ISSUE 10 Fall 2016
Mount Hope is published bi-annually in Bristol, Rhode Island, by the Roger Williams University Department of English and Creative Writing. Individual subscription rates are: $20 annually or $35 for two years. Mount Hope ÂŠ 2016, All Rights Reserved. No portion of Mount Hope may be reproduced in any form or by electronic means, including all information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission of Mount Hope magazine or authors of individual creative works. Any resemblance of events, locations or persons, living or dead, in creative works contained herein is entirely coincidental. Mount Hope cannot be held responsible for any views expressed by its contributors. www.mounthopemagazine.com Individual Issue Price: $10.00
Submissions Guidelines We accept electronic submissions of fiction and nonfiction up to 5,000 words, poetry up to 5 per package, and photo or graphic stories of 10-12 images or panels. Send a note telling us about your work. We take up to 6 months to respond; no paper submissions, please. We consider translated work. Submit via our online submissions manager at www.mounthopemagazine.org Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR Edward J. Delaney
ASSISTANT EDITOR Adam Dâ€™Arcangelo
WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE Adam Braver
INTERVIEWS Alexis den Boggende
DESIGN EDITOR Lisa Daria Kennedy Massachusetts College of Art
EDITORIAL ASSISTANTS Nicola Alexander Tori Bodozian Alyssa Bouchard Allison Campbell Kayleigh Dedomenico Alexis den Boggende Andria Grant Alanna Hammond Nicole Pamukcu Mitchell Porter Amy Urso
POETRY CONSULTANT Carrie Addington Northern Virginia Community College MANAGING EDITORS Katherine Gladsky, Poetry Margaret McLaughlin, Fiction Abigail DeVeuve, Nonfiction
Dear Readers, For us, as managing editors, Issue 10 is a bittersweet closure to our time at Mount Hope. Over the past few issues, we have been honored to work with authors, poets, and artists from all different walks of life. When we are able to send acceptances, it gives us the utmost joy to deliver the good news to a writer. Each acceptance begins a new creative relationship. While weâ€™ll miss working on the magazine as we move on to other pursuits, the experiences we have had with our contributors will stay with us. Thanks to our talented authors, poets, and artists, we have been able to publish a magazine we are truly proud of. During our time with Mount Hope, each of us has contributed something of ourselves to every issue we have worked on. Although we are sad to leave, we know the magazine is in good hands with our continuing editorial staff, and we are excited to see where Mount Hope will go next. We hope you enjoy reading our final issue of Mount Hope as much as we enjoyed creating it. With warm regards, Maggie McLaughlin, Kate Gladsky, and Abby DeVeuve Class of 2016
CONTENTS FICTION 21 Bird Blind
PORTFOLIOS 39 Derf Backderf 46 Craig Thompson
by K.C. Pedersen 63 Frogs by Ethan Forrest Ross 80 A Steady Hand by John Allison
POETRY 13 The News
by Jesse Breite 14 Le Petit Dejeuner by Jesse Breite 18 Decanter by Al Maginnes 20 My People: A Citizens Report by Al Maginnes 59 Births by Lani Scozzari 60 Morning Run by Lani Scozzari 61 You seemed to forget by Lani Scozzari 62 Tonight you’re packing books by Lani Scozzari
NONFICTION 5 My Red Relations by Phillip Lopate 53 Father Aegideus by Dianne Dugaw 73 Theodore by Tom Elliot
INTERVIEWS 15 Author Daniel Handler
Interview by Alexis den Boggende 27 Graphic Author Derf Backderf Interview by Alexis den Boggende 32 Graphic Author Craig Thompson Interview by Alexis den Boggende
“The Weeping” Sarah E. N. Kohrs creates art that seeks a unique perspective on how surroundings kindle hope in even a disparaged heart. Her photography has appeared in Virginia Literary Journal, Blueline Literary Magazine, and Shenandoah Living; her poetry in From the Depths and Crosswinds Poetry Journal. Living in VA’s Shenandoah Valley, Sarah is a homeschooling mother, managing editor for The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and savors other altruistic roles. Find her online at http://senkohrs.com. 4
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
My Red Relations by Phillip Lopate
My first airplane flight was a transcontinental one, from New York to Los Angeles. I was seventeen, flying with my twenty-year-old brother Lenny to spend the summer with our Red relatives, Uncle Max and Aunt Minna. The flight had been jammed to capacity, complete with screaming babies, as unglamorous as airline travel would later routinely become—though at least they served us meals. We looked down with wonderment at the reddish Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon (“off to your right”). During the descent, I experienced piercing pain, a first indication that I was one of those whose ears would not take kindly to steep landings. That summer of 1962, I had finished my sophomore year at Columbia, while Lenny, having dropped out of school, was at loose ends. My mother decided to send us away to her older brother Max. It was not the first time she had done this, having packed Lenny off when he was twelve to her brother George’s in Brookline, Massachusetts, then sending me to that Boston suburb three summers after. As the poor relation in her large family, a ghetto-dweller to boot, she felt entitled to impose her spawn on her older siblings’ kindness. Lenny and I were happy to be taken off her hands, and the MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
whole notion of California was intensely romantic to us; from our provincial New Yorker standpoint, it was the Antipodes. We had a day or two to explore Los Angeles on our own, before taking the bus to Auberry, California, where Max and Minna lived. I remember our walking around in a daze under the hot sun, trying to sightsee landmarks like the Brown Derby restaurant, the Hollywood sidewalk of stars and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and feeling tired, grouchy, and agoraphobic. I can still summon up the sensation of that pounding sinus headache between the eyebrows that resulted from exposure to a glaring sun and too little shadow from low-slung buildings. I was discovering an essential part of my identity, the Pedestrian, and Los Angeles proved too spread out to investigate easily on foot. Complicating the mood was that Lenny and I were annoying each other. He kept trying to assert his seniority, making plans for the day or deciding whether to turn left or right, and I kept questioning them. I had been in awe of his three-years-ahead-of-me artistic knowledge and worldly experience, but now I wanted to form my own independent judgments. Having gotten into an Ivy League school while he was a college dropout made me feel superior, if smug. We were an odd couple in any case: he bohemian, messy and hot-headed; I, more phlegmatic, bookish and detached. We desperately clung to each other throughout our California adventure, but this very dependency made us snappish. It was almost with relief that we quit the city and traveled north to the little mountain town of Auberry, though when we got there we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere. It was a small hilly drive-through town of 2000 souls, with one café, one bar, one gas station, one post office, and Max and Minna’s dry goods establishment. Their store sold everything from bolts of cloth to novelties and kitchenware. The closest city was Fresno, a salesman’s junction and cow town, where we would be driven by Uncle Max once a week and spend the day roaming around, looking for movie theaters or bookstores, while he stocked up on supplies. The rest of the time we were stuck in Auberry, with Max and Minna as our only company. They had been Communist Party members, and had moved out to California from Brooklyn during the McCarthy era, when things started getting too hot back East. Max, a bald-headed man with a mustache, always struck me as affable but a little dim. He deferred to his wife, two years older and the brains of the outfit. Minna had been born in Russia and I always pictured her younger self as a firebrand, our family’s Emma Goldman. By the time we came to visit she was gray-haired, bespectacled and rotund, with a sharp, querulous manner. I wish I could paint a picture of an idyllic American summer in the country with kind elderly relatives who took in these two skittish boys from the city and smothered them in healthy foods and wisdom and taught them 6
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
how to milk the cows, but such was not the case. Minna was bitter and wary, as she had every right to be. She told us that two FBI men regularly parked a car by the post office, a hundred yards downhill from their store, and checked on their mail and questioned their customers about whether they had seen or heard any suspicious—i.e., unpatriotic— behavior. In the evening, as we watched television on a modest black-andwhite set in their snug living room, barely a show could go by without her commenting on the behavior of some vis-à-vis HUAC. “That one sang,” she would sneer, or “He ratted, spilled his guts out.” Sea Hunt, one of my favorite shows, starring Lloyd Bridges (father of Beau and Jeff), was regularly interrupted by her disgusted remarks about his informing. “He named names till he was blue in the face.” Minna was proud that they sold to the Native Americans who lived nearby. They had a regular Indian clientele, always treating them with utmost politeness and extending them credit, unlike some of the other businesses in town that discriminated. She could not have been more pleased when they invited her to a pig roast. All four of us crammed into Max’s pickup truck and drove to the reservation, where we witnessed the pig half-buried in dirt and slowburned. Otherwise, Minna and Max seemed alienated from their neighbors. Minna did not like our going to the bar at the bottom of the hill, because the owner had been involved in some MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
In the early 60s, with JFK in the White House and civil rights marchers in Mississippi, you either bought the whole idealistic ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ rhetoric or you didn’t.”
criminal business. When not being a friend of the oppressed, she was rigidly moralistic, a Communist Puritan. Once a month, some friends of theirs would drive up from Los Angeles with sacks of bagels and smoked salmon. They were about the same age as Max and Minna, and I don’t know what solaced our relatives more, the CP gossip they brought from LA or their fresh bagels. We were shooed from the house: I suspect they were having a meeting, though it was never clear to me whether Max and Minna were still in the Party or had left it or been kicked out. It wasn’t the kind of question you could ask directly. One day, snooping through their desk drawer, I found several pages of handwritten notes on yellow scratch paper about the relationship between MarxistLeninism and Maoism. They were like study notes a dutiful undergraduate might take in a seminar. How poignant—how pathetic—yet no, how admirable, in its way, that these oldsters were still trying to figure out the correct political line, stuck way out in the boondocks. We would mock her behind her back and sometimes to her face, smart-alecks that we were. In the early 60s, with JFK in the White House and civil rights marchers in Mississippi, you either bought the whole idealistic “Ask not what your country can do for you” rhetoric or you didn’t. I didn’t: I was still too far down on the social ladder, too poor to think of helping those less fortunate, and too preoccupied with making myself into a writer to take social injustice that seriously. Minna disapproved of our cynicism and political indifference, as she did of our laziness. She was shocked that we did not offer to do more chores. Here we were, two able-bodied young men, slinking around rent-free, doing nothing but reading and playing games, while these two elderly folk worked morning to night. In retrospect I can see her point; we were lazy, with that bottomless tiredness and self-absorption typical of teenagers. Reluctantly, we agreed to paint the store ceiling, which needed a new coat. During those days of overhead painting, taking turns moving the ladder and the drop cloth, my brother and I settled into bickering like an old married couple. We bickered to pass the time; it meant nothing, though it disturbed Aunt Minna. “Boys, boys, don’t argue. Brothers should get along.” Mostly we hid from her noodging in the little cabin behind their house where we slept. There was barely room for anything besides the two beds, but we turned it into a baseball field, using a rolled pair of socks and a broomstick bat. Epic games of nine innings and sometimes double headers would transpire. Overall, we got along rather well, considering we were incessantly in each other’s company. In the morning, we washed up together at the sink in Max and Minna’s house. One morning, as Lenny was shaving, I turned the water from hot to cold so that I could splash my face. My brother screamed, “What are you trying to do, kill me?” I had not realized cold water might make a razor blade more slippery. Still, it seemed excessive to accuse me of trying to slit his throat, and I told him so. But a doubt lodged 8
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
in my mind. Was I trying to kill him? I contained multitudes; I would not put anything past me. The rest of the time we read or wrote. Lenny had become interested in foreign policy, and was reading books by George F. Kennan and Henry Kissinger with an eye toward writing a novel about diplomacy. Many years later, in his capacity as a radio interviewer, he would confront Kissinger, pleased at having given Nixon’s ex-Secretary of State a hard time. Had he forgotten, or buried deep in his subconscious, the respect he once accorded Kissinger? Of course I remembered that embarrassing detail; what else are younger brothers good for? I was reading Henry Fielding that summer, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. In part, I was getting a jump on a course in 18th century English novels I planned to take that fall, but I was also thoroughly enchanted by Fielding’s humorous, rounded sentences, his sensual characters and essayistic prologues—that confident, maximalist fullness. I was to feel increasingly at home in the 18th century, around Fielding, Sterne, Johnson, Swift and Diderot. Six months earlier, in my Dostoevskian phase, I had tried to kill myself. Rebounding from that attempt, I had suddenly become bored with extremity and anguish: I craved balance, sanity, irony, mischief, worldliness with a touch of optimism. It would all come out well in the end, just as Tom Jones closes with a marriage. I was suddenly feeling well-adjusted, perhaps overly so. In two years I would find myself married. Meanwhile, I wrote several short stories in a Fieldingesque vein. It was a productive summer—my own private Yaddo. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
I was reading Henry Fielding that summer, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. I was to feel increasingly at home in the 18th century, around Fielding, Sterne, Johnson, Swift and Diderot. ”
All of a sudden when the Soviets signed a pact with Nazi Germany, she was not a Communist. Then when Russia was attacked by Germany, she became a Communist again. ”
Aunt Minna liked Lenny more than me. I had no problem with that; it intrigued me. I speculated she felt sympathy for him because she saw him as the underdog. I seemed headed for the winner’s circle; she had no interest in such types. She kept after him to finish college. I don’t think Lenny took her advice that seriously, but in short order he did reapply to college, and finished getting his bachelor’s degree and a master’s. Uncle Max died not long after our visit. My mother always had a soft spot for this brother of hers, in contrast to her mordant judgment on her other siblings. After he died, she talked about him one time while I tape-recorded her. “I have a feeling about Fate,” she said, “that things happen for a reason. Take my brother Max. He was not brought up in a kosher home, my mother was fairly loose about those matters, but pork was not something we ate in our house. So of course my brother Max came to love pork chops—what else? He was in the Air Force, stationed in San Antonio. It was his turn to go up and take flying lessons, and a cook had saved him some pork chops, so another flyer took his place, and his plane went down while Max was sitting in the kitchen eating pork chops. It kind of makes you think. Also, my brother Max was coming to see us one time, this was before my parents died, I must have been about seven or eight years old. You know how when you’re waiting for a subway and when it comes it’s so crowded, you decide to wait for the next train? In Boston there was an elevated train that went around the corner. The train fell off the tracks, a lot of people got killed. Maxie wasn’t on that train, because he had waited for the next 10
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
one. I honestly think that there has to be some sort of divine hand.” I interrupted my mother, just to be a wise-ass. “Why would God do so much to protect Maxie, and then do so little to make him an interesting person?” “He was more interesting than you think. You saw him near the end of his life. Let’s face it, he was tired. He really had been interesting. Don’t forget what he did to make a living before he got married. He was a minstrel man. He used to sing and dance in blackface; he was fantastic! But you know, there comes a time when a man gets to be a little on in years. He was sick, he was tired, and he had permitted Minna to do his thinking for him so many years that he just gave up. There were times she locked him out of the house. There were times he worked two jobs just to boost his ego, because she made more money than him. My brother Max was a very sweet person. But he was married to a woman who had had a college education, and her one salary was more than his two jobs combined. She was a social worker. And she was a Red.” “What do you think his relation to Communism was?” I asked. “He didn’t know his ass from third base about Communism. He was the most apolitical man you’d ever meet. The last person he talked to was the one he believed. She hocked him and hocked him with Communism until he was a Communist. All of a sudden when the Soviets signed a pact with Nazi Germany, she was not a Communist. Then when Russia was attacked by Germany, she became a Communist again. Big deal, she was an American Communist. They were so wishy-washy! I could never figure out why Senator McCarthy made such a big fuss about them—they were nothing. He went about destroying so many lives for no reason at all, when they were so innocuous.” Minna lived to be 94 years old, long past her husband. We never saw her again. To do that, we would have had to return to Auberry, which was unthinkable. Not that it had been so hellish; just that it was sequestered in our humiliating, powerless past, sealed off, as it were, on the wrong end of a time machine. I had originally written this sentence: “Neither my brother nor I ever contacted her in the years after that dry hot summer, neither to boast that we had turned out all right nor to say thank you.” But in going through my correspondence recently, I discovered a letter from Aunt Minna, dated October 8, 1975: Dear Phillip: Congratulations on your book, and thank you for the warm message on the fly-leaf. I won’t pretend that I enjoyed or understood each poem, or essay, but I did find the language beautiful most of the time and was moved by several of the pieces. Don’t forget that MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
I am an old woman, a ‘square’ who grew up in a very different time and place than you, and tho I try to keep up, the many changes of language among the young leave me with a feeling that I am indeed living in a different world. She went on to compare my appearance in the author photograph with her grandson’s, and to implore “Do let me hear from you occasionally,” a request that I conveniently filed away. But apparently I had felt the need to boast of my accomplishments, with the object of wringing just one, albeit reluctant, compliment from my Red California aunt.
