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Issue 5 Spring 2014

M OUNT HOPE


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 Š 2014, 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 of the views expressed by its contributors. Inner photo: Mount Hope Whole Grains, Cottonwood, Arizona, 1970s. www.mounthopemagazine.com Individual Issue Price: $10.00 [4]

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 email to www.mounthopemagazine.org. Contact us at Mount.Hope.Magazine@gmail.com

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Editor Edward J. Delaney Writer-in-Residence

Adam Braver

Design Editor Lisa Daria Kennedy Massachusetts College of Art Poetry Editor

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Shelley Puhak Notre Dame of Maryland University ILLUSTRATIONS

Evan Viola

Managing Editors

Leah Catania, Chelsea Silva

Assistant Editors

Jacob Holmes (nonfiction), Reina Laaman (fiction), Alexandria Wojtanowski (poetry)

EditorIAL ASSISTANTS

Rebecca Abitz, Mackenzie Brennan, Julia Cianciolo, Ian Colomer, Stephanie Coyle, Elise Devaney, Alyssa Holmes, Benjamin Kennedy, Zakary Konstantino, Tara Nolan, Kristine Parker, Shana Sims, Taylor Wagner, Kyle Warner

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Fiction

Erik Hane / Burial 9 Brett Beach / Wherever You Came From 34

CONTENTS

spring 2014 / issue 5 / mount hope

Steve Church / High Maintenance 65 Amy Amoroso / Cut Wide Open 85

Nonfiction

Howard Norman / Three Prose Pieces 47


RenĂŠe Zuckerbrot / The Book Agent 79

Henning Ahrens (Translated by Mark Herman & Ronnie Apter and Geoffrey S. Koby) / Stopplebrand [Stubble Fire] 21 Bianca Diaz / Almost Brave 32 / Bring Your Sister 33

Interviews

Poetry

Nathaniel Philbrick / Looking To The Past 27

Stuart Freyer / Morocco 46 Dianne Nelson Oberhansly / Blue Dragonfly 64 Constance Eggers / Afternoons at the Central Hotel 76 / Little Pitcher 78

Graphic Arts Amber Carpenter / Frozen 54


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Erik Hane / Burial Mark nervously nudges the dog with his foot, but this fails too. He squats down on the living-room carpet and places his hand on the animal’s side. There’s no way around it, he thinks as he begins to feel nauseated, Solomon is dead. Upstairs, Mark can hear water running through the pipes as his wife, Olivia, draws a bath for his young daughter, Elaina. Elaina’s younger brother, Chad, is already asleep for the night. Mark stands in the living room, perplexed and motionless, his winter jacket already on, along with one glove. He had been on his way out. As the seconds pass, the weight of the situation begins to settle atop his shoulders like an anvil. Mark’s marriage is ten years old, his daughter is seven, and his son is five; Solomon the Bernese mountain dog had been approaching age eighteen. The animal had been a gift from a friend, years ago, for entering seminary. You know, that friend had said, because you can’t get married or anything. Blunt as it was, the logic seemed to work; Solomon had been Mark’s best friend, an energetic dog running laps around a seminary courtyard, never forgetting which man in the black collar was his. The dog had been there for the initial passion of the chosen religious life and had watched patiently as that fervor gradually diminished. Solomon had slept calmly, tied to a tree, outside the archbishop’s office as Mark informed the archbishop that he would be leaving. His consistency had alarmed Mark at times. Upon meeting him, Olivia had immediately taken to the animal. She loved (and being unaware, still loves) Solomon like a child. Now, their actual children viewed the aged dog as a sort of third parent. Solomon, as such an old, steady, and quiet creature had taken on a monastic or ghostly role in the house. He had moved slowly from room to room, silently demanding a certain reverence from those in his presence. Mark now weighs his options: walk upstairs and tell Olivia right now, or remove the dead family member from the middle of his floor before one of the children sees him and asks what is going on. Let the children get to bed, he figures. He’ll tell Olivia when she comes downstairs, and the kids can find out in the morning. As he considers what to do with Solomon’s body, it occurs to him that he has no idea how long the animal has been dead; the dog had been asleep in its usual spot, absolutely silent, as always. Since that day in the seminary courtyard, Solomon rarely spoke, as if he understood the significance of knowing when to do so. In fact, it was relatively agreed upon within the family that Solomon hadn’t spoken in six years, a number that delighted his daughter to no end, as it meant that she had been alive for the last instance of the dog making noise, while her brother had yet to be born. In response, Chad had at various points attempted to make up stories about times when only he had heard the dog speak; these were dismissed as the

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typically exaggerative claims of a five-year-old. This evening, Elaina had been petting him, like always. Mark shudders twice: once at the idea of Solomon dying alone, and once again at the idea of his daughter caressing a corpse. As he strokes the dog’s grayed fur, the sickening feeling in Mark’s stomach only intensifies, and it causes him to tremble. He feels as if he has let Solomon down, that eighteen years together should have at least meant being there in the moment of his death. He had been out shoveling snow off the driveway, because that was the only way to keep up with the ongoing blizzard. Solomon had died quietly on the floor, ignored by a household he helped create. Mark takes a deep breath to collect himself. He should have been there. The pipes have stopped humming; the bathtub must be full. The simple fact that Solomon would eventually die was not one that had gone unaddressed by the family. They had picked a spot in the backyard, under one of the evergreens along the fence, where the animal would be buried when the time came. Mark thinks about carrying the dog out there now, except for one problem: there are already two feet of snow on the ground, with more furiously coming—a textbook Colorado blizzard capable of shutting down an entire town overnight. But he can’t just leave him lying on the floor; the dog has earned at least a timely and proper burial. Elaina is making noise as she plays in the bath. Even from downstairs, Mark can hear her singing, splashing, hitting the edges of the tub. He has a few minutes to do something before she dries off and comes to the loft overlooking the living room. What he doesn’t count on, though, is Olivia, who now stands on the landing and looks down at her husband, clearly confused. “Mark,” she asks, “what are you doing?” Mark looks up at her, and without saying anything, lightly nudges Solomon’s limp body with his foot. The body folds around the kick, a lifeless give. Olivia brings her hands to her face, her eyes filling with grief. “Is he—” she manages, finishing the sentence with a gesturing of her hands. It’s funny, Mark thinks, how a simple moving of fingers can be a substitute for the idea of death. “Yeah,” he tells her. “What do you think should happen here?” He realizes he hasn’t moved his foot out from under the dog’s body; he feels disgusted with himself as he pulls it away. “Oh, God. I don’t know—can you, I mean—” she looks behind her to make sure Elaina is still in the bathroom. “Can you just put it somewhere for a little while, so they don’t have to see it?” She’s struggling to stay composed. As soon as Mark finishes reeling from the pronoun “it,” he answers simply and honestly.

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“I’d like to go bury him.” He takes another glance outside. The falling snow has quickened“Honey, later,” Olivia says. He can tell she’s sympathizing, but she’s got one eye on the bathroom where Elaina is. “Just wait until the kids are asleep, and then go. For now, would putting it in a bag be best?” Her wet eyes dart back and forth from the bathroom to Mark. This idea feels completely wrong to Mark, the bagging of the corpse of a loved one and setting it aside to be dealt with later, something unpleasant needing to be removed. But this is how it has always been, and he knows why. There’s an order to things, an order in which Solomon perpetually came last. He had watched the dog age in this house, kids jumping on his back, Olivia scolding him for sleeping on their bed. Solomon took the punishment silently and without external complaint; he knew, better than any man ever could, when to remain quiet. The dog was the last living proof of a life before this one, and oftentimes Mark would look at him and wonder what it would have been like. Every once in a while though, as Chad pulled his tail or Elaina yelled in his ear, Solomon and Mark’s eyes would meet, the dog’s seeming to remind Mark that this is how it is, this is what’s best. Mark’s answer now to Olivia is the only feasible one: “Okay.” So he enters the kitchen, reaches under the sink, and takes a large, black trash bag out. He pulls it apart with his fingers, then violently whips it in the air to expand it. As he does so, Olivia places a finger to her lips and gestures at him, because neither of them wants Chad to wake up. Mark continues the process, slower now; the dead must be taken out quietly. The bag billows with air, and he carries it over to the dog. Mark waits a second, giving Solomon one more chance to move, or wake up. He scolds himself for wasting time. Feet first, he figures, because placing a body in a bag headfirst feels improper. The dog’s stiffened legs slide across the durable plastic, and soon enough, Mark holds a large bag that contains his best friend. He hesitates to tie it at the top; shouldn’t he always allow for the potential of breath? He hoists the bag over his shoulder and lugs it into the laundry room, setting it down in the corner and turning off the light. As he closes the door behind him, Mark feels like his legs might collapse underneath him. The living room looks as if nothing has happened. Lamps light the space, the carpet still appears clean enough from vacuuming a few days ago, and there are magazines stacked on the coffee table. A chessboard rests near the fireplace, its pieces already placed in their starting positions. The only sounds are the rumbling of the drain as Elaina’s bath empties and the groaning of the refrigerator. Mark sits on the couch farthest from the laundry room though, because he swears he can hear the bag sitting silently behind the closed door. A fast thumping, the sound of bare feet running on the carpet upstairs. Elaina appears

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on the landing in her lavender pajamas, her hair still wet from the bath. From the excitement in her eyes, Mark already knows what she wants: “Daddy, can I have a story?” she asks. Mark completes the difficult task of smiling. “Of course,” he says, and heads for the stairs. The walk feels laborious; should he go check on Solomon’s body? He feels stupid; the dead remain dead. Elaina’s room has only a bedside lamp switched on, though several glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling help give the room a little more light. Elaina jumps into her small bed and pulls the dark purple covers all the way up to her mouth, though Mark can still tell she is smiling. He kneels down beside her head and addresses his daughter in a low, comforting tone that takes immense effort to muster. “What would you like to hear?” He knows the answer, and dreads it. “Tell me about Solomon.” Over the years, Solomon’s presence has been one of near folklore for Mark’s children; they constantly ask for stories from the dog’s past when Mark and the animal went on what Elaina and Chad have come to view as adventures, and more importantly, from a time when the dog spoke. The stories are usually simple: the time when Solomon met Mom, the time when Solomon barked all night because he thought he saw an elk but it was really a car, the time when Solomon ate an entire roasted turkey and slept for a whole day. This dog had woven itself into the children’s psyches unlike anything else. Depending on the situation, the animal was their plaything, their protector, their sibling, their muse. Right now, as he leans his head in close to his daughter’s ear, Mark can’t help but think, just a little, that Solomon had been used up by this family; perhaps he would have had a few extra years, if he hadn’t already given everything he had. The story will be brief today. But some things are quite simply a man’s duty, in spite of everything, and must be treated as sacred. He takes a deep breath, glances up at the fluorescent stars on the ceiling and begins: “I was sitting under the oak tree, the one I always tell you about, when I felt in my ear the insistent whisper of God. I was meditating, taking my holy hour outside; the walls inside the seminary were stifling that day. I sat in the courtyard, on the lawn in the nice weather. ‘Help me, Lord,’ I said, answering what seemed like a question. ‘Help me to do your will and not mine.’ Many men walked by in their collars. “Things were quiet as I waited for an answer, as things often were in our small seminary. ‘Seminary’—remember that word, sweetheart? The place where men go to be made into priests? I closed my eyes to block the sun. Solomon ran around the courtyard among the other men, happily chasing a thrown stick at one time, quietly falling into step with a group of professors at

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another. He loved it there. I’ve told you that. “I remained under the tree with my head bowed. Still, it was hot. Solomon moved from man to man, seeking attention, seeking affection, but he never came to me. Not while I was praying. He knew. Somehow, he always knew. He was young then, still had legs. ‘Make me strong,’ I told the Lord again. ‘Make me stronger than I am.’ I waited for a response but didn’t get one; sometimes, sweetheart, He answers by not answering at all. “I was settling in, beginning to breathe deeply, like they always taught us to do. But right as I was about to begin some reading, I heard the loud sound of Solomon’s bark. He didn’t used to be silent, like he is now; he used to have all kinds of opinions on things. Mostly he would talk for the other seminarians. They liked that. “But he wasn’t being playful this time, by the sound of it. I tried to ignore it, assuming one of the other men wasn’t throwing the stick adequately, or that two others had decided to have a conversation rather than pet his fur. I breathed in again. The lawn smelled freshly cut. I set down my book and tried to focus on prayer once again. I couldn’t. Solomon kept barking. ‘Why must it be this way, Lord?’ I asked. ‘Why must Solomon bark and be noisy when I need to talk to you most of all?’ “I opened my eyes to look at what was happening, and at first I saw nothing as my eyes adjusted to the brightness. When my vision returned, I saw several seminarians standing motionless in the lawn; they looked like chess pieces, the way they stood there, all wearing the same thing. I tried to decide, for a second, whether they would be considered black pieces or white. All of them looked at me to do something. “Solomon had spotted a difference in the usual courtyard atmosphere: a man not in black but in flowing green, with a large hat on his head. Do you remember that hat, sweetheart? You’ve seen it. It’s made of white cloth, with swooping lines, pointed at the top and lined with gold fabric around its bottom. I know you’ve seen it; maybe you were too little.” Elaina nods in sleepy agreement, either to remembering the image, or not. He goes on with the story. “This man was—is—the archbishop. He had come to say Mass, which would be happening in about an hour. He was walking through the courtyard to the chapel, and his vestments swished as he walked. But for whatever reason, Solomon didn’t like him and was telling him so. The dog stood in one place, along the far edge of the small sidewalk, legs tensed and barking intently, the hair on his neck standing on end. Dogs are colorblind; he must have disliked the hat. I never liked it either.

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“Now remember, the archbishop is a very important man; he’s kind of like the boss of all the priests and seminarians. So when I saw my dog barking at him, I had no choice but to stand up from my spot under the tree and try to calm him down. I left my books, my notebook, and my beads in my spot. As I moved across the lawn, the other seminarians looked at me, doing and saying nothing, waiting to see what would happen next. Maybe that was the problem all along, that everyone in that place was always waiting. I realized, though, that the archbishop was going to reach Solomon before I did. I called out to him. “‘Solomon,’ I addressed him politely, like he prefers. This couldn’t calm him. “‘Solomon!’ This time I raised my voice, and all the motionless bodies on the lawn cringed; yelling was not common at the seminary. But he wouldn’t listen. The archbishop had begun to walk slower, more tentatively. It was plain to see that he was nervous about Solomon, and Solomon nervous about him. “I called one more time: ‘Solomon, come here!’ My voice echoed around the courtyard. He ignored me still. And then, sweetheart, the archbishop made a mistake. “The man in the hat was now about ten feet away from the barking dog. He stopped walking forward. At this, Solomon finally stopped barking, though he stood just as tensely. They had reached a stalemate. Remember that word, ‘stalemate’? The point where progress is impossible? They stared at each other, both quivering, the dog in what seemed like anger but was probably fear, the man in the hat in what seemed like fear but was probably anger. I stopped too, afraid to approach either side.” Mark pauses. Elaina’s body looks tense; this story clearly feels different to her. He strokes her head for a few seconds, until he can feel her muscles relax. The gesture does nothing to ease his own. He continues. “He’s the most patient animal in the world, but he was wrong this time, the way he set things off the way he did. A bad dog that day. Perhaps, though, a bad dog was what I most needed him to be, and perhaps he knew it. He broke the silence with a sharp bark, and it startled the archbishop. Out of instinct, I suppose, he quickly raised his arm toward Solomon, his palm outstretched. Do you remember what I told you about strange dogs? They don’t like it when you do that. “And Solomon certainly didn’t. He jumped forward at the man, at his legs. The archbishop jumped backward, but he couldn’t dodge Solomon; that’s why he did what he did. When Solomon got within range, the man swung with his leg and kicked. Two animals fighting. I still remember the sound, the clacking of Solomon’s jaw as it was struck from underneath.

