on album art, monitored production deadlines. I grew, on occasion, farther away from the actual music than I ever thought I could, taking sales data and morphing it into cold, hard royalty statements that showed the running tally of just how far in the red we were on each and every project. It did not take long for downloads to bear the brunt of that blame. Some years passed, and even as I felt certain songs and certain bands lose their magic, I held enough momentum to stay in love. I moved to a bigger label, and another, as the smaller ones shut their doors and I lost jobs but reinvented myself strangely as the one person who could spit out a digital marketing plan at any given moment. Just those two words, digital marketing, were enough to soothe the minds of executives, and so I continued to rise in ranks long after the thrill of hearing new demos had left me. Even this late in the game, I hadn't lost my love entirely; I still liked going to shows and listening to records and walking down the streets of New York with a confident soundtrack in my headphones. It was a long time before I recognized the disconnect. I had become fully engaged in my job, viewing myself as someone who solved clever puzzles, pulling out marketing bullet points and goals and plugging them in with their appropriate retail or media counterparts. I knew how to navigate people: to convince the bands to get on board when new social platforms were introduced, to continue calming executives by illustrating how much more effective our campaigns were than those of our competitors. It remained a game, but now it was one of strategy and intellect and not one of sound. I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is that one day I could not bear to listen to an album that was still three or four months away from being released; I was tired of the arguments with my co-workers and the attitudes of the artist and at base, I did not think the songs were very good. It was becoming harder to act enthused about selling a work that didn't feel like the best a band could do, all the while knowing they were living on as much or more money than I was making and taking better vacations. That day, I couldn't listen to the album. The next, I couldn't bring myself to go to a show. I felt myself degenerate from there until I began to make excuses for not being able to make conference calls so that I
168 Â Â
would not have to speak with feigned enthusiasm about anything. I called this a crisis of faith and cried to my friends, all of whom told me that it would work itself out, that a move to a new label would help, or that perhaps I just needed a vacation. Instead I quit. I accepted a job in book publishing, knowing that I would still deal with creative content and solve all of the usual puzzles, but at least keeping what I by now took to be my sense of dignity. In the event that this wasn't enough, I also took a weeklong vacation, using it to hike around upstate waterfalls, to lay on the beach, and to walk the bridges of my own city in efforts to reassure myself that yes, music was the thing that was wrong here. Many of the people that I know are baffled by this decision. To work in music is still cool, and to continue to hold a job in music - in fact, to keep being offered new jobs in music - is a rare thing. By contrast, my first conversation with the head of the office at my publishing job revolved around my willingness to wear blazers to cover my arm tattoos. When people ask, I speak of how much I love albums and songs, and how I wanted to leave before I lost the feeling of wonder I get at rock shows. I don't say that I already have, and I try not to mention the times that my favorite bands have screamed at me or how many late night "urgent" emails I have fielded or how people who are meant to be at the forefront of an industry can not understand how to properly use the digital tools we intended to bank our livelihood on. I say, instead, simply that no one ever said thank you. On the evening before my last day in the music industry, I went to see a band I love but have never worked with play a show in downtown Manhattan. The club was packed and sweaty and full of people my age (or at least not too much younger) jumping up and down, fist-pumping, and crowdsurfing. The band themselves could not have worked harder on stage, throwing themselves into song after song without even pausing for stage banter. It was simple, and it was inspiring, and I loved it. There were years when I would have left that show thinking "this is why I do this," but now I know that really, this is why I can't.