Phillip Lopate, who directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell. 12
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
The News by Jesse Breite “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, we need never read of another.” —Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Every morning before the sun even rises, cold folks don bright make-up, pretty suits as they climb into screen-sets, emanate from invisible speakers. They go before us to discover the next day’s custodian of suffering— the ineffable mother of the shooting victim, the wife of the local marine, the family waiting for a son who was on the flight from Shanghai that somehow disappeared. We huddle in front of TVs, tune into the wireless world and watch the silver microphone thrust into the mouth of sorrow, the sharpening of felt blab into the razor-tones of jab-and-squeal. And we can’t take our eyes away as agonies flicker and smoke, the detached faces beside as they pinch the hurt out of tense creatures. There, they exist—both question and answer—the discursive sides of ourselves writhing in a present fire if only for today. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Le Petit Dejeuner by Jesse Breite When the sun was just hung in the pine, the mother lit the stove top, clinked and tinged the metals, jars. Her hands moved shapes, revised silhouettes, and broke the bread’s dank scent into the air. Her daughter walks into the kitchen. She is quiet. Her presence stills the set table—even the butter, the furious knife. She doesn’t make eye contact, sees only the white plate. The fruit performs its classical postures, and the fan whirs in the concave spoon. And you can almost hear the tall glasses of water ringing, the bulbs’ filaments torching with electric light, the silent maps of emotion being played again.
Jesse Breite’s recent poetry has appeared in Tar River Poetry, Chiron Review, and Prairie Schooner. He has been featured in Town Creek Poetry and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. FutureCycle Press published his first chapbook, The Knife Collector, in November 2013. Jesse lives with his wife, Emily, in Atlanta, Georgia. 14
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Interview: Daniel Handler The man once known as Lemony Snicket, and a fortunate series of events for his readers.
Daniel Handler is best known for writing his thoughtful, quirky, and creative children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. A writer and a journalist, Handler has tackled multiple subject matters with interesting plots that capture both the mind and the heart. Handler has an extensive collection of work, ranging from his first book, The Basic Eight, which concerns the darker sides of the teenage lifestyle, to that of We Are Pirates, his newest novel about pirates taking over San Francisco Bay. Handler, an intelligent, thoughtful man, has a passion to tell a story with outlandish characters and stories that will engage the reader and have the story stay with them, long after it is over. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Alexis den Boggende. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
rejected is awful, it’s something that all writers must go through at one point or another. What advice would you give to aspiring young writers about facing rejection? How did you overcome it?
ADB: Your work, and you as a writer, remind me of Kurt Vonnegut. On a literary level, your works complement each other. You don’t underestimate the reader, and you don’t beat around the bush. Vonnegut has his own style of peculiar plots and characters. How did you grow as a writer, developing your worlds and your characters?
DH: Rejection is inevitable, at any age or level of experience. I recommend cultivating a group of kind and entertaining companions who can cheer you up when you are down. One cultivates kind and entertaining people by being kind and entertaining.
DH: I grow as a writer by growing as a reader. Since I was young I have liked to read things that challenge me in one way or another—“inappropriate” was how they were labelled when I was a child, “difficult” is how they’re more often described now. Reading from cultures, from times, from points of view different from our own recalibrate the brain and the heart. I see my own reading as a form of echolocation—I can find my own place and my own point of view by learning where I am in the context of what I read.
ADB: How do you find the voices of your characters while writing your books? How does one become a teenage girl who hates her senior year, a man named Phil who wants to become a pirate, and a toddler who can bite through anything? How do you continue to develop these characters and their voices as the novel progresses?
ADB: Your novels, and your excerpts in The Believer, range in such a variety of subjects— murder, arson, break-ups, poetry, coming of age, love, Greek mythology, incest, and now, pirates. Where do you get these ideas, and how do you get them to work so well? What attracts you to waggish subjects when you’re writing?
DH: I eavesdrop, and I imagine. Everyone wanders the world demonstrating their lives. One can take notes. ADB: Your latest novel, We Are Pirates, is a modern-day story about a group of pirates who are wreaking havoc on San Francisco Bay. It’s witty, whimsical, and smart. How did you come about this story?
DH: I usually stumble across some tiny idea, and contemplate it for a while; soon it becomes clear that I am grasping the hem of some larger theme. Then I know I have something worth writing.
DH: When I was in high school, I impulsively wrote “pirate” on a form that was asking what my future occupation might be. For years I would crack myself up thinking about attempting to become, in
ADB: The Basic Eight was rejected 37 times before it was published. While being 16
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
that stands apart from other writers. How long did it take you to become comfortable with your writing style? Was there ever a time that you questioned it? For example, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, you explain the vocabulary that you use for your young audience. Is this a stylistic choice?
the present day, a pirate in the classical mode. Then I began to do some research on piracy and soon realized that the history of piracy is the history of displacement and desperation, and the story went from there. ADB: What is your process in deciding what to write next? How do you know what will be the next novel you are going to write?
DH: When I was first writing The Bad Beginning, I wrote the word “rickety” and then realized some readers might not know what that means. So I explained it, and the stentorian and yet inaccurate tone of my definition seemed to fit perfectly in the world I was devising. So yes, I guess one would call that a “stylistic choice.” I try not to get comfortable in my writing style because I think bewilderment is an environment that produces the most interesting work.
DH: I always have a handful of ideas floating around my brain and desk. I peek in at them from time to time to see how they are doing, and sometimes one is ready to occupy the front burner. ADB: I grew up reading A Series of Unfortunate Events. They were a huge part of my childhood; I feel as though I grew simultaneously with your literary style. What was it like to transition from writing children’s literature to writing more adult-themed works, such as The Basic Eight and We Are Pirates?
ADB: Netflix is developing A Series of Unfortunate Events as a series, and Neil Patrick Harris has been cast as Count Olaf. People who have grown up with the books are thrilled and excited about the upcoming adaptation. What are your thoughts on the upcoming series, as well as the casting choice for Count Olaf?
DH: The Basic Eight is actually my first novel, published prior to The Bad Beginning, and I have always switched from writing one kind of book to another, rather than transitioning, which sounds more permanent. I hope that my literary style, if I have one, continues to develop in all of my books, just as I’m sure you are planning on continuing to develop, and not just stopping, now that childhood is over.
DH: My first choice, Grace Jones, was never taken seriously. ADB: Are you working on a new project currently?
ADB: Do you have any rituals when you write? Do you write in a specific place?
DH: I am working on several things, currently and always. I have written a YA novel that has a great deal of sex in it, and my publisher is feeling panicky.
DH: I write at home or in a handful of cafés, mostly longhand on legal pads. I drink a lot of water and listen to appropriate music, in headphones if necessary. ADB: You have a very unique writing style MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Decanter by Al Maginnes Because my sister said not to, because I wanted to mark the quiet with some motion, I lifted the faceted bottle and peered through it to see my grandmotherâ€™s den divide into angles and shapes, walls bending inward, then receding. Then I made her look. If we could divide the room into fractions, it was one more way to split the hours our parents were gone, our grandmother busy at tasks we could not help with. When I raised the decanter higher and peered through the liquid, the distortions of a moment before swirled in a brown wash, tincture of nicotine, reminder that in a few hours, the adults of the family would sit here to smoke, to drink from this bottle, all of them talking at once. I pulled the glass stopper, inhaled the thin, hard smell, blend of earth and chemistry, element burning element down to something hot, regretful. I did not taste it. Not yet.
MOUNT HOPE â€˘ ISSUE 10
I placed the bottle back and time stilled once more, a wash of motion thin and invisible as the liquid settling back down the walls of a container older than I was that afternoon.
MOUNT HOPE â€˘ ISSUE 10
My People: A Citizens Report by Al Maginnes My people will not stop the song just because strings break. They are cars left in the rain with the windows down. Strands of wire stripped of insulation. We do not clap in rhythm or sing along at concerts. We dance at home with our partners, unseen. We have floorboards filled with cans to be recycled. Checks torn in half to be written again. My people are believers who will not speak their prayers aloud. They vote but will not tithe. They live reckless and slow. We believe an eagle’s shadow is a blessing. My people are projects half-finished. Plank and cinderblock shelves of books waiting to be read one day when time stops pushing us to the time clock, the nine to five when the broken watch, long buried, yields to an afternoon’s tinkering. And we take a slow step from our front steps into time, one more tribe flowering out of, then falling into history, whose other name is dust.
Al Maginnes lives and teaches in North Carolina. His most recent collection of poetry was Music From Small Towns. 20
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Bird Blind by Kirie C. Pedersen
When I built my cabin on the island, friends and delivery trucks drove as close as they could to the front door, blocking my view of the sea. I didn’t want to look out my tall, front-facing windows and see cars. I wanted to see only the water, trees, birds, and slices of sky. I wanted to hear only the wind and the waves and the chittering of bald eagles. I wanted the earth as my skin and the sea as my tears. I wanted gold-white light reflecting off the hackly basalt beneath the cliff. My solution was to block the driveway where it led to the house and create a path with earth berms on either side. I planted sword fern, kinnikinnick, red and blue huckleberry, and wild grape. By the time you traveled that final path, I wanted you transformed. If you had stuff to lug, I kept a wheelbarrow handy. By the end of my first winter, the plants on the berm grew in and obscured the driveway exactly as I’d planned. From the cliffs in front of my cabin, I watched harbor seals, river otters, and Pileated woodpeckers. I heard the raucous shrieks of belted kingfisher. My cabin was a bird blind, my garden a wildlife refuge, and, I hoped, a safe haven for humans as well. Then I met Matthew, originally from an island of his own, Manhattan. He migrated to the Pacific Northwest to fight fires, and we met when we MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
were both assigned to the same crew. After the fires were doused by autumn downpours, I closed my cabin and we flew to his territory. In spring, or so we planned, we would return to mine. I hadn’t expected to like New York, but I thrived there. Rather than use subways or any kind of motorized transportation, I walked for miles, from one end of the island to the other. Sometimes I’d be so happy I’d step out into traffic and a stranger would pull me back. “Best of all worlds,” friends proclaimed. But almost immediately, as if in repudiation that I dared stray from my birthplace, those worlds fell apart. My father died unexpectedly, and then my mother suffered a stroke and was placed in hospice. I prepared to fly home, but my beloved younger brother, Paul, convinced me he could manage. We would schedule our father’s memorial for summer, after I returned, and Paul would live in our suddenly empty childhood home, just through the forest from mine. As for our mother, no need to break our lease on her account. “She won’t know who you are anyway,” Paul said. When Matthew and I returned in April, we were greeted by a blue plastic bin on the doorstep of my cabin. It was stuffed with my mother’s sweaters, blouses, and skirts. On top was the kilt she’d bought on her last trip to Scotland, and a royal blue blazer I’d given her for her birthday, complete with the brightly-colored tear-drop brooch on the lapel. After the daylong flight, I was too tired and hungry to do anything but shove the bin aside. I unlocked the shed and dragged out the barbecue. I marinated salmon in olive oil and snipped rosemary from my ragged garden. Matthew started a pot of rice, prepared a salad, and lit candles along the windowsill. As the day faded, through the trees, I could see the lights of the house no longer occupied by my parents. Above us, the resident blue heron, with its cackle and hiss, perched on the eave. And then, framed in the glass of the front door, was my brother. He looked as if he’d aged ten years since we left in the fall. His skull was rawlooking, like an egg, and his face puffy. I ran to open the door and reached out to embrace him, but he hunched over as if I planned to slug him in the stomach. He had an odd expression on his face, almost a leer. “You have everything,” he said. “The dogs, the house, the man.” He snickered and pointed at Matthew as if he was some trophy I’d carried home from a war. “And now Mom’s clothes. Maybe you can use them.” He stared into a middle distance at some truth visible only to him. “I know what you’re doing,” Paul said. “I know how you like to sneak around.” He leaned over me and shoved his face into mine. “I’m in charge now. Dad left me in charge of everything.” He lumbered out the door and staggered up the path, and Matthew and I stood in the kitchen window until he disappeared. And then, right after we finished eating, a text: “Come on over. I made Dad’s famous blackberry pie.” 22
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
“What do I say?” I asked Matthew. I felt paralyzed and numb. The only time I’d seen Paul like this was during that time in our teens when we’d both get drunk or high, but we’d left that behind, or so I’d thought. “You say Yes,” Matthew said. “He doesn’t want me sneaking around.” “Tell him we’ll stop by after our walk.” We started along the trail the original people traversed around the island. They would leave their sheltered winter villages inland and summer in coves rich with oysters, clams, and mussels, leaving middens piled with shells. We veered from the cliff and headed up the hillside. The spring forest was green and lush and cool, the foliage curving around us like tunnels blasted with light. Paul and I grew up exploring these paths, priding ourselves that we could run barefoot or at night. Fearless, we flew for miles in every direction. When we were young together in these forests, I believed we could read each other’s minds and, when we were sleeping, we dreamed the same dreams. After our brief sojourn into darkness, I thought we’d both returned to light. I thought, with our parents gone, we’d lean together closely and mourn. The front door to our parents’ house opened directly into the kitchen. My father built benches along the window, and that was where visitors always sat. Paul leaned over the counter where my father, mother, or I had stood so many times. Normally, I’d be foraging at drawers, pulling out forks or cloth napkins. Now my brother was in this weirdly altered state—from grief or drugs or some kind of madness I couldn’t yet understand—and I felt paralyzed, a stranger in my childhood home. Two pies sat on the counter. Paul sliced into one, and the dark juice oozed onto the pale crust. Matthew reached out to one of the plates and picked up his slice with his hands. His face was MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
My brother stiffened, and then he began to shout. “What are you thinking, eating that without a fork?’”