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Whining, he came to my side and lay down, resting his jaw on my foot. The archbishop was stooped over toward the sidewalk, his noises mixed with the dog’s; his hat had fallen.” Elaina tries to sit up, but Mark won’t let her. She’s confused and uneasy, two peculiar qualities to find in a girl hearing the story of how she came to be. Mark calms her once again, doing his best to smile and pull the covers over her again. “At first, no one moved. After a second, one seminarian brushed past me to the archbishop’s side, frantically asking if he was all right, if he had been bitten. This was the same man who had been throwing Solomon’s stick a few minutes before. The archbishop raised his hand to him as well, and the younger man stopped in his place. The archbishop then approached me. “‘I’m sorry, Your Excellency’ I said. He was still shaking a bit, and sweating. Fear still lingered in his eyes. ‘Solomon isn’t usually this poorly behaved.’ “The archbishop looked me in the eye. He finished brushing his hat off, placed it on his head, and straightened it before answering. I remember that, in that moment, he looked old. ‘Why,’ he began, his voice angry but still startled, ‘is there a dog on these grounds?’ “His tone made me nervous; the archbishop and I had only talked a few times, and never comfortably. ‘He’s mine, and he lives with me. As I said, he’s usually well-behaved, I’m sorry he jumped at you—’ “The archbishop interrupted me, however. ‘Isn’t there a rule about animals in the seminary?’ He kept touching his hat, to make sure it was in the right place on his head. This caused Solomon’s whimpering to become a slight growl; clearly it had been the hat. “But I answered him: ‘No, there’s no rule anywhere; I checked.’ “Solomon stood up slowly. He was finished whimpering. This was the first time he had ever been kicked. “The archbishop looked briefly down at the dog and then back at me. ‘There will be, I assure you. What’s your name?’ He lifted his arm, and his loose green sleeve slipped down his arm; he checked the time on a watch that glinted in the sun. “I started to feel embarrassed, and my face turned warm. Solomon was looking up at me as I flushed. I think my face confused him. ‘Mark,’ I said. ‘Mark Francis.’ The sweat under my collar felt irritating, and I pulled at it for air. “The archbishop had already started walking toward the chapel. ‘Mark Francis,’ he muttered. ‘Mark Francis and his dog.’ “As the man moved away from us, Solomon took a step in front of me, his body still

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rumbling with a low growl. I guess he hadn’t finished saying everything he wanted to. Maybe I hadn’t, either. He let out one more sharp, echoing bark at the man’s back. The archbishop’s head swiveled around on his turned shoulder, and he stared back at the animal, then at me. The man’s eyes were wild like Solomon’s; you know how they get, when he’s upset? He then turned forward again, and moved more swiftly toward the chapel. Sweetheart, this was the day Solomon got quiet.” At this, Elaina’s eyes begin to look heavy. The quiet is something familiar, something she understands. “Flustered, I returned to my spot under my tree. I would have ordered Solomon to lie next to me, but he did so on his own, facing away from the courtyard and once again resting his jaw on his paws. He was mostly silent, but every now and then he groaned a bit more. You’ve heard him do that before, right as he prepares to sleep. “My prayer became scattered, distracted, almost exasperated. ‘Exasperated’ means that you’ve had enough. ‘Maybe this isn’t what you want from me,’ I asked Him. I know it wasn’t a question, but it felt like one. “Sometimes, thought and prayer become scrambled, and you won’t be quite sure which is which. I still am not sure which it was.The Lord answered me: ‘Maybe it’s not,’ He said back. “‘Maybe I shouldn’t stay here,’ I continued. Solomon was breathing deep, his nose to the ground. “‘Maybe you shouldn’t,’ He said back. “And at that moment, I looked around the courtyard, at the chess piece seminarians scattered on their board, each one of them waiting to be moved. I looked at Solomon, who was asleep. ‘Then maybe I won’t,’ I told the Lord. “‘Then maybe you won’t,’ He said back.” As he trails off, Mark checks to make sure that Elaina is asleep, though he already knows she has been for a few minutes. She lies there, peaceful, and Mark is struck by the slight curve of her nose, the way her mouth rests, her jaw line; she looks like Olivia. He spends a moment trying to find a feature that reminds him of himself, but he sees none. Strange, he thinks, something that can be from him, receive its heartbeat from him, yet bear no resemblance to him. Under the faint glow of phosphorescent green from the artificial stars, Mark can see Elaina turn a bit under the covers. He kisses her on the head and walks out of the room. Olivia is outside the room on the landing. She looks at him with an expectant stare,

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silently asking whether or not Elaina has been put to bed. He nods and refocuses on the morbid task before him. “I’m going to go handle this,” Mark says to her. Olivia frowns, looking concerned as she crosses her arms over her blue sweater. “Maybe it would be better to just deal with it in the morning? It’s miserable out there right now.” Mark doesn’t provide an answer, at least verbally. He gives Olivia a look, a mixture of pleading and grief and fury, one that says dealing with death will not be a task left unfinished. Olivia understands; she always does. As the years have progressed, these remnants of the past have periodically reared their heads, reminders of a life no longer lived, an entire world Mark left for this one. The difference this time, of course, is that the remnant in question had a beating heart just an hour ago. Mark walks downstairs and into the laundry room. He puts on his jacket, his boots, some gloves, all with a pragmatism that suggests getting dressed in the company of something deceased is normal, almost dull, because that is the only way to think about it at this moment. He approaches the black trash bag slowly and hoists it over his shoulder. His boots make a low and rhythmic thud as they step across the house and the silence. Mark reaches the back door and stops for a second, setting the bag down. It occurs to him that the last image he will have of Solomon will not actually be of him, but the container unceremoniously carrying him to his modest grave. His gloves still on, Mark unties the knot at the top of the bag and reaches inside, taking hold of the dog’s body and lifting it out. Solomon lies limp in his gloved hands, his heavy and burdensome body sagging toward the floor where it is not supported. With a layer of thick cloth between him and the dog, Mark cannot tell whether the body has retained any internal warmth; he’s glad he doesn’t know. Souls must be warm, he thinks, if the departure of one correlates to the losing of heat. He looks briefly down at himself, to make sure his jacket is zipped all the way. It is. But right as he prepares to open the back door, the sounds of footsteps and indiscernible voices upstairs stop him in his tracks. One sentence rings clear into his ears: “Daddy, can I have some water?” Elaina is standing on the balcony, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, asking for a glass of water that Mark now kicks himself for forgetting she always wants. The girl’s expression starts soft, but Mark watches the realization animate her face. Her eyes are fully open now, and they’re upset. “Why are you holding Solomon?” Mark tries to answer diplomatically. “Sweetie, I’m really sorry, but—”

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Olivia enters the scene, jogging over to her daughter and placing her arms around her. The gesture has the opposite effect from the one intended; Elaina’s eyes now glisten. “Is he dead?” she asks, clearly knowing the answer. Mark stands frozen, not sure whether to set the animal down and comfort his daughter, or hurry outside and handle the task before him. Elaina has begun to cry, as Olivia does everything she can think of to quiet her, to no avail. He looks down at the dog in his hands. Some things need to be finished. He opens the back door and steps outside, and is immediately hit by freezing wind and some snow. He knows he should be back inside being a father, but the dormant priest in him has taken command; this is a rite that needs to be seen through to its completion. The back door closes, shutting out the commotion from inside, and as he turns toward the night, he can see an exasperated look from Olivia out of the corner of his eye. Though it is night, the yard appears illuminated, the falling white snow capturing any shred of light emanating from the surrounding houses. Wind whips into Mark’s body, and he raises the lifeless form in his arms up higher, protecting his bare neck from the freeze. A gardening shovel rests up against the house, collecting snow on its handle. He positions Solomon over his shoulder with one arm, grabbing the tool with the other. The snow is deep now, much more so than it was when he had been shoveling the driveway earlier; the untouched and windblown drifts look like glowing dunes against the sky that has turned a deep purple. This had to be the outcome all along, Mark thinks as he takes one methodical step after the other, doing his best not to knock snow into his own boots. An unceremonious and hurried burial of the last piece of what no longer is. Frozen wind chimes collide, and the noise barely resonates. Solomon had been used up, doing his best to adjust to a world outside the seminary—a dog mindful of his vocation to the end. Mark believes this is the spot, but he’s not sure; the darkness makes it hard to tell, and the snow has washed out any distinguishing characteristics of the ground below. He takes a look back toward the house, imagining the chaos that he has left his wife to contend with. There’s no time; just start digging. Solomon is placed in a drift nearby. The body sinks into the snow just slightly, the smooth sound of compression. The digging feels strange; this isn’t a snow shovel, and therefore cannot lift as much mass at a time as Mark would like. But a snow shovel cannot break the soil, especially when the ground is frozen. He’s digging with fervor, knowing it is only a matter of time before he truly cannot justify being outside while his children are grieving. To save time, he begins paying his respects to the animal, pieces of a eulogy between each heave. Possessed a consistency I could only pray for; that

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last load had dirt in it. Handled his vocation with grace, even as it shifted; the ground provides more frozen resistance than expected. Get some muscle behind it, you won’t break ground by slapping at it; rest easy, old friend. Mark can’t quite tell how deep or wide he has dug, but his instincts tell him he isn’t close. Solomon was an imposing animal, after all, and he requires a grave big enough to house him. In the drift next to the slowly expanding hole, snow falls on Solomon’s body, a thin layer of white on dark, coarse fur. A few more minutes and he should have it ready. Mark breathes heavily. The work required for the task is more than he imagined. But just as he tenses his back for another stab at the ground, a splitting sound from behind him: the back door opening, a rush of crying and voices flooding out into the quiet night. In the doorway, standing in red pajamas and searching frantically for the sight of his father, is Chad. Elaina’s crying must have awakened him, and upon learning that his dad was outside, he must have bolted for the door while Olivia had her attention on their daughter. His hair is tousled from sleep, and his young cheeks have flushed with grief. He wears no hat, no gloves of any kind, no coat; for his feet, though, Chad has found a pair of Mark’s shoes. The boy looks disproportionate and clownish, a tiny figure with enormous feet. He’s yelling into the yard, asking for his dad, asking for his dog. Mark calls back to him, trying to comfort him, telling him to go back inside, he’ll be back in the house in a minute. Chad won’t go. The hole isn’t near deep enough. Solomon could not possibly fit in the compartment allotted for his body, his mass being too great to be packed away in the space provided. Mark consoles as he digs, pleading with his son to go back in the house, can’t you see it’s snowing, you’re going to trip in those shoes. To his right, Solomon’s body has been coated in a substantial layer of snow. Chad is inconsolable. Though his feet must feel much heavier than he is used to, he takes a tentative step forward past the door, now fully into the frozen backyard. He’s shouting: “Dad, where is he, Dad, Solomon, Dad, where is he, why is he out here, Dad bring him in and you in right now.” Another clunky step; Chad holds his arms away from his wiry body, trying to catch his balance. Mark will not stop digging. He swivels his head back and forth to each side of the yard, first to the task at hand, and then back to his son, two magnetic poles that pull him without leaving room for compromise. Chad won’t stop coming forward, an unstoppable force in pajamas that are becoming increasingly covered in snow. But he’s got to finish, how could he not? Hasn’t

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Solomon earned at least that, or is it possible that even after they have passed, the dead keep sacrificing? Chad is well into the yard now, stepping carefully in the tracks Mark made when he walked out himself. Mark knows this cannot continue any longer; his son will freeze or trip. The fact that the hole isn’t going to be finished begins to dawn on him. He digs anyway, until he no longer can. A few seconds later, he is forced to stop. Chad takes one more crying, wailing step and slips, falling backward. Without thinking, Mark drops the shovel and lurches forward, hoisting his son out of the snow. He holds his son close to his chest, carrying him quickly inside as he closes the back door. The four of them are in the living room now, two of them in tears, one of them explaining the abstract concept of mortality, and one of them staring out the window, looking for a corpse and not finding it amidst the snow. Mark turns his attention inside the home, because his vocation demands it. Olivia holds Elaina in her arms, and Chad has just now stopped sobbing long enough to hear his father tell him that when Solomon had gone, he had gone in his sleep. Mark begins to finally wrap his head around this idea of family, this leaving of the corpse of his previous autonomy unburied in a drift while making sure his loved ones are surviving the cold. It was how it should have been, he tells his son as he rocks him slowly, it didn’t hurt at all, probably. Chad lifts up a few pieces from the chessboard, holding them for comfort. Every once in a while, in between questions from Chad about souls and bodies and how one can go somewhere without the other, Mark looks toward the window. The light reflects too clearly on the pane, and instead of a view of the night Mark sees a blurred portrayal of inside. He considers going back out, later tonight, once everyone is asleep. He decides against it. The body will keep until morning. Solomon is now covered in snow. The dark streaks of brown across the beige coat of fur have been dusted over by white, the shape of his body now a faint outline along an otherwise even and unbroken plane of frost. By the time Mark makes it outside again, which might be tomorrow, or maybe the next day, the dog will be completely covered, and he will have to wait, patient and steadfast as always, for a man with a shovel to unbury him, then bury him again.

Erik Hane studied fiction writing at Knox College, where he received distinctions for the Davenport Prize for Fiction and the Nick Adams Short Story Contest. He graduated with College Honors for his short story collection, People Things. Raised in Littleton, Colorado, Erik now lives in Washington Heights in New York City, where he works at Oxford University Press.

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Henning Ahrens / Stoppelbrand [Stubblefire] translated by Mark Herman & Ronnie Apter and Geoffrey S. Koby 1

1

Abends noch mit Grete geschlafen. Krähengeturtel. Morgens erwacht

Evening, still sleeping with Greta. Billing and cawing. Morning, woke up

zum Lärm von Mähdreschern (hier in der Stadt?), to the racket of combines (here in the city?), to the scent of straw falling on stubble, dem Duft von Stroh, auf Stoppel fallend, windrows devoured by round balers. Schwaden, gefressen von Rundballenpressen. Ein Fingerzeig, die Sterne steigen. Wir wissen nicht, woran wir leiden, solange uns die Sonne lacht.

A sign, the stars rise. We don’t know what ails us as long as the sun still smiles on us.

Lachend erwacht, zwischen Laken gefangen. Ein Spinnennetz, von Zähnen hängend, beim Gähnen taucht es auf. Und dann

Woke up laughing, caught between sheets. Revealed by a yawn, a cobweb dangles, hanging from teeth. And then

eine Fliege, mit panischem Brummen, erbeutet beim Ausbruch des Tags aus der Nacht.

a fly, buzzing in panic, trapped as day escaped from night.

Ein Fingerzeig, die Sonne schimmert. Wir wissen nicht, was wir verpassen, solange uns der Mond bewacht.

A sign, the sun shimmers. We don’t know what we’re missing as long as the moon keeps watch on us.

Abends. Noch mit Grete. Stoppel. Stroh. Zerstrampelte Laken.

Evening. Still with Greta. Stubble. Straw. Sheets rucked up.

Mähdrescherlärm. In der Walze gefangen. Gekappt vom Messer. Durchgedroschen. Morgens das Korn ins Bett erbrochen.

Racket of combines. Caught in the roller. Cut by the blade. Thoroughly threshed. Morning, vomited the grain onto the bed.

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[22]

2

2

Grete, wir hatten die Sehnsucht gepachtet, zehn Morgen Land, und am Ende der Pachtzeit

Greta, we thought we had a monopoly on desire, at least ten acres worth, and when the lease ended

standen die Felder voll Melde und Labkraut, voller Kamille und Disteln. Kein Spritzen

the fields stood full of saltbush and bedstraw, camomile and thistles. No spraying

half da, kein Hacken, kein Ziehen, das Spiel war verloren. Am Himmel, abends,

helped, no hoeing, no weeding, the game was lost. In the sky, come evening,

die Sterne, verkrautet von Wolken, trübe, der Mond, überwuchert von Dunkel. Sehnsucht

the stars, overgrown by clouds, turbid, the moon, overrun by darkness. Desire

wonach? Mit dem Kopf zwischen Schenkeln, zerstrampelten Laken, zerrissenen Kissen,

for what? With head between thighs, rucked-up sheets, ripped-up pillows,

dem weißen Gekröse des Bettdecks. Schätzchen, wir flohen, es dämmerte, Hasen

the quilt’s white guts. Day broke, sweetheart, we fled, rabbits with dew-wet pelts,

mit taufeuchtem Fell, über Stoppel, Haken schlagend, die nichts mehr hielten.

zig-zagging over stubble, shaping hooks which no longer held anything.

3

3

Es tanzt ein Bauer in den Flammen, er trägt den Kornsack auf den Schultern, die Ährenkrone auf dem Kopf.

In the flames a farmer is dancing, a sack of grain borne on his shoulders, the crown of sheaves upon his head.

Den Schopf darunter leckt das Feuer, es küßt ihn heiß auf beide Wangen und flüstert: Sei getrost.

Fire licks his shock of hair, kisses him hotly on both cheeks, and whispers: Fear not.

Die Erde glost. Er tanzt alleine, und neben ihm tanzt noch ein Zweiter, nur Haut und Knochen, auch ein Mann.

The earth smoulders. He dances alone, and yet a second dances beside him, just skin and bone, and yet a man.

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Im Bann der Flammen tanzen Dreie, der dritte ist ein Hauch von Asche, der Wind bläst ihn herum.

In the grip of the flames three are dancing, the third one is a whiff of ash the wind blows to and fro.

Sie tanzen stumm, sie brüllen Lieder, und aus den Löchern ihrer Münder, die sich nie schließen, quillt der Rauch.

They dance in silence, they bellow songs, and from their ever gaping mouths the smoke pours out.

Ein Bauch voll Korn, ein Bauch voll Knochen, ein Bauch voll Asche. Wie sie tanzen! Komm, Grete. Wir zwei tanzen auch.