169 Â Â
Jack Allen (Fiction) studies creative writing and English literature at Concordia University in Montreal. While sometimes submitting his own stories to publications, he prefers working with writers to develop their talents and expose them to an audience. Jack is the fiction editor at The Void Magazine and has recently launched his own project, The Trapshot Archives, a small press that focuses on contemporary literary and visual arts. Alison Barker’s (Fiction) writing has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Anemone Sidecar, Front Porch, and, forthcoming in dislocate. She lives in Louisiana. Barry Basden (Poetry) lives in the Texas hill country but often dreams of German beer and an old apartment overlooking the Heidelberg castle. He’s been published here and there and edits Camroc Press Review. Keith Birthday (Poetry) lived in Siberia, and some of the poetry published in fwriction : review is about how living there with limited Russian abilities was difficult. And, girls, too. He lives in Philadelphia. If you Google him, you can find his blog and email address. Ann Bogle’s (Nonfiction—Fictionaut Issue) short stories have appeared in recent online publications including BLIP, Istanbul Literary Review, Metazen, Wordgathering, Whale Sound, Wigleaf, Big City Lit, and others. She is creative nonfiction and book reviews co-editor at Mad Hatters’ Review and fiction reader at Drunken Boat. A collection of her work called Country Without a Name is forthcoming from Argotist Ebooks in 2011. Jack Bootle (Fiction) lives in London, England. His writing appears in Found Press and is forthcoming in Notes From The Underground. When he’s not writing, he makes TV shows. He has four webbed toes. Matthew Boyd (Fiction) is the founder and editor of Staccato. You can read more of his work atSlice Magazine, Duck & Herring Co., and The Blotter. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and plays on a literary basketball team named Jane Air. Bryanna A. Buchanan (Nonfiction—High School Writers’ Issue) is a high school senior in New York City. Additionally, she attends the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity program, where she has been often recognized for her creative writing. She and her professors love her puffy hair. Cindy Caban (Fiction—High School Writers’ Issue) is a junior at Millennium High School. She lives in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that continues to change. She has Hispanic blood running through her veins and is very proud of it. She feels lucky to have discovered that she is passionate about writing. She loves to let myself go in writing and let words drip from her tongue. She loves to write poems and fiction, to create an image in her mind and write all her thoughts down. It’s her way of expressing and learning about herself. Her goal is to take her writing career further in the future and write a novel. She wants to be able to inspire other people by giving them hope and showing that if you work hard, you can make a difference in someone else’s life through your writing. Writing allows her to be herself. She loves to spend time with her family; she is an aunt to a two-year-old nephew who always makes her smile. This is her second year in Girls Write Now. Myfanwy Collins (Fiction) lives and writes in Newbury, MA. For more information, please visit: http://www.myfanwycollins.com.
mensah demary (Fiction), whose prose has appeared in Up The Staircase, Monkeybicycle, Hippocampus Magazine, Used Furniture Review, and is forthcoming in Ginger Piglet and PANK Magazine, is co-founder & editor-in-chief of Specter Literary Magazine. mensah is also a regular contributor for PANK Magazine’s blog, Hippocampus, ArtFaccia,and Peripheral Surveys. mensah currently lives in southern New Jersey. For more information, please visit www.mensahdemary.com. Born on the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic, Sharline Dominguez (Fiction—High School Writers’ Issue) came to reside in Brooklyn, NY in 1997, when she was only three years old, holding Papi’s hand in JFK Airport. She is currently a graduating senior at Brooklyn College Academy and will be attending Amherst College as a Quest Scholar next fall. Overly obsessed with detail and observing silently, she is often a wallflower. She considers writing her very own honor code, an ideology she follows because it keeps her sane. She thanks Sponsors for Educational Opportunity for helping her realize that her writing and, more importantly, voice deserve to be heard by others. After submitting a memoir piece to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards last year, she won a Regional Silver Key, but this year, she aims for gold. She is highly fond of the piano and its delicacy, though she cannot play it. As for her writing goals, she wants to double major in English and Latin American studies. Aware that the world changes every day and people fall in love, for now Sharline is pro-graffiti, stating, “It is an art form that deserves criticism, but respect, because behind the murals in alleyways and on chimneys, there are writers just like you and me.” Sarah Flynn (Nonfiction) lives in Brooklyn, NY. People used to pay her to hang out with bands all day and now they pay her to hang out with books. She has previously written about music for publications such as The L Magazine, Impose, & Crawdaddy. In her spare time, she can be found hanging out with bourbon, words, or possibly you. She exists on Twitter at @flynnwaslike. Róbert Gál (Poetry) is a Prague-based Slovak writer (1968). He’s the author of several books of philosophical aphorisms and the novels Krídlovanie and Agnómia (2006 and 2008, in Czech 2010). His texts are difficult to categorize by genre, but were included in many international magazines and anthologies. A selection of Gál’s aphorisms, together with his work Znaky a príznaky (2003) was also published as a book in English (Signs & Symptoms, Twisted Spoon Press 2003). An extensive excerpt from Agnómia was selected for the prestigious anthology Best European Fiction 2012 to be published by Dalkey Archive Press in the US this fall. S.H. Gall (Fiction) writes flash fiction. His work can be found in such diverse markets as SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Metazen, Nanoism, Monkeybicycle, and decomP magazinE, to name a few. New work is forthcoming in Pure Slush and Verbumcavus. He is reviewed in Five Star Literary Stories, and unpublished pieces can be found on Fictionaut. Roxane Gay’s (Fiction) writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at http://www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011. Howie Good (Poetry), a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of the full-length poetry collections Lovesick (Press Americana, 2009), Heart With a Dirty Windshield (BeWrite Books, 2010), and Everything Reminds Me of Me (Desperanto, 2011). Stephen Hastings-King (Fiction) lives by a salt marsh in Essex, Massachusetts where he makes constraints, works with prepared piano and writes entertainments of various kinds. Some of his sound work is available at www.clairaudient.org. His short fictions have appeared inSleepingfish, Black Warrior Review, elimae, Ramshackle Review, Blue Fifth Review andelsewhere.