wide with delight. My brother stiffened, and then he began to shout. “What are you thinking, eating that without a fork?” He seemed a caricature, bloated and filled with a rage I couldn’t comprehend. Matthew smiled at Paul, placed his pie back on the counter, and quietly left. Without looking at Paul, I ran after him. “I’m so sorry,” I told Matthew as we headed home through the darkness. “We haven’t even been here half a day, and I want to get the hell out.” “You have nothing to apologize for.” “He’s insane.” “He’s trying to channel your father.” Matthew, usually slow and ambling, moved so quickly I could barely keep up. Because my parents lived just through the forest from me, even during the brief time we’d been together, Matthew had plenty of opportunity to observe my father. He’d been disturbed by what he called my father’s cruelty to my mother, an observation I denied. “When parents die, sometimes the survivors try to take their spot.” “I just want my brother back.” “People grieve in their own way,” Matthew said, and in this, I considered him an expert. The reason he headed west at all was because his own parents died while he was still in his teens. The following morning as I walked up the road, a truck pulled up. “We got a project somewhere down here,” the driver said. The engine’s roar drowned out all other sounds. I raced down the forest shortcut so I could beat the truck. The morning was warm, and Paul sat on the front porch of our parents’ house, the smoke from his cigarette rising into the clear salt air. “Mom and Dad preserved this as a wildlife sanctuary,” I said. “What the hell are you planning?” “I don’t care about your native-plant shit.” Paul blew smoke in small rings. “I inherited the worst piece of property,” he said. “You got the best.” “I bought it,” I said. My brother knew as well as anyone how my father suggested I buy the land adjoining theirs, and how my mother wrote the check for the down payment with provisions I slowly pay her back. For years, we spoke on the phone four or five times a day. Before he moved back home, I traveled to Los Angeles three or four times a year to spend time with him, or he drove north to stay with me. “You have Matthew to help you now,” he said. “I live alone in poverty.” “Everyone’s broke,” I said, knowing I was stupid to engage in this conversation about poverty and the economy. I was failing to hear what he was really saying, how he’d always felt I was the luckier child in whose footsteps he could never follow. “The economy’s fucking crashed.” “Well, this place needs a new septic system, and this is what the county requires,” he said. “If you’re so destitute, how will you pay for it?” 24
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
“I have power of attorney. I can do whatever I think is in Mother’s best interest. I’m sure she would want me to have a septic system. Just like she helped you buy your land.” At that moment, the truck roared up to the house, and three men emerged. They lugged out chainsaws, laid them on the ground, and pulled the cords. I wanted to shout at them to leave, or that failing, to lay my body on the ground. In childhood furies, Paul’s default was to wish me dead, but I had never felt the same about him. For as long as I remembered, I loved Paul more than anyone on earth. Now I imagined him disemboweled. “He does need a septic system,” Matthew said. “The failed ones run into the bay.” “I just wasn’t prepared for this.” I wasn’t sure I meant the cutting of the trees or my brother’s collapse. “You and I both know trees grow back,” Matthew said. “Sad though the destruction can be.” As the first tree toppled, the ground shook. With piercing screams of alarm, birds billowed from their hidden places. By the end of the day, the forest between my parents’ house and mine had vanished. The birds continued their harsh distress calls late into the night. Over that summer, what seemed the ceaseless sound of chain saws and wood chippers permeated the area, followed by a backhoe that gouged out what had previously been a wetland. The place where the forest had stood became a mess of clay studded with jagged stones. Every time I walked up the pathway to the car, I felt as if I’d been skinned alive. Eventually Matthew and I were both called out to fires, and work occupied all our thoughts, but as the fires died down with the rains of autumn, Matthew became increasingly silent. One morning, without looking at me, he said, “I need to be back in New York.” “I need to be here.” “I want you with me,” Matthew said. “You’re my anchor.” “That’s what Paul used to say.” Matthew looked as though I had kicked him, and as if I was becoming my brother, I was glad. I wanted to inflict pain. I wanted Matthew to be my anchor; I didn’t want to be his. I didn’t yet see that I was sinking into an insanity of my own. I thought I could step to one side of grief and evade it altogether. I thought I could dictate how my brother should act or grieve, and thus erase my own impossible sadness. “I’ll stay here,” I said. I had a fantasy that if I could drive Matthew away, Paul and I would be close again, orphans against the storm, my brother’s fury dissipated like the tail end of a fire. Paul and I would reconstruct our family on the bones of the past. Matthew just shook his head and walked away. The days grew shorter, and darkness closed in. Torrential rains saturated the earth and created streams of mud. I listened to news reports of drone attacks in distant lands, and I had nightmares about my brother, his arms transformed into knives, climbing through my window to hack me to bits. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
I woke to Matthew stroking my face. “You were screaming,” he said. “We need to leave.” “You go,” I said. “I’ll be okay.” Everything out of my mouth was a lie. Overnight, the temperature dropped to freezing, and, as always, I felt betrayed. Changes in season never ceased to stun me. In summer, I entered the warmth with a full heart, rifling through the odd bulky winter clothing in my closet and wondering why it was there, ready to pack it into bags for the homeless. Now, I looked at the wooden bench on the cliff where Matthew and I drank coffee and watched the kingfishers and river otters and seals, and I could not believe we would ever sit there again. “I want you with me,” Matthew said, and that was his refrain. Sooner or later, he would wear me down. He would wear me down by silence. He would wear me down with love. A small wind rose off the bay and hundreds of golden leaves fell in a slender shower, each falling its own random way to blanket the meadow around us. In an entire lifetime, I might never again see anything like this one moment. “See?” Matthew said. “The thousand voices of the forest.” My brother would heal on his own time, Matthew told me, or not, but it was my brother’s business, and nothing I did or failed to do would change it. Matthew cooked autumn foods: soup with lobster mushrooms, roasted red beets and chanterelles we gathered on our walks. The bay swirled sleek grey and then pink, reflected in the dusk clouds, and the waxing gibbous began to rise. “I don’t care if I ever go to New York again,” Matthew said. I knew Matthew was lying, and I needed his lies and mine to face the knot of family as it came loose, and then to weave the strands again in some altered form.
Kirie C. Pedersen lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State or near the Ventura River in the Sespe Wilderness and writes for literary magazines and journals. 26
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Interview: John Backderf The graphic novelist who goes by the pseudonyms Derf and Derf Backderf creates his own visual worlds.
John “Derf ” Backderf is best known for his contributions in graphic novels. As a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for cartooning, he rose to prominence in the literary community with his 2012 international bestselling graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. The novel received critical acclaim. Dahmer chronicles Backderf ’s friendship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer during their middle and high school years. The novel won an Angoulême Prize, as well as the ALA/YALSA Alex Award for Excellence in Narrative Nonfiction in 2013 and 2015. Backderf ’s most recent work, Trashed, is inspired by his time and experiences as a garbage man. Backderf is funny, down-to-earth and friendly, and has a passion for underground comics, art, writing, and music. Previously a political cartoonist, Backderf ’s range of work is vast and eclectic. Backderf ’s debut graphic novel in 2008, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, put him on the map as one of today’s most talented graphic novelists. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Alexis den Boggende. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
ADB: You have a long history with comics. When did you realize that the graphic novel was your form, and how do you know that it was the type of medium you wanted to work with? JB: I probably started when I was four or five. I learned to read with comics. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a comics guy. ADB: How did you grow as a writer and an artist, developing your worlds and your characters, since some of them come from your own personal experience? JB: You work your craft. When I started with a comic strip, like in weekly papers—when they used to have weekly papers—they had a bit of a narrative and some characters. You just slowly acquire the skills that you need to tell the story. So you start short—it was a short four-panel narrative—and you just keep getting longer and longer. It’s like anything else; it’s skill-building. ADB: What is your process in deciding what to write next? How long does it typically take you to piece your work together? JB: It varies. My Friend Dahmer and Trashed, I’ve had in my pocket for a while. Those are stories that just came to me because they were based on experience. My first book, Punk Rock and Trailer Parks, took a while to dream up. It’s little flashes of inspiration, and then you work with it, and see where it takes you and where it goes. It’s not always the same process. It takes time. ADB: Do you ever get frustrated while you’re writing, or experience writer’s block? JB: No, not really. Writer’s block, I think, is overrated. Again, it’s back to work habits. You just sit down and you write or you draw. It may not be any good, but you just keep doing it, and eventually you’ll have a breakthrough. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. When you have to write all the time, you have to write every day—or at least think about writing. There’s no excuse not to write. And my advice would be find your own voice—wherever that is— whether it is in your head or around you. Don’t try to imitate anybody else and you have to think about selling your work. I’m a firm believer that if you do good work, it will find a way to be published. If it’s not being published, again, maybe it’s not good enough, and you got to think, “How can I make this better?” But I believe that a good work will find a way. ADB: Who influences you? JB: My influences come from a lot of places, not just comics. Music, or art, 28
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
literature—all sorts of things, like the comics from the underground. Especially the underground comics of the Seventies when I was a kid. I got my hands on them probably earlier than I should’ve. I don’t know how familiar you are with underground comics. I get influenced by the imagery of the music scenes that I was involved with, like punk and post-punk and things like that. I like poster art, and other weird stuff like German expressionism, of all things. You throw all this together in your own mixing bowl and see what comes out. At a certain point, you don’t worry about influences. You just go with what you have and develop your own style. That’s how it works. ADB: Trashed originated as your first attempt of long storytelling in comics at fifty pages, which you published in 2002. What made you return to it in 2010, after 8 years? What was your motivation in writing Trashed? Did you always know that you wanted to write based on your experiences as a garbageman, or did it just come to you? JB: I always felt that I would come back to it after it was published. Those first stories, they were nominated for an Eisner, which are the Oscars of comics. It was a pretty good start. I thought, “Man. Maybe I ought to do more of these.” I have more stories to tell and I like the characters. I always planned to come back to it. I actually got derailed for five years by cancer. So it’s all right. I’m okay. I really couldn’t work on it, and when I came out of the other end of that, I decided I’d try something new. That’s when I wrote and drew Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. Just for my own amusement, I decided, “what the hell. I’ll do something completely new. I got this idea. I might as well do it.” After that, I finally came back to Trashed again. It was always a plan to come back to it; it just took a little longer than I thought it would. ADB: You wrote My Friend Dahmer, a graphic novel detailing your friendship with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, before you completed Trashed. What was that transition like for you, going from something so dark to something a bit lighter? JB: I started with something light; then went dark, and then came back to the light. It was not like it was uncharted territory. I was a little worried about that, though, and I talked that over with my editor because Dahmer was my breakthrough work. A lot of people who know me, know me because they read Dahmer first. I worried that coming back to a completely different type of work, “Did they expect something dark from me? Was I going to chase everybody off by doing a comedy?” I thought about that and my editor said, “Eh.” I think the nice thing about where I’m at right now is I’ve been at it a while and I’m really fully developed. I have the same kind of storytelling skills no matter what book I choose, so people see the same storytelling and see the same drawing style. That’s enough of a familiar peg for them. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
ADB: What was it like for you in the writing process of creating My Friend Dahmer? Was it difficult for you, looking back on those years of your life? JB: It took place over many years, because Dahmer really took about 20 years to pull together. I had a couple incarnations, and I researched, researched, researched, researched. When I finally sat down to write it, it was kind of dark. It took me maybe two, two and a half weeks to write. I really had to put myself back in that time and put myself in Dahmer’s head, and that’s not a very pleasant place to be. So yeah, that wasn’t a lot of fun. But after that, I was able to say, “Okay, I’m just going to shove all that to the side,” and just concentrated on the nuts and bolts process of making a comic, and drawing it, and the details. In a way, it became fun because I was recreating Dahmer’s world, yes, but I was also recreating my world. The mall I hung out at, the car I drove, the high school I went to--not that that was particularly pleasant. It was fun recreating those details, and I went to really extreme lengths to do that, getting reference and really getting it right. So it was like zeroing in on that stuff, in a super anal-retentive way that made the book fun. Emotionally, I just detached from it. ADB: For My Friend Dahmer, there was a lot of research you had to uncover while writing it. You mention in the epilogue that you watched many interviews with Dahmer, such as the Stone Phillips Interview for NBC. What was it like for you, to watch this person you knew and shared classes with, reveal the atrocities that he committed later in life but was struggling with during the time you knew him? Was it a huge shock to hear these gruesome accounts come from somebody you knew? JB: Jeez, welcome to my world. Dahmer still pops up to this day in surreal ways. You’ll be watching the Daily Show, and he’ll make a crack about Jeffrey Dahmer. You just sit there and shake your head. It’s like, “That’s the guy I use to give rides home from school and they’re talking about him on a freaking daily show.” This just happens over and over and over again and has really since 1991 when he was caught. It’s just something you shrug and laugh and walk on. It doesn’t really effect me anymore, but sometimes it gets a little too close to home. There were points in the Stone Philips interview, for example. Dahmer does talk about his friends. He doesn’t mention us by name. I think in a way he was almost trying shield us, which in itself is like, “Ugh, [chuckles].” It screws with your head a little bit. ADB: My Friend Dahmer can be seen as a controversial novel. Were you ever afraid of being seen as capitalizing on such a gruesome event? What’s your advice to writers who are writing something that may be seen as controversial? 30
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
JB: You can’t be scared of it. I figured I’d get some of it and my answer is I’m cashing in. 20 years after he was killed in prison, if that’s cashing in, that’s about the worst example of it I’ve ever seen. I didn’t really worry about it, coming into it. I worked for many years doing political stuff, political cartoons, so I was used to criticism. It doesn’t really bother me. Like I said, I’ve got a pretty tough skin. I believed in the book. I knew I was going to lay it out. I was going to be very brutally honest and I thought most people would respond to it. There are always people who think it’s too controversial. When you do a provocative work, you’re going to get critics. Overall, it’s been fabulous. However, you do get some of the Dahmer fans who get really pissed at you. But I don’t care about them. Then you get guys, the people who just misinterpreted. It’s like, “Whoa, you know, man, Derf was really an asshole to Dahmer and he exploited him, and what a dick,” and blah, blah, blah. It’s not really what was happening. First of all, you’re forgetting what it’s like to be a teenage kid in high school. I hate to break it to you, but we were all assholes in high school. To lay that out very honestly. Those kind of stubborn things are a little annoying, but I think that’s just people who don’t really read it. ADB: What are you working on currently? JB: I’m working on a web comic now I got an arts grant for. It’ll probably eventually be a book. Then this summer, I’m just going to sit down and start writing. I just got back from a long tour in Europe, five weeks, so I’m pretty jet lagged. And I didn’t have a chance to work then. And Trashed just came out. I just finished it in June. Yeah, I’ll start getting back to work this year, but nothing solid yet. ADB: As a writer, rejection is pretty much inevitable. What advice would you give to struggling artists and writers, about the writing process and facing rejection? JB: Well, if you’re not ready to face rejection, find something else to do. Working in comics or working as a writer, or as an artist, rejection is something you have to deal with day in and day out. You’re going to get rejected 90 percent of the time, if not more. You’ve got to grow a pair pretty early on. If you believe in your work, you just keep forging ahead. On the other hand, there’s the flip side of that. If you just keep getting rejected, and rejected, and rejected, maybe someone’s telling you something. You’ve got to take a good hard look at what you’re doing. You really got to ride that line between not getting discouraged, but on the other hand, learning from rejection and maybe what you’re doing is not good enough. You really have to be your hardest self-critic. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Interview: Craig Thompson A graphic novelist grapples with his world through his art.