Grain belly, bone belly, ash belly. How they dance! Come, Greta. We two will dance.

4

4

Grete, wir leben ewig, ich schwörs dir, denn unsre Seelen, aufwärts wirbelnd als Ascheflocken, kehren wieder,

Greta, I swear to you, we will live forever because our souls, swirling upward as flakes of ash, will return,

niedersegelnd zur Erde, von Winden zerstreut und vom Regen geläutert, um sich von neuem zusammenzusetzen.

floating down to earth, strewn by winds and purified by rain that they may reassemble.

Stoppel brennen. Es kommen Jäger, scheuchen Hasen aus Ackerfurchen, krümmen Finger. Schüsse peitschen,

Stubble is burning. Hunters come, flushing rabbits out of furrows, trigger fingers crooked. Shots crack,

Hasen werden im Sprung getroffen und in der Luft zur Seite gerissen, mit abgefetzten Läufen. Trotzdem,

rabbits are struck mid-leap, flung sideways, their legs torn off. Still,

Grete, wir leben, ich schwörs dir, ganz im Gegenteil, ewig, du weißt ja, unsere Spuren sind gezogen,

Greta, despite that, we will live, I swear to you, forever, for you know our spoors are imprinted,

eingebrannt und festgetrampelt zwischen rußgeschwärzten Halmen. (Schöne Worte. In den Augen

burnt in, and firmly stamped among soot-blackened stalks. (Pretty words. Smoke is burning

[23]

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brennt der Rauch, und was wir hassen, schmecken wir, und das nur, Grete, wenn wir an der Krume lecken.)

in our eyes and what we hate, we taste, and that only, Greta, when we lick the earth’s crust.)

5

5

Weißt du noch, Grete, als Eckern und Eicheln, braune Kastanien, als Tau von den Gräsern, Bäume die Blätter und Blumen die Blüten?

Do you remember, Greta, when acres of acorns, brown chestnuts, when dew from the grasses, beeches their blossoms and birches their blooms?

Aber der Stoppelbrand, Schätzchen, das Knistern, Schlingen aus Glut, und die Erde, glitzernd -- wir tanzen, bis die Füße brennen. Damals, Grete, im Gartendämmer beschwor ich mit bestem Gewissen und Wissen glänzende Äpfel und saftige Birnen. [24]

But the stubble fire, sweetheart, the snapping, snaking embers, and the earth glistening -- we dance until our feet burn. Back then, Greta, in the garden dawn I conjured up as best I could shiny apples and juicy pears.

Aber der Stoppelbrand, Schätzchen, das Knacken, Netze aus Flammen und schwelende Halme -- wir tanzen, bis wir Asche schlucken.

But the stubble fire, sweetheart, the crackling, webs of flame and smoldering stalks -- we dance until we swallow ashes.

Niemand durchbricht die Kruste der Erde, glaubs mir, Grete, du wirst das verstehen, wenn wir als Qualm über Felder wehen.

No one breaks through the earth’s crust, believe me, Greta, you will understand that when we drift over fields as thick smoke.

Wenn wir von oben Kinder sehen, die Eckern, Kastanien und Eicheln sammeln, Grette, dann wird der Groschen fallen.

When from up there we see children gathering beechnuts, chestnuts, and acorns, then, Greta, the penny will drop.

6

6

Erst, wenn die Wörter nichts mehr bezeichnen, kehre ich heim zu den Sternen. Grete, Schätzchen, du weißt, was ich meine:

Only when words no longer mean anything will I go home to the stars. Greta, sweetheart, you know what I mean:

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Sterne, die im Innern gleißen, Gold, das zwischen Rippen glitzert, Katzengold. Ich wasch den Sand aus,

stars that glitter on the inside, gold that glistens between ribs, fool’s gold. I pan the sand

der sich in den Adern sammelt, manchmal blitzt es auf -- ein Teilchen, das sich in den Kreislauf einschlich.

collected in the veins, sometimes it gleams -- a golden fleck which slipped into circulation.

Erst, wenn die Wörter nichts mehr bezeichnen, steige ich ein zu den Sternen. Grete, Schätzchen, du weißt, was ich meine:

Only when words no longer mean anything will I ascend to the stars. Greta, sweetheart, you know what I mean:

Im Innern der Herzbrocken, Klopfen von Hammer und Meißel.

inside the lump of the heart, the pounding of hammer and chisel.

7

7

Morgens noch mit Grete gestritten. Krähengezeter. Mittags dann

Morning, still quarreling with Greta. Cawing and crying. Noon,

der Klang von platzenden Scheiben, Flammen, prasselnd auf Stoppeln, Schwaden von Rauch, durchs Fenster schlagend.

the sound of breaking panes, flames rattling through stubble, clouds of smoke pouring out the window.

Ein Fingerzeig, der Himmel schwärzt sich. Wir wissen nicht, was anzufangen, solange uns die Stille zwackt.

A sign, the sky is darkening. We don’t know what to do as long as the silence racks us.

Stille. Mit Ohren wie Treckerreifen horchend, horchend. Augen, glotzend ins schlierige Zwielicht. Zeichen

Silence. With ears like tractor tires listening, listening. Eyes staring into the streaky twilight. Omens

sind das, doch was sie uns sagen, keiner hat das recht verstanden.

they are, but what they say to us, no one has really understood.

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[25]


Ein Fingerzeig, die Schwärze lichtet. Wir wissen nicht, was anzufangen, solange uns der Lärm zerhackt.

A sign, the darkness is brightening. We don’t know what to do as long as the racket hacks us to pieces.

Morgens. Noch mit Grete gestritten. Scheiben. Scherbe. Splitter auf Kissen.

Morning. Still quarreling with Greta. Windowpanes. Shards. Splinters on pillows.

Flammenmeer. Das Knacken. Prasseln. Versengt. Und das in der Stadt! Zum Lachen. Abends in kleine Stückchen zerbrochen.

Sea of flames. Crackling. Rattling. Scorched. And here in the city! Laughable. Evening, everything smashed to bits.

[26]

Henning Ahrens (born 1964) is a writer and translator in Peine, Germany. He is the author of three volumes of poetry, three novels, and other literary works. His numerous prizes include the Wolfgang Weyrauch Prize for Literary Achievement, the Pro-Litteris Prize, the Friedrich Hebbel Prize, and the Nicolas Born Prize. Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter’s collaborations include twenty-two translations of operas, operettas, and choral works, many of which have been performed throughout the United States, Canada, England, and Scotland. Their poetry translations have appeared in The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, Metamorphoses, and elsewhere, and their book Translating for Singing will be published in 2015. Geoffrey S. Koby is an associate professor of German/Translation Studies at Kent State University, chair of the American Translators Association Certification Committee, and past president of the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association. His translated book Einstein’s Opponents: The Public Controversy about the Theory of Relativity in the 1920s, by Milena Wazeck, was published in January 2014.

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[27]

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Nathaniel Philbrick began his career as a journalist for yachting and sailing publications, and most of his work has stayed near the sea. His 2000 book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, won the National Book Award, and his 2007 book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Philbrick is not a historian in the strictest sense, but has become one of the foremost American writers telling narratives of our past. His other books include Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution; Why Read Moby Dick?; and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Jacqulene Brzozowski.

JB: Based on the type of writing that you do, would you consider yourself a historian or a writer? NP: You know, I was an English major in college and actually got a Master’s in American Literature after that. I consider myself a writer who writes about history, as opposed to a historian.

[28]

JB: So where do you see that line being drawn between being a writer and historian? NP: Well it’s a term I don’t quite know how to apply. You know, an academic historian is someone who has a Ph.D. in history and writes for that kind of audience. I’m obviously writing for a general audience. It’s funny, I don’t know if the labels make all that much difference. JB: How do you approach history when you go to write a book like Mayflower or Bunker Hill? NP: Before I began writing these books about American history, I was a sailing journalist; so I think, partly because of that training, I’m interested in character and story. What I’m trying to do is to understand—as best I can—the characters I’m writing about. To find those details that really reveal who they were, as well as the times in which they were living, because the times were very different from what they are today. Yet, there are certain elements of human experience that are universal. So for me, it’s a question of finding the evidence in the archives, the letters, the diaries, and the newspapers—find those details that bring the story to life and enable it to be accessible to people not only on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional level. JB: Do you feel as though the way you go about describing historical events is what makes you stand apart from other historical writers? NP: I’m doing what I’ve basically done since my first book of history, which was Away

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Off Shore (published by a small press off Nantucket back in 1994). That was the book where I began to really develop the technique I use. In that book, I tell the history of Nantucket by focusing on a specific person in each chapter. Then, with each person, the history of the island moves forward. That’s where I learned that you’ve got to go into the archives and use those primary sources to really get the details that enable the past to come to life. It was also while working on that book that I began to not only research the archives, but to go into the field, to go to the places and scout things out. I find that is really helpful, particularly later on in the research process (and even the writing process when I know what to look for). In the very beginning I’m still learning. I don’t even know precisely how the story is going to be told. Therefore a visit to a historical site is usually less helpful, it’s better later in the process. JB: Do you use the same process, or a similar process for each book? NP: I use about a three-year template where I spend a year researching, reading widely, assembling a bibliography, and assembling the books in the study in the basement of my house on Nantucket. Then, I try to figure out a rough outline of what chapters I want, how I want to tell the story and whom I am going to focus on. I’m taking notes as I’m reading those books and assembling them. Once I do have a kind of blueprint (and that’s usually after about a year), I then begin to work on the book chapter by chapter, which involves researching once again, specifically for what I’m telling in that chapter, taking notes on that, culling the notes, coordinating the notes, taking notes upon the notes and then finally after several weeks of doing that, writing the chapter. That usually takes about a week, getting a first draft, which I then read to my wife who listens to it while she’s cleaning the dishes and gives me comments. I’ll share it with a few readers, and, once it’s at a point where I feel I can move on, I then start the process with the next chapter. JB: What particular process do you use to bring the story to life? NP: Well I don’t write novels, I write narrative non-fiction/narrative history and so I don’t invent dialogue and those kinds of things, which a novelist would do. Yet, I am trying to create the circumstances under which something happened. I guess I’m trying to create a kind of journalistic sense of life as lived in the past. I’ll consult diaries in which people record what the weather was like, and so I’ll learn that it was snowing that day or something like that, and that will provide context. For example, for the book Bunker Hill, I was doing a lot of work to get a sense of what the city of Boston was like in 1775, when it was completely unrecognizable from what it is now—when it was this island, really. I used historic maps and topographical studies to figure

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[29]


that all out, and figure out where people lived, where their houses were. If they went from their house to here, this is how they would have gone. I look for those kinds of details, so that you have a world that is inhabited by, hopefully, what seem like living, breathing people.

[30]

JB: Have you always had a passion for history? Clearly there are so many other areas that you could have gone with your writing. NP: Yes, as I said earlier, I was a sailing journalist. That’s kind of different, obviously. In 1984, my wife and I moved to Boston. I was a freelancer at that point, but spending a lot of time with our eighteen-month-old daughter Jenny. I was pushing her stroller through the streets of Boston—the North End, a very historic part of the city—when I became curious about, “What was this like back then?” I began researching the history of Boston on Sundays at the Boston Public Library. A year and a half later we moved to Nantucket. It’s interesting—that curiosity for that historic place I transferred to our new home on Nantucket. It sort of began for me in Boston, but it flourished on Nantucket, resulting in Away Off Shore and In the Heart of the Sea, and the other books sort of flowed organically from that. But it really came from wanting to know about where I lived. How did this place become this place? JB: In your books you write about very different events, so how or why do you choose the particular historical events that you do? For instance, Mayflower. How did you go about deciding to write about The Mayflower? NP: All my books are about American history. I’m not working chronologically or anything like that, they sort of flow from what I’ve done. When I was first writing about Nantucket in Away Off Shore almost twenty years ago, I realized that if I was going to understand Nantucket I was going to put it in the context of New England and the settlement of New England. I began to read about Plymouth Plantation and the pilgrims, and quickly realized that there was more to this story than I had learned in school, and that this would be a great topic for a book. I then went on to write In the Heart of the Sea, but it was after that book when I realized, “Okay, now is the time to go back to the Mayflower.” I realized that the story doesn’t end with the first Thanksgiving. I wanted to tell a story that took it through to its natural, terrible bloody not-conclusion with King Phillip’s War. It was after Mayflower when I realized that in a fifty-five year period, pretty much the whole pattern of what would motivate America’s push west with all those brutal Indian wars was enacted in New England. If I was going to trace that, then the iconic end point (and something I had always been interested in) would be Custer. I felt it was time for

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me to explore the wilderness of the west after exploring the wilderness of the sea. And so I wrote The Last Stand. But even as I embarked on that I realized that I wanted to continue the story after Mayflower, with a book about revolutionary Boston, Bunker Hill. They just sort of come one after another, and you have to make sure the topic will hold your attention for three years because that’s a long time. If you get half way through and go this is boring me, that’s not a good thing. JB: So there is something about the previous book that always sparks the next one. NP: Yes, they do flow one from the other in a kind of funny, idiosyncratic way. JB: Have you ever considered writing these books as fiction or historical fiction? NP: I’ve heard friends say, “Oh, your books read like a novel. Why don’t you write fiction?” In my youth I tried to write novels. I don’t have that kind of imagination. I can’t write dialogue, it just is not something that’s there. I think I can tell a story, and so I think what I’m doing is more a question of finding the things to focus on that bring a historical event alive, rather than creating an imaginative world. That’s just not where my strength is. Like everyone who is twenty, I would love to have written a great American novel. But it wasn’t in the cards for me. JB: What value do you believe there is in telling these stories to your readers, or to society in general? NP: It’s been said that if you don’t know the past, you’re doomed to repeat it. I don’t know if I agree with that. I think we’re doomed to repeat the past even if we do know it. I think it is important that we know our past. But I don’t know if it really helps us when it comes to dealing with what’s happening today. We’re always in the middle of stuff; we don’t have the blessing of hindsight, or knowing where things are going. It’s messy, it’s confusing, and it creates all sorts of ambivalence and anger and all that; that’s what living in the present is like. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are lessons to be learned, but I think I’m afraid we’re doomed to make the mistakes of the past because we’re human beings and that’s the way it is. I think the wondrous thing about America is that we created this society that has evolved and been able to accommodate so many types of people. For me it’s been interesting through my books, watching that kind of evolution.

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[31]


Bianca Diaz / Almost Brave Nearly translucent mud eels ascend shredded branches in a wood—moist light, leaf veins rising in muck— where she carves into bark his name, a name like smoke. Risen from cold river water, thick strands of hair like leeches, like dark rope across her nape. Barefoot, constellation of spider bites already [32]

at her ankles. She wasn’t always forest-bound, this verdant, uncertain girl; she used to have the acoustic thrumming of saltwater, of wild parakeets running in streaks under her skin. Wrought-iron and concrete folding around a balcony from where she once saw a manatee slowly circling, bleeding amorphous clouds— she thought a propeller had lacerated its ancient skin and she hollered down

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to boaters, nearby swimmers—sun-sick and hooting. Imagine the deep wind of apprehension when the manatee gave birth then to a calf, swimming immediately alongside. Imagine the blush of water. The girl gripping the railing, her lungs filling with something like a storm.


Bianca Diaz / Bring Your Sister We are related by an old light, like muted amber beneath a titled lampshade. In this place, I have tried to measure the degrees of gray when evening comes. You point out coyotes among pines. Actual bluebirds. The sky weighs on us. Gravity is not a game here, we are let down by its insistence. I know you hate the word grief, but when you don’t sleep and people speak to you softly, the way one would with frightened horses, perhaps you are trembling, perhaps you bare your teeth. [33]

We hurt. Our lungs seem unstoppable in their clever mechanism. We see roadside ornaments—styrofoam crosses, artificial carnations with bright waxy buds a raccoon might mistake for fruit. It’s snowing again. Falling like a brief light, like a shot bird’s feathers making their dizzy way to the ground.

Bianca Diaz's chapbook, No One Says Kin Anymore won the Robert Watson Poetry Award from Spring Garden Press in 2009. Her poems have recently appeared in Border Crossing, Wacammaw, Saw Palm, Jet Fuel Review, Sundog Lit and The Boiler Journal. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. She earned an MFA from George Mason University and taught English and Creative Writing for seven years. Originally from Miami, FL, she now lives in North Carolina.

