VOLUME 3, ISSUE 4
VOLUME 3, ISSUE 4 December 2013
All work is the property of the attributed writers and artists. Copyright ÂŠ Loose Change magazine 2013 www.loosechangemagazine.org
This issue is dedicated to the winners, finalists and contestants of our first prose contest. Congratulations, and thank you.
Editor’s Letter Nicole Knox, Nonfiction Editor, Loose Change As we built our first prose contest and prepared this latest issue of Loose Change for publication, we knew that it would be a big undertaking, but that the rewards would be great. We expected to see our writers submit their finest work, and we weren’t disappointed. What surprised me the most (though, perhaps it shouldn’t have) is the fact that Atlanta’s community is quite tight-knit. It’s a network that is by no means small, yet the camaraderie and support that exists within makes it feel as though it is. As Nonfiction Editor at a literary magazine that presents its very mission as a quest to cultivate and engage the literary community, this is thrilling. As writers, what would we be without our workshops in which to refine our visions, our literary events at which to share our stories, and our publications in which we find a platform for voices both emerging and experienced, the veterans and the brand-new? The answer is: lonely. We are fortunate to have those resources and support, and we take pride in each other’s successes as writers. Occasionally, because of this closeness, we even find that our paths cross in odd ways. When we asked Amy McDaniel, who teaches workshops at Agnes Scott, to be a guest judge for our contest, we were thrilled when she accepted. To her great delight, she recognized not one, but two of her students’ essays as finalists. Although this meant she had to withdraw from judging the competition, it was with a sense of “unalloyed joy” at seeing the success of two writers in her community. To our great delight, Amy was kind enough to share her thoughts on her students’ winning work: “Natalia's prose is, in her own words, an ‘arrow cutting fast through soggy air.’ I've had the pleasure of teaching her two semesters, three years ago as an exuberant firstyear student whose seriousness in confronting issues of culture and identity in her writing belied her age, and now as a senior with a startling ability to strike a balance between rhapsodic, sensual narration and tough, complicated subject matter. I first encountered Cheryl's essay when she read it aloud in class early in the semester and held us rapt with her wry humor, engaging and sophisticated use of secondperson narration and repetition, and the at-first understated emotion that builds to a soft but damning crescendo by the end. Here, I thought, is a writer with style, with a sharply tuned ear and an unforgettable voice. How wonderful that more people will now hear it.” So it is that we in Atlanta’s writing community are unique in that we see each other not as competition for coveted slots in publications or as critics divested of concern for each other’s development, but as resources, partners, and even, dare I say, friends. I am excited, then, to bring you the nonfiction winners of our contest in that same spirit of community, and invite you to share in our joy and theirs, as they share their stories with you.
Editor’s Letter Randy Osborne, Guest Editor, Nonfiction One of the finer traits of “emerging” writers is that many still believe it’s possible to write a clean, direct sentence, weighted with sincerity, and place a period at the end, and then do another one. They are not yet infected with the arch, sometimes jittery tone (mock yourself before the reader does!) of their established models. They are wild-game vs. store-bought meat. Trout pulled from the river, not raised on a farm. Grapes from a vine that grew tangled on the fence when nobody was looking. At least, the odds are better that this will be so. In “Cowgirls Are God’s Wildest Angels,” the rough-hewn narrator does a straightforward job of rendering her Uncle Bob, the profane, chain-smoking town priest. This coming-of-age tale, tinged with wonderment, is enriched by such characters as the waitress Bea at Frog’s, and ends smartly. The finish contains no moral, or life lesson, or grand epiphany (nor, as others might have it, the wink, the elbow jab, the smirk). There’s only Catholic Bob’s dubious reminder about the Almighty. And a geyser of gasoline. “Try to Forget” runs very near behind “Cowgirls.” To compose an essay in second person is to invite failure, because the voice so easily becomes lecture-like, condescending. A finger can almost be seen to wag. Only the braver souls will walk the second-person road. (It’s not unheard of, though. In February 2013, Welcome Table Press published You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person.) The narrator in “Forget” dodges this second-person schoolmarm hazard by making known early on that she is talking to herself. She tries at first to fake her feelings and, in a charming final twist, to deny them. “Double check that you locked the door” adds an eerie thread that seems out of place, yet somehow right. “The Sucked Orange” provides an alternative to The Big Apple in its title and in its body offers a make-it-or-else narrator fleeing her sad past. As shrewd with her evaluations of the peopled metropolis as she is dogged in her resolve, she strives mightily, yet trusts fate in “a city painted the color of clementines and beer.” The main strength of “Orange” lies, as often happens with the essay, in language, and in the sensibility delivered by its magic. Here, the literary song is keen, flinty, and damaged. She stays on the alert for any small triumph, and finds one, just as she’s leaving the city.
Editor’s Letter Abigail Greenbaum, Guest Editor, Fiction It is always challenging to choose one story over another, especially when the fictional landscapes range from the spare and surreal Switzerland of “Gonzo the Weirdo” to the overwhelming physical detail of the wilderness in “The Reprieve.” We were impressed by the variety in how the writers who submitted conceived of what it means to tell a story. More submissions than we were able to honor showed great creative risk and great promise. In the end, we chose stories that achieve something essential to fiction: these selections invite and hold the reader in a thoroughly imagined and realized world. I tend to be suspicious of stories when they directly announce, as happens in the opening lines of our winning story “Gonzo the Weirdo,” some vision of the current national scene, of how “America is going somewhere these days.” But in a few clipped and dynamic lines of dialogue—the arresting style that characterizes the prose of this story—the narrator’s voice is established as curious and convincing, one that earns the “Weirdo” promised in the story’s title. This guy, a freelance ex-con journalist assigned to cover both great wealth and protests against that wealth, has a vision that intrigues me, that keeps me flipping pages. His masculine assertions are anxious and oddly touching: “He is a man and so am I,” he comments about his editor. “We share a lot of DNA, being the same species. I want his head on my wall.” As the story unfolds, fantastical as it tends to be, it is easy to root for this odd fellow, to cheer for him as he gets what he doesn’t really deserve. The opening lines of our third place selection “The Row” read like a fable, an archetypal story about a forsaken place on the outskirts of a city, a place that those more fortunate than The Row’s inhabitants would rather not know or see. Like the best fables, this story feels both ancient and new; the struggles of these transients are told in a manner that draws me in to both the particularities and the universal aspects of this fictional world. Our guide to this underworld is a man named Marcus: “that’s the whole name, he will say if asked: first and last or first or last, what does it matter.” There’s a powerful futility to what happens to Marcus in this story, as if his losses matter both more and less because he already has so little.
Editor’s Letter Jesse Lichtenstein, Guest Editor, Fiction As a reader I think I’m attracted to a distinctive lens more than to any particular subject matter—to the filter of a story’s telling more than the facts of a story told. So it’s an intriguing coincidence that among the great variety of submitted work, two of the stories we chose to recognize happen to deal with death. What isn’t surprising is how distant these two pieces are from each other in voice, tone, and form. They both look at death, but they manage to do so through very different lenses: one colored by pragmatic calm, the other by ripples of grief and rage. “Clay knew a good place to die, and it wasn’t hospice,” begins “The Reprieve,” a story by Hank Pugh. A sick man determined to end his life on his own terms heads out into the woods. There his mind turns not inward, to the landscape of his own memory, but outward, to the forest and to the abundance of life and death it harbors. When he comes across a decaying carcass of a buck, the sight quickens his (and our) awareness of the cycles of composition and decomposition. The story “Green and Gray,” by Ally Wright, also kicks off with simple statements of demise and purpose: “A dead tree lay in the yard. It needed to be moved.” As with “The Reprieve,” the remains of something nonhuman—a tree, a deer—prod a character to confront human tragedy. “The Reprieve” drew us in with the richness and precision of its descriptive language. “Within minutes of death, carrion beetles arrived and commenced the work of dismantling the body, bite by bite, their flattened bodies squeezing, turning, and rummaging in places,” Pugh writes. “The gay yellow capes of the beetles made a caprice of their dirty work.” By breaking down the body with such detail, the writer and the character suggest a sense of total engagement with the physical realities of extinction, where questions of consciousness and spirit scarcely come into play. Clay, himself a hunter, now sees himself on par with his former prey: like the buck, his body will feed others, and far from troubling him, this seems to make his death feel as inevitable as it is ordinary—which makes the story anything but. “Green and Gray” begins with a nameless women rocking on a porch left intact by a tree felled in a storm. We loved how a story constructed from a few elements—a tree, a yard, a chair, a woman, an absence, some mud—can build force through repetition and skillful variation. The woman is rocking back and forth just as a few of these elemental thoughts and images ricochet through her thoughts. And then the story turns—or, rather, rises, as the woman rises from her chair and takes action—each stage of her attempt to affect the situation now punctuated by a burst of rage. “Green and
Grayâ€? is spare and raw and grows in layers. Like a snowball, like an avalanche, like a protest, it accumulates as it picks up speed.