Stephanie Hernandez (Poetry—High School Writers’ Issue) is a high school senior in New York City. Additionally, she attends the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity program, where her art won an award and was featured in SEO’s premiere literary journal, The Day We Saved a Butterfly, in 2011. A recent Quest Scholar, Stephanie will attend Washington and Lee University in the fall. Frank Hinton (Fiction) lives in Halifax and edits the daily fiction litzine metazen.ca. Frank has had fiction published in Lamination Colony, PANK, Kill Author, Wigleaf and a bunch of other great literary magazines. Frank’s chapbook I don’t respect female expression is soon to be released by Safety Third Enterprises. Suzanne Marie Hopcroft (Poetry) is a PhD student in Comparative Literature who writes from New York City. Suzanne’s fiction has previously appeared in magazines including>kill author, Foundling Review, and Moon Milk Review; her poetry is forthcoming in PANKand The Catalonian Review, among others. Suzanne also teaches composition at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and writes fiction reviews for various journals. You can find more of her work at www.suzannemariewrites.com. Julie Innis (Fiction) lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Post Road, Gargoyle, Blip Magazine, JMWW, and Pindeldyboz, among others. Brett Elizabeth Jenkins (Poetry) lives in Minnesota with her husband and no children. She is the poetry editor at Stymie and blogs for Specter Magazine. Look for her poems in Beloit Poetry Journal, Potomac Review, PANK, and elsewhere. Visit her online at http://brettejenkins.blogspot.com. David Kirby (Poetry) teaches English at Florida State University. The Times of London has called his Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll “a hymn to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” His latest poetry collection is Talking About Movies With Jesus, and there’s more information on www.davidkirby.com. Jen Knox (Fiction) is a professor of English and Writing Center coordinator at San Antonio College. She is the author of To Begin Again (2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards winner, short story category), and her shorter works have appeared or are forthcoming in Annalemma, Eclectic Flash, Gargoyle, Narrative Magazine, Short Story America, Superstition Review and elsewhere. For more about Jen, visit her website here: http://www.jenknox.com. Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Fiction) has two new chapbooks Between Pineapple and Parsley and Let Dinggedicht Speak, from Ronin Press and Silkworms Ink. Trained in book publishing at Stanford, with a theology masters in world religions from Harvard and fine arts masters in creative writing from Notre Dame, Desmond has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. He also works in clay, his commemorative pieces housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. Len Kuntz (Fiction—Fictionaut Issue) is a writer from Washington State. His work appears widely in print and online at such places as Juked, Camroc Press Review, Anastomo, and also lenkuntz.blogspot.com. Casey Lefante (Nonfiction) earned her MFA from The Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Her fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Zone 3, and Slush Pile, and she was shortlisted for Gravity Fiction. She currently teaches at an all-girl high school in New Orleans, which just happens to be the best city in America. But perhaps she is biased.