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Brett Beach / Wherever You Came From

[34]

His father said they were lucky: there weren’t going to be many more days like this. It was late summer, the world burning away every last bit of itself, and here they were, out on the river to see it together. Jax’s father lifted his beer and said, “We couldn’t have gotten a better day if we paid for it.” They’d spent almost an hour floating along the current. Jax’s father only wanted to use the paddles to steer past the old tires breaking through the water’s surface. “Otherwise,” he said, “let’s cruise.” Bugs skittered from one side of the bank to the other, and nearly-transparent, glimmering things darted back and forth. From high above them, birds called to one another in ticks and howls. Crickets twittered on the banks. Hailee sat in the center of the canoe, between Jax and their father. She kept slapping at the gnats swarming around her legs, so Jax said, “Here,” and gave her his T-shirt. She spread it across her legs and tucked the sleeves under her thighs. “Better?” he asked. She nodded. The summer had been a transformative one for her. He could see she was bracing herself for the ninth grade as if it were a training course on how she’d have to spend the rest of her life. She’d stopped putting pink bows in her hair, and she didn’t paint her fingernails with sparkly polish anymore. She’d grown thinner, too, or taller; Jax couldn’t tell. Every so often, looking at her, he got the feeling he was looking at the stranger she was about to become. He’d start at Northwestern in the fall, just when she’d begin high school. The thought filled him with dread. He’d be four hours away, too far to protect her. He didn’t worry so much about her being picked on—she had friends, and she wasn’t socially awkward—but he knew how older boys looked at the freshmen, and how easily one mistake could brand a girl. Up ahead, the river curved a little to the left, and the canopy of trees widened to reveal the whole sky, faultless and blue. Jax’s father said the water was at a decent level for this late in the summer. The banks rose at least another five feet on either side of them, revealing buried rocks and the underground network of tree roots. Here and there, thin brown veins jutted out and formed nets dipping into the water. Jax felt his father maneuver the canoe. “Keep an eye out,” he said. “There’s deer around here.” “Do deer swim?” Hailee asked, and then caught herself. “Never mind. That’s, like, a retarded question.”

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Their father veered them to the right, to avoid the remnant of an iron drum that planed diagonally out of the water. “Maybe,” he said. “I’ve never seen it, but they could. Like a dog. Deer paddling.” “Dad,” she said. He laughed. “What? I’m embarrassing you? No one’s here.” He gestured with his hand and his beer foamed at the lip of the can. He brought it to his mouth, grinning. Unguided, the canoe drifted toward the bank. “Why don’t we stop,” Jax said. “We can try to fish.” Hailee stared at him. “Oh my god. You don’t fish. You don’t even eat fish.” “If I caught one, I would.” “Sorry, bud,” his father said. “It’s catch-and-release out here.” “We could still try.” Hailee grimaced down at the water. “I wouldn’t eat anything from this river.” “But you know,” his father said, “I could use a little stretch. And a pick-me-up.” He told Jax to take the other paddle. A sandy shoal curved out into the river ahead, half in sunlight and half shadowed by the oaks with damp black trunks. A boulder the size of a car segmented the little beach in half. The canoe glided easily with the current, Jax’s paddle dipping through the water and coming up glistening. “Left, left,” his father said, and they pointed the bow toward dry land, faster and faster against the natural flow of the water. The pebbles crunched under the bottom of the canoe; Jax felt the vibration against his feet. His father leapt from the back, splashing Hailee. She shrieked and said, “Da-ad!” but he was already running ahead to grab the front of the canoe. Digging his feet against the rocks, he pulled them farther ashore. He steadied the side so Hailee could step out. She made two dainty moves, stepping from rock to rock, and then stood with her hands settled on her hips, her water slippers dry. Jax unhooked his life vest and dropped it on the seat. He stood, wobbly and alone in the canoe, and waited for Hailee to unhook hers. He caught the vest when she tossed it, and he tucked it beside his own. His chest was red and sore from the friction of the vest’s wet fabric against his skin. His father pulled the black insulated cooler from the mess at the back of the canoe and set it atop one of the seats. He unzipped the top. Inside, packed on ice, were sandwiches in clear plastic baggies, granola bar wrappers beaded with water, soda and beer. He grabbed one and said, “Yes, sir, need to fortify.”

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[36]

Hailee asked for one of the bottles of water. “C’mon,” he said, “one soda won’t kill you.” She reached down and grabbed a bottle on her own. “I don’t drink that crap. Ever. Way to not know anything about me.” She whirled away and disappeared around the boulder. Jax’s father gave him a look, and then shrugged. In the sunlight, he was pale across his chest and upper arms, and slender around his ribcage, but with a softening band settled around his waist. His cheeks flushed with the heat. “You having a beer?” he asked. “Sure,” Jax said, and accepted the can his father held out. It was cool and heavy in his hand. “You know, your grandpa used to give me a drink when I’d help him out in the garage. He’d sneak me a sip and say that if my mother ever found out, he’d be a dead man.” Jax opened the beer. “Then why’d he do it?” This seemed to strike his father, who lifted his face and closed his eyes. “It’s just the kind of man he is. Was. You work in the garage, you drink a beer.” He opened his eyes and smiled in his lost, familiar way that always came after a few drinks. Jax remembered when he was young, his father used to come to his room and kiss him goodnight, his chin scratchy and his breath musky with the peanuts and beer. They’d read books together, chapter by chapter. They spread out large sheets of computer paper on the living room floor and drew complicated worlds full of mermaids and knights and seven moons, with stars twinkling in the black spaces. Then Jax grew up some, and they started to move in different ways, and when his parents separated, it hadn’t hurt so much. He felt the drift of their lives as an inevitable movement. He’d thought, This is how things were always meant to be, and tried to not think about it anymore. Jax found Hailee on the far side of the shoal, near a felled tree. She pretended not to see him, studying a chunk of bark she’d ripped off. He sat beside her, and tapped at her leg with his own. She eyed the beer in his hand. “Are you kidding me?” “It’s still full.” Jax lifted the can. “I’m not going to drink it.” “You’re so gross.” “Watch,” Jax said. He tipped the can and let the beer spill out on the ground, until there was only half left. The smell of the beer foaming on the ground rose up, familiar and sour. He

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said, “Don’t freak out on me.” “He’ll still think you drank it. You never tell him no.” What could Jax say to that? His father had heard “no” enough: when he asked to come to Jax’s graduation party, and all the times before when he’d tried to set up a weekend visit. He heard “no” when he stood on the front porch of their house and knocked and knocked, just wanting to talk to Jax’s mother about what had gone wrong. Everyone said “no” because it was easiest. But Jax felt he owed the man more than that. He couldn’t otherwise explain this trip: his father had asked them for one last day before Jax went off to college. Hailee said, “Whatever. I don’t even care.” She stood with her back to him. As she breathed, he saw the bones of her ribcage. She was so much taller than she’d been a year before, and pale skinned like their mother. He asked, “Did you put on sunscreen?” “I’ll be fine.” “So that’s a no?” She lifted her shoulders and let them fall slowly. He went to retrieve the sunscreen from the canoe. “Good, good,” his father said, turning tomato red across his shoulders. He was sitting on the side of the canoe with a beer in hand; the fishing poles were untouched at the bottom. He said, “Don’t let me forget to do that,” and lifted his can in a sort of salute. The sunscreen was in the same brown bottle his father had used for years, duct taped on the corner where the plastic broke. Jax squeezed out a glob of white lotion, and tossed the bottle to Hailee. They did their own shoulders and chests and faces and necks. Then Hailee came around and did Jax’s back, the sunscreen cold as yogurt on his skin. For a minute, he felt like he was seven again, or eight, back when he and Hailee were closest, when they’d whisper to each other from their bunk beds while their parents fought down the hall. “Um, who’s he talking to?” Hailee asked. She pointed over Jax’s shoulder. On the other side of the boulder, their father had gone to the cooler, and was now taking out two beers. He held them, watching, as two men stepped into view. The one in front of the canoe dragged it up on the shore. Both men were younger, in their twenties, and they wore swimming trunks in bright leafy patterns. One was shirtless, and the other wore a white shirt with the sleeves cut off. “Are you kidding me?” Hailee asked, the way she would if their dog had snatched a loaf of bread from the countertop.

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[38]

It had been a family joke for a long time that their father didn’t know a stranger, but an unfunny joke, the kind where the punch-line made you want to cry. He could talk to anyone, Jax’s mother said, and he often did. He got away with it because he was friendly and kind, and because he moved through the world believing in the inherent good in others. But to invite two strangers in from the river seemed beyond the limits of normalcy. Still, Jax didn’t want to worry Hailee, so he said, “He’s just being nice.” Their father called for them to come over. Jax snapped the top of the sunscreen bottle closed. “Are you okay with this?” he asked. “Duh,” Hailee said. “I’m not a baby. He’s just so annoying.” Jax pretended he didn’t hear her. He hoped she was right, and that this would be just another story they shared about their father’s drinking escapades. He’d said he was drinking less, he was in control now, and that he’d been going to a group; it was basically the only reason Jax’s mother had let them come without her. Jax didn’t want to believe that his father had lied, and maybe he hadn’t. Jax hadn’t seen him for a few months, and maybe this was his version of drinking less. They walked back over toward the canoes. Jax’s father was sitting on the edge of the canoe with his feet spread wide. He opened a new beer. The other men stood a foot or so away. Their paddles were crossed over the top of their canoe, dripping river water. A portable radio played country music, breaking in and out of static. “Hey,” Jax’s father said. “These are my kids.” The two men nodded, looking startled, and introduced themselves as Bruce and Ray. The men didn’t seem threatening, not in any outward way that Jax could tell, but he knew his father had no judgment in these situations. He said, “This is my girl, Hailee. She’s—” He frowned. Jax saw his father groping, his eyes pressed tight and his mouth moving just a little. “She’s about to start high school. And Jax is going off to college next week. Northwestern. You believe that?” Bruce said, “Good school.” “What are you going for?” Ray asked. “Engineering.” His father said, “Kid has a head on him like you wouldn’t believe.” His face flushed with pride and sun, and he squinted against the sunlight as he tipped his beer back. The men glanced at each other. This, too, was familiar to Jax, the look of strangers who politely didn’t mention that his father was getting hammered. It had happened in restaurants, at

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festivals, and once at a church fish-fry just before his parents separated. “Good for you,” Ray said. “Someone for your sister to look up to.” Hailee folded her arms over her chest and turned her face away from them, out at the water. “No rivers up there,” Bruce said. “Not ones you can get out on.” He was the shirtless one, and he had the body of a former football player gone soft. “You know that?” “Yeah,” Jax said, “I know.” Ray asked, “Y’all catch anything today?” “I don’t fish,” Hailee said. “Don’t, or don’t know how?” She glanced at Jax. He couldn’t interpret her look, and perhaps because he didn’t respond at all, she straightened her body and cocked her head to the side. Her hair fell over her shoulder. “No one ever taught me.” Ray wore a baseball cap that shadowed his face, and when he smiled, he reminded Jax of his own friends when they spoke to his little sister in their lightly teasing tones. “I was going to cast out over there,” he said. “I could try to help you learn.” He pointed to a dark spot of water near the opposite shore. A large elm hung partially over the river, and the full green branches threw an oval of shadow. Jax knew from his father that fish congregated in the cool, shaded parts of the water. Hailee wouldn’t have ever learned those things, because no one had taught her. Jax was lucky he’d had the good years with his father. He still remembered his father in a way that Hailee couldn’t even imagine. “Now look at that,” Jax’s father said. “You can’t pass up a free lesson.” He seemed inordinately pleased with the turn of events, rocking the canoe forward so that it looked as if it was about to tip over onto the ground. “Hey,” Jax said, “you realize you’ll have to get in the water? Like, get wet?” Hailee had already walked over to the canoe and lifted one of the poles out. “I want to,” she said. She walked a few steps farther toward the water, and then turned back. “Wait. Don’t we need, like, a worm or something?” Ray grinned. “Ah, girl, you know more than you think.” He went to his own canoe and pulled out a small plastic container filled with the long tan bodies of worms twined through specks of black dirt. He gave the tub a little shake. He walked over to Hailee, and she watched as he opened the tub and removed a worm. He hooked it on the end of her line. The worm curled itself up, making the wire swing a little.

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[40]

Ray took another worm for his own pole. “I’m going to come, too,” Jax said. If he stayed, his father would offer him another beer. If he went, he could keep an eye on his sister. She was acting strange: one minute she was suspicious of the men, and then the next she was willing to wade out in the river with one of them. “Yeah, I’m going to sit this one out for now,” his father said, as if coming to a decision. “But if anything’s biting, you let me know.” Jax knew this look, how all that was left of his father’s day was more beer. He’d not noticed the shift, but it had come and settled over his father and rendered him motionless on the edge of the canoe. He reached past his father for the second pole and said, in a low voice, “Maybe you should slow it down.” “Slow what down,” his father said, like he didn’t even know. “We still have more river to go,” Jax said. “That’s all.” His father tilted the beer can in his hand. “She tell you to watch out for me?” He meant Jax’s mother. His eyes got small and the creases around his eyes and mouth folded over themselves, shadowing his features. “No.” And it was true, but the way his father lifted his eyebrows made the words feel false in Jax’s mouth. Now he wanted to spit, to scrape his tongue raw, just to get the taste out of there. Jax stepped out into the water. It was cool, and his legs tensed against the current. Goose bumps prickled their way up his thighs and spread across his arms. Hailee and Ray were a few feet in front of him, pushing their way toward the opposite bank. In the center of the river, the water rose to the middle of Hailee’s hips, and she reached out to steady herself with Ray’s arm. Jax heard her laugh and gasp at the same time. Her free hand clenched in the air against the chill. Jax pushed forward, across the uneven bottom. He felt branches swiping at his heels. Peering down, he looked for little water snakes winding their way between his legs, and for fish nipping at the hair on his calves. Ray and Hailee stood just beside the shaded portion of the river. Ray had his pole lifted, and he made slight motions with his hand to demonstrate to Hailee how to cast off. “Just a little flick of the wrist,” he said. “Got that?” Hailee nodded.

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“You’re ready to try?” She lifted her pole and whipped her arm forward. The line cast out, the hook swinging through the air. It caught in the branches of the overhanging trees, the line growing taut. Hailee froze. “What do I do?” she asked. Ray handed his pole to Jax. “Hold this,” he said. He waded through the water toward the line. Reaching for a branch, he bent the thin limbs toward him. He unhooked the line and the tree snapped back. The leaves shivered. Hailee ducked her head and shrieked, crouching in the water. “What?” Jax asked. “Did it get you?” By her side, the pole was sinking into the water, too heavy to float away in the rush of the current. Ray moved quickly. He reached down and brought the pole back up to the surface. He handed it to Hailee. “Sorry,” she said. “I got scared.” “No worries.” Ray stared toward the dark water, his jaw jutting forward in concentration. “Doubt we’ll catch anything now. We’re splashing around too much.” The sun shattered into bits of light over the surface of the water. The sound of it moving past had become so steady, Jax couldn’t even really hear it anymore. His legs were numb from the cold. He could see his father speaking but he couldn’t hear his voice. All at once, everything felt odd and just a little right-of-center. Jax imagined it felt the same when his father was drunk. But, no, because Jax didn’t want to hang out with strangers, or share drinks, or spend the day out on the river and feel as if it could make up for so many lost days before. Ray checked the worm on the end of his hook. It was curled and pale. “Y’all got a ride back?” he asked. “To wherever you came from?” Jax looked back at the shore. His father was still seated, and now Bruce was opposite him, balanced on the end of his canoe. Jax’s father seemed to be telling a story; his hands waved through the air and Bruce nodded, smiling at something or other. Jax said, “Why do you care?” Ray attempted to smile. “Come on, man.” Jax’s heart was beating faster. He said, quietly, “You don’t know anything about us.” Ray frowned. “Right.” He turned toward the shore, but then stopped. “Just so we’re clear. It was a friendly question.” “Fuck you,” Jax said. His voice shook. He was angry in a directionless way that burned through the center of his stomach.

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Ray let his shoulders drop. The sun was shifting through the sky overhead, passing through clouds that made the shadows of the tree shift and morph on the surface of the water. Ray said to Hailee, “You should keep practicing that cast. You got a good arm.” Her face was turned down, away from him. Ray cupped one hand around his mouth. “Bruce! Let’s go!” He began to wade across, the water parting against his hips as he moved. On the shore, Bruce stood and extended his hand toward Jax’s father. Ray reached them and did the same, then held his hands up in refusal as Jax’s father went to offer them one more drink. He climbed in the canoe first. Bruce pushed from behind. Jax watched them growing smaller and smaller as they floated down the river, a shape on the far horizon, then nothing at all.