Table of Contents Cover art, Today is Saturday (Speculum Bombs), from My Speculum Series, silkscreen by Deborah Sosower Dedication Editors’ Letters Table of Contents Gonzo the Weirdo, fiction by Robin Wyatt Dunn, First Place At 30,000 ft, fiction by Jess Bernhart
Green and Gray, fiction by Ally Wright, Honorable Mention My Speculum Series, silkscreen by Deborah Sosower
Today is Monday (Speculum Laundry), silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 11 Today is Tuesday, silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 12 Today is Wednesday, silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 13 Today is Thursday, silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 14 Today is Friday, silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 15 Today is Saturday (Speculum Bombs), silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 16 Today is Sunday (Speculum Gun), silkscreen 13 ¼” x 24 ¼” Rives BFK bright white by Deborah Sosower 17 Try to Forget, nonfiction by Cheryl Wollner, Second Place
The Sucked Orange, nonfiction by Natalia Castells-Esquivel, Third Place
Cowgirls are Godâ€™s Wildest Angels, nonfiction by Tricia Stearns, First Place Unsent Letter 39, fiction by Keely Lewis
The Row, fiction by Evan Guilford-Blake, Third Place The Reprieve, fiction by Hank Pugh, Second Place Contributors
Gonzo the Weirdo Robin Wyatt Dunn “I don’t know, I feel like America is going somewhere these days, somewhere new, somewhere exciting,” he says. “You’re a complete idiot,” I say. “Don’t go overboard now,” he says. “Overboard? What boat are you on?” “Maybe this was a bad idea.” “Calm down. Go get your coffee.” He comes back and I smile at him. “Good coffee here,” he says. “Yes.” “So. You realize that we can’t hire you. A criminal record just isn’t in keeping with our mission statement, to uplift the people. But we could send you some work under the table, you know what I’m saying?” “What do you need?” I ask. “We need a new life. We need a new destiny. We are a voice and we want you to be part of it. We want you to be part of the smile of the city of Los Angeles. We want you to be true. We want you to be yourself.” “Right,” I say. “Is this something you can do for us?” he asks. “What’s the pay?” “Piecework.” “Yes?” “We’re open to negotiation.” “Okay, well, tell me the first assignment, then, and we’ll see.” “Sure. Occupy LA has been picketing downtown, you know, and we thought it would be great to put together a kind of mood piece, you know, something that really shows our audience what this unique event means for modern living.” “Uh huh.” “The color red is important for this one.” “Okay.” “You think you can handle that?” “You got it.” We shake hands. He is a man and so am I. We share a lot of DNA, being of the same species. I want his head on my wall.
* I squat amongst some other folks on the grass by Union Station and listen to some mariachi music. A little weed drifts through the air, making me nostalgic. I keep my ears open, but it’s basically a lot of depressed people. They’re not angry enough. There isn’t going to be a riot. I don’t think they’re even going to sleep outdoors. Some are already leaving. I snap some photos of people. I’ll put in some red tint in Photoshop or something. Write some poetic captions. I wish I could buy a gun. * “We’ve decided to send you to Switzerland,” he says, and that’s when I know he needs to die, that Switzerland has to go with him. A suitcase nuke, a warhead, a Holocaust in Bern. I am the only sane person left. “When do I leave?” I ask. “Tomorrow.” * Switzerland, Switzerland, those bold men in their mountains who kept their borders secure and then helped rape the planet. Finance. Switzerland, Switzerland, highest income per capita nation state in the world. I’m there to do a profile on Jimmy Duffrey, a “Re-Muzak Experience.” I think what he does is performance art in elevators. The Swiss are really polite people. My hotel room is amazing. It almost makes me want to change teams, vote Torie and Republican, change my name and brand of toothpaste, date blondes. I pick up the telephone and dial. “Hello, is this Mr. Duffrey?” I say. “Who is this?” A young woman’s voice. “This is Jack Messing, I’m here in Bern for an interview with Mr. Duffrey. Is he available?” “It’s after midnight,” she says. “I was told he keeps late hours.” Part of me wants to ask her, must ask her, needs to ask her: is she my salvation? Young pussy, uncomplicated values? A trust fund? Does she shave or wax her cunt? Has she read more than ten books in her life, cover to cover?
“Yes, he does,” she says. “Is he available?” “Not at the moment, no. Are you staying at the Schweizerhof?” “Yes.” “So are we. What floor are you on?” “Seven. Room 705.” “I’ll be up in a minute.” I think I misremember how to seduce women. Luckily alcohol is preprovided in hotel rooms. What else is involved? Music? Fuck music. I hope she’s really pretty, pretty enough for me to hate her. I light an herbal cigarette, which is an absolutely disgusting invention, a more disgusting invention than actual cigarettes, and then remember that smell is important in seduction too and so I put it out, turn on the ceiling fan. There’s a knock at my door. I open it. “Hi. Mr. Messing?” “Yes. Please come in.” She’s beautiful. Kind of a tight ass. Lip gloss. Black pants, white blouse, some chopsticks in her hair, holding it in a loose arrangement. “You want a drink?” I ask her. “What are you drinking?” she asks. “I haven’t yet.” “Kiss me,” she says. “You want me to kiss you?” “Yes.” “Okay.” So I kiss her, just a little kiss. No tongue. She remains almost motionless. “Let’s run away together,” I say. “Not just yet,” she says. “Whiskey?” I ask. “Bourbon, please.” I hand her a little bottle and crack open my own and take a sip. It tastes good. I watch her eyes. “Mr. Duffrey is unwell,” she says. “I’m sorry to hear that.” “I don’t want to talk about it.” “Take off your blouse,” I say. She looks down at the line of buttons down her chest. “You do it,” she says.
* I am having coffee in Switzerland. The year is 2012. The month is December. I am looking out at the snowy Alps from a sheltered expensive hotel dining room. A beautiful young woman is in the restroom. The company is paying my bills. “Anything else, sir?” the waiter asks. I shake my head and smile. I want to cry. She comes back to the table then. It looks like she’s been crying. “Are you okay?” I ask. “I just quit.” “Oh.” “I hate him.” “Okay. I think I should still do the interview though. I need the money.” “Really?” There’s a lot of phlegm in her throat. She proceeds to hack it up into a napkin. “Sorry.” “It’ll only take fifteen minutes. What room is he in?” “206.” “Wait here.” I kiss her. * I knock on the door. He opens it, and he’s so much older than I expected. In his late 70s. “Mr. Messing?” he asks. “Yes, sir. I’m here to interview you.” “Come in.” “Thank you.” I walk to the hotel table and sit, turn to look at him as he joins me. He has perfect posture, like a dancer. Dressed in all black, like I used to be. “Thank for you your time, sir. Tell me, how is your art coming?” “Let us get to know each other for just a moment, do you mind?” he says, in a noblesse oblige voice. “Sure, okay. I only have a short time though, unfortunately. The company wants me back on a plane.” “With my assistant,” he says. “Yes.” “You’re not her type at all,” he says. “What is her type?” “Fools.”
I say nothing. “Why don’t I just email you the interview,” he says. “Well, let me ask at least two questions so I don’t feel like a complete tool.” “Very well.” “Why elevators?” “They are obscene on their own. I make them palatable by transforming the social expectations of the space of elevators.” “You were born rich?” “My family owns a series of mines.” “Goodbye, Mr. Duffrey,” I say, standing, holding out my hand. He takes it. * I am on a plane. The young woman is asleep next to me. My bank account just increased by $15,000. I checked. It wasn’t the company. It was Duffrey. I am flying west over the Alps. Then I will cross the Atlantic, change planes in New York. Then back to Los Angeles. Does money always keep revolutions at bay? I only want to live; we all do.
