Issue Two Winter 2008
Keyhole Magazine, Issue Two Published in Nashville, Tennessee. Copyright ÂŠ 2008 Keyhole Publications All content: rights retained by contributors. Cover illustration by Sarah Stanley. Editor Fiction Editor Poetry Editor
Peter Cole Jonathan Bergey Brandon Schultz
Contents Prose Eric Spitznagel
Four Stories About Death
Saraâ€™s Eulogy For Jonathon
Thee(s), Thy(s), Thou(s), and The(s) Slowly Melting Away
Winter of the Campaign Once Jolly Green Giant Spring Heat Nature or Nurture Middle-age as a Mailbox
Norman Mailer Is Dead
Four Stories About Death by Eric Spitznagel
I came home from school and my parents told me that the cat was dead. There was a lot of crying; weirdly, more from them than me. It wasn't because they were particularly fond of the catâ€”he was overweight and aggressive and as my dad liked to point out, "an asshole"â€”they were just worried about me. They assumed I'd be devastated. I was the one who'd brought the asshole cat home in the first place, and the only one in our family who spent any time with him. I was sad that he was gone, but not nearly to the extent that my parents had braced themselves for. It wasn't the kind of sad that permeates your bones, or makes you want to sob until you're dry heaving. It was more like the "Oh my god, I can't believe they canceled The Six Million Dollar Man" sad. My dad calmly repeated what the veterinarian had told them. My cat had Feline Urinary Syndrome, which caused blockage in his urinary tract. It was a difficult decision, he said, but they finally decided to put him to sleep, if only because he was in such excruciating pain. He explained where the body would be buried, and how he'd actually lived a very long and happy life, at least compared with the average feline life span. After he'd covered all the medical details, we just sat in the living room and said nothing. We weren't about to discuss the considerably more ambiguous topics of souls or an afterlife. As a family, we were already pretty skeptical about the idea of a heaven for human beings. So it was agreed, without anybody needing to say it out loud, that a kitty heaven was kinda retarded. 6
When my parents were satisfied that they'd done their best, I wandered upstairs to my room for a nap. I sat on my bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that I was fine, just fine. I didn't need any "he's with the Baby Jesus now" platitudes. But this was the first time that anybody close to me had died, and I wasn't sure how to make sense of it. During my ten years on the planet, my only exposure to death of any kind was when ObiWan Kenobi took a light-saber to the gut in Star Wars. "Is that how it happens?" I wondered during my first of many, many screenings. "When somebody dies, do they just disappear completely? And does everybody get to come back as a spirit and visit your friends on the ice planet Hoth, or just if you were really, really good?" I eventually figured out that Star Wars isn't the most reliable source of information. But there wasn't anyplace else for a guy to get a concise overview of spirituality, or at least enough spirituality to get by. I didn't need all the answers, just enough to take the edge off. With few other options, I lay on my tiny bed and tried to work it through on my own. It seemed easy enough. I just had to conjure up a mental image of the earth and pull back like a camera, until I had an unobstructed vantage ofâ€Śeverything. It'd all become clear if I just got a good look at the nuts and bolts of the universe. So I watched as the earth got smaller and smaller in my mind, becoming one of many planets, until it was just another speck in the vast canvas of the galaxy. And then even our galaxy began to diminish, swallowed up by bigger solar systems and black holes that seemed to stretch on forever. Soon anything even remotely recognizable was gone and it was all just black and emptiness that went on and on and on andâ€Ś I gasped for air, like I'd been swimming at the bottom of a pool for a little too long. My heart was racing and I was suddenly very, very cold. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'd just experienced an existential panic attack. I took a good, hard look at the void, and sure enough, it was a whole lot of nothing. And let me tell you, it was fucking scary. Weak-in-the-knees, pit-inyour-stomach, face-to-face-with-the-meaninglessness-of-existence scary. Given that the most stressful part of my day usually involved wondering if I was going to be picked last for dodgeball, it was a lot of information to digest in just a few minutes. 7
I waited until I was able to catch my breath again and my heart didn't sound so much like bongo drums. And then I went downstairs and watched Young Frankenstein with my dad, and laughed and laughed and laughed. *** When I was fourteen a girl died at my school. Well, she wasn't at school when it happened. She was at home, sleeping in her bedroom, in the middle of the night. There was some electrical problem—an overloaded light socket or something, I don't know—and the house went up like a bonfire. Nothing was left but a mountain of burning embers, and not a single person got out in time, including Cindy. I didn't know Cindy very well. I knew of her, mostly as the first girl in our class to get breasts. It was the hot topic of conversation for almost a month. "Have you seen Cindy's breasts?" Personally, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. They weren't much bigger than pencil erasers. But nobody was more proud of her mammary seedlings than Cindy. It became part of her identity. She even added a pair of naked boobs to her signature—as a fleshy double-dot to her "i"—which made her very popular with the boys during yearbook-signing season. I wondered if her breasts were the last thing she thought about as the flames engulfed her. "What a gyp!" I imagined her thinking, as she cradled her tits like a mother protecting her infant twins. "I didn't even get to own these things for a whole year!" My parents and the other adults in the neighborhood talked about how tragic it was. For all of the victims, of course, but specifically Cindy. "She was only fourteen," they'd remind each other in hushed whispers. "Such a tragedy. Nobody should die that young." I didn't understand their logic. To my mind, her age wasn't the tragic part. It was the skin-burning part that had the biggest impact on me. When the temperature in your bedroom hits a balmy 500 degrees and your flesh starts melting like the Nazis at the end of Raiders Of the Lost Ark, isn't age irrelevant? I just couldn't imagine anybody sitting in the middle of a raging inferno and thinking, "Wow, this really, really, really hurts. But at least I'm thirty." 8
They let the entire school skip classes to attend Cindy's funeral, even those of us who didn't know her. It never occurred to me that letting the actual friends and family mourn in privacy might have been in better taste. Like my fellow students—many of whom, like me, probably couldn't have picked Cindy out of a line-up—I had no intention of missing the social event of the season. The night before the big event, I couldn't sleep. It was all too exciting. I'd never been to a real funeral before. I wondered if wearing black was mandatory or just strongly encouraged. And would there be an open casket? I had no clue. Was that even possible, given the circumstances? What would she look like? A wax mannequin from Madame Tussauds left next to a space heater? Maybe just a pile of green goo, like the monster from The Blob? Alas, the funeral lacked the theatrics I'd been hoping for. There was no body on display, and much more crying than I felt comfortable witnessing from my peers. Those of us relegated to the sidelines—who, for all intents and purposes, were funeral crashers—tried to keep a low profile. We huddled in the back and quietly remembered whatever there was to remember about Cindy. "Y'know," a guy named Todd casually announced to the group. "She gave me a blowjob once." My jaw dropped. I was shocked—shocked!—that anybody would confess to something like that. And at a funeral, no less. But a smattering of guys sitting nearby confirmed his story. "Yeah," a gangly high school sophomore agreed. "She could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch." Apparently, had she not been cut down in her prime by a house fire, Cindy was well on her way to becoming the school slut. Her oral skills were legendary, spreading joy everywhere from the YMCA parking lot to under the football stadium bleachers. Given the lurid details offered up by her one-time lovers, it wasn't just breasts that gave her an edge over the competition. I'll just say this: her funeral is when I first became acquainted with the phrase "balls deep." A line had been written in the sand, evenly dividing the funeral guests between those who had been blown by the dead girl and those of us who hadn't. I tried to laugh it off, but 9
something about this new information bugged me. At some point during the service, a priest invited us to file past the dearly departed and pay our final respects. I loitered just a little too long next to Cindy's urn. The weight of the moment had finally hit me, and I realized that this wasn't just about missing a day of school or gossiping about the exact temperature necessary for a human body to melt. A life had been snatched away too soon, and there was no way we'd ever get her back. "I'm sorry that I never met you," I said to her ashes, though only in my head. "I know this probably isn't anything you care about, especially after what you've been through over the last few days. But, well, I just found out that you were giving away blowjobs to anybody who asked andâ€ŚI don't know, I kinda wish I'd made more of an effort to get to know you." Somebody told me later that it looked like I was crying. And maybe I was. Life isn't fair, especially when you're fourteen and the only girl with a corroborated reputation for giving blowjobs has been burned alive and you're only just finding out now. I mean seriously, did I need another reason to believe that God is a humorless, sadistic prick? *** I'm usually a pretty easygoing tenant. When renting a new apartment, I don't care about cracked wall tiles or leaky pipes or street noise. But I would appreciate being told in advance if the premises are haunted by the former owner's ghost. Just put a line in the lease, that's all I'm asking. When my wife and I moved into a lovely (if overpriced) three-bedroom house in Sonoma, just blocks away from downtown, it never crossed our minds that it might already be occupied by a spectral squatter. But during the first month, we'd catch fleeting glimpses of an old man picking lemons from a tree in the back patio. And some nights we'd hear footsteps out in the hallway, or the sound of a distant voice humming softly to himself. "Oh, that's just Stanley," our landlady said with a laugh meant to sound casual. "Did I forget to tell you about him?" She had.
