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ISSUE 7 Spring 2015
Mount Hope is published bi-annually in Bristol, Rhode Island, by the Roger Williams University Department of English and Creative Writing. Individual subscription rates are: $20 annually or $35 for two years. Mount Hope ÂŠ 2015, All Rights Reserved. No portion of Mount Hope may be reproduced in any form or by electronic means, including all information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission of Mount Hope magazine or authors of individual creative works. Any resemblance of events, locations or persons, living or dead, in creative works contained herein is entirely coincidental. Mount Hope cannot be held responsible for any views expressed by its contributors. www.mounthopemagazine.com Individual Issue Price: $10.00
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MOUNT HOPE â€˘ ISSUE 7
EDITOR Edward J. Delaney
ASSISTANT EDITORS Catherine Hunter ’15 Alexandra Orteig ’15
WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE Adam Braver
COPY EDITORS Katherine Gladsky ’16 Maggie McLaughlin ’16
DESIGN EDITOR Lisa Daria Kennedy Massachusetts College of Art
EDITORIAL ASSISTANTS Morgan Boes ’15, Colin Gallagher ’15, Sarah Klee ’15 Alexander Newton ’15, Sean Nickerson ’15, Jaquelyn Taylor ’15 Abigail DeVeuve ’16
POETRY EDITOR Shelley Puhak Notre Dame of Maryland University ASSOCIATE EDITOR Amish Trivedi
COVER ART Jackie Reeves
Get To Bed, 17 x 24 inches. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. Jackie Reeves was born in Montreal, Canada. She received her BFA from Concordia University (1990), Montreal, and MFA in Painting from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, MA (2012). Reeves has exhibited in solo and group shows throughout Cape Cod and in Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, DC, and North Carolina. She has been profiled in numerous publications including The Boston Globe, Art New England, Artscope Magazine as one of “25 artists that have captured our imagination” and Cape Cod Art Magazine. In 2012 Reeves was awarded first place winner in a national competition with NKGallery in South Boston’s art district (SOWA). She has been a resident of the United States since 1995 and currently lives in Sandwich with her husband and three daughters and works out of Chalkboard Studio in Barnstable Village, MA. Her work can be viewed at www.jackiereeves.com. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
CONTENTS FICTION 5 An Enforcer in the
NONFICTION 18 Sailing Through Kabul
Institution for Children by C.C. Frye 44 Rainbows by S. Frederic Liss 77 Footnote by Carol LaHines
by Timothy Kenny 82 Kurt Vonnegut and the Proverbial Window of American Politics by Max Gray
INTERVIEWS 20 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist
POETRY 16 Fun For The Dead
Paul Harding 95 Young-adult author Padma Venkatraman
by Stephen Dunn 17 Moon Time by Stephen Dunn 54 Masks for Facial Disfigurement by Kate Fox 56 Robert Falcon Scott’s Widow, State Dinner, 1916 by Kate Fox 89 Aspects of Strangers by Piotr Gwiazda 101 Aubade by Francesca Bell 102 Bridge Translations by Francesca Bell 56 Love is a Song You Listen To Later by Francesca Bell
GRAPHIC ARTS 32 Last Car Running
Photography by Christine Pearl 57 Flutter by Jennie Wood, author and Jeff McComsey, illustrator
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An Enforcer in the Institution for Children by C.C. Frye The first thing you notice is the stench—urine, vomit, feces, and body odor coat the campus in a decrepit film that can’t be scoured away. It’ll take about thirty minutes for the stink to stop bothering you. Punch the clock early to begin the pre-shift inspection of your assigned unit. Make sure the padlock on the kitchen refrigerator is secure; they go there first. Close and lock every door, cabinet, and drawer. Check under their beds for the remains of toys the Sisters of Charity dropped off last week: they shred the stuffed animals and clog the toilets with the Polyfil innards, hurl doll parts like major-league pitchers, and smash hard plastic toys into shards that they use as weapons. Shove a wad of latex gloves in your back pocket; you’ll go through an entire box over the course of the evening. Fill your front pockets with candy, Laffy Taffy is a favorite and lasts the longest, unless they swallow it whole. The unit will be eerily quiet; the children are off-campus participating in their “life skills” activities at Bright Horizons Diversity Academy. It’s a facility that resembles a normal school with a flagpole out front, a fenced playground with swings and monkey bars in the back, and chalkboards on the classroom walls, but in reality, it’s just another branch of the institution. The children are strapped to chairs or locked in time-out rooms most of the day. The lucky ones (well-behaved) stack blocks or color cartoons. They always return to our campus with wet or crappy pants. Inspect the hallways while the cleaning crew replenishes the MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
antibacterial soap dispensers and line the trashcans with red biohazard bags. Scan for stray bottles of cleanser. You were told that a kid chugged an entire bottle of Drano a few years ago and died. Of course, you don’t know if this is true or not: exaggerated gossip tends to travel around the institution like a flu virus. But you have noticed that once a child does leave the institution— because they turn eighteen, or they’re transferred, or they die—their existence is generally reduced to nothing more than a rumor. Slow down as you approach the row of front offices. Stop dead when you hear the shrill tone of your supervisor’s voice—everyone on campus eventually gets a nickname; hers is L’il Miss Bi-Polar (you’re called The Enforcer). She intentionally works the day shift when the children are away because they terrify her. Listen to her prattle away on the phone. Notice how she uses clichés like “We’re knee-deep in it down here” and “Our backs are against the wall.” Take note of how she huffs after every sentence like she’s shooing flies. Try to tiptoe past her door. Freeze when she spots you, she’ll snap her fingers and wave you in. Her office will be cluttered with mounds of paperwork and Starbucks coffee cups. Note the poster on the wall behind her desk; it hangs in-between her degree in Human Services and the picture of Princess Tia, her Pekingese. The poster is from the institution’s new ad campaign meant to boost donations by tugging at the heart. There’s a commercial that airs during the evening news which shows several Down’s-syndrome children frolicking and laughing as they finger-paint a rainbow on a gymnasium wall. You’ve never seen those children; they don’t reside at your institution. Most of the children you work with have been removed from their homes or abandoned. Your physical-management instructor from orientation claimed many of their aggressive behaviors were caused by environment. “In other words,” your instructor said, “they are not just the effects of autism or mental retardation. These kids weren’t born with all of these behaviors…they learned them. Then they were reinforced.” Parents who still have visitation rights typically come on birthdays or around the Christmas holiday, if they come at all. They bring cruddy stuffed animals that look like they were won at a carnival midway, or cheap toys picked up in drug stores, or nothing at all. Their children usually fly into frenzy when they see their parents—quite sure they’re being released and going home— and tug and pull their parents toward the door. Visits usually last less than an hour and end up with you intervening to protect the parents from their child—once the child realizes they’re not going home. The parents always become very angry. Angry because their child just bit them. Angry because their child still isn’t toilet trained. And angry because they can’t find the toys they brought on their last visit, but mostly, they’re angry because their child is 6
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not showing any improvement. They storm out of the unit and demand to talk to a supervisor; none is ever available. “This is a pickle!” your supervisor will say as she finishes her phone call, “I’ll get right on it. We’ll nip this in the bud.” She’ll hang up and huff, you’ll wonder if anyone was actually on the other end of the line. She’ll glare at you, “Well, you really stepped in it this time,” she’ll say as she tosses The Daily Documentation Log on the desk with another huff. “Do you want to explain this?” Shrug your shoulders and pretend you don’t understand the question. “The district overseer was here recently and noted violations in your documentation style.” Continue to play dumb, she’ll huff louder, “One more time, when writing about the clients, do not document any negative occurrences.” “I’m just documenting what I see,” you’ll say, “How are we supposed to help these children if we don’t have an accurate account of what’s really going on here?” She’ll stop you before you can utter another word, and say, “We all know that they have problems. That’s why they’re here. The state directors, our bosses, do not want us to focus on the negative aspects. I just got off the phone with the regional managers. They are not pleased! They don’t want to hear about the bad stuff. They only want to hear about the positive improvements.” “What if I’m not seeing any positive improvements,” you’ll say. “Well, you better find some quick!” she’ll snap. “Jesus Christ! We’re barely treading water here.” She’ll pause and intensify her glare. “Once again, our purpose, and how we get our funding relies on our ability to show that we know how to treat these types of individuals. The state MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
How are we supposed to help these children if we don’t have an accurate account of what’s really going on here?”
is always threatening to cut our budget if we don’t do a better job. We can’t have one employee jeopardize the entire company because he can’t seem to complete the simplest elements of his job.” Roll your eyes as your supervisor turns a minor issue into a crisis, the way she always does. “Well, it almost seems like a Catch-22,” you’ll mumble. “We’re supposed to show that these kids are improving, but in the course of trying to do so, we must deny that they need any improvement.” “Huh?” your supervisor will say as she shoots you the Just-Die look, “Will you please just do the job we hired you to do? The one we’re paying you to do!” Grin and shake your head. “You know if you don’t like the way we do things around here, you don’t have to work here. We can manage just fine without you, we’ve done it for years.” Sigh and lower your head, it’s the only way to get her to shut up. She’ll pack up her things in a snit and say, “Oh by the way, there’s a new hire coming in tonight and you’ll need to train her.” She’ll motion you out of her office, double lock the door, and hustle out of the building with one final huff. Finish your sweep of the building and exit out the steel door in the rear; it leads to the courtyard containing six identical one-story units. Trudge along the muddy path toward the drop-off zone at the side of the institution; it’s camouflaged from the street by thick patches of skeleton trees and a rusting wrought-iron fence. Wait in the cold with the fifty other employees; the buses will be running late. Listen to the fat, lazy women talk about The Jerry Springer Show. They all wear sweatpants outfits, have 1980’s style perms, and are caked in heavy foundation. They’ve been nicknamed The Sweatpants Mafia. Don’t stand too close because they douse themselves in cheap flowery perfume that makes your eyes water. “Better than smelling like shit,” they’ll say. Smoke cigarettes with the ten other men who work second shift. Compare scars and horror stories. Show them the bite marks on your left forearm that you think are infected. Listen to Joe (El Pork-O) brag about how he single-handedly put down Dwayne (The Butcher) last night. Smirk and shake your head because you’ve had to bail out Joe on more than one occasion. Check out the cute college Newbie working in the Moderate-TeenGirl-Unit. Place bets on how long she’ll last. Your guess: four days because she’s petite. Wave goodbye to the administrators as they leave for the day. Give them the finger when they’re out of sight. Move to the front as the rusting buses from the 1970s roll up. Stretch like an Olympic athlete in case you have to do any sudden sprinting. The drivers and bus attendants will resemble soldiers returning from an Afghanistan firefight. The doors will open and the children will shoot out like a pack of crazed chipmunks. Men grab “the runners” and women help the ones that don’t walk very well. Hold up a piece of Laffy Taffy and they’ll 8
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follow you right into the unit. Put dry clothes on the kids but don’t use diapers, it goes against their toilet-training goal. Unlock the video cabinet, select a Disney movie, and play it on the TV behind the Plexiglas. Turn the volume up over the screams. Watch them run, jump, and bang into walls. Separate them when they attack each other. Put on latex gloves to clean up the blood. One of The Mafia Women will unlock the medication room to signify the afternoon med pass. The other Mafia Women will shout, “Woohoo, cocktail hour!” Assist the children to the med window when their name is called. Make sure they swallow every Lorazepam, Haldol, or Mellaril pill. When a child refuses, force his mouth open and drop the pills in. Clamp his mouth shut and massage his neck until the pills are gone, like you do for a dog. Give gumdrop chasers to the children that comply. Half the kids will slip into a drooling-zombie state on the plasticcovered couches. Herd the others—the ones who have built up a tolerance to the medications—outside to the jungle gym. Grab Albert (The Spider) off the seven-foot fence. Last night he made it over and bolted toward the highway. You caught him by the ankle just before he darted into traffic. Tiffany, this week’s trainee, will arrive thirty minutes late while texting like a stenographer. She’ll be wearing a sorority sweatshirt, have multiple dangling earrings, and will smell like strawberry lip gloss. She’ll profess her love of children and boast about of all the times she’s volunteered for the Special Olympics. Take her to the back office and instruct her to remove all of her jewelry and to stow her cell phone. She won’t understand. Tell her the children will be happy to remove her jewelry for her, and she’ll gasp. Give her a rubber band so she can put her hair in a ponytail. Warn her that the children are known for ripping out hair (the reason you shave your head). Tiffany will fuss about her smartphone and claim to be lost without it. Remind her about the non-disclosure form she signed in pre-hire. The one that bans all pictures, videos, and writings from leaving the institution. “Oh yeah, that’s from one of our orientation classes, The Ethics Inside. It’s meant to protect the confidentiality of the clients…right?” she’ll say. “It’s meant to protect somebody’s confidentiality,” you’ll say. Return to the main floor with Tiffany. Tell her to stick close by your side because the kids aren’t good around strangers and you never know what they’ll do. The kids will begin to circle Tiffany like sharks, bumping and prodding, as they investigate the Newbie. Push them back when they become too aggressive. “They’re so cute,” Tiffany will say, “They look so normal. You really can’t tell they’re Special Needs.” “Yeah, pretty sneaky of them,” you’ll say. The Mafia Women will descend on the Newbie like a pack of hyenas; MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
they love to spook new hires, especially the pretty ones. “Forget everything you learned in the company’s two-week training,” The Mafia Women will say, “This is the real world. Those administrators don’t know shit. Do you think they come back here?” “This is just a human warehouse,” one will say, “That’s all. We’re just stacking these kids on top of each other and holding them. They only get worse. Never better. Then we pass them on to the next warehouse.” “Watch out for him,” another will say as she points at Maxwell (Spitsn-Giggles), “he stabbed his sister in the forehead with a knitting needle.” “The Amish tried to raise that one,” a third will say, “by beating the demons out of him behind the woodshed.” She’ll stop Wesley (The Snake) and lift up his shirt to expose the scars zigzagging down his back, “Guess it didn’t work.” “And that one’s schizophrenic,” another will say as she points at J.J. (Kid Dyn-o-mite). “He re-enacts his father killing his mother every night. He was locked to a radiator next to her dead body for three days until his aunt found him.” She’ll wink at the Newbie, “He ain’t never leaving that room.” Then she’ll whisper to the Newbie, “Don’t ever go anywhere alone with him.” The Mafia Women’s laughter will reach a crescendo as they work on Tiffany. She’ll have a frightened look on her face and drift over to you. “Yeah, listen to what he says,” The Mafia Women will say, “He knows how to handle them. He’s the muscle of the operation. Why do you think we keep him around?” Tiffany will spot one of the female residents, Nina (The Claw), under a table. She’ll approach her with an over-the-top smile. “Hi sweetheart,” she’ll say, “My name is Tiffany. What’s yours?” Then she’ll talk slower, “I’m Tiffany…Tiff-an-y. What’s your name?” Nina will start to hiss and growl. She’ll flail her arms and try to scratch the Newbie. Tiffany will jump back in shock. The Mafia Women will roll with laughter as you intervene. “That’s Nina,” you’ll say, “She doesn’t talk. She’s feral. Her parents raised her in a kennel with the dogs. The state brought her here last year. So far, we’ve taught her how to sit in a chair and use a spoon.” Mathew (The Ripper) will come out of nowhere and smack Tiffany in the face. He’ll latch onto her hair. Tiffany will scream and they’ll both tumble to the ground. Straddle Mathew like a horse and pin his head against the floor. Use the ear-grappler-technique to subdue Mathew as you help Tiffany unravel her hair from his clutches, he’ll get a good chunk of it. Unlock the staff bathroom for Tiffany so she can cry in private. She’ll return with puffy eyes and want to know what she did wrong. Tell her everyone gets beat up the first month. The kitchen staff will wheel the food cart over around six. They’ll bang on the door, but they won’t come in. Tell Tiffany to eat the Salisbury 10
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steak and Tater Tots because the meal is automatically deducted from her paycheck. She’ll crinkle her nose and refuse, so you’ll eat it standing up. Patrol the dining area, encourage the children to slow down and use spoons instead of their hands. Go over the Heimlich maneuver technique with Tiffany. Tell her about the five times you’ve already had to use it. Point to Sean (Buddha Belly), last month you had to Heimlich him for over a minute until everything in his mouth (and stomach) came out. “Was he okay?” she’ll say. “He tried to eat his own vomit,” you’ll say. “No way,” she’ll say. “Way,” you’ll say. “Did they go over that in your orientation?” a Mafia Woman will say. Keep a close eye on the kids who scarf their dinner. Escort them out when they try to grab-n-stuff another child’s meal. Change the wet children after dinner and pass out more meds. Give cookies to the ones who sit quietly. “Why so many pills?” Tiffany will say. “It’s a chemical straightjacket,” a Mafia Woman will say. “Seems like it’s a bit much,” Tiffany will say. “If you think they’re bad now, you should see them when they’re not medicated,” the Mafia Woman will say, “you can’t go near them.” Work on community integration goals after dinner. Refill your pockets with latex gloves and candy. Pack an emergency bag of clothes in case there are accidents. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
He ain’t never leaving that room.” Then she’ll whisper to the Newbie, “Don’t ever go anywhere alone with him.”