[42]

On the bank, their father waved them in. Hailee pushed past Jax, but without Ray now, she went slower, trudging against the current. Jax reached out to help her, but she slapped his hand away, swinging the pole so it nearly struck him in the face. “God, I wish you were gone,” she said. “Do you know that? I wish you just disappeared.” “Just wait, then,” Jax said. “Wait until you’re on your own.” Hailee froze and screamed, tilting her head back and letting the sound rip out of her. She began to move faster. Water splashed around her waist as she broke out of the higher depths and reached the shore. Where the mud was particularly thick, her water slippers seemed to get stuck. She jerked her legs, trying to free herself, and tumbled forward. She threw out her hands and landed in the water, mud spotting the sides of her ribs and down the sides of her legs. Her hair hung long and dark around her face. Their father stepped forward and said her name. He offered his hand. Jax heard her say, “Don’t touch me.” Her face clouded as she sunk down to a sitting position. He reached the shore and walked past his father, to the canoe. He began to repack the cooler. His father settled the fishing poles in the base of the canoe. He looked up every so often as if he was going to say something, but he never did. Hailee washed her arms with river water, and did her best to squeeze the mud out of her hair. When she finished, she walked over to the canoe and used Jax’s shirt to wipe her arms and sides. She tossed it back toward him. It landed balled at his feet. Then they were ready to go. His father asked, “Are you two better now?” “Oh my god,” Hailee said. “Please just shut up.”

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His face colored. He said her name. Jax wished he could explain to his father that his concern, that this last feeble attempt, was useless now. The day had been a mistake. The best thing they could do was go home, to their separate homes. Trying could only take them so far. His father had never understood that. They pushed the canoe back out onto the river. The sun had gained strength in the end of the afternoon, and the leaves glowed green across the tops of the trees. The air was dense with heat. Jax trailed his hand in the water, feeling the coolness slip between his fingers. His shorts were already dry from the sun. His father seemed to have dried up a little, too. He directed Jax when to row, and when they could rest. He didn’t say anything else. Jax heard him opening one beer and then another. So much for sober. Hailee said nothing, but Jax sensed her glowering behind him, the heat of her stare on his neck. The land gave way to a great open field hemmed in by trees. Fronds of yellow leaves partially hid small channels. Birds emerged from the thickets and formed shadowy triangles on the water as they passed overhead. The afternoon was still bright when they slung to the left and maneuvered the canoe against the bank beside a small overpass. The metal hummed under the grind of the rocks, and the whole vessel tipped to the right as Jax’s father stepped out and pulled the canoe deeper onto dry land. Jax got out next, and offered his hand to Hailee, but she swatted it away. Jax and his father unpacked the cooler, the paddles, and the small plastic bag with the car keys and his father’s wallet. They set each piece on the ground beside the canoe. There were also the foam strips Jax’s father put on the runners that rose from the roof of his car; the foam kept the canoe from scraping up the paint on the car. Jax’s father took these in hand. He walked up to the front of the canoe and lifted it. “Give me a hand?” he asked Jax. The footpath was thin, and on each side bushes and long fingers of leaves crowded in to brush at him. Hailee followed behind with the poles and the cooler and the plastic baggie. At the top of the path, where the trail opened up to the road, Jax almost lost his footing. He felt the shift in the canoe, but his father took on more of the weight, and lifted his end higher. Jax couldn’t even see the river from the road, except for the sliver of it working underneath the bridge. Across the pavement was a cornfield, grown wild out of neglect or disuse; the stalks were four feet high at least, thick as wrists. They set the canoe on the ground beside the car. His father took the keys from Hailee and unlocked the car. He rolled the windows down, and the hot air pushed out with the scent

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[44]

of a piney air-freshener. The racks for the canoe topped the car: two long curved rods running from right above the front windows to the back. His father fit the pieces of tubing over each rack. Together, they lifted the canoe up over the car and settled it upside down on the roof. A bit of river water spilled out over the back trunk, and trailed down the front windshield. Jax helped his father secure the canoe to the top of the car with rope. His father gave him a thumbs-up and walked around to the driver’s side. He sat with his legs out and took off his shoes. He replaced them with a pair of flip flops, his feet pale and wrinkled from the water. “You two ready?” he asked. The keys were still in his hand; they jangled in the air, glinting. “How about I drive?” Jax said. He hadn’t planned this, but he saw that there was no other option. He couldn’t get in the car, and he wouldn’t let Hailee, either. His father angled his head. “No,” he said. “I’m fine.” “Dad.” Jax saw that his father believed this. Always had. His father was quiet now. “That woman’s poisoned your minds. You only see what she wants you to see.” He came towards Jax, his breath too warm and heavy with beer, too much like how Jax remembered it from when he was young. But altered: now they were like ghosts, tripping around each other without actually meeting. “Come on, buddy,” his father said. “Let’s go home.” He tried to put his arms around Jax’s shoulders, but Jax jerked away. He didn’t want to be touched, and the smell of his father made him sick. His shoulder caught his father’s jaw, and he felt the hollow pain of the contact. His father made a sound and stepped back with one hand pressed up against his face. He stumbled, his feet tangled together, and then he fell, grunting as he hit the ground. Down there, his father’s mouth hung open, and his legs were splayed out in front of him. He said, “Help me up. Jax, please help me up.” This was so much worse than anything Jax had imagined. He was tired and there was no fight left in him. He couldn’t help his father up. He couldn’t even look at him. Already, the day seemed foreign, like someone else’s memory. The grey sky blended into the clouds, and the air cooled. When he was little, Jax would imagine he could fly, lifting up up up. He did this any time his father passed out, or spilled all over himself at a restaurant, or yelled at their mother in the church parking lot. So he did it again, now: he saw himself, a shirtless boy standing on the side of the road beside a strange fallen man. In the field across the road, fireflies had started to appear.

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Jax saw them part like waves of light between his hands. He floated up above the tops of the corn stalks, and raced over fields and barns and horses that stamped their agitation in the dust. He hurried past the cylindrical caps of silos full of wheat and corn. He lifted higher and higher until the land was just a patchwork of green squares and ribbons of asphalt below him, until the towns he knew were small enough to see all at once.

[45]

Brett Beach will graduate from Ohio State's MFA program in 2014. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, The Normal School, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel.

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Stuart Freyer / Morocco We saw silent lightning above the green dirt of the eastern mountains, flash floods crumbling huts of mud and straw, sand-filled Kasbahs abandoned along the underground wells from the wadis to sad basil plots. We took Mars flat walks to black Berber tents where women, married only with their eyes, grew sons who, with a magic carpet, would fly not to New York but Mecca and others who whispered they will swim to Gibraltar or die. [46]

We sat poolside under jasmine trees sifting each other about who was first to Zihuatenejo, saw Dubrovnik’s Jew street, trod the cobbles of Lisbon, tried Ocho Rios weed. The world is changing the crests of the dunes and our rubbed skin covers the hamam floor. Have we survived enough to return to the beach?

Stuart Freyer has been an otolaryngologist, acupuncturist, standup comic, and writer. His stories have appeared in Timber Creek Review, Colere, and Zahir. His poetry can be seen in Teesta Rangeet and others and will appear in Slant. He struggles with words and his tango steps from home on a dirt road in Williamstown, Mass., where his house is exactly a one-mile walk from the mailbox.

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Norman Graphic


Blue Bottle

[48]

My daughter taught me the proper way to make a cup of coffee. She is working at Blue Bottle in Mint Square, San Francisco, where the word barista does not altogether suffice; the atmosphere more suggests alchemy, timeless Persian erudition (Kimia) exhibited hours on end, in full public view, just behind a marble counter and credit card machine. Flasks and beakers, admixtures, the various poured gradations of brown, the surface of each cup inlayed with a silhouette that resembles a fossil leaf. The baristas work in tight quarters, requiring the dexterity and spatial etiquette of a submarine crew. Every customer—a line out the door—has an intimate predisposition toward coffee. What Chekhov called “desire trying one’s patience,” as each caffeine elixir delivers its aroma out to the street. When my daughter was eight, she found at McClure’s Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a shard of a blue bottle. This artifact was dark blue, sea-polished to a dull sheen. It was, we decided, from a perfume bottle, because it had in relief the profile of a woman’s elegant neck wearing a necklace. “You have to soak the filter first,” my daughter said, “because it’s made of bamboo, and you need to soak away the bamboo taste.” The brand she instructed me with was OAXACO MIXTECA ALTA DEL PACIFICO. Up to that moment, the most transcendent cup of coffee I’d had was on a winter morning in Amsterdam, if you don’t count a sesame coffee in a Buddhist monk’s quarters on Mount Gassan in northern Japan during typhoon season. But this morning, in Inverness—off the back porch we’d watched an osprey atop a wharf stanchion tear apart a fish, all the while harangued by a crow—the cup she prepared exceeded in refinement the one in Amsterdam. And once, in Café Dante in the East Village, in 1997, I saw the elderly noir-iconic figure of Richard Widmark sitting at a corner table, drinking an espresso. Then, just last night, I dreamed Richard Widmark in a Hollywood bungalow, slipping that necklace around the elegant neck of the woman who had modeled for the blue perfume bottle. With his signature snarl, as if strangling himself with his own two hands, and boyish expression, he quoted his lines from a 1955 film, Cobweb, “There, baby, you ain’t still mad at me now, I didn’t come home last night, are ya?” Say she modeled for the perfume in 1955—just say 1955—, then the blue bottle possibly may have tumbled out to sea for over forty years before my daughter found it.

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When Is The Last Time You Talked All Night With Someone At McClure’s Beach, at least thirty dunlins probing along with their bills, as if attempting to stitch the hem of each wave to the beach before it darkened and soaked away. An hour passed. I counted eleven pelicans—Peter Matthiessen wrote, “The configuration of pelicans settled on the sand to sleep is a kind of erudition”—settled on the sand, facing every which-way. Along the steep trail to the parking lot, I saw the wind fold back in one long shiver the surface of a pond like a bed sheet, and its resident water-spirit rise from sleep. Later still, in town, in front of Point Reyes Books, a woman, wearing rancid sweaters over an adobe-colored dress, leggings—it was about 80 degrees out—and a cowboy hat with the top torn, or purposely cut away, a toy gun in a holster fixed to a length of electrical cord worn as a belt, black high-top tennis shoes, approached me. “For a banana muffin”—she nodded at the window of Bovine Bakery—“yours truly, Annie Oakley, will ask you a personal question.” Handing her some bills, I stayed out front looking in. Two muffins and a coffee later—she came out of the bakery and asked for “another small loan”—add then a scone and a wedge of quiche. She emerged again from the bakery, sat next to me on the wooden bench and said, “When is the last time you talked all night with someone?” She got on an American Flyer fender-less bicycle and set out across the street, and on into the grocery store parking lot, where she quick-drew and took a silent pot-shot at a snazzy new silver BMW convertible, which I considered a dignified statement of class consciousness. I went into the bakery for a coffee; freshly baked bread was being set out as if to cleanse the air. Her question got to me. I think it had to be in March or April, 1969, near Palo Alto, at the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, I talked all night with Marianne Rye—we were both students there. Movie star looks and off-putting, she claimed, “Since the Vietnam war began, I’ve developed a sympathetic sort of hypochondria—I suddenly begin screaming like I’m burned by napalm.” Did I talk all night with her because she was full of interesting opinions—it seemed she’d read a thousand novels—or because I believed that if I kept her distracted in conversation, she wouldn’t start screaming, I don’t recall. At lunch one day, after the institute’s director Ira Sandpearl’s seminar on Gandhi, I overheard him say to Joan Baez, “I think Marianne may be a little unhinged. But her written essay on Thoreau was genius.” During the semester I taught at U.C.L.A., I talked all night with Carlos Castaneda, who I thought was basically a charlatan, though I confess his stories in an all-night café near the Santa Monica pier were hypnotic commentaries on shamanic phenomenology; he actually said, “I often dream in the Aztec language”—plus, he had the most

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beautiful Armani suit, with almost imperceptible pin stripes, as architecturally composed as a drawing by Agnes Martin. And I think it was October, 1979, I talked all night—we also listened to BBC radio—with Irene Teachout, in Halifax, who had a hospital bed the other side of a curtain from mine in the Respiratory Quarantine wing. She had written ten children’s books whose heroine was named Tomassina Triceratops—“Nobody was interested. I wrote an eleventh but then quit.” (When is the last time you talked all night with someone?)

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THE WRITING LIFE For Robert Hass Sometimes the exhaustive habit of trying to shape the stuff of quotidian life into a narrative leaves you feeling vacuous, operatic, privately shamed. Two mornings ago on Drake’s Beach, a dark shape up ahead—a seal, I thought, either asleep basking, or, eyes spooned out, a corpse, maybe tumbled in by the last night’s storm. But as I got closer, I saw it was a salt-crusted violin—or viola—case. Sand flies on the felt lining. The handle looked chewed at; there were dog tracks nearby, also evidence of a gull whose toes wrote in hieroglyphics. The instrument itself was missing. On closer inspection, I found some smudged handwriting, in Japanese, on an identification tag under a small rectangle of plastic. (Here, then, is where the imagination begins to despair the plausible—I don’t read Japanese, for one thing.) My mind went first to the March 2011 tsunami, the consequent detritus—a radio active chair, for example, or planks from a squid boat—that navigated thousands of miles of ocean, flotsam and jetsam of terror, loss, grief, the familiar objects torn from life, only to wash up on a California beach. Next place my mind went, was May 8, 1942, in Hayward, California, and Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “Japanese Girl With Internment Tag,” and I thought of that very sweet-faced girl, her round hat tilted up a little, with a direct gaze, not allowing herself a smile, in what appears to be a park where she has been gathered with her family, an American military policeman partially seen in the background. Maybe her family in the photograph was like the families I’d attended evening lectures about at a nearby community college, whose required text was the monograph, Nothing Left In My Hands, about the lives of early Japanese skilled berry growers—the Issei—in Pajaro Valley, picture brides, anti-immigration legislation, banishment to the internment camps. (Such familiar sensation of remorse… in having to abandon this kind of time-travel to antecedent sorrows, and come back to the present. I can easily see it as nostalgia for a time I never lived in—all right, fine, but still, the beach that day was splendid, and just off-shore, was a slowmoving armada of White-winged Scoters—why would I have wanted to be anywhere but right there, looking at them?) I tore free the name-tag. Back at the house in Inverness, I copied out the words best I could, then drove into town to FAX them to a translator-friend. She telephoned within the hour and said, “It’s a name and address—not too far from you, according to my map.” (Name

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and address here.) I rang up the number and a young woman’s, or girl’s, voice said, “We’re not buying.” I understood this as a form of pre-empting the world, and it made me laugh. “I found a violin case on Drake’s Beach,” I said. “Dude, were the condoms still in it?” she said—now I was fully in the present. “The case was at the beach this morning, probably still is. No violin in it, though.” That’s when I heard notes—just eight or ten played by violin in haste—on the other end of the line. “I get it,” I said. “Just being a good citizen, right?” she said, “Reporting lost or stolen goods, right, dude?” “I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said. “Maybe you should have. Curiosity killed the cat, dude, you ever hear that?” There was a long silence, then, “Sorry, I was just rosining.” She played a refrain—again, hurriedly. It reminded me of listening to the BBC from a Buddhist temple in northern Japan, a Bach cello piece arriving in snippets from London, minus the static, because of poor reception. My host, a novice monk, said, “Is that experimental use of silences?” “No,” I said, “it’s coming from London broken in parts.” “Oh,” he said, “our monastery got delivered a ceramic vase like that once.” Back to the present: She said, “Dude, you just got a free-ass concert.” “Thank you.” “Just to tell you, you can’t get shit for that violin case at the Good Will, I already tried it once, for movie money, right?” “I had no intention,” I said. “Do you read Japanese or something?” “No—you mean the name-tag. No, I had it translated.” “Fucking no kidding.” “No kidding.” “What about my name and address in English.” “No sign of that.” “Okay, you know what? I’ve got a concert at my high school, it’s Sunday at five—you should come, dude? It’s a fund raiser for our music program. By the way, I’m fourteen and I’ve got a boyfriend who lives and breathes karate, just to let you know in case you’re a stalker, you know?”

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“Okay, that’s intelligent of you—and I like classical music.” “What do you do?” “I write books.” “Get the fuck out of here, everybody says that.” “All right, look. Enough—you obviously don’t need your violin case, and I need to get off the phone.” “Cool it, you just got free concert information, and you obviously have exactly nothing else to do, or why’d you become a fucking detective over a fucking violin case, dude? I’m not creeped out or anything. You sound like you creeped yourself out, calling about my violin case. It was your mistake to call, go to confession or something, dude. Okay, so no big deal dude. Why not bring some friend to the fund raiser, and if you have to go and feel all guilty about everything, just give a bunch of money and don’t come up and introduce yourself or anything. My boyfriend can chop a violin in half with the side of his hand.” I attended the concert with two women friends my age. (They got so bored they left at intermission, each leaving a five dollar bill in the contribution “box,” which was an open violin case.) I stayed through the flute solo, the cello solo, which was passionate but excruciating, and the violin solo, whose snippets of rehearsal I’d heard over the telephone. There was a piano and flute duet, then it all ended. I was just getting into my car which was parked right out front of the school gymnasium, where the concert had taken place. “Dude!”—I turned, and there was the violin soloist, standing next to—obviously—her boyfriend, who looked right out of a Beach Boy’s song, including Hawaiian shirt. “I recognized you right away,” she said, “Know how?” I shrugged. “Because you clapped the longest after my deal. Sooooo, guilty, dude. What’d you leave, like two hundred dollars, or what?” She said, “Arigato for showing up,” bowed in the old-fashioned way. Her boyfriend got into an exaggerated karate stance. She said, “I’m a real fuck-up, but he says I play violin like an angel.”

Howard Norman is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His 1987 novel, The Northern Lights, was nominated for a National Book Award, as was his 1994 novel The Bird Artist. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, What Is Left The Daughter, Next Life Might Be Kinder and Devotion. His books have been translated into twelve languages. Norman teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland. He lives in Washington, D.C., and Vermont with his wife and daughter. M OUNT HOPE

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Frozen amber carpenter

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I shot this collection of photographs in the dead of winter while visiting a friend in eastern North Carolina. After accompanying him to a funeral, we spent time driving the back roads of Martin County so that I could capture still-life images. More often than not, I am drawn to images that portray abandonment, such as the old pick-up truck and dilapidated house within this collection. I also wanted each photograph to represent winter—that time of year where everything becomes silent and still, especially after snowfall.

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Amber Carpenter is a writer, poet and amateur photographer. She earned her MA in English from East Carolina University with a concentration in both nonfiction and poetry. Her work (various genres) has been published in Glassworks Magazine, SPACES and Sinister Wisdom. Amber currently resides and teaches English in North Carolina.

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Dianne Nelson Oberhansly / Blue Dragonfly (after Louise Bogan’s “The Dragonfly”) You are made of everything tattered, blue, a thin slice of air and ponderous eyes. Winged needle frantically stitching the frayed edges of July to sun-stroked August. Earth beckons momentarily. You light upon water and flash—iridescent spirit jewel of wing and body. Master. Funeral maker. Splitter of atom, ants, mayflies, moths, shadow and wonder. You consume me.

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Leaves unfurl, grasses become aroused, and the wind licks the bright spots where you land.

Dianne Nelson Oberhansly’s book of short stories, A Brief History of Male Nudes in America, won the Flannery O’Connor Award and her co-written novel, Downwinders: An Atomic Tale, was chosen as a Utah Book of the Year. Her fiction has appeared widely in journals, including the Iowa Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, The Quarterly, Sundog, and in a number of anthologies. Her poems have been published in Paper Nautilus, Canary, Eclectica and Third Wednesday, among others. She lives in Boulder, Utah, where she is a hiker, slow-food enthusiast, and an Arts supporter/educator.

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Page Turner: This world is cold and smothered with snow. Everything’s in danger of slipping away. On the surface, two nights a week I carry the emergency pager for Four Seasons Lodging in Breckenridge, Colorado. It’s a cell phone hooked up to the Tannenbaum Condominiums after-hours number. I am the on-call Maintenance Man. My job is to take care of any problems with late check-ins or maintenance emergencies. My job is to make tourists feel at home, safe, secure, and pampered. My job is to save the guests from noise and clogs and minor inconveniences—to make them feel as if the real world is far away. Most nights the phone never rings. If it does, it’s usually a new arrival who can’t figure out where his condo is located. Some of the calls I can handle without leaving the house by just telling them where to turn, where to park, and where to find their keys in the check-in box. If I do leave home it’s usually just to open a door for a drunk who locked himself out of his room. So it’s not really an “emergency” pager most nights but an “annoyance” pager that makes me feel like the stepfather of a teenager; my emotional investment in their drama is generated as much from a sense of duty as it is from genuine concern. A few times people have water issues— leaks or clogs—that require me to bring tools. These are the exciting calls. The rest of them are mostly forgettable and irritating—a good test of whether I’m married to the job or not. The truth is that I dislike carrying the pager right from the start. I treat each call with respect, but it’s not a role I want to inhabit often. I just don’t enjoy being “on call” for tourists. I don’t like the parenting feel of it. It makes me feel edgy and nervous. It makes me feel like a servant, a slave to its digital twitter rather than a savior. I stare at it obsessively, waiting for it to ring, hoping it won’t. It’s a weeknight, mid-season, and I’m sleeping next to my fianceé with the pager on the counter in the kitchen. Snow is piling up on the steps, burying our cars. It’s quiet up where we live, just below tree line. The ringer goes off at 10:30, jerking me from my REM patterns. I stumble into the kitchen in my boxer shorts and pick it up. The keypad glows green and flashes as it rings. “Helluh,” I mumble, “Fur Seasn’s Lodging. Thisis Steve.” “Uh, hi,” a soft male voice responds. The voice has a Texas drawl. “Yeah, I’m over here at the Trail’s End condominiums, number 542, and, well, we got a problem with our bathtub.” I shake the fog out of my head and rub a fist into my eye. “What sort of problem, sir?” “Well, see,” he pauses, “It won’t drain.” “It’s not draining?” “No, see. We have some blood in the bathtub and, well, it won’t go down.”

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At first I think I’ve misheard him. I wait for some kind of explanation. But nothing comes from the voice. “Excuse me?” I ask. “Yeah, we have some blood in our bathtub and I just can’t get it to drain and I was thinking y’all might be able to help. I didn’t know who else to call.” I didn’t know what to say. I’m pretty sure there was someone else he could’ve called. It’s a sick joke, probably John D. messing with me; but there’s something about the man’s voice, an easy soft quality to it, an honest tone that keeps me on the line. There’s something about his call that reconnects me with my self again, a weight that drags me back firmly in the moment. I haven’t felt this alive in some time. Someone needs me. “Are you there?” he asks. “I just need some help.” This is what does it to me. A call of distress. He needs the Maintenance Man. He needs my help, needs salvation. I am necessary now, much more now than just a voice on the phone or a toilet-fixing snow-shoveling maintenance grunt. I matter. At least for now. Against all common sense or good judgment I respond, “I’ll be right there.” I return to the bedroom and kiss my fiancé on the forehead. She stirs slightly and I tell her it’s nothing to worry about. I don’t explain the call, the blood in the bathtub, those minor details. Because she would tell me not to go. She would warn me, and she would be right to do so. What sort of future husband or father runs off in the middle of the night to help a stranger get blood out of his bathtub? But for some reason I don’t want to hear this. I just want to follow the impulse. I just want the certainty of this work. I get dressed, slip on my boots, grab my pocketknife and climb into my truck. I’m surprisingly calm, unafraid, and more curious than anything as I make my way down the mountain, into town. As much as possible, I follow established tracks through the fresh snow, but they’re starting to fill, smooth out, and disappear. The plow won’t come until morning. I pick up the phone a couple of times, think about calling someone, but just set it back down in the seat next to me. The stars are so bright tonight they’re screaming and the moon shines luminous as a giant street lamp. Some moments, I think, are the kind of moments that bring the blurry bits into focus, that give definition to your present predicament and shape your future in ways that are both inevitable and unpredictable. Deep in the Trees: My fiancé and I only share one day off a week together and it’s often filled with errands to the grocery store or the Walmart in Frisco, maybe the soul-crushing

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experience of wedding planning. Plastic chairs or wooden? Chicken or pork? Centerpieces? Life isn’t always easy in this beautiful place. Last night as the snow swirled past the windows, I sipped my beer and watched individual flakes caught and illuminated briefly by the floodlights, but she wanted to fight. So we had a huge fight over the dishes. It was pretty much the same fight we always have, almost like a ritual sparring. We played our roles well. This is how it goes: F: You never do the dishes. You don’t do anything. Ever. And I have to come home and wash all the fucking dishes. M: Yeah, right. I don’t do anything. F: When was the last time you did the dishes? You just put your plate in the sink like I’m some kind of maid. Jegs, the landlord’s German shepherd, started barking. You could hear him beneath the window. Someone must’ve been walking up the road. Or maybe he heard the rising voices. Maybe he knew. [68]

M: I cook all the meals. When was the last time you cooked a meal? Maybe we should switch for a week or two. F: Fine. Great. I can cook. I try not to say something obnoxious about how Velveeta Shells & Cheese doesn’t count as cooking, but sometimes when we’re fighting, songs run through my head. I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism or an escape or what. In the middle of a fight I’ll hear, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by the Rolling Stones, or “Back Where We Started,” by the Kinks, and I’ll think here we go round again. We do this on our day off together. Again and again. We do it too much. I think both of us are scared—frightened of the future, scared to be married—and this is how we dance around it. My other day off I usually choose to go snowboarding alone, without my girlfriend or friends. It’s not bad, really. Not like you might think. It’s quiet in the trees, where I like to ride. Nobody asks me for anything. The powder is deepest there, up to my waist on good days; and the crashes don’t hurt unless you hit a tree. Most people are still asleep—the people who depend on me for maintenance.

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Back in the deep pockets of powder, I float inches above the ground on a cushion of air, carving new tracks through the deep stuff. And when you’re as big and clumsy as I am, these brief pioneering bursts of weightlessness cannot be underestimated. Some days I get a little lost in the trees, deeper than I should go, because I’m trying to disappear. Life here is beginning to grate on me, grinding me down to a grumpy nub, barely recognizable as a human. Rising Action: Before I make it to Trails End and the blood in the bathtub, I have to stop into Tannenbaum and pick up my plumbing tools. The office is dark, cluttered, and it smells of mop water and cleaning supplies. I look again at the phone, consider calling my boss, Russ, or maybe the Police, and then decide against it. I grab the plumbing snake and pipe wrenches, and make a quick exit. I drive to Trails End and park in the underground garage. I ride the elevator up to the fifth floor and stroll down the carpeted hallway to number 542. I knock on the door, expecting the gentleman with the Texas accent to answer. I wait for a few moments and then knock again. Nothing. No movement, no rustling, not a sound. For some reason this silence scares me. I can’t exactly say why I’m here in the first place—some desperate mix of curiosity and duty, a reaching for something elusive and meaningful—but at the very least I expected someone to greet me, someone who needs my help. I knock again and wait. Nothing. I pull out my master keys and open the door. I stick my head inside. “Helloooo,” I holler, “Maintenance Man. Anyone home?” The place is empty. Quiet. Dark. But it’s also clean, well-kept, and organized. No signs of a struggle. No blood on the floor, no broken windows. No chainsaws, axes, guns or piles of cocaine. I push the door open. “Helloooo.” Blood in the bathtub and it won’t go down. That’s what the man said. I am a Maintenance Man and I fix things. I maintain Vacationland. I help people enjoy their bubble. I can do this. I make my way down the hall to the first floor bathroom, reach in, flip on the light, expecting … what? … I don’t know. Carnage? Blood and guts? The remnants of a chainsaw murder? It could be anything or nothing. But the bathroom is spare and clean, the tub empty and white. I exit the first floor bath and walk up the stairs to the second-floor loft area, where the master bedroom is located. I reach the bathroom first, but stop just outside the door. I flip on all the lights in the bedroom and take a quick look around. Not a soul in sight. Nobody hiding,

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waiting to brain me with a golf club or sink a hatchet deep into my sternum. No sign of a bloody struggle. No stains on the mattress. This is a relief. I back up and turn the corner into the bathroom. I flip on the light and make my way over to the tub. I take one look down into the tub, my eyes settling on the area around the drain and there it is--a mass of blood, chunks of flesh the size of guppies or minnows. The white porcelain dotted with tiny red specks. I take a step back. Did I just see what I think I saw? I step back up to the tub and look again. I can’t tell what it is, really. Nothing recognizable. No ears or fingers or anything like that. Just blood and slivers of tissue—internal-looking tissue, not skin—tiny filets of fish, like sushi. Yeah, that’s what it is. Sushi. Just raw fish marinating in tomato sauce. Food. Easy. I can handle this. I can maybe even fix things and find my way back home. I step away, take a deep breath, and lay out my tools on the vanity. This isn’t going to be easy.

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Seasonal Help: My father taught me everything I know about using tools and fixing things. He taught me how to solve problems. But for me the challenge has never been physical. I can pound a nail, drill a hole, tighten and loosen screws, nuts, and bolts. The challenge for me in maintenance has always been mental, a matter of patience. It’s difficult for me to surrender my will to a stripped screw or a closet door that just won’t stay on its damn track. I just grind and bash away at it until it’s beaten and useless. But this job is teaching me to relax, to listen and breathe and learn from the problem. You have to let the toilet teach you. You have to be—as my Dad always said—smarter than the machine. You have to understand how something works before you can understand why it’s broken; and you have to let go of your control issues to be a good maintenance man. All of this is hard for me. I’ve seen what this place can do to you. I’ve seen how it sucks you in and down and makes it hard to leave. I’ve seen the line of cars making tracks over Hoosier Pass—all the workers who can’t afford to live in the town where they make a living. I read a story in the paper about the man and his dog and how they found a dead baby in a plastic bag, buried beneath a pile of rocks, just steps away from condos and the hiking path. He said it “looked like eggplant,” until he noticed an ear, and I thought about the loneliness and isolation a woman must feel to do something like that. “Probably stillborn,” the County Coroner said. “Probably a seasonal worker,” everyone said as if that explained something.

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They call them “seasonal” here, as if they are part of the weather, a temporary and transient phenomena that blows through the valley. They mean someone with no support system, no family, no money, no choice. They mean they have no home here. They just work here. We all just work here. You just visit. Nobody really lives here. Back to the Blood: At this moment I sort of drift outside of myself and watch as my sense of duty takes over, my Maintenance Man identity overriding all others, and, for some reason, I decide to see if I can get the blood and tissue to wash down the drain. This seems right to me. Just make the problem disappear. That’s the answer. I am the Maintenance Man. I am a problem solver. The water splatters into the tub and the stuff washes back up the tub, mixing with the water and then slides back down the porcelain, hanging up in the drain-trap. Clouds of red ooze out from the tissue, mixing with the water. This isn’t working, but I’m smart enough not to touch it. I should be thinking about preserving samples or evidence or something. I should leave. I should call the police. I should get back home, back to my own identity, back to the minor inconveniences of everyday life, back to the roles we all play every day. I have to accept that I can’t fix everything. I barely understand what I’m seeing. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. I run the water again and check the drain trap. No hair. No significant clogs. I’m just doing my job. And then some of the reality of this moment hits me again. I’m standing over a bathtub with bloody chunks of flesh and it’s quite possible that I’m helping whoever is responsible get rid of the evidence, leaving my fingerprints all over the place. “Fuck this,” I finally say to myself and throw an old rag-towel over the mess, not thinking that I was, at that moment, leaving evidence that I’d been there, that I was somehow involved with this. I take a step back, gather up my plumbing tools, and turn around. “Ahhhhh!” I scream. A pale thin-haired man in a yellow cardigan sweater stands in the doorway. “Hi,” he says with a Texas drawl. “Holy shit,” I say, bending over to catch the breath he knocked out of me. “You scared the crap out of me.” I have no idea where he came from. I didn’t hear a door open or anything. No footsteps. He just appeared out of the darkness. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he says and sort of steps out of the doorway, back into the shadows.

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At this point I’m convinced this guy in his yellow cardigan sweater has come to finish me off, maybe add to the collection of corpses he’s keeping in the kitchen. I can see his hands. He doesn’t seem to be wielding an axe or a butcher knife or a chainsaw, but he does look eerily like a cross between Mr. Rogers and Hannibal Lecter. Maybe he wants to eat my face and sing a song about it. He smiles and a quick shiver runs up my spine. I don’t want to talk. I just want to get out of here and get back home. “Uh, there’s really nothing I can do about that,” I say, moving around him, out the door, never turning my back. “We’ll have to call a plumber in the morning. Or someone to …um … take care of it.” I’m moving like I’m electrified. I don’t ask for an explanation and he doesn’t offer one. He just stands there smiling. “OK, sure,” he says softly, his hands gathered up below his waist, fingers laced together. “I’m sorry about that mess.” “Oh, that’s OK,” I say, breathing hard now. I turn and start down the stairs. “Just leave it for now,” I call over my shoulder. I’m at the bottom of the stairs now but I don’t stop. I don’t wait for him to come after me. “You have a nice night, sir,” I say as I push the door open and step into the hallway. My toolbox bangs on the door jamb. I don’t wait for his response before I’m down the hall, practically running. I skip the elevator and take the stairs, bounding three steps at a time, and soon I’m in the parking garage, scrambling to find my keys. I unlock my door, climb into my truck, throw it into reverse, and don’t really breathe until I’m out of the parking lot, on the road back home, back to my girlfriend and my real life. When I crawl back into bed, she stirs awake. “Everything OK?” “Plumbing problem,” I say. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.” I do not call the police. I do not call anyone. I do not have a good explanation for this decision. I do not think about what might have happened in that condo or what might have happened to me. I simply crawl into bed and go to sleep. Chicken Exit: I figured that marriage and graduate school would be my excuse to leave the Blue Valley, my chicken exit from this rollercoaster way of life. It’s exciting here, but you get tired of gripping tight with your teeth clamped as you plow through a dip into a loop. We were supposed to leave. This was the plan. One year here and then we quietly take our exit and move on to serious business, the stuff of adulthood. Marriage, graduate school, a dog, then children.