Craig Thompson is an Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist, who rose to prominence with his 2003 graphic novel, Blankets. The novel won the 2004 Eisner Awards for Best Artist and Writer, as well as Best Graphic Album. The novel was named #1 on TIME magazine’s list of graphic novels in 2003. Blankets is an autobiographical coming-of-age story about Thompson’s childhood and progression into adulthood, all while living in a strict fundamentalist Christian home.The novel grapples with growing up, love, and coming to terms with who you are, and what you are meant to be. Thompson, a likable, kind man, has always had an affinity for graphic novels. His passion for writing and drawing stemmed from Sunday funnies and comics that he read as a child. Previously, he worked at Dark Horse Comics, where he drew ads and logos for the company. After leaving to focus on his independent work, Thompson published his debut graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice in 1999.Thompson’s ability to write poignantly and to effortlessly intertwine plots and subplots are only a few examples of why his work is so incredible. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Alexis den Boggende. 32
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
ADB: How did you first get into comics, and what was the transition like for you from going to a shorter novels like Good-bye, Chunky Rice into longer graphic novels, such as Blankets and Habibi? CT: Well, I first got into comics when I was really little. Let’s say four years old or something like that. Because one, it was the first visual medium I ever experienced. I don’t think my parents got a television set until I was six or older maybe. We did get the Sunday newspaper, which had the full color Sunday comic strips, and that’s basically where I learned to read. So I guess it was also my first literary medium. ADB: How long does it take you to put your works together, and how long does it take to create a panel? CT: Before Chunky Rice I was doing mini-comics, and those were never longer than 20 pages. I was doing stories that were maybe one page to 20 pages long. One of the mini comics I was working on was called Good-bye Chunky Rice, which my future publisher saw. He was the one who proposed I flesh it out into a full-length story. I thought Chunky Rice would be maybe 80 pages, but it grew into 120 pages. I really felt like once I jumped from doing 20page stories to 100-page stories it wasn’t that much more of a leap to go to 500-page stories. I had worked my way up through baby steps, starting with one page—or not even one page—six-panel comic strips, to one-page stories, to eventually 20-page stories, then a 100-page book. I was primed to dive into a full-length graphic novel. ADB: How did you grow as a writer and an artist, developing your worlds and your characters, especially since some of them come from your own personal experiences? CT: Well, between Chunky Rice and Blankets, at the time, my first motivation was that I wanted to draw humans. More than that, I wanted to tell stories of humans. I wanted to draw them, because really, Good-bye Chunky Rice was probably equally autobiographical to Blankets. It’s just that I had abstracted things through these animals and whatever—the flourishes of that cartoony landscape. My first motivation was I want to draw realistically. I wanted to learn to draw from life. I was sort of practicing that, and as I was working on the book it just more and more took on the features of autobiography. It was both easier and more honest to not change details from my real life. But I do think that autobiography—in the case of Blankets, at least when I was writing it—is easier than fiction because all the information you need is already there. The writing is more a process of elimination and editing than it is like, “Oh, now that I’m at this juncture, where do I turn next?” I knew what the ending was. I knew those beats. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
ADB: What advice would you have about facing rejection as an artist? CT: Work in baby steps. Whether you are working in prose or in comics, start with a poem. Start with a six-panel strip and then slowly build up to doing longer form work. Draw as many pages as possible. I had a great painter friend—or still have a great painter friend—who challenged himself to paint one painting a day, and he did that for seven years. At the end of those seven years he was making a living doing painting. Initially, he was just churning them out. Some of them got thrown away. Through that process he found a gallery, and then that led to actually earning some money from making paintings. He had to do hundreds of paintings to get to the good ones, and it’s the same with writing. It’s the same with drawing. You draw hundreds of pages before they really start getting good, and I still feel that way now at this point of my career. I really need to draw. Maybe one out of ten pages is good. You’ve just got to keep producing, and have a discipline and a practice about it. ADB: What do you think is next for you? CT: This is the first time in my career where I’m not entirely certain what’s next. Previously, I was so sick of whatever project that I was working on at the time, that by the time I was finishing that, I had very clear sense of like, “oh, what I have to do next is this, because it’s completely different.” The transition between Chunky Rice and Blankets is a good example. After I was finishing Chunky Rice, I was really sick of the sort of cutesy, cartoony style with animals. I wanted to draw more realistically and also draw more organically. I’m kind of dabbling on three projects, but none of them have completely seized my interest. It’s almost like a romantic relationship. It’s like I’m casually dating some ideas right now. I had a friend who said, “Well, yeah, and it’s also like when you finish a book it’s a breakup. Like a long term relationship that’s come to an end, you have to give yourself a little time to heal beforehand.” You’re not ready to commit to something big instantly. ADB: What’s your work process when you’re creating your novels? CT: Well, I work on sort of a rough draft of the book before I start final drawings. In the case of Blankets, I spent about a year doing the rough draft of the book. I wasn’t working full time. My full time job was as an illustrator, but half of that year was spent rewriting and redrawing pages and pages of a rough draft of Blankets before I started on the final art. Once I was working on the final art, I would do two pages a day. For me, the drawing is a lot more tangible and structured. With most of my books I do about a page a 34
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
day, but with Blankets I did two pages a day. I would wake up in the morning, and I knew that’s what I had to accomplish. But when I’m writing, it’s more abstract. As you know, being a writer, some afternoons you can write an entire chapter, and sometimes you can go for months and everything you create is not working. ADB: Blankets and Habibi are lengthy, heavily detailed and beautifully done. Do you ever get stuck? CT: I think with every one of those projects there was a moment where I got stuck. The only cure I know is to just keep on pushing through. Habibi had the most dramatic writer’s blocks. There were a lot of them in that process, and I think the biggest one came near the end when I was approaching the last three chapters of the book. I had drawn 400 pages at that point, but I didn’t know how the book ended. Up until that point, I’d been trusting the process of drawing, like, “Oh, I spend so much time drawing. Story things can start to gel as I’m caught up in the drawing process.” But at that point in the book, I had no idea how the book ended. I had to take off three months from drawing to just write out at least ten variations on the ending before I found the one that felt instinctually right to me. ADB: Do you have any writing rituals, such as maybe a specific place you prefer to write in? CT: No. In fact, when I’m writing I’m more flexible with location. When I draw it’s very disciplined. I have a drawing desk in a special room. I have rituals, whether it being quiet, or there being music playing or listening to Podcasts. But with writing, I can just be anywhere. Sometimes the ideas come from outside of the home, but even within the home I can work in the backyard, I can work on the couch, I can jump around the house. Maybe I’m eating my breakfast and I’m writing out ideas. I find writing to be more flexible. I like that about it. ADB: Blankets is a coming-of-age autobiography detailing your childhood, being raised in a Christian family and your first love in young adulthood. What was your motivation in looking back and writing this novel, and why did you decide to chronicle this time? What were some of your emotions while looking back upon these times in your life and writing it down? CT: Well, my initial motivation was born out of frustration with the comic book medium and what it seemed like the stories being told were. The sort of stereotype of comics at that time were that they were these superhero or sci-fi fantasy epics where, in twenty-four pages, worlds are created and destroyed. Then there’s explosions, and superpowers and all this stuff that I found very MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
boring. To me it seemed sort of novel and maybe even a bit funny to instead do a large, long, many-paged book with a novelistic pace where barely anything happened except within the interior landscapes of the characters. All I wanted to do was capture a very simple human experience of sharing a bed for the first time in the way that I felt inspired by music, where it’s like, “well, that could be a theme of a song” for instance, but up to that point it hadn’t been a theme of comic books. I was meditating on my own experience. At first, I was thinking it was a love story, like this coming-of-age romance, but then I realized I’d shared a bed earlier with my brother. That brought on a whole other layer of family dynamic, and that’s when I realized like, “Oh, there’s enough here for a book.” I thought it was groundbreaking at the time to be like, “Oh, it’s going to be a huge, huge book, 500 pages where barely anything happened.” ADB: You use flashbacks as a literary and artistic device. You parallel young adult experiences with past childhood experiences. How did you decide to use this in creating Blankets? CT: Well, comics in graphic novels seem really well-suited to those leaps in time and space because you have these visual placeholders on a page. You can make any kind of leap in terms of the next scene, the next panel, and the viewer is not going to get confused in the same way they would in, say, a movie where something’s moving past you. It can be discombobulating. Even in prose, you feel like, “Oh, I’ve got to flip back ten pages to really kind of reacquaint myself where I am.” That’s easy to do in a graphic novel for a reader. It gives you a lot of flexibility and freedom, and also I think there’s just something natural about visual cues in sequential art, where you can say, “this thing at this very moment reminds me of this thing ten years ago,” and I think it’s a strength of the medium. There is this flexibility, and I think for me that’s a big part of the appeal. It’s like, “Oh, I can very fluidly make leaps in time and space using comics.” ADB: Habibi is a love story and a parable about the human relationship with the natural world. It chronicles the journey of the relationship between two escaped child slaves. Why did you decide to go from autobiographical pieces, like Blankets and Good-bye, Chunky Rice to a more magical, fantastical piece like Habibi? CT: It’s born out of that frustration I was describing. When I finish a project, I’m really sick of what I’m working on because it takes years to make a book. I was sick of drawing myself and I was sick of drawing these mundane Midwestern landscapes. I knew I was going to go off in a different direction. At the time, the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out. I thought that could be a route—to go for a full-on fantasy epic. However, I was also really caught 36
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
up in a lot of political concerns, and that was another route. I just merged the two in to this modern day fairy tale that draws on a lot of the world issues that I was interested in, whether it be the water crisis, Islamophobia and the overlap in the Judaic-Christian-Abrahamic faiths. ADB: Habibi takes place in modern times, but almost seems orientalist; as if it is timeless. Was this a stylistic choice? CT: It was a stylistic choice. I didn’t want to research to the degree where I had to get details precise. I really did want to draw fast and loose from different times and locations, and so there were parts of the book—you know, it does feel like a mythical Middle East—but I would say I was equally drawing from Southeast Asia and parts of America in the landscape. It gave me that sort of, again, flexibility. ADB: What do you think is the best way to develop characters and build relationships between them? CT: For me, I don’t know—characters seem to do that work on their own. With the characters of Dodola and Zam, in a lot of ways I don’t feel they changed much from the very first sketch I made of them in my sketchbook. During the early parts of brainstorming and doodling you fill up sketchbooks, then a character emerges subconsciously that seems to have its own presence. Then those are the ones I glom onto as a writer, like, “Oh, I want to spend time with these characters. They gave birth to themselves in the world, but now it’s my responsibility to tell their story.” So I guess that’s a cliché that writers say, “great characters write themselves,” but it’s kind of true too. They feel like tangible people. If you throw them in a situation there’s an obvious way they’re going to react that’s true to their character. ADB: You just published Space Dumplins in August, a graphic novel for younger readers about a young girl who is on a mission to save her father. What made you transition from more adult-themed graphic novels, to writing one for a younger audience? CT: Habibi was a long, and daunting and, at times, dark process. I wanted to do something more light, and playful and humorous. I also really wanted to do something for young readers, because up to this point in my career, I hadn’t done anything like that. All my friends were having kids or had kids who wanted to read my work, and I knew some of it wasn’t appropriate for them. I was aware of when and how I first fell in love with the medium of comics, like an eight, nine, ten-year-old, and I wanted to create something for that individual. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
ADB: Who, or what, influences you? CT: It is changing all the time, and it also changes project by project. The stuff I was looking at—obviously, I guess—while creating Space Dumplins has no correlation to what I was looking at when I was creating Habibi. Currently, it’s a good question because I am in a really malleable, uncertain state right now. Lorrie Moore is one of my favorites. She’s a story writer. I also like George Saunders. I love short story writers right now. I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, which relates to things I’ve been thinking about with my next book. I think it’d be interesting to do a non-fiction, essay-based book. It’s always changing. Visually, I don’t know what I’m interested in right now visually, which is weird now that I think of it. I haven’t figured out that yet.
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
an excerpt from
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf “Find your own voice—wherever that is—whether it is in your head or around you. Don’t try to imitate anybody else and you have to think about selling your work. I’m a firm believer that if you do good work, it will find a way to be published.”
an excerpt from
Blankets by Craig Thompson “I guess that’s a cliche that writers say, ‘great characters write themselves,’ but it’s kind of true too. They feel like tangible people. If you throw them in a situation there’s an obvious way they’re going to react that’s true to their character.”
Father Aegideus by Dianne Dugaw
Just because a person joins a Franciscan convent—maybe like me right out of high school—doesn’t mean her schooling’s at an end. Last year as a new postulant I took classes in English, psychology, biology, and philosophy, attended a special Current Events weekend class on The Reverend Martin Luther King, and even went to Stanford University one night to hear Father Daniel Berrigan speak against President Johnson’s war build-up in Vietnam. None of these up-to-date activities happen now in my intense year of contemplative super-cloister. As a canonical novice, I focus only on spiritual topics. Eventually each of us novices will study to be teachers or nurses or counselors. But for now that’ll have to wait. This year we take only religion classes—liturgy, theology, scripture, Franciscan spirituality, that kind of thing. The second-year novices ahead of us have made it through their canonical year, and they’re free again to think about a few things other than God—like math or literature or sociology. Now, as the new school term approaches, they’re warning us about Father Aegideus who’ll be teaching us our required liturgy class. “Just don’t let him scare you,” they whisper, looking about as wide-eyed and rattled as if they were talking about a ghost. On the first day I choose the front row near the door. We’re around the corner from the convent chapel and down the hall from the science lab MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
where Sister Monica researches her Anopheles mosquitoes. With the warnings from the second-years, we canonicals scurry to the room early and perch on the edge of our seats, waiting for the professor. The seconds tick-tick-tick around the clock above the door. Somebody sneezes…drops a pencil…picks it up. A few minutes after the hour—ka-lomp, ka-lomp, ka-lomp, KALOMP—feet stomping down the hall. The door flares, bangs wide against its stopper. In strides a figure in black cape and cowl. One hand swings a worn leather briefcase, the other a rumpled black umbrella. THUD—the briefcase drops to the table. The umbrella handle hooks over the chair at the front of the room. His back to us, the gigantic Father Aegideus unclasps and swirls the black cape of his Benedictine habit, turns, then flops its dark folds over the umbrella. His hands flip back his hood, tug at the black skirts cinched by a leather belt, then slick back long strands of thinning hair from his forehead. Straightening and clearing his throat, he addresses us with some kind of Slavic accent: “Goodt Morningk,” he declares. I crouch as far back as possible. My thick black stockings itch as my calves press hard against the frame of my desk. I feel my eyes widen in their sockets. No matter how prepared you thought you were, it’s hard to feel at ease in this liturgy class. Father Aegideus stalks from one end of the classroom to the other announcing: “Vee are here to shtudy the Theyology und Prakteece of Catholic liturgy.” A tall Benedictine monk—looming, really—Father Aegideus, on closer inspection, is not very old. Despite his balding pate, the strands of thinning hair that periodically flop onto his forehead and then get smoothed over the top of his head are black, not gray. And he’s agile as a cat. Pacing around the front of the room, he turns with quick dips and spins, pauses, looks to the ceiling, pokes the air with a finger as he talks. His wire-rimmed glasses, as thick as bottles, cover his darting black eyes. When he peers my way through the magnifying lenses, his left eye gazes in one direction, and the right goes off in another. His words don’t always come across, and not only because of his moving and darting around, or even the accent. His two front teeth are spaced so far apart from each other that one might be missing. His tongue tangles up between them in the midst of the English words that he’s not very good at to begin with. Before the class I never gave a thought to “Mosaic Law transformed into Pauline teachings,” or “The Theology of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence in the Eucharistic Sacrament.” Oh dear! I would venture a question, if I thought I could follow the answer. Finding myself nearly scared to death of the guy, I’m turning up as much information on Father Aegideus as possible. I guess it was Sister Margaret, our Novice Mistress, who told us during the summer that a monk from the Benedictine Priory in the hills above Woodside would drive over here to 54
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Mount Alverno to teach us liturgy. She said he was from somewhere in Eastern Europe—a refugee who escaped; she thought maybe during the uprising against the Russians in Hungary. My family was always big on stories about Catholics who came from behind the Iron Curtain, sneaking out at night over the borders and leaving everything behind. A Hungarian family came to our prairie church when I was young, then moved on to Seattle. Anna, my mother’s best friend in the parish at home, escaped from Latvia just a few years ago. At mealtimes in the refectory, when nuns are allowed to talk, I ask around about Father Aegideus. Bits and pieces come from the older novices. Sister Leticia says that maybe he’s Czech, from a monastery over there, and only learned his English here, and recently. Or “maybe from Transylvania,” says some smartie, as the whole table snickers. Last week at supper, someone said she’d heard he escaped from a communist prison and somehow got to the monastery here in California after that. Sister Mary Matthew says he’s got to be older than he looks…that he survived torture over there by the Nazis as a young monk, only to get into trouble with the Russians a few years later. Everybody agrees on one thing: Father Aegideus must have a desperate history. With the term halfway through, my grades can’t be going well, given that Father Aegideus sternly objects to my every answer when he calls on me. He tells us our exams “vill be very longk and very hardt.” I head straight for the back row to stay out of his line of vision. With each lecture, our professor seems to be getting more agitated. Pacing the room from one side to the other, he’ll shout out a topic—something about the Mass or chanting the Divine Office, about how the performance and devotion by priests and brothers and nuns creates the absolute whole meaning of everything. Occasionally he intones Latin in growling bass tones, closing his eyes and keeping time with his bony hands. The windows seem to rattle. Around midterm time I sit in the chapel at night, doing my best to meditate the way we’re supposed to, before Compline. A phantom scene floats into my mind—grainy black-and-white, like a newsreel-still from World War II times: A skinny seminarian looks through wire-rimmed glasses. He’s no older than I am now. Smokestacks of the terrible ovens loom against a stormy sky. He peers from behind tangles of barbed wire, stands in a long line of skeletal Jews, Communists, Catholics, and other undesirables. Who knows? In any case, our California hilltop of teenage novices must seem like another planet to Father Aegideus. Our professor takes to chalking furiously on the blackboard: circles within circles within squares within circles within squares. It’s totally baffling, MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
if obviously important to him—like the mysterious interlacing petroglyph cliff-carvings above the Columbia River back home: Full of incomprehensible significance. He’s telling us something about how the Divine Office works when we chant. The psalms and prayers and readings change from day to day—that’s plain. But he says they echo and intersect with each other and with other crucial things over time. The seasons, like Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter and Pentecost, circle through the year and come back again. Every day we go to chapel for the eight separate “hours,” the services that seem to chant us through nights and mornings and back to night, all week, all month, every year. In any given class his whole blackboard gets covered with intersecting chalk marks—tangled and retangled and tangled again. Who can find their way through this? At one point in his lecture, Father Aegideus lurches to the right and draws a quick spiral that turns into a big chalky arrow zapping from the upper right corner. “Zee Eye of Godt!” he exclaims as the chalk slashes its way down across the board. Seeing everything, the line cuts through all the circleswithin-circles-within-squares, the entire width of our classroom from the upper corner of the board down, down, down, down to the far lower left. Once “The Eye of God” gets to its destination, I just know someone’s going to get pointed at and called on to have the right answers about what God sees in all that chalk. I sit in a sweat, hands shaking, heart pounding. Back in chapel, once again in a quiet moment between liturgies— Mass, Lauds, Vespers—I puzzle over how chanted prayers have something to do with, apparently, the cosmos, the universe, and everything else there is. As usual, I worry about liturgy class. What is the scary professor trying to tell us? My mind imagines another scene: Russian soldiers frown under their ear-warming flaps. They’re smoking unfiltered cigarettes, stamping in the snow, holding shiny rifles at the ready. A rickety farm truck reaches the checkpoint, chock-full of Slavic vegetables: purple cabbages; nosetingling onions; bright orange carrots; dirty pink potatoes. The bearded driver brakes with muddy boots. Loaded gunnysacks, covered over with produce, ride behind him. Inside the biggest sack, heaped over in one corner of the truck-bed, scrunches up a younger, tight-rolled Father Aegideus. He holds his breath inside the burlap. Prays not to sneeze. Hopes to stay cabbage-covered. Remembers whatever trouble he’s gotten into with the Russians. Pretends to be nothing but a desperate bag of potatoes trying to cross the border. On his way to what has turned out to be sunny California. That week, I get a “D” on his midterm exam. That’s a first. I don’t talk about it. Sisters Margie and Susan didn’t do any better.