"He's been around for a while," she told us, as if it was public knowledge. "He built the house back in the 1900s and lived here for most of his life. Come to think of it, he even died here. In your bedroom, as I recall." There is nothing comforting about a sentence like that. My mind raced with the grim possibilities. Had it been a murdersuicide? Ritualistic torture by a cult of sadistic White Albummisinterpreting hippies? Every corner of our bedroom now seemed like a murder scene. Did the end table with a stack of unread New Yorkers once contain a big, gushy pile of Stanley's entrails? Was the framed Chicago Art Institute poster on the wall conveniently covering the almost imperceptible splotches of Stanley's splattered brains? "Oh no, no, nothing like that," our landlady assured us. "He died of old age. Almost made it to 100. Stanley was such a sweetie. And still is, from what I've seen of him. Don't worry, he's completely harmless. He's a friendly ghost. Unless he doesn't like you." It was all beginning to make sense. Our landlady had told us stories about the previous tenant, a rich and spoiled son of a local sommelier who left under mysterious circumstances. During his brief stay, he called her at all hours of the night, complaining that somebody was peering into his bedroom window and muttering vague threats. She suspected that he was on the "wacky tobacky," but now it didn't sound so much like drug-fueled paranoia. Stanley had simply decided that he didn't care for his new roommate. So he did what ghosts do; he scared the shit out of him. It wasn't reassuring to learn that our on-site manager was a poltergeist with a track record for evicting boarders who didn't live up to his standards. If he wanted to get rid of me, it wouldn't be difficult. He wouldn't have to make a grand gesture like writing "GET OUT" on the walls with blood. If I so much as felt a cold breeze on the back of my neck, I'd be driving in my underwear towards the California border within a matter of seconds. I am what they refer to in the paranormal research field as "a big fat pussy." But I hoped it wouldn't come to that. If our landlady was correct and he was a friendly ghost, then we could probably avoid all conflict if we just played by his rules. The problem is, we 11
didn't have the faintest idea what his rules might be. Would he be annoyed if we let the dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen sink? Would we invoke his wrath if the bathtub wasn't spotless? My wife soon lost interest in sucking up to Stanley, but I didn't want to take any chances. I started wearing a necktie and jacket around the house, got rid of all my hidden porn, and just to be safe, played an endless loop of Scott Joplin records. Sometimes I even left a plate of cookies in the hallway, in case he got hungry during his early morning rounds. "He's not Santa Claus," my wife reminded me. "Shhh," I whispered sternly. "He'll hear you." In the summer, we hosted neighborhood barbeques in our back patio almost every weekend. During one such soiree, I was introduced to a woman who claimed to be a psychic and spirit medium. I watched her all night, waiting for her to say something about Stanley, or at least nod in his direction. But if she spotted him, she wasn't letting on. "So, any ghosts around here?" I finally asked her, trying to sound nonchalant. "Well, there's an elderly gentlemen over there," she said, pointing towards Stanley's favorite lemon tree. My wife and I exchanged worried looks. I was about to ask for details when the psychic mentioned that Stanley wasn't alone. He was in the midst of an animated conversation with somebody who, given her description, sounded a lot like my father. "My dad is here?" I asked, slack-jawed. That's funny, I thought. I kinda figured he'd come back as a beagle. Hearing about my dad's ghost was weird enough, but then the psychic went on to tell me about my grandfather, and my first Playboy editor, and just about everybody I knew who had died over the last twenty years. There were even a few crashers, including somebody who either lived in a monastery or was too lazy to change out of his bathrobe. If she was to be believed, the dead people at our backyard party far outnumbered the living. "That's actually quite common," she told me. "Spirits are everywhere. It doesn't matter where you go or what kind of privacy you think you have, there's a good chance that there's at least a half-dozen ghosts hovering around you." I'm still not sure if I buy any of it. But it was nice to hear that my dad was making new friends. And to this day, I can't take a 12
crap without announcing to the empty bathroom, "Alright, everybody out!" *** The knocking started around 7am. When we didn't answer, my mother cracked open the door of the guest bedroom. "Rise and shine, you two," she whispered in her most soothing morning voice. "I made some coffee and there are hot scones in the kitchen. Oh, and grandma is dead." My mom has a talent for delivering bad news as an afterthought. In my line of work, we call it burying the lede. "I made your favorite brownies. Oh, and I may have ovarian cancer." "Your cousin just got into a great prep school. Which reminds me, your father and I have decided that we're not paying your college loans." My wife and I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. My dad was standing in the living room, frozen in mid-stride, as if he'd forgotten where he was going and what exactly he was supposed to do next. He saw us and pointed towards grandma's room just a few yards away. The doors were open and her body was laid out on the bed, exactly as they'd found her, her tiny head still peeking out from under her favorite quilt, the one that always smelled (at least to my nose) like a pungent combination of mildew and vanilla. She'd died in her sleep, my dad told us. They hadn't noticed at first because, as we all knew, she tended to look like a corpse when she slept. (As kids, my brother and I were fascinated by her eerie ability to seemingly stop breathing during a nap, and we often debated whether she was hiding from predators.) But after repeatedly trying to wake her, they realized that it might be actual rigor mortis and not just her usual morning stiffness. My dad and I held onto each other and cried. With tears still streaming down his face, he looked at me and said, "She was a bitch, wasn't she?" "She was," I nodded. "A colossal bitch." We both burst into laughter. Not because it was such an inappropriate thing to say, but because it was a relief to finally say the word out loud. She was a bitch. The kind of bitch who scowls at babies and undertips waiters. The kind of bitch who accuses 13
her son of turning up the thermostat in an attempt to kill her and steal his inheritance. The kind of bitch who assumes that her grandson recommended Harold & Maude because the septuagenarian leading lady commits suicide on her 80th birthday, which is clearly a subliminal message that she should off herself at 80. The kind of bitch who, on the last night of her life, reminded her daughter-in-law that she was a disappointment to her. We were sad that she was gone. But…well…when a 94-year old woman dies in her sleep, in her own bed, without any suffering or illness, leaving a family who has had quite enough of her bitchy attitude, thank you very much, the last thing you'd call it is a tragedy. It took only minutes for the paramedics to arrive, followed closely by the coroner and funeral director. While the medical professionals examined her body, the director tried to console us. "I'm so sorry about your grandmother," he told me, and it sent a shiver down my spine. Not because of the sentiment, but because there was something about him that reminded me of Jonathan Frid from Dark Shadows. His words had a whispered menace, and he held on to certain vowels just a little too long. "So sooooorry about your graaaaandmother." Also, as far as I could tell, he didn't have a neck. When he turned to look at you, he had to bring his entire body with him. The cause of death was determined to be "natural causes" and the body shuffled away. The whole process happened so quickly that I wondered if they thought they were being timed. Were funeral homes now working on commission? Was it like Glengarry Glen Ross? "First prize for bringing in the most bodies is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is you're fired." But when I wandered outside, I began to understand the need for haste. The street was filled with teenage girls brandishing pom-pons and practicing their high-kicks. A farmer was roughly pulling a pygmy donkey into position on top of a float that vaguely resembled a pink birthday cake. A man dressed as a large brownish blob, either meant to be Mr. Potato Head or a cancerous testicle, tumbled to the ground as he tried to find his equilibrium. I stood on the front porch and stared out at the chaos. My wife came out and handed me a cup of coffee. 14
"Is there a parade today?" She asked. "God I hope so," I said. We watched as my grandmother was carried into the waiting hearse. As if supplying a soundtrack to her departure, the birthday donkey brayed in protest and Gloria Estefan's "Conga" blared from speakers mounted in a convertible Hot Rod. "Feel the fire of desire As you dance the night away Cause tonight we're gonna party Till we see the break of day" When we ventured back inside, my mom told us that what we'd just seen was a parade—or at least the staging area for a parade—and not the Fellini hallucination I'd feared. With little else to do with our day, we decided that a parade might be just the thing to lift our spirits. So we walked downtown and sat in the grass with our neighbors, none of whom had any idea that we'd just lost a family member. When the parade began, we laughed and passed around a milk jug filled with wine and voted for our favorite floats—a tie between the retirement home, which we agreed should be renamed "Praying for the Sweet Release of Death," and the local Jiffy Mix factory, in which truck drivers threw mini-boxes of pancake mix at the crowd like projectile weapons. After a while, we got so caught up in the excitement that we completely forgot why we'd been sad in the first place. And then my mom saw her. "Look," she said, pointing into the distance. "There's grandma." Sure enough, there she was. The hearse, which I'd personally witnessed my grandmother's body being loaded into just five minutes earlier, was slowly driving down Main Street, somewhere between the marching band and the cowboy cavalcade. The neckless funeral director was behind the wheel, waving at the crowd and throwing miniature Butterfingers at the children. He spotted us and smiled broadly, exchanging a meaningful gaze that seemed to say, "Yes, I know and you know that there's a dead body in this hearse, but let's not ruin everybody's fun by drawing attention to it, okay?" 15
So we just waved back and quietly said another goodbye to my grandmother, and tried to ignore the absurdity that a woman who had gone out of her way to make everybody around her miserable was being given a bon voyage parade, with dozens of strangers she'd never met cheering for her and applauding her as she made her way towards her final resting place. Children were sprinting towards the hearse, grabbing for the falling candy and narrowly avoiding being crushed by the front tires. "Y'know," my dad said, "she would've hated all this attention." "Probably so," I said. "You think this is what hell is like?" He just snorted, trying not to seem too amused. We watched as the hearse was surrounded by snot-faced prepubescents, pounding on the windows and howling for more treats. Fueled by sugar, it didn't seem unreasonable that they might roll over the hearse and pull grandma into the street, thrashing at her body like a pinata. We could've said something. But who wants to be the one to spoil a parade?
Saraâ€™s Eulogy for Jonathon by Michael Kimball
I recognized Jonathon from the television, which made me feel as if I already knew him, which made me smile at him as if I already knew him. He smiled back at me. We were always connected to each other after that. Our first dinner together was out at a French restaurant and I remember how Jonathon told me he liked the way I ate my food. He said I smiled while I chewed and that made me feel beautiful. Toward the end of that meal, he reached across the table and touched my arm and I felt a warm rush go up the length of my arm and fill up the rest of my body. Jonathon often made me feel that way. Jonathon and I could look at each other and tell what each other were thinking. At first, it was just a way of being intimate. We were only thinking about each other back then. But later, Jonathon began to believe that he could tell what other people were thinking too. That was the first sign that I recognized of his paranoia, which eventually disabled him. There are some things I want you to know about Jonathon. He had a difficult childhood, but he was a kind man. He always wanted to be a father, even though his father didnâ€™t want to be one to him. He always felt like the littlest guy in any group, but he
was actually quite tall. I liked it when he smiled. I tried to get him to do it as much as I could. Jonathon didn’t have a favorite color, but he liked long sleeved shirts and pistachio ice cream. Jonathon liked it when it rained or snowed or when it was sunny. He liked it when it was fall and windy and the way that made the leaves float down to the ground. He liked the way the snow would accumulate on a tree branch. And Jonathon liked me. He always said I was his favorite. I didn’t really start to see Jonathon’s mental illness until we started living together. He had been able to hide certain behaviors from me when we were just going out on dates or just staying over at my apartment or at his place. But the more time I spent with him, the more I started to notice when he wasn’t the Jonathon that I had known so far. There were days when he couldn’t get out of bed and there were times when he couldn’t talk, not even to tell me what was wrong. And often he would get distracted by airplanes flying overhead, especially if they left a trail of smoke across the sky. He would watch until the airplane was gone and the smoke had dissipated and disappeared. In retrospect, I’m sure that he was often someplace else, but those were the times that I noticed he was gone. Jonathon was superstitious. If he dropped a knife or a fork, he would wait for me to pick it up. He said it was bad luck if he picked it up himself. He would open all of the windows and doors in his house if somebody died. Sometimes these sorts of things got confused with his mental illness. Jonathon often fiddled with his wedding ring, turning it around and around on his ring finger with his thumb. He said that he did it because it made him think of me. We didn’t have much furniture in our old apartment, so the house felt so empty when we moved into it. We filled all of the rooms with furniture and rugs and things on the walls in that first year in the house, though. That made it so that there wasn’t as much echo in any of the rooms and so that Jonathon couldn’t mistake that kind of noise for voices. 18
We tried so hard to have a baby, but after we failed at that our marriage started to fail too. He wanted to have children so that he could give them the childhood that he never had. Jonathon’s depressive episodes became psychotic and paranoid. His reality became different from my reality. Sometimes he heard voices that I did not hear. Sometimes he would hold his hands over his ears, as if he were trying not to hear something, but I think he ended up trapping the voices inside his head when he did that. There were times when Jonathon didn’t recognize that I was his wife and thought that I was a stranger or somebody breaking into our house. I always thought that I should have left him during one of those psychotic episodes, that it would have been easier for Jonathon if a stranger had left him rather than his wife, that he wouldn’t have missed me if he didn’t know who I was. It was so difficult to take Jonathon to the hospital to have him admitted. I had to admit that Jonathon’s mind had started to fail after our marriage had started to fail. I tried to hold on to him. I tried to bring him back to himself and to me and to our marriage, but eventually I didn’t know where to look for Jonathon inside of Jonathon’s mind. The doctor gave me the instructions for Jonathon’s medication and told me that his mental illness was worse than any side effects could be. I’m sure that that was true, but those pills made it so Jonathon couldn’t sleep and we couldn’t have sex. He gained weight and almost always had a stomachache. He was often anxious and agitated. He didn’t like to stand up because he was afraid of getting dizzy. I don’t know. I thought that Jonathon would be better than he was when he came home. He wasn’t psychotic anymore, but he was sick in different ways. Still, the worst part was that I had to take Jonathon back to the hospital once a week for a therapy session with his doctor. This was always difficult. I always had to reassure Jonathon that I wasn’t going to commit him again.
We tried to start our marriage over, but Jonathon was never the same person after he came back home. He lost his personality and he didn’t seem to try to find it. No, that just sounds mean. But he looked down too much, and that often made me angry. I know that it shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t even get him to look at me anymore. I couldn’t get Jonathon to say anything back to me after I told him that I was going to separate from him. I couldn’t get him to look at me either and all of his breath seemed to go out of him. He started crying and there wasn’t anything that I could say to get him to stop. I started crying too and I kept asking him to please say something back to me. Eventually, Jonathon said that he wanted it to stop raining outside so that we could stop crying so that we could still be together. But it kept raining and I knew that our marriage was finished. I still loved Jonathon, but it was an extinct version of him, and I couldn’t bring that Jonathon back to life. Now, when I think about his whole life, not just the time that I was with him, I think Jonathon probably died a few times before he finally killed himself. Even after I moved out of our house, I would still check-in on Jonathon. I would sit in my car at the end of the block just to make sure that he made it home from work at night. I used to get a lot of telephone calls at night. I assumed that they were from Jonathon, but he never said anything after I said hello. I wouldn’t hang up, though. I would stay on the line and we would listen to each other breathing. That was the only way that we could still be together. Jonathon always thought that he was a failure, that he wasn’t good enough or that he hadn’t done enough, but it was Jonathon’s mind that failed him. And it was his mother and father who failed him. And I failed him too.
I wish that Jonathon had always taken his medication. I wish that he were still alive. I wish that he were still my husband and that I were still his wife.