Take a Mafia Woman, the Newbie, and ten kids to a park that is usually deserted. Give piggyback rides to the children you like, pull the other ones out of the trashcans. Remove fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts from their mouths. Tiffany and the Mafia Woman will sit on a bench and talk about the ups and downs of Mafia life. The Mafia Woman will tell Tiffany, “You have to learn to become numb, to laugh at it all. If you don’t, it will break you. It’s all about survival.” Chase after the kids like a sheep dog as they dart in every direction. Pull Kurt (The Pincher) off a “normal” child playing in the sandbox. Her parents will be burning red with anger. They’ll want your company’s name and number so they can report you. “Why don’t you keep a better eye on these monsters!” they’ll say. “Kids like this shouldn’t be allowed in public!” But when they call the office, the administrators will work on them so much that they’ll end up donating money to the institution. Afterwards, take the kids to Walmart to get a snack. The store will become quiet as the customers and employees stare at the children; they’ll look away if you make eye contact with them. One customer will approach, usually a kind old lady, and pat one of the children on the head. The child will latch onto her coat and start shrieking. Use the knuckle-duster-technique to loosen his grip. Escort him away by the collar. The old lady will stumble away clutching her chest. Her husband will say, “Told you not to go near them. I’ve heard about kids like that.” The other customers will continue shopping like it’s no big deal, but you’ll notice that they keep sneaking peeks. Suddenly, one of the children will pull down a candy display. All of the kids will scamper to the floor and jam wrapped candy bars into their mouths. Sweep their mouths with your index finger to prevent them from choking. Pick up the two most aggressive ones and sling them over your shoulders, they’ll squeal in excitement because they think it’s playtime. Bark at the others until they follow you toward the exit; they’ll tug on your shirt because they want the next ride. Customers will scurry out of the way like frightened sheep. The Walmart employees will appear in every aisle and act like Secret Service agents as they escort you toward the front door. “Don’t worry about it,” a Walmart manager will say, “We’ll take care of it. No charge.” One customer will smile and say you look like Paul Bunyan with the kids slung over your shoulders. He’ll wink at you and say, “You’re a saint for the job you do. The world needs more people like you.” It’s shower time when you return to the institution. Line the kids up naked on the concrete floor. Hold the shower hose while one Mafia Woman washes, another dries, and a third puts on pajamas. Save Ricky (The Iceman) for last when there’s no more hot water, he loves the sensation of cold water and shakes and giggles a lot. Pass out more meds and promise a snack to the ones that behave. Break up a fight between Tony (Angel Eyes) and David (The Vampire). Use the nasal-shunt-technique on David when he tries to 12
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bite. Mute the TV and dim the lights. Tuck them in bed. Kiss the ones you like on the forehead. Inform Tiffany that it’s time to document the evening’s events. Open the records room that contains rows and rows of shelves packed tight with binders. “This is everything the children have done over the past five years,” you’ll say, “Every doctor appointment, pill taken, meal eaten, toy played with, et cetera.” Tiffany’s jaw will drop. “We’re supposed to read through the paperwork during our free time in order keep up with the progress of each child.” “What free time?” Tiffany will say. “Exactly,” a Mafia Woman will say. “Where do you store the documentation after five years?” Tiffany will say. “Every spring, after the state’s surprise audit, the administrators hold a bonfire-barbeque,” another Mafia Woman will say, “It’s when we burn all the outdated material. And that’s anything over five years old.” “Last year’s theme was a Hawaiian luau,” a third Mafia Woman will say, “It was a wild time. They had a roasted pig and those rum drinks with the little umbrellas.” “You’ll never guess who hooked up with who that night,” a Mafia Woman will say with a snarky smile. “Who? Who?” the other Mafia Women will say as they flurry about like owls. Tiffany will look at The Mafia Women like they are insane and say, “Uh, I don’t understand. What’s the point of documenting everything if you’re just going to burn it?” A Mafia Woman will grin at Tiffany and say, “Sweetheart, don’t you realize that you’re smack dab in the middle of the bureaucracy? It’s best not to worry about those kinds of things.” Continue discussing the records room with Tiffany. Pick up The Daily Documentation Log and return to the main room. “When documenting,” you’ll say, “do not write with emotion. Do not offer your personal opinions. Do not record any negative or ugly events. Just write what you see, but try to spin it in a way that shows the children are improving.” “You mean lie,” Tiffany will say. The Mafia Women will laugh and say, “Now she’s getting it.” Around this time, you’ll get an emergency page over the intercom just as things have calmed down in your unit. It will be from the Mild-Teen-BoyUnit. “Who’s in the Mild-Teen-Boy-Unit?” Tiffany will say. “Mildly retarded big boys,” a Mafia Woman will say, “you know, angry Gumptards.” The other Mafia Women will crack up. Tiffany will grimace. “That’s a very politically incorrect term,” she’ll say. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
“The only people who use politically correct terms,” one Mafia Woman will say, “are people who have little or no contact with the short-bus-riders.” The other Mafia Women will all chime in, “True, so true.” The Newbie will insist on coming with you because she wants to “see it all.” Tell her the rules of the unit: don’t get cornered, use any method necessary to prevent yourself from getting injured, and if you have to hit them, try to avoid areas that will leave a visible mark. “Oh really,” Tiffany will scowl, “do the administrators know about these rules?” “Who do you think came up with them?” you’ll say. Joe (El Pork-O), who bragged that day about putting down Dwayne (The Butcher) by himself, will be pacing and have the eyes of a spooked horse. He’ll ask you to do the restraint because his back is out again. Roll your eyes. Dwayne will be punching the wall and turning over tables and chairs. He’ll stop when he spots you. A flash of fear will wash over his face, as he knows what you bring. Smile at him, not in a friendly way, but like one of those clowns in a horror movie. He’ll scream like a banshee and charge at you. Let him throw a few punches, move out of the way or block them. Use the forearm-shiver technique if he gets too close. Let this go on for a few minutes until he tires and is sucking in deep breaths. Spin him like a top when he throws his next punch. Jump on his back and use your right arm to put him in a headlock. Drag him to the ground like a wrestler and put him in a half-nelson. Be sure to keep your fingers away from his mouth, he’s been known to bite them down to the bone. Wrap around his body like a python. Dwayne will growl and scream as he threatens to kill you. Tighten your grip. The Newbie will panic. It will sound like she’s hyperventilating as she scrambles to a corner of the room. “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” she’ll say. “Shhh…just relax.” you’ll say. Joe will amp things up, the way he always does, “You see motherfucker! You see what happens when you don’t do what you’re told! You see what happens when you mess with us!” Dwayne will let out a guttural growl. He’ll thrash and make a furious attempt to get at Joe. “Shut the fuck up, Joe!” you’ll shout. Joe will retreat while producing his “hurt look.” Stiffen your stranglehold. Some of the other boys in the unit will hover around with wild eyes. They’ll act like they’re going to jump in and help Dwayne. Snarl at them like Clint Eastwood; they’ll back way off. Whisper in Dwayne’s ear, “It will all be over when you calm down.” Dwayne will be panting and resist for a few more minutes. He’ll cry in an inflated way and apologize profusely, don’t fall for it. Continue to hold Dwayne down until he turns as limp as Jell-O and whimpers, “I’m done.” Pull Dwayne to his feet and escort him to 14
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the time-out room, he’ll offer no more resistance. Joe will make some wisecrack about staff needing to be armed with tranquilizer guns. Ignore him. Exit the unit with the Newbie. She’ll be trembling. “Is that the way we’re really supposed to restrain them?” she’ll say. “Well, something like that,” you’ll say, “Nothing else works.” “But I can’t do that,” Tiffany will say. “That’s why I’m here,” you’ll say. Tears will begin to roll down Tiffany’s face. “This is all so wrong. I never knew kids like this existed,” she’ll say, “I never knew a place like this existed.” “Most people don’t,” you’ll say, “out of sight, out of mind.” “So, why do you do it?” she’ll say. Smile and shrug your shoulders. Tell her you can’t remember. Return to your unit and continue documentation. Tiffany’s attention will drift. She’ll gaze at the blackness outside the shatterproof window. More tears will well up in her eyes. Redirect her back to writing about her observations. Tiffany will try to comply, but her page will remain blank. That’s when you’ll know she’s reached her limit. She’ll put down her pen and say she’s not feeling well, or has an early exam, or has to give a friend a ride home—any excuse to get out of there. She’ll collect her belongings from her locker, thank everyone for their help, and say she looks forward to learning more tomorrow. A Mafia Woman will unlock the door for Tiffany, and then roll her eyes once she leaves. The Mafia Women will mock Tiffany and her crying. They’ll refer to her as “The Princess of Wails.” Then they’ll bet you five bucks that she won’t return. Don’t take the bet. Plop down on a sticky couch to finish your documentation. The Mafia Women will disappear, off to visit other Mafioso and spread gossip. Push The Daily Documentation Log aside and relax for the first time of the evening. Nina (The Claw) will pop her head out of her room. She’ll have a tentative look on her face until she realizes that you’re the only staff in the room. Click at her as if you were calling a pony. She’ll respond with a crooked smile and run across the room to you. Let her crawl all over you, she’ll roll around like a kitten. Pat her on the head and stroke her hair. She’ll curl into a ball on your lap and make sounds that resemble purring. Then she’ll grasp your hand and pull it to her face. Caress her cheeks until she falls asleep.
C.C. Frye’s fiction and poetry have won numerous awards including the Mary Louise Rea Short Story Award (2004 & 2005), the Rebecca Pitts Fiction Award (2005), the Creative Writing Fiction Award at IUPUI (2004), and a Creative Writing Award from Purdue University (2005). He works in the human-services field. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Fun for the Dead by Stephen Dunn It was her house before it was their house, and six years into their marriage, he and his wife, in need of a new mattress, got ready to remove the old one. “Something I should tell you,” she said, “under the bed are my parents’ ashes.” And there they were in little boxes. Was it Freud who said, every fuck is a foursome, or is that a rough translation by someone crude? At any rate, that’s what he thought when she told him. What could he do but smile? The two of them, and her Mom and Dad, going at it every time. “I wasn’t keeping that from you,” she said, “it just didn’t dawn on me to tell you.” He believed her, and wanted to think making love was much more inclusive for him now, as, he guessed, it always had been for her. But he wasn’t sure he felt that. Fun for the dead, he revised, or maybe boredom, who knows? She’d said it never was easy to please them.
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Moon Time by Stephen Dunn The moon’s silence was an invitation to invent its powers, so when we were in love we spoke about its influence, and how, even when it had gone to the other side of the world, it was urging us toward each other. And when we remembered it could move oceans, at certain intervals heighten catastrophes— levees broken, towns under water— we found ourselves taking it personally, as if what could bring us together could also destroy us. Once we trusted priests and other expositors of magic to explain it all, then turned to weathermen with timetables and multi-colored charts—men visibly excited that whatever was causing havoc could be traced with a pointer and a smile. Now when the moon is full, disturbing the waters within us, we understand the rise in crime, yet still feel someone else must be responsible, not the real you or real me. After all, don’t lovers feel the moon has wired them perfectly, connecting happy synapse to happy synapse? Day time or moon time, we keep trying to make sense of the senseless and the normal ambivalences of our hearts, in ways that feel right even as we fail. Stephen Dunn is the author of seventeen books of poetry, including the recent Lines of Defense (Norton). His Different Hours was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. His chapbook The Keeper of Limits: the Mrs. Cavendish Poems, will be published by Sarabande in the fall of 2015. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Sailing Through Kabul by Timothy Kenny En route to the Lake Qarhga dam, just past the Kabul Golf Club, I spot a family of five riding on a motorcycle. It is not unusual in Kabul to see three people, usually teenage boys, riding one motorcycle. Sometimes there are four; five is a first. A bearded man who appears to be in his mid-twenties negotiates Kabul’s choking traffic, steering his 90cc bike around potholes and people walking among the cars. A boy about seven rides in front, his hands held flat against the bulge of the bike’s gas tank. Two girls, perhaps four and five, sit behind the driver. A woman swathed in the light-blue burqa of Afghanistan perches at the end of the smoke-spewing machine. She holds a metal bracket behind her with one hand, like a rodeo cowboy who seeks balance on a bucking horse. The girls cling to bungee straps that run around the bike’s underbelly. No one wears a helmet. When I took my daughter Maureen to day care she stood on the crossbar of my bicycle, one hand draped across my shoulder, as we rode the few short yards to the middle of our graduate-student housing complex in Eugene, Oregon. She was three; I was twenty-four. She never fell off and she never got hurt. I was young and confident and put my left arm around her waist and steered one-handed through our parking lot to the day-care center. It’s what I think of when I see this family of five, riding through the traffic and dust of Kabul’s clumsy, battered streets. Cars had no seat belts in the 1970s, when Maureen was thrown roughly to the back floor of our VW bug after another car struck us broadside against the light at an intersection in Eugene. It was the only accident we ever had as a family. No one was hurt badly. Over time I grew more cautious and learned how unknowing children can be. 18
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As my other children came along—Deirdre and Michael and now Caitlin—I took fewer chances with their safety. I learned to look farther down the road until I knew what lay around the bend; not the danger itself, but its possibility. I learned to wait. By that time I was twenty years older than the young Afghan man who steers a small motorcycle carrying his family through Kabul’s rough roads. The bike is traveling about twenty-five miles per hour, slightly faster than our SUV that runs alongside; it is slowed by other vehicles, pedestrians and a clutch of sheep herded by a boy about ten. The motorcycle driver hugs the right side of the road, doing his level best to avoid deep ruts and a ditch built by the Soviets decades ago. It once carried runoff water but is now clogged with garbage, weeds, plastic liter bottles and the carcass of a dead dog. Men in beards who wear traditional Afghan dress—a loose, flowing tunic and pants, called the khet partug—ride bicycles the wrong way down the street, pushing against the flow of vehicles that stacks up tighter. Drivers offer the family no quarter. Two cars cut in front of the motorcycle, forcing the father to brake sharply. All five riders lurch forward, then back; magically, no one falls. The faces of the five Afghanis are expressionless as they ride past, eyes forward. No one appears frightened. As the bike pulls even with our SUV with its smoky windows, I look at the woman who clings to the back of the clattering machine. She turns and glances at me for the briefest of moments, expressionless, as the motorcycle picks up speed and slides by, the folds of her burqa snapping behind her, a light blue sail caught in the wind.
Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive, Fulbright scholar, and college journalism professor. He has traveled widely throughout the Balkans, Western Europe and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, and has lived and worked in Romania and Kosovo. His narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages, (Belfast),The Kenyon Review Online, Green Mountains Review, The Galway Review and elsewhere. A collection of his nonfiction stories is forthcoming from Bottom Dog Press in summer 2015. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Interview 2010 Pulitzer-Prize Winner Paul Harding joins us to watch his beloved and woeful Boston Red Sox and talk about his work. Paul Harding rose to literary prominence with the publication of his first novel, Tinkers. After years of frustration for Harding trying to get it published, the novel was finally brought out by the small New York-based Bellevue Literary Press. In the book, a dying old man whose life has been one of repairing clocks, recalls his life, and his father’s. The book went on to win The Pulitzer and other honors and attention for Harding’s work. Harding is a friendly and talkative man, a former musician who counts among his passions the Boston Red Sox—who, when we chatted with him in August 2014, were in the throes of a last-place season following their 2013 championship season, the precise kind of literary and athletic reversal a fan like Harding can understand. On a warm summer’s night, as the Red Sox went down to their seventieth loss of the season against the Los Angeles Angels, the conversation turned to fiction, his life and career, and more specifically his fine work.
MH: You were always probably a reader and a writer, but before you were published you became a musician. PH: I thought of myself as a writer easily ten years before I ever wrote anything. But I was always a reader. My mother, my grandmother, they’re big readers. My grandmother partially because she never had a college education, and she idealized literature and writing. She’d always say, “The Bible is literature and John Updike is pornography.” But she’d still read him. She’d given me [Updike’s] Pigeon Feathers—that early story collection. So I always remember that literary fiction was something to aspire towards being able to read in the first place. I went to UMass Amherst. I very vividly remember that my exclusive goal for myself in college was—and there weren’t many goals, I wasn’t an ambi20
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tious student—my goal was to become a good enough reader so I could say I’ve read The Sound and the Fury, and I can actually catch a rap about it and not sound like an idiot. I just continued to try to read better books, denser books, longer books, just that ambitious kind of reading. Trying to read Tolstoy, reading Proust. That was like ‘86 to ‘90. I was an undergraduate. So I was really taken up with the magical realists, reading Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carlos Fuentes, all those guys.
player—Julius Lester. These guys all just took classes there, because it was right there, and it was already their politics and their art. I took a yearlong class with Archie Shepp called Revolutionary Concepts in Afro-American Music, and he just played all that Pharaoh Sanders and all that stuff, and took classes in the Harlem Renaissance, and then in Black and White Southern literature. That’s how the Faulkner I knew got incorporated into Zora Neale Hurston. So it was a real catalyst. I was wide open to any of these ideas. Yusef Lateef was teaching at Hampshire. Anyway there was a lot of good music—Max Roach was teaching there—a lot of good literature and a lot of art that was leftist, like social justice, racial justice, labor, all that kind of stuff. They blew me away, and it was enlightening and very cathartic.
MH: Did you have particular teachers who really inspired you in that way? PH: Yeah. It’s a funny thing. This is very circumstantial, so it’s strange. So I came from Wenham, a very small New England village. I went to UMass Amherst, and by the luck of the draw, I ended up roommates with all these really radical dudes from the Upper West Side of New York City whose parents went to Cuba and China and they all went to this radical day camp called Camp Kinderland in Massachusetts. So they all hooked me to radical music, radical literature, and all that sort of stuff. We were so baked all the time and lazy. The building next to the dorm that I lived in with these guys was the AfroAm department at UMass. At the time, James Baldwin was teaching there, Archie Shepp was teaching there—the saxophone MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
MH: Was music a part of your life at this point? PH: Yeah, I’d been playing in bands forever, for sure. So I was doing all that kind of stuff. But playing the music that wasn’t like broken or just power-trio kind of stuff. But I remember reading Carlos Fuentes’ book Terra Nostra. That is a big doorstop of a book. Just in the middle of it one day in my apartment in Northampton, I was actually, literally putting the book down, and just saying, “I want to 21
do this. This is what I want to do. It has the whole world, it has history, it has politics, it has music, it has everything. How do you do this? Where do I sign up? How do I get on to that?” Still I didn’t write for another seven or eight years. But like a lot of writers, your reading hits a critical mass at a certain point, and you want to almost start— my first impulse is towards fiction, where there’s almost some overlap of the same impulse. There are people who want to write fan letters to their favorite whatever—movie stars, musicians, or whatever. I just wanted to start a dialogue with my favorite books. So the first short stories I tried to write all sounded like they were very terrible fourth-rate fiction that had been even more terribly translated from Spanish. I was trying to write Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and all that sort of stuff. I just took a couple of these really, really shady stories. I’d been in the band for a while. I finally graduated in ‘92, and was touring around with the band I was in early ‘92 to’96 or ‘97.
whole time? PH: I was playing drums the whole time. I was a good enough drummer to know what it took to be a great drummer and just knew that was never going to happen that way. So when the band was on a hiatus that proved to be permanent, I tried to write a couple of these short stories, which were really bad. Then I signed up for the whole month, the whole four weeks, at Skidmore College, in the New York Summer Writer’s Institute. MH: What year was that? PH: This was ‘96. Just by the luck of a draw the first teacher I ever had for creative writing was Marilynne Robinson. Within ten minutes of her walking into the room it was just like, “That’s it. That’s the life of the mind, the intellectual, the aesthetic, the spiritual, the soulful—the whole thing—there it is. It’s all pulled together in a way that I can completely relate to and I feel like I can aspire towards.” MH: So when you met Marilynne, she encompassed all of that? PH: Yeah, exactly. When she would lecture, I’d maybe understand 75 percent of what she said, but unlike most of the obscure professors I had, I wasn’t put off by her obscurity; I was inspired by it, because the way that she presented her ideas was so obviously—it was rarefied, but it was also democratic. There was
MH: What was the band called? PH: Cold Water Flat—terrible, whatever. We had fun and we got to tour all around Europe and North America but it was cut cocky power trio stuff but... MH: And you were playing drums the 22
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also something that was very much like, “This is all accessible to you; you just have to do the work to get there,” rather than the kind of very familiar cut-rate, obscure, fake intellectualism there’s a lot of in academia, no matter what your favorite subject is. So, yeah. I submitted this short story to her and she incredibly, generously and gently and with the greatest erudition, just dismantled it in front of me. Rather than being discouraged by it, it actually doubled down on my determination to try and become a writer at that point. So I just undertook to try to write stories. A couple of years later I was able to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop. I think the reason I got in was because of having been such a serious reader. Fairly quickly out of the gate I was able to put things on paper that sounded or looked like stories. You’d know they weren’t. They were terrible. But at the time, the director at Iowa was a guy named Frank Conroy, who was known for his ferocity and intensity. God bless the guy; he saw something in there and they let me in. MH: Was Marilynne a connecting fiber in the beginning in this way? PH: Yeah, it’s funny. Because after being inspired by her for those two weeks at that class at Saratoga, the leap I was making was, “This band thing isn’t working out. I really don’t want to have to get a full-time job. I don’t want a career. What should I do? Maybe grad school. I could try writing.” Then I heard that she taught at the University of Iowa. I thought, “State school, man. State school again. Piece of cake.” I get inside and didn’t even know. I just applied in my ignorance and innocence. To this day, it’s one of those things that— the further it recedes in the rear view mirror, the more astonishing it is to me that I got into Iowa and was able to study with her. MH: I’m going to back you up for a second. What’s curious is, when you went to Skidmore, how did you come to even go to Skidmore? PH: It was the weirdest thing. I don’t even know, MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
conscious of the fact that the first draft is more and more important to me. That’s such a subjective and particular way to write. Any type of writing you do comes with very, very predictable pitfalls, as predictably as it comes with predictable virtues. ”
because during those days—I don’t even remember how I found out about it. Probably wasn’t the internet. I don’t think I had the internet in ‘96. I don’t even know. I actually don’t know. My grandmother paid for it. It was just this incredible act of generosity on her part to cough up the bread for her unemployed, 28-year-old rock-drummer grandson. Just, “Oh you want to be a writer? What good news! That’s so much better than being a drummer!”
drummer where I’d just sit by myself for eight hours and just work on woodshed, they used to call it. It’s just woodshed, just work on your wrist, work on your rudiments and all that. I just didn’t do that with drums, but with writing I was going to do that. I was really willing to go down into the language, its syntax and the structure of sentences and vocabulary. The project of learning how to and then finding the results of putting aesthetic pressure on language to try to find how far can you push expression. That was how I felt when I read Virginia Wolf and Fuentes and all those people, and the poets of course too.
MH: This was the reader grandmother? PH: Yes, exactly. I don’t know. I don’t even remember where I saw—I don’t remember the source for it, but I remember seeing the list of writers, because it was all the people who had been there, they’re loyal to the voyage. It was this amazing group of people. So it was Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Pinsky, Frank Podart, Carolyn Forché, Marilyn Robinson, and Bill Kennedy, of course. It’s just a who’s who of American writers. It really was thirty straight nights of hearing the greatest readings I could ever imagine. It was poetry and fiction, and it was just this full immersion. I felt like I was in over my head the whole time, and I loved it. I just thought it was really, really great, and unlike being a drummer, the prospect of having to sit by myself and work my chops up was fine. It just was, “I’m willing to do this, I want to do this. I want to learn how these people put these things together: poems, stories, novels.” As opposed to drumming, where—as a drummer I was always like, “I want to play in a band. I want to get a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey and do Stones covers or try to do our own songs.” But I never was a kind of
MH: Where did the music intersect? Was the music more of an aside, or did it inform the writing? PH: It totally informed it, because I still write intuitively. I think of first drafts as improvisation. The privilege you have as a writer is that you can improvise the first draft, but then you can go back and revise. Which, I actually think musicians can do. When you read about Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, a lot of that was improvisation. But they went back and refined and were able to sharpen into the ideal version of the vision that the initial inspiration came from. But I think of first-draft writing—that’s when I started to realize the necessity of technical sophistication as a writer. When I went to Iowa, I was very naïve, and I just thought, “Don’t slow me down with grammar or punctuation or any of that sort of stuff. Man, I just don’t fire, baby,” which is a very romantic, but also a very common view about writing. Still that is the source of why people ask, “Can you teach writing? Should you go 24
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prose.” That goes back to the musician thing, which is the idea that you need to know your scales. You need to know your rudiments. You need work your chops up so that you’re constantly evolving the level, the depth, and the sophistication of your first drafts. So when the stuff first comes over the wire, you get better and better and better and more, more aesthetically refined versions of what it is.
to school for writing?” Nobody says, “Should you go to school for acting, painting, dancing?” Of course you do, it’s fine arts. You have to know the technical side. Marilynne Robinson, the last day I was at Iowa, after my exit interview with her, said, “One more thing.” I said, “Yes ma’am?” She said, “You really need to learn how to write grammatically correct MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
That ties into it because I write a particular kind of fiction, which I think of as interrogative. I write in order to learn— it’s a process of revelation. As the prose precipitates onto the page, you’re realizing what it is you’re writing about. So I don’t have anything ahead of time. It’s all just an innocent of what it is that I’m writing. You just improvise and learn how to be right in the moment, right now what is the sentence—what are the nouns, what are the verbs and all that sort of stuff.
dictable virtues. You understand when you write that way you can end up being language-drunk. You can end up with June, moon, spoon kind of bullshit. You can end up doing cartwheels for the reader without having realized that you’ve lapsed into showing off or whatever. So one of the ways I revise is that, because I work on longer narratives, you go for months and months on end without reading your own stuff. I just flip open the laptop, scroll through on page 63, and I just start reading. One of the things that I listen for is my own voice. The second I can hear my own voice, something’s gone wrong. So I’m looking for a total transparency—I forget what the Latin is, but art conceals art. When I teach, I always open up and evolve the idea with the students of trusting your subjects, which is the idea that, if you’re writing about subjects that are truly worth writing about—they’re inexhaustible and they are their own best witnesses. So, your job—it’s not like I’m the artist and I come and sprinkle fairy dust over the subject and then it’s art. If the integrity and the aesthetic value and all that sort of stuff is already in the subject and the subject is inexhaustible, then my job is to be selfless and to just be… my goal is utter transparency, absolute precision with language. Because if the subject is worth writing about, it’s already worth writing about before I’ve come to it. Therefore, all of the integrity lies in the subject. So my job is just to become the amanuensis. My job is just to write as precisely and without any personal inflection about description. Precision of description, total lucidity, total transparency. Now all of this
MH: It’s that quality you hope will stay with the final draft? PH: Absolutely, yeah. Because I think that if it’s interrogative fiction as opposed to, say, declarative fiction or whatever, that’s the way that you make sure that the writing is not pedantic. What you hope is that as you’re putting pressure on the language and on the subject, the vapor trail, the prose that you’re leaving behind as a result of that process when the reader follows you and reads that, will reproduce the experience of revelation rather than be something trivial like, “I’m so smart; I’m this smarty pants.” MH: Do you have, when you’re revising and you now know the answer to the interrogation, how do you maintain that freshness to it? How do you avoid becoming didactic, I guess? PH: It’s all a process. MH: Are you conscious of that? PH: Yeah, I’m conscious of the fact that the first draft is more and more important to me. That’s such a subjective and particular way to write. Any type of writing you do comes with very, very predictable pitfalls, as predictably as it comes with pre26
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is coming out of my own brain. It’s all sort of very subjective, too. There are certain stages in making a work of art, particularly with a longer narrative—with any work of art, any, whether medium, short or long—where there’s a time for being willful and there is a time for being selfless. I feel more and more like in that first draft, where you are improvising, you are trying to achieve utter precision, you are trying not to refract the subject too much through your own personal desires for it, or trying to be self-aggrandizing or whatever it is or trying grand access or whatever. There’s a kind of transparency where I’m just taking dictation; I’m just trying to bear witness to the subject. Hopefully through that process, when you go back and revise things, quality control is already built into the first draft.
much more straightforward. But I wrote Enon as non-linear always as I wrote Tinkers. Usually what it is, is stripping out. If you’re writing that impressionistically, what ends up happening is you have two or three versions of what prove to be the same thing, and there’s one that’s clearly better than the other two. However much you might like certain particular sentences in any given version of a larger passage or paragraph, that’s when you just have to be objective, and say, “There’s three versions of this. This is the best one. The other two just have to get stripped out.” MH: Do these characters come out of people you knew, or these people you knew or these are pure--? PH: Absolutely, yeah. I was very, very self-conscious when I started to write, partially just because of all the very international quality of my favorite writers, and that kind of cosmopolitan 20th century writing. The first novel, which I worked on for three years, was supposed to be an homage to—at the time my two favorite novels—The Magic Mountain and Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra. It was just this crappy, historical costume. It was historical, and I wanted to try to figure out how to write, but I was not a good enough writer to do anything other than make it a costume drama. I had this irrational and very, very preventative reflex about using anything from my own personal experience, partially because in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was just hyper-aware of all sorts of cheesy, confessional memoirs. Not like Augustinian confessions, but like, “I wanted to fuck my dog.” What are you going to do with that? It was that kind of stuff that made the Protestant in me. I don’t know. It was the author just throwing everything in the reader’s lap and not doing
MH: Do you have tricks? I know some people put a note card of a word or sentence to keep themselves on track or to remember what they were feeling in the initial... PH: I am so inefficient as a writer. I totally over-write. I think that’s a consequence: personally what I do is I overwrite. In both Tinkers and Enon, the original first drafts are twice as long as the books and just keep pulling things, “So here it is; there is this cloud,” and you just keep pulling... MH: Are you refining your language or refining your vision? PH: Yeah. It is language, but they’re inseparable at certain points. Because I write impressionistically, I write very non-linear, very pointillistic, whatever. Tinkers is very non-linear, but Enon is MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
I just finally found that degree of separation where it’s based in fact, but it’s not so overdetermined that I don’t know how.