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
One day, Father Aegideus stomps into class in the usual way and opens his tattered leather bag. Instead of notes, or a book, he pulls out a powder-blue ball of yarn. Holds it up for us to see. “Time is a mysterry,” he declares. He unwinds the yarn, which drops in swirls around him, the draping loops spilling over his sandals. Then he winds it all up back into a ball in one hand, holds it out in front of himself, and pulls out the yarn in its single strand with the other hand. Slowly he extends both his arms—the lengthening strand in one hand moving away from the coiled ball of yarn in the other—as far apart as his long limbs can reach. Time as yarn: messy as we live it out on the one hand; rolled up in the calendar on the other. “We just walk along zuh little yarn,” he says, twirling the single, straight blue strand between his outstretched hands. “Zat is all we know: walk, walk, walk.” He ambles and circles the front of the room. “But, vhat dost Godt see vhen we chant office?” His black eyes blink-blink-blink as he suddenly rewinds the single strand of yarn back into the ball as fast as he can. Reaching into his briefcase with that lurch I’m no longer startled by, he pulls out a good-sized knitting needle. Holding the yarn in one hand, he pounces as he stabs the silver needle into that fluffy, powder-blue ball with the other. I get it. There we are, on God’s knitting needle. As if we’re sitting astride its silver length, the day’s chanting rides us along with “Zee Eye of Godt” That intersecting needle angles us across the winding, balled-up strands of time, which otherwise we only picture pulled out in MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Slowly he extends both his arms—the lengthening strand in one hand moving away from the coiled ball of yarn in the other.”
the little line we’re walking along. This morning’s chant, in this year’s season, intersects a story of Moses always read for this day’s feast, with an echo of it in something from Jesus, a plea for help and blessing in the words of Isaiah, a psalm from David calling for peace. Across rolling strands of orbiting time, this season’s prayers and chants transect us, just as they did last year. Exactly as they did for singing monks and nuns a hundred years ago… or a thousand… or a few. And then you have to ask, what do we have at the center? Only the fuzzy beginning of a string at the start of its winding, I guess. But what’s around this fuzzy start makes a circling world in the chanting of it, charged with something celestial. Maybe something like God. Every day from then on, as I did every day before, I chant Lauds before Mass. Now the psalms fit better—anxious and wringing their hands for Advent; shimmering their cymbals on a joyful feast; weeping Lenten tears. Each morning, the Mass that follows carries it further, orbits us along our way in the liturgy galaxy. The term ends. I pass liturgy class with a C+. Another low in my career. Christmas comes with its hours and masses full of shining psalms, rising suns, and blossoming Rods of Jesse. When school starts back up in January, there’s no liturgy course. The second semester of the class is cancelled. Someone whispers that Father Aegideus has had a nervous breakdown over the holiday. I picture the agitated, pacing Father Aegideus with his knitting needle. Think a little prayer. Conjure him in a new posture. Taking a deep breath, a tall, gaunt Benedictine monk sits on the desk, reaches into the shabby briefcase at his side for a powder blue ball of yarn and puts it in his lap. He takes up the soft, single strand in one hand, a shining needle in the other. His fingers slowly tie the strand to the needle, and then he casts on in the usual way. From the bag he takes the partner needle. Sits on the desk. Smiles. Quietly knits. I sit in the chapel’s soft light. Pull into mind a strand from my Shakespeare class: “Knit up the ravelled sleeve of care.”
Dianne Dugaw has published scholarly articles and books in addition to creative stories in such magazines as Blueline, Soundings, and Slippery Elm. She lectures and performs at universities and festivals in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and teaches at the University of Oregon. Her recording, Dangerous Examples—Fighting & Sailing Women in Song (www.cdbaby.com) presents historical ballads from her first book, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (UChicagoP, 1996). A ranch childhood in a musical and religious family and her early convent experience inform both her interest in women heroes in songs and history and her storytelling. 58
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Births by Lani Scozzari With my first two births, I longed to see their thin tissued eyelids, opening to my voice, their finger nails, grown long and flimsy in my womb. With our first child, my eyes met my husband’s What kind of baby did I get? The girl kind, you got the girl kind... With our second child, he called out, another girl, before I could ask. I wanted to hear their cry bellow from the hollows of their lungs. Before I latched them to my breast, I touched their backs malleable, a white cream across their skin. And yet when I beg to see you my third child, the room grows still. The midwife says, It won’t make it better. And yet I still want to touch your wrinkled head, feel the slick of your skin against my sweating chest, I want to call your name and know you are alive. And though I stroke you and stoke and stroke— Though my breasts swell— It is the nurse who whispers, boy— MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Morning Run by Lani Scozzari Pink across still navy sky. The sound hollow and silent except for passing cars. I remember a fight with my husband. Last year. His anger splashed the walls like gasoline, I don’t love you anymore. I cross the Tequesta Bridge. The river, high tide, above the docks. An alligator a few weeks back dead, bobbing against the mangrove shore. Missing its tail. Minnows darted for its flesh and an anhinga circled. The corner of Riverside and Center Street across the railroad tracks. The gravel path rattles beneath my step. We planted trees for each child in our yard, magnolia for Tessa, tabeulia for Teagan, poinciana for the one who died. And the fight, how he threatened to leave, his arms flailed and breath choked the way a fish splayed on a boat deck fights for life. I told him, I won’t lose our children in this.
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
You seemed to forget by Lani Scozzari Today in the kitchen when you asked me what time the girls would be home. I answered and you pounced, curt throated before I could explain. You seemed to forget you love me, in the driveway as you pulled the trash can from the curb, dragging its empty body over the bricks of our driveway. It was our oldest who reminded you.
MOUNT HOPE â€˘ ISSUE 10
Tonight you’re packing books by Lani Scozzari from floor to ceiling shelves, in stacks of three or four books in your freckled hands, into cardboard boxes, straight rows, spines up keeping them categorized. The boxes are light enough I can lift them when we move. Together. Us and the girls. I don’t mind packing our books, you tell me and I think my books. But I don’t mind letting you hold them, something to hold of ours.
Lani Scozzari is a writer, distance runner, mother, and teacher. Publications of her poems and essays include The Collagist, The Cortland Review, Tinderbox, Comstock Review, and many others. She is the recipient of a finalist award from The Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry in Ballet’s Child. She’s been awarded scholarships from The Frost Place and The Palm Beach Poetry Festival. While earning her M.F.A. in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, she served as the senior editor of their literary journal, Lumina. She and her husband are raising their two young daughters in Jupiter, FL. For more information, check out www.balletschild.com 62
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Frogs by Ethan Forrest Ross
Kevin told them he thought the “frog thing” was sick, and he couldn’t imagine his brother putting up with it either. They ought to run off and have normal fun like normal kids. He’d give them five dollars each if they promised not to do that to the frogs anymore. The girl and the boy ran away through the wild grass and up the little slope near the creek. Kevin stood in his doorway holding the ten-dollar bill. They were his brother’s children, Naomi and Maxie, spending the weekend with him while their parents were away. Even for twins, Kevin thought it strange how alike they were. At the age of nine, gender seemed to make very little difference. With their thick, brown hair covering their ears and a good portion of their necks, they looked like copies of each other. Kevin didn’t know how he felt about having kids around the place, even just for a couple of days. They were all right, he supposed. It was good to have someone, and the thing about kids was that—although you couldn’t trust them—you didn’t have to anticipate their judgment on you. Whether they smiled at your mannerisms or called you a fool, they were just kids. With adult company you couldn’t go on like you always did. You had to present. He left the children alone by the creek for a good half hour before MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
deciding to see what small creature was being tortured. It was the time of year when the waters just grazed the pebbles of the creek as if it were barely breathing. Growing up, he and his brother used to float plastic boats down the creek during the months when there was more to it, and they built every campfire here because the water was in ready supply. Nothing odd about kids wanting to spend time in a creek, Kevin thought. The only slice of nature that Maxie and Naomi were used to was a town park and a blue lake. Naturally, they were attracted to the grime of the backwoods, to the rawness of true earth. Kevin approached the twins, saw what they were doing, and frowned. “Haven’t I told you two I’d like this frog-murdering thing to stop once and for all?” said Kevin, looking hard into their unregistering eyes. “Don’t tell me they let you do this at home. I know your father wouldn’t be one to promote this behavior.” From what he could detect, this was how it went: The twins would dig a hole. They’d catch a frog. They’d put the frog in the hole and cover it with dirt so the poor thing couldn’t hop or breathe. Then they would dig up the hole to collect the dirty, dead frog that lay at the bottom. They’d line up the carcasses on a rock in the sun, and when the rock got full, they would toss the frogs into the water, one after the other like stones to skip. It would be different if these were fish to be eaten. The worst part was the wastefulness of it. “You hear me, right?” said Kevin. “No more killing of the frogs. We need frogs. There’s no reason to kill them just for killing’s sake.” Maxie said, “Dad and me go hunting frogs.” “Now that isn’t true, and I know it isn’t. I’d call your father right now if he wasn’t up in the hills.” “We catch a whole bunch,” Naomi said. “Us and daddy, we catch them at Lake Opeka.” None of this squared with what Kevin knew. Of course he and Tyler used to catch all sorts of fascinating creatures out of this very creek. Crayfish, real fish, even a squirrel once. But hadn’t they always set them free? Come every summer the brothers would capture lightning bugs in their cupped hands, but had they ever squeezed the life from a single one? “If you two think it’s all right to go on killing frogs for no reason, then I guess we’ll all have to eat frogs for dinner,” said Kevin. “That’ll be the reason.” Stooping at the rock, Kevin picked up the frogs by their tender middles. Their bodies were like rubber, surprisingly dense, and their limbs were stiff and sticking straight out. They seemed as if they had been drowned and, in a sense, they had been drowned. Dirt to frogs like water to men. In each hand he pinched a stack of eight or so frogs. The children were quiet. “A nice little helping,” Kevin said. “But what about these spots here?” He pointed with his boot to patches of freshly packed dirt. “Are there still frogs in these? You’re gonna need to dig them up.” He looked to the creek. It 64
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
crept along, forming slight foam over the largest stones. “And what about in the water? I’m gonna need you to gather up all those dead frogs in the water too. I’ll be back in a minute. You see how many of the frogs you killed you can come up with.” He carried the frogs inside and laid them out like playing cards along the kitchen counter. He got out a frying pan, his mother’s, and arranged the frogs so they formed an even layer, no frog on top of another. The pan had a long metal handle, which didn’t conduct heat. He and his brother had done a lot of cooking over campfires, and this was one of the pans that had survived. That gave him a thought. These kids probably never got experiences like cooking over a fire, living as they did. He couldn’t believe how his brother had changed, how it was like he hadn’t been raised anywhere near here. A fire would be a healthy experience for the twins. That and the frogs. Getting to eat what you caught. He set the pan on the kitchen counter. The frogs were about bite sized, and they looked pathetic. Kevin found the bottle of olive oil. The oil slid out fast and flooded the pan so that the legs were submerged in it like a bed of drowned flowers. With a spatula, he shuffled the frogs around. One broke open and unrolled in a trail of frog parts. He ought to be more careful. Soon the bodies were coated evenly in a glossy shine, and their mouths seemed to hang open as if letting out a soundless moan. Did the oil make their mouths open? Or perhaps their jaws were limp with death and had been open or undone the whole time. He thought about salting the MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Kevin took out a matchbook, and the children were afraid. He tried to show them how to hold it. They didn’t want to.”
