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table of contents N I C H E

A Brief Note From The Editors Contributors The Day the Crane Ate the Wolves Call Her Isthar All The New and Beautiful Patient Y Raw Footage Surviving Overcup, AR Rewriting Elvis Rubbish Underwater Lights Make No Assumptions About the Cause of Death Piano Lessons Crossing in Brazier Fumes Fear The World Not Ending Apron Strings Voodoo God 69, the Brahmin and Woodrow Climate Changes Neil Gaiman Talks About Writing Interviewed Secrets

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6 8 12

.....................PEARL HODGES

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.....................ROSEBUD BEN-ONI

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.....................SUSAN LAND

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S C O T T T. S TA R B U C K

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.....................BILL D’AREZZO

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JA M E S D U N L A P

40 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Y I N K A R E E D - N O L A N 50

.....................WILLIAM CORDEIRO

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S E A N JAC K S O N

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . M E R C E D E S L AW RY

60 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . M E L I S S A W I L E Y 66 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R O S E B U D B E N - O N I 70

.....................JESSICA SWENSON

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . M A RT I NA R E I Z N E W B E R RY

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . M O L LY KO E N E M A N

86 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . M A RT I NA R E I S Z N E W B E R RY 88

.....................STEPHEN NEWTON

96 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . FA B I O S A S S I 98 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I N T E RV I E W B Y S C O T T B A S E L E R 106 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . R O B E RT M U N DY


A Brief Note From The Editors: 6


N I C H E

For those who have been following us since our somewhat spontaneous inception in September, 2011 breathe easy because we have finally made it. For those who have happened to stumble across our small corner of the world, hello and welcome. After many learning experiences, the first issue of Niche Magazine is finally here. Our aim in creating Niche Magazine was to break down the boundaries between genres and artistic method. We wanted to cultivate a place where genre fiction, literary fiction, journalism, literary and political criticism, photography, painting, and music could exist side-by-side. That is, we wanted to create a literary magazine that satisfied not just one niche, but several niches all at once. We hope that this issue shows that we’ve been successful in this endeavor.

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Though we had, much to our great surprise and pleasure, a great many talented people submit to the first issue, we chose pieces that were, first and foremost, enjoyable to read, listen to, or look at, pieces that taught us something, or those that merely moved us emotionally, whether it be to sadness, happiness, disgust, or some emotional state in between. Thus, we hope that Niche Magazine will draw those who read to be entertained or educated, and those who view art and listened to music because they hope to be emotionally stimulated in some way. Lastly, I want to give a very sincere thank all the artists who have chanced this journey with us, and all those wonderful people who have supported us along the way. We hope that this issue stands as a symbol for many more and greater issues to come. Happy reading, listening, and viewing! Best,

KATYA CUMMINS (executive editor) SHANNON HEWSON (art & poetry editor) BETH COHON (fiction editor) KATIE CANTWELL (poetry & multimedia editor) MARY KEUTELIAN (fiction editor) MATT ATKINSON (fiction & multimedia editor) BECCA LEVIN (poetry editor) ROCHELLE LIU (fiction editor)

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is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, where she is currently developing a new play, Shamhat, as part of their 20th Anniversary Season. Recently, her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize at Camera Obscura: A Journal of Contemporary Literature and Photography, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In Fall 2011, Women in the Arts conference as a playwright negotiating space and homosexual identity in the Middle East; the lecture, now titled as “Semaphore Toward Emptiness: A Meditation on Women and Jerusalem,” has been accepted for publication by Trans-Portal: The Hub of Trans-formation Studies for its upcoming Winter 2012 issue. This past summer, VIDA selected her essay “On Writing Quimera and other Fears,” also based on her work for New Perspectives, for their State of the Art Feature. ROSEBUD BEN-ONI

WILL CORDEIRO has received his MFA from Cornell

University where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying 18th century British literature. His poems appear or are forthcoming in several journals, including Fourteen Hills, Sentence, Baltimore Review, A cappella Zoo, Brooklyn Review, Harpur Palate, Carte Blanche, Ping Pong, decomP magazinE, Requited, Lumina, Gulf Stream, and Word for/Word. He is grateful for residencies from Risley Residential College, Provincetown Community Compact, Ora Lerman Trust, and Petrified Forest National Park.

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was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and has lived in Seattle over thirty years. She’s published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Rhino, Nimrod, Poetry East, Seattle Review, and others. She’s also published fiction and humor as well as stories and poems for children. Among the honors she’s received are awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, Hugo House, and Artist Trust. She’s been a Jack Straw Writer, held a residency at Hedgebrook and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her chapbook, “There are Crows in My Blood”, was published by Pudding House Press in 2007 and another chapbook, “Happy Darkness”, was released by Finishing Line Press this past summer. MERCEDES LAWRY

JAMES DUNLAP is a creative writing major at the University

of Arkansas. He received his associates of Art at Pulaski Technical College. He has been published three times through PTC, writes for the school newspaper, and was recently published in the jSilver of Stone, Issue 3.


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MARTINA REISZ NEWBERRY lives in Palm Springs, CA with

her husband, Brian Newberry—a vidographer, and their cat, Gato. Her first published book was a memoir: Lima Beans and City Chicken: Stories From the Open Hearth, published by E.P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1988. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo colony for the Arts, Djerassi Colony for the Arts, and at Anderson Center for Disciplinary Arts. Newberry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry by poet Andrew Hudgins in 1989 and, in 1998, received i.e. magazine’s “Editor’s Choice for 1998” award (Astra Press) which included the publishing of her chapbook: An Apparent, Approachable Light. She was included in Ascent Aspirations’ first Anthology and has been widely published in literary magazines. Her most recent books are: 100 Select Poems plus One and What We Can’t Forgive. is a Creative Writing Coordinator at San Diego Mesa College. His new poetry chapbook, Riverwalker, is forthcoming from Mountains and Rivers Press in 2012. You can see his clay art at The Spirit of the Salmon Fund, hear him read two poems at Fogged Clarity, or listen to his 31-minute interview about The Warrior Poems and Other Poems. His newest work is at Scythe and Untitled Country Review. SCOTT STARBUCK

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is an Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. His most recent publication is an essay on Elvis in Trans-Portal: The Hub of Transformation Studies. STEPHEN NEWTON

YINKA REED-NOLAN is a MFA candidate at California State

University Fresno, where she also teaches in the first year writing program. Her nonfiction was recently featured on the PANK blog and she has an essay forthcoming in Bloom. When she isn’t writing, Yinka spends her time obsessing over the Food Network, baseball and dogs (even the cute ones). MELISSA WILEY’s

a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago who harbors delusive dreams of terraforming Neptune. c o n t r i b u t o r s

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MARIA SURAWSKA is a freelance graphic designer living in

Chicago. She enjoy taking photographs, many of which you are seeing in this issue. She draws tiny things with faces on notecards and enjoys her whiskey neat.

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is a native of Providence, Rhode Island, where his fiction has thus far been set. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has studied extensively with Thomas Cobb, Toni Graham and Jon Billman. He recently completed his first novel, The Rhonda Front, and is at work on a sequel. BILL D’AREZZO

grew up in the town where her family has lived for generations; it’s one of those if-you-blink-youmiss-it towns in Kentucky. After earning an undergraduate degree in literature form Western Kentucky University, Molly moved to Chicago where she teaches creative writing classes, hosts various events, and works for a business magazine. This is her third publishing short story. MOLLY KOENEMAN

has all kinds of experience teaching writing from Bethesda Elementary to the FBI. She has an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her fiction won three Maryland State Arts Council awards and her work has recently appeared in Potomac Review, The Florida Review, Bethesda Magazine, Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women, and “Like Whatever”: The Insider’s Guide to Raising Teens. SUSAN LAND

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latest stories have been published in Splash of Red, Beyond the Margins, and Thieves Jargon, Carte Blanche, Forge Journal, among other literary magazines. He is currently seeking a publisher for a recently completed collection of stories. Previously, he wrote for newspapers in North Carolina. His poetry was published in literary magazines in the late 1980s/early ‘90s. SEAN JACKSON’S

ROBERT MUNDY is an attorney and engaged in the financial

services business. In addition, he is president of a firm that writes family and corporate history books for private personal publication. Bob has participated in a number of workshops at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival and for the past 13 years has written a weekly movie review column for several newspapers.


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is a 20-something Californian Theater Artist and Freelance Illustrator. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, she has primarily pursued artistic development on her own.  She finds inspiration in both wild and strange mythology, both authentic and personally invented, and down to earth motifs of bones, rust, metal, and other practicum of day-to-day life.  A portfolio of her work is viewable at her website www.featherwurmgraphics.com. PEARL HODGES

has had several experiences in music, photography and writing. He has been a visual artist since 1990 making acrylics using the stenciling technique on canvas, board, old vinyl records and other media. He uses logos, icons, tiny objects and shades to create weird perspectives. Many of his subjects are inspired by a paradox either real or imaginary and by the news. He lives in Bologna, Italy. His work can be viewed at www.coroflot.com/fabiosassi.

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is an experimental jazz group from Urbana, Il. The band consists of Jake Marshall on drums and Daniel Wollff on bass and vocals. The band formed in September 2010, and will be releasing their first hard-copy EP within the next few months. Their website is comfortfood1.bandcamp.com. COMFORT FOOD

FABIO SASSI

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is a professional writer and bookseller. He has published news and feature articles, reviews, poems and short stories, but just can't seem to finish that novel. Currently he is a writer for the forthcoming web series PRINCE OF THIEVES. He lives in Illinois with his groovy wife, 3 hip cats and 2 kookie birds. SCOTT BASELER

is a recent graduate of Texas State University - San Marcos. She has a degree in English with a minor in Art and Design. She is currently living in San Marcos, Texas with a cat, two dogs, two ferrets, and a wise, persistent muse. JESSICA SWENSON

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T h e D a y t h e C r a n e A t e t h e Wo l v e s BY PEARL HODGES

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P O E T R Y

Call Her Ishtar BY ROSEBUD BEN–ONI


When night was an octave lower, and our eyes less owl-wide, when love struck along the bass line and we cried forte, fortissimo

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four hours before sunrise— When our unease had no grief, and pretenders saved us again on Purim eve and Haredim fluttered drunk down Mea Sharim, before this rueful heart played its last card, before rimshots ended those high AM hours, your right hand coming to teal down the footlights,

I believed in the morning star

giving way to a wonder as simple and young as us without true need on a fire escape,

as sliding in our socks below a carillon of waking birds and rain, as drawing the first weevil from the cracks.

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F I C T I O N

ALL THE BEAUTIFUL AND NEW BY SUSAN LAND

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anielle Gunther, the bride, met Philip Berg, her beloved, at my Humanist bat mitzvah. She was Catholic, he was half Jewish, and they became Quaker together, when they were both sixteen. By the time they were to be married, Danielle was a doctor and I was a nurse and we hadn’t been close for years. But my friend Glen said the fact that I had been her matchmaker meant that I couldn’t blow off Danielle’s wedding. “Certain things are sacred, Ann, even for Jewish Humanists.” On such certain things, Glen Guttman, nice Jewish boy, radiation physicist and my best cafeteria friend, was the nearest expert. I worked in a neonatal intensive care unit, one floor down from his office. But certain other things were more complicated, and I’d hoped to sneak into the meetinghouse after the wedding ceremony had already begun. Unfortunately, Glen knew a back route from the Beltway through the woods, and in the doorway to the meetinghouse, a white board greeted us with instructions to congregate and reflect. I reflected on not wanting to congregate with the groom’s stepfather, Jeff Levine, who’d almost been my stepfather. Glen checked out the food table. “Nice cookies, nice cider, nice organic wine.” Then he smoothed his tie with surprising grace. I said, “You look very respectable.” “Ah, but you—you look awesome, Ann Siam Winick.” I did not look awesome. I looked like a stressed Asian twenty-something in a good red dress—not too chic, not too crunchy. Glen was cute in a short, stocky way, but not

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my tortured type. Still I was grateful for the compliment and brought Glen’s hand to my mouth for a quick knuckle kiss. Our second kiss. Our first had been in the hospital cafeteria—a not unpleasant experiment—on the day I’d invited him, on a whim, to the wedding. He spotted an upright piano in a corner and sat down to play some mellow ragtime, his balding spot facing the party. Relatives congregated politely. The couple’s Teach for America friends group-hugged. On the way to the meetinghouse, I’d told Glen about how my mom and I used to celebrated holidays at the groom’s family farm. Philip’s parents had lived in the main house and Jeff Levine, my mother’s beau, lived in the converted barn. I’d said nasty things about Philip’s mother and then I’d lied about who’d ended the relationship between my mother and Jeff. I’d wanted Glen to think my mother had the upper hand, that Jeff hadn’t abandoned us. I made up a ridiculous reason for her fictitious breaking up: “He took me to see Madame Butterfly and I got obsessed with Cio–Cio’s ‘One fine day he’ll come home to me’ aria.” Glen said it would be awkward for me to see Jeff at the wedding. I didn’t argue. Then I’d told Glen the prettiest adoption story you’ve ever heard: It’s 1984. My mother is in Thailand doing research on AIDS. She’s with a team trying working on a vaccine, and she’s not in the market for a baby—until a Moses basket appears on the steps of her lab. I’m wrapped up inside the basket, and I’m a perfect newborn with punk black hair, and just one look and she knows she needs me.

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Instantly, we bond. The paperwork goes seamlessly and for years I’m the beloved mascot in an international scientific community where everyone looks special, but no one has wonderful curls like my mother’s. She lands a job that brings us to D.C. I’m four. In a suburb with good schools, we find a little house within walking distance to a store called the Giant. The name makes me nervous. Our first night in our new home we go grocery shopping, and I ride inside the body of a shopping cart. As my mother is explaining about staples for our pantry, a man with a bike helmet and a backpack joins our conversation. I think the helmet makes him a superhero. I assume he’s killed the giant. Jeff the Giant Killer. Then my mother lets him touch her hair. He pulls a curl straight and lets it spring back in place. He sings, “Ping.” I love the sound their laughs make together. The superhero, a music critic, takes us with him to concerts and operas where everyone makes a fuss over me. But he never becomes a staple in our home, and one day a man who wants a regular family changes everything. My mother gets to be a bride. I get to be a flower girl. The new man gets to adopt me. He and my mother make a baby boy and I become a devoted big sister. My little brother grows awesome curls like Mom’s. “Something’s messed up about the way you tell that story,” Glen said . “You spend too much time talking about hair.” I’d left out a few things, but I changed the subject and told him that Danielle used to have a weird lazy eye. 18

Then Jeff Levine—the actual guy, not a memory— jumped in and out of my peripheral vision. Grayer. Heftier. He reached over and tapped me on the right shoulder while standing on my left so that I turned one way and had to turn the other way—an old routine that used to be funny and was now annoying. Glen laughed without missing a note. Also annoying. Jeff said, “My favorite opera date.” Bracing myself against the piano, I let him kiss me on the cheek. “You were such a wonderful listener, such a wonderful child.” “If you say so.” He’d given me wonderful lessons in what to listen for. Before every curtain went up, Jeff would give me a primer on which harmonic change or melodic reprise would tear my little heart out. But I couldn’t tell him that now. And I couldn’t ask if he took his wife to the opera, if she liked it more than my mom had, or as much as I had. I sank down on the piano bench, which seemed safer than ranting: I missed you. I hate you. You took the pictures at my bat mitzvah and then you disappeared. We pretended to listen to Glen’s ragtime. I’d last seen Jeff when I’d tracked him down at the Kennedy Center after the matinee of La Traviata he was supposed to have taken me to for my fourteenth birthday. My mother had no idea that I’d bought a ticket on my own, taken the Metro on my own, become a stalker. I’d lost myself in the performance, letting time stop for the arias. I believed in the love of the rich playboy and the lovely, consumptive


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courtesan. I seethed at the treachery and weakness of the bass and the tenor, father and son, manipulative and selfish. Finally, Violetta sang herself unto death with such exquisite dignity that I moved beyond anger into that dark-light place of beauty and tragedy and others breathing it in all around. I

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“I believed in the love of the rich playboy and the lovely, consumptive courtesan.” wiped my eyes. During the curtain calls, still foggy with grief, I found Jeff’s row and waited in the aisle. We hugged without speaking, ignoring people trying to leave. I breathed in the smell of his soft brown leather jacket. I’d never noticed the smell before, and yet I’d remembered it. Now older Jeff leaned toward me and asked, “Is your mother coming? Danielle called her this morning. Just on the off-chance.” “I don’t believe that. Danielle would never have invited her.” Unless in some kind of MD arrogance she’d decided that every problem—like her eye—was operable. “Philip asked her to. He sees this wedding as a chance to play Gandhi.” “My mother and father spend Saturdays at my little brother’s softball games.” Glen played a riff on Getting to Know You from The King and I. 19


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Jeff gave an over-the-top sigh and said: “Philip’s a bit of a Heal-the-World Groomzilla.” Glen smiled, as if in on a joke. Jeff rested a hand on his shoulder. I wanted to slam the piano down on Glen’s fingers. Then Jeff changed his persona completely and his voice turned Quaker-plain. “I invited your mother, Ann. I thought she might come with you. I’ve always regretted having hurt her.” I snapped, “She wasn’t hurt for long.” “And you?” “Less long.” A clear lie, and Jeff, the coward, should have called me on it. Glen sang, “Because of all the beautiful and new, things, I’m learning about you—” I spat, “Shut up!” And immediately wished I hadn’t. Glen got up without looking at me and took a seat in the back row of benches. I followed and sat down, not touching him—lest he push me away, which I didn’t think I could handle at that moment. Everything got very quiet as the people milling about took their seats. Then it was quiet for a few minutes more. Finally the bride and groom walked in together and stood in front of an elevated platform with flowers and vines and four chairs. Danielle wore a plain white linen dress, her hair in a blond braid down her back. The groom had sandy hair and looked like a Jesus on black velvet, just as Danielle used to tell me he did. The couple’s parents, minus Jeff, sat down in the chairs. Danielle’s mom and dad, overweight and over-dressed, beamed. Philip’s 20

father wore a black t-shirt and a suit with an expensive shimmer. He’d moved to California and owned a vineyard. His ex-wife, Jeff’s current wife, was petite and redheaded. She wore a lavender dress. I despised her. Glen’s fingers played silent notes on his knees. My knees grew jealous as the wedding ceremony rambled in and out of silent reflection: seven annotated Jewish blessings; an all-join-in Michael Row Your Boat Ashore; and testimonials focusing on the rebuilding and teaching the couple had done at a school in New Orleans. In one speech after another, the words “after the floods” resonated like Scripture. Or how I imagined Scripture would resonate if you heard it on Sundays, year after year. Philip’s father explained about the divine light in all human beings, as my mom—with new highlights in her curls and a sorry-I’m-late face that didn’t do her prettiness justice— walked into the meetinghouse and slipped onto an empty bench beside the open door. She smiled for the “I do’s.” Glen reached for my knee and I put my hand over his. My knee hummed with nervous pleasure. Glen squeezed, just hard enough not to hurt. He knew exactly when to stop: new data. The ceremony ended and the guests applauded, but my mother stayed on her bench, engaged in a reunion with a woman I vaguely remembered as the mother of someone I’d gone to kindergarten with. I imagined my mother telling the woman how she’d married a widower and had a baby. She’d say nothing about Jeff, or about how I’d been left naked by the side of a road within minutes of taking my first


breath. That little detail is never part of the public story. I hadn’t even learned it until I was writing my personal essay for college applications and asked about the fate of the Moses basket. I stood up and caught Mom’s eye through the joyous crowd. Somehow she managed to convey delight at the sight of me and an enormous desire to come talk to me, while gesturing for me to sit tight a moment more to give her time to get an update from her new old friend. I spoke fluent Mom; I could read the way she moved her hands and tilted her head. I’d spent my childhood learning to do whatever it took to make the lines of her face arrange themselves into her prettiest smile. She was smiling that smile when Glen said, “You two look alike. A triumph of nurture over nature.” Meanwhile, the receiving line was gathering around us and sweeping us up like an undertow. I leaned close to him and whispered, “Jeff was the one who left my mom so he could marry Philip’s mom.” “Marry that red-headed skank?” “I hate that word. But I love you for saying it.” “What’s her deal? What does she do?” “Something with fundraising.” “Can you stand to shake her hand?” “Do I have a choice?” “Trust me.” I trusted him. Danielle was first in line and our hug was great. I’d forgotten how genuine she was, this do-good doctor whom

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I’d known when her eyeball wandered. Danielle held me tight and whispered, “We’re all here because of you. Thank you so much.” I said, “Thank you for saying that.” My gratitude surprised me. Philip’s hug was awkward but fine. Jeff wasn’t in the line. Philip’s mother stood beside Philip’s father, who seemed to remember me, and I gave him a handshake, but I gave his former wife nothing, nada, zilch. Our eyes came close to meeting, but in the nick of time, Glen leaned into her and asked, slowly, urgently, “I know I’ve seen you—CNN? PBS?” “I wish.” She almost giggled, and she wasn’t a giggler. “I know I’ve see you. You look so familiar. It’s driving me crazy.” “Well, public access TV—a few times.” “Really?” “I made a documentary on a project Philip organized. He got together a gleaning team from a homeless shelter.” “A gleaning team?” “Gleaning is the process of gathering fruit that’s left on the ground after a grove has been harvested—picked up so that it isn’t abandoned to rot.” Like I was. Glen said, “How fantastic on so many levels.” He held her hand an extra long time. She glowed like a bride. I snuck around her and waited by the food table for the best cafeteria friend ever. Meanwhile, Jeff was entering my mother’s orbit and she seemed to be moving toward him, but I wasn’t sure that I could read her right, which bothered me. Glen loaded a

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“Glen’s fingers played silent notes on his knees.” tortilla chip with guacamole and watched me watching my “Ann, I don’t care that you told me to stop playing that mom. He asked, “What happened after Jeff ran off with Ms. sappy song.” Which was a relief to hear, but not what I’d Public Access?” meant about being a bitch. He said, “You know, I think I prefer The Kennedy Center post-La Traviata hug happened, but less dignity in a wedding—the groom smashes the glass, the I didn’t tell Glen that— or that Jeff had said I was too old and guests stomp their feet. Not that this isn’t very, very nice.” we’d been too close to continue to see each other alone. Behind the old man, the light coming in through the I mumbled, “Mom went on Match.com.” And I watched tall windows had softened—the sun was below the Philip’s mother help an old man sit down in front of the horizon—and I remembered the Quaker belief in the light piano. He moved slowly, trusting her with his painful joints. within every person. I also remembered that Quakers I said, “I am such a bitch.” distrust titles, preferring first names. 22


I said, “Glen, Jeff’s wife’s name is Caroline. Caroline used to made fantastic sweet potato pie.” Glen took my hand, as if about to read my palm. I said, “When Danielle had a lazy eye, no one at school wanted to sit with her at lunch. Even I didn’t want to.” I’d never told anyone that before. “I used to have monstrous acne and I was obsessed with Gothic card games and I ate with the dorks.” I wanted to ask Glen about the cards and the dorks, but Jeff was approaching with my mother, both of them distortedly happy, like a picture on a CD cover behind cracked plastic. I imagined kissing each of them through the plastic and cutting my lip. I tasted blood. I wanted to tell Glen that my mother had never missed the old Jeff the way I’d missed him. She had a husband called Mike and a biological son called Adam. I had enough abandonment in me to direct a revival of Madame Butterfly in the middle of a meetinghouse. Jeff as the arrogant American lieutenant. My mother as the deluded Butterfly. Me as the child of their union, grown up and mad as hell. If I wanted to, I could mess up everybody’s memory of a very, very nice wedding. Then my mom stepped out from the imaginary plastic. We hugged, and I calculated, out of habit, the angles from which no one watching us could see for sure that I’d been

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adopted, from which we’d just be two women, one with amazing curls. Ping. The play list for my mother’s long-ago broken heart had consisted of scratchy Joni Mitchell ballads; Mom’s favorite music was on her ancient LPs. I’d let her go on and on about how Jeff was a cowboy, a gambler, a rock and roll man. I’d made tea and baked cookies. Now I needed to tell Glen about those days: taking cookie sheets out of the oven, the chocolate chips melted to perfection, knowing that I was doing exactly what I should be doing for exactly the right person. And I needed to tell Glen that I felt the same way in the neonatal ICU, knowing I was helping babies and looking forward to or reflecting back on lunches with my best cafeteria friend. Then, as if my eyes had been taken over by some force outside myself, I swear to the Quaker/Jewish heavens that they turned from my mother and Jeff to see a light in Glen radiating from his bald spot, from the place where babies have a vulnerable soft spot. I touched his head. He scratched at my hand. He asked, “Another experiment?” “Sure.” Then we shared a hot breath of a kiss—data enough—as the bride and groom gathered guests to sign their wedding certificate, and in my peripheral vision, my mother smiled our smile. ¤

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Pa t i e n t Y B Y S C O T T T. S TA R B U C K

says he’s scared of continental drift, that some morning he’ll be thrown from bed when North America slams into Europe. I do my best not to laugh because his onion face is so serious. “You really think that will happen soon?” I ask. He coldly says he doesn’t know, that he wasn’t supposed to lose his job, house, or wife of 35 years either.


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R aw Footage BY BILL D’AREZZO


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efore a movie, we’d stopped for drinks in a restaurant next to the theater, where Laurie, ordering her second vodka and tonic, noticed I’d barely touched my beer. “C’mon, Jim. Keep up,” she said, waving frantically for a second as if we were in a race, dark hair bouncing around eyelids lightly etched, like on young eyes. “Nah,” I said, glancing out the window next to us. Outside the restaurant window, people were lining up for the movie. The light outside was darkening into a deeper shade of blue. “What’s the rush? It’s been done.” “So, what are you saying? That I’m not original?” She leaned forward, close to my face, and smacked the table sharply. “I want you drunk this instant!” she said, before falling back against her seat again. She briefly faced her reflection in the glass, a couple in white looking back in. “During the time I was married,” she continued, “I was busy raising Matt and didn’t have much time to paint. And I was

also having all these problems with my husband. I mean, we won’t go into that.” She looked for the waitress. “So our breakup was this long drawn-out process, and I started going out drinking a lot. I’d never been a big drinker, but it kind of carried over after my husband moved out. I mean, I don’t know how much longer it can continue. Not long I guess.” She shrugged. “But since I started painting again—and you know—meeting you—” The waitress came to a halt beside us. Laurie looked up, then at me, and said, “Are you ready for another?” I nodded yes, and the waitress went away. “Well, don’t feel bad,” I said. “I was drunk for two decades.” Laurie started to laugh, then caught herself. “Seriously?” she asked. “Yeah. In the evenings anyway. Hungover during the day.” She lowered the drink she’d been sipping, swallowing suddenly. “You don’t mind that we’re drinking now, do you?” she said, her eyes reflecting candlelight. 27


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“No, it’s OK. I just got caught up in that pattern of always stopping for a drink after work.” As I talked, Laurie occasionally nodded as if remembering something. The waitress returned and placed the drinks in front of us. By the time we went out to stand in line, Laurie had become quite relaxed, talking freely about whatever crossed her mind, which brought us to her son Matt, a freshman in the same film department where I met his mother, herself an Art major. “He’s completely obsessed. He sees cinema in everything,” she said. “That’s all he talks about. I mean we can’t have a conversation without movies creeping in. ‘All I care about is my Art,’ ” she mimicked him, laughing. “‘Everything is Art. Everything is Cinema.’” Then she nodded once, clearly proud of her son and the choices he was making. I felt warmed by clear sign of understanding, and put my arm around her waist, causing her to look up suddenly, as if I had turned on a switch. She rotated her body toward me, and I gently pulled her in. “He’s like you, I guess,” she added, after I kissed her. It was just the week before that I first got involved with Matt’s film. Laurie was reaching into the refrigerator, and I was seated at the kitchen table watching her bend over in her shorts. She looked over her shoulder, catching me, then swung her head back around, laughing into the coldness, extracting two beers from the arsenal of bottles inside. Turning, standing upright with the beers, she said “What are you looking at?” and slammed the refrigerator door with her hip, while extending one bottle toward me. When the door slammed the bottles inside clinked in agreement. I shook my head. “All that beer and wine.” I held up one hand as if to say no, thanks. “How many is this now?” She thrust the bottle closer to my face, and I took it. “Look at you, the textbook voyeur,” she said, unscrewing the cap. “Just like in Rear Window. Just like any film nut. Does the refrigerator remind you of a movie screen?” she laughed, spinning the cap into a corner basket. “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you looking at something else?” she 28

asked, stepping toward me. “Do you just like to watch?” she asked, straddling my lap, “Or are you going to act?” She stressed the last word, and I assumed she meant that it was time for me to throw her on the table. Just then, a car door slammed, followed by footsteps, and her son Matt walked in, finding us in separate chairs. Whenever Matt encountered me, Laurie and I were drinking. For the rest of my visit he made trips to the kitchen, always as if to get something, but with the clear intention of watching me as I sat around drinking with his mother. He took a glass down from the cupboard over the sink, filled it from the tap and then stood holding it as if interested in our conversation, but looking as if he were planning or deciding something. I found out later he just needed someone to play a drunk in his film, and as if by magic, I appeared, conveniently fitting the bill. But he reminds me of myself at his age, before all the other stuff started. The desire to be creative to the exclusion of all else. Being around mother and son seems to bring back my original self, with its hopes for the future, that innocent eye long since sealed shut by too much disappointment. * Sheets of rain wash over the windshield, the wipers flailing madly, as Matt explains that this film is the longest project he’s ever undertaken, the first one with any kind of developed narrative. “But see—I haven’t actually written a script,” he says, “‘cause—I don’t know—I think more in terms of visuals than dialogue.” He makes elaborate rolling gestures with his right wrist, as he turns on the left directional with his other hand. “Well, that’s lazy,” I say as he makes the turn. But he just continues. “So I have the story pretty much set in my mind, and I’ll usually have a rough idea of how I want you to act in each scene. But I want you to improvise the dialogue. You know, make stuff up. You’re into film, right?” “So what’s the story?” I ask, still apprehensive, having never acted. I look over at him, but he won’t look back at me, already focused on something else.


“I’ll tell you later,” he says. “Let’s just not talk now, OK?” I’m searching for signs of Laurie in him—the thin frame, the small brown eyes—and find myself trying to imagine their history together. But as I watch him mentally preparing himself and what-not, I’m briefly aware that, because I never met the father, I will never know what his early years were like, the years Laurie lived through and which defined Matt, long before I ever came along. It’s Saturday morning, pouring rain, and the streets are flooded. Matt picks up another guy, named Chris, who leaps over a flooded gutter to get into the station wagon. The back seat is folded down to make room for the props and camera equipment. I crawl over the front seat to make room for Chris. Lying in the back, cramped and uncomfortable, I feel like I’m too big for the car. Next to me are two cameras, a camcorder, a tripod, a tarp, some microphones and tapes. There’s also an oblong box wrapped in newspaper and a quart of Jack Daniel’s. “See that box?” Matt says, turning around briefly and pointing. “That’s the package you’ll be carrying. You’re like a carrier for the mob, and that’s the package you’re delivering.” Oh god, I’m thinking. Cliché time. “And you’ll also be carrying that bottle—it’s really apple juice, but it’s supposed to be whiskey. And you’re on this bender? During the course of the movie you get more and more drunk. This scene will be much later in the movie, so you’ve got to act like you’re really drunk. OK? Do you think you can do that?” In my prostrate position I shrug awkwardly, nodding, not only because the subject is familiar territory, but also because I assume I won’t have to make up anything. I’ll only have to remember, and Matt’s question has already set in motion a stream of point–of–view shots with sound and dialogue. Falling backward off a barstool. Hands lifting me up, hands all over me. Watching the ceiling go by, the front door, the concrete coming up at me. Voices. Don’t come back. That piece’a shit? Keep him out of here. Women laughing. My

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cheek against the pavement. Just lying like that, hearing them. I tell myself not to anticipate the performance, but rather, when the time comes, to just react. But then it occurs to me that in order to react, I must act. I’ll have to do shit, and I can feel the weight of those experiences, like they’re something I’ll have to pull, a big step into the past and into myself. I’m suddenly pissed off at the thought of the work involved. So this is acting, I think: commitment, and being pissed off about it. After driving around for a while, looking for a location where there aren’t a lot of people watching, Matt decides on the entrance to an abandoned train tunnel, walled up and covered with graffiti faces. Pink, blue, red. The tracks, overgrown with weeds, emerge from the base of the wall. Next to the tunnel, there’s this steep hill, a dirt path strewn with boulders. The path is muddy from the rain, still pouring steadily. I’m wearing a long black overcoat. Matt hasn’t planned for the rain, and he tells me to put the box under the coat, and then to button it. The box doesn’t fit very easily, stretching the coat almost to its limit when buttoned. The effect is freakish, pregnant. This huge rectangular shape jutting out of my abdomen. I’m thinking, how can this work? It takes me a while to get the idea, just how out of it I’m supposed to be. Falling backward down dark stairs. The flash as I hit the bottom. Bleeding from the head. Firemen carrying me out. Shoved around by laughing cops, streetlights circling like fireflies. Pushed out a patrol car door. The flash as my head hits the curb. The images fade, but they’re always there. Like I’m stuffed with them, I think, conscious of the bulge under my coat. The two other guys go down the hill ahead of me. They get ready for the first shot, as I look down watching them rig a plastic visor over the camera to keep the rain off the lens. I hear Matt giving instructions to Chris. Chris lies face down in the wet weeds, wearing an old suit coat. Matt goes over and kicks dirt on him, smears mud on him, and spreads some weeds over him. Then he brushes some weeds off

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“As they confuse m as if their behavio I find their remar again, trying to make Chris look like a body that’s been lying there for a long time. Matt yells up at me. “Are you ready?” I stand there nodding. Like an actor. He’d explained in the car that I’m supposed to stumble down the hill drunk and discover the body, but how I do it is my own affair. It’s still pouring. I look down the muddy path, very steep and slippery, the rocks embedded like landmines all the way down. From below, Matt looks up through the camera and yells action. I start down, scared I’ll slip and break something while I’m busy acting. OK, I’m acting, I realize, but the box inhibits movement, making it difficult to maneuver if I should actually slip. My customary agility is gone—stripped from me by this young fanatic. I try to feel the way I used to feel when I was really wasted. The long walk home, slowly, like climbing. Nearby traffic that sounds distant. My shadow under the street lamps leading me from one end of the sidewalk to the other. Cops driving by, slowly. I wave the bottle with my upper body as if I’m staggering, my legs splayed out, the sides of my feet planted on stones for support, slipping occasionally, then recovering on a rock, but trying to look as if I’m stumbling. All that. But none of it has the spontaneous luck of the drunk, who may or may not make it without falling, but who’d be propelled forward 30

by drink. My performance is flawed by props and sobriety. I get to the bottom, swaying, looking around, Matt still filming. I have to keep pausing to remember what it feels like to be drunk. So I’m stalling—the stumbling staller. There’s broken glass everywhere, and I’m straddling the railroad tracks, facing the big graffiti illustrations, with my back to the camera, remembering. You arrive home. Stairs. You get your key out but can’t get it in the door, can’t imagine how you ever did, and you keep trying, needing to piss, finally falling through the open doorway ten minutes later, and into the bathroom, somewhat more lucid by then. I turn toward the camera in a slow rotation, then back around, looking up at the pictures, as if imagining things in some kind of delirium, the faces alive and talking to me, the colors, blue, pink, etc., presumably swirling about. But I soon get tired of that, and it only remains to throw the bottle at one of the faces on the wall and move toward the body. After a moment, I remember to stumble around. I stumble over here, and I stumble over there. I let myself list from side to side. Each time I take a step, I start to fall in that direction. The process is slow and ponderous, the camera humming. I begin to realize that it sometimes takes a great deal of effort to do something stupid. Before getting to the body I try to clear my head of the fact that there’s a body there, so that when I see it, I’ll be


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me with the character on the tape, I feel at first or is a kind of tribute to my performance, and rks starting to go to my head.” genuinely surprised. I get there and see it. And it doesn’t work. I’m not surprised. So I stall again, swaying, trying to fake a reaction. I step backward as if surprised—as if to say, imagine my surprise. Squinting, I somehow try to achieve an expression of anguish, torment, etc. Why is this happening to me? After a while I turn and start to stagger away, through the overgrowth and down the tracks, until I’m out of sight of the camera. “OK, that’s good,” Matt says, laughing. I no longer have my bottle, I realize. Now what? But Matt yells for me to come back, and that’s it. No second takes so far—the years of preparation have paid off. We’ve completed the first day of shooting. * It’s Monday morning, and I’m in the projection booth at school, threading film leader while the students wander in noisily. As I work, I watch them through the booth window, animated faces discussing the films they saw over the weekend. The teacher jokes her way down the stairs of the dark amphitheater, amidst the buzz about the Dziga Vertov film that I’m now loading onto the projector, a film I too have always wanted to see. I plan to take this class on the silent cinema next fall, but as it’s my first semester, I had to enroll in the Intro class first. My job in the Film Department,

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however, permits me to audit the course in advance. In all my forty years, I’ve never had a better job, or enjoyed mornings so much. There’s a knock on the booth door, but when I look through the window there’s no one there, which means someone is hiding off to the side. Guessing who it is, I open the door, and Laurie pushes her way into the booth like the shark from Jaws, only cuter, her face coming toward me unerringly, finding my mouth. As she kisses me, she pushes me back against the rear wall of the booth. With the door open, the noise spilling in from the outer room is deafening, and over this din a young woman shouts the term mise-en-scene in an over-inflected French accent, before the kiss breaks off. Then I notice that the film has unthreaded itself, so I begin rethreading the leader. “Guess what?” Laurie says brightly, “I saw your performance—the rushes, dailies, whatever you wanna call them.” The terms sound very strange applied to Matt’s primitive production, and she laughs as she uses them. “What was with that box?” I’m still threading. “Well, anyway, what I saw was very—believable,” she says, adjusting her shoulder strap. “Have you been drinking already?” I ask her. She shoves 31


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me. Just then I notice the professor down in front of the screen looking up towards the booth. Laurie turns and sees the same thing, picks up her bag and runs down to her seat as I dim the lights. Later in the week, Laurie invites me over for dinner. Matt’s gone out someplace, so she and I are alone. Whenever I expect one of these get-togethers to be difficult, they turn out to be quite pleasant. In the past, I might have felt under pressure to behave myself, a tension that can often lead to trouble. These days, I just feel acceptance. We’re in a kitchen area, and I don’t feel bad about the fact that it’s somebody else’s kitchen, as I stand there while Laurie gets some bowls down from the cupboard, and the dog circles my legs, licking my hand. The shades are still up on all the windows, and twilight has swiftly elided into night while we’ve been talking, a reminder that it’s getting dark earlier these days. The house is old and mostly open space, divided by shelves and bookcases into discrete areas. I can tell the place is hard to heat, because I can feel the encroaching chill at the edge of the warmth, though I’m very comfortable. Laurie’s lighting a wood burning stove in a small sitting space just off the kitchen. When I offer to help carry things into the dining area, she doesn’t tell me to just sit down, like I’m company, but let’s me share in the activity. I carry the stew pot from the kitchen to the dining area, as Laurie glides about the house pulling the shades and lighting candles with quick well-practiced movements, then follows me to the dining room table with the bowls, spoons and glasses. I set the pot on the ceramic tile in the middle of the table. Laurie runs off again, turns out the kitchen light and comes back. How easy this is, I’m still thinking, because it’s really sneaked up on me. Is this how normal people live? Without that wildness, that feeling that I’m outside of everything, that the handle I use with people will always be the rough handle, not the smooth one. I’d lost that sense that there can ever be an easiness with people. 32

Laurie blows on her spoon, watching me looking at her, and I think maybe I should say something. She watches me think that. Then she says my name. After a while she starts talking about the film, a subject she can’t get enough of, and just by mentioning Matt’s project, it’s as if the film were rolling as she speaks. “But it’s embarrassing,” I tell her. “I look bad.” “But isn’t that why it’s a good performance? `Cause it’s supposed to look bad?” “I don’t know. It bothers me.” “What do you mean? You’re not like that in real life.” Laurie acts as if she’s talking about a book on a shelf in some other room, but there are no other rooms on this floor. I’m out in the open here, and that thing I’ve brought from inside myself is walking around tripping over chairs, interrupting our dinner. He’s not civilized like us. You can’t take him anywhere. He’ll say the wrong thing at any moment, lives for the opportunity, loves confrontations, doesn’t trust anyone. You don’t want to get involved. I’m the only one around here who seems to know that. “Why?” she says, putting her spoon down. “Do you feel like you’re being dragged back to that?” “I don’t want to feel that way.” “But I’m asking you, do you feel that way?” “A lot of the time. With the film and everything.” “What do you mean, and everything? Do you think any of it has to do with me? With my drinking?” “No, it has to do with my drinking. I mean it’s the first time I’ve ever acted, here I am making up the dialogue, and nobody can look away.” “Ughhh! You’re bumming me out over here,” she says, throwing her spoon down. “It’s only acting.” “Yeah, but it lingers.” “But I mean—we’re OK, right?” she says, standing up, starting to clear, but pausing when I don’t answer right away. “And you’re nothing like that in real life.” Tired of hearing about myself, I get up and start helping her, but she continues. “I mean, you don’t act like that


around me, do you? No. You don’t. So it’s acting. It’s not you. Anyway, let’s do something to cheer us up.” She takes the dishes I was holding, returns them to the table, grasps my hand and leads me upstairs. * It’s getting dark on the last day of filming, and it’s been raining again. Not as steadily as it did the previous two weekends, but with a similar persistence, so the mood of the day’s shots will match what was filmed the two weeks before. By the time evening arrives the rain has stopped. It’s Halloween. Matt had me stumbling around Providence all day acting drunk, and now we’re at Laurie’s house in Barrington with a bunch of Matt’s friends, watching the tape of the day’s filming. Later we’ll go to an antique shop, where his mother works, to film one last scene. But she’s warned us that we’d better wait until she’s there before we start filming. These days I’m always looking at myself on tape, and in a way it’s funny, the rampant amateurism of the actors. But in another way, what we’re watching isn’t much different from the state I used to live in from day to day. Except now I’m seeing it, like those around me saw it. Is this depiction all I have to show from my past? I get up off the couch and go into the kitchen area, filling my wine glass, realizing that this will be the first time I’ll have actually been drinking when we start filming. Face up on the counter beside me is a Halloween mask, one of several scattered about the house for the occasion. As I drink more wine the mask smiles up at me, its hollow eyes pulling me in, as if compelling me to put it on. After the filming we come back, and Matt and his friends are getting dressed up for a costume party, while watching the footage from the antique store. Matt’s Black Labrador, Annie, hasn’t calmed down since we arrived, because of all the excitement with the food and the costumes. Laurie made us all dinner, then went out for more wine. I’m in the kitchen area again, listening to the voices and the barking coming from the other end of the house. I’ve

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just done all the dishes, and I’m looking out the window at the diminishing twilight. The kitchen windows are big. It’s still damp out, and wet leaves stick to the windows, orange and glowing yellow, held there against the darkness outside. After a while, the front door slams, and I hear Laurie’s voice. Somebody walks off the carpet onto the hardwoods, their heavy shoes echoing in the big drafty house. The front door opens again. Someone says, “Let’s go,” and the thumping, shuffling sounds increase, drowning out the voices. The front door closes, the footsteps continue on the wooden stairs outside, car doors slam, and the kids drive away, leaving Laurie’s softer, more adult-sounding footsteps walking toward me the only sound. “How’re we doin’ out here?” she says, coming up from behind, leaning over me, arms around my shoulders. “So how’d it go,” she asks. “I was working in the back of the store, so I missed the whole thing. Let’s watch the tape.” Remote in one hand, wine glass in the other, she heads for the couch with me trailing behind. The tape starts, and it’s the antique shop, where Chris’ character—a French gangster named Jacques who runs the store—first gives me the box wrapped in newspaper. Matt had told us that in this scene, my character’s at the height of his bender, that I’m supposed to get Jacques pissed off, and that the dialogue should overlap, so it’ll seem real. The first shot looks out through the store windows at me drinking from another whiskey bottle filled with apple juice. I put the bottle in my coat pocket and saunter into the store, past the customers, all looking on in bewilderment. When I reach Chris at the counter, I take out the bottle and start drinking apple juice. Sitting there watching with Laurie, I suddenly spit up my drink. “Christ,” I blurt out, wiping my mouth. “I feel like I’ve been sentenced to an eternity of watching this shit.” “Sssshh. Let me just hear this,” Laurie says, hitting my arm and turning up the sound. “One last time, OK? Just so I can see it.”

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On the tape, Chris produces the package. “Can I trust you with this?” he says, in a bad French accent. “Can I trust you with this?” I say, gesturing obscenely. “Just take the package! Then hold it until—” “—not holdin’ it—” “—you’re holding it—” “—hold this, you fu—” On the couch next to me, Laurie’s shaking quietly with laughter. I shove her away, and she falls back against my shoulder, sipping her wine. “You’re good at this,” she says loudly. “You’re good at acting fucked up.” She starts laughing again. Watching the tape, I remember trying to make up stuff that would fit, and I’m thinking how readily I rose to the task, how natural it felt. Laurie’s stroking the back of my neck and sipping wine with her other hand. I grab the remote and turn off the tape on a shot of myself during an awkward pause, aware that I’m being filmed, looking uncertain about what to do next. I head back to the kitchen for a refill. As I sit down at the table, Laurie comes in, walks around my chair and sits, facing me. “I guess it’s not a pretty sight,” she says, and almost laughs again, but stops herself and puts her hands on my knees. Now it seems like she’s looking inside herself, seeing more than I can see. But something plays across her face, exposed, shifting. “I have to admit” she says, “I’m glad they’re through filming. So I can have you back, you know, the way you were before.” When I don’t reply, she grabs both my shoulders and shouts: “The fucking film’s all finished now!” then lowers her voice again. “What do I have to do? OK, we won’t drink anymore, how’s that? I was going to stop anyway. It’s not something I care about.” She’s still gripping my arms, her face close to mine, holding my gaze. “We could at least give it a little rest for a while,” I say, really hating the statement. Then I look over at the sitting space where we filmed one day, then down at the kitchen table, remembering Laurie bent over it with her dress pulled up. 34

This view quickly fades, however, giving way to the present, our current situation—everything changed—and as I pick up my coat I find myself wondering if this is the last time I’ll ever be here. As if reading my mind, Laurie jumps out of her chair and rushes at me, throwing her arms around my shoulders, laughing nervously. “Wait a minute. Where do you think you’re going? Can’t you stay awhile?” Instantly, our mouths are pressed together, and we’re locked into each other. I shove her up against the refrigerator, tilting it, which knocks something loose, and there’s the crashing sound of bottles inside. Laurie seems oblivious, her legs off the floor and wrapped around me—or rather the crashing has only spurred her on. But the clinking glass sounds have reminded me of something. An image knocked loose that I don’t want to see. And I’m wondering how it’ll affect my performance. * Later on, Laurie decides to go out for more wine, and as I sit at the kitchen table, drinking quietly, Matt comes back with still more people, all in costumes. I figure, what the hell, may as well be sociable, and get up to join them. But with Laurie absent I feel out of place almost at once. Chris is wearing a black gorilla suit that he rented for the party. He has it all on except for the head, and Annie is having a fit of barking--alternated with vibrating growling, as if she has a little motor inside her--at this large hairy animal that’s suddenly appeared in the living room. It’s a pretty good gorilla suit, and Chris stands there laughing, holding the head, while Annie’s barks echo under the high ceiling. The kids mill around Chris, and the discussion turns to various girls who aren’t present—a litany of unfamiliar names—as the dog barks, and I try to keep my eyes from rolling back into my head. Bored out of my skull, I think, what would Laurie do if she were here? I leave the group and head for the refrigerator, where I open the door and extract a beer.


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“They shove me around. Voices interrupt me, wrap me in sheets. Go away, they tell me. The bar’s that way, take any road, find one.” As I twist off the top, the room amplifies the sound, causing a lapse, and all heads to turn, except for Annie’s, still barking at the gorilla. As I take my first pull from the bottle, I spin the cap into the basket as Laurie would do. I stroll back towards them, bottle upended in my mouth, pleased with myself that I’ve disrupted their prattle, even though the sight of me drinking causes one of them to whoop loudly—I hate whooping—and several of them to head for the refrigerator in my wake. Another guy pulls out a joint and lights it. “All right, Jim!” one of them yells. “Jim’s ready to party!” I also hate that word, its vague usage in the absence of a social agenda. They’re all standing there, sort of like they’re in awe, like an audience, as I quickly finish the first beer and ask one of them, this guy Dan, at the fridge now, to hand me another. Dan looks like a gopher, fat and stuffed into his clothes, with a leather jacket and a glass medallion with a dead scorpion inside. In the film, he played a mob big shot, or tried to, and I briefly imagine the difficulty Matt must have had getting people to film on the weekend, casting about, and coming up with this guy he’d known in high school. Through the barking I hear Matt say, “Beats apple juice, huh, Jim? There’s some whiskey in the cupboard if you want. It’s the real thing, though.” Dan hands me the beer, saying, “All right! Let’s learn from

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the master! Jim, you get high? Or do you just drink?” “No, I’ll take a hit.” He passes the joint. As they confuse me with the character on the tape, I feel at first as if their behavior is a kind of tribute to my performance, and I find their remarks starting to go to my head. But then, because I’m an adult, or just know better, this sensation quickly gives way to a strong distaste for the way they’re behaving, a real annoyance with the inaccuracy of their perceptions. “Don’t you want some Jack Daniel’s?” Matt asks. “Sure,” I answer, feeling provoked now. “I’ll have some Where is it? The cupboard?” I open the cupboard over the sink, pull down the bottle and a glass, and pour one. I down it in one swallow, and there’s the whoop again, accompanied by laughter and muttering and barking. Dan is whispering something to Chris, and I become aware of a different tone now, one of resentment, maybe because he didn’t get the lead and didn’t have much screen time. Maybe it’s the booze, and maybe I sense a discomfort in the group as a whole with the gap in our ages, like my presence is inhibiting. Maybe the easiest thing is to label me a lush, just like I was cast, so they don’t have to take me seriously. There’s more low laughter and murmuring as 35


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Dan resumes his easy posture, swaying, stance wide like a cowboy. I pour another drink, and walk up to him. “You got a problem?” I ask, standing in front of him. Even if they think I’m a drunk, I’ll show them I’m not a helpless one. “Who? Me?” he asks, pointing to his chest, then looking around at the others. Chris, still in the gorilla suit, steps away to disassociate himself, and the dog goes nuts again. I consider shoving Dan in the chest, then do it. “Jim, take it easy,” Matt yells, trying to be heard over the barking, then turns to Dan. “Dan, what’d I tell you? You’re in my house.” But I’m feeling hot, and getting hotter. My chest, my arms. A wave of flashing heat traveling up my body, like electrical current. The feeling is too familiar, and the walls of the room go away. The current races down my arms. Doesn’t flow out, gets jammed up in my shoulders and hands. Then I hear Laurie walk through the back door, just a few feet away. “What’s going on in here?” she says. There’s cheer in her voice, and I hear her put down shopping bags. “Annie, be quiet! Matt, are you drunk already?” Then I hear Laurie go dead still. Meanwhile, my muscles are going haywire, and Dan steps up closer to me. His face is inches away from mine. My vision breaks up into orange flashes, widening, fading. Then new ones. With each one, everything around me gets whiter, rushing by on either side of my head. Like I’m speeding, like in a movie. I can smell my own sweat, like rusted tin, the booze streaming out. Nobody speaks. The quiet pushes in. And Dan is there. Is that a smile? That better not be a smile. I step into his space, knocking him back some, and then the hands. All over me, from behind me and from the side. All over my shoulders, arms. Barking. I feel somebody’s arm around my middle, someone else pulling my arms back. Then voices slowly rising up. Let’s. Just. Take it. Bark. Easy. The voices slowly rising from nothing. The hands moving over me, with rapid barking. 36

And I’m hotter. Dan butts me with his chest and steps back. Let’s take it. The hands hold me. That’s. Enough. Let’s. Legs. My leg kicks out, misses. The hands keep pulling. Dan spits. But the hands. My friends. I pull them all forward, toward the kid. I hear “Stop.” Stop resisting. I hear, “Jim.” The kid slaps me lightly on the face. Then the smile. I drag them all forward, my friends. Jim. The kid steps out of the way. I hear “Dan, get out of my house.” Laurie. So I pull free, and one of them falls. The gorilla. So I lunge after Dan, but the hands are back, groping, pulling me to the floor, and I hear the front door slam. The hands hold me down. Let’s just calm Jim. That’s enough, Jim. Let’s just. My new friends, friends of Jim. Sweat and quiet. The hands still now, holding me. We all lie there in a clump. No talking. No more talk. The silent treatment from the barmaid and waitresses. But you see whispering. You don’t know what they’re talking about. You do and you don’t. There’s a distance, like you’re a child and they’re the grownups, and there’s a mystery and there isn’t. They ignore you for a while, then you’re outside again. Groping toward the next bar. A car starts, drives away. The hands let go. Then we’re standing, and I feel a hand. A strange hand, nobody I know, so I hit it away. No friend of mine, so I move toward the exit. Then I’m outside in the autumn black, my sweat freezing up in the chill, my coat left behind. Too late for that now. So I circle the house, and I’m out on the street. Then I see them, and remember the day. But it’s night now. One after the other, swarming the dark street, as if from inside the dark, like termites, D.T.s. No light left now. Even the glow from the leaves, the orange, mostly flattened on the ground. Slippery in places, the trees stripped. What’s left? I don’t know this area. Swimming past me in the muted glow from the surface, stark white, an eye, fixed on me. And trailing beside it, is that red, what’s left of red? The twisted smile on a pilot fish. Shapes all around me, but I’m confronted by these two. No wait, there’s three. No wait. The eyes challenge me. Our turf. Our right to be here. Others moving in now. A tall one. Taller, a lot of plastic. These aren’t


“Upended, legless. Sunk. Where’s the surface? What’s left?”

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kids, are they? Where are the kids? A bump from behind. So I turn, can’t tell if I’m turning. What I’ve turned into, not a kid. Moved into. Big green hair sticking out of a hat. A black hat ‘cause I can’t see it. Another bump. They want something. My clothes? My guts? They want my guts. There’s a hand. They’ve stolen the sheets. Baby sheets. They eat the babies and wear the sheets. Where’s the road? Above me, swim upward. A short one bumps against me, moves off to the side. E.T. head, but too tall to go home, waves bye-bye. Said something. “Not funny,” that’s what it said. He she dead. “One of us.” Someone says no. A mistake. Hands withdrawn quickly. They move away fast. Must have seen, what did they see? Don’t want to know. Where’s the road? There it is, sliding under me, raw footing. Eel people, tipping me over. Upended, legless. Sunk. Where’s the surface? What’s left? Mashed orange leaves lifting me up. Schools of the damned eddy past in the other direction. Which way, though? The others go there. Stitched-up plastic maskitated universal dummies. A wolf dummy. Horror is funny, it says, and universal. The lost children of the Nam. Where’s the screen and where’s the road? That way, dis way. Dressed up messed up in a dress. A lady in distress. A lady in dat dress. Trees undress in front of me. Heads in a box eat the mail. Intestines hang out of an open zipper. Cat people snatch the guts and breed. They shove me around. Voices interrupt me, wrap me in sheets. Go away, they tell me. The bar’s that way, take any road, find one. ¤

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Fields open through blood, calloused hands, wood grips, and sweat. Just like it was when I left.

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Old farmers look like scare crows draped with skin. Gaunt and hollow. Their eyes move with the wind, hungry and dusty. When trucks pass dust hangs in the air with nowhere to go. I was young here in the creek bed where my hands took the light, cupped it in a pool of water. Times when the ground froze solid,

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and couldn’t be split with a plow. acres burnt, swallowed in flames from a flicked cigarette. Nights coon hunting, lantern light burning a hole in the darkness filled woods. The haunting howls of hounds. I counted the days until I got to leave and left as well anyone could. But now, here in the wind, the open sun, and the forgotten, overgrown fields, I see everything is beautiful and nothing matters. 39


Rewriting Elvis NON-FICTION

BY YINKA REED-NOLAN

Danielle Has Agreed to Appear in a Documentary about Addiction My first Memory of Danielle is a sutured wound across her thigh. Part of me thinks it was an intentional wound because she showed it off – the orange discolored skin, puss oozing against a neatly threaded closure – but I can’t remember for sure. My second memory of Danielle is her jet-black hair, then her southern drawl and cackling laugh. I see her eating French toast sandwiches, making herself throw-up, then jumping on the kitchen table and belting out Skin and Bones by Marianas Trench. Even if she sings off key, Danielle is my Southern rock star. She is my other half, a representation of everything I lack. Danielle is obsessed with three things: anorexic watching, breakfast and Elvis. Not 1950s and ‘60s Elvis, but the 40

troubled, cracked out Elvis of the mid to late ‘70s. She thinks it is romantic the way he died “all fucked up”; she believes the drugs did him in. When I’m not working register at the grocery store where I met Danielle (she got fired a few months ago), I’m at the gym. Danielle says the gym is for schmucks who have people to impress, so lately “gym” has become code for sitting on public sidewalks eating strawberry tart frozen yogurt and listening to Danielle tell stories as she chain smokes, or sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of Starbucks and “anorexic watching.” One morning when we have all day to kill, we ride the bus to the city to make our way to the Starbucks on Union between Octavia and Buchanan. I like this Starbucks because I know it well; it’s the one I spend hours at every Wednesday afternoon before my behavioral therapy group.


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Danielle, on the other hand, likes this Starbucks because it’s in the upscale area of Cow Hollow and it makes her feel particularly classy to be associated with such a neighborhood even if she doesn’t act the part. She also claims they have the best anorexics here, but she says that about whichever Starbucks we happen to be at on any given day. We arrive early enough to get the table hidden in the corner next to the cash register and we mark our territory with our backpacks before sashaying to the counter to place our orders. We come here enough that I suppose we’re regulars; the cashier knows Danielle always orders the same thing: a venti-sized Java Chip Frappuccino. I’m a little trickier, depending on the day, but I either get a venti-sized ice water or grande-sized passion tea lemonade sweetened with 3 packets of Splenda. I’d like it to be even sweeter, but I figure it would seem excessive to ask for more than three

packets. After we pay for and collect our drinks, we return to our corner and commence the anorexic watching. At 9:30AM when a stuffy looking man in a business suit walks in, Danielle declares, “He looks boring. I smell an order for drip coffee.” We listen as he orders and he does get a tall drip coffee, but I think there might be something interesting about him. “It’s 9:30, shouldn’t he be at work?” I comment. “He probably owns the company and goes in whenever he wants,” Danielle replies sipping her Frappuccino. “No. If he owned the company then he would have an assistant to buy him coffee. I think he puts suits on every morning to convince his wife that he is going to work. He probably doesn’t have a job.” Danielle laughs at me like I’m crazy, but I watch the man grabs a newspaper off of a vacant table and takes a seat 41


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next to the window. Before I can say anything else, however, Danielle elbows me in the side and gestures to the register where a woman with dreadlocks and a thrift store skirt is ordering. Danielle predicts that she will order a Zen Tea because she is a hippie. Danielle is right of course. Eventually an anorexic walks in and Danielle gets so excited that she kicks me under the table and I almost spill my water. “Anorexic alert,” Danielle whispers and points to an emaciated woman dressed in workout clothes walking through the door. I glance up and see the woman approaching the counter. “Pish, she’s going to order an Americano because she’s got people to impress. As if people are actually watching her or care what she orders,” Danielle rolls her eyes. I want to point out that we are watching and we kind of care what she orders, or at least I care. I mean, I would be willing to die to be the woman, but Danielle would die just to keep being herself. I suppose that’s the difference between me and Danielle, but it’s also what I love about her; in a torn t-shirt and greasy cutoff jeans, Danielle has no one to impress. I smile and pretend I don’t care, “Yeah, look at the sweaty Lycra hanging off her ass.” When orders are slow and there isn’t anyone to watch, Danielle talks about Elvis. “Did you know he had a twin who died at birth?” She asks taking the last long slurp of her Frappuccino. “No, I don’t know much about Elvis. He actually kind of scared me as a kid.” “What?” She laughs.

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“I saw this documentary when I was 6 about how Elvis is still alive and in hiding and I was convinced he was coming to get me.” “Wow. You’re totally crazy,” Danielle grabs her side trying to control her laughter. “Tell me more.” “No. Not totally crazy. I mean people write books about it. There’s even a website that talks about how he is in witness protection because he was an FBI informant and the people he double-crossed want him dead. Some guy even posted a video on YouTube that shows Elvis at the last presidential inauguration.” Once she is finally able to calm herself down, Danielle puts her hand on my shoulder. “Trust me. Elvis is very much dead,” she says and I finally understand that Elvis’ death is the romance of it for her. Danielle doesn’t believe that Elvis could possibly be alive and I don’t know what I believe anymore. I’m not sure when it happened, but I stopped being afraid of Elvis coming to get me at some point. I suppose, I eventually realized that I was insignificant and if Elvis were alive, he would have no desire for me. I’m aware that believing myself insignificant is probably my problem, but awareness hasn’t fixed much of anything for me thus far and it will take a lot more than awareness to begin to touch Danielle’s troubles. Danielle needs an entire rewrite. Like so many other people, I want to rewrite Elvis’ death. I don’t want to do it for a good story or because I care whether Elvis is alive or; I want to do it for Danielle because maybe if she didn’t have the romance of it all, she would be a little less self-destructive.


Elvis Variation (Version 1) Elvis stands alone in his bathroom. The door is locked. He has 14 bottles of prescription pills lined up on the counter. He’s made all the calculations. He knows the number of pills to take from each bottle, the number that will induce a heart attack. The water is running while he counts the pills. All of a sudden there is a knock on the bathroom door. “Elvis?” Calls his live-in fiancé Ginger Alden. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine, baby. Go back to bed.” “It’s almost afternoon.” “Oh, well I’m going to go to bed soon.” “Okay, I love you,” she says and goes away. Elvis still dies. Fuck. Danielle doesn’t change. Living on Fumes My mom doesn’t like Danielle and I don’t think Danielle’s mom likes anyone, but I still spend the night at Danielle’s house at least once a week. Even though her mom smokes all over the house, Danielle is only allowed to smoke in the basement, so she’s turned it into her bedroom and we hang out there. She smokes with one hand and paints her toenails with the other as we watch episodes of A&E’s Intervention on her laptop. Danielle thinks it would have been so cool if Elvis had been on Intervention, but since the show didn’t exist back then and he wasn’t, our favorite episode is the one with Peter (we usually fast forward though his sections) and Renee. We’ve seen the episode half a dozen times, but we get goose bumps every time. Renee is a bulimic housewife who relies on water pills and laxatives to stay “thin;” Danielle and I are collectively in love with her.

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We know all the words to Renee’s part of the episode and we speak along with her in our most dramatic voices because we can relate to everything she says. “I should be happy, but I’m bulimic,” We say with Renee. “Food is my medication; it helps me feel better…” Danielle says next. Then I finish the line, “…food is my confidant, my friend.” Danielle takes the last drag on her cigarette and puffs, “So fucking true. I mean, yeah it’s about feelings and shit, but it’s also totally about the food.” She lights a new cigarette then gets quiet in preparation for her favorite line. “After I eat, I just feel disgusted,” Renee and Danielle say in unison. “I will have that same voice in my head that says, ‘throw up, just throw it up you’ll feel better. Just throw up, you’ll feel better!” “If only she would throw up,” I sigh as we watch Renee sit on her living room floor eating frozen waffles with butter and syrup. “I totally get Renee, but I don’t understand the frozen waffle thing. Frozen waffles are nasty and not fun to purge.” “For real,” Danielle agrees, “but like you said, she’s not going to throw them up anyway. Poor Renee, she just doesn’t understand how good bulimia works.” We call Renee a chubby bulimic. In Renee’s case, “chubby” is code for fat, but we love her because of this. She’s not all “skinny scary” (as Danielle says) like all the other eating disorder people we watch on Intervention. She’s real, like us. The other thing we like about Renee is how carefully she puts food in her mouth, like each bite is fragile. We love to watch her eat and emulate her behavior. When Renee drives to her favorite chicken place, Danielle decides she wants fried chicken. I have to remind her that she doesn’t have a license; I don’t have a car and her mom is at work, so she’s not getting any fried chicken tonight.

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“Danielle doesn’t believe that Elvis could possi I don’t know what I believe anymore.” “Fuck this shit! I need some food,” Danielle slams the ashtray and lit cigarette on the table and stomps upstairs into the kitchen. I put out her cigarette and follow behind her with the computer in my hands. When I get to the kitchen, Danielle is gathering the ingredients for French toast. I set up the laptop on the counter diagonal from Danielle’s frying pan and we continue watching Renee. Danielle dips three pieces bread in a bowl full of egg yolks and cinnamon sugar, and then drops them in the frying pan without taking her eyes off of the screen as Renee’s husband talks about the insidious nature of her eating disorder. When her toast is done, she microwaves some bacon and organizes a bacon French toast sandwich on a paper plate. She doesn’t offer me anything, but I know where all the food is and she always tells me I can get whatever I want. In the next scene Renee tells her friend Michelle about her med-seeking visit to the doctor over cocktails (she wanted prescription water pills). When Michelle finds out that Renee is still taking over-the-counter water pills even though her doctor told her they were very dangerous, Michelle demands, “You’re going to stop the pills and the 44

laxatives!” Then she has a break down and starts crying and pleads with Renee to stop, “You’ve got to fight. Just fight.” Laughing with a mouth full of French toast, Danielle mumbles, “Michelle is a fat bitch, just like your friend Nicole.” Danielle and Nicole hate each other. They both hate everyone, yet they are polar opposites; Danielle does stuff to the world and the world does stuff to Nicole. “Well…” I say. “C’mon admit it, Twin.” Danielle always calls me twin, like I’m her mirror image. “Nicole can be a bitch,” I admit. “More than a bitch, she’s totally like Michelle. I can see her doing this,” Danielle puts her hand on my shoulders, shakes me and screams, “Yenn, you’re going to stop the pills and the laxatives now!” I giggle, “So if Nicole is Michelle, does this mean I get to be Renee?” “I guess you can be Renee this time,” she laughs shoving more French toast in her mouth. “And like I said, Nicole is a bitch. Her name should be Nicolabitch.” I can’t help but laugh even harder and the name Nicolabitch sticks. We call her that from now on.


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ibly be alive and For all my friends who manage to be defunct versions of myself, Danielle is my favorite. I never get tired of her because she is always unapologetically the villain. I can’t imagine life, and how boring it would be, without Danielle. Candy Finnigan performs Renee’s intervention; she does all the eating disorder interventions. We love Candy with her former alcoholic, premature grandma wrinkles, but we ignore most of the intervention and all of what happens afterwards. We try to pretend like Renee doesn’t go to treatment and that she doesn’t get all happy and better. We pretend that everything will be the way it is right now forever, that we will be the same forever. I know we won’t though. I know we will be the statistical 1 out of 4 bulimics who die like Intervention warns us. Danielle will probably die soon; she vomits blood every day. And I might not be far behind, so we pretend like we want to die; we talk about it like it’s glamorous, like the only good bulimics are dead bulimics. But when I’m with Danielle, I don’t want us to die. I want us to live on these fumes forever, inhaling each other like a manic drug.

Ginger Alden, Priscilla, Elvis’ dad Vernon, and his cousin gather together in a hotel in downtown Memphis where Elvis believes he is to take part in an interview. They sit on two sofas in a room with a younger, pre-former alcoholic Candy Finnigan. Together they are ready to intervene on Elvis’ life. They’ve all written letters and prepared ultimatums. Candy has reassured them that what is about to happen will be life changing and magical; they will save Elvis. They wait. And they wait. Elvis never shows up. He has gotten word of what is supposed to go down this afternoon and he wants no part of it. After two hours they give up. They don’t try another intervention. Elvis still dies.

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Elvis Variation (Version 2)

The Intervention Instead of a letter that begins, “Dear Danielle, your eating disorder has affected you negatively in the following ways...” Danielle’s mother packs up a few of her belongings in a suitcase and drags her to the airport. She buys Danielle a one-way ticket to Birmingham; she is going to go live with her Aunt Vicki and Uncle Sal. I’d like to think that Danielle’s mom does it gently, that she puts her hand on 45


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her daughter’s shoulder and tells her that Aunt Vicki and Uncle Sal will take good care of her. They need someone to nanny their kids and they will pay her with room and board and a couple hundred dollars a month. She will be able to buy all the cigarettes she wants. I want to believe this, but I know her mom doesn’t care about her; she just wants to get rid of her. Danielle probably tries to negotiate, “Send me back home to Pensacola. I’ll live with dad. Anywhere but Alabama!” But her mom pushes her out of the car and informs her that she’d better get on the plane because if she doesn’t she won’t have anywhere to live. Danielle does get on the plane, but she thinks about missing her connection in Houston. She thinks she could start a new life there and get a job waitressing at a Waffle House. She could tease her hair, wear too much make up and call herself “Ginger.” She thinks it could be fun, but then she remembers the kind of people who frequented the Waffle House near where she used to live and she changes her mind. She gets on the plane to Birmingham. I’m going about rewriting Elvis all wrong. Elvis Variation (Version 3) Elvis is on an airplane heading towards Washington, D.C. He’s writing a letter to President Nixon, telling him how much he wants to help the country go in the right direction. He is offering his services in any way possible and suggests that Nixon make him a Federal Agent at Large. When Elvis arrives in D.C., he drops his letter off at the white house then meets with the deputy director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to seek a badge. Elvis’ request for federal credentials and the position of Federal Agent at 46

Large are denied. Elvis goes back to his hotel slightly dejected, but he is sure Nixon will read his letter and contact him. He even brought the president a gift all the way from Memphis. But Nixon never gets the letter. His secretary knows that he is preoccupied and busy; he’s beginning to plan his re-election, trying to find the funds for the campaign. She knows that Elvis will only be a distraction. Elvis never meets with Nixon; he never becomes a Federal Agent at Large; he never fakes his death; he never goes into witness protection. Instead he goes back to Memphis; he focuses on his music; he becomes disillusioned with fame and the government; he hits the drugs a little harder; he still dies. Danielle still moves to Alabama. The 90-Day-Follow-Up Danielle lives in Troy, Alabama now, but she calls me almost every night. She says she hates Alabama. Her aunt is always all up in her business and always wants to know why she smokes so much or why it takes her so long in the bathroom. Danielle has taken to purging in the shower. “Shower” has become code for purge and she showers more than ever, at least 5 times a day, to deal with the stress of living with Aunt Vicki. She’s not supposed to smoke in their house, but during our late night calls she leans her head out the window and smokes an entire pack. “I like being a nanny,” Danielle says. “I like getting paid to draw and play with Miranda and Emily, but the best part is cooking French toast everyday.” “You do love French toast,” I point out more to myself than Danielle. I’m happy that Danielle likes her new life, but I miss our old one.


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“It’s Elvis,” he says smoothly. “I know you don’t believe me. You’re skeptical, but you’ve got to listen to me. You’ve been rewriting my story all wrong.”

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I can hear Danielle take a long drag off of her cigarette before she puffs, “My aunt is a bitch though.” She’s quite for a minute as she sucks in more nicotine and then she yells loud enough to wake her sleeping relatives, “a religious bitch!” “Oh my,” I laugh. Danielle hasn’t changed all that much. “That bitch told me we were going to take Miranda and Emily to the park the other day, but when we fucking got to the park there was this whole baptism thing going on. She tried to fucking save me! Me. Can you believe that shit, Twin? As soon as I figured it out I ran as fast as I could across the park.” The anger fades from Danielle’s voice as quickly as it came and she begins to laugh, “Then I realized that I forgot my cigarettes and I had to do back.” I laugh with her, “You and your cigarettes. They’ll be the death of you.” “Damn straight. I wouldn’t’ have it any other way,” Danielle agrees, but we both know that throwing up will be the death of her. “So, you didn’t get saved?” I ask trying to hide any hint of hopefulness in my voice. “Fuck no! I’d slit my wrists first.” “Oh.” “You sound like you want me to get saved.” “No. I mean, I just don’t see what it would hurt. Isn’t it kind of romantic to get saved? Jesus could be your prince charming or something.” “You’re fucking cracked out tonight, aren’t you?” The 48

anger quickly reappears in Danielle’s voice. “You are starting to sound like Aunt Vicki.” “I don’t mean to. I’m just saying, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” “Poor little you not wanting anything bad to happen to me. I think I need to go blast some Elvis on the stereo while I ‘shower’, this conversation is making me feel dirty all of a sudden.” Click. Elvis Variation (Version 4) Elvis doesn’t like music. He’s actually more into science. As a child his parents scraped together enough money to buy him a small microscope for his 9th birthday. Elvis went to college and he became a scientist. He wants to help his country, so he takes a job at a government lab working on top-secret technology to protect the U.S. from Communists. During the Vietnam War he becomes disillusioned as his friends and younger cousins are drafted and die in the war. He wonders what the point of protecting his country is if his country doesn’t protect its people. Depressed and distracted, he accidently blows up the lab. Elvis still dies. Danielle’s parents never meet at an Elvis concert. Danielle is never born. Elvis Variation (Version 5) Elvis picks up the phone; he dials my number. “Hey Twin,” I answer expecting a call from Danielle.


“No, baby, it’s the king. I hear you’ve been trying to rewrite my story. Now why do you want to do that?” “Who is this?!” I demand. “It’s Elvis,” he says smoothly. “I know you don’t believe me. You’re skeptical, but you’ve got to listen to me. You’ve been rewriting my story all wrong.” “You’re right, I don’t believe you,” I say. Elvis continues anyway, “To change things you would have to start at the beginning. The only thing that could have changed anything is if my twin had lived. But you can’t change the past and changing my story won’t help you or Danielle. You’ve got to change your story.” “Yeah. Whatever. I can’t rewrite my life.” “You have to,” he pauses to find the right words. “What you and Danielle need is to not be together. You need the opposite of what I need. You need to be away from your twin.” I’m still skeptical, “So to help Danielle, I need to have never met her? How is that possible?” “No, baby, you can’t change the past. You can only change the future.” Intervention Revisited Danielle and I don’t talk much anymore. Without Danielle I’m like a junkie without her drug; I’m like carrots without ranch – I have no tang, no pop. But last time I heard, Danielle is still doing what she does best, still being Danielle. I never wanted Danielle to stop being Danielle; I just wanted her to

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be less Danielle, so she could be Danielle longer. I gave up trying to rewrite Elvis for Danielle a long time ago, but sometimes when I watch Intervention I still find myself lost in imagination. Aunt Vicki, Uncle Sal, Danielle’s mom, and I gather in a hotel in downtown Birmingham where Danielle believes she is to take part in an interview. We sit on two sofas in a room with interventionist Candy Finnigan. Together we are ready to intervene on Danielle’s life. We have written letters, practiced reading them and prepared ultimatums. Candy has reassured us that what is about to happen will be life changing and magical; we will save Danielle. We wait. And we wait. Danielle finally shows up with a smirk on her face. “I knew this shit was going down,” She takes a seat on one of the sofas and lights a cigarette. “We’re so glad you came here today, Danielle,” Candy says in her most reassuring voice. “There is no one in this room who doesn’t love you.” I bite my lip and look at Danielle. She gives me a wink and I want so badly for Danielle to tell Candy how much we love her and ask about Renee. I want her to get Candy to tell us where Renee lives and if she really is all happy and better. I want Candy to say, “No. She’s still a bulimic housewife, but that doesn’t have to happen to you.” I want Danielle to choke on her cigarette with laughter before grabbing me by the arm and dragging me out of the room with her. I want us to find Renee and take her to her favorite chicken place. I want us to run away from this room and never look back. ¤

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Rubbish BY WILLIAM CORDEIRO


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Kept, any waste no matter if kempt can accumulate beyond the tidy confines of its designated scatter: crimped, mutating crates overflowing with a wordhoards’ sheets and shrift; trinkets one was fond of once, rash letters dashed to several flames, gimpy keychains, ticket-stubs, space pens one can’t let go of, though dried up, gummy stickers from some junket, stacks and mottled books, muddled notes, bed-notches, nooks, flashfloods of almost-trash with each flush box: this, the spare frazzled thickets of our whole lives’ litter stored in tattered freight. All that fits, now fizzles; one day to be considered as a perfect fire hazard.

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e came in bleeding. A gash in his face, slanted from temple to cheek. He had been partying since it happened, drinking beer at a beach cabana, and the blood was caked and brown. “How’d this happen?” I checked Tully before the ER doc came around. I am the triage nurse, the first smile you get – sometimes the only one. He said the crossbar of a hang glider got him, and he smacked his palms together. “Like that,” he told me drowsily. It would take stitches. Needed a thorough cleaning. “Hey,” he added, peering at me with his good eye. “I know you. Hollis. You’re Franklin’s … wife.” I shook my head, lifted a Q-tip to his cut. “Girlfriend,” I said. I chuckled. It had a lot of sarcasm in it, from what I remember. “Girlfriend.” Franklin knows so many people that I tell him he should run for county commissioner. They say a bartender at a resort beach will meet – and serve – up to a half-million people over the course of his career. Franklin says he is already there. Tully reached out and placed two fingers on my arm. “If this is going to hurt,” he grinned, “I could use a fresh beer.” … These skinny girls crowd around the patio beside the diving board every day at noon. Waitresses with swollen boobs, endless legs, streaks of blonde, and they lie on the

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chairs and pick at their bikini strings to draw attention to their perfect bodies. As if a body like that needs special activity to get a man to look. Every time one of them goes to the board and tiptoes down the plank it is like fireworks going off. Every head turns, neck stretched to look. Me and one of the older girls, Layla, just go, “My gawd” and we talk about our real jobs, our college degrees. “How is Franklin?” Layla asks. We are looking at our thirtyish, imperfect thighs anyway. I need to go and get my toes done soon. “The same. Same old Franklin. You know?” Layla peers over her Liz Taylor sunglasses and grins. She makes a tisk sound with her tongue. “And that friend of his. How is he?” She means Tully. He has been around the condos a lot since his accident. He and Franklin are new best buddies. With his pumped body, soldier buzz cut, tats, and soul patch (a blonde tuft under his lip that he tells dirty jokes about), I can see Layla’s point. But he has a checkered past. And by checked, I mean checkered. It was in the papers. “How should I know?” I say. Another waitress, a fake redhead, is prancing down the plank. Layla laughs. She snorts a little. The redhead looks over, a withering look. “Not about you, honey,” Layla waves. “My friend is being silly.”

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Layla props up on her elbows, has to readjust her cups to keep her pale boobs in, and removes her giant black sunglasses. “I’d like to know,” she says, grinning wide. She works for a dentist and has the whitest teeth. “I can smell that something is up with you and him.” Now I’m laughing. The redhead dives. Makes no more splash than if you tossed in a pencil. “What you smell,” I say, “is your brain cooking.” Franklin is on the way over, swinging his keys on a finger, so we quiet down. Poor Franklin, he is not much over thirty but dresses like an old fart. Wears those belowthe-knee khakis and faded golf shirts all the time. The beach bum look. He has acquired this beer belly of late, too. Flecks of gray in his hair and sideburns. He tips an imaginary hat to Layla.

“No biggie,” Franklin says. No biggie is over, too. “I’ll see you after work, babe.” We watch him go. Layla and me. The waitresses do not even see a guy like Franklin. Tully, they would. Even though they are the same age, no doubt about Tully. He might even get an extra bikini wiggle. “Same old Franklin,” I say to Layla. … I waited tables part-time at the Barracuda Grille for two years, to pay off student loans, and Franklin was a superstar around there. Laid back, smart, handsome, funny, never missed a shift. In the four years since (which is the time we have been a couple, officially), he has never called out. He goes in when one of the others no-shows. But he spends more than he makes. Buys drinks for downon-their-lucks, helps out the busboys and dishwashers,

“Then she dives, making no more splash than if you tossed in a pencil.” “Did we ever decide who was paying my car insurance this month?” he asks me, scratching his stubble. The beach bum look was over in the ‘90s. I have told him so, but Franklin is one of those. Never listens. “I decided to pay mine, hon,” I say. “I don’t remember what you decided about yours. How late is it? Are you canceled or something?” He makes a face and nods. I see him sneak a peek at the fake redhead and I hate him for it. 54

buys expensive surf rods. You name it, he owns it. He is a real sweet guy, but tomorrow never happens. About a year ago, right about the end of the summer season, he tells me he has started to think we should have a kid together. Right out of the blue. I ask him if that means he is ready to think marriage and he says marriage is out. He tells me marriage is an outdated fashion. “Franklin,” I said, “you are the most throwback man I know.


You’re more like my father than any guy I have met.” “That’s not true,” he said. I think we were unloading groceries from his Jeep. “You got a hang-up about your dad, babe.” I tell him he is like my dad because my dad never saved money. Didn’t help with my college, not one cent. We waited to finish inside the condo, carrying bags in silence up the stairs. “I’ll pay for you to get that radiology license,” he said as we loaded the fridge together. That was before he got on his junk food kick that’s puffed him out. “Hon,” I said, “that’s real nice and stuff. But I want to have a kid and get married. Husband and wife. Do all the traditions. House, mortgage, funeral insurance.” We have not spoken about it since. Neither one. The child part nor the marriage part. We have been drifting. Sex is dull. Life is dull. Same old Franklin. Now this Tully guy, who has a checkered past and yet looks and acts like he’s a rock star, is giving me signals. The emails are almost sex. Twice he has come over when Franklin was on a shift at the bar and I didn’t answer the door. I wanted to, but didn’t. I don’t know if I could cheat on Franklin. It was hard enough on my dad when he found out I had started calling Carl “dad.” But my stepfather Carl is kickass and he deserves that respect. … I am not sure whether I am fully innocent in asking Layla to come over Saturday night and see if she and Tully can hit it off. There is a part of me that – there is a part of that in all of us. It is the part that we do not talk about. But anyway, I ask her. I also fill her in about Tully’s situation. Why he drives

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a BMW, rides a vintage Harley, owns a gym membership, plays golf very well, and is a newbie instructor at Kill Devil Hills Surf & Glide. “He was a doctor? A doctor-doctor?” I nod. We aren’t even paying attention to the waitresses, who are in full Saturday-afternoon cocoa butter and giggles. The pool is packed. “What’d he do, let a patient die?” Not exactly. Tully was a resident at my hospital, an ortho surgeon. Young hotshot, Duke pedigree, all the sexy stuff like you see on television. And when they caught him drawing painkillers from patient IVs, and shuffled through sketchy med logs, the higher-ups went into full-blown denial. Tully got into a fight with a local newspaper editor, beat him up outside the beach Walmart. The state took his license and Tully pried his degrees from his office walls and said, “See you at the renewal hearing, jerkoffs.” “I remember hearing about that. That was this guy?” I tell I didn’t recall seeing him at the hospital. I am always in the ER. He was over in surgery. “Dr. K plays golf with him,” Layla whispered, her mouth open. You can see she is thinking. “I don’t know, Hollis. That guy has a reputation around. Let me think it over.” I tell her to come regardless, that we will get drunk on Franklin’s margaritas. If she doesn’t hit it off with Tully, there is no harm done. …

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Before things even get rolling, Franklin and I have it out. He is peeling shrimp at the kitchen Island sink – which is already trying to clog – and all I say is for him to carry it over to the doubles by the stove. Franklin gives me this look, like I 55


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“The water was cold. All you could hear was the air-conditioning for the buildings.�


am asking way too much. He tells me to clean the goddamn shrimp, if all I am going to do is stand over him. We argue back and forth a minute and I go out on the deck, bang the slider shut. That’s when Tully slips out, passes me a beer. He is looking up into the sunset with his eyes closed. He is beautiful. He is wrong. Franklin is kind and safe. He is my first safe boyfriend. The only one I have ever gotten serious with. It is time for a bad boy again. Get your heart broken, eat it, come out the other side. Tully watches me as I drink my beer. He says I have eyes that are very emotional. They were the first thing he noticed about me. Then he asks why I stay with Franklin because it is obvious I am not happy. “That’s the million-dollar question,” I tell Tully. …

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He shrugged, bobbing his loose belly. Towel over his shoulder. “A step up is a step up,” he said. He sacked out early, too. And that left me and Tully alone. You aren’t supposed to be in the pool after midnight, but we got in. The underwater lights were off. The water was cold. All you could hear was the air-conditioning for the buildings. Tully was just what I wanted. What I knew he would be. I kissed him later when he rode out on his motorcycle at daybreak. He squeezed my shoulder. He put his hand up my shirt. “Ma’am?” one of the boys calls. A frisbee they’ve been tossing around has skidded under my chair. He mops the wet locks from his eyes and bobs at the edge. He is the handsomest boy I have ever seen. My throw sails over his head and he kicks off, twisting, Layla is too hungover to meet me at the pool. She passed and the other boy meets him in the middle, laughing and out early, on the sofa, and you could hear her throwing up splashing. One of the old duffers applauds. at some point before daylight. Retching off the deck into The fake redhead mounts the board and tiptoes down the the dunes. plank, her hips shifting seductively. She stops at the end and Sundays at the pool are hit and miss. The waitresses giggles. Her friends catcall for a jackknife. She pouts and are her, and a few of the old duffers. Two little boys are holds her arms out front. swimming. Franklin’s in the shower because he is going Then she looks at me. We share a look. And she winks. golfing with Tully. It is his first time in years and he is excited. She cocks her mouth open when she winks, like Marilyn As I was coming out here he said it was a step up. Monroe. Then she dives, making no more splash than if you “What do you mean?” I asked. tossed in a pencil. ¤

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Make No Assumptions About the Cause of Death B Y M E R C E D E S L AW RY


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The quietly murdered collect in a pile, casting marvelous shadows that suggest young trees. Circling the pile: insects seeking meat, birds who’ve shed their migratory urges, brothers and sisters felled by rage, priests and the loyal dogs. The souls are ascending at varying speeds and it’s a sort of performance in cool, blue light. Pattern and no pattern, not unlike motives. The end of life is bordered by illusion. Words dim to hum, to breath. Only the broken hear the bone songs.

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y piano teacher moved four times during my ten years of private lessons, each successive domicile’s mantel and fresh teal carpet forested with a frozen menagerie of stone and ceramic bunnies. He took me on as a student solely because I was the great niece of his former teacher, a woman known to me simply as Aunt Judy, though her name was Justine, far more mellifluous sounding to my ears, and whom I can remember only slightly as a woman who gifted me with an enviable collection of jazz records to play on my Fischer-Price record

player when I was 4 before she passed aquamarine-painted car precisely in away the following year in a high rise in time to chauffer me back and forth to Chicago, as far removed a netherworld my own piano lessons. from our rural Midwestern hinterland My mother liked to recount Aunt as it seemed possible to be. She was Judy coming to visit the family from the livelier, more pneumatic, and Chicago wearing enormous diamonds altogether more charming older sister on her long fingers, smelling of Chanel, of my grandmother, who outlived laughing freely, and playfully teasing her her by more than 20 years despite a more dysfunctional family members, diet that consisted almost solely of calling my alcoholic grandmother “the doughnuts and cigarettes. Whereas duchess” because she wouldn’t get Justine, well mannered and with out of bed in the morning and thereby smooth, milky skin, neglected neither easing tension at the breakfast table her vegetables nor her champagne with an urbane sleight of hand. She and lived just briefly enough to leave was by all accounts, especially to the my mother her recently purchased neglected child of a single alcoholic 61


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She was the livelier, more pneumatic, and outlived her by more than 20 years despite mother, the veritable cat’s meow, so it’s no surprise that, when wanting to escape the smallness of her small town, my mother went to live with this sparkling family member while taking a teaching job at a suburban elementary school. She stayed only a year before returning to what she always called real life, meaning, I suppose, where you ate apple pie instead of rosewater apple compote, but she recounted it as a year of singular luxury for all the years that remained to her. For Easter, my great aunt and her husband took my mother to brunch at the original Playboy mansion, from which I now live around the corner. Celebrating the what’s what of Christian holidays being served by busty bunnies just didn’t happen back home, and I imagine my mother was, after getting over the shock, absolutely delighted that she wasn’t in Kansas 62

anymore, if feeling conscious of her need for some push-up. Incidentally, I was taking a leisurely walk the other day past this former pinup mansion when I stopped to arrest my eyes on a pair of playful brown bunnies skipping through the violet hydrangeas. Although these fuzzy little rodents are everywhere in the summertime—which raises the singular question of where they hop to in the winter, seeing as they presumably can’t accompany the geese and the butterflies to South America, as they’d probably be ready to drop at least by the time they hit Texas—these two, positioned mere feet outside Hugh’s old doorstep, caught my attention as deliciously innocent, seeing as they weren’t in fact fucking, at least at the moment. They were at that moment as coyly alluring as the bunnies who

served my mother her first mimosa, all charm and genuine sweetness despite their unabashed undulations of nakedness and show of cotton about the posterior. My piano teacher used to say that, of all the women he had known, and he had never known any intimately, I’m sure, Aunt Justine was most qualified to have been a model, a label that he qualified with “sophisticated,” “graceful,” and “not lingerie.” Presumably he had browsed the J.C. Penny catalogue undergarments section, shopping for something “sophisticated” with which to amuse himself—and possibly a clandestine beau—and been repulsed by some of the models’ ungraceful attitudes. Seeing as my musicianship, though well practiced, was not particularly inspired, he never drew any comparisons between myself and my


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altogether more charming older sister of my grandmother, who a diet that consisted almost solely of doughnuts and cigarettes. not-lingerie relative, but my mother and grandmother were wont to remark on our physical resemblance, and my mother, perhaps dabbling in projection, on our similar temperaments and taste for fun. Had her definition of “fun” included “expensive,” and perhaps it did, I think I can now see her point, though I’m more apt to bypass the diamonds in favor of a safari and a beruffled blouse. I personally think the physical likeness dubious aside from a certain fullness of face and figure otherwise not common in our family’s womenfolk. She was moreover by all accounts a highly fastidious woman, having her clothes tailor-made for her at Marshall Field’s, whereas I shop happily off the rack, not to mention online (I have ModCloth bookmarked), though I do have my particularities about cuts. My mother kept a whole chest of Aunt

Judy’s angora cardigans preserved in moth balls in her bedroom, treasures that she never dared to wash or wear, but that she brought out at times, like sartorial gold, merely to gaze upon as an accruing investment, never to spend. She had me try some on at one point in my adolescence, but, although I could see they were finely made and well preserved, the moth ball scent and outdated fashion deterred me from fully embracing their regal vintage splendor, especially during the height of the 90s Grunge era. I hadn’t yet come into my early 20th-century fashion sense and failed to fully appreciate my inheritance. Somehow, by that time, my jazz records had also long since disappeared, and I had taken honors in my last piano competition. Yet my mother never threw away the sweaters, likely cherishing a secret hope that

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they would come to life again someday through someone who knew their worth, even if only on herself in front of the bedroom mirror. Justine, like myself, was of the non childbearing feminine sort, though whether that was entirely her choice I’ll never know; people just didn’t ask questions “like that,” as they said, in those days, and my mother was certainly nothing if not far from candid when it came to the juicy stuff. It was my father, an entirely different animal as well as gender, who told me the reason why my maternal grandmother wasn’t on speaking terms with one of her other sisters: my grandmother had slept with her lothario brother-in-law and been discovered by the overly trusting sibling in coitus after coming home from the market. Such stories just didn’t fall from my mother’s lips. Sex 63


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“‘When in Rome,’ she must have said to herself upon being served a dainty dish of foie gras and then hiccuped quietly into her linen napkin.” talk was as good as heresy in her book to a god who had the thoughtfulness to hide your parents’ pleasure from you in a bedroom on a different floor after you had long fallen fast asleep. When I tactlessly made reference to my piano teacher’s sexuality at dinner one night, expatiating on the porcelain bunnies and the pink wallpaper, my mother took me to task for slandering one who had been good enough to take me on out of small-town nepotism. And it

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was frankly mind boggling at first to picture this woman, who had to leave the room when George Castanza exclaimed of his shrunken penis, “I was in the pool!” sitting comfortably, if tipsily, at Hugh Heffner’s pleasure palace on Easter Sunday. “When in Rome,” she must have said to herself upon being served a dainty dish of foie gras and then hiccupped quietly into her linen napkin. And dear Aunt Judy, in her couture cardigan


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and diamond necklace, would have taken it upon herself to order her shy niece another glass of champagne before lapsing into a humorous anecdote that would have brought familial conviviality rushing warmly into Hugh’s elaborate abode and set everyone, bunnies and all, quite at their ease. Meanwhile, 20 years on, Justine’s most loyal student is paying unknowing homage to this woman by unpacking his collection of ornamental

rabbits before welcoming the sturdier daughter of this delicate niece into his pink and blue living room. By the time Justine breathes her last, Hugh has relocated himself, his bunnies, and his mansion to California, which is just as well, I suppose, for the great niece who has relocated to Chicago, sans piano and Fischer-Price record player alike. Easter brunch at the Playboy mansion, I can’t help but sigh, just wouldn’t be the same without her. ¤

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CROSSING IN B BY ROSEBUD BEN-ONI

Before one dawn of Ramadan we finally unroofed the room. I’d fasted too, nearly died on all this new, inebriated on a hunger that left me in scrawl-spoke— Slowly, slowly, you forget yourself, today a test in Hebrew, and let in some air. My head hurts from the brazier fumes. I try to hold on, speak low from the ground, toss out the silence, that faint, finest gossamer: 66


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Here’s a trick in English: The sound of me in Hebrew means “who” & who is “he” & he is “she”— I can’t understand. Half your body is in Ramallah, a woman in the window, three-quarters-sleeves the other half inside a quarter-queer shaking on thin, bare legs. Dawn, expressionless and always punctual, belittles the chronicles of these houses or so once you said. I want to pull back inside and dwell in charcoal. I want to cross again, your proof of absence, forsake what waits in language and landscape, choke on the tongue of all the darkness done.

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Crossings? Your back heaves from the window, the voice of a sheik buzzing behind you. A casual scratch behind the hand. Let’s go before the sun comes up. You dress quickly, will fast like a martyr for another day and ace the oral test with a blank face while silently cursing us in your own language. Who is He is She? Crossings? At the first check-point I explain a reason. I speak quickly so you can’t understand, suck on the taste of rage you let in my mouth, so tonight I can meet you, our shared mistrust and halves of gain 68


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Fe a r BY JESSICA SWENSON

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THE WO R L D NOT ENDING B Y M A RT I NA R E I Z N E W B E R RY

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Let me get my bearings. These are spaces I will never own. I feel such regret, especially now that the world is on fire.

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The air is eaten by flame all around. Monks with their skirts billowing, jump from the mountain tops, chant poverty, chastity, indifference. Keep laughing in the face of this molten planet—laugh your ass off. It’s what you’ll have left in the end. You think this is an hallucination? A joke? A fantasy? Perhaps you’re bewildered— the world is not ending, you’ve only backed one last war, one last steaming holocaust. You’ve only stayed silent while continents starved and died, whittled down to rock and bleached bone. Is your own part in this unlikely, misunderstood? Mine, unfortunately, is not. I’ve participated and want to move on. Just give me a moment, please, just let me get my bearings.

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Apron Strings

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nder her coral-colored sheets, Elizabeth heard the antique brass doorknob of her bedroom door rattle as it was turned. The noise, though subtle, was enough to make her groan sleepily. The door opened— she heard it—and light from the green painted hallway fell into her room and onto her bed. Then her mother yelled for her to get up, and Elizabeth rolled away from the voice of her mother. Faith Tate yanked the sheets off her daughter’s bed. Elizabeth pulled the pillow over her face to shield it from the light, mumbling inaudible assaults directed at her mother. “Get up. You’re going to work with me.” “What time is it?” “It’s after four. You’ve got twenty minutes to get ready.” “I just got home a few hours ago,” Elizabeth moaned. “And I don’t want to go.” “Get up, Elizabeth,” her mom said. “You smell like vomit.” After turning on the shower in the adjacent bathroom, Faith left the room, slamming the door behind her. Elizabeth attempted to pull the sheets back up with her feet, but her mom had removed them from the bed. Last night—what had happened? Her head splitting, Elizabeth sat up and looked around the room. On her cluttered desk was the tray her mom must have brought in, laden with a cup of coffee, two pieces of buttered toast, and three aspirin. Weakness and nausea began to take their toll, and she fell sideways back onto her bed, covering her eyes with her arms.

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Then there were two sharp knocks on the door—“Up!” her mom commanded from the hall. With another loud, rebellious groan, Elizabeth rolled her body out of bed. She took the aspirin and ate two bites of toast before making it to the steamy bathroom. The remnants of the previous night’s mascara were streaked down her cheeks, and an off-color mess was smeared on the front of her low-cut dress. Never again. No more alcohol. The shower numbed her weariness. If it weren’t the warmth of the water, it was the state of being clean that quieted her queasy stomach. Think. What happened last night? There had been a bartender in a red shirt and with her copper-colored hair twisted out of her face. She’d bought two rounds of shots—maybe three. Head spinning, Elizabeth had danced with a vodka tonic in hand. That had made her feel ill. The bathroom. Ben had been there, too. Yes, Ben had been there for sure. He was waiting when she came out of the bathroom, leaning against the wall with his arms across his chest. He smiled at her, and she stumbled forward, smiling back dumbly. Did she puke? he asked. Yes. Do you want another drink? he asked. Sure. At the bar, she had another drink, and his hand covered hers as he leaned forward to speak. That had felt comfortable. What did he say? He had met someone.

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Yes, he said he had met someone, and she had a name. Elizabeth felt ill again and staggered back to the bathroom. Folding her arms across the unsanitary toilet seat, Elizabeth laid her head down and closed her eyes. She tried to make the spinning stop. She wanted to throw up or die. When she came out of the bathroom, Ben was gone. The bartender in the red shirt came walking towards her. She said Elizabeth’s group of girlfriends had just left. They’d looked, but couldn’t find her. This often happened to Elizabeth. She had a tendency to wander off during nights out and find her own way home. It annoyed her friends and gave them reason to assume she was safe. “Do you need a ride home?” The bartender asked Elizabeth. Elizabeth didn’t answer; she just sat down on the nearest bar stool and sighed. The bartender pushed the hair out of Elizabeth’s face and tucked it behind her ear. She stood so close that Elizabeth kissed her. Taken aback, the bartender pushed her away. I’ll be right back, the bartender had said with a smile. Why had she kissed that woman? How had she gotten home? Elizabeth didn’t remember coming home at all. * Elizabeth shut off the water and covered her face with her hands. The nausea began to regain control of her head. While she was in the shower, her mom had stripped the bed of the vomit-soiled sheets and made it up again with fresh linens. She had also laid out clothes for Elizabeth to 76

wear: khaki shorts and a hot-pink t-shirt with “Luca’s Bakery” written across the chest in the cream and brown scrolling font. Elizabeth hated pink, but she grudgingly put it on and— after grabbing a baseball cap to wear—was downstairs at 4:25. “Come on.” Plump Faith, with her dark hair braided out of her face, came sweeping through the kitchen grabbing her bag and two aprons. “Let’s go.” Faith’s plumpness was a feature that had established her as a trustworthy pastry-chef. For nearly thirty-five years she had been working in a bakery and, for about that long, had been collecting aprons. No two were alike. Each day saw a new one. Most of them were loud aprons that sparked conversations with her co-workers and customers. It was still dark outside, but the sky was showing hints of light. The grass was dewy and the air a bit chilly even for an August morning. Faith’s dad, in his matching flannel pajama pants and robe, was standing on the sidewalk taking pictures of a silver Camry that had run up on the sidewalk and mowed over the next-door neighbor’s shrubs. Turning toward his wife and daughter as they got into the Jeep, he offered a curt nod. Elizabeth groaned. She remembered how she had gotten home. * When the bartender left, Elizabeth felt a wave of embarrassment—she’d kissed her. She’d kissed a woman! Elizabeth went to her car. She sat in the driver’s seat for a while, contemplating sleeping, crying maybe, but she desperately


wanted to be in her own warm bed. So with a steadying sigh, she started the car and shifted into drive. She drove slowly with both hands gripping the wheel for concentration. At three in the morning, suburbia was still, and Elizabeth was safely delivered into the neighbor’s front yard.

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Ben had called one of her college friends “a fag.” They didn’t speak for two whole days, and for two days Elizabeth was miserable. When Ben finally offered an apology, she cried with relief. It was then that Elizabeth began to think herself in love with Ben, to be very conscious of his proximity to her and anticipate his phone calls. * “You’ll have to pay for the damage,” Faith said to her Should she have died last night, what would he have daughter, “and help replant those shrubs.” Elizabeth done? Would he have mourned because he never told her nodded, embarrassed, and sank down in the passenger seat. how he felt? Or because he didn’t know he loved her until The hangover was flaring back to full force. she was gone? She tried to picture him wearing one of his nicest suits and kneeling beside her open casket, crying. His * At the bakery, Elizabeth cleaned the dining area, swept the mom would try to pull him to his feet, but he would fight her, kitchen, washed dishes, and stocked the displays. When the repeating, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault.” Imagining him in such courthouse crowd thickened around seven, Elizabeth and a condition, Elizabeth felt a chill of satisfaction beyond the her complaints were sent outside to repaint the backside of cloud of her nausea. the bakery where a bunch of punks had graffitied what Faith * called “devil symbols.” Two hours later, Faith came outside to find the wall half In the early heat Elizabeth thought about Ben. He still had finished and her daughter leaning against the shaded part the same sporadic freckles he’d had since she’d met him ten of the dumpster, holding her head with one hand and years earlier when they both played little league baseball. lethargically painting with the other. Faith told Elizabeth to Back then he was a scrawny kid who wore a Bears jersey clean up and eat breakfast in the kitchen. every other day. At twenty-two, he was a junior ad salesman The kitchen at Luca’s was bright and bare with simple who wore a tie. Elizabeth loved how he laughed at himself, shelves that lined the walls. A large wooden table, twice as how he called her without fail every day. Their friendship had big as the one in the Tate’s dining room that seated ten, sat survived even the three hundred miles that separated their in the middle of the room. Finishing half a mug of coffee respective colleges. And why wouldn’t it? They had nearly and taking two large bites of a danish, Elizabeth put on a everything in common and rarely argued. Elizabeth could plain navy apron. “What are we making?” only remember one time they had fought. It was because “Cannoli,” Faith said shortly, tying a soft, checkered green

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apron behind her back before turning to retrieve ingredients from the shelves behind her. The cannolo recipe had been a staple of the summer menu since the elderly, Sicilian-born Luciana Marino first opened Luca’s in 1979. Once a small bakery on the outskirts of town surrounded by law offices and empty apartments, over the years it had become a fully functioning café with a breakfast and lunch menu. While she mixed the dry ingredients, Faith was silent. Elizabeth just watched, naming the steps in her head. First the flour. Sifted. Then shortening. Cut into the flour. The sound of the mixer teased the pain of Elizabeth’s hangover. Faith added eggs, sugar, and a little white wine, the silence between the two of them filling with a persistent buzz. The cannolo dough rolled around the mixer’s hook, and the sound stopped. “Thank you, Jesus!” Elizabeth held one hand over her eyes as the other arm clutched her churning stomach. Dumping the dough onto the floured surface of the table and rolling it out with irritated force, Faith looked at her twenty-two-year-old daughter. Lips rolled against each other, Faith’s gray eyes rested on Elizabeth with a kind of softness she wasn’t accustomed to. Actually, it looked as if her mom were going to cry. “What?” Elizabeth snapped. “What’s that look for?” “You could have died last night.” Again Elizabeth pictured her funeral. She lay in a fine casket, hands folded on her stomach. Wearing a light blue dress with hair curled resting over her shoulders, she looked pale. Elizabeth imagined lying there—not moving and not thinking. She imagined not moving and not thinking ever again. “Mom, I’m fine.” 78

“That was so—what were you thinking?” As her anger mounted, Faith’s words grew louder and quicker. “I’d like to know what you were thinking.” How could she explain to her mom how she felt? She didn’t even know herself. Elizabeth tried to piece together exactly what she had been thinking, not just last night, but the nights before. “You wouldn’t understand,” she said softly as she started to place dough-covered forms on a large cookie sheet “Try me.” Faith turned to flick on the stove behind her, setting a large skillet of oil on the heat. “I just wanted to come home.” “You could have called. We would have come to pick you—” “Not without a lecture. I’m old enough to take care of myself, and I’m fine. Nothing happened.” Elizabeth moved toward her mom with a full tray of forms wrapped in cannolo dough. The oil was bubbling slightly, ready to fry the dough quickly to a crisp. Elizabeth dropped the first two rolls into the hot liquid, and a small splash reached up and touched her mom’s hand. Faith jerked her hand away and rushed to the sink to run water over the wound. Having cooked with her mom since childhood, Elizabeth knew that in such a situation, it was her job to rescue the food rather than tend to her mom’s injury. She retrieved the two fried rolls from the oil and placed them on a drying rack, accidently cracking one against the other as she did. “You broke them,” Faith said, standing with a dishtowel held firmly against her hand. “We have more.” “You aren’t patient enough. You move too fast.”


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“Elizabeth felt a curious pressure to follow her mom’s lead and live on her own. But the transition to independence was a graying area.” “You always say the first batch is never—” “Sometimes it’s all you got.” A resolve passed over Faith’s countenance as she spoke, and she rolled her shoulders back to give her optimum height. “Mom, I’m—” Elizabeth started. “How about you go home and get some sleep?” “Let me help you finish these.” “No.” Faith pushed a stay hair away and looked into Elizabeth’s face with stern eyes. “I can do this on my own.” It was an affirmation of a fact. Elizabeth recognized in her mom the stubbornness she’d often heard her dad complain about. Faith’s life demanded that she be that way, demanded that she be constant. To embellish life lessons, Faith had detailed having to take care of herself as a child, her parents’ divorce, and her own severe lack of confidence. As the story was told, Faith was eighteen when she packed

two suitcases and left a note for her older sister. The bus she caught was going to Chicago, and when she got there, she immediately started working for the Dickinson Family Bakery in Old Town. Years later, Faith joined Luciana Marino at her new bakery and inherited it at her death. These were all Aesop Fables to Elizabeth, used to strengthen the life lessons her mom was trying to teach her. But they were taken with a grain a of salt, and she could never picture her mom without confidence. Faith Hornback had left home at eighteen and started living. Now twenty-two years old, Elizabeth felt a curious pressure to follow her mom’s lead and live on her own. But the transition to independence was a graying area. At eighteen, Faith had made a quick and clean cut from her family. That transition had been clear. Elizabeth felt she had

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been sawing at the link with her parents since her first year at college. One semester she could pay most of her bills, another she’d be swamped with schoolwork and would have to make submissive phone calls to her mom asking for money. She wanted to be on her own, but she didn’t know how to crawl out from under her parents; it wasn’t as if they were kicking her out of the house. And without that kind of pressure, she relaxed in her setting, wondering what she could do, when she should do it, how it should be done, and most importantly, why she should do it at all. If her parents were willing to support her, why should she worry herself?

Elizabeth reached the ruined foliage and dropped the gardening equipment. The two shrubs were planted right beside the sidewalk so that every passerby would see and admire them. One was broken a bit, and the other was completely squished. “Hi, Mr. Augustine. I’m sorry I ruined your bushes.” He laughed and started to rock slowly in his chair. “Do you know what kind of bushes those are?” “What kind, Mr. Augustine?” “Rose of Sharon.” “Oh, like from The Grapes of Wrath.” Mr. Augustine smiled smugly and said nothing. Elizabeth * Home, Elizabeth felt energized with irritation for her started to dig and was left to her work without interruption. mom. Her body was heavy from lack of sleep, but her Automatic in her movements, she wondered if Mr. thoughts were thrashing about angrily. If only someone Augustine knew that his Rose of Sharon shrubs were the would yell at her, she could yell back. Instead, everyone victims of a drunk driver. She wondered what he thought just looked at her disapprovingly. Sometimes she wanted of her. Wondered if her dad had gone over that morning, to smack her own mother. sat at the Haque’s pink, plastic tablecloth and talked about On the front porch sat a medium-size green bush with her over tea. several pink and purple flowers beginning to bloom. Over Once, when her parents went on vacation, Elizabeth her shoulder, Elizabeth glanced at the shrubs she’d ruined spent a few days with Mr. Augustine. He fixed her curry for next door and sighed. She didn’t want to pull out the shovel dinner and then let her stay up past her bedtime, watching or the trimmers. She didn’t want to dig and haul this bush Bollywood movies and drinking chai. When Elizabeth wanted over there. But when she thought of entering the house and to run away from home, she planned on running away to India. having her dad tell her to plant the bush, she decided to do She’d yell at her mom and say, “I’m leaving this stupid place. so without the lecture. So she went to the tool shed and I’m going to go to India to live like Jasmine.” Her mom would grabbed the shovel, the hedge trimmers, and a pair of her smile and tell her that sounded fun. But Elizabeth never went. dad’s work gloves. She just wanted her mom to ask her to stay. By the time she made it to her neighbor’s yard, Mr. There had always been a disconnect between Elizabeth Augustine was sitting on his front porch. “Hello, Miss Tate,” and her mother. If Elizabeth wanted comfort, she would he called. Mr. Augustine was a tiny Indian man who used go to her dad. Her mom would rationalize everything. She to teach American literature at the community college. He would never let Elizabeth simply be mad about something always wore black bowler hats and called her “Miss Tate.” because Elizabeth’s attitude was the only thing wrong. 80


The old bush was free from the soil, and Elizabeth heaved it into the Tates’ front yard. She then set the new shrub down in the empty hole. “Make sure you pack some mulch around the base,” Mr. Augustine yelled from the porch. “Okay.” “And make sure you clip all the dead leaves off.” “I can do that.” “No, Miss Tate. You need more mulch.” “Okay.” “Miss Tate.” Mr. Augustine got to his feet and leaned forward on the edge of the porch, hugging a stout cream column with one arm and pointing towards Elizabeth with the other hand. “Miss Tate. Miss Tate, you’re doing that wrong.” * Elizabeth closed the front door of the Tate house and sighed with relief. Bed. “Did you finish?” her dad asked from his study. She stepped inside the small room and found her dad with one baseball game on the TV and another on the radio while he balanced account sheets. He did not look up from his work. Elizabeth said, yes, she had finished, and he went on working silently. More than anything she wanted to slip onto her dad’s lap as she used to as a child. He would touch the bottom of her hair and tell her things: how the White Sox were better than the Cubs, how to arrange an account sheet, or how he’d met her mom. The latter was her favorite story, and she’d interrupt her dad’s other topics and say, “Daddy, tell me about the first time you saw Momma.” Chuckling, he’d drop his pencil and wrap his arms around her. “Why always that story?” She’d shrug and lay her head down on his shoulder, listening to her father’s steady voice as he recited the story exactly as he had before.

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When she was twelve years old and her dad stopped calling her “Princess,” she spent a month’s worth of allowance on the blue, leather-bound journal that now sat on her nightstand beside the Bible her Uncle Caleb had given her for First Communion. The only thing ever written on the Italian pages was the story of how her parents had met. At thirty-five, I was just a junior accountant. I had recently been transferred to Chicago. That day was one of the first warm days of spring, so I slipped out early for my lunch break. Walking past the bakery, I saw the most beautiful girl leaning over the counter counting danishes, the ones with the strawberries in the middle. So I casually circled the block and went inside. She said, “Welcome to Luca’s. How can I help you?” But I couldn’t think of anything to say! Mind blank and palms beginning to sweat, I looked up at the menu and asked for the first thing I saw—cannoli. Only I pronounced it “Cuh-nol-eye,” and the pretty girl smiled. She was beautiful. Her hair was braided over one shoulder, leaving the other side of her neck bare. I wanted to weep. I asked her to coffee. She replied, “I have enough of coffee at work. How about dinner?” Blushing at another blunder, I readily invited her to dinner. The day when I met your mom, she was wearing a very special apron—the one that looks as if it could be a wedding dress, the cream one with the lace around the edges and tiny pink rosebuds stitched on the pockets. With a sigh, Elizabeth crossed the room to the wingback chair that faced the TV and sat there silently. She had always loved being in her dad’s study: coloring on the floor, doing homework at his desk, or reading a magazine in the wingback chair while listening to ballgames. It was the many hours spent in this room that had made Elizabeth appreciate numbers and fall in love with the Chicago White

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Sox. With numbers, everything was easy; everything was valid and proven, solvable. Why couldn’t life be more like that, more right and wrong, black and white, even and odd? It seemed that math was the only thing reasonable in the world. Graduating from high school, Elizabeth knew she wanted to do what her dad did and study accounting. But she still couldn’t make the world fit into the lines and columns of a spreadsheet. Six months out of college, and she was back home with her parents. Going out drinking with her friends, sitting in that wingback chair, and watching sports consumed her life. “You’re not going out tonight,” her dad said. “I wasn’t planning on it.” She tried to make it sound funny, but it came out like vomit, coated in an acid her body rejected. “How about dinner?” “Your mom won’t be home till late.” “I can cook. What sounds good?” She rolled her head against the back of the chair and looked at her dad. “Whatever we have.” He huffed and pulled out a stack of papers from his desk. “Here—they’re entry level jobs at a few firms. I already wrote in your references.” “Firms?” Elizabeth asked as she took the stack. “Accounting firms?” “That’s the education you have. That’s what you said you wanted to pursue.” “I don’t know anymore.” William pinched the narrow part of his nose and sighed. “You’re not going to find a job like this. You can’t live with us forever.” “But I don’t know what—” “Elizabeth, you’re not a child anymore. You have to do something with your life. I’m giving you three months.” “Three months to do what?” Elizabeth asked, standing up 82

and dropping the pages into the chair. “To get a job and find an apartment.” “Dad!” “No, that’s the end of the discussion.” William stared at her with the stern expression his wife usually owned. Stunned and feeling somehow betrayed by her dad—the loving, protective dad she depended on when she squared off with her mom—she collected the job applications and left the room. Hands shaking, Elizabeth felt hot all over, suffocated. She was being kicked out of her house; her own dad was kicking her out. Retracing her footsteps, she went outside, slammed the door behind her, and got into her car, throwing the applications in the back seat. Unnerving, that’s what this was. She wanted to beat her mom and make her cry, to throw clumps of mulch at Mr. Augustine, to wrestle her dad to the ground until he was still. She wanted to be different, but she wanted everything to stay as it was. She wanted to hate Ben, to hurt Ben, and she wanted Ben to love her. But most of all she just wanted. Traffic began to add to her irritation, so she made Ben’s apartment her destination. Fueled by her current irritation, she planned to demand of him the things she desired. He answered the door, saying, “Where’d you go last night?” Elizabeth crossed her arms and took a step back. “What do you mean?” “Last night. I go to take a piss, and then you’re gone.” “I left, okay?” She pressed her way past Ben into his apartment. “Was I supposed to wait for you?” Shutting the door, he crossed the room and stood in front of her. “Well.” His voice sounded a little strained. “I wanted to give you a ride home. You weren’t fit to drive.” “Oh, I didn’t drive,” she lied.


“That bartender was worried about you.” Elizabeth covered her face and sank down onto the couch. “Who told you?” she said softly. “Told me what?” “That I. . . Did you see?” She uncovered her face and looked up into his. “See what, Lizzy?” Sitting down next to her, he laid his hand on her shoulder. “The kiss.” “You kissed her?” “You didn’t know?” Elizabeth felt drained. “Lizzy, it’s okay. We were talking about you when you went to the bathroom.” “You were talking about me?” “The pretty one in the red shirt, right?” Ben rubbed Elizabeth’s back. She had leaned forward, holding her face in her hands and resting her elbows on her knees. “She thought you were sweet, and she asked if we were dating.” “What did you tell her?” Elizabeth sat up and looked at him, holding her breath. “Don’t worry, I told her we weren’t and gave her your number.” “What?” She asked quickly. “I gave her your number.” His voice was low as if he were questioning himself. “But why?” Ben was quiet for a time. His face was stern, and his eyes narrow as through trying to solve a math problem in his head. “Answer me,” Elizabeth demanded. “Yeah, sorry. I’m just thinking.” “Thinking about what?” “Well,” he started. “She thought you were really cute, and she wants to take you out.”

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“You’re kidding, right?” “Lizzy,” Ben said quickly. “I’m sorry. I just—well, I mean, you’ve never had a boyfriend and—and you never seem very interested in anyone.” “You think I’m gay?” “You’re always. . . and your girlfriends are so. . . I just—” Ben stumbled over his words until Elizabeth cut him off. “Ben, do you think I’m a lesbian?” He rolled his lips against one another and shrugged. Elizabeth shook her head and looked around the room. Nothing sounded right, nothing felt right. When she turned back at Ben, he wore a face of defeat. What should she do? Yell at him? She put a hand on either side of his face, pulled him to her, and kissed him. But there were no fireworks, not even when Ben took hold of her hips. Elizabeth pushed him away and stood up. “I have to go,” she said. “Go? Where are you going?” Ben asked, scrambling to his feet and following her to the door. “Stop,” Elizabeth said firmly. “I have to go.” “But where, Lizzy?” “I don’t know. I just know I have to go.” She walked out of the apartment, leaving Ben standing in the doorway staring after her. Later Elizabeth would call to apologize. He’d say he was sorry, too, and admit he’d had feelings for her in the past. They would laugh about the kiss, make fun of one another, and then apologize again. Surprisingly, Elizabeth was calm about the whole thing.

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on the table and walking towards Elizabeth. “Chicken and dumplings,” Elizabeth answered as she spooned another dumpling into the simmering chicken broth. “I wanted some comfort food.” “Where did you learn to make that?” “Grandma taught me when I went to visit a few years ago. When I dropped the dumplings in, the broth splashed on her hand. She said I moved too fast.” Elizabeth gave her mom an apologetic smile and held a sample dumpling forward with a fork. “Just like Mom’s,” Faith said with a smile after she tried it. Elizabeth grinned and ate the other half of the dumpling. She was still wearing the pink t-shirt and khaki shorts, spotted with dirt and white paint. Over the day’s outfit was the cream-

colored apron with lace trim, the one from her favorite story. “Oh, that apron,” Faith said, leaning forward and touching the lacey shoulder strap. “Did I ever tell you where I got it?” Elizabeth shook her head. “I stole it. I stole it from my mom right before I left home.” Elizabeth, amused, gasped. “Does she know you have it?” Shrugging, Faith smiled mischievously at her daughter. “It was my favorite thing she owned. I remember her cooking in that apron before she and Dad got divorced. She was always prettiest when she was cooking.” After a pause, Faith continued. “I was wearing that one the first time I saw your dad.” “Yeah?” Looking at Elizabeth, she studied her eager gray eyes

“More than anything she wanted to slip onto h He would touch the bottom of her hair and tell better than the Cubs, how to arrange an accoun 84


and her fair blonde hair for a moment before saying: “He walked in wearing a navy suit and a bright orange bow tie. He made me smile.” The simplicity of her mom’s statement felt so much richer than the elaborate story her dad told. For him, it was the room and the hair and everything about her. There was so much going on it was as if he were just a fool falling in love. For Faith, it was simple, as if she didn’t fall in love but rather discovered it. Faith moved away from Elizabeth and started pulling plates and cups from the cabinets, and Elizabeth spooned the last dumplings out of the pot and laid them on top of the peppered chicken, pouring the broth into a separate bowl.

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“Hey, Mom,” Elizabeth said. “Did Dad talk to you about the job applications?” “We discussed it. That’s his thing though.” “What do you think I should do?” Faith took a moment to think and then asked, “What do you want to do?” Teasingly, Elizabeth replied, “What if I want to live at home forever?” Ringing echoed from the telephone in the foyer, and her dad yelled that he was busy. Faith called back that she’d get it and moved towards the sound. Passing Elizabeth, she laid her hand on her shoulder, and Elizabeth turned around. “You don’t want that,” Faith said, and after patting her daughter on the shoulder she left the room. ¤

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her dad’s lap as she used to as a child. her things: how the White Sox were nt sheet, or how he’d met her mom.” 85


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See your life as allegory, as discourse. Though you are not right in your mind, the innocence of your childhood is evident.

can be easily destroyed? It’s true. Walk your milk-white body down to the end of the driveway.

The rosy redness of the atom bomb was not your fault. Pull your coat close around you to keep out the chill of reason.

Stare into the cloudless sunset and you’ll soon greet the Four Horsemen, come for the Rapture:

Keep gloves on at all times to resist sanity’s frostbite. There is no earthly place to receive you now. All that you fear

Data (palomino), Fast Food (dark bay), Global Warming (chestnut), And Cacophony (pinto).

will come true. Marie LaVeau predicted it. She stood at the edge of Bayou St. John, sang, “As the nails of the dead continue to grow, so will whatever love you leave behind you.” Keep yourself clear of sophistication. Keep clear of cool. That shit will envelope your life— your life as allegory, as discourse. Do you know that anything easily discerned

There will be revelations. There will be distortions of revelations. But you— you must continue to gather the splinters of yourself and see the end product: a life, your life, as allegory, as discourse.

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God 69, the Brahmin and Wo o d r o w BY STEPHEN NEWTON


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Thirty-five years ago, in my early twenties, I worked a series of minimum wage jobs, traveling around the country by bus, thumb, or old Detroit heavy metal. I was a fry cook in a greasy spoon, forklift operator in a cement factory, linesman on a survey crew, school-bus driver for handicapped kids, roofer, carpenter’s helper, pump-jockey in a gas station, day laborer in a potato warehouse, and porter in a women’s clothing store. I humped freight on numerous loading docks in Tennessee, New York, Ohio, Colorado, and Massachusetts and put in one memorable stint as Santa Claus. In the early to mid-seventies I worked for a few years, on and off, as a janitor at a shopping mall outside of Nashville, Tennessee. My shift was from 3:30 in the afternoon until 11:30 at night, and there was one other sweeper during those hours, a wizened, lean, tanned and weathered little man named Woodrow Wilson Franklin. Woodrow and I strolled around leisurely during our shift, cleaning ashtrays, taking long coffee breaks, talking to shopkeepers, wandering in and out of stores, and after the mall closed at 9:30 we would empty the trash, do a final sweep, and have at least an hour to sit and talk until we punched out. Woodrow usually had a bottle stashed somewhere, and we would sit in the quiet, still stretches of the mall’s cavernous center court, drinking bourbon. I had been reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s account of a year spent living with sharecropper families in Georgia and Alabama during the depression. I was also immersed in old time country and bluegrass music, the haunting—and haunted—songs of the rural southerners.

Woodrow was someone who had actually lived the history that I was learning about through books and records. When he was a boy Woodrow spent the summers in the blistering Tennessee heat picking bugs off heavy tobacco leaves and squishing them with his fingernails. He told me that his family grew potatoes and turnips and buried them, covered with straw, in a trench. In the dead of winter they would dig them up, and other than what they could kill in the woods—squirrel, rabbit, coon, possum—that’s all they would have to eat. Woodrow lived with Mama. I was never clear on how old Mama was, or Woodrow for that matter, but he must have been pushing sixty at the time, or so it seemed to me. They appeared to have been hard years. Woodrow wasn’t married. He and Mama lived in a house in a suburban Nashville neighborhood that had grown up around them. They were always embroiled in one brouhaha or another with the zoning board, usually about keeping pigs and chickens in their yard. If Woodrow got enough bourbon in him he would almost invariably get to talking about Mama’s rooster. Mama loved her rooster. Woodrow hated it. It crowed incessantly, and was always strutting around like he owned the place. “Someday,” he’d chuckle, with a filmy, bloodshot gleam in his eye, “Someday,” and then he’d laugh malevolently, jumping up and down in the quiet mall, a walnut faced, wrinkled, drunken countryman, jumping and laughing. “Someday Mama, oh yes, someday...”

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One Friday afternoon Woodrow was late for work. I was buried, running around trying to keep track of pools of baby puke and spilled milkshakes, the mall packed with shoppers. After a couple of hours the security guard called on the walkie-talkie and said that Woodrow had arrived, but I’d better come quick. Woodrow was paralyzed with drink, staggering, rheumyeyed, weaving in languid circles behind his dust mop. The front of his white shirt—with Mr. Franklin sewn above the breast pocket; I had one with Mr. Newton—was covered with blood, a couple of huge gouts and a scattering of splatters. He looked like he’d been shot or knifed, and, combined with the legless imbalance, Woodrow was making quite an impression on the crowds of shoppers. Nobody was rushing to his aid, however, even though he looked ready for the emergency room. There was an element of danger about him, an almost palpable whiff of sulfur and brimstone. At the very least he looked incredibly out of control, this little drunken man wearing a white mallmaintenance shirt covered with blood, smoking cigarettes as he walked unsteadily behind his dust-mop. I took him aside in a hallway. It was Mama’s rooster, of course. Mama had gone off for the day somewhere and Woodrow had finally had all that he could take. He’d grabbed the rooster’s neck and, as he said, “Wrung it like the crank on an old Model T Ford, just a-gittin’ it, around and around,” and then after actually pulling the rooster’s head off with his bare hands, threw the detached rooster head over the back fence. The resulting fountain of blood that sprayed Woodrow got on his shirt, because ever since he started working at the mall, he had worn his uniform shirt all day, even at home. I never did figure out why, other than it must have made him feel valued somehow, perhaps a little important, with his name on the front.


The amazing thing was the way that he didn’t seem to know—or maybe just didn’t care—just how far off the wall he had gone, and how demented he seemed, lurching through the crowded concourse, dazed, chewed up and spit out, a bloodstained casualty. As we talked it seemed that he was slowly coming out of the other side of something, some chrysalis of feathers and chicken gore that had left bright flowers blooming on his chest. He looked to be still half in a dream where the rooster runs around without his head and a crinkly little man jumps and cackles like he had done late at night in the deserted mall, buck dancing in the blood and the dust, hammering down his Jack Daniels, giggling in the heat. 2. By the mid-nineties I was teaching college English in Brooklyn and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One day I was walking down First Avenue near my apartment when I saw a famous author—someone who was a Manhattan celebrity, primarily, but well known in literary circles everywhere—walking towards me on the sidewalk. He looked detached, very serious, perhaps troubled—and it seemed to me he was looking far off towards something I could not see. But the remarkable thing was that the front of his white button-down dress shirt—no jacket, so it must have been summer—was splattered with splotches of blood, just like Woodrow. It was so shocking that it was like grabbing on to a loose electrical wire, a shot to the solar plexus kind of feeling, because here was someone I had not only read about, I had seen him on television, read his books and essays, seen him in the newspaper, and he was walking towards me looking as if he had been the victim of a violent crime or in a car crash.

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I quickly decided that he must have suffered a bloody nose, which had sprayed down his shirt, and he was not far from home, because I knew where he lived, one of the few celebrities whose home address I knew, mainly because his home was a famous Manhattan literary salon. It was only a few blocks from my apartment. He really did look like he was in a daze, though, and just like Woodrow, he didn’t seem to realize how out of it and shocking he looked, with blood on his white shirt, the famous author in Manhattan appearing in the middle of my day, as a doppelganger for Woodrow. The past, previously sealed, had opened up and entered the present, but changed utterly, Nashville janitor to Manhattan Brahmin, both wearing red and white flags of what appeared to be terrible psychic distress. 3. On most summer weekends in the 1990s I went to a free concert series in Central Park in Manhattan. The park was usually filled on those afternoons with crowds from all over the city, and the music was a representatively eclectic selection—deep roots of the blues performed by Ali Farka Toure, the master musician/farmer from Timbuktu, Mali, a central cultural intersection point in sub-Saharan west Africa; blood boiling Pacific rim reggae performed by a self-proclaimed tree mystic from Okinawa, Shacouchi Kina; blues, honky-tonk and western swing from an Austin, Texas roadhouse king, the mighty Junior Brown; opera on Wednesdays; spoken word on Thursdays. The events were well attended. The bleachers and folding chairs were invariably taken, and the crowds spilled out onto surrounding lawns, filling shade and sunlight alike. It was a place to see all kinds of people, hear great music, and watch the parade. It was a friendly crowd of lively, social people.

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There was one man, however, that I saw with disturbing regularity. He stood out in the crowd. He was about my age. He had shoulder-length curly hair. He never smiled— never, at least in this atmosphere, registered any emotion whatsoever, as if his brain was a television after the channels had stopped broadcasting. He had a large tattoo in the middle of his forehead. The tattoo was just one color, a deep, faded-denim blue, which led me to wonder whether it might be a prison job. There was a star. The five-pointed design had lines maybe an eighth of an inch thick. A big blue star with the word God inside, and beneath this the number 69. What did this tattoo mean to this man? I could have asked but I didn’t. It would have been bad manners to call attention to something unseemly—boil, birthmark, or God tattoo—in the middle of someone’s forehead. Did he see God in 1969? Was it some sort of numerology? Masonic secrets? Hermetic mysteries? A hit man for a cult of robotic, God-possessed, Satanist Moonie Lyndon LaRouche disciples? Why not get it removed? Too expensive? Why not wear a headband or a cap? A young, muscular Hispanic man in the crowd had his entire back covered with a full92

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length, brightly-colored Virgin Mary tattoo, ascendant, radiant. Another had Christ crowned with thorns on his back, blood dripping down, eyes imploring, and the bleeding sacred heart, in blue flames, emblazoned on his chest. 4. Deep underground a man talks to himself, laughing. He has two pairs of everything—two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two shirts, two jackets, but only one pair of unlaced L.L.Bean style duck boots. He has a photocopied picture of the Flatiron building stapled to his shirts, and he is holding onto two canes, both of which have the feet of dolls jammed on both ends, little pink-toed doll feet on his scepters, while he gibbers and rants and giggles in the subterranean darkness. I ride the subway with this inscrutable, gibbering troll. Suddenly we break into the morning air, out of the underworld, burst from the tunnel, and clatter up onto the deck of the Manhattan Bridge, high above the water of the East River, a band of cold blue saltwater aflame with the phosphorous-bright reflection of the morning sun. Behind us is the tarnished skyline of Manhattan. Trails of smoke rise in white tendrils from smokestacks


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“Bob Dylan is always changing. He has to keep moving, like a shark that must keep swimming to stay alive.”

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in Brooklyn, and in the distance the Statue of Liberty is copper green against low-hanging New Jersey industrial haze. All around is the clustered archipelago of harbor islands—Long Island, Staten Island, Governor’s Island, Ellis Island, Roosevelt Island, Manhattan Island, and Liberty Island. We pull out of the shadow land and an expanse of lush river light pours through the windows of the train, reflecting off orange ferries and red tugboats, from the jagged spires of mid-town skyscrapers and the mirror-bright monoliths of Wall Street, the sheer tower walls made completely of windows, and off of the distant silver shine of looping helicopters and planes. The span of the Brooklyn Bridge arches over the river. I ride with the muttering doll-foot cane man over the turning curve of the earth, the horizon glowing like a sleeping child’s forehead. We rattle and shake high over the cerulean blue of the river. 5. Tattoos are everywhere. I recently went to the New Jersey State Fair and there, in the midst of the prize steers and goats and rabbits, were many farm grandmas with ankle or arm tattoos. Lady Gaga wears a meat dress to 94

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an awards show and her ink is not even worth remarking upon. It has become almost a requirement for actors of both genders in Hollywood to have multiple body decals, but increasingly young people are getting massive, whole sleeve tattoos, or glow in the dark designs covering their back or legs. What shocks us anymore? If nothing shocks us, what is there to rebel against? I have been reading and writing about Bob Dylan lately. He has always been a moving target, changing drastically from one album to the next in his early years, and on up through to the present to a somewhat lesser degree, but always searching and changing. Lately he has been affecting the pose of a Vegas entertainer, standing with harmonica and microphone in one hand while he gesticulates with his other outstretched arm, for all the world looking like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin at the Sands Casino in 1962. He has done something similar to this in the past, in the late seventies, but to my mind not to this degree, or with this amount of apparent enthusiasm for the pose. Bob Dylan at 70, with a voice like a mix of the Cookie


Monster and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, serenading the audience with his old chestnuts from nearly 50 years ago, while seemingly posing as a Romanian lounge singer on a Russian cruise ship in the Black Sea. At the 2011 Grammy Awards, Dylan performed with Mumford and sons and the Avett Brothers, with everyone joining in on “Maggie’s Farm,” a song Dylan performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, in his notorious, groundbreaking set when he went electric for the first time. At that point Dylan was wearing a black leather jacket and playing a black Fender Stratocaster. He was 24 years old. Now he is 70 and crooning the same song in his Froggy Went a Courtin’ voice while a chorus of hot, young musicians chime in raucously behind him and he stands out front looking for all the world like an American Idol contestant from Miami Beach—senior division. It got me thinking. Bob Dylan is always changing. He has to keep moving, like a shark that must keep swimming to stay alive. It’s no coincidence that he has been on what Dylan fans and critics have taken to calling The Never Ending Tour for the last 25 years.

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There are others—Neil Young, for example—but it’s a very short list. For some people change is a requisite condition for the constant regeneration of art, and my contention is that this is because change provides a constantly shifting landscape of things to push against, to react to, to bounce off of, and even, dare I say it, to face as a rebel and outsider. Lacking this, the artist finds him or herself in lassitude, in still waters. Some people need the wind that can only blow when they can raise their middle finger to the world and say—well, you know. 6.

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All of the men I have been writing about—Woodrow, the famous writer, God 69, doll foot cane man—were artists in their own way, people who pushed against the acceptable, the status quo, in ways that were truly bizarre. They found different ways to keep their soul’s fire burning. Sometimes it was at the cost of their sanity. All of them were giving the world the one finger salute. Whether you are walking down a shopping mall or a Manhattan street covered in blood, staring at the world from under a mysterious prison tattoo, or talking to yourself and your little baby doll feet on canes in the subway, it’s all part of The Never Ending Tour. ¤ 95


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Neil Gaiman Ta l k s A b o u t Writing INTERVIEW

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Every writer has their favorite author or authors who inspire both their style and desire to write. For me it is Neil Gaiman. I first discovered Mr. Gaiman’s work while studying Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. Unlike most people who were introduced to his work through Sandman, the groundbreaking comic book series from Vertigo Comics, I first read his work in the miscellany Angels and Visitations. His creative storytelling and elegant prose lit a fire in me that has yet to be extinguished. I had the rare opportunity to interview Mr. Gaiman during my final semester of college. As a neophyte writer and raging fan, I took this opportunity to ask Gaiman about the writing life. Although this interview took place a few years ago, his advice and insight on writing still inspire me when it feels like my writing is going nowhere. I hope you find something of value in it as well. *** 98


SB: A lot of your writing seems to be influenced by old folk legends, and fairy tales. Did you grow up reading those, and do you still read them? NG: Yeah. I’ve grown up reading them. I love them. That was the stuff I hunted down, the stuff I sought out. Anything like that I could lay my hands on. Myths and legends of the Norsemen. I always loved religion for the same reason. I loved the things people believed, the things that are sort of down there somewhere at the bottom. SB: Speaking of influences, what authors were your biggest influences? NG: Well, you’ve got the growing up ones and then you’ve got the ones in your teens. Growing up I’d say, C.S. Lewis, definitely. The first time I ever really noticed an author. I remember when I was seven, really loving the way he used brackets, he put comments in parenthesis. I went, “That’s such a cool thing to do. When I grow up if I’m a writer I’m going to put things in brackets like that. A lady named Richmont Crompton who wrote some English books called The William Books, whose prose style I loved and in whose style Terry Prachett and I wrote Good Omens. W.S. Gilbert was a huge influence growing up. I was very lucky that we had this big school library filled with these old dusty books, which obviously hadn’t been taken off the shelves for fifty years. SB: At what point did you decide that you were going to be a writer? Was it when you were young or did it come a little bit later? NG: Don’t recall any time when I didn’t want to be a writer or when I didn’t want to be a storyteller. The thing I missed was the idea that it actually would involve a lot of work. I think when I was young or growing up I figured the way it worked if you were a writer was that you write something like a poem

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or a short story and when it was finished somebody would drive up in a car and they’d say, “We understand you’ve written something.” And you’d say “Yes.” Then they would ask, “Can we see it?” and you’d let them read it and they say, “Oh, this is wonderful. Here is millions of pounds. Thank you for writing something good and adding to the sum total of beauty in the world.” But that never happened. What I do is I make up stories. I have the kind of mind that makes up stories and I like making up stories. I love daydreaming. I love wandering off into “I wonder what would happen if?” and “What if this goes on? Where does this go? Wouldn’t it be interesting if...? What kind of person would?” So you follow those kinds of things with your head. It’s scary for me these days if I do run into things that I wrote in my late teens and early twenties because they are so bad, so clumsily written. I was unable to pass my way through a sentence. I was very lucky, I think, in that I started out as a journalist, which forced me to write. Luckily people were paying me money to write and I had to turn in something. In order to survive, just to pay the rent I was writing five, ten thousand words a month. Doing interviews, articles, whatever. After a couple of years I began to edge into writing for a style and I remember the point in 1985 when I read a story that I had written called Looking For The Girl and it’s in Angels and Visitations, and it’s by no means the best story I’ve ever written, it wasn’t even the best I’d written to that point, but it was the first thing that I’d ever written that felt like me. I read it and thought, “Oh, I’m the only person who could have written this. This is a “me” story; it has my voice in it. I’m going somewhere with this.” ‘Cause one of the things I find very, very easy to do and I still do, as a writer, is that you have a lot of voices and tools at your disposal. It’s like being a gardener. You go down to the little

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shed at the bottom of the garden and pick the implement that you need to garden with. And in writing you go down and you go, okay if I’m going to tell this story I need this voice, this vocabulary and this way of telling the story. So Stardust, stylistically, bares no resemblance to Neverwhere, which bares no resemblance to Good Omens, and very few of the stories in Smoke and Mirrors read like each other. SB: Now when I explain to people why I became a writer as opposed to something stable like an accountant I say that there are two types of people, those that want to write and those that have to write. Is that your experience? Do you meet a lot of people who want to be writers and could you see yourself doing anything else? NG: I admire the people who want to be writers, the ones who go to writers groups and classes and do writing exercises. I’ve met lots of bad writers, unpublished writers who are much more the writer than I will ever be. These are the people who come home at the end of every day and they write their ten pages. They finish a novel and the next morning they start the next one. I have nothing but enormous admiration for that. I’m not one of those people. I’m the kind of writer who loves having written. In the grand scheme of things having written something is my favorite position to be in. I quite like being about to write something. The actual sitting there and writing is mostly work. Occasionally it’s a joy. Sometimes you’ll just get on a roll and something really cool will happen. Occasionally I have to explain this to young writers; the actual process of writing is not glamorous. You’re off on your own somewhere and you have to write the next scene, you have to write the next page, you have to keep going. It’s about as much fun as ditch digging. You just have to keep digging because one day you’ll get to the end of the field. 100

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SB: I know what you are talking about. Right now I’m in the process of writing my first novel and I’m at a point where I want to get on with it but I have to work my way through this point right now. NG: It’s ditch digging. You’re going to have to get through that part because if you don’t it doesn’t get written. A lot of writing is like that. The only thing you have to console yourself is that a year later or when the novel’s actually printed you can go back and read it and you’ll have no idea which bits of it were written at white heat with words dripping like jewels from your pen and which bits of it you were sitting there writing going “Oh, this is such appalling hack work, I don’t know how I’m going to get to the end of this sentence.” SB: Do you often go back and look at your work? NG: You have to. You wind up having to proofread and check edit. I don’t often read my stuff for pleasure because I know what happens. But I do have to read my stuff to make sure there aren’t any typos and to fix it. Sometimes you wind up really enjoying it. If ever I actually get to the point where I start reading it as if I’m reading it for the first time I know I’ve probably done something clever. Or I’m suffering from short-term memory loss. SB: Do you get a lot of time for reading? NG: You don’t get a lot of time for reading but you make time for reading. It depends on how obsessed you are and what’s obsessing you. I always like to have one fiction book on the go and probably three or four non-fiction books. But it’s just sort of things I’m vaguely interested in. Because I figure the process of writing is a lot like, to use another gardening analogy, it’s like making compost. You’re throwing all of this stuff down on there and you’re letting it rot and then a year later or two years later or five years later you


come in and you go, “Actually I think I’ll write that.” I just wrote a poem called Instructions for an Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling fairy tale anthology (A Wolf At the Door) I’m really proud of and it’s just a set of instructions for a child heading into a fairy story. When I wrote it I wasn’t’ sure if it was working or not until I finally finished it and printed it out. It’s just two pages long and it was actually very disappointing to do the work count on it. To discover it was 448 words and go “I just spent three days on 448 words.” But I was really, really pleased with it. It reads like a set of instructions on how to survive if you’re going into a fairy tale. It’s strange and it’s kind of beautiful, it’s kind of odd and mythic. The only reason I can write that is because I’ve got so many fairy tales in the back of my head that have composted down. SB: In the anthology “In The Shadow of The Gargoyle” your bio says your hobbies are eating and sleeping. Where do you get the time for having hobbies? NG: It was a lot crazier at that point; when I wrote that biography I forget where I was. I was in Australia or somewhere doing readings and signings. Suddenly I got a thing saying, “What are your hobbies?” Eating, sleeping, stopping, moving. I don’t really get hobbies but I’m very lucky in doing what I love. Otherwise, if worse came to the worse I’d have to go out and get a real job and then I’d still have to write stories or tell stories or make stuff up, only nobody would give me money for it. SB: That’s one of the nice things about being a writer; you get to work inside and no heavy lifting. NG: Yeah, no heavy lifting and no getting up early in the morning. Which is the other thing I really like. Except when you’re actually on a signing tour. If you’re on a book signing tour then there’s a certain amount of getting up early in the morning, but other than that you can set your own time.

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SB: Do you do most of your writing during a certain time of day? NG: I can put writing successfully until about 11:00. Ten years ago the point where I really cranked up and got writing was midnight. I’d light a cigarette, pour a cup of coffee and get down to the writing. These days I no longer smoke, I don’t drink coffee, and round about midnight if I’m really planning to start writing that’s about the point my head hits the keyboard and I wake up in two hours time with five hundred pages of the letter M. Early morning can be good if nobody talks to you. The trick for me is making it from a bed to a desk without anything beginning, just run off and start writing. Basically at the end of the day you’re a professional and you’re a craftsman. You write when you write. SB: When you’re doing things like The Day I Swapped my Dad For Two Goldfish how much do you work with the artist? Do you bat around ideas and get inspiration from them? NG: It depends very much. Goldfish I just wrote it and gave it to Dave. Stardust I started writing it, there were a few sketches and things from Charlie. Then I wrote the first two chapters gave them to Charlie and he started doing paintings and sketches. Sometimes I’d write bits because I wanted to see what he would do. The little hairy man a) I loved writing him, b) I loved Charlie’s first sketch of him and I wanted more of him. So, yes there’s definitely feedback. SB: In Angels and Visitations you had a poem that you said was your only piece of vampire work, The Vampire Sestina. Now, anyone who knows anything about sestinas knows that they are incredibly hard to write. Poets have hard time writing them. Is poetry something you do as a hobby or is it something that you really love? NG: It’s something that I really love. It’s one of those weird

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little places where magic sometimes happens. It’s also one of those places where magic sometimes doesn’t happen. You really don’t know. You show the good ones to people and if you’re me you don’t get around to burning the bad ones because there may be something in there you may use someday. SB: You’ve done a variety of writing. You started out as a journalist; you’ve done screenplays, novels, comics, short stories, and flash fictions. You’ve written songs and poetry. Is there any type of writing left for you to conquer? NG: Stage play. I haven’t done a stage play yet. I’m very interested in doing one of those. I like the idea of writing something where you actually get people walking around on stage saying the lines and doing the things you wrote. That’s definitely fairly high on the list of things that need doing. My favorite medium so far, of all of them is radio plays. Did one of those and loved it completely. It’s all the power and strength and glory of a film or television show with none of the disadvantages. You’re working inside of somebody’s head as you are in prose. It’d happening in real time. You’ve got acting going on. Any you can do everything in a radio play, it’s an amazing thing. If it wasn’t for the fact that I would have to teach my children how to dance out on the sidewalk, holding out a hat to catch pennies I would do nothing but write radio plays. For me the joy is storytelling. I think I’m a competent writer, occasionally when inspired I can be a beautiful writer. Normally I worry if I’m writing beautifully because if I’m writing beautifully it’s normally because I’ve nothing to say. It’s like being a stage magician sometimes, if you’re writing really, really beautiful it’s because something has to go on over here and you don’t want people looking over there. I saw a Stephen King interview where he talked about 102

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the fondness for beautiful writing but with no story is like saying, “She’s dumb as a post but she’s pretty.” For me the important thing is the story. Was it interesting to read? Does it get you going? SB: You have some fans that are a bit devoted. When you make appearances in public are there some fans that make you want to step back and pull a J.D. Salinger and go into seclusion? NG: Not really. Most of them are so sweet; most of them are so nice. Yes some of them are a little bit devoted but most of them like the stories. There’s something in them people respond to. Clive Barker had somebody open a vein in front of him and say, “Sign in my blood.” Nobody’s ever done that to me. Steve King had a mad woman take up residence in his attic, claiming to have a bomb strapped to her. By comparison I’ve met maybe two, three fans who actually seemed disturbed and that’s out of a hundred thousand people. SB: When you decided to become a writer did you get a lot of support from your family or did you get the “you should learn how to weld as a back up plan?” NG: They definitely wished I had a real job. When I just started writing I really believed in myself and my Dad was on this big thing “Please just get a real job and write at the same time.” He got me an appointment with this one guy with show houses. I’d have to stay in a show house and show people around for some real estate company. And he was saying that when there’s nobody to show around I could work on my writing. So I got on a bus and took this long bus ride all the way to the edge of London. I sat in somebody’s outer office for an hour and then I was told, “I’m sorry, they can’t see you today.” I went home and I thought whether that was an omen or not that is how I’m going to take it. It’s better to starve writing, its better not to starve writing.


SB: If one of your kids came to you someday and said they want to be a writer would you be hesitant about the decision? NG: No. I think I’d be practical. My daughter wants to be an actress. I said good, I’m pleased you want to be an actress. 98% of all equity members are not working on equity rated projects. Learn how to type. Get something else you can do in the meantime. I am in a terribly, terribly small percentile of authors who support themselves by their pen. There are not a lot. SB: Yes, but for those of us working our way there it doesn’t seem to matter. NG: And it shouldn’t. I’m a firm believer that at the end of the day you should do something and fail than not do it. If the choice is between “Do I become a writer or not become a writer?” then for heavens sake, become a writer. If it turns out that after a few years that you’re not a writer then go, “Okay, my next big dream is that I want to create a new flavor of ice cream.” Then go off and try that. SB: If there was anything that you could do besides writing, is there any dream that you have unfulfilled? NG: Not really. Occasionally I think what kind of professions would be interesting. Most of them have to do with making stuff up. I could be a freelance ideas person for other writers. They could phone me up and say, “Well, I’ve got all the Hobbits now and they’ve got split up and I got these ones all the way to Mordor at the top of this extinct volcano and I’m not sure what to do now.” And I’d say, “Okay, J.R.R., this is what you should do.” I’ve always thought it would be fun to make up religions. It’s sort of a science fictional profession. Wouldn’t it be nice if people ordered their own religions? They’d phone me up and say, “I’d like a religion.” And I’d ask, “Is it going to be just

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you or is there going to be a bunch of people? Where do you stand on guilt? Do you want a creation myth of your own?” I’d like to do that. SB: I’ve noticed the influence of religion in some of your stories. Murder Mystery and Neverwhere have angels in them. NG: Angels are funny though. I don’t think they have to do with religion, I think they’re things that just creep into my fiction like cockroaches. Every time I’ve written an angel thing I think, “That’s going to be the last angel. I’m done. Finally I’ve got angels out of my system.” Then a year or two later I go, “Yeah, that would work best if there was an angel.” SB: I’ve noticed that a lot of your (early) work is classified as horror but there doesn’t seem to be anything horrific in your stories. NG: The weirdest thing was I was given the International Horror Critics Guild Award for Angels and Visitations. I was like, “Thanks. Was there any horror in here?” I don’t tend to classify stories before I start them. Most of them occur in the realm of imagination. I suppose all of them are fantasy because by definition all fiction is fantasy even really boring little fantasy about English professors having affairs with their prettiest students while involved with university politics. Even those are fantasy. I like to think I’m a fantasist, I’m a storyteller, I’m a maker up of things. SB: You’ve achieved that status that few people do where there’s a newsgroup dedicated to you and you have multiple websites that people are making about you. How often do you see or hear anything that comes out of that? NG: I try and avoid them. Occasionally people will think they’re being helpful by forwarding me things and normally it just irritates me. I don’t actually regard it as status. There are people who want to have sex with fuzzy vampires that

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have newsgroups. The websites are very sweet. Roughly once every six to eight months I will do a troll of the websites and see what’s on them. The trouble with the Internet is that you will wind up listening to and indulging your audience. Feedback with fans is not a good idea because what fans want is the last thing of yours that they liked. They would like another one of those. Most writers who stay sane and keep their integrity don’t. I would much rather have people come up to me and say, “I loved Good Omens and I loved Neverwhere and I loved Stardust and they’re completely different.” The danger of computers is that you can think you’re working if you’re sitting at the keyboard. This is manifestly not true. SB: Now a question that you must get every time you make an appearance is, “What advice would you give a new writer?” I’m going to turn it around on you. What advice would you give a writer who’s already made it and is sick of it? NG: Stop. For God’s sake, stop. I have a tremendous amount of admiration for anybody who stops when they’re done. Who gets out and shuts up. That’s why I stopped writing comics. There are always easier ways to make a living than by writing and there have to be easier ways to make a living than by writing something you don’t like or don’t want to write.

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SB: So, when you sit down to write a story is it one of those situations where you’re writing a story that you want to read. NG: Mostly yeah. Occasionally I’m writing a story that an editor has asked me for. Sometimes I write a story because I want to find out what happens. SB: In closing, in all the interviews you’ve done is there any question that you’ve just been dying have asked that no one has? NG: God no. I suppose because I’ve been interviewed too much. Being interviewed with you was fun because you asked a few questions I haven’t been asked before. But it’s so rare these days that anybody asks you a question that makes you stop and think, which I think is the fun part of an interview. When you’ve been asked a question enough there isn’t a fraction of a second hesitation before you launch into an answer. SB: Well, I really can’t think of anything more to ask without falling back on the old clichés, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this interview is because I got tired of people doing the old cliché interview. NG: No, it was fun talking about some of the prose stuff, which is some of the stuff people normally don’t talk about. ¤


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t age sixty-five Mark Armstrong was the same weight he’d been as a high school senior point guard—one-hundred-fifty-five pounds on a lean five-foot-eleven frame—though, as Mark liked to joke, his current weight distribution was a bit different. Still, he felt good about his health, about how he looked. He considered himself a disciplined man in every way but one. And that was sex. And that he regretted. Mark stood at the bar in the Oak Room and lifted his vodka tonic, took a small, deliberate sip and then carefully put the glass back down on the napkin in precisely the same wet spot it had rested before. Casually, he did a half pivot, put his right elbow on the bar and looked out at the tables opposite the bar rail. The Oak Room was cavernous. The bar stretched from the front door to two- thirds of the length of the room, and anyone standing at it or seated at tables across from it could see and be seen in the huge oak encased mirror that graced the bar’s entire length. It was early, only seven, yet there were barely a few open spots at the bar and most of the tables were occupied, though there were empty chairs here and there. The local citizenry would be shocked to learn there were so many gay men in Omaha, the heartland of family values. So would his family, Mark thought, looking again through the mirror to the front door. He feared, as he had for all of his adult life, that someone straight might wander in and see him, might quickly size up the situation and uncover his

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secret. Yet that wasn’t likely to be an issue with the locals. If they went anywhere, they’d go to a straight bar. Breathe, he told himself and relax, none of the old guard insurance brokers he dealt with would be out on the town. Not on a Tuesday night. The problem was seeing someone from home—from Kansas City, three easy hours south—someone who didn’t know the reputation of the Oak Room. In all these years that had never happened—in Omaha or any of the other Midwest cities he traveled to. But you could never be sure your luck would hold, that you might not be outed. In Mark’s case, he had never been, except, in a sense, by himself. Perhaps the more accurate word was acknowledged, for despite the occasional encounter, he had been in denial until that autumn night forty-one years ago. Coincidentally, that had been in Omaha, at another gay bar called the Joker, long out of business and now, ironically, an Omaha Police Department satellite. He couldn’t plead ignorance. He had known its reputation, had told himself once again that he was just curious. And so, like the young maiden who wants an excuse, he had drunk too much, hooked up with a trio—two older men and a girlish boy—and awakened the next day with the morning sun shining through the bedroom of a lovely brick home somewhere near the University of Omaha. The hangover had been excruciating, the self-admission even worse.

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“There could be no more rationalizations, no more mental gymnastics about the enlightened Greeks and their acceptance of bi-sexuality, no pleading an accidental experiment.” There could be no more rationalizations, no more worry. The evening was an aberration, one they never talked mental gymnastics about the enlightened Greeks and about, though they were reminded of it nine months later their acceptance of bi-sexuality, no pleading an accidental --and forever more--when Scott was born. After that, what experiment. He was gay. A gay man. With a wife and family with the kids and their activities and Mark’s travels, sex just to support. wasn’t much a part of their life together. That had been the end of the lies, at least those he told Sad to say but there were probably folks at the Golden himself. Years nursing home who were more active than he and Barb Fortunately Barb had never been driven sexually. Had had ever been. Mark’s very private joke was that old age he sub-consciously seen that in her? She’d demonstrated might be his sexual nirvana, a time when a closet gay could that fact superbly on their honeymoon in 1967, though their pretend his same sex preference was simply the result of daughter Carol was conceived, and ever afterwards. The Alzheimer’s. only exception was the trip to the Ozarks ten years later “Penny for your thoughts” a young voice said from beside when he and Barb drunkenly fucked like teen-agers. Mark’s right shoulder. An involuntary itch twitched along his shoulder blades Mark turned, startled. at the unbidden memory. Mark had been terrified at first “Jason,” the man said, extending his hand. that Barb had experienced a sexual awakening. But not to Mark automatically reached out to shake it. 108


“Mark,” he said, smiling, seeing a young man in his midthirties, about the same age as his son Scott. His was a pleasant, non-descript, tanned face, on a frame nearly the same height and weight as Mark, thinning brown hair, square jaw and brown eyes and he was most likely, judging from his bearing and stance, a Beta male. Mark was grateful for the diffused lighting, and for the workout regimen, the low fat diet and healthy life style that made him look ten years younger. He could take pride in the result of his sweat, unlike most middle-America married men, the lion’s share of whom, like their wives, had given up on their appearance. But in here, at the Oak Room, and all the Oak Rooms in the universe, the standard was higher, the competition more intense. Whenever he heard straight men and women, divorced or widowed, talking about the dating rat race, he wanted to tell them they didn’t know the half of it. At least when they found someone it was for both companionship and sex. In Mark’s private world of one-nighters, it was all about how you looked. Mark and Jason chit-chatted, superficial, vague, general talk. The crowd was increasing, as was the volume of more and more voices. More people. More distraction. Greater anonymity. It was two deep now along the bar railing, although the tables behind him still had a few empty chairs. Interesting possibilities, but he’d hold his position at the bar for the moment. The night was young.

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Maybe that’s how Jason felt too, why he had drifted away after one drink. Or maybe, like Mark, he also preferred an Alpha male. Or maybe, Mark admitted to himself, Jason wasn’t interested in a man old enough to be his father. Mark glanced again in the mirror toward the front of the bar. He couldn’t help himself, his wariness ingrained. The angle of the sun’s glare had passed and now the stream of people entering the Oak were identifiable, some only briefly as a series of snapshots reflected in the bar mirror. Mark noticed two young women enter from the street. They were both in their early twenties, only a couple years older than his granddaughter, Amy. They stood out in the sea of men, momentarily unaware of how out of place they were. Mark felt a flutter in his chest, a bird wanting to take flight. What if it were Amy? What if she saw him in a place like this? How could he possibly explain himself? What irony, out of everyone in the family, she would be the most accepting, and yet her knowledge would hurt the worst. Over the years, one on one, he had treated her as an adult, had pleased and surprised her with his liberality on social issues, issues he had never discussed with Barb and the kids. Why had he avoided those topics with them? Maybe it was a defensive reserve, especially at a time when his sexual energy was so conflicted, so confined, suppressed. What he did know was that theirs had been a family that avoided any hint of confrontation, or even conversation about politics, race, religion, sexuality or anything controversial. In other words, life was not a subject for discussion.

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And so he suspected that, at least indirectly, his secret, however strangely or illogically, had come at an intellectual cost to his family. But, the family had not paid the emotional cost that they would have if they had known the truth. Everyone, every family, had secrets. He had protected his family from his and they were surely better off because of it. They were the living proof: Carol, happily married, a high school math teacher, mother of Amy, wife of Bill, a community bank President in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, their lovely home only fifteen minutes from Mark and Barb’s. Scott, a patent attorney, still living the single life in New York City. Amy’s graduation from the University of Kansas two months earlier had been the most emotional moment of his life. He had been unable to stop the tears. “Tears of joy,” he said later to Barbara and Scott. But they weren’t all tears of joy. How could he not grieve, for Barb, for the kids, for himself, for his life of deceit and deception? The worst years had been when he was in his thirties and forties. Once, he remembered, over a drink at a backyard cookout, he had stupidly said to a neighbor that he could imagine the pent up feeling of a suicide bomber waiting and wanting to explode. “Hey man, you need a different career path” the man said, shocked, but making a joke of it, not having any idea of his dual life, of what Mark had really meant. Mark kept watching the two women. Now, they were huddled together, still up front but off to the side of the entrance. As they surveyed the crowd they whispered to each other. Then, with a sudden confirming look at each other, they wordlessly turned to the door and left. Mark took a deep breath. He realized he had been holding his breath as if it had been Amy, until she had left, and had 110

not discovered him. He gulped down his drink and signaled for another to one of the half dozen stud bartenders, buffed and young, decked out in black tank tops and tight black jeans with slicked hair that jutted out and up as if they’d been electrocuted. Mark wanted to laugh at the obvious marketing lure, but he couldn’t deny their sex appeal. He chuckled. Some day they’d look just like him. Retirement terrified Mark. He could afford it but at this stage of life he didn’t want change. He needed his work and the space it created. Yes, he was grateful for the weekend arts and charitable fundraisers that got them both out of the house, filled up most of their weekends, when Carol, her husband and Amy weren’t around. But during the week, he wanted to keep busy, didn’t want to sit around the house like an old man. One or two nights of quiet reading at home was enough. Other than that, he wanted to be on the road, doing what he’d done for years, able to have a casual fling far from home when he wanted to. The job itself was easy. He could do it in his sleep, cultivating and harvesting his network of independent insurance brokers so they’d sell Old Reliable’s portfolio of products. Barb said she couldn’t understand why he didn’t slow down. So did their friends. It was an echo chamber, friends and family telling him to take it easy. “Take some time off, go to Europe,” they’d say, shaking their heads, calling him a workaholic. Mark shuddered at the thought. Two weeks in hotel rooms with Barb, just the two of them. What in the world would they talk about? Mark couldn’t conceive of it, yet he had been home most of the time when Carol and Scott were growing up. Of course, the kids had been a buffer of sorts; their marital focus had been on them.


And then, they were gone. It wasn’t as if he didn’t feel some affection for Barb. He did, and he couldn’t imagine their not being together until death do you part. But, at this point in his life he didn’t want any more togetherness than they’d had for the last twentysome, post kid-raising years. Once the kids had left the nest, he and Barb had drifted into their own routines. He’d been able to travel more and have a more active sexual life while Barb did her volunteer work, quilted, gardened and read. He turned his head to check on the girls who were still standing just outside the bar, at the curb, obviously uncertain as to which direction they should go. He’d been a good dad. It had been important to him. His own father had died in a car accident a month after he started first grade. His mother had gone to work. There’d been no parent to go to school events, basketball games, even teacher conferences. Long before he understood his sexuality, Mark had vowed he

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would be there for his kids. And so he had been. But there were those other times when he wondered if he’d let them down, wondered if they sensed the sterility, the artificiality of their parent’s relationship. Yet Mark knew of many marriages that lacked intimacy. But what about honesty, what about the truth, where did that fit into the Pantheon of family experience? As if to drive the point home to himself, he studied his unadorned ring finger, temporarily free of his wedding band. If he could still feel disgusted with himself, maybe that was a sign of some moral responsibility, guilt as conscience. Sure, I’m faultless, he snickered, and tucked his rationalizations away. Reflexively, as regular and automatic as a cuckoo clock, Mark turned toward the front to check out the newcomers entering the bar, and then instantaneously experienced a seismic thump to his heart when he saw his son Scott. Heart

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“Everyone, every family, had secrets. It was just a matter of degree.�

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beating like a drum, his chest a hollow vacuum, Mark craned his neck forward as if he’d been yanked by a bungee cord, pop eyed, cursing his near sightedness. Or maybe it was Jason, the young man he’d talked to earlier, who looked like Scott. Mark looked away for a split second, blinked once, twice and looked again. The man, Scott or Jason, had turned around. He and the other man were leaving, walking out of the bar. Mark could only see the backs of their heads. He sucked in a giant mouthful of air. He’d been holding his breath. Again. Why had Scott left so quickly? Had Scott seen him? That seemed the only explanation. Mark felt light-headed. Scott and the other man had barely entered the front entrance, had stayed for less than a minute. What other explanation was there? Or maybe it wasn’t Scott. Mark took another deep breath. He reached for his glass and took a long pull on his drink. His hand shook. Scott. Of all the things Mark had thought about, worried about over the years, running into his son in a gay bar was not one of them. But it should have been. Mark had known for years Scott was gay, long before Scott suspected it himself when he was fourteen, playing junior varsity football, being a high school jock, and a pretty good one at that, following in his dad’s footsteps. ‘Takes one to know one’ was the ugly phrase that had

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run through Mark’s mind as he watched his son trying to convince himself he couldn’t be “that way.” How often Mark had wished he could have been there for Scott at such a difficult time. It was impossible. To do so would have meant exposing both of them to the family. Or, if not that, it would have meant asking Scott to keep it from the rest of the family, a burden Mark could not ask a teenage boy to bear. Mark squared up to the bar head down, sending a signal to be left alone. The more he thought about it the more confident he was. He hadn’t seen his son, he had seen Jason. Maybe it was the best thing that could have happened. From now on he would make sure when to touch base with Scott when he was traveling, give him a call, say hello, make sure they were not in the same city when Mark was out on the town. Everyone, every family, had secrets. It was just a matter of degree. Mark took several peanuts from the dish in front of him, tossed them in his mouth, chewed for a moment and then washed them down with the Viagra pill he had pulled from the pocket of his sports coat. He was drinking too fast but he had a feeling it was one of those nights when it didn’t matter, one of those nights when it would be impossible to get drunk. His thoughts were interrupted by a quiet voice behind him. “Another penny for your thoughts?” ¤

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Niche

Niche Magazine No. 1  
Niche Magazine No. 1  

Niche is an online literary magazine that was designed to be limitless. It aims to provide a place where an array of voices, from experimen...

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