anything artful or intellectual or interesting with it. For years, I wouldn’t admit any personal experience. So as a consequence, my writing was terrible. It was just really, really bad, stilted, self-conscious junk. Then I started trying to write Tinkers. I started to just write nonfiction. I found that when I tried to write about my grandfather’s life, because he was very, very reluctant to talk about his life—those are my begats; that was the book of Genesis. It was like he was my guy, my maternal grandfather. I found that when I tried to write about it in nonfiction, I lacked the ability to assign relative value in the subjects, everything was important, because that’s family, that’s my grandpa. So then, when I went to the generational level of his father, about whom I knew that he had been. I’d made him a tinker and tinker was what he was. In fact, he was a Fuller Brush salesman and had actually left my grandfather’s family when my grandfather was 12, because he had epilepsy and my grandfather’s mother was going to have him sent to an asylum, because they were so poor and she had no other resources. So it’s third generation away from me, so I was able to fictionalize it, because I knew a few facts. But Henry James talks about this a lot, actually, very brilliantly in The New York Edition: you know how he went back to The New York Edition with all those great introductions? In The Aspern Papers he talked about your source being you having just enough for it to aesthetically “Open Sesame” to your imagination, but not so much fact that it’s over-determined for you, and you can’t imagine enough of it. So
MH: The great scene with the grandfather’s seizure, was that family lore? PH: I just totally made that up. I absolutely made it up. I remember when my grandfather was dying. Tinkers has the basic dramatic setting there of the grandfather being brought home to die in his living room, which is true. It’s very strange, because as I was the oldest grandson, my grandmother said, “This is your show; you have to orchestrate your grandfather’s death.” The whole family came in and actually I had to tone things down because people actually acted a lot worse that they do in the book. But I remember there is one moment before he was brought home that my mother asked him, “Did you ever see your father have seizure?” He just lost it. He just choked up, burst into the tears. Suddenly it was like he was eight years old again, watching his parent just completely come apart at the seams, the rivets and the bolts. I didn’t deliberately think about it, but that was actually the scene around which I was dancing a lot of the composition of the book. I think probably by the time that Erika Goldman from Bellevue Literary Press saw it, she was like, “What’s missing is that you have to have the seizure.” I think the very literal, practical reason I was avoiding that was that if it hadn’t been the case that my great grandfather hadn’t had epilepsy, I’d never have written epilepsy, because it was easy to romanticize and all. What I just decided was, I was going to write about it subjectively. I wasn’t going to write about it clinically or pathologically, that sort of thing. It was just going to be moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, “This is literally what is happening,” and not do 28
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any kind of symbolic or interpretative or whatever stuff. It worked out well. It was very strange that I was writing it. To me, it was like digging a ditch, like heavy lifting. I was like, “This is so awful. It’s very difficult to write this prose.” You just go back to this book and say, “What happens next, what happens next, what happens next?” It’s just that fascinating thing about why you’re writing this is just blow-by-blow, boring, terrible stuff? Now, I can actually still go back and read that scene and say, “That worked. I don’t object to…” But it took a lot—I had to write a lot of the other stuff to be able to get to a point where it’s like, “This is a dramatic hub in the story. I have to just write it…” So much of the other book is experiential, just impressionistic. It’s that consciousness, just elaborating itself, whereas that was suddenly stark—there’s no room for processing it. It’s just “boom, boom, boom,” just the brute, physical sort of thing. That worked just on the principle of counterpoint. So much of the rest of the novel is just discursive, the updrafts of consciousness. So you needed that physical, “no place to hide” kind of thing that anchors everything else down. MH: You worked on it at Iowa? PH: No, I actually wrote the short story version of Tinkers before I went to Iowa. It’s like 15 pages. While I was at Iowa, I worked on this other thing that was set in 16th-century Mexico that was supposed to be about the magic man on the ship. The day I left Iowa, that first novel that I was trying to write collapsed. I just turned back to Tinkers, and actually if you look at Tinkers, you could almost literally take the first five pages, the middle five pages, and the last five pages of Tinkers and that’s the original story. MH: So it was in your head for quite a while? PH: Oh, yeah. MH: So how did that translate to Enon? PH: One of the interesting things was, “Here I am now. I’m a writer. I’ve got to write another book MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
I write very non-linear, very pointillistic, whatever. Tinkers is very non-linear, but Enon is much more straightforward. But I wrote Enon as nonlinear always as I wrote Tinkers. Usually what it is, is stripping out. If you’re writing that impressionistically, what ends up happening is you have two or three versions of what prove to be the same thing, and there’s one that’s clearly better than the other two.”
in three years. Can I fit the experience of writing Tinkers over ten years into three? Can I compress the density of experience? It worked, but now I can look at Enon in a way and look at Tinkers and think, “It would have been nice to have ten or fifteen years to just process.”
it was. Then I just started to write about it. At first I thought it was great, because I thought, “I’ve got a Hawthorne. I’ve got a New England ghost story.” Then it just turned into “He’s lost his child. This is incredibly tragic. It’s that strange thing where the writer’s first impulse was to not write it, because it’s the danger of cliché, the danger of being maudlin, of sentimentality, of bathos. It’s the razor’s edge. Then you think that’s why you should try to write it. That’s too hard. How can you pull that off? That’s what I tried to do. I tried to discipline the writing, because this happens to people. That’s one of the things that—I became loyal to him because I was loyal to a number of friends who have lost children. Actually, while I was writing the book, two fairly close friends lost only children. Even then you just think, “Oh, no, I should really stop writing this, but at the same time, I really can’t fuck this up, because if my friends who have lost only children read this and they detect one false note, one bit of bullshit...” To me I can think about it theoretically, which is the idea of, “Why bother trying to make anything less than everything that’s at stake?” I’d rather fuck Enon up than say, “I’m going to try something safer than to write Tinkers 2.” Artistically, there’s something reassuring when I feel like whatever project I’m working on is too difficult for me to write, then I’m not a good enough writer to do it. Because that’s the cool things about art. The only way you can become a good enough artist is to actually try the thing. You can’t learn how to write the book theoretically. You just have to do it. You have to try it, see what happens. So then the circumstances of Tinkers doing
MH: Was there something about the three years that maybe made it better? PH: Possibly, I just didn’t know there was no time to be precious about it. You just had to get to it, you’ve got to hit it. You’ve just got to wake up and every day and—a thousand words a day, you do, and you are actually writing it. You’ve just got to nail it. What I had with Tinkers was I had the whole book, and I couldn’t get it published. So it was basically that I had years to hang with what I would have published, if I had been able to. Enon is the book I wrote in those three years that I wrote it, published it, and went on to the next thing. MH: Was Enon in your head at all prior to that? PH: No definitely not, absolutely not. Enon came to me as a weird visual image. Kara Walker did that big sculpture in sugar called “Sugar Baby.” She started off doing silhouettes. She did paper-cut out silhouettes, Antebellum silhouettes that when you first look at them, it looks like it’s Gone With The Wind and you look closer and it’s all like rape, miscegenation, whatever: just all the taboos and shit. So the first idea for Enon came to me like a visual image of a black-paper cutout or just a silhouette of a hill studded with gravestones, and there was a figure at the top of the hill, and the moon. I just knew all at once that it was Charlie at the Enon cemetery, and that his daughter had died, and he was sneaking behind her grave. It was the strangest thing, and there 30
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so well, and then the big follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize. You just think, “Whatever.” I’m lucky that’s my problem in life. Just do it. Just try it. Just try this thing, see what happens. You have to be optimistic in the sense of, “If a piano doesn’t fall on my head someday, there’ll be four or five other books. All of these things will be together in this larger project or this larger life lived trying to make books. MH: Do you remember the interview with Michael Cunningham after he won for The Hours? They asked him what the best thing about winning the Pulitzer was, and he said it was the only time that he has ever been able to write the next book exactly how he wants to write. PH: There you go. You’re like, “This is it. Here it is.” The only time he said he had complete freedom without anybody telling him, whispering in his ear what he should be writing. Because you have the Pulitzer; you know what you’re doing. It was different for me because it was the first book. It’s almost like, “Paul Who?” So you come out, you’re supposed to be in the bag of proverbial chips. It’s been strange, because I’m not a famous author; Tinkers is a famous book. So I’m this anonymous guy behind this book. MH: Did you work with the editor of Random House? PH: Yeah, Susan Kamil. MH: Did you work with the editors quite a bit there? PH: I did. She was great. She’s a really, really good editor.
PH: Erika Goldman at Bellevue was a very hands-on editor. With good editors, I feel like what they do is they’re empathetic readers of the manuscript. So they just read the manuscript. They don’t tell you, “I think she should have a cat.” They just asked you questions. Susan Kamil is running Random House and, whatever those other capacities, as an editor she was very similar, at least in terms of approach, to Erika Goldman. She’d point out places and she’d say, “You know those ten pages where this is…there’s something funky. It’s off by a half tone.” MH: It’s been a journey. PH: I can almost step back and look at it and say, “Wow, it’s really cool that I get to do this for my life.” I’m very fortunate. Right before Bellevue accepted Tinkers, it literally came down to two weeks; I was leaving Harvard. Harvard wouldn’t let me teach there anymore because I taught for seven years as a preceptor. I tried to be a writer, and couldn’t get anything published. I tried to get Tinkers published for six or seven years. My job at Harvard was ending. I was like, “I really guess I’m not going to be a writer.” It was that kind of... Then Tinkers got accepted. I was like, “Oh, something good.” When I couldn’t get Tinkers published, I just decided I’m going to make art just for art’s sake. It was very liberating, because I was like, “If I’m just going to make art just for art’s sake, what am I going to write?” You write whatever you want. So I had habituated myself to just writing whatever I wanted. Then when Tinkers did what it did, I felt like, “Good. Just keep doing that. Something is working.”
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Last Car Running Christine Pearl This series of photographs is about the rural demolition derby culture, a group of people who work with what they have, as they embrace the charm of destruction. This ongoing project explores the overlooked recreation, entertainment and leisure activities of rural, working-class America, often referred to as “white trash” or “rednecks.” In the process of grinding steel, burning rubber and showering sparks they fulfill their American dream; a dream of creating the indestructible car that is the last car running. This body of work reflects on the thrill of the journey and the symbol of individual freedom the automobile promises each of us.
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Nick’s Car, Gaithersburg, Maryland 2013 Interior view of a derby car ready for the hard hits of the derby. Anything that could break off during impact, especially the glass, has been removed to avoid injury. The door, the hood and the trunk have been chained in place so they can’t fly open or break off during the derby. The gas tank has been removed and a fivegallon steel tank is installed in the interior to reduce risk of a fire.
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Day at the Derby, Upperco, Maryland 2012 Father and son spend the day together at the derby. The demolition derby is an all day family event where socializing is as much a part of the derby as the event itself in rural communities.
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Pit Pass, Cumberland, Maryland 2014 View of the bleachers in the pit at the Allegany County Fair. At most demolition derbies a Pit Pass can be purchased for an additional fee giving the viewer an experience closer to the drivers, cars and the derby. This is where girlfriends, wives and serious derby followers watch the event. For this crowd watching the derby from the grandstand would be considered “pedestrian.”
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The Pit at Night, Fredrick, Maryland 2012 A driver and his crew are making repairs to a derby car between heats at the Fredrick Fair. Most drivers are skilled mechanics and repairs are made in record time with little to no light except a handheld flashlight.
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Derby Eyes, Cumberland, Maryland 2013 The line up for the six-cylinder heat at the Allegany County Fair. Hanging out in the line up before the heat is part of the social scene at any derby.
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Ray’s First Run, Gaithersburg, Maryland 2013 A nervous Ray behind the wheel at the Montgomery County Fair for his first derby run. Ray works at an auto junk yard in Pennsylvania and has been building derby cars for years.
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Last Car Running, Cumberland, Maryland 2012 With the view of the grandstand in the background, the end of the derby is typically a smoky sight. The driver who has the last car running is the winner of the derby.
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RT, Cumberland, Maryland 2012 A driver using a sledge hammer on the roof of his car with his crew looking on between heats at the Allegany County Fair. A sledge hammer, the most important tool in the pit, is used to harden (or strengthen) the metal of the car.
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Legs, Budds Creek, Maryland 2013 A rite of passage for girlfriends (or crew) of the derby drivers is to ride to the line up from the pit sitting on the door of the car, where the glass has been removed and the doors chained shut.
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Hit Me, Budds Creek, Maryland 2014 The back end of a station wagon at the Silver Hills Lions Club Demolition Derby. The final touch in preparing any derby car is spray painting messages on the car. The messages may be a tribute to family members and friends or something fun like this one.
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After 25 years as a project manager in the design and construction industry Christine Pearl picked up a camera in 2010 as a way to face the onset of her disability and accompanying limited mobility. She utilizes her experience working with the design process and interaction with people as a starting point to make photographic images. She is an emerging photographer whose photo essay Last Car Running was featured in the April 2013 issue of Photo Technique Magazine’s UNDEREXPOSED, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2013 Projections Program and the September 2014 issue of Don’t Take Pictures. Recent awards include Juror’s Choice Award for the Contrast Exhibition at PH21 Gallery in Budapest, Hungary, 2nd Place in the New Creativity Exhibition at the New York Center for Photographic Arts and selection by the International Art & Artists for a solo exhibition at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, D.C., November 2014. Christine lives in Washington, D.C.