At 30,000 ft Jess Bernhart 1. At 30,000 ft and 500 miles per hour, I have beneath me the blank expanse of Kansas, The Haunted Man in my headphones, Sandra Bullock on the screen, and a blonde woman—my sister—asleep on my lap. “Your heart broke when the party died,” sings the sublime voice, from one featureless astral stretch to the next. The atmosphere knows nothing of being left behind. Between one city and the next, the people we leave behind and those we fall back into, there will have only been three hours. The voice moves through the air without any special speed: it runs over the plastic interior walls of the airplane, down Sandra Bullock's strong jawline, over the wings of the airplane, beyond which the sun has just died its regular solar death. We hurtle forward in our defiant aircraft. The song comes to an end somewhere over Alabama. 2. Over Georgia, the airplane shakes and my mind prepares incoherently for death. I compose letters to the people I love, and one or two to the people I hate—small, ecstatic scraps that will burn upon impact. “If you were next to me I would bite you—hard—leave a mark on your arm next to that darling mole, bite until drops of blood form on my forehead.” I know as I am writing that these notes will burn, but it doesn’t matter under the holographic beam of overhead light. It seems right that I should be immolated with these vestiges of a lifetime’s prejudice and passion. Almost a Viking funeral. You do not, as I had hoped, get any distance on life from here. You do not acquire a fresh angle. The journey is not abstract, but frighteningly real; I think not of my childhood, but of how to remain human in this final moment, how not to cry or shit or vomit. Plummeting towards the earth, it will end in the tiniest place. A parking lot, a Burger King, a dark country road. We will turn and move through air and heat, finally entering into red homogeneity or a transparent form or complete disappearance. It will be an insignificant moment in a small place.
3. The airplane breaks apart and hundreds of bodies fall through the air. A silver compact mirror separates from a purse; it falls facing upwards, despite what you thought you knew about aerodynamics, reflecting the dark clouds above us. I and the silver compact mirror fall at the same speed.
4. On Ranburne’s main street, everyone clumps together and asks the same questions. Someone playing host passes around a packet of cigarettes. People gossip darkly, as in a funeral parlor, all of their lives suddenly unified by fear. They worry not who we were, but who they are. Because that’s what death is. It’s a thin membrane through which we pass so that other people may feel anguish on a sunny day. Suddenly the vivid clumps of pansies on Ranburne’s main street resemble sclerosis and the telephone looks like so much hospital equipment. The food is bad and the radio is broken and even the hammocks are mildewed. The dog is not your best friend. What is there to criticize that has not been criticized a thousand times before?
Green and Gray Ally Wright A dead tree lay in the yard. It needed to be moved. She sat on her porch, which remained intact. By some miracle. Of course, she didn't believe in miracles. Not now. “By some miracle” was a phrase she remembered. But her home and the porch had been spared, and the wooden rocking chair built by her great uncle for her great aunt—the wooden rocking chair that she had been given on her wedding day—it was okay, too. So that was something. But a dead tree was lying in the middle of the yard, and it needed to be moved, and she didn't know what to do about that. First, she tried to pick it up, but after a few lumbering attempts, she retreated, her arms and hands scraped and stinging from the burn of the bark. Rolling it didn't work, either; it was entrenched in the mud. So much mud. The knees of her jeans were caked and stiff, from where she'd fallen on them while throwing her weight and energy into the bark and the wood of the tree. The dead tree was lying in the middle of the yard, and a stray gray, matted dog was peeing on it, and she was sitting in her wooden rocking chair, watching. She thought, next, to call her husband to help her lift it. She looked around for him, started to say his name, but the breath caught in her throat, like the mouthpiece of an untied balloon someone had slipped his fingers around. The dead tree was in the yard, but her husband was not there to help her lift it. He would not answer her call even if she could force it out of her mouth. Where had he gone? She rocked in the wooden rocking chair. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. The dog was now sniffing around in the mud by the tree. It started digging: a hole. She remembered a hole. A hole not in mud but in shaped, packed earth. Where was that? The dead tree lying in the yard was the only dead tree lying in her yard. The hole she remembered wasn't the only hole. Her husband was lying down. Was he upstairs? No. He was lying in the hole. And there were other husbands lying in other holes. And wives and children and bones covered with muscles and blood and skin. She had imagined this bone and muscle and blood and skin as she stood next to the hole her husband was lowered into, but all she had seen was the green and the gray. The green grass and the gray stone, and the hole, which was black. She wondered, was the bone and the muscle and skin of the other people still there, under the surface, soaked in blood? Or had they hardened into stone? Been overcome by grass and moss? Turned green and gray themselves?
Her eyes began to sting, as she sat on the porch staring at the dead tree in the yard, with her arms and her hands and now her eyes stinging, wishing that this stinging she felt in her eyes, which she remembered was also called burning, would produce tears of fire instead of water. She had no more use for water, had had enough of it, but fire could burn her insides crisp and make her skin deflate upon her body and dissolve her bones and muscles and blood, and she wouldn't be sitting here on the rocking chair her great uncle built for her great aunt on their fortieth wedding anniversary. The fucking rocking chair. She quit rocking and planted her feet on the porch. She imagined dirt being flung over them, packing them into the earth. The fucking tree was lying in the fucking yard, and she couldn't call her husband to help her because the fucking tree was dead and her husband was too. She stood. The fucking tree was lying in the fucking yard and she couldn't move it herself because she wasn't really good at doing much by herself and her husband was killed by the same storm that killed the tree. The same storm that had carelessly left her and her great aunt's rocking chair intact. She stepped down from the porch and waded into the mud, the mud that had accumulated over the past week of heavy rain, after the storm. It had stopped long enough to lower him into the hole, she remembered. The fucking tree was lying in the fucking yard and her husband was lying in the fucking graveyard and the gray dog wasn't really gray but stained from the rain and the dirt and was now digging a hole next to the dead tree. The fucking tree was lying dead in the fucking yard, and she wanted to be lying under it, but she didn't know how to move it, so she went and lay down in the mud, beside where the dog was digging. She lay in the mud next to the fucking dead tree and dog digging and she looked up at the sky and all she could see were fucking green leaves on trees that had not been killed by the storm and the fucking sky, which was gray again.
My Speculum Series Deborah Sosower My studio practice began with an investigation of different renderings of what I labeled obscured or unconventional self-portraiture. An important breakthrough occured with a lithograph utilizing a ‘montage’ of medications and pill bottles. This piece sparked an intense concentration on the use of medicinal imagery as an alternate means of representing my personal narrative. An important influence in my studio practice has been imposed limitations. I began creating a series of prints utilizing the days of the week as a focus—one print for each day in a suite of seven prints. I introduce new symbolic elements in each series that challenge me to reinterpret the tropes and scenarios I previously envisioned. Through this studio approach, I have been developing and deepening a personal, visual vocabulary. For “My Speculum Series,” I continued using the days of the week motif and added the image of a speculum as a symbol of my fears pertaining to cervical health. Another significant visual development during this series was my incorporation of the generic tear-off calendar border, pronouncing “Today Is” at the top and the day’s specific date at the bottom. I envisioned scenarios in which speculums replaced or interacted with scary or culturally loaded objects in a series of seven prints. In the case of the gun, or in another incarnation as “speculum bombs,” I intended to place speculums, which have only one, female-derivative function, into positions that have been rendered phallic or masculine. I enjoyed placing speculums in scenarios that juxtaposed their functionality. Clothespins cinch clothing and laundry lines together; high-heeled shoes envelope and contort the foot; but speculums only serve to open and widen. This series marks a transformative and pivotal point of my artistic practice. These imagined experiences allow an entry into my personal mythology combating fear and pain.