Paul Lisicky (Fiction) is the author of Lawnboy and Famous Builder. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Five Points, Story Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and been widely anthologized. He has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, NYU, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence. His novel, The Burning House, is just out. His collection of short prose, Unbuilt Projects, is forthcoming in Fall 2012. This spring, he’s the Visiting Writer in the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Anthony Luebbert (Fiction) has never been to space. His fiction has been published by Parcel,Quick Fiction, and New York Tyrant. He blogs at http://www.monkfishjowls.com. Nicholas Mainieri (Nonfiction) lives in New Orleans. You can find his work in places like The Southern Review and Sou’wester, as well as online at Hobart and NOLAFugees.com. He still plans to be the only fighter pilot to ever start a Major League Baseball All-Star Game and own a pet dinosaur. Reach him at email@example.com if you feel the urge. Sarah Malone’s (Fiction) fiction has appeared in Open City, The Awl, The Good Men Project, Atticus Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming this fall in Keyhole and PANK. Kari Nguyen (Fiction) lives in New Hampshire with her husband, their baby girl, and a big, yellow dog. Her writing has been recognized by Glimmer Train, the Glass Woman Prize, the Binnacle, and New Hampshire Writers Magazine, and her recent fiction appears in Blink-Ink, Boston Literary Magazine, Istanbul Literary Review, Willows Wept Review, and elsewhere. She is the nonfiction editor at Stymie Magazine. You can find more of her work at http://karinguyen.wordpress.com/. Jason Lee Norman (Fiction) is the co-founder and junior intern for the writing magazineWufniks. His short fiction has appeared in For Every Year, Wigleaf, and recently in Pure Slush and A-Minor. He lives, works, sleeps, and eats in Edmonton, Canada. Emely Paulino (Fiction—High School Writers’ Issue) was born and lives in Queens, New York. Ever since she was in the third grade, her goal in life has been to become a writer. Throughout the years, she has found her niche in poetry and short fiction. Currently a junior at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, she is in her third year at Girls Write Now. Through Girls Write Now, she grows as a writer and works with others who share a passion for the same thing. During her first year with GWN, she won a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. When she is not writing or observing things around her, she takes pictures on her film camera or spends time with people who inspire her to write. Sometimes, you will even find her up on stage improvising scenes with a group of friends. Meg Pokrass (Fiction—Fictionaut Issue) is the author of Damn Sure Right (Press 53) and serves as Editor-atLarge for BLIP Magazine (formerly Mississippi Review) and before that, for SmokeLong Quarterly. She is an associate producer for “From Ghost Town to Havana” a documentary in progress by academy-award nominated filmmaker Eugene Corr. Her stories, poems, and flash fiction animations have appeared in over one hundred online and print publications. Meg lives with her small family and seven animals in San Francisco. Matt Potter (Fiction) is an Australian-born writer who lives between Australia and Germany (particularly Berlin), perhaps following the summer. Also a social worker and an English language teacher, Matt is inspired by the discipline of others and their sense of enjoyment, and wishes both would rub off on him. Matt has been published at The Glass Coin and A-Minorand will soon be published at Gloom Cupboard, Magnolia’s Press and Used Furniture Review. Matt contributes regularly to 52/250: A Year of Flash and the blog carnival >Language >Place, and less regularly to F3. You can find more of his work at his website, writing, and then some. Matt is also the founding editor of Pure Slush.
Shelagh Power-Chopra’s (Fiction) work appears or is forthcoming in Electric Lit’s Outlet Blog, Used Furniture Review, The Significant Objects Project, Metazen, Litsnack, and elsewhere. Sam Rasnake’s (Fiction—Fictionaut Issue) works, receiving five Pushcart nominations, have appeared in OCHO, BLIP (formerly Mississippi Review), FRiGG, Poets / Artists, MiPOesias, A-Minor Magazine, BluePrintReview, and Big Muddy, as well as the anthologies Best of the Web 2009 (Dzanc Books), BOXCAR Poetry Review Anthology 2, and Dogzplot Flash Fiction 2011. His latest collections are Lessons in Morphology (GOSS183) and Inside a Broken Clock (Finishing Line Press). Jerry Ratch (Poetry) has published twelve books of poetry, the novel Wild Dreams of Reality,and now the memoir, A Body Divided, the story of a one-armed boy growing up in a two-fisted world.His work can be purchased through the author’s website: www.jerryratch.com, by e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as through Amazon. Daniel Romo (Poetry) is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte, but represents the LBC. His poetry can be found or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Los Angeles Review, MiPOesias, Fogged Clarity, Scythe, and elsewhere. His first book of poetry, Romancing Gravity, is forthcoming from Pecan Grove Press. He’s currently looking for a home for a book of prose poems. More of his writing can be found at danielromo.wordpress.com. Abby Rotstein (Fiction) teaches English in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has had work published in Word Riot, The Legendary, The Battered Suitcase and Foliate Oak. Tom Cruise is her biggest fan. Pat Rushin’s (Drama) fiction has appeared in The North American Review, The North Atlantic Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Crescent Review, Zoetrope All-Story Extra,Quarterly West, Sudden Fiction, Indiana Review, American Literary Review, The King’s English, and elsewhere. His collection of stories, Puzzling through the News, was published by Galileo Press, and his screenplay, The Zero Theorem, is in development with The Zanuck Company. He is currently working on a book called The Middling Writer’s Revenge that he feels certain will put Simon & Schuster out of business once they publish it. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as a fiction editor for The Florida Review. Emily Sarita (Fiction—High School Writers’ Issue) has lived in different parts of Brooklyn and Queens, but she was born in Brooklyn. She is a senior at NYCiSchool, which is located in SoHo. She lives in Williamsburg, where there is a park across the street from her apartment and nearly twenty minutes away from Delancey Street. She considers herself a writer because she feels that she is passionate when she writes, and she always has ideas. She will be reading or listening to music when, suddenly, a light bulb goes off in her head. She has to literally write down her idea or it won’t go away. She loves to write fiction because it gives her room to express herself and create her own world. Her goals as a writer are to be published someday, finish her stories, and write something personal about herself. She is in her third year at Girls Write Now, and “it has been amazing.” Angelle Scott (Poetry) is an instructor of English and a Writing Center instructor at Dillard University in New Orleans. Her work has been published in The Written Wardrobe: Where Style & Story Collide, Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and elsewhere; she has work forthcoming in Callaloo and in Flywheel Magazine. Neil Serven (Fiction) lives in western Massachusetts and works as a full-time lexicographer, a position that creates somewhat of a personal conflict of interest in that he is paid to determine and uphold the same usage standards that he later flouts in his own writing. Nobody has called him out on this yet. His fiction has appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Beloit Fiction Journal and the inaugural issue of Fictionaut Selects.
TrainWrite conductor Karen Eileen Sikola (Nonfiction) received her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno, where she developed an appetite for deconstruction with an elite group of writer friends known as Team Mongoose. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Front Porch, Monkeybicycle, Wufniks, and Pure Slush. She lives in Boston. Adam Sivits (Fiction) is a retail slave/sometimes freelance writer who gave up writing on blogs recently for reasons neither he nor David Mamet can share. He has a metric fuck-ton of unfinished fiction pieces that, were they to somehow get finished, wouldn’t change the world in the slightest. Someday, he’ll write that screenplay about an aging middle relief pitcher struggling with mediocrity on the field and personal strife at home. Someday, he’ll sprout wings made of goldflake and fly to Saturn. Marcus Speh (Fiction) lives in Berlin, Germany and has got nothing to flawnt athttp://marcusspeh.com. He curates the One Thousand Shipwrecked Penguins Project and serves as maitre d’ at the kaffe in katmandu. Ashley Stokes’ (Fiction I/II) short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including London Magazine, Staple, and Unthology, and he won a 2002 Bridport Short Story Prize for “The Suspicion of Bones.” His story sequence, The Syllabus of Errors, which includes “Ultima Thule,” will be published in 2012. His first novel, Touching the Starfish, was published by Unthank Books in 2010. He lives in Norwich, England and is currently working on a new collection. Susan Tepper (Fiction—Fictionaut Issue) is co-author of the new novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (Cervena Barva Press). She has also published a collection, Deer & Other Stories (Wilderness House Press, 2009). Susan writes the “Monday Chat” interview column on the Fictionaut blog. Meg Tuite’s (Fiction) writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle, elimae, DOGZPLOT and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel, Domestic Apparition (2011), is now available through San Francisco Bay Press. She has a monthly column, “Exquisite Quartet,” up at Used Furniture Review. She can be reached at her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com. Igor Ursenco (Poetry) is a writer, playwright, philosopher and culture theorist, and polyglot freelancer. A member of the Writers’ Union of Republic of Moldova, Igor has eight works of various genre, between them a collection of stories titled S.T.E.P.; two books of trans-cultural essays, Teo-e-retikon and EgoBesTiaR; and an unusual array of movies scripts and theatre plays. He is a recipient of national and regional short story, essay, and poetry awards, including his presence in The Anthology of Maramureş Poetry from its Origins until 2009 and The Anthology of Short Transylvanian Fiction Today. In addition, Igor supervised two international anthologies: The Clause of the Most Favored Maramureş and Basarabia Contemporary Poetry and the recently released, A Zero Degree Alert in the Current Romanian Short Prose. He blogs at http://igorursenco.blogspot.com. James Valvis (Fiction) is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books 2011). His work has appeared in Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Coal City Review, LA Review, Nimrod, Pedestal Magazine, Rattle, River Styx, THIS, and is forthcoming in Adirondack Review, Gargoyle, New York Quarterly, Palimpsest, Slipstream, and others. His poetry has been featured in Verse Daily. His fiction has twice been a Million Writers Award Notable Story. He lives in Issaquah, Washington. Robert Vaughan’s (Fiction—Fictionaut Issue) plays have been produced in N.Y.C., L.A., S.F., and Milwaukee where he resides. He leads two writing roundtables for Redbird- Redoak Studio. His prose and poetry is published in over 150 literary journals such as Elimae, Metazen and BlazeVOX. He is a fiction editor at JMWW magazine, and Thunderclap! Press. He co-hosts monthly Flash Fiction Fridays for WUWM’s Lake Effect. His blog can be found at: http://rgv7735.wordpress.com.