frogs and wondered what that would do. Probably the salt would make them crinkle up. They could salt their own frogs on their plates as they preferred. Before he put the pan in the refrigerator, he covered it with plastic wrap. Then he went back outside. The twins were sprawled in the high grass. Naomi sat up. “We didn’t find any,” she said. “Maxie threw the rest too far away.” “She was the one who threw the most in,” Maxie said. “I guess we’ve got enough frogs,” said Kevin. “We’ll crisp them up in an open pan and they’ll be like candy. It’ll be like eating a whole dinner of junk food, just about. Now let me tell you about the fire we’re going to build.” They gathered sticks and Kevin built a masterpiece while discussing the various stages of its construction. Best to use a square structure with crossed beams. Pack it in with pine and twigs. Leave a special hole for where the match will go when it’s time to light. He had wanted to be a Boy Scout. “It’s ready,” Kevin said. “Ready for what?” said Maxie. “Ready for us to light it. Who wants to light it?” Kevin took out a matchbook, and the children were afraid. He tried to show them how to hold it. They didn’t want to. He laid the book in Naomi’s palm and she jerked her hand away. “Here we go.” Kevin struck a match. It snapped and the flame flurried up and then flickered low. He held the match to the height of the children’s eyes. It was daylight, the yellow of the flame hardly present, but they stepped away. Kevin shoved the match into the special hole. It dissipated in a thread of smoke. He struck another and this one took. Kevin could feel the twins’ bewilderment. Their eyes shone with the magic before them. “Come closer to it,” Kevin said. “You don’t have to be afraid of it.” They stepped forward. “Feel the heat.” They stretched out their palms. Everyone was quiet for a time. The fire had turned them into careful children, Kevin thought. Quite impossibly so, given their recent behavior. He could feel their mesmerization at seeing things they had not seen before. It made him nostalgic for the fires of his youth: he and Tyler, up late, sitting on a rotted log, burning things. That was all so far away now and there wasn’t even an impression of the old log in the grass. Tyler had gone off to college. Figured he’d make something of himself. Kevin had stayed, like they said he would, like it was always assumed that he would. Did he have something wrong with him? That was how a few people talked. He probably wasn’t quite right, but most of the time he was fine. So long as he stayed where he belonged, his problems remained small. Tyler, for his part, acted like this place didn’t mean a thing to him. Tyler was adaptable, eager to change, and now he was raising two kids without the knowledge of fire. “You gonna cook them up still?” said Maxie. 66
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
“Cook what?” Kevin said. He had forgotten what they were doing. “The frogs.” “We could still cook them. The main thing is I don’t like the idea of you kids killing things for no reason.” Naomi said, “Why is it bad to kill frogs?” “It isn’t bad to kill frogs in and of itself. It’s all right if you have a good reason for killing them, if you do it humanely.” “What do you mean humanly?” “I mean killing them in a way so they don’t suffer.” “So they don’t suffer?” “So they don’t feel pain. So they don’t say ‘ouch’ when they die.” “I don’t want frogs to feel pain.” “Good,” Kevin said. “It’s a real bad sign when someone wishes things to suffer for the sake of it.” “So we gonna cook the frogs?” said Maxie. “You want to eat them?” said Kevin. “So they have purpose,” said Naomi. Kevin went inside and grabbed the pan of frogs. He lifted the edge of the plastic wrap. The bodies had soaked up most of the olive oil. They looked bloated and no longer fresh. If he’d had second thoughts before, he now knew for certain this wasn’t going to work. Making kids eat frogs—he cringed at the idea. Might as well beat them, if that was the sort of backwoods fool he was. He pinched the middle of the wrap and scooped up its contents and flipped the pan over the trash. Then he opened the freezer. Its frosted breath seemed to throb with possibilities. Back outside, Maxie wanted to know where the frogs were. “What say you we roast us some hot dogs instead? Nothing like roasting wieners over a fire. I got bread we can use for buns, and I’ll even cut the crust off.” “You all can have the hot dogs,” said Maxie. “I’m having frogs.” “We’re not gonna be cooking the frogs,” Kevin said. “They didn’t look too good.” “Where are they at?” “They’re in the trash.” Maxie rose to his feet and walked in the direction of the house with a stiff diligence. Naomi trotted after him. They looked like a pair of forest folk called to some wilderness gathering. “I threw them all away,” Kevin said as the siblings disappeared into the house. “They’re not the eating kind. I was wrong.” Kevin jogged to catch up. He needed a distraction. That was the way to manage kids. They could be unlatched from a fixation just as well as they could become attached to it. As he entered the house, he heard the plastic sound of a rustling bag. He ran into the kitchen. Naomi was bent into the trash bin. It jiggled and MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
shifted. She seemed like an animal stuck in a contraption of human waste. “Got you,” Naomi said and stood upright. The bin fell away from her, its contents spilling. A frog dangled from her fist by an elastic limb. “Interesting,” she said and stuffed it into her mouth. She grinned, her cheeks full, and swallowed hard with a comical gulp. Kevin stared at her throat and then at her belly. He didn’t notice Maxie, who had selected his own frog from the kitchen tile. “Gulp,” said Maxie aloud. “All right,” said Kevin, although he had not felt this wretched in some time. So the frogs had been swallowed, entirely raw, and there was no going back from this. He could accept that the twins had gotten ahold of the frogs, even put them in their mouths. But the frogs should still be in their mouths. He should still have the ability to make them spit them out. He felt as if he had committed a crime simply by standing there and forgetting how to speak. He breathed in and out. People ate raw seafood in some parts. It was one of the things you probably weren’t supposed to feed kids, but it wasn’t going to kill a kid to eat an uncooked fish, when, for an adult, that same fish would be just fine. Toxic things didn’t become a delicacy by you growing up. A lick of alcohol. One raw frog. Wouldn’t be enough to kill a kid. God, he hoped they wouldn’t get sick and die. “They’re good frogs,” Naomi said. “I like them, how they taste.” “Look at me. How do you feel? Do either of you feel sick at all?” “Nope,” Maxie said. “What about you, Naomi?” “I feel kinda funny.” “I just want you both to know, I didn’t intend for us to eat the frogs raw. I never thought that if we did end up eating frogs they would be raw. Never crossed my mind, do you understand?” Kevin squatted and groped for the spilled garbage and any lingering frogs. He scooped everything into the trash bin, thrust it down, lifted the bag, and spun it in his hands. Wrestling the plastic to his chest, he made a double knot. Outside, it was not quite dark. He hugged the bag. He felt as if it might be wrenched from his arms, as if he needed to assert his control over its contents. There was a wood behind the house. The bag landed atop a flattened fern looking obvious and out of place. Turning back, he ran into Maxie and Naomi. “This way,” Kevin said catching each at the shoulder and spinning them around. He steered them to the living room. Kevin felt as if he had eaten the frogs. He could taste them in his gut. Like one was migrating down his throat and was still there, hours after, as in the way of a snake digesting. He shook his head to shuffle these thoughts away. “I think we should all sit here on the couch a while and take a breather,” Kevin said. “How do you feel now?” 68
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
“I feel normal,” Naomi said. “That’s good. A minute ago you said you felt kind of funny.” “Well I still feel kinda funny.” “What does it feel like?” “It feels like. I don’t know what it feels like.” “Can you try and describe it?” “It’s hard to describe.” “Do you feel sick at all? Does your stomach hurt?” “No. It doesn’t hurt.” “Good.” “Not exactly.” “Not exactly?” He’d have to monitor them all night to make sure they didn’t puke. Wasn’t that a fear? Kids lying on their backs and puking, choking on it, and not waking up. Or was that only if they went unconscious? He ought to call the poison center. He could say the children had caught a few frogs and he’d thrown them in the trash and they must have gotten into them, kids being how they are. But who put the frogs in the pan? How’d they get the trace amounts of olive oil on them? Lord, he was stuck. Even though he had intended all along for the frogs to be cooked. Even though people ate the legs of frogs every day, and weren’t they a lot like fish? Nobody’d think it wrong if they’d caught fish and decided to cook them up. “I just want to make sure you’re safe,” Kevin said to Naomi. “That’s all I’m thinking about right now. So answer me, do you feel any different because of the frog you ate or not?” “I feel different,” Naomi said. They were interrupted by a splattering sound. Kevin leapt from the couch to where Maxie had vomited. He plucked Maxie from behind the shoulders and carted him across the room. He cleaned up the kid, and then he cleaned up the floor. The danger of a child eating a raw frog was not just an idea in his head but a feasible truth. He knew what he ought to do. He ought to save the vomit. Collect a specimen in a plastic container, toss it in the fridge, and call the poison center. He might sound crazy, but it was better to be crazy and safe. Instead, Kevin wiped up every drop of the vomit, as if blood from a murder, and threw the rag in the trash bin. There was no bag in it. He was disturbed by the residue of the vomit from the frogs touching the bare surface of the bin. He needed to irradiate the experience, to purify the circumstances, and that was when he remembered the fire. The bin was just a plastic bucket, and he carried it out to the coal remains and burrowed it into the center of the heat. It was still a glowing red. Good for incinerating any hint of the incident. Returning to the house, he remembered the bag of frogs. He was trying to be rational, but he couldn’t get away from the idea that somehow things might go terrible and all sorts of MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
complicating forces would get involved. It wasn’t that he believed bad things might happen, it was that he believed bad things could happen, and that Maxie’s vomit was a sign that his concerns were not unjustified. Could this escalate? Could there be an investigation where they discovered a bag of frogs? Evidence of olive oil? From the little Kevin knew about crime and justice, it seemed that it was the way of these forces to make much out of little, to magnify every scant detail of that which had been hidden. Then there was Tyler, and what words could he say to him? Kevin rounded the house and there was the bag of frogs sitting stark and orb-like in the black forest. Back at the fire, the trash bucket was tipped over and had begun to look like wax. He shoved the bag inside. From the shed he acquired a jarful of gasoline, splashed a hefty wave of it onto the coals, and stepped back from the exploding flame. Kevin couldn’t see the bucket or the bag. The fire was hellish, but a cool wind breathed across his ankles. Maxie and Naomi were in the living room smashing cars on the rug. Once again, Kevin wet a rag and polished the places where the vomit had landed. He thought about his brother, who would never have instructed his own children to eat frogs. He thought about that woman his brother had married. She probably didn’t eat meat at all. He knew she didn’t eat gluten. Probably tried to make the kids eat like she did. No wonder they were eager for frogs. He ought to call his brother and be frank with him: these children were being brought up to kill things for the sake of it. Death to them was nothing more than the kick of a soccer ball. That was the only reason he had suggested they eat the cooked frogs in the first place, and praise God there was no real danger in it. He just needed to be free of this. To explain it to Tyler once and for all. Give him a taste of the truth he had so long forgotten. Kevin walked to the room with the phone. He dialed and listened to six rings. His brother and the wife were in Wisconsin. Must not be getting a signal. “It’s me,” he said to the machine. “Call me. Don’t worry though. Nothing is really that bad. Just give me a call. It’ll be all right.” He heard a crash and dropped the phone on the desk chair as he ran to the twins. They had their swords out and were knocking them together as if all was well. Kevin sat on the couch, surrounded by magazines stuffed in the various cushion cracks and stacked on the shelves of a tiny bookcase. He had a vision of the morning sun and everything being as usual and forgettable as any other day. If it got to be morning and nothing bad had come of them, then nothing bad was going to come of them. It occurred to him that they had never figured out supper. “Is anyone hungry at all?” Kevin said. The siblings didn’t seem to hear and that was all right. In the morning it would be sunny, and he would fix them all a feast. Eggs and potatoes with garlic and at least three meats. They would bask in that warmth until three when his brother would show up. He just needed to get them through the night. 70
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
At nine, Kevin went to the closet and hauled out a fleece and two pillows and dropped them on the rug in front of the children. He said, “Since it’s our last night I thought we ought to have a sleepover.” “We can’t sleep in daddy’s old room?” Maxie said. “No. We’re having a sleepover. Don’t you get to do sleepovers at home?” “We never do,” Naomi said. “Well that’s a shame then.” “So we have to sleep here instead of on the bed?” said Maxie. “We won’t be sleeping for a while. It’s a sleepover.” But it was clear they were finished for the day and never mind keeping them up in the hopes of preventing whatever illness the raw frogs might cause. Kevin would let them be and sit on the couch, reading his National Geographic. Spend the whole night listening to their breath. Reading or not reading but listening, always. He feared that he might nod off or become forgetful, unresponsive. He imagined subtle shifts in the speed of their hearts, slow and slower, until one of them flickered all the way out. No, he wasn’t thinking like that. There were a few poisonous frogs in the world, but these were not that kind. The twins were asleep, their bodies like sausages, hardly separate by a shallow depression in the fleece. “Dumplings” was a word that came to him with an odd sense of endearment. Kevin woke to an awful light. The blinds on the window across had not been shut, and the reading light blared above in a hot hum of overuse. There was the rug beyond the couch. The fleece crumpled and hollow. He cursed and stood right up and ran through the house, croaking out the children’s names. He rushed outside and around the far end of the house, past the woods. He spotted them near the creek, not far from the spot of smoldering ash. Naomi was standing with her hands behind her back. Maxie had acquired a stick, making it bend like the arc of a bow. Along the gravel driveway, Kevin saw a haze of dust. Then he noticed the truck in the little parking area around the side of the house. His brother Tyler was stepping out of it. In the passenger seat, he could see the profile of his brother’s wife. “Morning,” said Tyler. They shook hands and Kevin’s hurt. “Got your message. Monica thought we better drive right on through instead of waiting till today. Seemed like nobody was answering the phone.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “That’s my fault.” “Was there something the matter?” “It wasn’t a thing, really. Maxie got a slight bit sick last night. Spat up a little. He’s been fine ever since.” “They do that.” Tyler looked over at the children in the distance. “You doing all right?” MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
“I’m doing fine.” “You sure you’re doing all right?” “I’m sure.” “All right. Guess we’ll go with that. Monica and I, we’re both exhausted, so we’ll be getting out of your hair then.” Tyler reached into his back pocket and brought out an envelope. “Hope you don’t mind cash.” “What’s that?” “We had a bunch of cash left over from the trip.” “I don’t expect you to pay me.” “Of course I’m going to pay you, just like I said I would.” “I don’t want it.” “Why not? You’ve earned it.” “I don’t need it.” “Kevin, look at this place.” “I don’t need it.” Tyler thrust the envelope into Kevin’s hand. “You’re going to take it.” Kevin took it. “That’s a great deal more than what we discussed,” he said, thumbing through the envelope. “Never mind that. Hard to find somebody willing to take them for that long.” “I do thank you.” “No, thank you.” His brother turned to the creek. “You two freaks about ready?” The children ran through the grass to meet their father, Naomi with a frog squirming in her hand. “No, no,” said Tyler. “No creatures in the car please. Go on, put it out of its misery.” Naomi dropped the frog and stamped it in the grass. “Bang,” she said. “Got him,” said Tyler. They walked to the truck. Tyler told the twins to say thank you to their uncle and they did. Kevin watched as the truck drove off, the wife’s profile bopping along with the ruts in the gravel. Something moved in the grass. Kevin walked over and found the frog, its broken body twitching with an insect’s vigor. He arranged his boot and pressed hard. He wriggled his toe in and in until mud came up around it and the bones cracked beneath it.