Try to Forget Cheryl Wollner When you meet your Great-Aunt Thelma give her a hug. You’re in the airport and people will stare if you don’t hug her back. She and Great-Uncle Jack did invite you to spend the week with them, after all. The least you can do is show a semblance of affection. Just give her a hug and try not to think of your grandma when you see how Aunt Thelma is dressed. Your grandma never wore a yellow cardigan, but your grandma did dress in bright chic styles and smear her lips with a similar shade of burnt red. Give Aunt Thelma a hug. You don’t have to mean it. When you drive back from the airport with your Great-Aunt Thelma try to be the grand-niece you think she would want. Speak quietly. Deliberate on your words. Sit up straight in the backseat, let Aunt Thelma and Uncle Jack start the conversation. Answer politely, if with a hint of rote memorization, when they ask about your classes. Aunt Thelma knows already from your last letter, but tell Uncle Jack. He is more focused on watching the road, but tell him anyway about your literature class and how you’re reading Rudyard Kipling. Then go silent. This is what they want: an obedient child. Give it to them. You don’t have to mean it. When you arrive at their apartment in Boca Raton, Florida try not to laugh at all the jokes your mom makes about how fitting it is that they live in a place translated as the mouth of the rat. Try to imagine Uncle Jack when his hair was flaming red and still covered his scalp. Try to picture him snooping around in your grandparents’ bedroom years before you were born, when your mother had to send him downstairs. Your mother loves to tell this adult version of cops and robbers. Think on this story when Uncle Jack, thin, narrow at the shoulders with white hair dotting a whiter scalp, tries to take your luggage from the car. Insist—as politely as you can—that you can do it yourself. Then, go silent. Let them lead the way into the apartment. When you see Aunt Thelma’s apartment is lined with paintings she’s done, try not to think of your grandma. Try not to compare Aunt Thelma’s paintings to hers. Your grandma was the artist, and she may have been younger than Aunt Thelma, but art belonged to her alone. Aunt Thelma has none of the artistic nudes your grandma painted, none of the shadows spilling out of the corners of knees and elbows, or framing delicate necks. Aunt Thelma is a good artist, but she is rigid with her work. Don’t let your eyes linger on the Chinese women staring at you through the canvas. She’s not that good. When you go to the guest room, lock the door at night. Aunt Thelma and Uncle Jack are people you’ve only met once before, after all, almost a year ago, in a hospital in New York. You sat across from Aunt Thelma in the cafeteria and ate chicken-flavored soup. Don’t let your mind linger in that hospital. Think of her letters to you these past months instead. Remember that she left New York before you were born. She’s only
writing to you now because your grandma is dead. She doesn’t care about you. She came back to New York only to watch her sister die. In the guest room, scribble in your journal. You are her way of atoning for the past twenty years she was not in your life. Jab the pen into the paper. Double-check that you locked the door. When you get a call from your grandpa, months later, that Aunt Thelma had a stroke, try not to cry. Try to keep watching Star Trek in your friend’s apartment. Cry silently and tell yourself she’s not worth your tears. You spent one week with her. Try not to think of pouring Aunt Thelma tea in the mornings so she wouldn’t have to get it herself with her bad back. Try not to think of the piano concert she took you to and how perfectly your fingers fit together when you held hands. Instead, think of her very first letter to you and how much you lied in your response, and every response since, when you signed Love, Cheryl. Think of the time she told you to wear makeup and dye your hair auburn to look more mature. Think back to hugging her in the airport and how you didn’t mean it. Don’t mean it now. Try to forget. Cry because you need to, but try not to mean it.
The Sucked Orange Natalia Castells-Esquivel It occurs to me that I’m writing about a city with more lovers than there are sidewalks—her heart will never be mine. Is it possible to take a bite out of an apple long gone? I’d always had a craving for The Big Apple, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, a sucked orange. Though it probably wasn’t his intention—I’ve learned he wasn’t the biggest fan of our Batman-less Gotham—he managed to compare it to something sweet, yet bitter, rounded, yet with a flawed texture. Which are exactly the words I would use to describe myself when I moved there, in the summer of 2011. I woke up at seven on a Sunday morning in a yacht, though technically, I wasn’t sleeping. My back felt cool against the silky warm wooden surface I was lying on as I opened my eyes. We were parked in the middle of the Hudson River, and how or when we got there I had no clue. Not that it mattered. What I do remember is the water being bluer and colder than expected, and how the tips of my fingers tingled into numbness when I dipped them in. I remember one of the guys sat next to me, and in between lines of coke, told me that the word “yacht” came from Dutch and that it means “hunt.” There were six of us, and at some point, before the sun was out, they all took off their jeans and dresses and socks and flew into the water. They became blurry silhouettes against the Manhattan skyline. And if I remember anything for sure, it’s that almost everything was blurry. That was the blurriest night in the brightest summer of my life. I was on a hunt. And I remember being in love with it all. When I showed up in the city there were thirty dollars in my pocket. Probably stupid, but I was twenty-one and it seemed brave. What doesn’t at that age? I had just survived my first rock-bottom. I’d swallowed two bottles of pills a couple months earlier and spent a week in the hospital– depression runs in my family; drowning is something we do well. But as I walked off the MTA bus carrying my tiny bag, in the middle of a sizzling July day, and felt the warmth of the pavement seep through the soles of my not-a-NewYorker flip-flops, I knew thirty dollars had to be enough. I wasn’t leaving the place without succeeding. So I raised my chin, put on my best not-a-tourist face, slung my bag over my back, and proceeded to get lost in the subway. Luckily, a friend in the Lower East Side let me crash with him for a couple weeks. He was an RA, a resident assistant at NYU and, to the envy of everyone in the five boroughs, he got to enjoy free housing. This sweet, sweet soul shared his already cramped dorm with me and all my baggage for a whole fourteen days for free (my bag might’ve been insignificant, but the tear-filled nights weren’t). In a city where even cigarettes are so expensive that people won’t bum them anymore but sell them a dollar apiece, sometimes two, this was a Gandhi-sized act of kindness—if Gandhi played guitar like an angel and liked painting his nails purple and
watching “Titanic” with me on replay. Boy was busy though, and I was down to twenty dollars on the second day, so I ventured off to find a job. As it turned out, getting a job to survive was easy. It was almost like all the bad luck I’d harbored for the past year had been blown off of me the first time I walked over an air vent on Bowery and 2nd. I walked into an Italian restaurant on a busy corner in the LES and straight into a tall man with “I miss the Old New York” tattooed on his forearm. He had nice shoes. Self-conscious about my shoes for the second time in two days, I made a mental note to buy new, fashionable ones. Probably not heels, because of all the walking, and I’m not one to wear heels, but maybe some cool oxfords or something. “How can I help you?” he looked at me waiting with his head cocked to one side. “Oh, hi, are you hiring?” “No, we’re not” “Are you sure though? Because I just moved to the city and have twenty dollars left and tons of experience in restaurants and I’m already hungry so please?” I called my dad as I walked out of the restaurant and gave him the good news. “Just like that?” he said. I said, “Just like that—training starts Monday.” My reward: a soft pretzel with spicy mustard on the steps of the Met, the city around me painted the color of clementines and beer. Within two weeks I’d forgotten all about depression and anemia and sadness in my gasping lungs. My days were spent happily serving amazing pizza to people from all over the world in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the world. I mean, St. Mark’s dollar pizza is good and all but the burrata pizza at my place could make Upper East Siders move to Bushwick and stay. Okay, maybe not, but it was pretty damn good. The people, though, are what won the grand prize. It’s said that New Yorkers are colder than their winters—this unfavorable reputation precedes them. World, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree. My New Yorkers were warm, the kind of warm that makes your eyes droopy and sleepy like a cuddled child’s. There was Amelia, a black-haired beauty with an intense love for everything Amy Winehouse, who put up with all my drunken nights. There was Michael, who taught me how to play chopsticks on a piano in the middle of a Williamsburg park. There was Laura, the hopeless romantic with the amazing voice, and Mickey, the Romanian bartender and crepe connoisseur, and Ben, the homeless boy who shared calzones with me in Alphabet City. They made me feel welcome and for the first time in years, I could be whoever I wanted to be—maybe, even, myself. I could be the Mexican child and the still-Mexican-but-now-living-in-the-godawful-American-suburbs confused teenager. I could be the happiest girl in the world, which is what my first boyfriend used to call me, but I could also be the depressed suicidal mess. I could be