With reverence for stories as healing tools, Jen Violi (Fiction), MA, MFA, offers coaching and editing for writers in all phases of manuscript development, and facilitates workshops and retreats. Jen also creates and delivers Love Notes, inspiration and affirmation via old-fashioned mail. Jen’s debut novel, Putting Makeup on Dead People was published this past May. Learn more at www.jenvioli.com. Kelcy Wilburn (Poetry) loves the USA women’s soccer team. She also loves poetry and music. Kelcy recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. Her work as appeared or is forthcoming in Big Lucks, Hobart, and Waccamaw, among other journals. She recently recorded her second album and is embarking on Midwestern and Southeastern US tours this year. Listen at kelcymae.com. Nicolette Wong (Fiction) is a writer, magician, music lover and nondrinker. She is the editor of A-Minor Magazine, and she blogs at Meditations in an Emergency. She is also on the editorial team of Negative Suck. She lives in Hong Kong, where she swims laps and talks to plants. Sarayah Wright (Fiction—High School Writers’ Issue) is a tenth grader attending Benjamin N. Cardozo High School for its Law and Humanities Program. From an early age, she’s always loved telling stories and reading the works of Mark Twain and other classics. Influenced by her third grade teacher, she developed an appreciation for poetry and interest in creative writing when she was nine. As a scholar at the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity program, she continues to grow as a writer, citing her Critical Writing and Reading classes as constant sources of inspiration. Her favorite authors include Elizabeth Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, and Sandra Cisneros. At fifteen, she continues to write vignettes and poetry in her spare time, and she attributes her interest in writing to her mother and her teachers, who have collectively helped her become a more critical thinker. Sarayah pays especial homage to Elizabeth Alexander who, when meeting her at a Yale event, offered her the best advice: keep writing. Melanie Yarbrough (Fiction) lives in Cambridge, MA. Her flash fiction has appeared in Ramshackle Review, Thunderclap! Magazine, and Microchondria, published by Harvard Bookstore. She contributes to Five by Five Hundred every Wednesday and sporadically updates her book blog, The Things They Read. She is currently working on a collection of short stories inspired by members of her family and building the courage to start her novel. Bill Yarrow (Poetry) is the author of POINTED SENTENCES (forthcoming from BlazeVOX, 2011). His poems have appeared in many print and online magazines including Poetry International, Istanbul Literary Review, PANK, Confrontation, BLIP, DIAGRAM, A-Minor, Rio Grande Review, Metazen, and blue five notebook. He is one of the poetry editors of THIS Literary Magazine. More info is available at www.billyarrow.com.
The Editors Danny Goodman is the founder and editor of fwriction : review, along with its sister blog, fwriction. He is a writer, editor, teacher, and highly-skilled beard trimmer. A list of his publications can be found at http://www.dannygoodman.me. He lives in New York City and is in need of a nap, like you wouldn’t believe. Laura Brown is the Poetry Editor at fwriction : review. A graduate student in literature at NYU, Brown spends twenty-eight hours a day with Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Thomas Bernhard, and other brilliant writers. She often sings in German, and her skills with apple pancakes are unprecedented. In addition to a keen editorial eye, Laura paints in her spare time. She fancies, above most things, paper lanterns and twinkle lights. She currently serves as an intern for New Directions.
Thank you, to everyone who submitted, supported, and helped make fwriction : reviewâ€™s first year an incredible one. We love you all, and your continued readership and energy mean everything.
All our best, The Editors
A collected anthology of writing published by online literary journal fwriction : review in 2011.