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Rainbows by S. Frederic Liss For me, the concrete had already set. At least that’s what Mom said while she wrapped a grilled-cheese sandwich in tin foil the day I told her my secret, the day she banished me from her life, apologizing and denying responsibility in the same breath. You’re street legal, she said, so I’m not contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Mom had a world of pity for everyone, but none for her son. Now, years later, entombed in the hospice, I do not know what agitates me more, the cold glare of the fluorescent lights or the incessant buzz of the light fixture. The buzz stings like a swarm of angry bees attacking the only obstacle on their flight path back to the hive. The cold fluorescent glare energizes the scabs on my arms and they crawl along my skin, spreading their beauty. If I had the strength, I would salute the genius who banned mirrors from the patient’s rooms. Once, I caught a wayward glimpse of my face. Like a cadaver, I said to Terrence, my private caregiver. A good caregiver, Terrence knows better than to lie to me. When Terrence first appeared, I told him I couldn’t pay. I have no money, no insurance, I said. It’s taken care of, Terrence assured me. Who, I asked, but he shrugged his shoulders and said the agency’s bookkeeper handled the business end. I would call the bookkeeper if I had the strength. An aide knocks on my door and tells Terrence I have a visitor, a woman with silver-gray hair braided to her waist. She claims she’s his mom, the aide says, but she’s not on his visitor’s list. I hate it when the aides talk to Terrence as if I’m not here. Terrence asks if I want to see her and my head shakes no. The aide returns a few minutes later and tells Terrence the visitor will return tomorrow. A short list, my visitor’s list, Big Butch, Tiny Butch, Wedgie, all dead. Saves me from disappointment. 44
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Day after day, she returns; day after day Terrence attempts to persuade me to change my mind; but the harder he pushes, the harder I push back. Sneaking a visitor in against my wishes violates hospice protocol. My room is my sanctuary. I am lord of my domain, controlling access as if I am King Antonio I, except for the doctors and nurses and hospice staff who treat me like a butterfly pinned in a museum display case. Let the braided-haired lady wait to collect her dead butterfly. At least I won’t know I’m a specimen. Her appearance after so many years shakes loose the memory of the morning she met with the divorce attorney. For her appointment, she washed and braided her hair, entwining ropes of hair the color of honey wheat bread until they reached her waist. She knotted her braid with a rawhide strip salvaged from the broken laces of her work boots. She liked the way the knot bounced against the small of her back when she walked. It lets me know my head’s still screwed on straight, she used to say. I try to banish the memory, but it infects my mind like an advertising jingle that won’t fade away. At the foot of my bed, Terrence senses my anxiety. He closes his book, part of a multi-volume French novel. Proust, he said when I asked him what he was reading. In Search of Lost Time. Terrence reads me well. Better than anyone I’ve ever known. Better than Wedgie. He died a few years back, Wedgie did, of what’s killing me now. I was well enough then to go to his funeral, but stayed home because his parents didn’t know about us. They believed he never married because of a low sperm count and I didn’t want to spoil their mourning. Later, I visited his grave, my last excursion outside the hospice. Terrence wheelchaired me up the cemetery path and waited under an oak tree blessed by autumn colors, peak foliage, while I said a made-up prayer inside my head and paid my respects. Augustus LaSalle Flanders; his parents didn’t call him Wedgie. No dates of birth or death, no age in years. Maybe they feared condemnation for having a son who died before his time, if thirty-five was before his time. I want dates on my marker, date of birth, date of death. Let the world know forty was part of the future I did not have. Sometimes I ask Terrence to read to me from his book. His voice, heavy and deep for someone so slight, reassures me; but the sentences are long, convoluted, and I lose track of the beginning before he gets to the end and doze off. Comic books and graphic novels were more my speed. Pictures, not words, except for nonsense letters intended to mimic sounds. Blat and splat were my favorites, ke-e-e-ronk a close third. Now I have the attention span of a one panel daily comic strip. That morning, the morning mom met with the divorce attorney, she wore her leather jacket with the Harley-Davidson logo. She looked as intimidating as the soldieristas in the Soldieristas of Fortune video game my dad, Big Butch, let me, Little Butch, play on the weekends we spent with him. The soldieristas wore cartridge belts over their shoulders, barely encasing their bulging breasts behind steel tips that exploded hearts and brains. Salvage MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
ammo from a dead soldierista and ogle a flash of bare tit, the game within the game that kept the hands of twelve-year-olds like me glued to the joystick. Mom had overheard me razzing Bobby Galeota, whose parents banned video games like Sodieristas of Fortune. I pity my future daughter-in-law, Mom lamented. She pitied herself. She pitied Tiny Butch, my kid brother, six by the calendar, which showed how much the calendar knew. She pitied everyone but me as if I were beyond pity. Her pity, at least. It’s funny, no tragic, the way kids work so hard to live up to the image they think their folks have of them. Terrence dampens a facecloth with warm water and pats my cheeks and forehead, then lifts my head so I can sip some orange juice, pulp free, through a straw, as watered down as me. The citric acid in the juice stings and I wonder how long it will be before I have to give up OJ, one of the curses of a death that comes in baby steps. That morning, Mom stuffed papers for the attorney in a plastic shopping bag with the logo of the Korean greengrocer where I worked stocking shelves, a stylized shopping cart filled with a rainbow of smiling fruits and vegetables. Pay cash, the grocer said when he hired me. No tax. Better for you. At twelve, I had never heard of minimum wage laws. The smiley faces were a joke because the cashiers and clerks never smiled and the customers frowned and scowled. Whether it was the high prices, the decayed produce, the filth in the aisles, or the flies who lived in the light fixtures, there was little to smile about. Still, Mom shopped there because they accepted food stamps and the money she saved buying out-of-date food, when added to the few dollars I earned and the food I stole, helped her stay ahead of the rent and utility bills, but not far enough ahead to send Tiny Butch to therapy. If there were no health emergencies over the winter, if the car didn’t need a brake job or new tires, if the attorney didn’t charge too much, maybe by the middle of the next construction season she would have the money. She hoped, I figure, the concrete in Tiny Butch’s head would not have set too hard by then, but it had, harder than mine. That morning, after zipping the leather jacket, she squared herself in front of the mirror. Look tough, feel tough, be tough, was her mantra, as tough as she could look driving a beige Corolla with body rot. A collection of Tiny Butch’s Happy Meal boxes covered the back seat, hiding the rips and tears, the stains and dirt. A pinhole in the muffler made the Corolla sound like a motorcycle with a bad head cold. That morning, Tiny Butch, had a bad head cold, the kind of cold that would kill me today. That’s why they keep my room so warm, so I won’t die outside the diagnosis. Die outside the diagnosis means lawyers and lawsuits. It makes us worth more dead than alive. I always wanted to die rich, but Terrence won’t open the window. Mom had blown through her credits in the baby-sitting co-op and needed to preserve the few she had left for work and other emergencies. She 46
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bundled Tiny Butch in the parka with the New England Patriot squatting over a football, a Christmas gift to Big Butch from Grumps, what Big Butch called his dad, when he was Tiny Butch’s age. There was no sentiment, no sense of family heirloom, in the passing of this parka from Big Butch to me to Tiny Butch, just the necessity of warmth against a cold November wind and a bank account too threadbare to buy a parka with the New England Patriot as Elvis logo. Tiny Butch slept in that parka and, years later, buried my nephew in it, a stray bullet from a mob hit. A few weeks after the funeral when Tiny Butch was gunned down, I put two and two together and realized he had been the target. It runs in the family, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dad, by then as beat up and broken down as mom’s old Corolla, tried to avenge his son and grandson; but, for his trouble, he ended up at the bottom of the river he had been dunked in when he went holy. If the parka was all that Tiny Butch inherited from Dad, Mom would have been satisfied; but, lately, she had seen hints of Dad’s temper in Tiny Butch, little hints, six-year-old-size hints, walloping his mashed potatoes with a closed fist so they scattered around the kitchen, kicking the nearest chair or table when I wouldn’t let him play with the football video game Mom did allow in the house. I acted up the same way when I was six and Mom knew Tiny Butch was at a crossroads, either slam on the brakes before his pattern of behavior set like concrete at the construction jobs she worked, or let loose a third Big Butch into the world; but therapists cost money and construction had slowed for the winter and unemployment didn’t pay enough to cover therapy and Dad’s child support check was always in the mail, never in the mailbox. Terrence reads me the scene with the madeleine. It’s one of the most famous scenes in French literature, he tells me, then quickly adds, in all literature. He explains it to me, but it makes no sense. I tried to bake a batch once, he says. Followed Proust’s recipe. Impossible. The cookie didn’t crumble the way Proust wrote. I miss the chocolate chip cookies I stole when I worked at the greengrocer’s, but I’m off solids now because the risk of choking is too high. Death by baby steps. That morning, the morning Mom went to the attorney, she wrapped Tiny Butch’s neck in a scarf. The prickly wool made him fidget and he tried to kick her, but she had positioned herself outside his range and he kicked air instead. Tiny Butch lapsed into one of his periodic silences, another trait of Dad’s, but this time Mom welcomed it since the alternative would have been more whining than a pack of tired six-year-olds. She covered his nose and mouth with a surgical mask. In a magazine, Healthy Children, she had read that mothers in China used surgical masks to protect their children from germs and air pollution. Here, the doctors and nurses wear surgical masks, not to protect me from their germs, but them from mine. Superstition over science. Makes no more sense than Mom’s covering Tiny Butch’s mouth and nose. In his silent mode, he didn’t protest. Maybe it was because Halloween MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
had been a few days earlier and he thought Mom was costuming him to look like a doctor. Right. Tiny Butch saw everything as a subterfuge. Another of Dad’s traits. The call had come in, I found out after it was too late, while Mom was waiting in line at the deli counter in the greengrocer where I worked. The clerk, the owner’s second or third son, had taken a liking to me, the wrong kind of liking, or so I thought at the time, and threw in extra slices after weighing Mom’s order. Ahead of Mom in line was a middle-aged woman whose hair looked as if it had been colored by an astigmatic beautician, a zig of gray, a zag of black, splotches of white that exploded like comic-book stars. Before the separation, before my concrete had set, there had been money for art lessons, but Dad believed only fags drew pictures and dragged me to the gym to learn the manly art of boxing. There’s money in these, he said, pounding his fists into his palms, right, left, right left, especially if you’re white. The next great white hope, he called me, the Italian Stallion. Dad was as original as last year’s news. I preferred Antonio, my birth name, but mom had chosen Antonio over his veto so he called me Little Butch, which she hated. Dad bitched that names ending in vowels were sissy names. Like Tony Soprano, I asked. Good old Big Butch. If he had heard of Picasso, who fucked his models before and after painting them, maybe he would have paid for art lessons. For the two of us. When he figured out why all my models were male, I would have needed the boxing lessons. Too thick, the woman in front of mom said when the clerk displayed the slices. The woman had ordered eight two-ounce portions of American cheese, individually wrapped. Thin as I can slice it. Too thick. The woman harrumphed away as if the thickness was a personal rebuke. Mom said she’d take it. Wrap it all together, she said. Mom loved American cheese, maybe because it had no taste, no flavor, no color. The last slice I ever ate was the day she kicked me out, a grilled-cheese sandwich for the road, she said. Later, American cheese made me sick. Lactose intolerant, the doctor diagnosed, a side effect of the drugs I take to prolong my useless life; but I knew, if he didn’t, that it was all in my head. The caller ID on Mom’s cell phone that day announced Penny Esposito, the divorce attorney. I called her Penny-wise because she displayed a framed needlepoint on her desk which said, My thoughts cost more than a penny. Are they worth more than a penny, I asked Mom. What did I know? I was only twelve and still playing Soldieristas of Fortune for flashes of bare tit. Penny-wise, if memory serves me, had little to flash. Your husband’s attorney served me with court papers, Penny-wise said. I still can hear her voice. It had the elevated huffiness of a person who had no control over her own life so reveled in playing with the lives of others. To her, Mom’s life was a windup toy that staggered along the floor like a college freshman at his first drunk. Not that I went to college, but I janitored 48
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in a dorm for a few years and came to hate the first weekend of the fall semester the way so-called Christians hate people like me. He’s going after custody, Penny-wise added. I told you to not to touch that rainbow flag business with a ten-foot pole. Penny-wise spoke in clichés because, as she often pontificated, a cliché wouldn’t be a cliché if it weren’t a truth. Yeah, and there are people who believe paintby-numbers kits produce great art. God’s Way Salvation Church put him up to it, Mom told Penny-wise. After the separation, Dad joined one of those churches where they dip you in the river before they let you in the front door, faking being born again to gull the divorce court. Too bad the judge didn’t see him before his rebirth. Too bad the dozen preachers at Salvation Church didn’t see him either. They would have drowned Big Butch in that river and saved the gang the trouble. Before the big dip, and after when Dad wasn’t in church, whenever the word God escaped his lips it was followed first by damn then by motherfucker or cocksucker, or both, depending on his mood or the time of day or whether his underwear was too loose or too tight. Dad hatched the custody scheme. I told that to two judges, under oath, in juvie court and divorce court, but the Salvation Church preachers sitting in the back of the courtroom with their Bibles and crosses and bowed heads decreed me a liar by their presence. Dad’s lightbulb lit up, I testified, when I told him how Linda Zernicka, the school nurse at Courbet Middle School, my school, hung a rainbow flag outside her office. Linda had a rack that attracted twelve-year-old boys and forty-year-old men the way melted ice cream attracted ants. Walk by her office and there were always four or five of us smirking at each other while we waited to have our temperatures took, our foreheads felt, legs slightly parted so she could see the bulge in our laps. Dad taught MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Funny thing is, sometimes now when my fever spikes and I totter on delirium I see those dozen preachers ringing my bed like druids at Stonehenge begging me to renounce my lifestyle and repent before God flings my sorry ass into the bottomless pits of Hell.”
me how to give myself a fever so she would call him to pick me up. If I were really sick, I would’ve died before he finished flirting. If Mom were a fly on the wall, she would have pitied poor Linda. Funny thing is, sometimes now when my fever spikes and I totter on delirium I see those dozen preachers ringing my bed like druids at Stonehenge begging me to renounce my lifestyle and repent before God flings my sorry ass into the bottomless pits of Hell. Terrence waves his arms and walks around my bed and assures me no one is there, but they leap out of the way as if he were the ball in a game of dodgeball. I don’t know what upsets me more, the condemnation in their voices or their “I told you so” attitude. If there was ever a time for me to become a believer, it would be now, being that I’m on the threshold of meeting my Maker, as Penny-wise would put it. If God really exists, Salvation Church wouldn’t. That’s my bottom line. I’m betting it’s the Maker’s, too. Linda hung a rainbow flag, I testified at both hearings, so kids who felt harassed because of their sexual orientation would know the nurse’s office was a safe haven where they were welcome. A body like hers, we used to joke, would drive the fag out of faggot. How little I knew back then, being only twelve and abusing myself daily to Soldieristas of Fortune. The Salvation Church organized an anti-rainbow flag campaign. God gave Noah the rainbow sign, the twelve preachers thundered. No more water, the fire next time. Congregants flooded the local newspaper with letters denouncing the rainbow flag as promoting the fag agenda, using more polite terms so the editor would publish them. Parents called for a school boycott, arguing that the school had no right to involve itself in issues of sexuality, that such issues properly remained between parent and child. Politicians invoked God and sin and the decay of the American way of life, blaming Democrats and liberals and secularists who wanted to ban God from public life. One of the letters had Dad’s name, but I knew he didn’t write it because the sentences were coherent and the words were spelled right. On the other hand, Mom’s pity cup ran over, first, in a letter to the paper, then at a hearing before the school board. The safety zone, the rainbow flag, she said, promoted tolerance and diversity and gave students who faced issues of sexual preference at a vulnerable time in their lives a sense of acceptance they desperately needed. Mom didn’t mean it. She was just being contrary to Dad, venting the bile she withheld from me so she wouldn’t pop like an overblown balloon. I wonder if that’s why I did what I did. Or, maybe I was scared Dad would beat the shit out of me if I didn’t. Or, maybe, I did it because I wanted to. It seemed so harmless at the time, a prank so common that Nelson Muntz and the other bullies on The Simpsons played it on Bart or Milhouse once or twice a season.