Hispanic, yet white, middle class, yet broke as hell. Everyone in New York is a transplant with the words “Just Be” tattooed upon their hungry chests. I fit right in. It’s funny what minds choose to remember. In a society so intent on looking at the big picture, a world with such a small attention span that we went from TV to YouTube to Instagram video, it’s curious how what we remember isn’t big chunks of information at all. New York City’s constant sensory overload left me only with how warm the Nutella inside the crepe that I bought at that little place on Ludlow St was. It left me remembering the spice on my tongue on my first (ever) dinner out alone at that Indian place with the hundreds of Christmas lights strung along the ceiling and the bizarre twin restaurants next to it. The cold of the rail against my face on the stoop where I spent a night. The dull green of the water and the trees and the exact line where it met the gray of the bloated Central Park sky. The sign on the street that said “Don’t even THINK of parking here” and how hilarious it was because it was an official city sign and oh my god New Yorkers are the craziest. I remember the sparkling bloody knees of the girl at Union Square. Her roller skates looked brand new, baby pink with glitter stars, but she was quickly putting scratches on them—she kept falling and falling and falling. The black sequin skirt she was wearing was getting dusty, it had lost some of its shine. Her grandmother, an eccentric woman with bright platinum hair, really strong biceps, and orange sunglasses, would tirelessly pick her up after every single fall. She would smile encouragingly, dusting off the girl’s skirt with wrinkled hands, a bagful of Band-Aids in her pocket. Above all, New York made me remember the crazy girl, me, who sat on the steps outside a bar at too-many-tequilas a.m., on her 17th day in The City That Never Sleeps, sobbing uncontrollably because the insecurity rocks in her stomach apparently couldn’t be drowned. It wasn’t all perfect. But anyone who’s ever lived in New York will tell you this: tears aren’t as salty in that place. I spent the last two weeks sleeping on a deflating air mattress thrown across the kitchen of an over-prized, under-sized, underground studio apartment, compliments of a very generous family friend. I’ll say it again: Anyone willing to share their living space in Manhattan deserves a damn prize...or at least a diploma with smiley faces on it and unlimited frozen margaritas from Panchito’s in the Greenwich Village. Rodrigo, my host, was an absolute champ about letting me stay with him. After all, I was invading his bachelor pad. But before I knew it, it was August and my last night. New York had worked wonders—after four weeks of pizza and beer and gyros I was finally back to my normal weight. My baggage didn’t seem as heavy anymore; the hunt was almost over, the arrow cutting fast through soggy air. Bags were already packed inside and I sat on the cement stoop on 7th smoking a cigarette, drinking Arizona tea, sucking an orange dry (because hey, I thought it was poetic) and thinking about anxiety and summers and going back. The city’s spontaneity had saved my life and I was worried
that going back home would somehow break the spell. I’d tasted rock bottom, it tasted like blood, and had no intention of ever doing that again. The street was unusually busy, a loud buzz of unknown faces everywhere—a pack of teenagers on longboards, a lady screaming into a cellphone, an awkward first date looking at everything except each other, an old couple walking slowly and holding hands. I looked down at my feet for a second and was startled when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. The old man stood in front of me, grinning. “Everything is going to be okay,” he said, as he squeezed lightly, “I’ve learned that much.” He turned around, held the woman’s hand again, and walked away. After a stunned second, I dropped the cigarette and slid my shaking hands over my sparkling bloody knees. With skyscrapers stuck in my throat, I quietly thanked the patient city that tirelessly picked me up after every single fall. On my way to the airport the next morning I made one last stop. I bought myself some damn fancy shoes.
Cowgirls are God’s Wildest Angels Tricia Stearns I grew up quick as a child. The fourth daughter in a line of daughters ahead of me, I was out to prove that I could be the son my father always wanted. It was the 70s and Nixon ran for President; go-go boots set the fashion scene and I lip-synced in my bedroom to Nancy Sinatra’s song, These Boots Were Made for Walkin’, but my boots were red cowboy boots. I wore my red cowboy boots everywhere, even to the cardiologist with my eldest sister, who at 17 was a heart attack away from death. I slipped them on with pale blue Bermuda shorts, the back of my legs sticking to the vinyl seat covers of the family Impala as we commuted to the epilepsy research center with my second sister who lived her teenage years with wires to her head. Sundays required a dress; I defiantly anchored the boots to a lime-green-checked sundress with tiny yellow daisies, caring little that my boots failed to match (my sister, who resided at the Richmond State School for the mentally ill, couldn’t even recognize me, bad fashion, or my boots). I was out to prove that I could survive just about anything, and my boots became my uniform and hope. My boots were the first to be packed when my parents decided that, at age twelve, I was at a vulnerable stage and should spend time with one of the two Catholic priests in the family, Uncle Bob. Now, Uncle Bob wasn’t like most priests—reading, writing, and praying in a cool, dark office that smelled like last week’s incense. No, my Uncle Bob wore the obligatory black shirt and collar, but his shirt topped black jeans and a black leather belt, with a large, silver, longhorn cow as the buckle. The tips of the buckle, the actual longhorns of this four-inch silver cow, held up Uncle Bob’s small-but-growing beer gut. And he liked his beer. His boots, black ostrich, held dust in the fine creases of the leather with the outside heels leaning an inch lower than the inner heel. He walked bow-legged, with a slight limp. When I stayed with Uncle Bob, there was no telling what the average day would look like. It started out simple enough: morning mass at 7 a.m., held with reverence in an un-air-conditioned bingo hall that served as the church, since the parish was too poor to have an actual church yet. Two six-foot-by-four-foot wide fans flanked the altar, which was just constructed of a folding table on cement blocks. The fans circulated the hill country heat through the hall in a meditative hum. Blue, my uncle’s mutt, the derivative of a love affair between a black Lab and hound dog, howled outside. The dog’s vibrato echoed through the fans in an eerie way when my uncle said the Our Father. He often stopped mid-sentence and yelled, “Blue. Shut up. Shut the hell up, ya damn dog!” He continued with the sacred prayer, not missing a word.
This morning ritual was followed by a breakfast of Cheerios, Dr. Pepper, and a brownie for dessert. He usually sat and smoked a Lark, placing a new pack in his black shirt pocket along with his lighter—a little Bic with a naked woman on it. He flicked his ashes in between his lectures to me on life and love as I washed down my breakfast with a second Dr. Pepper. When a phone call interrupted him and he talked in his office awhile, I started a new game of gin rummy with my grandmother, who lived with him. Also with a Lark in her hand, she smoked fast and with passion, but she moved slowly with a replaced hip. I heard the office door open and I got the nod it was time for his rounds. Most days I got to ride with him wherever he went. It may have been to the convent down the street, where Sister John and Sister Helen were the last of the parish nuns. Sister John and Sister Helen had been ordered to return to Italy, when their order decided that the smallest of Brazos County parishes could live without their services. However, they decided to defect, preferring Uncle Bob’s brand of priesthood and the offerings of Texas A&M down the road. With room for twelve nuns, and one chapel in the center of the convent, Sister John used the space to set up a kindergarten and day care in the summer. Sister Helen worked at the hospital over in Brennan. Both were in school at Texas A&M, seeking official degrees in teaching and nursing, and they served as organizational liaisons for Uncle Bob’s annual fundraiser, “The Somerville Stampede.” Although Somerville was a one-stop-light town, it was a hopping place one weekend a year, since my uncle’s rodeo was on the official Texas Rodeo circuit. Hundreds of horse and cattle trailers would line up side by side, with most entrants camping at the rodeo site, in lieu of driving over to Brennan, the next town, 30 miles away. Even the Blue Bell ice cream, a landmark in Brennan, couldn’t beat the local parishioner ladies’ BBQ and authentic Mexican food. The hand-rolled tortillas and BBQ sandwiches created enough profit for the ladies not to not have to work for the rest of the year. For one weekend a year, Joe Esparza’s small ranch became a rodeo Woodstock, and all the proceeds blessed St. Anne’s parish. My uncle’s claim to fame—earning him his nickname, Bullet Bob—was the fact that he was the only bull-riding priest in Texas. Before he embarked on his yearly ride (which usually landed him in the ER), he would ride through the ring with a ten-gallon Stetson, circling for cash all in the name of Jesus and St. Anne’s parish. This took at least an extra thirty minutes, with the aid of the rodeo clowns picking up the cash, making up a skit to increase the donations, and Bullet Bob trotting his horse slowly around the ring as he laughed and cajoled people out of their Benjamins, Hamiltons, and Jacksons. Most of the weeks preceding the stampede were filled with organizational duties— little did I know that most of our errands pertained to critical issues like beer sponsors, prize money, food, parking, you name it. I often sat reading The Secret Garden anywhere from an office to a barn to a bar.