Ethan Forrest Ross grew up in Michigan and now lives in Virginia. His fiction has appeared in Meat For Tea, Dewpoint, Blotterature, and elsewhere. He is also a reader for the Barley South Review in Norfolk, Virginia. 72
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Theodore by Tom Elliott
I am driving west from Ottawa to Renfrew, Ontario on Rosh Hashanah, 1998. I’m not Jewish, but I like this approach to marking a new year. Give some thought to the past: What have been my deeds? Are there people I ought to forgive? People whose forgiveness I need? On the car radio the President of the United States, the Penitent-in-Chief, is testifying to sexual relations with a young woman not his wife. An auspicious day, on the whole, to seek my grandfather’s grave. § He was not Jewish, either, and as far as I know never acted inappropriately with a subordinate. But he was unfinished business. Actually, for me, he was unstarted business. He died when my mother was a child, and he was simply not a character in any family narratives I heard while growing up. When we visited my grandmother once or twice a year, nothing ever reminded anyone of “the time when your grandfather…” No sentence ever started, “As your grandfather used to say…” I may have inferred his existence from my own, but he was such a non-topic that it didn’t occur to me to have MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
questions about him until well after anyone who could answer them was dead: my quiet, sly great uncle; my reserved English grandmother; even my mother, though she might not have remembered much. I was even unaware of his given name—Theodore—until I looked up his obituary at the Renfrew library. My mother, a year and a half old and dressed in a little frock and leggings, sits in a large wood and chicken wire crate. Judging from some other pictures, it is ordinarily tenanted by Jock, Peter, and Squiff, the dogs. My grandfather reclines half in and half out of the crate, propping himself up on one elbow. He cradles her protectively with his other arm, a large strong hand around her middle. A solid wooden house is behind them, with a fieldstone foundation and an ample porch. A glider hangs from the porch ceiling. My mother’s tiny foot is pushing out the chicken wire a bit. She gazes into an infant’s distance, a smile just playing on her lips. He looks down at his firstborn with all the love and fascination that any of us could ever want on a father’s face. This photograph and a dozen or so others exist today, in a cardboard box in the closet of my study, because my grandmother chose not to throw them away. She kept them with her through forty years and several moves and gave them to my mother, or at least left them to be found. She labeled the backs of some, and my mother and my aunt made an attempt at the rest. This is how I know the dogs’ names. In fact, it is only through the pictures that I know there were dogs. My grandmother kept a petless household and valued tranquility—“I have to remember they are American children,” she told my mother once as my brother and I racketed about in play. She said no more about past dogs than about her late husband. Another picture, perhaps from the summer of that year. Father and daughter are dressed in white and she wears a sunhat with a wide brim. They are reclining in weedy grass on the side of a steep hill, possibly the bank of the North Saskatchewan River as it curves through Edmonton. She sits on his lap, his right arm encircling her. Peter, who looks to be part beagle, part something a little larger, sits at his feet, looking down the hill. Jock the Scottie curls up against his left side. The youngest of six, he grew up in a small town a little outside Manchester, England in the last of Victoria’s years. His father managed an insurance office, according to my grandparents’ marriage certificate, but my grandmother’s people may not have been convinced of his complete respectability. Teetotaling Methodists who gave all their children “Beecher” as a middle name, in honor of the evangelist Henry Ward Beecher, they were alarmed when young Katie took up with Theodore. Not only was she breaking off an engagement with another man to be with him, but his parents kept 74
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
a decanter of wine on their sideboard! However, she risked their displeasure to marry him in 1909, and two years later to follow him to western Canada, where he had a job keeping books for a flour mill. He had left the year after they were married, to get things set up before sending for her. I imagine him coming east to pick her up when her ship docked, possibly at Montreal, and then I see them riding the train, hour after hour through the forests and across the unending prairies. They are in high spirits: two young people reunited after a long separation, terribly in love, dining together in their first railroad dining car (not ordering the most expensive items on the menu, of course, but ice cream instead of fruit for dessert), and alive with a sense of great adventure. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he is anxious and silent, aware of the enormity of the uprooting he has perpetrated. She has had time by herself back in England, time with her family. She stares out the train window at the flickering shadows somewhere in Ontario, north of the Lakes, forming sentences in her mind for a diary she will later destroy, putting the best face she can on things. A pretty young woman in an incongruously elaborate dress, its whiteness exaggerated by the bright sun, stands on a wooden plank porch, probably in Saskatoon, their first Canadian home. One hand on the railing, she looks into the distance, at an angle away from the camera. She looks uncertain. That may not be fair. It’s a single old photograph, and the strong sunshine makes her expression hard to read. She may have been overjoyed to be on that porch. I don’t think so, however. All I know of her views on the West—and even this came secondhand from my aunt—was what she said years later about Calgary, where they lived for a time: “The cows walked down the streets and the Indians walked down the alleys.” I am not sure exactly what that was meant to convey, but probably not bliss. A man pulls a sled along a snowy road. A vast white plain stretches out on the other side of the road with a few small, dark buildings and a line of telephone poles. The camera is too far away to show who the man is or who the child is that he pulls on the sled, and they are heavily bundled against the cold. But I know it is my grandfather, taking my infant mother out to play. Why did he move them to Canada? I don’t believe he was fleeing civilization for the wilderness, unlike some of his forest-struck English contemporaries. I have pictures of him in the outdoors, but none of him building a fire or pitching a tent: pictures from outings, not expeditions. The one physical relic I have of him is a folding metal cup in a leather case, but this was not necessarily a camping utensil, as we might assume today. People often carried them in urban areas in those contagion-conscious years, to avoid drinking MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
from common vessels. My guess is that he wanted more than whatever he could have gotten in Manchester with a modest family background and some bookkeeping training. Their marriage certificate says he was a buyer for an engineering company, and he doubtless saw a dusty train of years ahead of him, getting the best price on drafting supplies and waiting for deaths or retirements to open up a senior buyer position. A brother was in the Indian civil service, and an older sister was a nurse in Labrador, so a flour mill in Saskatchewan might not have appeared too outlandish to him. And Edmonton, where they moved after Saskatoon, was a city— small, but genuinely urban. Two transcontinental railroads went through it, and the Alberta Provincial Legislature met in a handsome domed building that was completed in 1912. By the time my mother was born two years later, local investors were putting millions into the grand Hotel Macdonald, considered in architecture and furnishings a peer of such contemporaries as the Fairmont in San Francisco and the Copley Plaza in Boston. Those pre-war Wheat Boom years were good times for the West. More than a few fortunes were made, most back East and none in my family, but my grandparents, by the limited evidence I have, seemed to be building a fine life for themselves. My grandfather is sitting on the ground in a back yard. A small child— my mother’s handwriting guesses it is my aunt—sits astride his neck, supported by my grandmother, who stands behind him and completes the composition of a perfect classical pyramid. On no evidence, I decide that the photographer is Auntie Laurie, the Labrador nurse now living on a farm in British Columbia, who visited from time to time and who—or so one surviving letter suggests—did not always get on with her sister-in-law. Shortly after that picture, they moved east to Renfrew, where my grandfather had been put in charge of a mill. Renfrew served the surrounding lumber and farming country, and the Bonnechere River that runs through it powered sawmills and flour mills, and eventually a small hydroelectric plant. Though no Edmonton, it was a thriving community with paved streets, a station for the Canadian Pacific, a handsome brick town hall and an opera house. Grandfather is swimming in a lake with my mother and my aunt. My aunt, a toddler, is standing in shallow water; my mother, out in water up to her waist, is looking back quizzically at her little sister. Their father smiles at them from farther out, only his head and shoulders in a dark bathing suit appearing out of the water. Overexposure has lightened everything else except a few rocks on the shoreline and a dim line of trees on the opposite shore: they float in fog, disconnected save by their gazes at one another and by the recording camera. 76
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Does my grandmother take this picture out, say on some summer night in 1933? Living then in Pittsburgh with her bachelor brother Harold, she is making her way through the Depression playing the piano at a ballet school and teaching private lessons. My grandfather has been dead ten years. The children are growing up; my mother has finished her first year of college. It is hot. One blade of a small electric fan ticks slightly as it touches the wire guard, its breeze lifting the pages of the newspaper on the couch beside her. She should ask Harold to fix it. What does she see when she looks at that bright lake, at the man, the little girls, that section of the long way she followed to wind up on a couch in Pittsburgh? Is she still in love with him and unable to forgive his leaving her? Or was he, for all his charm and warmth, a huge mistake? Or is he simply a figure from another and discontinuous time, like a schoolmistress from her childhood? Perhaps she never takes the picture out. Here’s a story. Grandpa was a hot-shot, an up-and-comer in the organization. With thick black wavy hair and a good firm handshake, an earnest Northern manner when he needed it and a wink and a smile when he didn’t, he was somebody who could be useful in the rough and tumble world of wheat, railroads, and politics. The obituary says he was “a quiet man, but much liked by his business associates.” A man who could be counted on, is how I read it, and counted on to keep his mouth shut. And that’s why they moved from Saskatoon to Edmonton to Calgary and finally east to Renfrew, where Mr. O’Brien needed someone he could trust to manage a new milling company acquired for the Interprovincial Mill Ltd., part of a large and interlocking tangle of enterprises in the Ottawa Valley. “You work for O’Brien or you don’t work,” was what they said. But then the reliable accountant learned something he didn’t need to know, and he changed quickly from an asset to a liability. Or, in a variant of the story, O’Brien was attracted to my grandmother—a good-looking woman, if I say so myself. He was a man used to getting what he wanted. That’s why I went from Renfrew to the provincial archives in Toronto, to search out the death registration. I wanted to see where some courageous physician had entered “gunshot wound” instead of the pneumonia claimed in the Renfrew newspaper obituary, doubtless bought and paid for by O’Brien. Well, needless to say, the archives not only confirmed pneumonia for him, but also cited a few other pneumonia deaths in Renfrew that same week, so the official story is probably what really happened. And no, I never seriously thought my grandfather got whacked because he knew too much or was in the boss’s amorous way. I was just looking for something—anything—that would put a man where I had only an inference.
He is with another dog, not Peter or Jock or Squiff, but a large, thick-
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
coated retriever. It is winter, and my grandfather is standing on ice a couple of feet out from the rocky shore of a lake. There is a bright winter sun—the shadows in the folds of his coat are crisp. It must not be too cold, since he is not wearing gloves. The dog is standing firmly on the shore, looking across the lake at something in dog-space. He does not want to go out on the surface. My grandfather looks down at him with a slight smile. They are in wordless conversation about the nature of ice. The death registration says that he was first attended for his illness on March 3, 1923, three days before his fortieth birthday. He died ten days later of lobar pneumonia. Lobar pneumonia is a particularly dreadful manifestation of the disease, and this swift course was not unusual. Prior to antibiotics—penicillin was still five years in the future—pneumonia was as untreatable as it was common. Patients recovered on their own or died. Therapy was characterized by desperation: even bleeding was occasionally tried as late as the 1920s. It probably started for him in late February with a cough. He worked in close quarters at the mill, a damp stone building beside the Bonnechere, and catching cold was easy enough to do. Accustomed by then to Canadian winters, he doubtless thought little of it until during one of his coughs he felt a sharp pain in his chest, or he brought a handkerchief away from his mouth with a touch of red. Fever probably came on quickly. As pneumonia progresses, fluids coat and fill the air sacs in the lungs, making breathing difficult. Inflammation of the covering of the lung can make each cough acutely painful, and there is often delirium. By that point he was probably in Renfrew’s Victoria Hospital. Treatment there would not have been much more effective than if he had stayed at home, but at least my grandmother could get some rest and the children would not have to hear their father’s distress. Death from pneumonia may come from many causes. Quite possibly his heart simply failed. § Finding the grave was actually not difficult. Renfrew has grown since 1923, but it is still a small enough town that with a few phone calls I found out which cemetery would have been likely. I called its superintendent, and she not only looked up the location of the grave and gave me directions, but generously went out there the day before my visit and marked it with a bit of construction tape on a stake, since it is easy to miss. He has a small, dignified marker of gray granite with a slightly rough finish, rising a foot or so above the ground. A yew planted behind the next marker has grown close to it. His name and birth and death years are inscribed in inlaid bronze letters on the gently curving top surface of the stone. 78
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Two bronze letters and a number are missing, victims of many cycles of freezing and thawing. The edges of the empty incised stone letters are starting to erode and blur. A small bloom of bright orange fungus grows on one corner of the stone. Next to him, on the other side from the yew, are two empty spaces. Were they for family, purchased in the expectation that Renfrew would be the last move and the place where they would live out their days? Or did my grandmother, faced with sudden need in a time of grief, instinctively purchase a place for herself and—prudently in those days—for a child as well, intending to stay and be buried next to him? Or are they simply empty spaces, belonging to no one? In any event, no one from the family is there: my great-uncle made the treacherous late-winter drive to Renfrew to fetch his sister and her children, bringing them south to set up a household with him in Pittsburgh, where my grandmother died many years later. The late September afternoon sun is warm. The trees are starting to turn. I see the funeral on that March day in 1923. There is wet snow on the ground and a gray sky: true spring is still many weeks away. My mother holds my grandmother’s hand. They are standing in the same spot where I am now standing beside the grave, halfway down the slope of a small hill. At eight she understands better than her younger siblings what has happened, and she is trying to be as brave as a child in one of her didactic English storybooks. She closes her eyes tightly during the prayers, tries earnestly to understand the Methodist words. She imagines what it is like in that box, what it will be like in that hole. They do not linger long after the friends have left. After some brief period they turn and leave. They leave him there. I know, I know—what exactly did I want my grandmother to do? She didn’t have a lot of choices: she did what made sense. But it is a fact that he is still there, all by himself, after all these years, and I never learned his name until now. Turning to leave myself, I say I’m sorry.