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That’s how it goes. But I somehow manage to miss most of the application deadlines for graduate school. I send off late applications, call and beg forgiveness; but it’s not looking good for me. I blow it—perhaps intentionally. My chances are slim. I’m close to giving up, close to committing myself to the life, the identity of the Maintenance Man. I call the schools where I had deferred my admission a year earlier, expecting them to beg me to come, and they barely recognize my name. It becomes increasingly clear that I’ve missed that train. I have no real plans now, nothing for certain. No escape routes mapped out this time. We decide to stay another season in the mountains. When a school calls and offers me late admission to their program, I accept but I defer my admission for a year. Again. My fiancé and I seem to be in a constant state of deferral, living one day to the next, our future looming on the horizon—following a pattern we’ll learn to repeat, a skill I hope we can develop through stumble, stab, flame, and miss. I understand that I have to learn to live with what I can’t understand, can’t fix, can’t maintain, and sometimes just step back and watch it move and shake and crash without me. Sometimes the world is bigger than you and your personal shit. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but go along for the ride. Denouement: When I show up for work the morning after the blood in the bathtub, I don’t have a story to tell. I don’t have an explanation and I don’t plan to offer one. Everyone is there at the office—Ben, John D, and Stinky—just getting ready to go out for a morning of shoveling. I’m prepared to keep my silence until my supervisor, Stinky asks me, “Any action on the pager last night?” Here we go, I think. Stinky’s real name is Steve; but his breath is so gut-wrenchingly bad that everyone just calls him “Stinky.” “No, not really,” I say, “Why?” He tells me how there were ambulances and police cars at Trails End last night. “All over the place,” he says. “Crazy stuff.” “So what happened?” I ask, playing dumb, hoping for an answer. “Well,” Stinky says, takes big sip of his coffee, and sort of settles back into his chair. He acts like he knows. He tells me how a tourist up in Trails End 542 had somehow torn a hole in his esophagus and had been swallowing blood and tissue. He vomited it up in the bathtub at the condo and passed out. The ambulance took the man down to a hospital in Denver. He was in

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pretty bad shape. “Nearly died,” Stinky says. I hesitate. This is it. I could just keep my mouth shut. But I don’t. “Yeah, I know,” I say. “I was there.” “What?” He rocks forward in his chair and sets his coffee mug on the desk. “I mean, I didn’t know what happened, but the guy’s friend called me late last night and told me he had blood in his bathtub and couldn’t get it to wash down,” I pause at the sight of chins dropping, all eyes focusing on me. “And, well, I went down there last night. I saw it. But the guy didn’t tell me anything.” “What did you see?” Ben asks, his lip already curling at the thought. “Blood for sure,” I say “But also some chunks of flesh or tissue or something. It looked like fish. It looked like sushi.” “And you didn’t call the police?” John D asks. “Nope,” I say. “You went down there?” Stinky asks, his eyes wide with disbelief. “What were you thinking?” John D asks and I realize for the first time in a long time, that I can’t answer this question. I wasn’t thinking. I was just acting. “I don’t really know,” I say and that’s the end of it. This is true. Still today I can’t say for sure what drew me to that voice, that call for help, what made me think I could fix things; and I wonder if it was just a morbid sense of curiosity, like a private car wreck I’d been invited to witness or if I honestly thought I could help. I could have shirked my Maintenance Man duties and ignored the call. I could have called the police but I chose not to. I chose to face this alone. I didn’t know for sure what these choices said about me. I only knew that I had made them consciously, deliberately, and that sort of clarity had been missing in my life for a while. When that call came I felt like I’d been sucked into a story, something bigger than me—a strange and bizarre tale of blood and intrigue and yellow cardigan sweaters—and I couldn’t figure out what it meant. I tried to fix things, but I couldn’t. It was beyond my capabilities; and I couldn’t get smarter than the machine. My life felt that way too some days—like it was bigger than me, an ancient story moving with a momentum impossible to match. I can’t tell you exactly why I decided to go that night, or why I didn’t tell anyone about what I saw until the next day. I also can’t really tell you why I just drove home and crawled into bed or why I would get married later that summer. And I wish that

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I could tell you that in that moment, I knew somehow that it would all end, inevitably. I wish I knew, as I draped an arm over my fiancé, that despite years of honest effort, our marriage would not last. But I didn’t. Not yet. I only knew that a call for help had come and I had responded. I’d tried to fix things, to make everyone happy, but I didn’t have the right tools. Perhaps if that night had given me a window into our future I would have laid awake tossing and turning. Perhaps I would have paced the floors, my feet dragging heavy with the weight of realization. But instead I propped the Emergency phone up on the nightstand, kissed my fiancé goodnight, and closed my eyes. Outside the window a new snow was falling, a thick blanket spreading out and muffling the noise of the world, smoothing over my tracks back to work.

[75]

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Pedestrian, River Teeth, The North American Review, Brevity, Colorado Review and many others. His essay, "Auscultation" was selected by Edwidge Danticat for the 2011 Best American Essays. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

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Constance Eggers / Afternoons at the Central Hotel Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent When I paint my masterpiece. Bob Dylan

He worked best with things falling down around his head. After she threw him from the orange grove shack (screaming take the fucking canvases! Take the pots! tossing his best blue-fish Ming-style vase into shining bits that littered the gravel driveway), he wore out his welcome in a few houses, kept his friends up till dawn with drunken ravings, pissed off all the wives and girlfriends, then took a job caretaking the old Central Hotel, floor upon floor of beat-up empty rooms waiting for the wrecker’s ball. [76]

In went the boxes of ArtWorld, the unreturned library books from 1962, the cans of turpentine, a case of Burgie, most of a pound of pot, an old mattress salvaged from the hotel alley, the easel, the empty canvases, the armless store mannequin, the doll heads (the tiny clicks of hard glass eyes opening and closing all the way up the stairs). The light up here was perfect, the winter sky that wet-paper gouache blue he’d loved all his life, the distant brown foothills brought near by a trick of light, the thin unlikely trunks of palm trees bearing their heavy green tops.

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Here no one sniffed and stomped the floor if he sat all afternoon and smoked joints and watched the colors shift and change, the shadows lengthen in receding light. No one yelled at him to get a job. No babies cried in the next room or dragged curious fingers through wet paint. Things would be good here. Tomorrow he’d start painting.

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Constance Eggers / Little Pitcher

for my great-grandmother Het

Dusty witness atop the hinged icebox, your thick round body a vessel for worn-down pencils, old receipts, a half-empty can of Red Man. Your painted flowers, bright and flat, fuzzed around the edges, might have been brushed on by someone like my great-grandmother, a poor farmwife taking lead into her lungs to pay for sugar or chicken-feed. You heard all the stories: the murdering uncle, the rustlers, the daughter Het got off another woman’s man, a blue-eyed Irishman who gave my pretty grandma her thin good-china skin, put the curl in that polished-cherry hair, put a bastard’s mute shame into her, and a need to run. [78]

You watched over Het, of sharp little bones and sharper tongue, Okie high cheekbones under walnut-shell skin, squinting at Roller Derby and wrestling, spitting dark juice into the coffee can clutched in stick-brown fingers. Nearly blind, she could still spot the true color of a new-born baby’s eyes and was never wrong, not once. When I got you, my one keepsake, I moved you to the porch. You tipped and rocked when the back door closed, I tossed you from hand to sink, filled you with water dumped onto humble bright flowers, cosmos, geraniums, daisies. The kind I like to grow.

Constance Eggers’ poems have appeared in Faultline, Jeopardy, The Seattle Review, The MacGuffin, Pudding, The Wilshire Review, Creative Transformation, Eclipse, and Soundings. Her chapbook, “Reliquary,” was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A native of Southern California, she lives in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and enjoys gardening, traveling, and spending time with her children and grandchildren.

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Renée Zuckerbrot runs a literary agency based in New York City. She was formerly an editor with Doubleday. Mount Hope’s Leah Catania sat down with Zuckerbrot at a small tapas restaurant in New York City. The conversation that flowed over the dinner table encompassed the challenges and rewards of the modern publishing industry, touching on micropresses and self-publishing, as well as Zuckerbrot’s desire for more good horror stories.

LC: What prompted you to make the switch from being an editor to being an agent? RZ: I used to be a book editor, and I loved almost everything about my job. However, there were a number of submissions I really wanted to pursue but wasn’t allowed to bid on because I didn’t have in-house support from my colleagues. It was frustrating. I took some time off from publishing and when I realized I wanted back in, I spoke to a couple of editor and agent friends. Overall, my agent friends seemed happier in that they had more freedom to pursue writers whose work they admired. As an agent I have more flexibility in choosing the projects that I want to work on. I can throw my hat in the ring and make an offer of representation for any project or any writer that I like. I’m not always chosen, but the option is mine whether I want to make an offer of representation. As an agent, I have a great deal more autonomy and freedom. [80]

LC: Do you look for different things in the works submitted to you now compared to when you were an editor? RZ: No, it’s still great writing, great storytelling, a writer in control of her material. LC: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the work submitted to you? RZ: I would love to find a great horror writer like Joe Hill. His collection 20th Century Ghosts is one of my all-time favorites. Everything in publishing is cyclical, and in the seventies and eighties, horror was a bestselling genre. Writers such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, V.C. Andrews, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and William P. Blatty dominated the bestseller lists. I think it’s time for another horror renaissance. LC: How do you think the publishing industry has changed over the years? RZ: Well for starters, there are fewer publishing companies. Even a year ago, there were six large companies. Random House and Penguin have merged and the merger has been approved, so there are now five large publishing companies. Technology has had a profound effect on the publishing landscape as well. It has allowed people to form their own independent publishing companies. And because technology has allowed production to become DIY and significantly M O UNT H O P E


cheaper, people are now starting their own publishing companies and getting books out there. Thirty years ago, you pretty much had twelve or fifteen large publishing companies and a few indies, but now you have micropresses. Publishers like Featherproof and Dzanc, to name a few. And of course the rise of the e-book has allowed writers to bypass traditional publishers and selfpublish e-books through Smashwords and Amazon. So there are more channels for distribution and more ways to get your work out there. While there are fewer traditional publishers around, there are more opportunities for writers to get their work published. When it comes to self-publishing, the question remains: is it enough to have your book available for sale on a website? A lot of writers are finding out that the answer is “No.” Publishers bring a lot to the table: in addition to editing, copy editing, typesetting, design, and distribution, publishers large and small bring their marketing and publicity know-how. That’s a big part of how books and writers are discovered: through the efforts of their publicists and marketing people. It’s really hard for the average writer to bring all these different skill sets to the table. LC: How do you feel that self-publishing in particular has changed the industry or will change the industry in the future? RZ: That’s a tough question. I have very mixed feelings about self-publishing. There are a lot of great books that publishers today turn down that they would have published twenty, twenty-five years ago. Publishers used to spend more time developing their writers and building their audience. Today, publishers want writers to hit it out of the park sales-wise with their first book. So, we come back to technology, which has allowed people to self-publish. But the truth is, as I said, it takes a village to publish a book successfully. It takes an agent to help you get your work ready for submission. It takes an editor to help fine-tune the work. It takes a publicist and a marketing person to help you reach your audience. And then there’s a whole cast of characters behind the scenes, the people you never hear about. It takes a copyeditor to ensure that the writing is grammatically correct, that all the characters’ names are consistent. Then you have designers who make the text readable. There’s an art to that, to making the text look nice on the page but also readable. And then you have jacket designers whose challenge is to create a jacket that captures the aesthetic of the work––and is also eye-catching. You also have production and managing editorial, and they make sure everything stays on track,

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that all the changes that are requested—whether it’s from the copyeditor or the proofreader—are made. There’s an entire sales department devoted to getting books into a variety of accounts from Costco to Barnes & Noble to museums to your local independent bookstore. As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into making a book, and I think with self-publishing, some writers don’t understand all the logistics and how much work it takes behind the scenes because they only hear about the success stories and the editors who bought the successful self-published writer’s backlist and next work. Editors and publicists tend to be the public face of the publishers, but every job is equally important.

[82]

LC: Do you think the rising number of micropresses has been good for the publishing industry in allowing more writing to get out there? RZ: I do. The more voices the better. And the business model of publishing has changed. If you’re a large corporate publisher and you have a large overhead (and many shareholders), your books have to sell X number of copies in order to make a certain amount of money because you have to feed this very large overhead. If you’re a small press and you publish a book that sells 7,500 copies, that might be enough for you to cover the cost of your low overhead and make a profit. If you’re a behemoth, selling 7,500 copies of a book isn’t very good. LC: How has technology changed your job? Especially in the speed of the process? RZ: Well, the book process is still slow because you need to give the editor time to edit, you need to give the writer time to revise, and then the editor rereads, and sometimes there are still more revisions. And then you have to give it to the copyeditor, and the copyeditor needs time to copyedit and put together a style sheet, and that goes back to the writer, who spends time with the copyedited manuscript. Then it goes to the typesetter. Technology may allow us to do things at a faster rate, but you still have to give writers and editors and copyeditors and proofreaders time to do their job well—that part hasn’t changed and never will. I would say communication has changed. When I first started working in publishing, email didn’t exist in the corporate world. When you went home at the end of the day, you were pretty much unreachable unless someone happened to call you at home. But that was seen as a really big deal—to call someone at home after hours or on the weekend. You didn’t do it lightly. Today, however, we’re all tethered to our smartphones. I

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have clients emailing me, on occasion calling me, over the weekend. I mean, it’s fine, I’ve given them my cell phone number, but I feel tethered to my job in a way I didn’t when I first started working in publishing. So technology has definitely changed the way we communicate and also the expectation of how quickly you respond to someone. In the past, if someone called you on a Friday at 7 p.m. and left you a message on your voicemail in the office, chances are you wouldn’t hear it until Monday. LC: How has technology changed the speed at which books are accepted or turned down? RZ: Submissions sent out by an agent via email arrive in an editor’s in-box immediately. But editors still need time to read the manuscript. It’s easier for editors to share work with their colleagues––they no longer have to make photocopies to hand out; instead, they can forward the manuscript via email. Editors still have to discuss the manuscript with colleagues and get their support before making an offer. LC: How do you feel about the move from print to e-books? RZ: I love the idea of downloading a book in under a minute. There’s something really wonderful about going on vacation and loading up your e-reader with ten titles and maybe some magazines as well, and not having to put ten books in your suitcase, right? And e-books are great for people who live forty miles away from the nearest bookstore. Also, another thing that’s great about e-books is you’re allowed to sample. You can download the first chapter for free. Read it, see if you like it. If you don’t like it, download something else. In some ways that enables people to end up buying books that they wouldn’t have bought before. Because they weren’t sure if they would like it, so maybe they would go to the library and check it out, but now if they download something and they like it, they buy it immediately, so I think that’s great for publishers and writers alike. With that said, there are some people who like print books (myself included). They like the tactile experience of holding a book, cracking its spine, turning the pages, feeling the jacket, writing notes in the margins, underlining favorite passages. I think it all depends on the reader. But as far as I’m concerned, any format in which the book exists that attracts readers is great for publishing, because publishing is always trying to find and grow readers. There’s a lot of competition for someone’s time and money.

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When people come home at the end of the day, they can watch a show on television or a movie on Netflix. If being able to download a book right away means that someone is going to buy a book instead of an album on iTunes, that’s really wonderful. So I think a lot of people in publishing hope that e-books will be a great way to grow an American readership by allowing easy and immediate access to books. That said, indie bookstores are the heart and soul of the publishing industry. Nothing can replace hand-selling. I completely trust any recommendation from the folks at Three Lives & Co., my neighborhood indie. They know my taste in fiction and nonfiction, and they have a deep understanding of the marketplace.