One day, we went out to a ranch lined with short mesquite trees following a dusty gravel road. Although I was only twelve, I was already 5’10” and Uncle Bob needed help backing up a trailer. I stood tall and waved him back so that he would not hit the back of his denim-blue ‘69 Ford truck on the front hitch of a long black trailer—the kind that is so big it could fit six longhorns steers. After directing the truck to line up to the trailer, my second lesson was to include how to load a bull. The bull, who I renamed Pepper, needed to be delivered to the rodeo site where I was going to get real and not just I-dare-you-toride lessons on bull riding. Every twelve-year-old girl from Houston needs to know how to properly load a bull in a trailer, right? Right. The large, grayish bull circled the trailer, bucking and spewing, and I was smart enough to jump on the hood of the truck and watch while Bullet Bob and a bevy of Mr. Hernandez’s ranch hands talked Pepper onto the trailer. The only thing I really learned is that the best place to be when loading a bull is on the hood of a truck, and that men are not as brave—or as smart—as you think. Eventually, the bull got corralled into the trailer, and we were off to Frog’s for a greasy hamburger and another mid-day Dr. Pepper. Frog’s was the kind of place where all the locals went. The air was cool; the place was light with large windows revealing a field of yellow wildflowers across the highway. The tables and benches were dark, made from an old barn from the back of the property. The tablecloths were the typical red-checkered plastic, complete with an occasional fly stuck to leftover BBQ sauce and, like many of the patrons, too comfortable to move. The jukebox honored Willie, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones. Willie blended the hippies and the cowboys together, and so did Frog’s. Everyone was welcome, young and old alike. Once when I was reading a crucial scene in Secret Garden, I ignored my manners and the waitress as she served me another Dr. Pepper. She was missing a tooth and her extra-long Benson and Hedges fit right where her tooth should have been. She wore a man’s navy blue sleeveless shirt that at one time did have sleeves, and it seemed snug on her large breasts. I could smell her deodorant vanishing as her cigarette bounced up and down with each syllable on her large bottom lip caked with a bright pink lipstick. I felt a large hand on the back of my braided pony tail yank me outside. The same large hand yanked me up by the back of my jeans and I landed squarely on the hood of a black Chevy truck—my bottom just missing a rather large longhorn hood ornament. The heat from the sun on the black truck made me feel like hell was awfully close. “Listen here, Murph. And listen good.” Bullet Bob, less than a foot from my face, his eyes glaring at me, gave me very little choice. “Let there be no mistake how serious I am when I say this: Never forget, never forget, you—yes, you—are no better than anyone else. People may be different. They may not have what you have. They may not be as pretty, may not be as smart. But never
ever forget—you are no different than they are. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should be treated like the Lord would treat us all—with love and respect. You got that cowgirl? You got that? I am serious here. You go in there and treat Miss Bea like she was last year’s Miss Texas and be nice, ya hear?” I quickly got used to a different way of life. Folks eating egg tacos and drinking a Lone Star seemed natural at ten in the morning. Frog’s served as the local diner and the local bar, and kids were welcome if you were with family. I was with the Father of the town, and he played that priest card often and well. He held a lot of official meetings at Frog’s, and a lot of unofficial meetings, too. He could play a round of poker and do marriage counseling all in the same fifteen minutes. He knew he was sure to find whatever local he needed, counsel a wavering parishioner, and everyone knew where to find the priest. Remember, this was circa 1972, before cell phones and emails. Six hours later, and at least six beers later—maybe more—my Uncle Bob thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to drive the Ford and Pepper back to the rectory. It sounded like a good idea to me. One of the benefits of being tall at an early age was that I looked older than I really was. I looked at least 14. Anxious to grow up, and feeling sassy in my red boots, I sat tall, my foot easily reaching the pedal and my hands at ten and two. I sauntered down County Road 420 with the bull shifting his weight to and fro behind me in Darth Vader’s cattle trailer. When I pulled right to get on the big highway— Highway 36—I felt his weight shift a bit. Uncle Bob decided we needed to stop for cigarettes. One can never run out of Larks. I pulled into the one gas station in town, and he decided we would get gas too. Fortunately, the gas tank was on the driver’s side. I slowly pulled the Ford to a stop and let out a sigh of relief. Uncle Bob staggered into the store, and I pumped the gas, having learned this on previous Uncle Bob adventures. I waited and waited in the truck. Bullet Bob appeared to be listening to a last minute confession with the store employee. He was still laughing when he jumped into the truck and handed me a Dr. Pepper and a handful of penny candy. While lighting his Lark, he said, “Murph, you look like a pro there driving. Now let’s take this bad-ass bull home. I’ll take him to the Joe’s tomorrow.” I pulled out of the gas station as if I drove a truck with a trailer every day of the week. Unfortunately, I cut left to get on the two-lane highway a bit too soon, and the trailer took the last gas pump with it. At first I didn’t know what happened; was the bull moving, or did I hit something? Then I saw this geyser of fluid, and the bull shifted too and fro, all in a matter of seconds. I screamed, and the priest shouted, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, oh my gawd, oh shit!” I stopped dead on the highway. The bull fell forward with another large mooo. Bullet Bob was yelling and laughing all at the same time, “Well, don’t stop now, Murph, keep on going! Pull ahead to the Dairy Queen!”
About two hundred yards later, I sat and watched kids eating their dipped cones inside the Dairy Queen with their moms and dads. In the rearview mirror, I watched the dark shadow of my uncle as he weaved a jog back to the gas station while the pump spewed and filled the potholes of the parking lot with clear danger. I could see the fire truck and sheriff cars approaching, their lights bright and fast. I just knew I was going to jail, and I would be there until I was too old to drive again. I wondered if they would ever give me a Dr. Pepper in jail, or would every meal consist of gruel like in the movie Oliver? I wanted to be with the family in the Dairy Queen. Time passed slowly. The family gobbled chocolate dipped cones as they laughed and talked with each other. My knees jiggled, and sweat was pouring down into my red boots. My eyes were fixed in the rearview mirror, watching the chaos and the police talking to Bullet Bob. I wondered what they would let me wear in jail. About thirty minutes later, Uncle Bob jumped back in the truck, nodding his head forward. “Okay, Murph, keep on driving straight and turn left at the bingo sign, and head for home. God is with us. Always remember that.”
Unsent Letter 39 Keely Lewis Leo, The sign in front of the Shout Hosanna House of God says, “How Much Worse Would You're Life Be Without God? PTL!” And Johanna who goes there says PTL stands for Praise The Lord, but when I first saw it I decided it stood for Pretend There's Lions! meaning that maybe lions would try to attack me if it weren't for the power of God. That would make my life harder without a doubt. So if God is keeping a lion infestation at bay just out of the goodness of His heart I'm grateful, but I miss you more than I'm afraid of lions and I wish that He had some sort of Scantron card that let you fill in the bubble next to whichever option you wanted to be protected from the most. Even if lions and kidney thieves and degenerative diseases were on the list, I'd pick losing you. Do you remember when Robbie Whitehill got saved for the third time and he was going up and down the block with his hair slicked back with Elmer's glue and pamphlets that looked like smudged doves? How he kept calling you brother and me sister and I said we weren't related and he laughed and said we are in heaven, sugarpie, and you said well, honeybear, this is planet Earth? And he wanted to smack you for that, I could tell, but then he remembered the love of Christ and smiled, eyes clear as the Crystal Cathedral, and asked if we had given our hearts to Jesus yet and begged forgiveness for our sins. And you said we are the universe loving itself, we don't need that woo-woo stuff, and his smile got so wide that his lips fissured and his teeth looked like an archway of baby ghosts. He said son, do you know how lucky you are to be alive? Your Father in Heaven made your great-grandparents and your grandparents and your parents and you and if he had chosen not to make just one of them, you wouldn't be standing here today. What do you think your chances of being born would be in an accidental universe? And you were fourteen years old and already a smart-ass pansy punk kid and you'd memorized half of Howl by reading it under the covers with a flashlight, so nobody had to tell you that you were hot shit. You looked at him and said there's a one hundred percent chance that I've already been born. Leo, for as long as I've lived I have worshiped you. You are my patron saint. It's been one hundred days since you disappeared and the police say that because you're manic again and you haven't turned up in jail or a shelter there's a forty-six percent chance that you're dead in a ditch somewhere. They didn't say it like that, but they thought it. Instead they said 'deceased.' I wonder about that word because it sounds like 'to stop ceasing' which would be to start going again, but that's not what they meant,
I'm sure. I also know they're right. You left because you had to stop ceasing. The real question is where you're going now. And why didn't you take me with you? Yours, Zoe
The Row Evan Guilford-Blake The Row is quiet. It is early Sunday afternoon, the weather has just turned crisp, and in parts of The City where such things flourish, leaves crackle underfoot. Not here. The Row is quiet: empty cement sidewalks, metal gratings and brick. It is void of leaves. It is, almost, void of people, as well. Those who live outside The Row rarely venture inside its de facto borders. Instead, they skirt them: It’s safer and cleaner and more comfortable where they are. Marcus—that’s the whole name, he will say if asked: first and last or first or last, what does it matter—sleeps in a doorway. He dreams, of hot meals and bonded bourbon. The last food was Friday night: dry chick’n and mash’ ’tatos at The Mission. Last night, he had a pint of Wild Irish Rose. It made him vomit. He wandered away from the green pool, across the street, up further on The Row to Tacy’s, but Ricardo the night clerk wouldn’t give him a bed—“’Cardo, c’mon, I give you t’ other couple dollars t’morra”; “Forget it, you fuckin’ drunkie, wino prick. You don’t got ten dollars you ain’t gettin’ no fuckin’ bed here. G’ on, get out.”—ten minutes later, still in the “lobby”—“You gettin’? Or I’m kickin’? Fucker.” Ricardo does not like winos or Tacy’s or his job or his wife, or that they are both illegal aliens, which Tacy knows and uses to keep Ricardo the night clerk and his wife the day clerk at incomes barely higher than they had in Tuxtla Gutierrez. But, hey, Tacy tells them, “Y’ got a free room, somethin’ to cook on, refrigerator, bed. And your ’lectricity.” And a radiator. Two fans, no air conditioning. So Marcus leaves Tacy’s and wanders up The Row where he meets Arno McGregor, who has a quart of Pabst which Arno (who can always remember, proudly, that he is seventy-three, unlike Marcus who sometimes forgets that he is sixty-four) shares with him. Marcus has known Arno forever: Arno was there when Marcus came seven, eight years ago; Marcus doesn’t remember that either; Arno showed him around, The Mission, the dumpsters behind the pizza palaces and corner convenience stores, most of which are gone now. Sometimes they sit in a doorway or on a cement bench among the sparse trees and dry grass of the park and pass a bottle back and forth and talk. Arno talks: There are “old days” in his life which he recalls, sometimes with pleasure. Marcus had old days, too, but like so much else they’ve slipped from memory. He gets flashes, now and then—a picture of a face, a swatch of a song, a vision of a tree lit up with ornaments and tinsel—but they are as tenuous as his life is, and as ephemeral as the taste of the warm beer he swallows when it’s there. Sometimes he wonders: Where did I come from, how did I get here? He thinks he used to know the answers, but they are part of his past and the only thing he knows is his present. He asked Arno once, but Arno didn’t know, either.
“Whyn’t you go to The Mission?” Arno asks. Marcus shakes his head. He was at The Mission last night. They sat him down to listen to the Word of God and words of hope, they fed him, they gave him clothes and offered him a mattress and a blanket (both disinfected daily); he muttered his thanks and left. Marcus doesn’t like Bibles and Hymns and Jesus Christ Will Save You, Lean On The Lord. He doesn’t like dry chick’n or prune faces in starched collars and he doesn’t like the smell: not clean; sterile. Arno finishes the bottle and sets off. He will probably go to The Mission, or he will stay at Tacy’s if he has the ten dollars. Arno is tall and lean and, despite his age and the alcohol and his long time on The Row, alert. He goes to The Clinic every month, where they take his pulse and his blood pressure, give him medicine and advice. Marcus walks further up The Row. It’s late, Saturday night, there’s a full moon and The City is blinking and yawning. Neon and smokestacks. Noises he can hear beyond The Row. Another world; he hasn’t been in it for…he forgets, because he chooses to. Choices are left: to stay where he is, to go somewhere else. The Mission: eat and sleep. Down The Row: maybe share another bottle. Touch the fringe: beg another couple dollars for a bed at Tacy’s. He reaches in the side pocket of his brown tweed jacket, the one that isn’t torn, and fondles the six dollar bills, the three quarters, three dimes, six pennies. Saturdays, it’s harder to get money. People are in even more of a hurry than they are during the week, and there are fewer of them on The Row—fewer visitors anyway. Sundays are his best days, if he’s up to making the rounds of the churches on the fringes. People will give him a quarter or a dollar, kids—little girls in white dresses with bows and boys in dark suits and somber ties—will ask their parents to give him money. He stops and jingles the coins: they clink, clink softly. He checks the pants; the pockets are still empty. He nods absently and rubs his hands against his thighs. The shiny gray serge irritates his palms. The pants fit well and are still crisp: last night’s bounty from The Mission. He jingles the pocket again. The coins make a dull, unsatisfying noise. He starts off once more but is stopped by a tall figure emerging from the dark of an alley. Marcus knows no fear; his life cannot be jeopardized. The tall figure steps in front of him and, in a ratchety baritone, commands “Give it to me, man,” then, as an afterthought, adds, “or I’m gone cut you’ motherfuckin’ eyes out.” Marcus raises his face but not his hands. The figure stands there, blocking the moon. All Marcus sees are the eyes: bright red. “Where you got it motha-fucka,” the figure cries quietly and grabs the brown tweed lapel. It tears. Marcus silently watches the rip extend down the front of the jacket. The figure says nothing else. It curls its fist into Marcus’ stomach. Marcus doubles, hears the serge tear, feels the pants pockets being turned out. Then the tweed tears again and he hears the plink of copper and silver on cement. He hears “Shit” and a scrambling sound and, “All you got is six dollars and some fucking change?” before he
feels a metaled heel brandish his back and propel him forward onto the sidewalk, where his forehead slides and the skin abrades, pores filling quickly with blood. He lies there while the metal heels click down The Row. He tries to breathe in slow, shallow gulps. He wants to vomit again but his stomach isn’t strong enough. He lies there, waiting. When he finally gets up, it’s with the help of Freddy, who has stumbled against him in the night. Freddy is nearly blind, he carries a white cane, which, like now, he often just carries, and sells chewing gum and rolls of candy on a street corner beyond The Row. Freddy, unlike Marcus, isn’t always on The Row. He is sixty-six and was in The War in Vietnam. He got syphilis there. It wasn’t diagnosed until years later; he has been growing blind ever since. The Veterans Administration offers to help him, and sometimes, Freddy lets them. Marcus envies Freddy that help; Freddy has his own room and never goes to The Mission. “Who is that?” Freddy asks uneasily. Freddy fears most things, except the people of The Row. They are his friends, for he alone among them always seems to have the ten spot for Tacy’s, or the three sixty-nine for a half-pint at Danny O’Lea’s, when they need it. “Marcus.” “... Happened?” asks Freddy. Marcus explains. Freddy nods and offers a bottle: Canuck Rye. Marcus drinks from it, knowing he will regurgitate moments later. The stomach muscles have come back. Freddy offers him a bed at Tacy’s. Marcus shakes his head and grunts, “Nah,” and Freddy does not press the issue. He walks away, down The Row, to his room, nine by twelve feet, a bed, an (illegal) hot plate like the one Ricardo the night clerk and his wife have, a hanging sixty watt bulb, three neatly folded shirts and two pair of slacks in one drawer, four pairs of underwear and four of socks in the other. And, on the wall, a black and white snapshot of Freddy with his arm around a young Asian woman in khakis. On the back of the photo is written “Nov. 72”: when Freddy returned from Vietnam. The woman in the picture is a whore. Marcus bends over but doesn’t vomit. Instead, he sees a dime, overlooked by his assailant. He picks it up, then walks further up The Row, finds a recessed doorway, sits, takes out the dime, looks at it, turns it in his hands. Some words, a phrase, reach his mind, something about building a dream, and slip away again. He tries to remember them, leans back against the door and licks his lips in concentration. He continues to think, but the words have fallen away. In the distance he hears a train whistle and an elevated car rattle against the night. Gradually he falls asleep. When he wakes up, The Row is quiet. It is Sunday afternoon and the weather has turned crisp. Marcus gets to his feet, bunches the brown tweed in front of him and sets off, going down The Row.