Mom was still in line at the deli counter waiting for the clerk to wrap 50
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the American cheese sliced too thick for Madam Harumph when the second call came in, from Principal Van Dorn at Courbet Middle School. There has been an incident, he said. Years later, before I took sick, a friend who owed me a favor snuck the trial record out of the courthouse archives and I read a transcript of Van Dorn’s testimony about their conversation. What kind of incident? Is Antonio okay? Is he hurt? He’s not hurt. I’ll be right there. You may pick up Antonio at the police station. Van Dorn also testified about meeting with Mom the next morning. Your son gave a wedgie to Augustus LaSalle Flanders. According to the court stenographer, Van Dorn clenched his fist and jerked his hand skyward. I know what a wedgie is, Mom said. Augustus suffered testicular trauma, Van Dorn testified, causing considerable discomfort and an abnormally low sperm count. Objection, Penny-wise said. The witness is not a doctor. Overruled, said the judge. Antonio gets rowdy at times, Principal Van Dorn said Mom said. This is more than boys being boys. Augustus is one of several students who take advantage of the rainbow flag safe haven. He is not the first that Antonio has harassed, just the first seen by a reliable witness. Under the school-board guidelines we have to refer this to a court of law. For a dumb prank he’s too young to understand? He referred to Augustus with a homophobic term and mouthed off to the teacher and me. He understood. Van Dorn handed Mom an envelope. Your son is suspended until this is resolved in a court of law. From that day on, everyone in school called Flanders Wedgie, including, or so Wedgie believed, several of his teachers. School was one ricochet after another, being slammed against the lockers as he rushed between classes, having his tray upended in the cafeteria check-out line, one hard foul after another during the basketball games in gym. Guys he grew up with, whose birthday parties he went to when he was in the third or fourth or fifth grades, now chanted W-e-e-e-e-d-d-d-d-g-g-g-g-i-i-i-i-e-e-e-e in the corridors, on the school bus, in class when the teacher wasn’t paying attention, at Doria’s where we played the video games our parents wouldn’t allow in the house such as Soldieristas of Fortune. Years later, after Flanders and I coupled, I still called him Wedgie. For what we did, sperm count didn’t much matter. Juvie court, a joke and a half. The morning of my hearing, pickets faced off outside the courthouse like two football teams at the line of scrimmage. Police escorted Wedgie and his family into the building as if he were a head of state at risk for assassination. I strutted beside Dad, my show MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
of bravery induced by the fear of being mistook for one of them rainbow flag lovers. Mom, accompanied by Penny-wise, followed two or three steps behind, too ashamed to walk beside me. Pity, no; shame, yes. If I had the time, I’d cash in on this memoir craze, but the absurdity of hospice life is I have all the time in the world. And I have none. The juvie judge ordered a year’s probation and the divorce judge transferred custody of me and Tiny Butch to Big Butch whose piety, the divorce judge hoped, would rub off on us. You threw out the baby with the bath water, Penny-wise said to Mom. What Penny-wise didn’t understand was that to Mom, Tiny Butch was the baby and I was the bath water. Big Butch did teach us piety, but not to religious duties and practices. I suffered two years, then ran away. My sexual orientation wouldn’t navigate on his compass. Tiny Butch never forgave me for abandoning him. Mom, as I said before, whirlpooled me down the drain with a grilled cheese sandwich. Outside my door, an aide rolls an empty gurney down the corridor. Its straps dangle by its sides like the arms of a dead torso. Terrence starts reading out loud. He’s thoughtful that way, trying to distract me; but I am beyond distraction. Minutes later, the gurney returns, bearing a body bag, bulbous and bloated, restrained by the straps, hospice protocol, patients whether living or dead must be restrained while being transported by gurney. I twist my head toward the glass of OJ, and Terrence positions the straw between my lips. The sting makes me wince. The pain reminds me I’m alive. I sink into a semi-sweet trance. Death by baby steps. Terrence pauses to catch his breath. It’s a long sentence, he says. It runs over on to a second page, a third. So many words, they hypnotize me. In my stupor, I watch myself sleep. Terrence shaves me, an old-fashioned shave, a barbershop shave: hot towels, heated lather, first pass with the grain, second pass against, third to tidy up what he missed, then a lotion, thick and soothing, aromatic. I feel it seeping into my skin. I’m ready for a hot date, I whisper to Terrence. Thanksgiving approaches and Terrence decorates my room with a cardboard turkey. It’s Thanksgiving, he says. Let her visit. I shake my head. He takes down the cardboard turkey and starts reading to me from the second volume of that French novel. I don’t get how one man could produce so many words, but Terrence assures me one man did. Where I grew up, a fist in the face was worth a thousand words. Maybe things would have turned out different if a picture was worth a thousand words, but I doubt it. At noon, Terrence tunes into a radio station that plays Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Masacree, the long version, every Thanksgiving at 12. It was before my time, Vietnam, Nixon, Arlo Guthrie. Thank God. Later, after more words, Terrence spoon-feeds me a small bowl of pumpkin soup, really pie filling or pudding watered down and heated up, and we watch a few minutes of football before I doze off and he returns to his words. Not his words. Proust’s words. Proust’s memory downloaded into words. What of my memory, I who lack words? 52
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My memory will never be downloaded. I will not outlast the search for lost time. But, a memory does appear. A poster of a T-Rex. Tiny Butch was into dinosaurs as a six-year-old. He fancied himself a raptor, fast and fierce, always on the hunt. He watched Jurassic Park on video until the tape wore thin and broke, then begged me to shoplift him a new one, threatening to eat me in my sleep if I didn’t. I stole the entire trilogy, but he rarely watched the other two. Raptors chase me along a jungle path, Tiny Butch the lead raptor. Real raptors, not computer-generated. In the distance, a clearing, a building, the lab where clones are born. A woman opens a door. She wears her hair in a braid, waist length, the color of honey wheat bread. Cartridge belts crisscross her breasts, steel-tipped cartridges, the kind that explode hearts and brains. Behind her, a rainbow, incandescent, radiant. It sets fire to my eyes. The raptors bear down on me, their eyes ablaze with hunger. I wave at Tiny Butch. He does not wave back. I am his Thanksgiving dinner, his and the raptors’, appetizer, main course, desert, a beverage to wash it down. The woman beckons me, offers her arm. We step on to the rainbow together. My feet sink into it. It’s cold and wet, like unset concrete, like beach sand in winter. The colors tickle my feet and I laugh. She smiles and closes the door behind us. The latch clicks. The raptors jiggle it. They claw at the door. They butt it with their heads. The door rattles, bows and buckles, but holds. The raptors fall silent. On the other side of the door, Terrence screams. I scream with him.
S. Frederic Liss has published or has forthcoming 35 short stories and has received numerous awards and other forms of recognition for his short fiction including The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction, the James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; and the Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost. Liss has also been published in the Saturday Evening Post, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Liss earned a MFA from Emerson College, Boston, and was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, in Boston, where he leads a workshop in writing fiction. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Masks for Facial Disfigurement by Kate Fox I. Kathleen Scott Is Called into Service “Men without noses are very beautiful, like antique marbles.” —Kathleen Scott, Sculptor, to Sir Harold Gillies, Plastic Surgeon Tonks, himself a surgeon, sketched delicate pastels to chart Gillies’ progress, expressions fixed as a clock, except where tendons floated beneath a cheekbone, where a nose had been torn away by shrapnel, skin and cartilage grafted from the forehead. It became my calling, wounds so raw only artifice could bind them: leather harness, plaster casts, painted masks exquisite as anything I ever sculpted: eggshell thin, yet durable as Rodin’s massive statue, embryonic body bent on the brink of thinking, each feature buttressed against gravity. I was told not to flinch. Surgeons and sculptors share some traits: a keen eye, steady hand, sharp tools, the nerve to use them.
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II. Captain Taggart and the Scotts Visit the Insect House “He wanted to make love to her, so she took him to the zoo with Peter instead to see the insect house. —from A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott Chestnut hair swept into a pompadour, hands and mind so much like a man’s that my desire unnerved me more than her fingers mapping the knotted scars, plastercloth wound tight as a gas mask, then clay to model eye socket, nose, scorched chin. So naturally I fell in love with her, entered the exhibit where we pored over millipedes, leaf cutters, tapped the glass to rouse tarantulas dormant as hand grenades, as Peter raced from bristletail to dung beetle to thrip before the Latin names of moths caught his interest: “Ach-er-on-tia at-ro-pos,” he sounded out, as his mother studied the emblem between the wings, added musculature, tendons, layers of skin, as I watched Crumley’s head, cracked like a walnut, come to rest beside me on the sandbag, all sweetmeats and smoking flesh, before the boy began to tug at my coat sleeve, “May I see? May I see?” I lifted him chest-high, as his mother read: The death’s head hawkmoth. From Acheron, river of death, and Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread. “Do you see it, Peter?” He nodded. “A skull. Like poison. Or pirates. Or like yours, Captain Taggart, which my mother thinks is quite lovely.”
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Robert Falcon Scott’s Widow, State Dinner, 1916 by Kate Fox “You must be tickled to death by the news about your husband.” —A Dinner Guest, Addressing Kathleen Scott Every tongue in London clucks “Shackleton,” supplanting the dead at Verdun, the Dublin uprising, zeppelins, incendiaries, mustard gas—another failed British hero unfurled, as some nitwit dignitary congratulates me on the return of my husband. I reach for my napkin, pitched like a tent on the bone china, as Asquith instinctively raises his glass. “To the brave Polar explorers!” he declares, omitting the specifics: the Norwegian flag, the horsemeat (hoosh), 80-knot winds, scurvy, and, of course, the bodies, eight months preserved “in the heart of the Barrier snow,” greeting the search party fully intact. I made Cherry-Garrard describe them all: Bowers, at rest like a babe in bunting, frost branching like wisteria over the roof of the tent, Wilson, arms crossed, “a blue look of hope” in his eyes, and my Con, the last to die, burning what paraffin was left to write “I wasn’t a very good husband, but I hope I shall be a good memory….Make the boy interested in natural history if you can…” before struggling out of his winter gear in the incongruous heat of freezing. I imagine the glacier’s slow crawl to the sea and lift my glass: to Peary, to Amundsen, to Ross, to Shackleton, to the rest of us, surviving the worst. Kate Fox’s poems have appeared in the Great River Review, New Virginia Review, Valapraiso Review, West Branch, and Green Mountains Review, among others. Her most recent chapbook, Walking Off the Map, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in March 2015. She earned her Ph.D. in American literature with an emphasis in creative writing from Ohio University. 56
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In Flutter, fifteen year-old Lily shape-shifts into a boy to get the girl. Over the course of the series, Lily experiences all the chaos that comes from pretending to be someone sheâ€™s not. She also learns that there is a whole different set of difficulties that comes with being a guy.
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Jennie Wood is the creator and writer of Flutter, a comic series. She is also the author of A Boy Like Me, which Foreword Reviews named one of the 10 best indie YA novels of 2014. She’s a contributor to the award-winning, New York Times-best-selling FUBAR comic anthologies. Jennie lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her girlfriend. She writes for infoplease.com and teaches at Grub Street, Boston’s independent writing center. For more about Jennie and Flutter, go to jenniewood.com.
Jeff McComsey, the artist for Flutter, is an American writer/illustrator working in comics for the past seven years. He is also editor in chief of the New York Times-best-selling historical zombie anthology FUBAR now into its fourth volume. Jeff and his family reside in the quaintly hip city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For more: mccomseycomix. wordpress.com.
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Footnote by Carol LaHines
Sean reworked the preamble. He tried to strike the right balance between sympathy toward the plaintiffs in the cancer cluster suit, and outrage at the insult to the reputation of the international conglomerate Zyclone Pharmaceuticals gmBh, unjustified as it was. He tried to identify with the plight of cancer-stricken children, while underscoring that their tragedy, their dire prognoses, were in no way attributable to chemicals in the groundwater, diluted quantities of which had never been shown, statistically speaking, to cause harm. It was impossible to reduce all risks, all waste, to zero. There would always be runoff—in this case, colorful leachate—that escaped detection, a molecule here or there that got into the groundwater. This was an unintended consequence, a cost of doing business, one that could not be prevented, notwithstanding the EPA’s bulletins about acceptable levels of long-chain hydrocarbons in the groundwater. The evidence, the hard-andfast p-values, showed no significant connection between parts-per-billion quantities of 1,2,3 di-chloroethylene and neurological cancers. None whatsoever. Sean was supposed to send Gordon the brief sometime over the weekend. But after working on it for months, billing late nights and weekends and alienating his girlfriend sufficiently so that she moved out— Sean was reluctant to hit send. He was loath to allow Gordon to affix his name to the signature block, to tweak his elegantly-crafted arguments re the lack of a scientific link between Zyclone’s manufacturing activities and nervous system cancers. Gordon—who would do nothing more than look the brief over, add a sentence or two about EPA’s witch hunt against MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
responsible manufacturers—did not deserve the credit. It seemed that after seven years of toiling at the firm, of spending Friday nights parsing cancer-cluster statistics instead of hanging out with his girlfriend (soon to be ex-girlfriend), that he was entitled to some kind of acknowledgment, authorship rights, a starred footnote thanking him for his contributions to the text. After foregoing Saturday morning sleep-ins, Sunday brunches (Gordon always wanting him to be on “stand-by,” in the event he needed an audience for his cogitations, someone to comb through the documents in the storage room searching for a memo he seemed to recollect from years ago), Sean was assuredly entitled to at least a mention. Something to mitigate the relationship-wrecking happenstance of being recalled from a vacation in Bora Bora, a trip he had designed with the specific objective of placating the girlfriend, assuring her that she was a priority (at least until summoned, yet again, by Gordon, directed to compose an eloquent and finely-crafted indictment of the plaintiffs’ case). Having to pack ASAP, and endure twelve hours in coach (Bora Bora to Los Angeles, and a change-over from Los Angeles to New York), while his girlfriend harangued him, derided him as Gordon’s bitch, and, during the stopover, arranged for movers to be on the premises the next day. He could see the associates toiling at the firm across the way. Most, like Sean, had worked on law reviews, proofreading and cite-checking and ensuring that the footnote-to-text ratio was not imbalanced. Sean watched them at their desks, staring at computer screens, clicking through hundreds of Westlaw results, hoping to find the mythical case on point. He was diverted by activity on the balcony of the Hilton Towers, just across the street: hotel guests disinhibited enough to think that their terrace gropings went entirely unnoticed. He obsessively re-ordered the clauses, re-reading the brief aloud and trying to generate synonyms for it is contended, it cannot seriously be disputed, it is beyond cavil. He knew from his tenure on the law review that legal writing was a form of highly florid code, interspersed with obscure Latin phrases and italicized signals, see, e.g., or passim, or the highly controversial cf., which some had incorrectly conflated with but see. Sean watched a couple frolicking in the penthouse of the Hilton. After fornicating on the balcony, they retreated inside and pulled the drapes, pretending that they had not just exposed themselves to pathetic office jerks like he, for whom the spectacle would provide a thrill, the only one he’d had in a while, before he packed up for the night and returned to his apartment and cold, left-over lo mein, his girlfriend’s voice still pathetically on voice mail. After watching the couple, Sean ran into the bathroom stall to jerk off, flushing the run-off down the toilet, careful not to leave a slick that could only be the evidence of a deranged masturbator. He was reasonably certain that Gordon was not engaged in autoerotic activities. Gordon, in all likelihood, was in the company of one or 78
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both of his mistresses. Gordon liked to ruminate, to ponder theories of the case—the toxicological data utterly refutes any notion of a link between 1,2,3 di-chloroethylene and adverse health effects at the doses alleged by the plaintiffs, let alone furnish support for a cancer cluster—while lunging at women, sometimes inadvisably, on velvet banquettes. Gordon selected his mistresses and sometime lovers from among the ranks of associates and legal assistants and temporary office help, oftentimes relying on Sean as a lure. Sean crunched well-water data, painstakingly filled in exhibit cites, and in addition arranged, one evening, for his classmate Amber to join them at Fizz, an upscale champagne bar near the office. Sean, at the time co-habitating with his girlfriend, would not dream of seducing Amber (though masturbating after the fact, in one of Fizz’s cavernous bathrooms). Gordon, married with two other love interests in the office, had no such qualms. He relied on Sean to strategically absent himself when it became clear that he was intent on possessing Amber that very evening, on the self-same banquette. Sean honed the preamble, striking the right tone between concern for cancer-stricken children and firm disavowal of any legal responsibility for their condition, incidentally noting Zyclone’s history of community outreach and health and preventative cancer screenings. Zyclone had installed a billion dollar pump-and-treat system to extract contaminated water from the ground, filter it, and return it to the Cohansey basin. Zyclone had carted off 300,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil. Zyclone had installed air scrubbers that could remove any toxin from the atmosphere. Who knew what little Grace had been breathing during her short life? Who knew what she might have stumbled over on the beach, what had washed up in the seawater, what little Grace’s mother, a shiftless, sporadically employed cocktail waitress (according to Zyclone’s investigator), had smoked throughout her pregnancy—tar, nicotine, formaldehyde—directly into the bloodstream, passing through the placenta in concentrated doses. How dare they assert that Zyclone was responsible for their tragic losses. Sean had been directed to send Gordon the brief sometime over the weekend, so Gordon could look it over before it was filed on Monday, intersperse a sentence or two about good corporate citizens being unfairly blamed for cancer clusters, we’re talking minute quantities of these chemicals, on the order of parts per billion, and sign off on the final version. Gordon owed his reputation, his stellar work product, as well as $1,000—lent during a drunken night at Fizz—to Sean. Sean had foregone Amber out of loyalty to his girlfriend (soon to be ex-girlfriend); out of deference to Gordon, his superior, the partner in charge, though he could take issue with Gordon’s brazen seduction methods and overuse of the signal see generally, technically a means of signifying general support for the proposition, and not to be used interchangeably with see e.g. or see passim. Gordon relied on Sean for his thorough research skills, understanding MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
of groundwater fate and transport, and ability to find the mythical case on point. Sean was mum when needed, diverted mistresses when the wife was en route, and acted as sounding board for some of Gordon’s crazier theories regarding the connection between standard morbidity ratios and minute quantities of 1,2,3 di-chloroethylene. Gordon relied on Sean never to be flummoxed when Gordon showed up with yet another woman (Gordon convinced, however wrongfully, that temps were outside the purview of Title VII), or changed his tack mid-way through cross-examination, relying on Sean to intuit what document he needed among the hundreds of marked exhibits, and to summon it instantaneously. This was Sean’s function, his raison d’être. Yet Sean was a non-entity. Consigned to labor twelve hours a day in a midtown Manhattan office tower, his reflection (unflatteringly pale) staring back at him. A grunt, a lackey. Expected not to complain; expected to tolerate late-night telephone calls and cancelled vacations. An overpaid mid-level associate with an Ivy League degree, someone expected to bill hours to Draft pre-trial brief, to stand aside as Gordon claimed credit for every footnote and citation see passim, every clever argument regarding general and specific causation and the abnegation of all corporate responsibility re same. He typed his name into Westlaw, yielding two hits, his student note on search-and-seizure law and his pro-bono brief in People v Malchizedek Spencer. The former had been cited once, in another obscure law-review article on the subject; the latter had been distinguished on its facts, its overruling implicitly recognized by subsequent cases. There was no record of him; he did not exist. He had failed to make strategic alignments. He hadn’t engaged in early-morning banter by the coffee machine or chatted with other partners during Friday-evening cocktail hour. He hadn’t worked for others, thereby broadening his base of potential support or at least reducing the number who could say nay when he was up for partnership. No one knew what he had accomplished; no one knew who he was, other than some vague business about an associate who was rumored to jerk off in the bathroom stall on the twenty-eighth floor. Anyone who actually bothered to read the narrative descriptions in the DTE system would know that he had spent the summer immersed in the study of groundwater fate and transport, the fall reviewing spill-incident reports; the winter reviewing and digesting the Swiss corporate minutes. That it was he, after parsing statistics, and studying epidemiological data, who formulated the theory that would ultimately absolve Zyclone of liability. He who discerned that the lack of a statistically significant connection between 1,2,3, di-chloroethylene and nervous system cancers conclusively refuted any notion of causation. But no one would bother to review the narrative reports, or to read the hundreds of memos he had drafted, memo to the file re characteristics of organic hydrocarbons, memo to the file re standard morbidity 80
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tabular data. What hope did he have for survival when the cancer-cluster case had been tried, the verdict rendered? He would be persona non grata, just another name in the WIP reports, someone with a de-activated card key. Sean sighed and called a car. Staring at his reflection in the monitor, he pressed DELETE.