Tom Elliott lives in Brighton, Massachusetts, with his wife and two feral cats who may or may not be getting socialized. His nonfiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New Madrid, New Delta Review, and The Journal of Popular Culture. A graduate of Harvard College, he has spent the last few decades as a technology industry marketing consultant. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
A Steady Hand by John Allison
Ahmad Khavil entered Recovery Room Seven after his second procedure of the morning to look in on the subject of his first, a kid of nineteen whose left shoulder had been drilled by a twelve-foot-long twoby-four propelled from the back of a lumber truck, which sliced through his windshield like a lance at eighty miles per hour when he rear-ended the truck on a freeway early the evening before. The kid’s blood-alcohol content had been 0.135, over half again the legal limit, probably explaining why he hadn’t noticed five lanes of glaring brake lights in front of his now-vaporized Corvette. More was wrong with him than the shoulder, of course, but piecing this part of the boy back together had been Ahmad’s only chore. Others had worked on the rest of him, and still others would have to. At some point, Ahmad was sure, the kid had a date with the Chicago PD. Seeing that the young man’s vitals were stable, the surgeon left to scrub down for another patient. This one was not going under the knife because of stupidity, instead being a thirty-three year old mother of three who had fallen from a step ladder in her utility room after working a full day as a data-entry clerk, preparing dinner, and rushing to find some sort of stuffed toy high on a closet shelf before she and her husband, newly arrived at home from twelve hours of writing trial briefs and meeting with clients at his law firm, bathed the kids and put them to bed. 80
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Most of his patients were not stupid kids. This particular patient, the burdened young mother, reminded him of something he sometimes came close to forgetting. Something his wife Rendhavi made sure he remembered: that lives were in his hands, lives that were precious not only to their owners but also to others who would be shattered by the loss of them. “Ahmad, these people, your patients, they aren’t cadavers. These are people who trust you. They put their futures in your hands. Literally. You’ve got the knife, you know,” she had said the night before. He had never slipped up, at least not badly enough to endanger anyone. He knew that all surgeons screw up now and then. They’re human. But he also knew that he was as careful as anyone at the large hospital in West Central Chicago where he’d been on staff for sixteen years. His wife had let up a bit on the frequency of her caveats, but the doctor still heard them on occasion. Rendhavi’s insistent little cautions had sometimes irritated him, but usually for only a couple of seconds before he recalled that the things we learn often aren’t as important as the things of which we are reminded. He needed reminding. Everyone in a position like his needed reminding. Even the stupid kids are important, he said to himself. Someone… there’s always somebody… loves them very much. And maybe they won’t always be so cavalier with their lives. And the lives of others. Most people grow up, at least to some degree. His musings brought him back to what had been gnawing at him for months: Tom Sargent. Dr. Thomas Sargent, his legendary chief of surgery and mentor. And his friend. And the best surgeon, probably the smartest damn guy period, he had ever known. But the famous man was no longer the same. Ahmad entered one of Grandview Hospital’s small sink rooms to begin his next exercise with the stiff-bristled brush and powerful antiseptic solution to abuse the skin from finger tips to elbows, over and over as he watched the timer he had set for ten minutes. Just around the corner, both hands raised to await gloving, the doctor entered the theater where Julianne Grooms lay on the table, partly sedated but still awake enough for him to joke with her about step ladders and the vital importance of unbroken ankles. As he nodded to the assistant surgeon and signaled the anesthesiologist that he was ready, he thought, fleetingly, “Grandview, the House that Sargent Built,” and promised himself that he would finally work up the courage to talk to Sargent later that day. By mid-afternoon, Ahmad was exhausted from “slicing, dicing, and screwing shit back together,” as one colleague had put it after a few Tito’s Handmade Vodka martinis at Skettles, a bar at the edge of the hospital district. He had texted Sargent about whether he could stop by the chief ’s office at four and had gotten an okay. Trying to concentrate on a journal article, the forty-five-year-old orthopedist couldn’t prevent himself from thinking about his older colleague. Not an old man, his mentor was probably in his mid-sixties and seemingly in his prime until the past few months. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Sargent was still vigorous and commanding, and as sharp as ever. But something had changed, and the admonitions of Ahmad’s perceptive wife had haunted him since the first day he noticed that change. Thomas Sargent could be a hard man. Often hard, in fact. Hard on staff, nurses, colleagues, whoever crossed his path when his work was involved. But those like Ahmad who had come to know him closely understood that the chief surgeon was always hardest on himself, absolutely unbending in his pursuit of excellence. The man did have a human side, albeit a rather unpredictable one; he alternated with seeming caprice between charming and brusque with his patients, no one knowing why he was one way or the other or when he would switch. The older surgeon and his obviously much-loved wife, Melanie—Professor Sargent to most people—did charity work together. The man could be an enjoyable companion in social settings, at least until he had had enough of it, at which point Melanie would guide her husband out as she told friends that Tom needed his rest, knowing that what he really needed was to be away from chit-chat and alone with her working in their study. Sargent could psychologically compartmentalize his life to a certain extent, but not as well as some of the other surgeons Ahmad knew. As Ahmad walked toward the elevator near his office on the fourth floor, he recalled hearing two of the OR nurses talking about the revered Dr. Sargent when they didn’t know Ahmad could hear them. Both of them, it seemed, had noticed the older doctor’s physical change. In the elevator, which stopped several times on its way to the twelfth floor, Ahmad’s mind whirled. Maybe I could enlist his wife to help me with this. Those two are so close. Everyone can see that. The younger surgeon then recalled his and Rendhavi’s visits to the Sargent home for social gatherings a few times over the years. As much as the guy works, Ahmad was thinking, he and Melanie probably wouldn’t have been so close if she hadn’t been as married to her genetics work as her husband was to surgery. Those people had a wall taken out so that they could create one big study for the two of them. One side has a desk, computer, printer, wireless Internet connection, and bookshelves, the other side having the identical setup. Melanie had told Ahmad that they usually work together until late when they don’t have some kind of outing on the schedule. They interrupt each other throughout the evening to talk about their work, each understanding the other’s well enough to ask probing questions. Although Ahmad and Rendhavi had a really good relationship, he could become wistful thinking about having a fully equal intellectual partner as Tom had. Melanie was at least as smart as Tom Sargent was, and those two just seemed to dig each other, even after decades together. He was pretty sure that Tom and Melanie also interrupted each other for reasons other than to talk about their work. He hoped so. “And on top of everything else, she’s just gorgeous,” Ahmad muttered. * 82
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Ahmad knocked, and when he heard Sargent say “Who is it?” he cracked open the door just a bit. “Tom, may I have a word with you?” asked Ahmad as he peered through the small crevice he had just created. Turning toward the visitor, Sargent said, “Oh, it’s you, Ahmad. What do you need?” Moving the door another few inches, Ahmad continued to hover at the threshold, thinking about how badly he did not want to do this, a thought that had visited him often as it became clear that he had to do something, to at least say something. With Tom Sargent, the intimidation wasn’t caused solely by his legendary skill in the OR, but also by his countless other accomplishments: his bestselling orthopedic textbooks, his many patented inventions covering new surgical techniques, devices and systems, and even the charities he had founded with Melanie. And the list went on. After perhaps five seconds of silence, Sargent impatiently urged his colleague, “Come on, out with it. And come in. Sit down.” Now standing between the door and its frame, his voice steeped in reticence, Ahmad asked, “Well, Tom, I just wondered, well, I wondered, how is that most recent patent lawsuit of yours going, the one on that new titanium bracing system for multiple vertebral fusions, I think it is, right?” Ahmad’s question obviously hitting a sore spot, Sargent growled, “Those bastards at C.R. Bard. I’ve never seen anyone so brazen as to have an entire page in one of their supply catalogs with drawings and descriptions of my goddamn bracing system. And they wouldn’t listen. Then they had the gall to claim that my system wasn’t even all that new. And their damned lawyers—what jerks.” “Any progress being made, Tom?” “My lead counsel seems to think so, but who knows? Hold it a minute, Ahmad, what the hell did you really come in here for? It surely wasn’t one of my patent cases, now was it?” “No, I guess it wasn’t, Tom. No, that’s not it, not really.” Taking a seat in one of the cold, sagging, green vinyl-covered chairs across a deeply scarred oak desk from Sargent, Ahmad struggled before finally saying, in a voice hoarse with emotion, “You know what I think of you professionally, Tom. And personally, too.” Quizzically, the chief surgeon said, “Well, sure, I think I do, Ahmad. At least I hope so. We’ve worked together for, what, how many years? Fifteen, maybe, or is it longer? On the personal thing, I know I can be a jerk, but you’ve always been a good friend. And I’ve truly appreciated that. More than you probably know. So, what’s bothering you? Something obviously is. Have I offended someone again and wasn’t aware of it? I am capable of apologizing, you know?” “Tom, you’re the best surgeon I’ve ever been around. Bar none. Nobody else comes close. You’re a walking orthopedics textbook, an advanced MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
one, and what you can do with a knife is, well, nobody else can touch you.” “Enough flattery, Ahmad. What are you trying to get at? You’re building up to something. What is it, for god’s sake? “You must have noticed, Tom, during the last few months or so. You must have.” “Noticed what, Ahmad? Come on, out with it! Whatever it is, I can handle it.” “I hope so, Tom, I hope so. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m afraid you’re becoming dangerous.” “What the hell are you talking about, Ahmad? I’ve operated thousands of times. I’ve never lost a patient, haven’t even crippled any if they weren’t that way already. Dangerous, you say?” “Don’t get defensive on me, Tom. No, you’re not one of the overpriced carpenters, and you’ve never been just a blade—you don’t cut if you don’t have to, but….” “But what? Yes, I’m good, and I worked damned hard to get that way. So have you. What is it you’re talking about, anyway?” “It’s that damned right hand of yours. You cut on people with that hand, Tom. You cut on them. You’ve got to wake up! The nurses have noticed it. I’ve noticed it. My guess is that other surgeons have seen it. Nobody wants to say anything. But someone’s got to. What’s going on, Tom? You’re not that old. Not even seventy, right? Haven’t you noticed? “But I don’t, I didn’t, Ahmad…” the surgeon’s voice trailed off. As the older man raised his right hand from the desk, Ahmad saw its rolling motion, obviously involuntary, almost as though Sargent were toying with several ball bearings in the hand. But there was nothing in it. When the legendary surgeon seized his glasses from the open copy of the latest issue of The Spine Journal, the glasses trembled for an instant and then calmed as the hand closed tightly on them. “Tom, I thought it’d be better if I told you, a friend, someone who’s on your side. You screw up and…and…I don’t know. Maybe the board will cover for you. You’re famous. Justifiably so. And you bring the hospital a lot of business. But they can cover for you only so long.” “I didn’t know anyone had seen, Ahmad. I didn’t think it was noticeable. It’s okay when I grip something. I thought I was keeping it under control. I’ve always been in control of, you know, myself, of whatever I was doing. At least that’s what I thought. I may need to write to the hospital board. But I’m not sure when, and I don’t exactly know what to tell them. Think you might help me with that?” “Of course I will, Tom, if you need it. A more objective eye might help. My guess is that Melanie would be better at it than either of us, though. She’s clearly smarter than I am,” Ahmad said of the renowned University of Chicago genetics professor whom he had met many times over the years, 84
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
either at social gatherings or when he and Rendhavi periodically had dinner with the Sargents. “Well, my wife is on a different plane than I am, too, Ahmad.” “Talk to her. Listen to her,” Ahmad said. “And sure, I’ll be here if you need me. For anything. Anytime.” Then, with Ahmad still sitting across the desk from Sargent, the older man drifted away, his mind traveling to almost a half-century earlier, to the image of a kind and gentle man then in his mid-fifties struggling to stab a chunk of pork chop on his plate with a fork that wouldn’t settle down, before finally shifting it to his left hand, at that time more stable than his right, but not for long. Charlie Sargent’s wife, sitting around the table’s corner from him, and sixteen-year-old Thomas on his father’s other side, looked on with confusion and fright. The gentle movement of the hand back and forth that reminded the boy of someone gently rubbing kernels of dried corn from a cob, had progressed rapidly, allowing neither wife nor son to become gradually desensitized. In the beginning, the movement ceased, or mostly so, when the man held on to a comb, a knife, anything. Then that didn’t stop it. Later, nothing stopped it. Ever. The surgeon watched himself in his twenties on one of his visits back home, looking on as his mother tended to her husband. Thomas recalled trying to visit his parents more often despite his daunting medical school schedule, and despite the shock he received each time upon seeing that his father had deteriorated further since his last visit only a few months before. It had begun with the involuntary movement of one hand, then worsening and moving to the other. The unwilled motion spread beyond the hands, and his gait became a lurch. Later came the drawing-up of fingers into useless, gnarled, claw-like things as the disease destroyed first nerve, then muscle tissue, in its ever-widening onslaught. Charlie had been a vital man, a highly intelligent one, accomplished in his own way in that small world in the rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma, until his savaged body finally curled up into a tightly wound ball in a nursing home bed, alone even when visited. Growing up in the midst of farmlands and small towns had been different for young Tom Sargent than for the other kids he knew. Feeling out of place and often uncomfortable in his own skin, by the time he was in middle school he sensed that he would not remain part of that world, and feared that his abilities would later be questioned by those with more impressive social and educational pedigrees. Teachers and classmates alike quickly picked up on the “something to prove” signals that the young Sargent unconsciously transmitted, first at the small public schools and later in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University. A considerate friend to those around him, invariably polite, the young Sargent nonetheless often seemed aloof. The word “haughty,” ascribed to him by some of his classmates in the high school yearbook during his senior year, stung. Others who knew him might MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
have disputed the term, instead believing him to be just “damned hard to know.” More than one of his high school teachers had cautioned him about not allowing himself to make mistakes. Mrs. Warren, his calculus teacher, had once told him that she “really worried about someone who thinks it’s okay for other people to make mistakes, but definitely not acceptable for him to make any. “Perfectionism is a tragedy, you know, Tom. All of us, even you, are so far from perfect.” One might have expected him to ease up on himself once he was admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, but little changed then, and little changed later as he progressed through the orthopedic surgical residency at Yale, followed by the Adult and Pediatric Comprehensive Spine Fellowship at Columbia. Whether this attitude was in his genes, or was the result of virtually permanent neural changes he himself brought about by years of selfinflicted brainwashing, or some of both, those who knew him came to believe that he was condemned to a life of trying much harder than he needed to. Wherever he found himself, people around him knew the young Sargent as not just a hard worker, but a driven one. During his teenage years, the only paying work he was able to secure was out on other farms in the county, plowing, mowing and hauling hay, building fences using a manual post-hole digger, repairing them, and running down the wayward cattle that he came to hate for being so damned stupid. He typically gave priority to helping his father, though, even though the elder Sargent did not demand it, or even ask it. Thomas just did it, whatever the work was. Failing to put everything he had into a task was simply not within the boy’s power, and his continual disquiet sprang from the fact that he had always graded himself after a job, any job, and he inevitably concluded that he could have done better. With Tom’s help, his dad Charlie had managed to supplement the family’s farming income in several ways, including what he could earn by spraying herbicides and pesticides on neighboring farms. He had covered his investment in the spraying equipment and a concrete-floored shed where both the gear and the chemicals were stored and was able to clear three to four thousand dollars a year. It was not until many years later that Thomas began to feel comfortable with his place in life, a gradual development likely attributable to the soothing effect of meeting and falling deeply in love with Melanie while in New Haven, his subsequent professional success, and the great damper of us all, age. Even into his sixties, however, he could only let go completely and truly relax when he was at home with her. He lost himself in her presence. As the signs of Parkinson’s began to reveal themselves, Sargent no longer wondered; he had become almost certain about what had brought it on—the venomous chemical he and his dad had sprayed on crops on their own farm and on surrounding ones to earn extra money that the family 86
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
badly needed. The hateful disease that turned its victims to stone usually did not pass from parent to child. It was rarely inherited, its causes still mostly unknown. Sargent recalled following the lead of a father untrained in the use of anything as toxic and as yet unregulated as Paraquat, not wearing adequate protective clothing and inevitably exposing bare skin to the stuff when there were little accidents or blowback from spraying whenever the breeze changed directions. The accidental spills on the floor, and on hands and arms and clothing, all seemed small back then. Now he knew better. He couldn’t prove that his dad’s illness was attributable to the stuff, but science had much later established a link that was close to undeniable, and Thomas became convinced that the vile shit had done in his father and also was now destroying him. None of the poison had been ingested, which would have proved quickly fatal, and the substance didn’t produce breathable vapor, but absorption through the skin was another thing entirely. Thomas Sargent was startled from his trance when Ahmad stood and pushed the chair back, the still-seated man’s lungs expelling air as though he had taken a punch in the gut before he finally spoke. “On the age, you’re close, Ahmad. I’ll be sixty-six in a couple of months. And, thanks, my friend,” Sargent said, his normally strong voice now diminished as though he were the one in a recovery room just coming out from under anesthesia. “I know that wasn’t easy, and I thank you.” Speaking of the wife he had so loved and admired for forty years, he continued, “Melanie’s been dropping hints. I just ignored them, pretending that it… Oh, I don’t know. I suppose it’s nothing more than denial. I’ve been reading the neurology literature lately, actually a lot of it during the past few months. I may not have to quit just yet. I know of a neurologist who specializes in this stuff. I’ll call his office. If you and Melanie will help me write a letter to the hospital board, I’ll have it ready when the Parkinson’s guy says it’s time. I’ll take steps, Ahmad. Maybe tomorrow.” His weary voice trailed off and his mind drifted away once more, this time to the mechanism of the disease he had been studying. Probably twenty percent of the dopamine-producing cells were already gone, maybe more. Two parts of the brain jumbling their damned communications. It had already begun. Sargent walked toward his Lexus in the hospital’s parking garage early that evening, opened the driver-side door and got in, then brought the powerful engine to life and backed the car out of its reserved space. The chief surgeon wished only for his wife’s calming presence as the rapid, disordered thoughts assaulted him mercilessly. Words, alternately not producing speech, then migrating to involuntarily moving lips, then retreating again, came in spurts. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10
Not everybody gets as bad as Pop did…maybe not ever in my case …some never get that bad. But I was out in that shed by the barn a lot, and out in the fields spraying. Not as much as he was, but a lot, trying to help him out, be with him. Went with him on weekend jobs, late afternoon jobs. Quite a few spills before the stuff was even diluted for spraying. Years of that shit. He didn’t know. I was young and dumb. Not sure when anybody knew except for the bastards at Imperial Chemical. That’s no kind of life, the way he was for his last ten, twelve years. Dad wouldn’t have wanted to be alive if he’d had any control over it. I could get pentobarbital, what the vets use for euthanasia, but it’s not at the hospital. For enough of it, I’d have to get it from Mexico. Morphine’s at the hospital, though, a lot of it. But surgeons don’t usually go to the pharmacy, don’t get stuff, it would be noticed. I have to think it through, probably get a little at a time. Used vials aren’t always empty. No. Not morphine, it’s too slow and it takes so much of it to do the job. Pento is the best bet. That stuff destroys horses with cracked-up legs so they don’t have to suffer. Like Pop did. Like Mom did watching him. Like I will? Then, quieting inside, he quietly murmured. Not now. I have some time. Still have time with her. The advance is different with different people. Medications are better now, and there’s work with stem-cells if the fucking Neanderthal politicians don’t get in the way too much …and the labs are depending less on fetal cells now, so not such a political hot potato. Maybe I can stretch this out, maybe a few good years, maybe more. I’ll have to quit operating sometime soon. Maybe she’ll work less, too, maybe take a leave. Maybe I don’t have to take steps yet. But while I can still do it on my own. When it’s time, she’ll help me find the pento. I know she will. She never wants to shrivel up, either, to be tied to tubes. I’d never let her be trapped in her own body. She knows that. She won’t let me get that way, either. Never saw her afraid of anything. The woman is fearless. But nothing’s for sure. We have to talk. Maybe a lot. Then, as the surgeon’s phone paired with the car’s sound system, he punched her programmed number. Hearing her voice, he said “Mel, I’ll be there soon. Let’s not work tonight. What do you think?”
John Allison is a longtime professor of law at The University of Texas. He’s published widely on the law; this is his first published fiction. 88
MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 10