Voodoo by Myfanwy Collins
It was one of those gray Mondays in March, when the ground is still half-frozen and oozing and maybe a pale earthworm has made its way onto a patch of brown grass. We were walking down the long, concrete path between the young ladies’ residential hall and the dining hall at the Girgich School when a paper plate came scuttling towards us. I bent to pick it up but JacquI stopped me, placing an index finger on my arm. “No,” she said, “don’t touch it. Someone might have put a hex on it. You would be cursed and bad things might happen to you.” Born in Haiti, JacquI’s mother told her stories of the place from which she came. She told of a neighbor—an unfaithful man who had been sleeping with his wife’s baby sister—running into his dusty yard, screaming his head off and when she looked out to see, it seemed his head had shrunk to the size of a Barbie’s head. She told of women mixing love potions to win their true love. She told of dolls stuck with pins. Phantom pains. She told of people dying in the night of ailments no doctor could cure. These were not like the stories of my childhood, told to me by my dear Nana. Mine were of saints laying on hands and curing people of blindness. The Blessed Virgin Mary visiting a young girl and giving her the power to cure the sick. Lazarus rising from the dead when all had given up hope. When I asked JacquI if she couldn’t put the shrinking head hex on the old bitch who was our World Events teacher, JacquI told me no. Said she didn’t know how to do this specific hex. 22
Said she would have to ask her mother the next time she was allowed to go home to Buffalo. I said, “Couldn’t you just ask her over the phone?” “Best not to talk of these things over the phone,” JacquI said, “These are secrets and you never know who is listening.” *** JacquI and I shared a room in the residential hall—a rectangular brick building circa 1961. The walls were painted a pale sea green and the floors a worn and mealy terrazzo tile in desperate need of a shine. Our second floor room featured a window with bars on it and a hollow frame door through which you could hear someone whisper two rooms over. We slept on matching steel frame cots with lumpy mattresses stinking of the drool and menstrual leaks of the dozens of young ladies who had slept on them before us. All of the young ladies ended up at Girgich by following the same path: We drank. We smoked. We sometimes stole things we didn’t need. We never did our homework. We did not respect authority. Thus, our parents needed us gone from their homes. JacquI and I had it all planned. At Easter break we were so out of there. We would go to a big city. JacquI knew people. People who would take care of us, and if anyone messed with us she’d put a hex on them. *** I found the note from JacquI on my bed. My sister had called and said, “Uncle is dead.” Uncle Jack was really my mother’s husband. They were married for five years but Sassy and I never got around to calling him Dad. We settled on Uncle Jack instead, though it was weird and made us seem incestuous. When I called Sassy back, she was crying. “He’s dead,” she kept saying. “Dead.” I asked her how was Mommy but she wouldn’t answer me. Instead she whispered something I couldn’t hear and when I asked her to repeat herself she said, “Just come home. Please.”
She didn’t want to hear about my homework or tests or school rules. None of it. *** The bus ride was like any, dry and stinky, tiresome and lonely. There is nothing romantic about a trip on a Greyhound. And this particular route was never any fun, especially on the way back downstate as it was usually filled with parolees and on their way home after several years in prison. I kept my headphones on and my eyes out the window on those trips. No way was I making eye contact with any of those guys. JacquI would tell me to watch out for them. To keep my eye on them. She would say, “You never know who is a gangster with a gun.” I thought about what JacquI would do without me around— she might find some older girls with beer. She might be gone all night. JacquI might be gone all night and I would be home burying the dead. *** Nana used to live on the farm but it got sold at auction after Granddad died and she moved into senior housing. Mommy offered her to move in with us, but Nana said, No thank you very much and then under her breath something about how Mommy probably just wanted her for her monthly check anyway. I think Nana was scared of Mommy because she was the type of person who would yell when you least expected her to or send you away to some crappy school because she didn’t want to deal with you. She was the type who would get married too soon after your father got shot in a hunting accident in the Northern Tier. After he died there, alone on the dank ground in the backwoods, too far for an ambulance, covered in fallen leaves. When Nana arrived at the bus station to pick me up she looked worn right the eff out. I hugged her and asked did she want me to drive. She did. It wasn’t that it was such a long drive, it was that it was winding, scary through the dark, mine-pocked mountains. Nana hated driving it at night, as she was fearful that bears would lumber out of the woods or that a drunken prison guard would swerve across the double line on his way home. 24
Nana kept her eyes on the road and her left foot planted in front of her on the imaginary brake. The whole way she didn’t say one thing about Uncle Jack being dead except that it was his heart that killed him. I forgot to ask her how Mommy was. *** I almost missed the turn off to our driveway. The lights were off on the shed is why. The lights had never been off on that shed. Usually they were even on in the morning when Sassy and I would go out to the bus, Mommy and Uncle Jack forgetting to turn them off before they went to bed. I realized that they weren’t on because Uncle Jack hadn’t turned them on. As I pulled up closer to the house, a cigarette ember moved back and forth with the motion of the porch swing. I got out and Nana slid over to the driver’s side. I asked her wasn’t she coming in. She told me no, said she was tired and figured Mommy needed some time alone with us. To sort things out. I was about to ask her what things when she said that she’d see me at the wake. And then her headlights sank back down the driveway as she backed out to the road. I walked up the drooping wooden steps, dropped my bag, and sat down next to Sassy on the swing. I grabbed the open package of Mommy’s cigarettes she handed me and shook one out, lit it, inhaled. “Hey,” she said. “I wish you’d tell me what the eff is going on,” I said, stopping the swing from moving by hooking my heels on the lip of a floorboard. I turned to face Sassy but she wouldn’t look at me. “And where is Mommy at anyway?” “Mommy’s sleeping,” she said. “The doctor gave her some pills because she went nuts.” Sassy edged the swing forward a bit and resumed her manic force back and forth. ”Uncle left us everything. Me and you. He left Mommy the house and truck and all that but he left us all his money. For school and whatever after. Mommy’s pissed.” “I never asked for anything,” I said. I’d have just as soon had his truck. JacquI and I could’ve used it as our getaway car. Besides, it had sentimental value, that truck. The first time I saw Uncle Jack he was in his black Jeep Scout, 25
with the passenger door that opened every time you took a right turn. His old dog, Bugs, was in the back when the truck pulled into our yard. As soon as it stopped, the dog jumped out and ran up to lick my face—we stood there nose to nose, so close that I could smell his brothy breath. Bugs slept with me every night from then on until Uncle Jack had to put him down. “She thinks we did something that made him decide his will different.” Sassy bent and plopped her cigarette hissing into a half-full Pepsi can on the floor of the porch. Lit another and said with her exhale, “Asked me if I had sex with him. Said it in front of the doctor, too, which is why he gave her the pills. I think he was almost as freaked as I was.” I laughed at her then and she said, “This is serious.” “So,” I said, “What are we supposed to do about it?” “I don’t know. Give her our money, I guess.” Sassy swung faster and my knees creaked with the motion. “Screw that,” I said. “I’ve got stuff to pay for and so do you. Mommy had her chance.” “He was her husband,” Sassy said. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.” “I’m scared to live here with her.” Sassy stopped swinging. “Don’t be stupid,” I said. “I think she killed him,” Sassy whispered and then I knew what she had been trying to say on the phone: she killed him. “Nana said it was his heart,” I said. Sassy breathed a deep, irritated breath and rolled her eyes at me. “You’re not serious,” I said. “I’m as serious as a heart attack,” she said. We both laughed. Couldn’t help it. “I really think she did kill him,” Sassy said, her face serious again. *** After Sassy went to bed, I sat on the old tire swing out back with the cordless phone. It felt warm out but maybe it wasn’t. Could have been that my body felt numb. I wished the peepers had started already. If I heard them screeching and popping in
the damp grass by the brook, I might not have felt so alone in that dark. Ever since I started at Girgich that past September, I’d been more and more scared of the dark—being alone in it. Funny, since I’d been in the dark most of my life, living on the edge of the woods with only the ever-present shed light to guide me. But all the paths at Girgich were brightly lit with edges leading off into desperation, fear, rapists, murderers, rabid animals. The darkness made the lit path seem more comforting and safe than it really was. I was terrified of falling off, being sucked into the squishy black that led to nowhere. In my dark backyard, running my feet in squeaky circles beneath the swing, I wished for JacquI. She’d tell me there was nothing to fear because my heart was light. “A light heart beats a dark one,” she said, taking my hand to help me along the sidewalk at Girgich. I called our room but there was no answer. When the message picked up, I spoke: “JacquI? Are you there? Listen, I have something to tell you. Sassy thinks Uncle was murdered. She thinks Mommy killed him. I don’t know what to do, JacquI. Can you call me? I need your help. Where are you anyway?” I swung until the rubber from the tire felt like it was cutting through the backs of my jeans onto my thighs. The shadow of woods at the edge of the yard winked back and forth with my movement. Come. Go. Dark. Light. Die. Live. Inside, I got in bed with Sassy. She was warm and there were no sheets on my bed. She was sucking her thumb. Normally, I would make fun of her, but I felt tender for her then. I pushed Sassy’s wispy hair out of my face and hugged her closer still. *** In the kitchen, there were crumbs on the Formica countertop, an inch of sludge in the Mr. Coffee, and a note from Mommy saying she’d gone to the funeral parlor to work out details and would be back later. I put coffee on and while it was brewing, called JacquI.
“It’s me,” I said, again to the answering machine. “I called last night. Did you get the message? JacquI, I really need to talk to you. I need your help.” When I hung up, Sassy walked into the kitchen wearing one of Uncle Jack’s old t-shirts with a picture of a trout leaping out of the water and the words “I’d rather be fishing” on it in scrolled letters. The shirt hanging halfway down her pale, downy thighs, her feet bare and filthy with toes painted red. “Who was that?” she asked. “No one,” I said. Sassy wiped the crumbs off the counter into her hand and dumped them in the sink. I hadn’t yet told Sassy about the plans JacquI and I made. I wondered if she’d be pissed at me. I worried over it, actually, what she’d say. Sassy wanted me and her to be so close but I’d always wanted to just get away. I didn’t want to look out for her anymore like when we were kids and they told me I had to. Sometimes I wanted to forget that any of them existed at all. Even Nana. “Did you see Mommy this morning?” I asked. Sassy nodded, yawned, took Pop Tarts out of the cabinet. “Well?” I poured myself coffee and sat at the table. “What?” Sassy stood at the counter with her back to me, examining her Pop Tarts. “Is she doing okay?” “I guess.” Sassy put the Pop Tarts in the toaster and pushed the button down hard. “Are you?” “No.” She stretched and bent to pick at a scab on her thigh. “Is it all that murder business?” “What do you think?” She flopped her arms against her side, turning to stare me in the face. She looked younger than fourteen then, more like she might be eleven or ten even. I felt scared for her in that moment. Wondered what it had been like for her to be living there alone with Mommy and Uncle Jack and what it had been like when they found him dead. Sassy had told me bits and pieces of it the night before when she’d startled from a bad dream. She found me next to her and pulled my arm close around her. She told me that Mommy woke her up on that horrible morning and made her go into their room. Made Sassy put her head down to Uncle Jack’s blue mouth 28
to see if he was breathing. He was not. Still Mommy insisted she do CPR while they waited for the ambulance. “It was like putting your mouth on one of Nana’s china dolls,” Sassy said. “You know what I mean? It looks like a human face but it’s not.” “Okay, so how did she do it, if she did it?” “I haven’t figured it out yet,” Sassy said, still staring. “It’s just a hunch. A feeling. A woman’s intuition or whatever.” The toaster clicked done then and she dug the Pop Tarts out with a knife. The sugar coating burned a crinkly dark brown but she ate them anyway. I drank coffee not because I wanted it but because I felt like I needed something to do with my hands and my mouth, like I might scream or throw a trash can across a room. I wanted to shake Sassy and make her tell me if it was true that Mommy killed Uncle Jack. I wanted Mommy to come home and tell me herself. I wanted JacquI to answer the phone. *** Mommy came home about an hour before the wake, wearing an old pair of jeans with grass-stained knees and a tight black turtleneck she reserved for her nights out. She stumbled through the door and giggled before collapsing onto a chair. “Make me some coffee,” she said. Sassy and I were already dressed in our best clothes. For me, a white blouse and black skirt from when I was a hostess at the Ground Round and for Sassy, the dark blue satin dress that Nana bought her for her solo at Christmas Eve mass. Sassy nuked a cup of the morning’s coffee and put it in front of Mommy, leaning on her elbows on the table and lighting a cigarette. I wanted to tell her Mabel, Mabel get your elbows off the table like Uncle Jack used to say to me when we’d have Sunday dinner at Nana and Grandad’s but I kept my mouth shut. “What a day. Whataday, whataday,” Mommy said and shook her head, forehead in hand as if she’d been pounding the pavement all morning. Pounding the bar for another drink was more like it. “Sassy, see if you can find some vodka to pour in that?” Mommy held up her coffee and sloshed it back and forth a bit. “No,” Sassy said, smoothing her dress and not looking up. “I’ll get it,” I said, will to play the peacemaker. 29
“No, don’t,” Sassy said, putting a hand out to stop me. “She doesn’t need any.” “Who made you boss?” Mommy said. “We have to go soon, Mommy,” Sassy said solicitously. I’d had it though. I put the bottle in front of Mommy and let her pour her own effing vodka. Then I left them to it and went outside on the tire swing. *** The wake sucked. Mommy carried on the whole time and wouldn’t even stand up and greet anyone. She hunched on the bench in front of the coffin, crying her stupid head off. Sometimes her dress bunched up around her waist and you could see the line where her pantyhose were control topping her thighs. People who came to pay their respects had to kind of squat down beside her to pray at the casket. I could tell that Nana wished she were the one dead so that she didn’t have to be seen with Mommy that way. A couple of kids from my old high school came through the line. Then my old soccer coach showed up. I didn’t really know what to say to him except, “Thanks for coming, Mr. Franklin.” He nodded and gripped my shoulder with one of his fat, red hands. All of Sassy’s friends were there, crowding around her and crying. The girls looking young compared to Sassy, her face gray and plasticy, like she might be sick. A group brought her a Care Bear, the thing looking false clutched in her arms, like it didn’t care at all. I worried she would accidentally put her thumb in her mouth. Finally, Mommy fell asleep with her head on the casket and wouldn’t wake up, so one of Uncle Jack’s buddies carried her to our car. Nana gave me a hug and said, “We’ll get through this.” *** On funeral day, I woke and heard Mommy and Sassy fighting in the kitchen. Sassy said something quiet and Mommy laughed fakely like Ha! Ha! Ha!
Sassy responded deep and low with words I couldn’t reach. I felt it must be Uncle Jack they were talking about. The murder. Mommy whisper-yelled, “Then maybe you should just get the fuck out of here.” They were both quiet for a few seconds until Mommy said, “Out of my house. Mine and not yours.” “Mommy,” Sassy said. “I mean it, kiddo, after today you better find yourself somewhere else to live.” I put the pillow over my head and wondered when JacquI would call me back. But it was Thursday. JacquI couldn’t call me on a Thursday morning because she had swimming. Sometimes I would watch her. I loved her silky body moving through the water. Her long hands cutting through blue, back stretching and twisting, legs undulating. I watched from up high, behind glass. I touched the glass where her body swam and followed it all the way up and back, up and back. We went swimming in the pool once, late at night. JacquI had a key the coach gave her so that she could practice whenever she wanted. I didn’t have a suit but JacquI said that would be okay. “Swim in your underwear,” she said and when I frowned, she said, “We’ll both go naked. Skinny-dipping.” I told her okay but my body was suddenly tight and anxious. My body said, “You must do this.” Then JacquI was in front of me. Before, I’d only been able to see bits and pieces as she dressed in the morning—a muscled calf, a white bra against her skin. But then I saw it all, her long limbs curving into each other, her torso flat and muscled, the bones of her pelvis jutting out above her thighs. The light from the pool cast a blue glow beneath her chin. She smiled at me and dove sideways into the water. Then I only remember that JacquI grabbed my hand when I surfaced from a dive and pulled me to her. Her lips felt like the patch on the inside of my elbow, soft, delicate, covering mine. *** Mommy showed up at the funeral home wearing a new dress—black lace—and high spike-heeled shoes; she’d lost weight since I last saw her at Christmas and it suited her. Her 31
cheekbones were thick beneath her blue eyes, her hair pulled back and sleek. The funeral was boring until towards the end when one of the guys who worked longest at the cheese plant with Uncle Jack got up to speak. “I loved Jack,” he said. “He was a good man.” He looked at Mommy then, like she was not good. Like she was bad. I didn’t know if anyone else saw it but me, but I’m pretty sure what I saw was real. Maybe Sassy was right. Maybe Mommy did kill Uncle Jack. Maybe everyone knew it was true and I was the only one believing it was his heart that killed him. What is a heart after all? There’s the real one in your chest that keeps you alive and then there’s the one that you think with, the one that lets you love people. Maybe Mommy murdering him and his heart killing him weren’t two separate things after all. *** After the funeral, there was a gathering at Nana’s, except her duplex wasn’t big enough for everyone, so we all squashed into the Senior Housing Rec Room. Once in a while one of the old people from the complex wandered in hoping to play cards or read a large font book or whatever it is they do in the Rec Room and then ended up looking surprised to see all of these other faces. At first the old person smiled, thinking it was a family reunion or something jolly and then he’d see Mommy in her short black dress, weeping and such, shake his head and leave. When people had their fill of Swedish meatballs and deviled ham sandwiches, they said their good-byes, mostly to Nana because Mommy was too busy drinking wine from clear plastic cups with Mr. Franklin. Sassy was MIA. I found her on the blue plaid couch at Nana’s with her Care Bear in her lap, watching The Dating Game on the massive console television. “What are you going to do?” I sat down on Nana’s rocking chair and took my shoes off. “Nana said I could stay here.” “Good,” I said. “You don’t have to sound so relieved,” Sassy said, turning off the television. “I don’t expect anything from you.” 32
“It’s not that, Sassy; it’s just that you have school and stuff.” “Just go back to precious JacquI, okay? I’ll stay here and take care of everything like I always do.” “Sassy,” I said and stood up to go to her. “You didn’t even love Uncle,” she said. I sat back down. “I did too,” I said. “Not like I did.” She stood and ran, ran up the stairs. A door slammed shut with probably not as much force as she would have liked it to. Poor Sassy. Always wanting the drama, but too soft, too sweet to really carry it off. Her Care Bear sat on the couch where she had been. It smiled at me in a way I found irritating, so I gave it the finger, turned the television back on and then turned it right back off again. *** This time I was glad to be on the shitty bus heading downstate. Glad to be heading away from them and everything. Glad to be leaving Sassy to her thumb sucking and Mommy to her murdering and vodka. I wasn’t so glad about Nana, though. I didn’t think I was glad about Uncle Jack either. Uncle Jack in the dark cherry casket Mommy picked out for him, with a drawing of hills and trees on the inside lid, as if he would be staring at that drawing forevermore, imagining he and Bugs walking up that hill, touching the bark of the trees. Thinking of life on the outside. But the thing was he couldn’t see it. All he could see now was the black at the edge of the path, pulling him forward. There I was on the bus crying my effing eyes out and some guy, probably some gangster with a gun, came over and sat next to me with a sigh. His breath was sausagey and sweet as he put his arm around me and said, “It’s all right, girl. Go ahead and cry, girl. Your tears aren’t golden. Go ahead and cry.” I cried and fell asleep snuggled deep in his chest, smelling of pine and cotton shirts on the line drying in the sun. And when I woke, it was time to get off the bus. I was alone. Outside it was a warm evening, like Spring was just there. I felt possible, as though I existed outside of who I was. I wasn’t Mommy’s daughter or Sassy’s sister or anything. Maybe when I got back to the room, JacquI and I would lie spooned on her bed. 33
I’d ask her, “What’s our fate hold in store for us?” And she’d say, “There is no fate. It’s all in the voodoo and what the people do to each other. Get it?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I get it.”
William Walsh Interview
William Walsh is the author of the novel Without Wax, A Documentary Novel. Without Wax is the fictional tale of Wax Williams, an adult film star. Available March 24, 2008 from Casperian Books. INTERVIEWER
Why did you decide to write a novel about the adult film industry? WALSH
I came about it sort of sideways. I wrote Without Wax as a short story when I was an undergrad about twenty years ago, and I just kept taking notes on it. The adult film world is interesting to me, but I’m not an aficionado. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry itself1. But the character of Wax Williams fascinated me, especially once I started imagining him as a younger boy. Once I saw who he was and how he came into his line of work, I started pursuing the story a little harder. And then the idea of bringing in the perspectives of some of his fans sort of just happened accidentally. I found myself writing about 1
I recall that Henry James told Edith Wharton that a female writer should be able to write a great war novel after only a brief glimpse into an army mess tent. So I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of porno films, but Henry James says I don’t have to.
characters who, suddenly, made connections to him, this title character of Wax. I think it was a natural thing, and I didn't really do a lot of research on the adult film world. I think it's so mainstream now that you read about it in magazines, it's on television—on the gossip shows—particularly on the web. The world that surrounds the product is kind of interesting to me. INTERVIEWER
What lengths did you go to in research? The deposition and surgery scenes are pretty convincing. WALSH
Well, for the surgery scene I looked up a few surgical techniques online. I looked at some vasectomy surgery runthroughs, some text run-throughs of what happens step by step, just to get the anatomy. Then I sort of let it fly, with the surgeon narrating as she performed the surgery2. The words were just there. I had that anatomy and how she would make those incisions and cuts. That was probably the most research I did because I didn't want it to sound silly. INTERVIEWER
Was there anyone in particular that inspired the character of Wax? WALSH
No, not really. I tried to make Wax a heroic character. I wanted readers to see him as a hero—a heroic character who is trying to work through something, trying to escape from a life that he wants to change. I wanted him to be a reactive character. And I think because of the world that he was working in, the people he was encountering, they were always either offensive or on the offense. So I saw him as reactive. And in terms of physical descriptions, I didn't really see anybody particularly. Just a handsome young guy. Nobody specific from my life or from literature or film.
Note to prospective readers: This novel ends with the title character’s penile reduction surgery. I am certain it is a first in Western literature.
So you don't know any adult film stars? WALSH
I don't. You know, I really don't even track porn movies. I don't own any pornography; I don't buy it or collect it. I think that the brushes with pornography that you have as a youngster, they form a really deep impression3. And today I don't encounter it and haven't for a number of years. So some of Wax’s story might be dated in terms of the narrative-style adult films that used to be made years ago. I’m not even sure that that's the case anymore. But I didn't see Wax as any of those well-known performers, because it seems that the males in that industry are all sort of repellant people4. So I wanted him to be different from that for sure. INTERVIEWER
Have you met any resistance regarding the subject matter? WALSH
I don't think so5. Before I found a publisher, I sent samples chapters to probably fifty different agents and maybe ten or twelve asked to see entire manuscript. I think I got good reads from them and I’d say well more than half of the agents who asked to see the whole manuscript were women. I think although it's focused on an industry that people don't necessarily want to 3
Two stories. One: When I was in high school the Rustic Drive-In in Woonsocket, Rhode Island showed adult films. I saw Debbie Does Dallas and a movie called Women in Bondage at the Rustic and it left a lasting impression. It was the summer before tenth grade. Previously, I had seen only a few issues of Playboy magazine. I had no real concept of sex until I saw these films at the Rustic Drive-In. The experience made a lasting impression on me, though it didn’t engender a taste (or an appetite) for pornographic movies. Two: Later on, two separate college roommates greeted me by saying something like this: “Whoever used to live here left all their porn for us.” One had even left a Super 8 projector and two dozen ancient stag films. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that the porn these roommates passed off as found material was actually their own enormous porn collections. 4 See Ron Jeremy. 5
The only resistance to the subject matter that I have encountered has been my own. I was resistant to writing the novel, and now I’m reluctant to hear what readers think about it. People who know me who have read the novel keep telling me that they can’t believe I wrote this dirty book.
publish in the mainstream, I didn't get any resistance to that. A lot of people who read the entire manuscript liked the consumer profiles that were attached to the main story, and suggested that I focus on a collection and turn Wax’s story into a novella, or something like that. But I saw it as a whole and wanted to keep it that way. Most of the agents said, I like it, but I don’t like it enough, or, simply, I don't see how I could sell it. They didn’t know how to market it to a publisher. And that's the thing with agents--if they don't think they can find a publisher for a novel, they won't commit their time and energy to it. INTERVIEWER
All of those consumer profiles, which are more or less short stories that are loosely related to the main story, are all written in the second person, which is a somewhat uncommon voice. Being written in the second person, it does a good job of drawing the reader into the story, even forcing them into the story, where the subject matter might have made some readers a little uncomfortable. Was that your thinking in writing in the second person? WALSH
Yeah, I think the second person POV was a natural choice. I like second person because it forces the reader to become complicit in what they’re reading and to place themselves into that character's head. There are six Consumer Profiles in the book. Three women and three men. I think three of the consumers are avid consumers and the other three are passive or barely consumers of this XXX product. But they all encounter it and have to reconcile it in some way within their story. It was a good way for me to find myself within the story as well. My own reaction to pornography. Those characters were pretty quick in coming to me. INTERVIEWER
You call the novel a documentary novel and much of it is written as if you're reading the script from a documentary. Why did you choose this form and what do you think it adds to the story? Is the entire book considered a documentary or just those main sections? 38
The entire book. I had originally had written an author's note or introduction, creating a fictional author for the book. He had a brief introduction explaining what this document was. I ended up pulling that when I sent Wax to the publisher who accepted it. And I’m glad I did. A friend of mine suggested I do that because it really added a layer to the story that wasn't necessary. But the form of the documentary6 was natural to me because as I was writing this I wasn't writing in a linear fashion. I was writing scenes that were miles apart, and I think in order to connect them there would have been a lot of engineered writing to deliver the reader from one scene to the next, if it were a linear book. If the story had been told in a linear fashion, it wouldn't be as exciting. It was just more fun to tell several stories at once. I consider the whole thing a documentary because it's not bound as a traditional novel would be. And I thought that was a good way for a reader to pick it up and know from page 1 that it was going to be put together in a different way and it was going to read in a different way. INTERVIEWER
Two of the major chapters in the book are called Seens [sic] From The Life Pt.1 and Pt.2, in which the characters, style, and point of view shift just about from paragraph to paragraph. Was it difficult to keep track of that? You mentioned you didn't write it in a linear order. WALSH
What I tried to do with those two long chapters was to bring Wax from birth, practically—one of his first memories is being in a wet diaper—to his teen years when he's encountering the first issue of puberty. And as I was telling that story, also tell the story of his entry into the adult film world. Then I pick up those themes again later on, showing him as a teenager in that second puberty of his, when he takes on this new manhood. And as that 6
Labeling Without Wax as a documentary novel is partly a marketing idea and partly a way to immediately introduce the structural concept of the book to the reader. I checked Amazon.com and couldn’t find any books that carried that subtitle, so it seemed like an idea that might help me distinguish Without Wax from the 25,000 other novels published this year.
story is being told, present scenes showing his declining interest in being a performer in the adult films. The challenge at the center of the novel is Wax’s desire to leave the adult film world. It’s a difficult escape for him. INTERVIEWER
The story takes place in a town called, Ampersand, Massachusetts, which I believe is a fictional town, correct? Yes.
What’s the inspiration behind Ampersand? WALSH
It's just a town that I’ve used as a setting for a bunch of my stories. And I’m not sure why I decided to keep all of the action in the novel in Ampersand, except that I want to keep Wax’s story a little separate from the rest of the adult film industry, which is in the valley in California. And I guess in New York City as well. I wanted to portray their world as a little cottage industry and present the characters as a repertoire of players. I think it's interesting that Wax stays in this town where he grew up and continues this lifestyle that’s very different from and very separate from his family. As I was writing it seemed to be more interesting to keep Wax in Ampersand and to also set a few of the consumer profiles there. And I think that helped ground it a bit too, just to say, that it could have been set anywhere. It didn't have to be some kind of global story. INTERVIEWER
Almost like it adds to the sincerity or authenticity of the story. WALSH
I saw Wax, and I also saw his manager, Lyle Mammon, as guys who wouldn't take their business elsewhere, out of their comfort zone. I just didn't see them as those kind of people. They wouldn’t have the wherewithal to go off to California to start their enterprise—make their XXX movies. I just didn't see 40
that those two guys had that in them. And they're very insular7, and I think keeping them in Ampersand helped show this element of their characters, as well. INTERVIEWER
Wax seems to be a very introverted character, which is kind of interesting for an adult film star. WALSH
Right, considering the work he's in. You do find that a lot of people in show businessâ€”performers, singers, actorsâ€”are introverted when they're not performing. I saw Wax as that type of person. I think he finds himself in the adult film world because that's what he's made to do and he does it for several years until he finally realizes he can't do it anymore. INTERVIEWER
One of the things I like about the book are the names of the films that Wax stars in, such as Dormitorgy and, my personal favorite, The Well-Hung Jury. How did you come up with those names? Was it Easy? WALSH
Just fooling around. As I said, it was such a notebook exercise for so many years, that I just had a lot of those scribbled down and wrote them up as I thought of them. As far as naming the characters, I think because performers in the industry have such colorful names that was just a lot fun to do. I think you've got to wing it and try to come up with some names that make sense for the character. INTERVIEWER
Did you know that there's a band called The Well-Hung Jury? I did not know that.
The characters dictated the setting, Wax, Mammon (his manager), and the consumer profile characters.
That's funny. I guess that's something that is in the air— waiting for someone to put those words together. INTERVIEWER
You mentioned that you started writing it twenty years ago with a short story. How long did you spend on it? Have you been working on it, more or less, for twenty years? What are your writing habits? WALSH
I just I kept writing it in notebooks, but when I went to grad school I didn't bring it to workshop. I kept thinking: I don't want this to be the first novel that I publish. I want to do something different and then maybe pursue this story later. But, I think, a couple of years ago I started typing up all the notes that I had and trying to put them into different structures. And I probably have another forty pages8 of notes that left out of the book because they were similar to other scenes. So that's a good thing. I think with revision it should be a process of subtraction. So I wasn't working on it as my main writing project for all those years. And I don't get a lot of time to write from week to week with a fulltime job and I teach every once in a while and I’ve got a bunch of kids. So I don't get a lot of time to write. INTERVIEWER
I think that's something we all struggle to find the time for. WALSH
It's impossible sometimes. 8
Some deleted stuff: A 4,500-word chapter in verse; an eight-page epilogue that focused on Wax’s father, Walt Williams, an Alzheimer’s patient struggling to remember why his son is famous; a character named Edgar Alan Pole; Mammon identifying Hymen as the Greek goddess of marriage (it’s actually Hera, who is said to have been more beautiful than even Aphrodite); a female performer named Butterscotch, the Chubby Vixen; someone saying—I don’t know why, “We sin with the flesh, not the bone.”
The title is Without Wax, and the word "sincerity" is derived from the Latin phrase for "without wax." Is that intentional? WALSH
Yeah. Definitely. That was the inspiration. INTERVIEWER
So what is the sincerity referring to? WALSH
I think a few of the characters remark on Wax as a sincere person. And he's just so out of place in this adult film world, and I thought that was a good place for some dramatic friction, for some conflict. For inner conflict, anyway, because his livelihood goes against who he is and what he's like at heart. And you get to see that when he's a young boy and then later when he's trying to get out of this XXX world. But you know it also connotes sculpture9, and I wanted to see him as this perfect male form and his sincerity is a part of that. I think that concept, that phrase— without wax—helped me to push the book further and further. INTERVIEWER
Would you consider the story a comedy or a tragedy? WALSH
I think it's a comedy10. It’s meant to be. I sent a copy to one of my early writing teachers and she read it and sent me a note back saying that she found it interesting that there's a lot of humor in the book but the central character is not very humorous himself. And it seems that there's a lot going on around him that's funny or silly or ridiculous and he's not. Maybe that's another place for some conflict in the story. But I'm hoping from page to page that it's funny. That there are some chuckles there on the page. 9
The image of sculptural flaws being filled with wax to hide imperfections says something about humanity and how we hide our own flaws. 10 I am certain Without Wax is a comedy, but recently my publisher said she didn’t think it was humorous at all. I think she was being serious.
Yes, there definitely are.
I understand that you are a James Joyce fan. During my reading of Without Wax, several times I thought about Ulysses— not that there are a whole lot of surface similarities to Ulysses, but something about the book seemed Joycean to me. What influence does Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, have on your writing? WALSH
Now that you mentioned it, there might be some elements— under the surface—in Without Wax that were inspired by Ulysses. I minored in Irish Lit as an undergrad and spent a lot of time reading Joyce, really immersed in it. Wax and Mammon are a duo similar to Stephen and Bloom—a sensitive young man and a sloppy, boorish older man. I think Wax’s childhood experiences have some similarities to Stephen’s in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The greatest lesson I learned from Ulysses was that the form of a novel does not have to follow the traditional narrative model. Joyce based the novel’s structure on forces outside of the lives of his Dublin characters. He used different stylistic approaches to each chapter. It can appear very authorial to take that approach to a novel’s subject, but after you’ve studied hundreds of conventionally structured novels you realize that a conventional narrative structure is as much of an application to a novel’s subject as Joyce’s use of the Homeric. INTERVIEWER
What other writers influence your writing? WALSH
Biggest influences when I first starting writing were Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Charles Bukowski, Robert Coover, Samuel Beckett. Latest influences have been Michael Martone11 and David Markson. 11
I wish I had started reading Michael Martone fifteen years ago. I don’t know how I didn’t know about him.
What are your thoughts on the current state of literature in America? WALSH
In terms of independent presses, it seems there is a greater variety of voices out there now than at any other time. The web has opened up this market. It’s easier now to find new writers and to read their work. INTERVIEWER
What is currently on your reading list? WALSH
I am just finishing Ovenman by Jeff Parker, and I think it’s great. Very unique narrator. Lots of energy. I also enjoyed American Genius by Lynne Tillman last year and have been rereading parts of it ever since I saw her read in Providence. I really like Lydia Davis’s collections, and I just bought her novel The End of the Story. I began reading Paul Auster’s novels a few years ago, and I am still catching up on some of his older books. I really liked Brock Clark’s new novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. Both of his collections are very good.
Thee(s), Thy(s), Thou(s), and The(s) A short play by Joe Giordano
(Lights up.) (A man stands somewhere on Earth.) (It is cold.) (He is unhappy. Why shouldn’t he be?) (Nearby, a stranger, a strange woman who has a name, walks closer.) (The man sees the woman. His life changes.) REG Oh, what o’er my window doth fly? A great sparrow. A sparrow as lovely as saints. Oh, what sparrow doth fly o’er my window? MEG The sparrow that on thy head doth crap. REG Oh, Lady for Whom I Swoon! 46
REG (cont'd) What for the jokes of bowels do serve? What of these words your mouth unfolds, whose bite doth put the “doth” in my “does?” MEG Oh, Man of Crap Dispersed On Thy Head! Thou makest no sense, I wished thou were dead. REG A rhyme. MEG A rhyme for you to choke on. And don’t call me “lady.” REG How, oh darest you say thou words that turn my “those” to possessive “thou”s, the “thou”s which my lips doth spew, in fact, in compost heaps of dispersed refuge? MEG Again, thou makest no sense. Not to mention the “thou”s you think mean “those” should really be “thy,” not “thou,” you see? REG Then let me speak it once more. Oh, Stranger, who know I not, ‘til now— MEG And still know not, not even now. REG On my head is crap, and on my feet I am weary, and my brain stands heavy with these words that I choose, these words comprised of “ooh”s and “ahh”s 47
REG (cont'd) that confuse the meaning of my “thou”s and “thy”s. What sense I once made has flustered about by the acts of entwinement that stretch on thou face. MEG My dear who I call dear as a gesture of kindness, again you seem to fail to explain. It appears, to me, you have no brain. REG My dear who I call dear in hopes that one day my life will become endearing to thee, in this land where time and space do not matter thy presence caused my brain to splatter and sent it there and there and there and there and there and everywhere. MEG I’d no idea you’ve ample brain to scatter. REG I don’t. But you cause loud explosions that turn small bits to large. MEG Oh please, oh night, don’t bring up thy bits! Especially not bits as bit as that bit. REG Your mind is a dirty one, my maiden queen. MEG I am neither a maiden nor a queen. REG But my darling I wished thou werest my queen. MEG Are you deaf or dumb? Or dumb and deaf? 48
MEG (cont'd) For whichever you are, you are dumber than dumb. Do you hear not the words I speak in grave despair? I am no manâ€™s queen, and never shall be. REG My darling who thinks not a darling of me, if thou openst thy eyes thou will surely see a bird in flight in the form of he who in front of thee stands searching for glee! MEG Glee? REG A silly word, I know, but none-the-less true. And it rhymes. But let it not distract your gaze from the facts, the truths exceeding far that of gospel, that once, yes, once, oâ€™er my window flew a metaphor sparrow that crapped on my head a metaphorical turd, a metaphor you pinned on my very name, a metaphor that now strikes the mind as inane. MEG Inane as your quest of penetrating my thighs. REG Oh, no! MEG Oh, yes! REG Oh, no, my love who I hope that one day will return my love with your own love for me! Though thy thighs are of ample service for pleasure, 49
REG (cont'd) it is thy spark, my love, that burneth in me. MEG A spark that will never belong to a he. REG Why? Art thou lesbian? MEG No. I am cold. REG Then let me hold you, for I too am cold. Cold without you. (Reg steps toward Meg.) MEG Lies. REG Honesty. MEG Like all before, you seek to tease. REG Like none before, I seek to love. (Megâ€™s nose twitches. Her brow furls. Her pulse screams. But she does not move.) MEG Desperation. Thatâ€™s all.
REG Desperate? Yea, I say. For love. For thee. For thy. For thou… For the. (Wind sweeps down from the sky. The wind nudges Meg. It lifts her hand…and places it in Reg’s.) (Reg looks at his hand holding hers. His gaze rises to stare into the eyes of his cheesy future.) REG You’ve ravaged my mind, sent it scattered unknown, picked up my spirit to fly with the birds. Without you, this metaphor of crap will surely return. (A single tear falls from Reg’s eye. Meg steps forward, catches it.) (She offers the tear to Reg.) MEG Here. REG No. That is for you. MEG For me? REG For you. MEG For me. (The ground rumbles, quakes. It throws Meg into the arms of Reg. They envelop each other.)
MEG No longer cold. REG No longer alone. MEG My dear, my love, my darling— REG My queen! MEG …My name is Meg. REG …My name is Reg. (Blackout.)
Slowly Melting Away by Joe Giordano
PART I: “SAME OLD SAME OLD” Hammer and Anvil had had enough. They’d been going at it for days, no, weeks—possibly years. Giving and receiving a pounding. “My God, Hammer,” said Anvil. “This is one goddamn repetitive life we got going here, my friend. One goddamn repetitive life.” “Yep,” said Hammer, banging down on Anvil once again for no reason at all, a reason for which a majority of things are done in this goddamn world. “Yep.” Hammer stopped hammering. They listened to the silence of their motionless existence. It sounded soft. “What do you suggest we do?” said Hammer. Anvil shook itself off. Something fell to the ground with a clank. “Wanna get some ice cream?” Hammer had never had ice cream before. It sounded good. “Sure,” said Hammer. “Why the fuck not?”
PART II: “NOTHING IS SPECIAL” Ice Cream Scoop was stuck in a bucket of Rocky Road. The symbolism was killing it. The door jingled. Hammer and Anvil walked in. They flung themselves up on the counter. “Hey!” said Hammer. “What’s good today?” Not even a hello, thought Ice Cream Scoop. Not even HELLO. “What are the specials?” said Anvil. “There are no specials!” said Ice Cream Scoop. “Look around you. Look at the world. Do you think there’s anything goddamn special about it?” Hammer and Anvil looked at each other and at the world around them, and said, no, definitely not, there’s nothing goddamn special about it. “But we’d like a scoop of Vanilla anyway!” said Hammer. “Fine!” said Ice Cream Scoop. “Fucking FINE!” Ice Cream Scoop picked itself up and shoved itself into Vanilla, grumbling the whole time. It dug out a scoop of Vanilla, said, “Here, enjoy your pile of unspecial shit!” and, as if it were a catapult, flung the ice cream at Hammer and Anvil with a vengeful and sticky precision. It hurt Vanilla’s feelings to be called “unspecial shit.” PART III: “CONSEQUENCES” Anvil held tight onto Ice Cream Scoop, Hammer raised and ready to go. “Looks like you fucked with the wrong goddamn tools!” said Hammer. “Wrong goddamn tools!” said Anvil. “Wrong goddamn tools!” repeated Hammer, and proceeded to turn Ice Cream Scoop into a Spatula. PART IV: “MELTING AWAY” Vanilla dragged itself and the Bucket that contained it out into the sun. It was a violent world and Vanilla was sick of 54
playing a part in it. Everything was pointless and mean. Predictable and sad. Anything “new” would just turn into the “same.” It was time to end it. To let the sun do its magic. Concrete tore a hole in the bottom of Bucket, leaving behind a liquid sugary trail as Vanilla scooted closer and closer to death.
Ana by Jason Cook
The day arrived at last, as Ana always knew it would, emerging from curtains of heat-haze and dust, unpredictable and inevitable as the bus from Shiraz to Mashhad. But the sun splashing early morning daylight looked no different than always, playing across Ana's toes as she padded into the kitchen. She stretched, that fullbody stretch in the sun she couldn't do in class, the way boys stare, and scratched her belly which, she noted with satisfaction, volleyball was making flat and trampoline-tight. "What's for breakfast?" she asked, rubbing the last crumbs of sleep from her eyes. Her mother bustled in front of the stove, conjuring scents of cinnamon and butter. "Nato," her mother said cheerfully, without turning around. Ana furrowed her brow and stared at her mother's wide, shawled back. "Neato?" "NATO," her mother turned and slid a plate across the counter. "Belgian waffles, Swiss cocoa, French bread, and eggs." "Oh," said Ana. "Where are the eggs from?" "A chicken. Now go eat. Your father needs to talk to you." At her place at the table, Ana traced a finger over the burnished surface, connecting sun-speckles strained through the window's beaded curtains. If she played enough, and ran away with her imagination, pictures would emerge in the pattern, constellations. A tower, a face (but faces were easy), a frog. Some of these images (a hand, her friend Costella) plucked from the 56
shifting patterns of light would wind up in the paintings lining her bedroom. Matrixing, she thought it was called, "Rorsachting." For the wonders of instant global communication and all the miracles in the Louvre, we still cannot accurately predict when an earthquake will occur, when the nomads ride into the oasis, or when someday ceases to exist far on the horizon and instead knocks on our front door today. "Good morning, Ana," her father said. "Oh!" So absorbed had she been in her game, her matrices, Ana hadn't heard him enter. "Good morning, Papa." "I have some good news for you," he said, wide face glowing. Indeed, even the whiskers of his beard quivered with excitement. "I see that," said Ana. "Do I get to eat the whole U.N. now?" "Don't be silly," Ana's mother said from the doorway. She took her place at the table and folded her hands. "We do have something important to tell you." Numbly, quietly, she sat and absorbed her parentsâ€™ excitement. Something inside her, in her side, twisted into a small knot, but she smiled a little wider, just a little more naturally, as her father kissed her on the cheek and told her again how happy for her he was. *** For the fifth day in a row, she felt the pain in her side, and the sensation of something floating there that should have been anchored. Ana jammed the blade of her hand into her rib, against the pain, and pushed, but nothing within shifted. Still she feltâ€Śunhinged inside. Harder still, she pressed, waiting as the city bus trundled off, leaving her alone on the sidewalk. From the bus stop to her father's house was a short walk, a matter of minutes, but today Ana stretched it like bubble gum, accompanied by the ever-present reflection of a girl she thought she knew. A week ago, when she was a child still, Ana had counted the reflections of herself in the curving surfaces of street lamp posts, flat waxed mirrors of shiny new cars, slivers of bicycle chrome, the eyes of strangers who smiled at her as they passed. Distorted, distended, fragmented, stretched, rounded, or transparent images of a girl always resolving into herself. This was a game Ana had 57
played for as long as she could remember and, though she reminded herself again, that the time was coming to leave behind these silly, childish things, again and again she caught herself looking for herself. The beauty Ana could find in the world always made her smile and especially, once, the beauty in her own reflection. A body of curves, snaky and graceful, with hair that curled and snarled like a Chinese water dragon. Once as a girl, this beauty was hers. Even the attention of troublesome boys was inspired by beauty that was wholly hers. But the woman walking ghostly and silent in the shop windows beside her, hand pressed to her side, possessed a glassy, translucent beauty that was no longer hers. "Are you alright?” her mother asked as Ana dropped her books onto the table. “I’m fine,” she murmured. Why did everyone insist on asking? She was ever fine, she was always fine. Strangers found Ana on the street to tell her how fine she was. Everything was fine and nothing had changed. She was fine. "Are you sure?" She was, could prove it. A test. She inhaled, deeply, clutched her calm like a lover's hand, and opened an eye. Indeed, nothing had changed. The same table, solid and dependable, the familiar, sharp scents of coffee, cinnamon and butter, and her mother's face unchanged, open and honest as the prayers of children. "You don't look well," her mother said. "You look like a cat toy." Usually Mother's references to Ana's once-fractured English could lead them both into seizures of laughter. Another game Ana didn't feel like playing. "Mama," Ana began, but when there was so much to say and so little of it good, where could she start? And what good would it do? Ana's mother, a Wat of a woman, settled onto the sofa beside her. A heavy arm, like a Banyan tree root, slipped over Ana's slender shoulders. She'd learned to read street signs in strange languages and become accustomed to the suffocating expanse of American shopping malls. Through these hardships, doubts, and moments of weakness, Ana could always turn to this embrace, her oasis. "Mama," she said. "I'm afraid."
"I know you are, Ani." Tears welled in Ana's eyes, but she was not a girl who cried. "I was afraid, as a girl, when I married your father." "Were you?" "Of course," her mother said. "But you do it anyway, even though you are afraid. You do what is best for your family. That is what makes you a good woman, and a good woman is what a household depends on." These protestations Ana had heard before and, God help her, she had always believed them. But romantic ideas filling the heads of little girls can hang like an anvil over the head of a young woman. "I don't want to marry anyone," Ana said quietly. She was not a girl who cried, but a tear escaped Ana's resolve and fell onto her mother's arm. Marvelous, she thought, that such a thing could fall so quietly and leave such little trace. She watched it slide, a translucent, miniature snail down her mother's skin. "Ana," her mother chuckled. "You don't know what you want. You're too young. But we are your parents and we know what is best. Your father loves you and wants you to be happy, and to be a good mother and be a good wife to a good man is the happiest thing of all. Trust me, I know." That pain, that broken thing, the cracked wrongness within her flared, impossible again to ignore. Ana squeezed her eyes shut as cold stiffness tightened her body, like the freezing ground in this cold country. Her insides quivered as if someone had made a cage of her ribs and locked a hummingbird inside. "What do you know, Mama?" she said icily. "You've never been anything but a mother. What if I want to be more than you?" Frantically, Ana tried to cork the growing wad of words, but they rushed out, uncontrollable and brutal. Sparks of hurt and anger flashed in her mother's eyes. Ana was unswayed. "Stop thinking you should know me, like I'm a map or something! You don't know everything, me least of all. And stop looking at me! This isn't a zoo!" This from the girl who hadn't lost her temper since that boy whose tooth she'd broken in the first grade. Passion flooded her cheeks, her skin, scorched up from deep inside her "No, Mama. Just because it was done to you doesn't mean you get to pawn me off like a used car. Why didn't you just save time and auction me over the Internet?" 59
"Ana," her mother stammered. "Don't be silly." "I am silly!" Ana shouted and stormed into her room, the slammed door echoing behind her. *** It rained later that day. And every day that week until the day came, the day Ana had agreed to meet her future husband. She jumped from the bus, cleared the muddy water pouring down the gutter, and landed in the streets of Atlantis. If it could rain like this forever, then she could be happy. If she could always depend on this frigid shower to cool her head, perhaps her heart wouldn't be able to seize the reins. The more effort Ana made to stifle her fear and anger, the loss that came and sat beside her in the middle of night, the hotter it burned. Burned like her cheek when her father's hand came arcing down. Perhaps he'd been right to strike her, the way she'd spoken to her mother and, later, the way she'd spoken to him. Perhaps she'd seen immediate remorse in his eyes but, if so, that regret offered no forgiveness. Gum wrappers and cigarette butts swirled helplessly, pinwheeled, riding the little grey flood toward the storm drains. Ana kicked a soda can across the parking lot and listened as its hollow, metallic protests faded into the steady static of rain. Outside the Starbuck's, she stopped, swallowed, thought of turning back. In the coffee shop's immense picture window, Ana stared faintly back at herself. She wouldn't know him, but of course he'd notice her shuffling in from the rain like a bedraggled, lost mermaid, a live-action Ariel wrapped in sodden clothes with thickly spiraled seaweed for hair. The shapeless shirt and baggy jeans she'd chosen clung to her like cigarette smoke, exhibiting more of her shape than she liked. *** "Thank you." Ana took the hot cocoa he'd insisted on buying and rolled the cup between her fingers. The warmth radiated into her hands, enlivening cold skin. He sat at the table across from her and offered a genuine smile. So far this man, Malek was his name, had failed to fulfill any of her nightmares. Not as old as 60
she'd feared, nor as ugly, the man was even fairly attractive, lean and tall, 30-ish, with a bold, sharp nose like the fin of an Elvis Cadillac and eyes dark as a lake bottom. "If I'd known you were dressing up, then I would have, too," he said. Despite herself, Ana laughed, looking down at the small rain puddles spreading around her sneakers. In contrast to her moist dishevelment, rain still trickling like a strand of cold pearls down her spine, he wore a neatly-tailored dark suit with a grey tie. And, of course, he was dry. "It never rains like this back home," he said. "When it starts to rain here, it never stops." "Yes," Ana said. "I remember." Rain creates a more intimate world. It's like nightfall and prayer and long conversations with perfect strangers, like candlelight and fuzzy slippers in the winter. Even indoors the drumming of wet fingers on the roof and the occasional hiss of tires, the gray-washed view and faded light, makes a world smaller, gives the truth few places to hide. He was right, of course, rain never was like this back home. There it was too hard, too fast. Too insistent and greedy. "This is crazy, no?" he said. "Yes," Ana replied without thinking. Lying is hard when it rains, no matter how resolutely a girl resolves to guard herself. Minutely, she smiled at him around the elephant perched on the table between them. "Did you fight with your parents when they told you?" he asked. "Oh, yes," Ana replied. "It was quite a fight." The pain in her side had faded to a distant throb, fainter now than the rain. Ana breathed deeply and a little more freely and shrugged out of her coat. "My father had to hit me to get me here," he confided. Ana's face flushed with the memory, warmth chasing the last of the rain's bite from the tip of her nose. "Mine, too," she said. "Maybe they thought you were having too much fun." "Oh, yes," Malek chuckled. "Get the boy married before the exciting life of an accountant overcomes him. An accountant. How strange that she'd forgotten to ask. Stranger still that she experienced a brief jab of resentment at his unwillingness to meet her. An accountant's life, of course, could
not be loaded with excitement, but it would be comfortable. Her parents had, after all, promised her a good life. "We seem to have a few things in common," Ana ventured. "Perhaps we should go on a date sometime." Malek laughed. "Perhaps parents are not naturally crazy after all." "Perhaps not," Ana agreed. "But I'm too young to know the difference, so they say." Whatever ominous creatures she'd conjured, Malek was not one of them. He seemed pleasant enough; he laughed like a bear snores, and he'd bought her hot cocoa, though without the extra sugar she normally liked. How deeply flawed could a man be who would buy hot cocoa for a strange girl? "Be at ease, then," he said. "I don't know how to do this either." She was to be the wife of this person. As they talked, Ana tested the thought, tasted it for reality. But like a blind man examining an elephant, she couldn't grasp the enormity of the thing. What would it be like to be the wife of an accountant? Had their honeymoon been chosen? Would she get used to being Ana Unal? She repeated the name silently, but nothing in it seemed real, the name of a girl she'd never met, who may not even exist. "I suppose children always think their parents are crazy, no?" he said. "One day our children will probably think that we are crazy." "Oh," Ana gasped. "Children. Right." The future came at her, a train laden with details, air-horn howling undeniably. "Do we decide on a number of children before or after we find out whether we both liked Mission Impossible 2?" he asked. Ana chuckled, gazing longingly into the sludge of cocoa in the bottom of her cup. She watched him sip his cappuccino and wondered what his eyes looked like when the morning light first awoke him. After the wedding, the honeymoon, what would she make for breakfast? Would he like her paintings? She tried to imagine folding his socks, cleaning his floors, providing the support a man needs. Where would they live? She'd slipped and fallen into a Dali painting, surrounded by the familiar become bizarre and unreal. What would his fingers, those thick, artfully manicured hands, feel like on her body? Ana licked her lips and smiled. 62
"Why are your fingers green?" he asked. "Oh." Ana splayed her fingers, caramel stained Cinnabar Green. "It's just paint. I was making a tree." "Well," he said, "if we decide, you can always tell your parents I have a pot belly. And I can chastise mine for trying to give to me a girl with green fingers." "What's wrong with green fingers?" Ana wondered. "I like this green. And you don't have a pot belly." "That's true," he said, patting his stomach. "But they wouldn't know. I didn't know you painted." He nodded approval. "No one mentioned that. It's nice that a woman should have hobbies. A woman should have things to teach her sons. People think that a woman's place is to take care of her family, but a wife's accomplishments bring pride to her husband, don't you think?" "Yes." Something within her froze. "Excuse me, I need more cocoa." "I'll get it for you," he buttoned his coat and started to stand. "No, I'll be back." She didn't wait for his assent, got up and went to the counter. The constant ache she'd tried to ignore flared again, hotter, many-bladed, sharper. Ana stood in line and tried to be strong. Under her shirt, Ana's hand pressed against her belly. She held her breath, tried to suffocate the pain. She closed her eyes and groaned quietly. "Are you alright?" the young man behind the counter asked. "Please don't ask me that," Ana said. "I just need more cocoa." He smiled crookedly. "Sure? Seems like you need more than that." He had truly penetrating eyes, the kind of gaze few people would meet, a gaze that seemed to hit bottom. Ana held his eyes as he took her money. She liked eyes like this, liked the feeling of another seeing all the way down inside her. Whether it was proper for a girl on engagement's doorstep to share a moment with a pretty infidel with spiky hair Ana didn't bother to consider. "Whipped cream?" He asked. "Of course," she said. "There's no such thing as too sweet." "Agreed." There was appreciation in the desire in his eyes, a warmth of simplicity as rich as the cup he gave to her. Ana scooped up a handful of sugar packets, offering another smile as she turned 63
away. She felt him watching as she swayed back to her table, his caressive idolatry, and the tiny, satisfied shiver in her spine. She found Malek hunched over a notebook at their table, staring deeply down at its scrawled page. "What are you writing?" she asked. "Oh, nothing," he said, closing the book suddenly, hand sheepishly pressed to its cover. "Just something I have to do." "It looked like poetry," Ana pressed. "Little skinny poems." "It is." He smiled, relaxed, slid the notebook back into the briefcase on the floor. "Poetry? Really?" A different flutter stirred in her chest— excitement, a little hope. "I love poetry. To me, life is made from poetry. But I'm not so good at writing it, so I paint," she said. "When you paint something, it's like you're trying to get to the poetry inside it. Like the rain." She carefully peeled back the corner of her little sugar packages and poured them into her hot chocolate. "It's always rain, no matter where you go. But here it's a different kind of rain. This land has a very nice kind of poetry. This might not be so crazy, after all. I'm sure there are worse things that can happen to a girl than marrying a poet." "Oh, no," he said, chuckling a little. "I'm not a poet. It's for a class I'm taking for another degree. I can't write it at all. I can hardly stand reading it. It's nice that you like it, though. There are worse things that can happen to a man than marrying a girl who loves poetry." Ana tossed her brief hopes on the table like a bad poker hand, amongst the stirring sticks and discarded sugar envelopes. She selected a packet, one still mostly intact. A bend, a crease, a careful manipulation, and her little scrap of trash became a crane. She knew her disappointment pained him, but not as deeply as it cut her. “I'm sure your poetry is good," he said. “It is,” Ana said flatly. She'd already said too much, spilt too much soul, with that poetry talk. In Japan, the girl who'd taught her origami had told her a person customarily gets a wish after folding one thousand cranes. Somewhere around 600, Ana had lost count, but she knew she was getting close. “You use a lot of sugar,” he said. “There's no such thing as too sweet,” she said. Tired of cranes, Ana finished a cat, one of her favorite animals. She'd
never folded such a small dragon, but there was no reason not to try. “For some reason,” he said, “they put too much sugar in everything here.” “Part of the poetry.” Ana sighed. It wasn’t working. Disgusted, she balled her failed dragon between her palms and began again. A silence like itchy wool sweaters descended between them. A silence awkward as a drunk stilt-walker. Ana fidgeted while taffy moments stretched, while rain fell, while a little paper zoo of origami animals manifested on her napkin. “Look,” her suitor said at last. “You’re an odd girl, you know that, and I know for you this is difficult. It isn't easy for me either, but it isn't meant to be. We'll grow and mature some. But I think you should know that I liked Mission Impossible. And too much sugar really isn't good for you either.” “Of course,” Ana replied. Immediately, she regretted her tone and the coldness she poured into his conciliatory pause; it wasn't his fault she didn't fit here. But neither was it hers. “I’d better take you home,” he stood and slipped into his jacket. “It’s silly to walk when it’s raining like this. I’ll get the trash.” And he scooped the torn sugar envelopes, the napkins, and Ana’s menagerie into his empty cup. She watched as he casually dropped her cranes into the trashcan. “Do you believe in magic?” Ana asked. “What?” Lost, he blinked. “It’s a simple question.” “There is God,” he said, jacket pocket jingling like an aluminum rattlesnake as he fished for his keys. “But there is no magic.” “I’m sorry,” Ana said, jerking her coat from the back of the chair. “But I’m a very silly girl.”
Blind Curve by Karen Lillis
It is night and we are walking home from the deli, Beth and I, down Valley Road. I have just trained Beth on the nightshift, and now we are walking home. We take the train tracks to work but at night we walk home on JPA, and sometimes we cut down Valley Road. Valley Road is a huge half-circle, and the half-circle winds back in the direction we just came, but we never care because it is July in Charlottesville and we have just gotten off work. We never care because the street is the quietest one around and a few degrees cooler than the rest of Charlottesville. The street is covered with trees, like we are inside and outside, and our movements are quieter on Valley Road because the trees absorb the sound of our footsteps. The sky on Valley Road is hidden by trees, the trees on Valley Road make a roof of leaves over our heads. *** Walking home the Jefferson Park Avenue way is not as good as walking along the train tracks, but we are cautious to avoid the tracks at night, Beth and I, and the JPA way is not a bad walk. I started noticing JPA in June, when it was raining all the time, and the humidity was thick in my curls. I remembered that everything that had ever happened to me in Charlottesville had been contemplated long and hard along JPA, for everyplace I ever lived in Charlottesville was on some street off of Jefferson Park 66
Avenue, this long thin strand of road that runs parallel to the train tracks, and JPA was always the way home. JPA is not overgrown with kudzu like the train track way, the trees don’t hide the sky like the Valley Road shortcut, but still there are many unkempt greens in between the apartment buildings that line the road from the deli to the hospital past Brandon Avenue. In June I marveled at the unkempt of the unkempt greens, as the trees hung heavy with the weight of their unkempt, as the greens dripped over the sidewalks, and the telephone wires sagged low on their way down the street and sighed sad and ancient sighs as they caught the light of the sunset. *** In June it rained all the time, every day almost, and in June I cried all the time. In June I walked down Jefferson Park Avenue and cried, and I was glad for the rain because it disguised my tears. In June I cried I-didn’t-know-why. In June I cried because I didn’t know what had brought me back to Charlottesville, to walk down JPA and pass the scars of my long-ago tears where they fell on the way home, because JPA was always The Way Home. In June I wondered how my daydreams had convinced me so well to return to Charlottesville, why my feet marched me so surely here. In June I cried to see my old tears. I had remembered the trees of Charlottesville, but I forgot that these tears were here, too, that I did not take them with me and leave them behind in the Next Place. I left my Charlottesville tears behind in Charlottesville, and the tears I cried in the Next Place were new tears, were tears of Charlottesville-plus-the-Next Place. I left my Charlottesville tears behind in Charlottesville, and in June I came back and they were here waiting for me. *** The trees on Jefferson Park Avenue don’t behave like the greens do in Leesburg. In Leesburg the golf grass is dyed and clipped, and the shrubs are contained in yards, far from the sidewalks. The crab apple trees that lined the middle of the road in my neighborhood once spilled over like they do on JPA, but then they were all cut down, and young new ones with frail and 67
pretty branches replaced them, and they said it was all very necessary, that some disease had killed the trees, but I never believed them. And after that I always held my breath for the most beautiful trees in Leesburg. I held my breath because I knew that the greens in Leesburg would always be clipped back, cut down, paved over. *** On Jefferson Park Avenue the sidewalks are dripping with greens, and in the summer the greens are dripping with rain, and in June, my face was wet with tears. In June I walked down JPA and wondered how a street could have so much green. In June I wondered how much green a street could have before it was too much green. In June I thought about Virginia when it was first named Virginia, and about the people who were sent by a virgin Queen of England. In June I thought about the people who were outnumbered by the mosquitoes of Virginia, the mosquitoes that came from the greens that were everywhere in Virginia. In June I thought about the Englishmen who cut down all the green, to get rid of the mosquitoes. In June I thought about the people of Powhatan, who kept the green, and taught themselves to wear bear grease against the mosquitoes. *** We are cutting down Valley Road, off JPA, and Beth is telling me her story. The trees are weeping as they listen closely for her story. The trees are weeping under the weight of the humid in July, the trees are weeping as they lean close to her story which she might whisper but she doesnâ€™t. The trees are weeping as they hear her story, and the trees weep for me, because my eyes do not weep. The trees weep for me because Bethâ€™s story is my story. We are walking down Valley Road, past Valley Circle, around the blind curve, and Beth is telling me her story. Her story is terrible, wretched, the worst I have ever heard. I have heard this story many times, from women friends before Beth, and this is the worst story I have ever heard. It is the worst story I have ever heard because it is MY story, and it is worse than my story. I have heard worse stories before, have read the cold accounts written 68
by newspaper reporters who were far from the scene, and tragic accounts written by women as a special to Glamour magazine, but this is the worst story I have ever heard because Beth is here walking next to me. Beth is not Elizabeth but she is here walking next to me on Valley Road in July and she is telling me her story which is my story which is the worst story I have ever heard. *** We are walking down Valley Road, past Valley Circle, coming up on the blind curve in the road. I am not always afraid of the End of Brandon Avenue, but I am always afraid of the blind curve on Valley Road, just past Valley Circle. There is no sidewalk on Valley Road, and no yellow lines on the asphalt. Cars come down Valley Road and round the blind curve quickly, without much thought to pedestrians like Beth and me. Every time I walk around the blind curve on Valley Road, just past Valley Circle, I take care to stay to one side, to listen for cars, to anticipate the worst, especially at night. I am no longer afraid of getting hurt at the End of Brandon Avenue but I am very afraid of dying on the blind curve on Valley Road, just past Valley Circle. *** We are walking past the blind curve on Valley Road and Beth is telling me her story. I am taking care to listen for cars and to stay to one side and to prepare for the worst, but Beth is telling me her terrible story and she is not whispering and the trees are leaning closer and she is not afraid of the blind curve. Beth is walking right through the blind curve on Valley Road and she is not being cautious and she is not listening for cars and she is not preparing for the worst even though it is night. I donâ€™t know whether to protect her or to learn her secret. I see the trees leaning closer and I wonder if they know the answer to my question: is she reckless or faithful? ***
I look over at Beth and I remember the young woman I was a few years ago, the woman who had long forgotten the second Elizabeth; and I watch her in my memory, silent and crying and fearing, and I want to reach out and comfort her and help her along because she looks so fragile; and it makes me want to cry because I wonder if she is going to make it through, and how, how is she ever going to make it through her awful story? And I look at Beth, whose story is my story, and I want to comfort her and help her make it through, because her story is so awful and she seems so fragile. But then her voice surprises me, and I wake up from my memory, and she is next to me in the deli yelling about someoneâ€™s Reuben with side of potato salad, and she keeps yelling it even though our bosses are getting mad at her because it is a call-in who is not here and she didnâ€™t look at the ticket, and I am getting scared for her because she might get yelled at, only there is nothing for me to fear for Beth because Beth is not afraid. And I remember that Beth is not so fragile, maybe not at all fragile, and that in her there is a solid place which holds no fear, instead there is recklessness or faith, and maybe in her they are the same thing. And I remember that the young woman I used to be will make it through, because the young girl she used to be created a second Elizabeth, even if she doesnâ€™t remember it where she stands in my memory right now. *** As we round Valley Road to the place where we can see Brandon Avenue, I tell Beth my story, in return for her story. I have told my story many times, but right now my breath is short as I tell Beth my story. I tell Beth my story because I want her to know that I know her story, but my words seem unimportant to me right now, they seem to say so much less than I mean. I forget my words as soon as I say them to Beth, my breath is short and that is all I know, I am frantic in wanting Beth to know that I understand her story, I am frantically wanting to understand my own story, now that Beth is making me hear my story in a new way. ***
The very first time I wrote my story down on paper, I wrote it in the journal that was the color of blood. My mother gave me the journal for Christmas, and I thought it was the prettiest journal I’d ever had, it was large and square and thin like a children’s book. It was bright red and shiny and hardback, and I got it for Christmas; and then a story wrote itself on me on Valentine’s Day, and I wrote it down soon after that, in black ink, in my book that was the color of bleeding blood, and it became MY story. This story that wrote itself on me erased all other versions of my story, it became my story in a million words and in one word, this story that came from nowhere, this story that I didn’t ask for, this story that Beth is making me hear again, when I thought I had heard it too many times to be able to hear it anymore. *** I love summer in Virginia because that is when the trees seem the bravest. The oldest trees have seen everything we learned in history books, they saw the destruction of Powhatan’s people, they saw the plantations thrive on the backs of Africans, before they were African-Americans, they saw good Virginians and bad, live and sin and die. The trees have seen everything we learned in the history books and many things that the history books never told us. Each year the weight of the stories they have seen and heard brings their branches down until their leaves brown and crumple and blow away, eager to die on some unknown soil, eager to fertilize some unfamiliar land. And these same trees who have seen and heard the whole sad story of the land still dare to return each summer, they dare to remember the sad stories of the land and to grow green anyway.
Winter of the Campaign Defcom 2 last week each house on the block displayed a warhead studded with green and red in the middle of the front room signaling imminent apocalypse. Heat blasting as I drive by on tree collection day I almost imagine thaw might be near but ranks of the fallen lining the street remind me just how slowly seasons change some wear plastic shrouds others lie naked limbs akimbo in pools of brown. Killed more than a month ago then duped by little drinks into thinking they lived they were decorated like heroes home from the front ringed by bright offerings crowned by messengers
from heaven and wrapped in a warm electric glow. Now the New Year has come and their utility has ended. Shoved to the curb they might take bitter solace in all the needles left behind in joints of hardwood floors to prick careless soles throughout the rest of winter.
Once Jolly Green Giant Itâ€™s not envy that made me like this, just a job, like every other one, filled with compromise. Once upon a time, I was red. Used to eat burgers daily. Steaks every weekend. Holiday feasts of little men who had followed some beanstalk or magic staircase to my palace in the sky. Then I grew too heavy to dwell in the clouds, far above the world of TV and canned goods. Today I live under a contract, always displaying blunted teeth, no longer able to eat meat.
Spring Heat Bloody paw prints everywhere run through my memories of the Derry house come springtime. Our two lab bitches, collars lost on limbs of trees out back, wore only burs and fleas, loose lipped smiles, after their guilty return, near dinnertime, following a breakout across green glass from beer bottles broken in the empty lot next door, into the dark woods. Mom locked them in the laundry room to keep them away from her white rugs; sheâ€™d clean the beasts after midnight, after they had settled down, at home among cast-off clothes, after being locked away, whining for hours, wanting to run free,
again leave behind human life and trails of red, tattered remains of half-tamed feet.
Nature or Nurture The boy leaves his toy truck in the hall, then goes to bed. Eight hours later, his father staggers home, drunk, doesnâ€™t see the truck, steps right on it. Wheels turn, sending him down. Bastard, he growls, I taught you, if you wonâ€™t clean up after yourself, at least make a mess that's hard to miss.
Middle-age as a Mailbox The hand of authority daily puts itself inside my hollow head far from formal but leery of spider webs deep in the back. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to remain empty unstuffed with reminders sealed and stamped of duties unwanted. Wish I knew how to abandon my post how to keep down my faded red flag and how to keep my big mouth shut.
Sharecropping We live in this place that isn’t ours and every wall stands as a stranger, painted a color someone else preferred. You drove home from the late shift, with smoke seeping from the gap between the hood and frame. We watched the antifreeze leak onto the driveway, pooling up between the tires, like piss from a frightened animal. The cold clung to our skin through our clothes, while we sat on concrete porch steps, drinking seven dollar wine from Styrofoam cups. We’ll pay the mechanic when our checks come in and “our home” will stay a phrase, something less than four walls, a roof and floor, or the money it takes to live there.
Norman Mailer is Dead And Gore Vidal isn’t feeling too good either. In The City the pugilists invited the publicists over for a brawl. The ghost of George Plimpton showed up and the game was afoot. Later, we made fun of the postmodernists, saying, Show me a John Barth plotline and I’ll believe in the devil! The next day Norman Mailer was still dead. I wanted to write something about him but my pencil wilted in the heat. So, I wrote my congressman instead. Sir, I said, Norman Mailer is dead. That was as far as I got before I had to take a novel and lie down. Maybe tomorrow, if he’s still dead, we can all gather and sing the old songs, the ones that raised our kids, that raised the Old Pentagon.
Eric Spitznagel Eric Spitznagel has written for magazines like Playboy, Esquire, Harper's, Spy, Maxim, Blender and Salon. He’s a contributing editor for the Believer Magazine and the website editor for Monkeybicycle. He’s written six books, one of which was published in German and features a cat on the cover for no apparent reason.
Michael Kimball Michael Kimball has published two novels, The Way the Family Got Away (2000) and How Much of Us There Was (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His third novel, Dear Everybody, will be published in the spring of 2008 in the UK and the fall of 2008 in the US and Canada. He has won a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Boswell and Johnson Award, and the Lidano Fiction Prize. Recently, Stephen King short-listed one of his stories for Best American Short Stories, as did Dave Eggers for Best American Nonrequired Reading. He has also published many pieces in many literary magazines, including Open City, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, and New York Tyrant. He lives in Charm City with his charming wife.
Myfanwy Collins Myfanwy Collins's work is published or forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, AGNI, the Saranac Review, the Jabberwock Review, Swivel, Monkeybicycle and other venues. In addition, a story of hers was selected for the 2007 DZANC Best of the Web Anthology. She is a full-time mother and an Assistant Editor at Narrative Magazine/StoryQuarterly.
William Walsh In addition to a short story forthcoming in New York Tyrant, William Walsh's fiction has appeared in Juked, Lit, Press, Rosebud, Crescent Review, Quarterly West, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and
other journals. Portions of question-based derived texts series sourced from the many (many) books of Calvin Trillin have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Caketrain, Opium, Segue, Bleeding Quill, Blotter, 5_Trope, Fringe, Slurve, Turnpike Gates, and Elimae. His first novel, Without Wax, is forthcoming from Casperian Books, and a story called, â€œThe Snowman on the Moonâ€? will be published in the fall by Uptown Books. William Walsh has a lovely wife and three kids, a fourth due in April.
Joe Giordano Joe Giordano spends his workdays in the health care industry. He graduated with a B.A. in Theater in '97 from The University of Tennessee. He has spent most of his adult years focused on playwriting. Recently he completed a children's chapter book, The Monster That Looked Like a Booger, and he is currently working on his first novel, Stan.
Jason Cook Jason Cook lives in Florida but doesn't believe anyone cares. He chases skirts, writes, is an avid believer in a cosmic balance which he is still seeking to attain, and can't live without coffee. This is his first publication.
Karen Lillis Karen Lillis was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Virginia, and spent most of her adult years in New York City. She recently moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of i, scorpion (Words Like Kudzu, 2000); Magenta's Adventures Underground (Words Like Kudzu, 2004); and the forthcoming novel, The Second Elizabeth (Six Gallery Press, 2008).
Noel Sloboda Noel Sloboda currently lives in Pennsylvania, where he serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival and teaches at Penn State York. His poetry has appeared in a number of places, including Chronogram, Waterways, BLOW, Cape Rock, Blue Earth Review, Ghoti, Free Verse, erbacce, and the Ottawa Arts Review.
Renee Emerson Renee Emerson is a student at Union University hoping to pursue her MFA in poetry in the fall. She was published in the Fall 2007 issue of Tar River Poetry and the 2006 and 2007 issues of the Torch literary magazine. She waitresses at the Cracker Barrel in Jackson, Tennessee, has a husband that works at a taco place and a cat named Rob.
Corey Mesler Corey Mesler has published prose and/or poetry in Turnrow, Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Paumanok Review, Yankee Pot Roast, Elimae, H_NGM_N, Euphony, Jabberwock Review, and others. Heâ€™s the author of two novels, A Novel In Dialogue and We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon. He also published five chapbooks in 2006 and four more in 2007. He has been a book reviewer, fiction editor, university press sales rep, grant committee judge, father and son. He and his wife are the owners of Burkeâ€™s Book Store.