Carol LaHines' fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals including The Nebraska Review, North Atlantic Review, Sycamore Review, Permafrost, redivider, Bloodstone Review, The Literary Review, and Fence. Her short story, The Operating System, appears in the winter 2013 issue of Fence, guest-edited by Rick Moody. She is a graduate of New York University. MOUNT HOPE â€˘ ISSUE 7
Kurt Vonnegut and the Proverbial Window of American Politics by Max Gray
On April 11, 2007—more than 62 years after emerging unscathed from a German slaughterhouse where he’d waited out the firebombing of Dresden—Kurt Vonnegut passed away due to complications from a fall at his New York home. He was 84 years old, and probably the greatest American satirist of the 20th century. When I heard, I dropped everything I was doing and went for a walk. On the street, tree limbs sprouted buds. Clouds scudded blithely in an oblivious sky. All the machinery of nature turned without pause. The only change had happened in the center of my chest, in the engine room of my heart, where some vital cog had missed a beat. A chill raced down my spine to the ends of my fingers. This was the cold front of grief passing through, a unique sort of grief caused by the loss of a stranger who, it turned out, was not much of a stranger after all. I tried to figure out why it hurt so badly. Maybe it was Vonnegut’s flair for fatalism; his mastery of gallows humor; or his tenderness for the very people who continued to disappoint him, again and again, throughout his life. It could have been any of these things. I had never believed it was his politics. 82
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But the more I considered the possibility, the more plausible it sounded. At the time of Vonnegut’s death, George W. Bush was entering the home stretch of his eight-year reign. The only difference between this president and Hitler, Vonnegut once said, was that “Hitler was elected.” This was a man who did not mince words. He cared deeply about the pulse of our democracy. Contrary to popular belief, he had always cared. Casual fans often highlighted a sharp turn to the left in Vonnegut’s later years. No arguments there. In the 00’s, his columns for In These Times were peppered with a venomous variety of liberal pessimism. But you could trace his interest in politics back much farther than that. He wrote a characteristically biting satire of Goldwater Republicans in “The Hyannis Port Story,” a piece written in 1968 and eventually included in his short-story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. That same year, along with a slew of other writers including Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut signed a pledge protesting Vietnam. Much later, he spoke at rallies opposing the Gulf War. An undercurrent of socialism informed his writings, and he even named a few of his characters after the labor leaders Eugene Debs and Powers Hapgood. In 2003, for a feature with The Utne Reader, an interviewer asked how Vonnegut was doing. He responded: “I’m mad about being old and I’m mad about being American. Apart from that, OK.” He boiled at an increasingly feverish pitch in his old age. Critics took to calling him “incoherent,” repetitive, and “nothing more than a comic book philosopher.” Cutting words, for the man who gave us Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. After his death, my walk took me down shady avenues whose peacefulness seemed to rebuke thoughts of Vonnegut’s critics. I didn’t buy into the vitriol. His obituary in The New York Times proclaimed that he had “caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation.” On the other hand, their doubts raised an interesting question. For a shaman like this, an author with a legendary affinity for truth, how could the petty squabbles of politicians earn anything but scorn? More specifically, why did he care so much about who would be President of the United States?
2. Author and historian James Weinstein founded the independent
progressive magazine In These Times in 1976. Its mission was to “identify and clarify the struggles against corporate power now multiplying in American society.” Since its birth, according to the magazine’s website, it garnered support from a variety of liberal figureheads including Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Daniel Ellsberg, Naomi Klein, and Amy Goodman. In These Times also published fiction by Alice Walker and its late Senior Editor, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut. MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
For a shaman like this, an author with a legendary affinity for truth, how could the petty squabbles of politicians earn anything but scorn?”
My point is, no matter how you slice it, this was not a magazine for conservative or even moderate voters. During the time that Vonnegut contributed to its pages, it was a mouthpiece for some of the most outspoken liberal intellectuals in the country, and it continues to fill this role today, although it struggles to compete with heavyweights like The Nation. In its official obituary of Vonnegut, Editor and Publisher Joel Bleifuss admitted to wondering if his star editor was “over the top.” During an interview with Bleifuss in 2003, Vonnegut said, “I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been.” The man who had dreamed up Kilgore Trout went on to claim that not only our political leaders, but executives installed at the highest levels of the corporate landscape were undiagnosed psychopaths. In October of 2004, in the month leading up to the presidential election, Vonnegut published an In These Times column criticizing George W. Bush and John Kerry, titled “The End Is Near.” He seethes: These two Nordic, aristocratic multi-millionaires are virtually twins, and as unlike most of the rest of us as a couple of cross-eyed albinos. But this much I find timely: Both candidates were and still are members of the exclusive secret society at Yale, called “Skull and Bones.” That means that, 84
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no matter which one wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skulls and bones. And also, in March of 2004: “No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.” Later in the same column, he claimed that “the three most powerful people on the whole planet [are] named Bush, Dick and Colon.” Despite the doomsday rhetoric, the author would not and could not keep his nose out of the newspaper, and therefore he couldn’t have ignored the press conferences, personality quirks and yes, even the grammatical eccentricities of the President. However, it could be that Vonnegut’s most useful political commentary wasn’t to be found in his columns or speeches, but in his guidelines for aspiring writers. Take, for instance, his seventh rule for writing short stories. He suggested: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Rewind for a brief moment back to me on my contemplative walk through the neighborhood. At one point I paused under the drooping branches of a cherry blossom tree and wondered about Vonnegut’s seventh rule. “…Your story will get pneumonia.” In a sense, don’t MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
Let’s admit that Presidents win or lose—you might say they catch pneumonia or maintain their health—based on the plausibility of the narratives they spin.”
American Presidents regularly violate this rule? Don’t all public figures feel the need, and somewhere deep inside, the desire to open that window?
Confabulation is defined as the creation of an erroneous self-story. See also, the “replacement of a gap in a person’s memory by a falsification that he or she believes to be true.” Or, “the narration of fictitious occurrences.” The keyword here, as in the first definition, is story. We are constantly reviewing our own personal histories, albeit with the benefit of rose-tinted glasses. The urge to do this is completely natural. According to the Harvard psychologist and science-fiction author Daniel Gilbert, in order for “positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly. We accomplish this by unconsciously cooking the facts and then consciously consuming them. The diner is in the dining room, but the chef is in the basement.” The takeaway is that everyone is guilty of confabulation. Political figures are not exempt from this foible. So the question now becomes one which entertained, frustrated, and without a doubt charmed Vonnegut during all those years when he was doing his best writing: what stories can we invent that will best help us to reconcile our actual experiences with reality? I think that all writers, not just the geniuses, have fallen in love with this question. But what about those Americans who don’t have access to the balm of literature, who haven’t the confabulating powers necessary to make it through their daily lives without succumbing to ennui, indeed, to a sweeping, even fatalistic pessimism? Let’s give our politically-conscious, expert confabulator credit one last time. Let’s admit that Presidents win or lose—you might say they catch pneumonia or maintain their health—based on the plausibility of the narratives they spin.
4. Whether we like or not, and I happen to think we don’t, we
find ourselves today confronted with a two-party system. Over the years, each party evolved, at times smoothly and at other times in fits and starts. As parties matured, the individuals in power constructed a narrative that seemed to resonate with their respective voters. The Republican story is by far the most reassuring. Conservatives traffic in nostalgia and faith. In this story, there’s a power above reproach sitting in the driver’s seat. This mysterious power may appear at times to be capricious, fickle and vindictive. However, whether it’s an invisible hand in the market or a holy ghost in the sky, there’s no use worrying too much about 86
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the consequences of our actions, because when the dust settles the U.S. of A. will surely come out on top. We’ve got the best system. We are Number One. Too bad for the rest of the world, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. On the other side of the aisle dwell the perennial pessimists, although they prefer to be known simply as ‘realists.’ As a whole, Democrats don’t have faith in much of anything, except in the equality of all human beings. Since every person has his own equally valid set of concerns, we’ve got to remain vigilant against the endless tide of poverty, war-mongering, chauvinism, racism, rich war-mongers, climate change, rich chauvinists, tax cuts, and the rich. Oh, and conservatives. Not necessarily in that order. Somehow, after reviewing this litany, liberals find time to declare their everlasting commitment to peace, love and understanding. A small delegation in the nosebleed seats aligns itself with the sacred notions of curiosity and openmindedness. Lately the disparities between these opposing narratives have been thrown into stark relief. At times it seems they can’t both pertain to the same country. This naturally causes confusion for the kiddies who lie under the covers, trying not to fall asleep before the story ends. Lucky for us, our electoral system has so far prevailed. Only the best and brightest, only the most competent and professional, only the most impressive specimens can earn the right to occupy the highest office in this democracy. Because it just wouldn’t make sense for us to endow anyone less with the terrifying, inscrutable, and humbling responsibilities of the presidency. And so it goes. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. You are the Great Confabulator. Every four years we elect a Wizard to sit on the throne, draw the curtains, and commence pulling the levers and pushing the buttons that make the Land of Oz what we’ve always dreamed it could be.
5. No matter where you stand on the issues, there’s a national
election on the horizon. The potential candidates will soon begin treading water, each hoping to stay afloat long enough for another campaign ad or patronizing speech. Meanwhile, everyone I know is swimming like hell for the finish line. Well folks, I’m here to tell you no one’s going to drown. We’re going to make it, thank God. Life will go on. But the question remains, what to do? Which lever should you pull when you find yourself in your own little star chamber, alone with that blinking screen or that piece of paper printed with the all-important multiple-choice question? What would Vonnegut do? It’s hard to say, actually. Sure, there’s an obvious answer. But it should give us pause. If there’s anything fundamental in Vonnegut’s character, any root element in the periodic table of his personality, it’s that he was never MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
satisfied with the obvious answer. On my meditative walk around the block, I neared my starting point, and envisioned his last moments. I pictured a wasted hand groping for the railing on his front walk and coming up with nothing, just as his foot slipped. Or his attention shifted for one fatal moment from the steps in front of him to the packet of unfiltered cigarettes in his breast pocket. By then my mind could not help but join him in his front yard, couldn’t help but curl up guiltily on the top step, where he had lost his footing. Maybe he lost consciousness instantly, in the time it took to flip a light switch. He would not wake again. We can only hope that he never lost his special ability to find the ember of humor in the ashes of tragedy, that this seer-like power did not abandon him in his last moments. We will never know. But one thing is for sure, and that is he would want us to keep telling our own stories, and keep listening to everyone else’s. He’d want us to keep trying to make sense out of a nation, a world, a universe that appeared to us at times as something of a cruel joke. Even at his darkest points, he showed an unflagging desire to find the punch line and share it with everyone he knew. To him, perhaps, inspiration sounded a lot like laughter. In the end, of course, Vonnegut said it best. In Slaughterhouse-Five, a book that he claimed represented the pinnacle of his own artistic achievements, he gave us this advice: “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.”
Max Gray’s writing appears regularly on The Rumpus. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. 88
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Aspects of Strangers by Piotr Gwiazda
You see their other faces. You hear their other voices. You pass them in the airport or the subway station or any street and plaza . . . Are you a part of them? Your face gives you away and the sound of your voice.
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Look at this city— buildings, statues, pigeons, Empire’s avenues, a bus stop, a lamppost, a trash can, and this and that or even more subtle clues: a shoe on the lawn, a genie trapped in the fountain, a grocery store selling yesterday’s papers.
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Look at these people “cloaked in purpose”— a woman hailing a cab, a man texting, a coffee vendor, a dog walker, a nun, and other revelations of the camera eye.
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Some crossing the street, some crossing the plaza, some sitting on benches “the lifelong June,” some standing motionless on the escalator, each protective of the tiny swath of earth they call body—its exact (no, inexact) coordinates, its latitude, longitude. The multitude: each “too distantly a part.” Are you a part of them?
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Some crossing the street, some crossing the plaza, in random order. (And yet there are patterns if you watch closely. There are patterns if you listenâ€”)
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The lonely, the unloved, the anxious, the paranoid, the dying (the departed shadowing them inconspicuously), the guilty, the ashamed, the angry, the confused, “the hypocritical & the sincere,” human statues, pigeon feeders, the tourists, the poor (all you can eat from a trashcan), and les riches, indifferent to you and me, blending with movie posters for Nine, Invictus, The Hangover, Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep disappearing inside the elevator (It’s Complicated), GET YOUR 15 SECONDS OF FAME . . .