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I quit medical school in the late fall of 2001. I walked out of the hospital after an eighthour surgery and never went back. Before dawn that morning, we drove our ’62 VW Beetle to the studio where my boyfriend Seth worked as a potter. I watched him walk away in the dark morning, jealous that he’d spend his day molding clay, while I would cut cancer from one of my favorite patients. At twenty-three years old, I’d carefully planned my future as a doctor and had no idea that over the next twelve hours it would all fall apart. The Veteran’s Hospital operating room was empty when I arrived. A slice of the rising sun spilled from a window near the ceiling onto blue tile and silver instruments. In the employee lounge across the hall, Dr. Armstrong drank coffee and read the Buffalo News. “Surgery’s been pushed back to eight,” he reported. “Have a seat.” “Is something wrong?” I asked. Our eighty-one-year-old patient, Mr. Gusda, had been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer two weeks prior. In that time, he’d shared stories with me about World War II, about his blue-eyed granddaughter in Georgia, and how no matter how sick he got, he’d “sure as shit” visit her once a month. Cancer had made its way into his jawbone. He wanted it out, but he was terrified about being cut open and the risk of a long-term feeding tube if things didn’t go well. Dr. Armstrong took a sip from his Styrofoam cup. He was a tall man with a round belly, white hair, and a large bulbous nose. “No trouble. Just a scheduling thing is all.” His eyes shifted back down to the paper. He was always reading. He liked art, music, and literature, and had a tender way of doctoring that I enjoyed watching. But when he wasn’t interacting with patients, Dr. Armstrong seemed as if he’d rather be off somewhere else. As I went through the motions of being a third-year medical student, I too was far away. My classmates studied night and day, looking over their shoulders at what the next person knew. They had all the right answers at all the right times. Though I also studied a lot, I eventually found other ways to fill my time—drinking margaritas and attending art shows with Seth, making jewelry, or learning to crochet from my Grandmother. I longed for a more creative life where I could write stories and talk about ideas, instead of facts, but I assumed this would come later. I thought that I could be the kind of doctor who also wrote novels and taught an occasional writing class. My interest in medicine began the day I dissected a cow’s eyeball in seventh-grade science. I was fascinated by the optic nerve, the gelatinous liquid of the vitreous, and how similar it was to the human eye. I wondered about the cow’s life, how it had lived before landing on the silver tray in my seventh-grade science lab. I had a similar curiosity about people and what made

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them fall in love or out of it, what made them leave their children, or cope with disease, or recover after losing someone. As a child, I wrote stories in a journal, never imagining that I could actually become a writer. It was becoming a doctor—knowing how to cut through skin and muscle and bone—that allowed you to really see what was inside of people. Doctors, in my mind, were the only ones privileged enough to know a person’s most intimate secrets. Even in high school when my plan to become a physician was far from a reality, people told me things they didn’t tell others. They asked for my advice. They chose me to remove splinters and assess odd bruises or moles. I felt important already. I continued to write stories in college and even in the beginning of medical school. In Gross Anatomy, we were deliberately kept from facts about the lives of our cadavers. But I gave mine a life anyway. “Arthur” had fine gray hair on his muscular forearms that tickled my skin as I cut into his chest. The cancer in his lungs was white, a thick mass of cells difficult to slice even with a sharp scalpel. I wrote about him reclining in a La-Z-Boy chair, watching television and eating frozen dinners. I wrote that he had worked with his hands, sanding wood or welding metal, and smoked during his breaks, looking at the sky. I imagined he wanted to remain useful even in his death, which is why he donated his body. In my notebook from the VA hospital, next to facts about tumors, treatments, and differential diagnoses, I recorded bits of people’s lives. Bob Divito got cigarettes in his lunch pail from the US Army. Now he talks out of a hole in his neck. JD lost his wife to a redheaded sax player who dodged the draft during Vietnam. Sam Smychinski draws treetops from his window on the tenth floor, sneaking sips of smuggled vodka. I’d always been able to find a balance between my interest in science and the raw urge to write. But in my third year of medical school, I was beginning to realize the stories were only a small part of the day for most doctors. I had a hard time keeping to the schedules expected of me, and I realized being the kind of doctor who wrote novels would be next to impossible. I began to see my future stuck between the walls of the hospital. Before long, the words in my notebook read, Feeling empty, feeling like something is missing. By the time they wheeled Mr. Gusda by in the gurney, I was waiting by the OR. “Morning, sweetie,” he wheezed. Mr. Gusda was a small man with olive colored skin, thinning gray hair and watery blue eyes. “Did you try the cider?” he asked. Two days before, Mr. Gusda had brought us a jug of peach cider. He’d picked it up in Georgia while visiting his granddaughter. “It’s delicious, Mr. G.” “You’ve got a helluva smile, young lady.” His eyelids fell a little. The anesthesia was kicking in.

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We scrubbed-in at the sink adjacent to the OR—a kind of ceremony in itself. Each side of each finger had to be washed diligently with soap and warm water for ten seconds, then the top of the hand for twenty, then the bottom, up to the elbows. Anything you might have touched in the last day or two was scrubbed away and rinsed down the drain with white soapy bubbles. You’d bump the swinging door into the OR with your hip, hands in the air, and the techs would slip an apron onto you, then latex gloves and a mask until you didn’t look like yourself anymore. In surgery, I stood near Mr. Gusda’s left ear and next to Chris, the pompous physician’s assistant, who was camped out at the top of Mr. G’s head. Mark, the chief resident I was working under, was across from me on the side where the jaw would come out. The surgical nurse, Linda, sat next to Mark and two techs sat on stools near the feet. I rested my hands on blue paper over Mr. G’s arm. I’d learned early in my surgery rotation that if I wasn’t doing anything, my hands had to stay on the patient. To drop them to my sides, scratch an itch, or lift a falling bra strap would introduce unwanted bacteria into the sterile environment. So even though the men’s scrubs slipped from my hips, I didn’t reach for them. My hands stayed on Mr. G. I was amazed at how a body under anesthesia felt much closer to dead than alive. Dr. Armstrong didn’t scrub-in. In teaching hospitals the residents do most of the work, but he was there to supervise Mark periodically throughout procedures. That morning, he leaned over Mark’s shoulder knitting his bushy white eyebrows to advise the first cut. “Find the carotid triangle first,” he said. “And don’t nick the laryngeal nerve.” Mark slid the knife in, handed me a suction tube, and we began. Dr. Armstrong leisurely flipped through the CD case near the boom box. He chose the soundtrack from Magnolia. As we worked, I thought of the frogs raining from the sky at the end of the movie. After a while, Mark pointed to something on Mr. Gusda’s face. “What nerve innervates this muscle?” he quizzed. “It’s a mastication muscle,” I said. “Closes the jaw.” “Okay, but which nerve do we have to watch out for?” Mark glared at me. I barely had time to respond before he said, “Didn’t you need to know this to pass the boards?” I thought back to that summer, when I took the first of three exams every medical student must pass to become a licensed physician. On the night before the test, I called Seth at 3:00 a.m. as close to a nervous breakdown as I’d ever been. “I’m going to fail tomorrow,” I told him. I’d been lying awake for hours, trying to study, trying to pray, but my mind raced and my body was wired with the electricity of doubt. “You’re not at peace with this,” Seth kept

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saying, meaning my decision to go to medical school in the first place. But I couldn’t hear him. At 5:45 a.m., still wide-awake, I knew that I could not pass that test. I hadn’t slept a wink, and I felt nauseated and utterly empty. I took the board exam anyway in a dream-state, clicking the computer mouse as if on autopilot. We left for a European backpacking trip a few days later, and I tried to push the doubt out of my mind. When we returned to the States, I got the failure letter I was expecting in the mail. The medical school I attended allowed three chances to take the exam before you were kicked out of school. Instead of starting my first rotation with the rest of my class, I spent September studying so I could take the test a second time in October. I studied harder, dreamed about the Swiss-cheese look of polycystic kidney disease, the round faces of patients with Cushing’s, the mechanisms of antimicrobials, diuretics, beta blockers. I set all other distractions aside and studied ten hours a day. Then two planes flew into the World Trade Center, and I remembered Wolfgang, a man we stayed with in Germany. One night over dinner and wine in his back yard he said, “I am curious. Why would you study to be an American doctor? You will not have a life.” Wolfgang owned a toy store, grew his own vegetables, and played Grateful Dead songs on his guitar. Though he was in his fifties, he seemed young and bright. He’d carved out a life that made him happy. After September 11th, his voice echoed in my head, You will not have a life. I started at the Veteran’s Hospital after I took the board exam in October, but I hadn’t heard about my scores yet. They’d be arriving in the mail any day. There were times when I was almost certain I would pass and that everything would go as planned. Seth and I would get married and have children. I would support our family as a doctor and he would stay home with the kids, make art, and fix the beautiful old home we would buy. Eventually, I’d find time to write. But most other days I felt displaced and sad for no reason at all. I envied Seth’s creative work and looked longingly at people who worked at gas stations, grocery stores, and coffee shops. Sometimes I’d be driving in the car and wonder, If I got hit right now, could I leave school? Would that be enough to quit? “Trigeminal,” I said finally to answer Mark’s question. “Good.” Mark took a small saw from Linda’s gloved hand and began cutting Mr. G’s jaw. The room smelled suddenly of burning bone—a terrible stink, like crushed corn chips and burnt hair. I remembered it from the anatomy lab when we were cutting Arthur’s skull. That was the only time in all of Gross Anatomy that I had to leave the room. Mr. Gusda’s jawbone dropped into a white bucket with a thud. One of the techs rushed the bucket off to Pathology, where they’d determine if Mark had cut out all the cancer. Aimee

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Mann’s music from Magnolia droned on.

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At about noon, when the CD was long over, we were still cutting cancer. “This is when the Pediatricians and Family docs go to lunch,” Mark joked. “Seriously. Go, if you’re hungry.” “I’m fine,” I said, hoping he couldn’t hear my stomach growl. “I’ll stay.” “Tough girl,” Chris, the physician’s assistant, said. He was cauterizing leaking vessels with an electric probe that created tiny sparks when it touched skin. “Probably never in a sorority, huh?” “Actually I was,” I admitted, holding a flap of skin open so Mark could measure the distance between the two pieces of cut bone, the empty space that had been Mr. G’s jaw. “Why?” Chris chuckled. “What’s the first thing a sorority girl does in the morning?” “I don’t know.” “Introduces herself and walks home.” The OR broke out into laughter—Mark, the male techs, even Linda. I found myself laughing too, although I didn’t think it was funny. That joke led to other female jokes, blonde jokes, sex jokes. Sweat dripped from my armpits down to my stomach. My scrubs were still falling at the waist. I looked down at Mr. Gusda, his eyes taped shut, tubes in his throat to force his breath, the right side of his face mangled and bloody. I wondered if he’d ever drink peach cider with his granddaughter again. As Mark was about to put in the titanium plate that would replace Mr. Gusda’s jaw, he realized he didn’t have the right screws. One of the techs had to run to get us a different size. Mark fumbled with the drill for half an hour or so. He hadn’t used it much and was figuring it out as he went along. These moments of panic and disorganization happened a lot more than I’d ever imagined during surgery. There was the woman who coughed throughout her cataract procedure because we forgot to turn on the oxygen. Or the man getting an erectile pump put in who ended up with a crooked penis. I had seen a lot of mistakes, but this was Mr. Gusda. He brought us cider. He still had so much to live for. Surgery was over at just about four o’clock that afternoon. Back in the locker room, I sat on a bench in front of my hanging clothes. I contemplated writing in my notebook, but couldn’t think of anything to say. I’d worked hard to get into medical school and stayed motivated by my idea of being a doctor, the one where I had time to be creative and heal patients by listening to their stories. But the yellow hospital walls and lockers hung sickly in front of me that day. Boxes

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of synthetic booties, masks, hair covers, and gloves were stacked on top of each other on a cold metal shelf reminding me of the realities of medicine. Mr. Gusda would be waking up soon. He’d be in recovery, half conscious, forgetting, maybe for a minute or two, that he had cancer, a feeding tube in his gut for an unspecified amount of time, a long stay in the hospital ahead of him, radiation, chemotherapy. Forgetting that he might never get to Georgia or drink peach cider again. I peeled off the booties around my clogs, took off my mask, and slipped out of the scrubs. Mr. Gusda was alive and his jaw had been replaced. I hadn’t done anything embarrassing or deadly during surgery. But a strange weight sat in my stomach and stayed there even after I said goodbye to Dr. Armstrong and Mark. In the parking lot, I stood before the driver’s side door of our old VW. The November sun was just starting to drop and the leaves swirled in cool wind around my feet. Is this it? I wondered. Is this what I really wanted? I got in and started the car, let it warm up, and drove away with the bubble of the engine behind me. After picking Seth up at the studio, I grabbed the mail before entering our apartment. I flipped through the bills and magazines and saw an envelope from the United States Medical Licensing Examiners. The results of my board exam had finally arrived. I walked into the house, set my bag down, and ripped the edges of the paper. Water ran in the kitchen as Seth started dinner. I opened the folded page and saw immediately, before comprehending any of the sentences that preceded it, the word FAILURE in bold, black type. “Oh my God,” I said. “What?” Seth poked out from the kitchen. But I couldn’t see him. “What’s wrong?” Seth asked. I didn’t answer. I let the paper sail in slow motion to the floor, landing with the sound of shhhh. People describe the moments prior to and immediately following an accident as if it happened in slow motion, as if the adrenaline that pumps through your blood can actually bend time. Life slowed down for me in that moment and my future was staring me dead in the eye. I walked to the bedroom and curled myself into a tight ball on our bed. Every time I closed my eyes, Mr. Gusda’s mangled face came back to me and the way he felt, close to dead, under my hands. I hated how I’d laughed at those jokes I didn’t think were funny, hated standing there watching Mark fumble over a man’s open face. I suddenly hated every failure and even the triumphs I’d seen in medicine, the successful births after complicated C-sections, the cured cancer, the doctors who took me under their wings. “I just can’t do this anymore,” I whispered over and over. I couldn’t

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cover myself anymore, not with scrubs, or booties, or masks. I groped at my homemade pillows, desperate to remember the last time things were right. Seth’s weight shifted the mattress as he lay down beside me. He wrapped an arm around my waist and breathed quietly into my neck. “I have nothing left,” I told him. There were years of studying, failing tests, waking up early to try again. I kept trying and trying to make medicine work, but I couldn’t get away from the emptiness. It didn’t matter that I could take the test once more. If I didn’t leave now, it would be some other day, some other surgery, some other test.

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The following day I sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table asking for advice. I explained that being a doctor for me meant looking inside of people, at their most intimate parts. It meant hearing stories they would never tell anyone else. It meant having a husband who could pursue his art. It meant having the money to pursue my own art. All of what I thought would make me happy in life fit into the package. My parents and sisters and friends had all supported me. “You’ll be an amazing doctor,” they said. “You just have a way about you.” When they heard about the exam, my parents wondered if I would take the test a third time. Honestly, I hadn’t known how to answer them. But sitting there with my grandmother, I could finally admit that I hadn’t been happy for a long time; it took the word failure in bold, capital letters to make it all clear. She wasn’t surprised. Gram and I spent a lot of time together: scavenging her attic for vintage clothing, sifting through fabric for sewing projects, working out crochet stitches or particularly tough times in my life. She and I were kindred spirits. She understood things about me that I didn’t have to say. “You don’t have to ask me what to do, darling,” she said, in her English accent. She moved a stack of misplaced Tupperware from one end of the table to the other and leaned closer to me. “You already know.” She put her hand in the center of my chest and held it there. It was warm and rings sparkled on every finger. “The answer’s right here,” she said. At the age of twentytwo she’d made the decision to fly 3,000 miles across the ocean from Birmingham, England to Buffalo, New York for my grandfather, an American soldier she fell in love with during World War II. She flew with her wedding cake on her lap, away from everything and everyone she knew. Gram didn’t encourage me to list the pros and cons of staying in school. She didn’t question how bad it really was, or offer pep talks or inspiring stories about beating the odds. She was frank and insistent. “You already know,” she said again. You already know.

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Talking to her that day, after years of struggling to get the right answer, I finally knew something. I knew I would not be a doctor. I knew I couldn’t force myself into the neat package that was supposed to be such a perfect fit. And to know this so viscerally was devastating and wonderful all at once. That piece of paper with the word failure printed on it was my one-way ticket, the door I didn’t realize could open and set me free. When we look back on our lives, it’s these unplanned twists that knock us down, that suck the wind from our lungs, but that eventually give us permission to change. At the time I failed the medical boards, it seemed like nothing could be worse. But in the end, that failed test was what led me to get my MFA in writing and to fulfill the longing I’d had since I was a little girl. I wonder sometimes, as I continue to send the checks for my med school loans ten years later, what if I had kept going? What if I had woken up at fifty or sixty years old and said, What have I done with my life? I recently read an interview with the mythologist and storyteller, Michael Mead, who said, “There’s an African proverb: ‘When death finds you, may it find you alive.’ Alive means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live.” In the months that followed my last day of medicine, I mourned my vision of doctoring. I endured the pain and disappointment of telling my family and friends about my decision. I clumsily sifted through anger and confusion and doubt about where to go next, reluctantly making plans to pay the enormous amount of debt I’d amassed. But it’s that one moment alone with my grandmother that I will not forget. It’s her warm hand on my chest, her watery eyes with the same sparkle of life I saw in Mr. Gusda, and her words, You already know.

Amy Amoroso received an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University, where she won the Fiction Thesis Fellowship for her novel, On the Way Home. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Upstreet, The Fertile Source and Alligator Juniper.

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Profile for Mount Hope Magazine

Mount Hope Issue 5 Spring 2014  

Mount Hope is the literary magazine published by the creative writing department at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI This issue featu...

Mount Hope Issue 5 Spring 2014  

Mount Hope is the literary magazine published by the creative writing department at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI This issue featu...

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