The Reprieve Hank Pugh Clay knew a good place to die, and it wasn’t hospice. He’d known the mountains since he was a boy, and after a long hike he slid into the shaded Appalachian hollow. Before getting to this place, he’d wandered, alone. If he’d cared about getting back, he’d have said he was lost. But a sound like liquid wind pulled him to the top of a ridge, and there he caught sight of the stream through the forest. I know this place, he thought. To slow his descent down the ridge, he used the 12 gauge side-by-side shotgun as a staff. His pancreas had betrayed him, but his old legs were still strong, and he kept his balance on the scree. At the bottom, he rested and looked over the familiar place. Against the opposite ridge, the stream roiled out of its banks, wilding with spring runoff. At his feet, a sinuous line of twigs, matted grass, and the occasional drowned vole proved the water had been much higher. It had scoured the soil from around a great oak, which fell in the spring’s high winds. The empty eye sockets of a bleached skull urged Clay to the tree. High water had tumbled a dead buck into the oak’s crown, its neck wrenched into an impossible position, its antlers locked in the tree’s dying branches. The carcass was legless, just a head and the forlorn ribs arching out from the spine. Ants and beetles carpeted the jerked buckskin on the ground. Maggots and putrefaction had come and gone and so had the emetic reek. What odor remained distilled the forest’s intimate mix of the living and the dead. Clay leaned in for a closer look. When the buck’s heart stopped, the bacteria in his intestines started eating him. The infinitesimal odor of that process attracted emerald blow-flies and ruby-eyed fleshflies. They laid their eggs in his anus, open mouth, nostrils, and the wound in his shoulder that killed him. Some oviposited in his ears and on the tiny ledges under his exposed eyeballs. In a day those eggs hatched. Maggots burrowed into him, each excavating a shaft to mine the nutrients of his flesh. Within minutes of death, carrion beetles arrived and commenced the work of dismantling the body, bite by bite, their flattened bodies squeezing, turning, and rummaging in places. The gay yellow capes of the beetles made a caprice of their dirty work. To the flies and beetles, the body was more than food; it was incubator, too. Even as the maggots devoured the stag, microscopic mites carried on the beetles’ backs prepared the nursery for the beetle young, consuming fly eggs and maggots that would compete with the beetle larvae for the buck’s flesh. Vultures found him, and those hunchbacks approached and retreated––hunger warring with cowardice––until they mounted him and feasted, their bald red heads buried to the collar in his guts. Later, feral pigs took their turns, stripping his flesh and scattering his bones along the creek to be heaved and tumbled by the impetuous water.
So it went, day by day, and by small degrees the stag’s body was returned to the indifferent earth. I wonder who got the pancreas, thought Clay. He held his open hand to the ground and a carrion beetle crept onto his palm. The beetle seemed to regard him with a vague personal interest. Clay studied the beetle’s scabrous features. There was nothing he recognized. The true other, he thought. No face. No emotion. No memory. Nothing to hold him. He returned the bug to the carcass. Between the dead buck and the beetle, he couldn’t have said which he most identified with. Clay opened the gun and slipped the deer slug into the right-side barrel. No need to load the left. The sharp smell of Hoppe’s NITRO gun solvent chased the scent of earth and water from his nostrils. He leaned the gun against a root of the fallen oak, stripped off his clothes, and sat with his back against the upturned root ball. His skin pebbled and contracted around him in the cool air. His nipples hardened and his penis withdrew, turtle-necked against the chill. Moist, black earth sprinkled his shoulders. An opportunistic ant passed from a root to the nape of his neck and tickled its way into his coarse gray hair, still dented from the band of the baseball cap he had hung on a dogwood branch. He regretted the cap’s gaudy colors, so out of place there. Clay bent his legs and laid the gun’s stock on his raised knees. He rested the muzzle against his chest and held it there with his right hand. With his left, he passed the forked end of a stick he had cut through the trigger guard and touched it to the gun’s single trigger. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back. His skin rippled like water to his heart’s pounding. He forced deep breaths. Only the air of his life’s first breath had felt fresher. He calmed. Free of the words at last––unresectable, neoplasm, the hateful palliative– –he’d never been more alive to the world. In a reverie he pressed the trigger. The hard metallic clap of the firing pin in the empty left-side barrel pealed through the woods and across the stream, reverberated off the folded ridges, plumbed the sky, and echoed through the universe. The trout in the river shuddered. The earth-bound awakened. The airborne gathered around him––all the birds that had fallen before his gun––everything forgiven. Clay recoiled. Alive. The selector button, he thought. The selector button’s set for the wrong barrel. He dropped the stick and with his left hand found and pushed the selector button located behind the trigger. His mind turned to the decomposed stag. He felt again the beetle’s sharp-tined feet pricking his skin. He hesitated. Then he remembered. It’s time, he thought.
Jess Bernhart is a painter, writer, and photographer embarking on her second year in Atlanta. She works at WonderRoot and holds a BA in philosophy and MSc in sociology. Evan Guilford-Blake writes plays and fiction for adults and children. Nineteen of his plays and a novel, Noir(ish), are published. His work has appeared in numerous print and online journals. He and his wife (and inspiration), Roxanna, live in the Atlanta area. www.guilford-blake.com/evan Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in Southern California and is the author of three novels. He was born in the Carter Administration. www.robindunn.com Natalia Castells-Esquivel is a native of Mexico, currently living with four (currently alive) plants in Atlanta. She makes really good scrambled eggs and hopes to move to New Zealand sometime in the near future. Abigail Greenbaum lives in Atlanta, GA. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Grist, The Louisville Review, Orion, Gravy, Creative Loafing Atlanta, Ecotone and other places. She has an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Mississippi, and is a visiting assistant professor of English at Berry College. Keely Lewis is from Chester, West Virginia, and is currently studying English literature– creative writing at Agnes Scott College. Her work has been published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and Catfish Creek. Jesse Lichtenstein's prose and poetry have appeared recently in Esquire, Tin House, The New York Times Magazine, jubilat, and Necessary Fiction. Randy Osborne teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing in Emory University's continuing-education program. He is completing a book of personal essays, and is represented by the Wendy Weil Agency in New York. Hank Pugh’s work has been published in 322 Review, Serving House Journal, and Green Briar Review. He is a graduate of St. Johns College and currently works as a self-employed
attorney in Easton, Maryland, where he lives with his wife. He tries hard to divide his time between Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Southwest Montana. Deborah Sosower is a printmaker. She has exhibited in Philadelphia, New York, North Carolina and Atlanta. Born in North Carolina, Deborah attended Bryn Mawr College and studied at the Lorenzo de’Medici School of Art in Florence, Italy. She attained her MFA from Pratt Institute in 2009. www.deborahsosower.com Tricia Stearns is a writer, photographer, and the director of the Peachtree City Farmers Market and Peachtree City Community Garden, a 4+-acre site with 146 8’x20’ plots. She graduated in 2010 from the MAPW program at Kennesaw State, is columnist for Fayette Daily News, and has appeared in various publications. Cheryl Wollner is a creative writing major at Agnes Scott College. She writes fiction, nonfiction and drama and hopes to pursue a career writing cartoons. Ally Wright is a native of Columbus, Georgia, but she has made a home out of Atlanta these past six years or so and is quite happy here. Her favorite things are books, museums, witty sitcoms, theater, festivals of almost any sort, and wine.