Piotr Gwiazda is the author of two books of poems, Gagarin Street (2005) and Messages (2012), as well as a translation of Polish writer Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Kopenhaga (2013). His poems, essays, reviews, and translations appear in many journals, including AGNI, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Jacket, The Nation, The Southern Review, and the TLS. 94
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Interview Author Padma Venkatraman on her journey from oceanographer to author Padma Venkatraman began her life in the city of Chennai, in Southern India, and now resides in North Kinstown, RI. And like her multinational life, her working life has been multivocational. Trained as an oceanographer, she led research teams in the islands of the Indian Ocean, but later turned to writing to move her explorations from the vast seas to her own past, and that of her family. Her debut novel, Climbing The Stairs (Putnam Juvenile, 2008), was a youngadult book that looked into wartime India and the changes gripping that nation as it emerged from colonialism. She has since published two more acclaimed works, Island’s End (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2011), and A Time To Dance (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), which have garnered critical praise and many honors. Mount Hope’s Catherine Hunter and Colin Gallagher interviewed her about her work. MH: So what made you decide to write your first book? PV: I was in the process of becoming an American citizen at the time. And I was thinking a lot about the oath you take when you become an American. You have to swear to bear arms for the country, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that or not. I wanted to be completely honest when I took the oath. When I pondered that question, my mind went back to a different time and place: India, 1941. During that time, my own family had been embroiled in a debate about violence versus nonviolence. As I traveled back to that time and place in my mind, I felt like I heard voices and saw characters (who were, in some way, people from my family, debating this issue) and out came my first novel. MH: Do you have anyone read your books before you have a complete version of the story? PV: Absolutely. My editor gives me feedback. My agent gives me feedback. There is another editor, a man who edited the Nobel-Prize-winning Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I trust a lot. He looked at my work and believed I’d be an author before I was published. So I trust him and he’s still kind enough to give me the time of day and look at my work. I take him very seriously and have him edit my work at least once before it goes to publication. MH: Do you have anyone that’s not an editor or an agent—like a family member or a friend or anyone—who reads them? MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
it to an extreme, and I think I do it much more than normal novelists do. Which can be really good, but it could be also overkill. And I think that’s a remnant of my having been a researcher.
PV: Not really, but I do send certain pieces of work to people who are experts in areas I’m not expert in. For example, with my third novel, A Time To Dance, I sent parts of my work that related to the disability experience to people who were disabled, so they could give me feedback.
MH: Why do you feel that it’s important to write these stories about these strong women? PV: It’s not just strong women. I like to write about the kind of people that I would like to spend time with, because I’m basically spending time with these characters in my mind—spending years with them. And I don’t like wimps and I won’t write about wimps.
MH: How has your experience as an oceanographer affected your writing? PV: I read a lot of nonfiction for adults. In fact, I read probably more nonfiction that’s written for adults than fiction that’s written for adults. But I’m a little scared to write nonfiction myself. I have ideas, but in way, being an oceanographer and having written journal articles makes me worry that I’ll write didactic nonfiction rather than creative literary nonfiction. So to some degree, my previous experience has kept me away from doing serious nonfiction. Although, I hope I will come to it sometime. Island’s End features a protagonist who is female and is a leader. When I was in oceanography, it was very male-dominated field. But I was the chief scientist on several research trips, so that gave me a lot of insight into what it feels like to be a minority and to be a leader. So that certainly plays into this other protagonist, although she’s in a very different part of the world, very different from me in other ways. So that book is quite influenced by my oceanography experiences. Also, there’s a tsunami in that book, so there you go. There’s another thing though, that oceanography made me do. I think I’m very picky about how—I do a lot of background research when I write a novel. I think I do
MH: And what’s the biggest challenge you find writing from the perspective of young adults? PV: The biggest challenge I find is that people are very limited in their reading. And they decide that just because a book is labeled young adult, that it must not be high literature, or that it must not be as sophisticated, or that it must not be—in some way, something must be lacking. That is the biggest challenge. It’s ridiculous. I think that’s human limitation. I think so many people are very stupid to think that way. But facing that, fighting that, dealing with that on a daily basis is very difficult. And I think it’s especially prevalent in the community that I come from, the Americans of South Asian Indian heritage who live in this country. So I think that’s very hard. Especially, going from being an oceanographer, which is a profession that is deeply respected by everybody. “Oh, my God. If you’re an oceanographer, you must be so smart.” You 96
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become an author and you say you’re writing for young adults. They’re like, “Who the heck is that? What is that? And why are you doing that?” MH: Did you read a lot of young adult novels before you started to write young adult novels, or did you primarily just read adult fiction and nonfiction? PV: I read all across the board, and I still read all across the board. Because like I said, to me, it’s not who the audience is for that makes a book good or bad. It’s how the book is written. And I think a of children’s literature that’s written for younger kids is phenomenally good.
and grand uncle (on whom the main characters are based) were teens when they faced the issues the characters grapple with. When I say I want something to be accessible to a younger audience, though, it doesn’t mean I think of my audience when I write. I think its bad to think about your target audience. Instead you need to focus on your characters and hear what they’re saying. Your editor will trim your story and modify it, if needed, to tailor it to suit a particular audience. Targets are a publisher’s worry, not an author’s. Sometimes very bad advice is given to young writers. People say, “Think about your target audience.” That’s bull. MH: Were there any sections of your books that you felt were difficult to decide where to go next in the story? PV: No. I don’t think so, really. No. My stories take a long time to write. So it’s a very slow process for me, and a very long process. But I don’t agonize over where the story goes next, no. Of all my three novels, I think A Time to Dance was the most challenging to write. It talks about spirituality, and character’s spiritual growth is something that almost no one writes about —very, very, very few writers ever touch that topic. Because, to do that well is extremely hard. On the one hand, I don’t know whether I loved it the most when I was writing it, but I really am proud of it. I think it’s over and above all of my other books, the best. Because it’s just very hard to pull off a spiritual theme, and that’s the heart of this story, and I managed to pull it off. And every time I re-read that, I just think, “Ha, I was pretty
MH: I think that your first novel, Climbing The Stairs, is actually classified as a children’s book. When you published it, was that what you intended for the book? PV: Actually, it’s classified as a young adult novel, too. At that point, I was teaching at a school, and I wanted to write a book that was accessible to young people. There are a lot of serious questions young people do and should be thinking about, and it’s very formative age when you can have a real impact on the person’s mind. I think that you learn when you read literature. You learn in an emotional way that you don’t learn when you discuss philosophy or dissect social studies in a classroom. You learn when you read and experience somebody else’s life for a while. And I think that sort of empathetic learning is incredibly important. It’s the kind of learning that changes the way we think, the societies we create. With that particular story, a young adult audience seemed natural because my mom MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
spectacular. Thank you.”
There are some writers who are succinct, but they are just marvelous. The Old Man and the Sea and The Pearl are both extremely short novels, but they carry a lot of weight.
MH: On average, how long does it usually take you to write one of your novels? PV: Five years. I have some vague idea where the story will begin and where the story will end. Some people say they have no idea where their story’s going, and some people have everything plotted up ahead of time. I think I’m sort of in between. I know the arc of the story, if you will. But I don’t necessarily know every chapter and precisely what all is going to happen. I don’t know whether other people write the same way, but I write all over the place. So I don’t necessarily begin at the beginning of the story and follow through until the end. If I feel like I see a particular scene clearly on a particular day, then I write that scene that particular day. Then eventually, in five years it all falls into place.
MH: On that, are there any particular literary influences you have? Any particular authors you really enjoy or have influenced you as you began to write? PV: There are so many. I will say that when I was growing up in India, I was exposed to literature, even as a child. I went straight from reading—I don’t know, C. S. Lewis and Narnia to reading— Hemingway or Somerset Maugham or D. H. Lawrence or something. There wasn’t any young adult literature around, so you made that leap. And I was a bit of an oddity as a child. I loved poetry and I read and by-hearted pages and pages of Shakespeare and could recite speeches at will by the time I was seven years old. Which is sort of young for Shakespeare. I’d go to the British Council library and read criticisms of his work and of poetry and so on, for fun. I was a little literature nerd. I’ve read a lot of British authors and British novelists, mostly when I was young in India - classic novelists. And then, we were exposed to a few of the great American novelists, like Faulkner, Steinbeck, and all of that. But I think when I grew older and I came to this country was when I started to read people like Virginia Woolf. Sometime in-between I also read a lot of philosophy—Thoreau, Emerson, Kant; translations or interpretations of some of the great Sanskrit texts like the Upanishads and Sri Aurobindo’s Light on the Veda; and translations of the great Indian epic poems and lots of
MH: In your novels, you have a lot of short chapters. They’re usually not more than ten pages. They’re usually less than that. Why did you choose to write such short chapters? PV: I should be careful how I say this. Let me just say, it’s very tough to pull something off that is short, and still has the emotional impact and the depth that you really need for a good novel. I’ve always admired writing that is spare without being sparse. I think A Time to Dance does that better than the others, even more than the others, not better, necessarily—in a different way. I’ve always admired that kind of work. I read War and Peace. Hats off to him. That was a lovely piece, but it’s not the kind of writing that I find the most phenomenal. 98
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modern Indian poets (Tagore and Ezekiel among them). I admire authors who can changed their writing style from one book to another book, authors who challenge themselves. Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer like that, one I admire deeply. I don’t think of science fiction as necessarily very literary most of the time, but he’s written science fiction of incredibly high quality. He writes historical fiction. He writes experimental novels that are not just straight out linear. He writes contemporary realistic novels. He writes fantasy. He writes everything remarkably well. To me, he’s very good because he tries so many different things, and I aspire to be like him. Steinbeck was a marvelous, marvelous novelist, but he stayed in one place, the whole time. His setting hardly ever changed. On the other hand, Faulkner, who pretty much lived in one place, too, experiments much more, stylistically. There’s also a contemporary Indian author whose work I enjoy, Amitav Ghosh. His work isn’t as varied as Kazuo’s but he does change setting and style and character and theme quite a bit from one novel to another.
live to write them all out. I don’t know if my confidence actually shows in my writing. I’m too close to be able to tell, but I think we probably all grow as writers, the older we get, the more work we complete. I don’t know how my writing’s developed. But I will say this. Everything that I wrote before my novels, I don’t consider that my work at all. I did write nonfiction here and there for magazines. I did all sorts of other things. I even wrote a couple of biographies before, but they were just not the same standard. I don’t consider them literature. I don’t consider them my work. I don’t even think of them as my books at all. When I made a commitment to write my novels, when I committed to the writing life, I gave up and moved slowly further and further away from, oceanography. I sacrificed a promising career as a scientist. A more financially secure profession. And that is a huge sacrifice. I think of myself as a writer now, and before I made that sacrifice, I felt I was a scientist who wrote for fun. My three novels are me as a writer. Anything I wrote before that was just writing as a hobby. And too bad for me, it got published. MH: You have received a lot of different awards for your novels. How does it feel to be honored for your work? PV: It’s immense, and the immensity of it is scary. My mood certainly goes up and down a lot. On the one hand, I might think, “Oh, I’m fabulous. I’m great.” And then, the other day I think, “I’m wretched, I’m horrible, and I’m rubbish.” I imagine this
MH: How do you feel your style has developed over the course of your career? PV: I think I’ve grown much more confident in myself as a writer. I value and respect my own work and the importance of my contribution to the field of young adult literature. I also know by now that my ideas will never stop —I have so many, I’ll never MOUNT HOPE • ISSUE 7
sort of seesawing is possibly, commoner than not, that most authors probably go through some aspect of that. So when you get an award—any award or any acclaim, any praise for my novel, it is tremendously satisfying and gratifying. It’s amazing. I feel very, very, very, very immensely grateful. But at the same time, I also try hard not to get attached to it, because it’s so easy to become attached to that very material kind of reward. It’s so easy to start valuing yourself only if you’re valued externally. I think to be a writer, you have to value yourself internally, and you have to love the process much more than you love the product. And that’s very hard to do consistently. MH: So you feel that if you think too much into the awards and let it go to your head, you feel that that’s going to change your writing and--? PV: Yes. If it went to my head, then it would absolutely destroy my writing and make it much worse, I think. Awards mean a lot, but you can’t let them rule your life or guide your work. You can allow an award to go to your heart, but you cannot let it go to your head. MH: Do you have some advice for writers looking to become published that you would want to share with them? PV: Sure. I really think that if you’re going to write, then the thing that I just spoke about is something very important. You should become a writer only if you love the process of writing. Because no one, no one can tell you what will happen when the work is done. The history of writing, the history of human beings all over the world-- shows clearly that in every culture there is always important writing that goes unnoticed, wonderful writing that gets recognized, as well as a nonsense that gets recognized. So it’s a very strange field. It’s a
highly subjective field. That’s something that some people with literature degrees, or who are literature professors, or whatever, don’t like to share. But I don’t know why they don’t, because it’s just the truth. Because of the subjective nature of this field, it’s important that you only write if you love the process of writing. I see young people, sometimes they’re all into, “My words are fabulous. I’m going to be so big. I want to be world famous” And I don’t think that that is a good reason to write. I think you should write if you love the solitary process of shaping words into a creative work, into art. Everybody has something to say. But if you love to say it through the process of writing, if that process is something that you love and you’ll enjoy, then be a writer, by all means. But writing has to be something that you love, it must be your passion. Don’t get into it for the wrong reasons. Don’t get into it because you want to make money. Don’t get into it because you want awards. Don’t get into it because you want recognition. I see lots of writers who are excellent writers, but are very shallow people because they dwell too much on external recognition. They’re a depressed, conceited lot. And I don’t think it’s a good way to be. We are so lucky to live in this world. If you can afford to write, if you have the time to write, or even just the ability to read, you are already quite privileged. There’s so much sorrow and violence and poverty in this world. No writer has the right to dwell in misery, unless they live in a totalitarian regime that suffocates or tortures them. If you can be happy doing it, then fine. Learn to do yoga. Meditate. Write. But don’t write for external gratification. Don’t write if you’re going to get depressed. That would be my advice.
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Aubade by Francesca Bell My hair tied back with its ribbon of sorrow, and the rain’s rivulet hands loose on my skin. Wind in my scarf, a wild-blown dance, and low overhead the geese, their cry of Away, and Away. Along the far horizon: morning, a narrow bleeding of light like the small spill under a tight-shut door.
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Bridge Translations by Francesca Bell Noor and I Skype, translating his Arabic into my English. The poems shimmer when he reads them aloud as if his mouth can hold a whisper and a song in one sound. He is full of patience and kindness, a person who, unbidden, will take your hand to steady you when darkness encloses the path. We often rest in the place where a poem holds two conflicting meanings, in this language that can do without verbs or vowels or capitalization, a language made to express ambiguity 102
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clearly. Sometimes, we break, and I know he is praying. I imagine him folding his largeness, bending over the places this world has wounded him, his eyes open and searching. I bend, too, want my face pressed hard against the bare floor, consider the box my country has built for him, a word he steps gracefully over again and again. Terrorist, we say of any brown-skinned man who dares strike even a match for justice. Terrorist, we say and construct empires on his broad back as he prays.
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Love Is a Song You Listen To Later by Francesca Bell Reading about whales—captive beluga who tried to learn to talk, blue whales calling to each other across entire oceans—I think how like that beluga I was, my adolescence spent trying to decrypt isolation. If you played my efforts back, the way they play back the beluga’s recordings, there would be a haunting gibberish, something that sounds like speech but carries no meaning. At seventeen, when I met the boy, I was a strange white whale behind aquarium glass, my face pressed to transparent confinement, a sadness eddying and sinking. Slowly, mouth to mouth, he made me human. Sounds we shared became words, language, an incantation. It’s years since he left my solitude for his bright-lit life, but I hear him from across time’s littered floor when I slide, again, into a darkness so complete I needn’t bother having eyes. His voice still the hand on my elbow in the room of strangers. Francesca Bell was raised in rural Washington and Idaho and settled as an adult in California. She did not complete middle school, high school, or college and holds no degrees. Bell won the 2014 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle, and her poems have appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, River Styx, and many other journals. 104
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Mount Hope is published at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI