U N I V E R S I T Y O F W E S T F L O R I D A
Panhandler poetry ~ fiction ~ nonfiction ~ drama ~ criticism
Panhandler (ISSN 0738-8705) is an annual literary journal published by the University of West Floridaâ€™s Department of English and Foreign Languages. The editorial policy of Panhandler is to present in each issue many of the aesthetic forms that the majority of contemporary magazines do not have the space or the desire to publish. With the goal of bringing many of these underrepresented genres to a wider audience, Panhandler publishes substantial folios of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama and criticism. Poetry folios contain 10-20 pages of poetry. Fiction folios range from 2 short stories by individual authors to novel excerpts and novellas. Drama folios consist of either a one-act play or a single act from a larger work. Panhandler welcomes all forms of nonfiction--memoir, literary nonfiction and traditional journalism--as well as substantial and insightful criticism. Subscription rates are $5/1 year, $9/2 years $13/3 years.â€ƒ For full subscription and submission information please visit Panhandler on the web at the following address: www.uwf.edu/panhandler. Mailing address: Panhandler Department of English and Foreign Languages University of West Florida 11000 University Parkway Pensacola, FL 32514 www.uwf.edu/panhandler firstname.lastname@example.org
Panhandler poetry ~ fiction ~ nonfiction ~ drama ~ criticism Editor: Jonathan Fink Managing Editors: Doug Moon Erica Fischer Garrett
1. Brooks Haxton Poetry /1-4 2. Jeff Parker Fiction /5-12 With Art by Willaim Powhida 3. Taije Silverman Poetry /13-18 4. Jim Grimsley Fiction /19-22 5. Elizabeth Bradfield Poetry /23-33 6. Jason Ockert Fiction /34-41
Brooks Haxton has published five collections of poems with Alfred A. Knopf: Dominion, Traveling Company, The Sun at Night, Nakedness, Death, and the Number Zero, and Uproar. His two book-length narrative poems are The Lay of Eleanor and Irene and Dead Reckoning. As a translator, he has published two collections from the ancient Greek, Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus and Dances for Flute and Thunder, and a bicentennial selection of poems by Victor Hugo, all three from Viking Penguin. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington D.C. Council for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. He teaches in the writing programs at Syracuse University and Warren Wilson College and lives in Syracuse with his wife and three children.
Rodan & Rambo vs. Rimbaud & Rodin
-to Kenneth Koch (1925-2002)
After Rimbaud wrings the neck of eloquence, his namesake Rambo cannot speak—confused, misunderstood, he means no harm, but has to kill a small-town deputy, maim fifty men, and set the town on fire to clarify. Most audiences find Stallone as Rambo more appealing than Rimbaud himself, particularly when we see the poet wreck his bon ami Verlaine’s whole life— Verlaine, indifferent to his children and his wife, deranged, degraded, brings a pistol to his mother’s house and in the bedroom wounds his incubus, Rimbaud, who calls the cops and has him thrown for two years into jail in Belgium. Rambo does time too, for murder. Even Rimbaud does a day, I think, for his incompetence at stiffing a conductor for the fare. At twenty-one, his fling with poetry and poets flung, Rimbaud leaves home for tropical adventure as a grunt—like Rambo, dabbling later in the gore and filth of mercenary chic.
First names add to the confusion. Jean, the prodigy of petulance, is Rimbaud; John, the posterboy of peeve, is Rambo. Rodan (the supersonic, pyropneustic, mutated pteranodon in monster movies from Japan) is not much like Rodin (whose “Thinker” looks to me more pumped than pensive), but raw power seems to govern most activities of both. Rimbaud meets Rambo in Rodin, prodigious thirst for novelty in bed exacerbated by a not-so-bright boy’s passion for the ripped physique. Rodan, more Rambolike than Rodinesque, sets fires and runs amok. Not one man of the three, much less the reptile, earns renown for tenderness. Three swift conclusions here might be: (1) populism—cheering for the paramilitary dash of both Rodan and Rambo, with contempt for the pretensions of Rimbaud and Rodin; (2) elitism—deeming Rodin and Rimbaud superior, or Rambo and Rodan superior, because of psycho-social and politico-esthetic rationales; or (3) crypto-nihilism—disingenuous nostalgia for the act of finding value ever anywhere at all. My values are rimbaldiennes, at least in that his poems seem to me in my “maturity,” as once to him in his, beside the point, also in my finding Rambo fun to watch. Rodin I loved when I was seventeen and wanted muscles more like those he sculpted, to attract girls more like those he sculpted and seduced, which still seems theoretically worthwhile, although the aftertaste of Rodin’s oeuvre on my palate now is schmaltzier than it is fiery.
For true fieriness of palate, Rodan rules. He’s bigger, meaner, faster, and more charismatic than the other three, and better looking than Godzilla, too, the roundedness about whose muzzle always struck me as a little mawkish. We bohemians, however, most of us, prefer the goddess Mothra, the benevolent Rodan-sized moth with fairies in kimonos singing on board in their cage. She guards an island paradise of high symbolic consummation, wherefor every mortal yearns, though my preadolescent wonder at the strangeness up there on the screen has dwindled. What I need to see me through late middle age may be that female touch of tremulous, huge, feathery antennae. Meanwhile, on Baudelaire and Bogart, on beaux idéals in general, I will be forever unironic in my praise, but not today.
Breathless: Patooie and the Housing of the Soul
-to Dr. Robert Harris McCarter, Psychologist
With psyche baffled by the common cold, and sinuses pulsating, I read books about the problems in my head, and drink. Vesalius, who sawed the tops off skulls to map the secret chambers in the brain, was sentenced by the Church to burn alive, for noting that the brain and not the heart housed consciousness. They would have let him make a pilgrimage instead, except he died en route of fever. True anatomy, they said, came from the Greek of Galen. In his book, the hypothalamus, left feverish by phlegma (flame), made phlegm, which drained and cooled the psyche (meaning breath). Green nose goop (that’s pituita in Latin, Brooks Haxton
here patooie) was gray matter. Brains, in other words, leaked out your nose from what my source describes as a “small somewhat cherry-shaped double structure attached by a stalk to the base of the midbrain,” your so-called pituitary. About the common cold, Descartes, who died of one, and all the doctors since antiquity were wrong. But when they thought pituitaries must affect the humors we call hormones they were right! Descartes, of course, believed the soul exhorts the flesh at just one spot, in the pineal gland: behind the nose, the known world is a bubble trembling in a cup of bone. The nose itself, if everything were turned to smoke, would be the seat of judgment, Heraclitus said. He thought, in the abysmal dark, the soul is known by scent. If I could breathe, it might inspire my soul, but Aeolus, the god who stirs the breath of wind, the soul of soul, has left me breathless. Whiskey helps, they say, though Coleridge, drunk at thirty, dulled with pain, his marriage failing, opium unmanning him, heard Aeolus, the world soul, sob, and moan, and when the storm hit, scream, in his aeolian lute, and nothing helped. Under the midbrain, over the pharynx, in a tiny hollow in the lower skull, a cherry dangles from the infundibulum and synthesizes humors that induce the glands to tell the cells to grow, and yearn, and rage -- and reproduce. This fire attended by the soul, this phlegma in the center of the head, is also called in Greek hypophysis, or under-growth. The soul is crouching in the undergrowth. Tears form, I snuffle, things look blurred, but I can feel, as Heraclitus felt, in pyr aéizöon my soul, a breath inside an everliving flame. Brooks Haxton
Jeff Parker’s first novel Ovenman will be published by Tin House Books this year. His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ploughshares, Hobart, Columbia and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the Russia Program Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg. This story is part of a cycle of James stories done in collaboration with artist William Powhida and titled The Back of the Line, forthcoming from DECODE Art Publishers.
William Powhida is currently an artistic project. The project involves transforming the subject from a desperate art teacher into an international art star. You can help by showing his drawings to your rich friends who collect art. His work can be seen at www.williampowhida.com and his next solo exhibition will be in the spring at Schroeder Romero Gallery in New York.
James’s Love of Laundromats
hat I am supposed to be doing is taking James to the bank and having him sign an Affidavit of Responsibility for the three thou in phone sex bills he charged up on my girlfriend’s phone. She wants no more dealings with him so it falls to me, his best friend. The Affidavit of Responsibility is something that can clear her credit if James doesn’t pay up. James is supposed to be paying up, but he doesn’t appear to be doing that. What he appears to be doing is test-driving mopeds. He appears to be sweet-talking the sales guy, and when we get the keys to two spanking new Vespas we appear to be going around the block when what we are doing is stealing them and cruising the streets in search of a new Laundromat. Our old Laundromat, run by our friend Rodney with hands like pinchers, had gone out of business. The concept had failed. I never liked that combo Laundromat/bar
anyway. Drunk people were always dropping their socks. We leave downtown and enter the ‘villes. James has something very specific in mind. We know we have about thirty minutes tops before the moped people catch on. Near the dry part of town, between Clintonville and Woodville, he cuts me off, swerving into the parking lot of a little strip mall with a Korean grocery and a Battery-Mart. We cruise into the back and roll the mopeds down an embankment into some sewer runoff. Then we double back. What is it? I say. A potential, he says. Shouldn’t we hit the bank? I say We’ll do it later, today’s our only day off. We only work half days, but half days turn into whole days when James is around, and days turn into weekends and weekends into weeks and etc. It’s just the way it happens. Next to the Battery-Mart is a dark window that says Cowtown Herps, Jeff Parker
and I go in there while James checks out the Laundromat. It smells like moss. A hippie girl is changing a millipede’s litter. Little alligators are stacked in black tubs and their mouths electrical-taped. You’ve heard of the snakehead? I ask. I’ve heard, she says. Happened to have one? No, sir. That’s an illegal fish. That’s a legal alligator? Want to see his papers? An alligator’s got papers? Everything’s got papers. That’s a shame, I say. Wait a sec, she says. You know anything about a snakehead? I know they can walk. Walk? Yeah, walk. She goes over to a tank and reaches her arm in to the shoulder, wetting her sleeve. She takes an embryo-looking fish out by the head. She drops it on the linoleum where it flops around.
You call that walk? she says. It’s got flounder skin, I say. It has the motion of walk, back and forth, one side then the other on these flimsy front fins. It basically turns a circle. He’s cute now, but within the year, he’ll outgrow that tank. If you sit where he can see you a lot, he’ll love you. Thanks, I say. When I walk out I hear the ploosh of the snakehead returned to the tank. The Laundromat is wide and empty except for the most sterling steel washing and drying equipment. Everything new under fluorescent lights. The Laundromat/bar had hundred-year-old gunk, beige machines tinted purple by lint. The smell of onions about the place. The dryers here exhale, I would say. The washers—petite toploaders to super industrials, which, a sign claims, can take up to sixteen sheets at one time. The only thing old is the sound system, like spaghetti strainers installed in the ceiling. The sound comes out with a hiss: In just five weeks, you too can conquer death. Order now to try our program free, and you’ll soon be death free. James has his arm around a small Korean man, who is smiling. I’ve got a million ideas for you, Steve, James says. Euphotopia.
ednesdays, we’re gate-check squad. There are sixty-nine functioning gate arms on campus, which spans less than four square miles. We check each one. We drive a golf cart with a pickup bed. When we find a broken one, and there can be many, especially after football, we have two options: 1) If it snapped close to the mechanism (Reattachment Acceptable), we saw off the
splintered end and salvage it. It will still obstruct most of the roadway. 2) If it’s broken anywhere near the middle, we chunk it in the Unusable Crate and bolt on a new one. We make them over by the bus facility because Immediate Supervisor, whose name is Rectifor but who we call Immediate Supervisor, says they cost $200 each from gate arm companies and it’s only $20 per with me and James slapping them together. We cut them out of soft pine and attach bendable Plexiglass pieces on the end like Immediate Supervisor wants. James saws the Unusables into shelves for his locker. I am frustrated with our job and it has a lot to do with the following essential truth: gate arms are not designed to stop anything. You can crack them by looking at them funny. I’m like, if we’re going to make gate arms, why don’t we make gate arms? Something that will really stop somebody or damage some paint? What’s the purpose? And for what purpose are we replacing them all the time if they have no purpose? The only time we see Immediate Supervisor is when we’re handing in the Gate Arm Status Report Sheets. Other than that, everyone pretty much leaves us alone there, which isn’t exactly what we want, since we’re going for full-time. James has the broken gate arm radar. Out of the sixty-nine he can take us direct to the broken ones. Today he is glazy, distant, but still he zeros in on the broken gate arms, and at his direction we hit the West Stadium side first. Do you know why I love Laundromats? James says, as I am sawing off a splintered end. We sit on the grass to do this and the business of the day—buses, shuttle, bikes, skateboards, cars with permits and Jeff Parker
cars without—goes by unimpeded. Why do these gate arms even exist? I say. Because they’re warm. The sound of dryers is a lullaby. If you go into a high-end one, that smell, all Snuggles. You can play video games, eat gumballs, and get change for free. But let me take the interlocution farther: Question: What is warmer than a Laundromat? Answer: A Laundromat that allows you to snooze, near-naked in an MRI-like tube of fluorescent bulbs, which cook your body while its compatriot machines wash and then heat your clothes to a toasty warm. Warmth, in totale. I understand it is about the impression of obstruction, but I can’t help but feel even more useless than when I didn’t have a job, always replacing them when they fail to perform the function they are designed to fail to perform, I say. I have proposed—and Steve has accepted my proposal—that he incorporate into his Laundromat a tanning facility. Whereas most salons sell thirty-minute or hourlong, Steve’s Korean Laundry & Tan’s increments will be associated with your wash cycle. At mid-tan you walk out, transfer your clothes, re-up your dryer time and back to tan based on that particular dryer increment. Forcefields, I say. Forcefields are the future of vehicle-access control. Not these toothpicks. I crack the remains of an Unusable over my knee. I have a feeling there’s some serious work for us over by Research Library, he says. We pack up and watch one of our new gate arms raise for a Fritos truck. Immediate Supervisor comes on the walkie-talkie.
Immediate Supervisor, I say. And just then my Nokia buzzes. It’s my girlfriend. I drive the cart with my knee and listen to the walkie-talkie with my right ear, the Nokia with my left. What are you doing after work? my girlfriend says. Where are you? Immediate Supervisor says. We’re test-driving mopeds, I say to her. We’re right here, I say to him. I cheated on you again last night, she says. Where’s here? Immediate Supervisor says. His gate arm bigger than mine? I say. Oh, honey, she says, like tossing a hotdog down a hallway. Wherever you are, Immediate Supervisor says, get you and your wacko guy over to Research Library. Someone battering-rammed it. James and I hear the sound of urethane on asphalt. We turn our heads in time to see a rollerblader snap through a gate arm we’d just replaced and speed away down the hill.
ames and Steve unpack the tanning bed and I go visit the Herp girl. Maybe it’s the ease with which she handles things that bite. I cringe to reach for a teddy bear hamster. She has no fear. Can we try the snakehead in mud? I say. My feeling is it can walk in mud. We can clear the alligators out of one of these tubs and pack it with mud, then that thing will go. What snakehead? she says. The one you threw on the floor the other day. That wasn’t a snakehead. That was a particular catfish which happens to resemble a snakehead. Like I said, snakehead’s not legal.
We are standing across from each other, separated by the small cages of the millipedes and tarantulas. But even if it was a snakehead, she says, which it’s not, it couldn’t walk in mud. It’s a myth, that they walk from lake to lake decimating populations. Thing’s got bad press. Might be legal if it weren’t for that kind of dis. They decimate populations, sure, eat everything with gills, sure, some amphibians, sure, but they, meaning snakeheads, which is not what is over in that tank in this licensed pet shop subject to wildlife laws and regulations of this fine state, do not walk, period. She leans across the counter, resting her breasts on a tarantula cage. The tarantula tries to attack them through the aerated lid. It hops at her breasts, but she doesn’t seem to care. She sniffs my shoulder. You have the essence of broth, she says. After the boil. I can smell you coming a mile off. I eat a lot of soups, I say. The Laundromat is empty. I go back into what used to be the office but is now the tanning facility. Steve and James are standing in front of a high-tech coffin and puzzling over the directions. They’ve stapled a poster of a waterfall on the wall and they are piping in some fuzzy bird chirping from the old spaghetti speakers. You’re in luck, James says. You just won a free tan. Steve looks at James. Free? he says. Steve and James confer quietly in the corner. I don’t want a tan, I say. Come on, man, James says. That pet store girl is crazy about guys with tans. She probably lives for the beach. What do I do? Lay your shit down, hombre. I’ll come get you in twenty. Jeff Parker
Could stand a little color, I guess. That’s the spirit, James says. I strip down to my boxers and James hands me a pair of Ray Bans. I climb in and hear a switch flip and these long tubes light up. It warms quickly, and I start to think James was right about this. It’s nice. I close my eyes underneath the Ray Bans, taking in the hum of the bulbs and the bird chirping. Earlier, when we’d hit Research Library, there were twelve downed gate arms, none of them broken near the mechanism, so they all went in the Unusable Crate, which on one hand made our jobs easier because there was no sawing, only bolting involved, but which on the other hand always seemed needlessly wasteful to me. We felt good about our day, like we’d worked at our useless job, until Immediate Supervisor came by to collect our Gate Arm Status Report Sheets and said that there’s a budget crunch, that the increased destruction of gate arms isn’t helping any—so by the way we might lower the size of the Reattachment Acceptable or even duct tape some ends onto the longer Unusables. But whatever, there’s a very real possibility he’s going to have to let one of us go. I have the broken gate arm radar, James immediately said. Hey, I said. Here he was, turning it into a competition again, always at my expense. And in this case he had the edge. I had no practical skill which would give me an advantage over him in replacing gate arms. Maybe I could saw faster or bolt quicker, but probably not. If he could shave off precious seconds of the workday by driving direct to the brokens, how was I to compete? When I wake up, there is the sense that something is wrong. The feeling of being inside the tanning machine
has changed. It sears. I push the lid off the coffin and sit up. My arms, my whole body is chalky and pink. I pull on my clothes, which burn when they touch my skin. Steve and James are leaned over the Korean Bible in the main area of the Laundromat. I come around in front of them and they don’t even look until I wave a pink hand in front of the Bible. Wait a sec, James says. Steve points to a squiggle and tells James that it means Job. You guys maybe forget something? Man. You look all crabby, James says. Timer, Steve says. Timer, James says. Hey, we were thinking of hiring some good looking tan bitches. Maybe your girlfriend would do it? Steve snickers. I am standing here burnt to a crisp, I say. You are burnt, he says. It’s a significant burn, acknowledged. Speaking of my girlfriend, we need to get ourselves to the bank, I say. James points at another squiggle in the Bible. Steve opens up his Korean-English dictionary. Faces of the ground, Steve says. As soon as I have time, I’m going, James says. I agreed to sign the little paper. I say, Catch you at the schoolhouse. I take the bus home but it hurts to sit. A cold shower brings out the red. My girlfriend rubs a special aloe cooling agent all over my body. It is one of the best nights we’ve shared until she boots me to the couch because, she says, I emanate too much heat. By morning I already peel.
formulate my own proposal, looking to put me one up in the initiative category and make more work for us, which means more hours which means more payola. When Immediate Supervisor collects our Gate Arm Status Report Sheets, I pose a question: Who breaks our gate arms the most, Immediate Supervisor? I say. It’s Fall, he says. Why are you so red? Drunk people, James says. Drunk people in cars, drunk people walking, drunk people riding bikes, Immediate Supervisor says. Students who don’t want to pay. Students who want to park where they’re not supposed to. Though they have universal remote openers for gate arms, emergency vehicles crash through them rather than waiting for them to rise. There’s nothing we can do about some of those, and maybe not even a freak occurrence like this Research Library thing the other day. But when mostly do all those drunks you mentioned do their damage? Football days, he says. Football days, I say. Of which tomorrow is one of those. Listening, he says. I propose that James and I, tonight and all subsequent football day eves, remove every gate arm on campus for its own protection. I believe this may be a cost-saving maneuver. Immediate Supervisor tips his head back and mouths some numbers. You may be onto something, he says. Do it. So we log some overtime unbolting all sixty-nine gate arms from the mechanisms and after work, like usual, there is no time for the bank. James doesn’t bring it up, and I won’t bring it up. Instead we sit in the Laundromat opening and closJeff Parker
ing dryer doors, appreciating the suction of the seals, pulling out the lint screens and admiring their lack of fuzz. Steve brings bowls of something that looks to be nipples in rice for the three of us from the Korean Grocery. The brown oblongs have little asterisks on one side. I opt out. James eats mine. He pops the things into his mouth like it’s a good old time. Steve and James take fifteen-minute turns in the tanning machine. Their skin tones have achieved the greasy bronze of fried chicken. I go to visit the Herp girl, who loves to pull the peeling skin from the back of my neck and feed it to the fish. She is giddy about the prospect whenever I come in. Except now, when I push through the door, she cold shoulders me. At the sight of me under the threshold of the still jingling door chimes she reaches for a small puff adder and drapes it around her neck, knowing that I won’t approach her like that. It’s an interesting tongue on that necklace, I say from across the store. She says nothing. She flips through a sea horse catalog and adjusts the puff adder. Normally a bitchy snake, known to hiss and play dead, it’s nearly as calm with her as she is with it. I putter around the store, not knowing exactly what to do. I kick the side of one of the black tubs and the alligators’ cat eyes meet mine. Don’t disturb them, she says. I actually have a lot of work to do today. What work? Does any place in this strip mall besides the Korean Grocery do business? Battery-Mart does fine, she says. Mail order is our bread and butter. You want to feed the fish? I say, offering her my neck.
Your friend, the tan guy, was in here, she says. He told me about your girlfriend. What girlfriend? The one you have. He tell you he’s after her? He told me you’re on-ramp to marry. I wouldn’t say anything like that. She puts the puff adder in its little cage. I take this as a signal, come closer. You lied to me Broth Man, she says. I never said anything. Your eyes lied for you. And maybe you know a little more than I’d have a deceptor like yourself knowing. She glances at the snakehead aquarium. Okay, I say, I get the problem here, but understand you could have been the one to break me free of her. You were the only possible chance I’ve seen. You may consider yourself, as far as this store is concerned, on the illegal list henceforth. Not to be bought, sold, traded, or tampered with. She adjusts the top of a tarantula cage, the jumper, and I back away. When the door bells jingle she is back in the sea horse catalog. I go next door and tell James I have a fucking question for him. Well I have fucking question for you, he says, massaging some bronzing skin cream into his forearm. Why did you do that today? It’s a stupid idea. It’s a win-win. It’s no win-win. It’s unnecessary. Anyone can take those gate arms off before the football games. Anyone can do that. Not just you or me. I’ve got us under control. You told the Herp Girl I have a girlfriend. Here’s what you don’t get, he says.
I’m helping you. In every respect, I went and visited him once. I I am always helping you. And it’s guess it was the same old James, just about time you wised up to that. something in him seemed trammeled, beaten. It made me sad to see he next morning we bolt on that because I’d always admired him all sixty-nine gate arms, grab- for being so admirable in the way bing us both time and a half and like he was above trammel or beat. still saving the university over what I brought him a Downy dryer they would have spent replacing sheet and he tipped his head back so many. Then the very next day, and laid it on his face, breathed deep on the way in, the day we’re really for a while. It wasn’t like a real jail. no matter what going to get to the There was a counselor listening in. bank and do that thing, James’s gate James folded the dryer sheet neatarm radar is off the charts. Could be ly and tucked it in his breast pocket. twenty, thirty, he says. But when we He proceeded to speak and I’m not walk into the locker room two cops sure if it was for me or the counselor are there and Immediate Supervi- or for his own self. He confirmed for sor with a look on his face. The cops me that no matter what his circumput me and James against the lock- stances, he would always have a way ers. Immediate Supervisor points at with the world that I would not. James and they let me go and cuff At first, I thought I was helping him, march him out. Immediate Su- us keep our jobs, man, he said. Then pervisor tells me to go wherever it I realized I couldn’t stop. I had to is James told me to go because gate take them out. They called to me in arms are down all over campus and the night. I shook just to approach a he should know. gate arm. They haunted my dreams. They got him on felony destruction of public property, and some other things I didn’t know about, vandalism, assault. They didn’t even think to consider what vehicles he was driving through the gate arms, which were all stolen—mopeds, and motorcycles and a few beat-up Pontiacs. He had been coming at night all this time. Immediate Supervisor promoted me to full-time, and I got some new responsibility for my football-day gate arm removal initiative and since there’s way less gate arm work with James out of commission. Steve’s Laundry & Tan went out of business, and they expanded the Korean grocery into where it used to be. Now, instead of going to a Laundromat with James, me and my girlfriend sit bitterly on the porch most nights drinking margaritas and eating cold cereal with milk.
Taije Silverman, the 2005-2007 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University, holds a BA in English from Vassar and an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland. Her poems have been published in journals including Pleiades, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner, and merited fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. New poems are forthcoming in Antioch Review, Shenandoah and Five Points. She grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It Was a Good Day When we imagine someone asking us, the answer is sadness. But what I think first is this nightgown, the dark red silk and my washed hair, that slow lull of space before sleeping. My mother’s rash is not the first thought. It spreads and loosens, climbs her face, the bumps blur and I tell her that it’s leaving. It is leaving. Fear slicks down to size so that time takes over: beef tenderloin with sugar snaps, the lemon’s aftertaste. This, my father says, pointing to the potatoes, this is really good. My sister pulls three kinds of cookies out of the freezer and my father asks Didn’t we choose not to have cookies anymore? Yes, my sister says, and I chose not to hear that. The cookies are halved, passed around, we claim favorites and tell my sister to take the cookies away, then not to take them away, we are laughing. I say to my father as he eats, I love you, and he says, I love you all, the three of us he is able to watch at the counter in our sweaters and hair, bending and talking as if skin were a grace. I take a bath. My mother reads in bed and reads on the toilet, looking up when I look at her and smiling. The rash will pass. It was a good day. My father coughing now. Yawning.
The Winter Before My mother knocked on the bathroom door to read me a poem. Her happiness was shining. Taije Silverman
Even now, she read from her place on the page, the Beloved is tending himself inside of you. When I didnâ€™t smile she asked, Isnâ€™t it beautiful? God is inside of us. Yes. A thousand times yes. For no reason I remembered my dream from the night before, how I had no money in a strange city and each male friend I asked for a place to stay wanted sex in exchange. No reason. I smiled. I let her happiness be my happiness, which is easy sometimes, but when she turned to walk back to her bedroom, I wanted to call to her: Wait. All my dreams had returned. Dreams of being alone in strange cities, a man following or being followedâ€”death as the lover we greet indifferently, on the stairs. Wait. I wanted to ask her, Will we be all right? My father was already sleeping in the bed she would climb into and the skin on their bodies was the most precious thing I would ever know. I would lose it. Will we be all right? The door closed click, shut. Ghosts cluttered the hallway. Inside me somewhere buried and lightless I was sobbing and would not stop, but in the mirror my eyes were dry. I asked to forget and be forgiven though I asked no one, and nothing.
Vigilance Today we lay across the chaise, my head along her pillowed hip she said I am going to vomit. I pulled her up to sitting, quick. I cupped my hands before her. She shook her head. I grabbed the glass, dumped water like spit, it hit the edges of her sandals, spread. I think sometimes of dreams. They are like falling, in. She threw up pink, the peaches sliced for breakfast, how
she’d sliced them smaller with her spoon, each careful cut, I thought to help— Slime on her lips, again, and then. I made her laugh. I held her head. I pressed my head soft to her head. You useless heart, you gentle guilt. Sometimes my dreams. Her leg shook like a dull machine, the engine low, on vibrating. The room filled up to watch her. She closed her eyes, and did not answer questions. We tried to be a silence. Come time, we called, and swallowed it.
--a transfer camp in the Czech Republic
We rode the bus out, past fields of sunflowers that sloped for miles, hill after hill of them blooming. The bus was filled with old people. Women held loaves of freshly baked bread on their laps. Men slept in their seats wearing work clothes. You stared out the window beside me. Your eyes were so hard that you might have been watching the glass. Fields and fields of sunflowers. Arriving we slowed on the cobblestone walkway. Graves looked like boxes, or houses from high up. On a bench teenage lovers slouched in toward each other. Their backs formed a shape like a seashell. You didn’t want to go inside. But the rooms sang. Song like breath, blown through spaces in skin. The beds were wide boards stacked up high on the walls. The glass on the door to the toilet was broken. I imagined nothing.
You wore your black sweater and those dark sunglasses. You didn’t look at me. The rooms were empty, and the courtyard was empty, and the sunlight on cobblestone could have been water, and I think even when we are here we are not here. The courtyard was flooded with absence. The tunnel was crowded with light. Like a throat. Like a— In a book I read how at its mouth they played music, some last piece by Wagner or Mozart or Strauss. I don’t know why. I don’t know who walked through the tunnel or who played or what finally they could have wanted. I don’t know where the soul goes. Your hair looked like wheat. It was gleaming. Nearby on the hillside a gallows leaned slightly. What has time asked of it? Nights. Windstorms. Your hair looked like fire, or honey. You didn’t look at me. Grass twisted up wild, lit gold all around us. We could have been lost somewhere, in those funny hills. And the ride back—I don’t remember. Why was I alone? It was night, then. It was still morning. But the fields were filled with dead sunflowers. Blooms darkened to brown, the stalks bowed. And the tips dried to husks that for miles kept reaching. Those dreamless sloped fields of traveling husks.
The Dumb Bones Last night I asked a man I love to destroy me quickly. I wanted him to leave nothing, crushed up bones, chalk they can’t trace back as evidence. What, he asked, not understanding. The boy is a god. The god is a boy. He kneels for me. He puts my cheek to the white plaster, curving. Taije Silverman
He lifts my skirt and I shake my head no, trying to remember an instinct. He nods and I want to lie down for him. Make me chalk. Make me end. Is it just love, this grief in me crumbling? Just love, after all, just love. Sleeping. Trying to sleep. I never knew to prize my mother’s happiness. How tonight, she smiled at her guests in that slow candlelight around the table. She was the center, and meant to be the center, and grateful. I’ve only wanted this. Then his one hand, slipping into me. His insistence. Again I believe in promises.
from “Poem to Keep What I Love” In the five minutes between here and there, Bradford Pears blooming round as balloons on the clipped blocks of dress shops, framed chattering white now by trees fat with air. Poem to keep the Bradford Pears. Poem to keep sleep, dreams that burrow under the skin with their knots of questions, dreams evacuating through the alarm’s blind end. Poem to keep the crowd of light by the open closet seen only as light upon waking and sourceless. Source yields ending. Poem to keep five minutes the sloped fields intact, the cows unhesitating the blooms fastened to branches completely. Poem to keep patience protected. Afloat. Without pull. To keep stars we can’t see from their myth-born explosions their traveling downward their endless arrival.
When their absence hardens to air. When their absence is the absence my body leaves. When I will it gone.
Gone the last day moonlight waiting in milk pods and gone the ringed oaks dropping dusk onto lawns. Gone the light piled on doubtful black rooftops, the blithe blink of lamps spreading outward like palms. And Nocturnes, or opera, blue candle wax sliding, glass table’s goodbye dinner set for the deck. The goodbyes caught to collarbones. The last day lost to sleep. Lost as miracles must be to what we refuse to remember. Only in grief will love speak through memory: ribbon-thin language of nomads and thieves. Only in fear will it shapeshift, trade inherence for accident, the unforeseen. Come back. We’re the bird song. Come back. We’re the hum of the house at night. Come back. We’re rain, lifting. Come back. We’re the whole of the neighborhood, just loosening. Just gathering dark.
Jim Grimsley is a playwright and novelist. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994. The novel won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Jim’s second novel, Dream Boy, won the American Library Association GLBT Award for Literature (the Stonewall Prize) and was a Lambda finalist. His third novel, My Drowning, was released in January 0f 1997 by Algonquin Books and for it he was named Georgia Author of the Year. His fourth novel, Comfort & Joy, was published in October, 1999, and was a Lambda finalist. A fantasy novel, Kirith Kirin, was published by Meisha Merlin Books in 2000 and won the Lambda in the science fiction and horror category for 2001. Boulevard, published in 2002 by Algonquin, was again a Lambda finalist in the literature category and won Jim his second Georgia Author of the Year designation. His most recent novel, The Ordinary, a science fiction novel published in 2004 by Tor Books, has recently been named a Lambda finalist in the science fiction/fantasy/horror category. Jim received the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Writers Award for his body of work in 1997, and has twice been a finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003-2004). In 2005 he won an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Not the Thing Itself, But the Appearance of the Thing” is a chapter from his forthcoming novel, Forgiveness (University of Texas Press).
Not the Thing Itself, But the Appearance of the Thing
hen I drive home from the Starbuck’s, Carmine’s Lexus is out of the driveway, but there’s a silver Honda Accord, about six years old, that I recognize as belonging to the twice-a-week maid, a Serb named Deutze. Today I have vowed to tell Deutze that this is her last week, that I don’t have any more money to pay her, but as soon as I see her car my resolve vanishes and a fear of my own poverty strikes me cold in the heart. Deutze is in the kitchen scrubbing all the stainless steel surfaces with a toothbrush. She is on her hands and knees at the moment, working furiously at cleaning the bottom of the oven door, her bulbous hips thrust upward, propped on one arm and scrubbing with the other, studying the stainless steel intently as she works it over. The angle of her knees and the way her whole chunky weight presses onto her kneecaps makes me wince. My knees crack and pop with every step
I take. She looks back at me, and for the second time I think she’s had a shot of collagen in her lips; she looks like what might happen if someone grafted Angelina Jolie’s mouth onto the face of Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie. Her ample rump is jiggling as she scrubs, and she never stops scrubbing, even when she glares at me in that come-hither way of hers. If only I were a cheating man, I would grapple her into the bedroom right now and show her what a force of nature I can be. For a moment I entertain the fantasy. But in reality I am only a little squall in the stormy ocean of love, and Deutze, whom I believe to be aggressively experienced, turns away from me in contempt. She has already cleaned the dining room and pulled the drapes closed. We have a wide window in that room that looks onto the garden at the side of the house, where there’s a fountain and a replica of that statue
from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Carmine’s favorite book. At the moment the garden is obscured behind the handmade drapes at the window, densely pleated, some shade between whitebeige and white-gray. A week ago in this room Carmine asked me for a divorce. I spent the next three days drunk in the pool house. At first, when she said the words, I could hardly believe my ears. “What are you talking about? What’s wrong with you?” “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said. “I can’t watch you do this to yourself, that’s all.” “Do what to myself?” “Ruin yourself. Sit around for the rest of your life.” “I’m not going to sit around for the rest of my life. I’m going to get another job.” “Charley, it’s been three years already. You think I’m believing this crap that you’re still looking for a
job?” “It’s only been six months.” “Six months since you got fired from that real estate company. You can’t even sell real estate.” “I still had a job. It still counts. You know damn well it hasn’t been three years.” “Please, Charley, why would I lie about that? Why would I make that up?” “There are some great leads today on the internet,” I said. “Deloitte and Touche is hiring. They have a lot of my old clients.” She made that blowing sound with her mouth; she’s not quite as good at it since she started having her lips done more often, since the Botox. A fleck of spit flew out and arced across the dining table. “Come on. Who are you kidding?” “I’m telling the truth about Deloitte and Touche. And they’re not the only place. I’m online every day, checking what’s out there. I mailed out a hundred resumes since the real estate place. More than a hundred.” “How many times do I have to say it? All your friends from Arthur Andersen got jobs. Every one. Except you. Can you explain that, Mr. I-Look-For-a-Job-Every-Day? Can you?” I glared at her. She was telling the truth. A change of subject was in order. “You’re divorcing me because I can’t find a job?” “I’m divorcing you because you’re not even looking for a job.” I turned slowly in the room, hands out, gesturing to the house and everything in it. “Tell me what I’m missing here. We live in a great house. You have everything you want. What am I doing wrong?” “We’re spending every cent we have. You’re almost broke. You think I don’t know it but I do. I’m getting out while I still can.” When I
started to talk she waved her arms at me, not even the hint of a tear in her eye, all business. “That’s enough. I’ve listened to you enough. I’m not listening any more. We’re getting a divorce.” She flapped her hands out from the fingertips, showing that expensive French manicure; this gesture is a sign of complete dismissal, and after she gave it, she walked out of the room. In this room. She lacked the decency to end our marriage in our bedroom, which might have shown an ounce of consideration for my feelings. She gave me the news right here in the dining room over the nearly-new Mission dining table that seats sixteen. Absent the least hint of regret. Today, a week later, I am standing in front of those expensive drapes wishing I were the kind of boss who could throw Deutze over a couch and show her the manly stuff I’m made of, or at least demand that she fix me a drink. But I can’t even bring myself to tell her I can’t afford a maid any more. My confidence as a sexual partner has been destroyed by a constant bombardment of penis enlargement ads in my email inbox, sent by a conspiracy of persons who wish to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy. I have been tempted by such products as MagnaX and TriplThik, I have come close to spraying one of my credit card numbers perilously over the internet; I have come close to risking what remains of my selfrespect by allowing an electronic audit trail to exist that will verify for anyone who cares that I think my penis is too small. This is more of a fear than a thought. But it persists. My penis is certainly tiny most of the time. Gone are the days when it could rage and stiffen like a bull;
but, alas for me, those days were mostly gone by the time I switched from hand to girl. I only ever had sex with three girls, Carmine, and Betsy, and Caroline. Since I didn’t marry Betsy or Caroline I don’t see any reason to talk about them except to say that Betsy was high school and Caroline was freshman year in college and neither of them was evidence of much ardor on my part since our sex was jerky and quick and immensely infrequent. When Carmine and I did make love, in the days after our marriage got settled, Carmine would fake her orgasms, wait for me to fall asleep, and finish herself in the bathroom with her vibrator, an awesome instrument that left me with deep feelings of unease when I heard its steady thrum. I waited up one night and heard the battery powered friend slide out of the drawer of the bedside table, saw her swing it jauntily as she crossed to the bathroom and closed the door. She came back to bed a few minutes later, sighing. After that whenever we had sex I quickly pretended to fall asleep and listened to her use the vibrator in the bathroom. My own orgasms took on a tentative quality, and I started faking them, too, after a while. She must have noticed, since there was no longer any messy product of any kind, but she was too kind a woman to mention this, until recently. Pretty soon I was having my only real sex with my hand again, and my wife was stocking batteries by the carton. Once in a while we would shock each other, though, like that time in her mother’s house the night her father died when we shook the bed against the walls so hard her mother came and knocked on the door.
Once in a while it was fine to be under and on top of and around her, and we felt like partners and equals and we got a little lost in each other. Like in college, in the first days when we started having sex, but better, because now we knew each other. Even at the worst moments, we never stopped pretending to have sex with each other, which was a sign that we cared for each other, wasn’t it? A year ago, after we hired Deutze, my wife cornered me in the bedroom with her eyes bulging and jammed her index finger into my collarbone. “I know you’ve been fucking this East European piece of shit, Charley. Admit it.” “Admit what? Deutze? Are you out of your mind, she’d kill me if I laid a hand on her.” “Oh, you coward. You can’t even tell the truth when I confront you.” “Lauren, what on earth can you be thinking, what can possibly be in your brain? Have you seen the thighs on that woman? She would crack me like a matchstick.” She shoved me backwards onto the bed and climbed on top of me, squeezing me with her own thighs. “Don’t call me Lauren. That’s not my name.” “Carmine, then. What are you doing?” “Showing you what my thighs can do,” she said, and squeezed the breath out of me, meanwhile rubbing against me. Both our bodies were ample and soft along the front, comfortable and wieldy. “Deutze is here,” I said, “she’ll hear.” “Your whore Deutze,” she said. “You’re worried your whore might hear you fuck your wife?” “Carmine, please, I never touched her.” “Shut up, you stupid little worm.”
She accused me to bolster my ego, to say she wanted me again. Maybe she played the vixen that day because it was on her mind to reward me. I was trying to sell real estate at the time, and she wanted me to know she was grateful. We made a valiant attempt at fancy foreplay and I mounted her almost like a stud. But I suspect in the end she was disappointed. Maybe NaturalGain+ is the product I really need. Three more inches of myself and it would be harder for her to turn to Mr. Plastic. Three more inches and certainly, surely, I would feel more aroused myself. This talk of her brother is to punish me and recurs from time to time. I think Edgar actually told her this story years ago, that I went to bed with him one night when we were both drunk. It would be like him; a man so brazen he covers the bathroom of his house with pictures of naked men making love to each other, with no shame or feeling of degradation, from every conceivable position and some, indeed, that I never would have conceived had I not seen them. The reason I think he’s told her this story is very simple. He talked to me about this incident the day after it allegedly happened. Carmine was in the hospital undergoing expensive problems with her pregnancy, similar to the problems that some of our more sensitive neighbors were having, including a bit of blood spotting that was real enough to make the doctors put her on her back. Edgar came to visit her in the hospital and stayed in our guest room. One night, as he claimed, we had dinner, drank a lot of wine, and went to bed together. “Then why did I wake up in my own bed?” I asked. “You got up and left about dawn.
You were probably still drunk. You were really loaded.” “Loaded or not, I think I would remember having sex with you, Edgar.” “Lord, Charley, you never remember anything when you’re really drunk.” “I’d remember that.” “Why?” “I’ve never had sex with a man before.” Edgar gave me a look. “I haven’t,” I said. “Well, you sure knew what to do.” “Edgar, we didn’t do anything.” “Don’t worry. I won’t tell Carmine.” Which was, of course, a rank lie. “There’s nothing to tell her.” “Of course there’s not.” He looked smug, and sauntered to a window, with something of the air of Bette Davis before the cocktail party in All About Eve. The nerve of the man. As if my gay debut, should there ever be one, would find me paired with someone so angular and scrawny. “Come on, Ed, I know when I’ve had sex or not. I can tell.” “How?” “I can just tell. My penis feels used.” “Used?” “Yes.” I set my jaw and stood as he started to grin. “Well, it felt pretty used last night,” he said. Which was what I might have expected. “You flatter yourself.” “What?” I decided there was no need to be nice. “I would never have sex with you, Ed. You are the last man on earth I would have sex with.” “Because of Lauren. Carmine.” We were all still getting used to the new name. “No. Because you’re ugly.
Because you’re not my type.” His face set into an unpleasant expression and he reached for his coffee cup. “Did you hear me?” I asked. “I heard you.” “Because no one has slept with you in ten years except for money. And you want to make up some fantasy about me.” “All right,” he said, sharply, and glared at me, and meant it, and I backed down. But I’m sure that part never made it into the story he told Carmine. These are the games that keep us in some kind of relation to one another. Carmine accuses me of affairs with her friends and family in order to make me feel better about myself. Edgar, her brother, persists in his story that we slept together, out of some twisted sense of connection to his sister, or to me, or to both. Carmine’s mother, Edna, also lives with us, and I ask you, how can a man of uncertain confidence make love to his aging wife when the crone she will soon become is haunting the corridors of their house in her spit-stained houserobe and moaning in her sleep at night? Edna, a good woman, is nevertheless loud, due to deafness, and flatulent, due to constant indigestion. She has a problem keeping her dress buttoned and sometimes forgets to wear underwear. Once she appeared in my bathroom door wearing nothing but a tee shirt, completely disoriented, not at all aware of the shocking way in which she was exposing her bit of muff. Her withered flanks shuddered as she stepped hurriedly out of the door when she saw me, a blur in front of her, no doubt, since she was wearing no glasses. Her pubic hair was prodigious and gray, like underbrush or a thicket. Creeping back along the wall, she vanished.
Last week after Carmine told me she wanted a divorce, I crept into the house again after she was gone. I had no money, nowhere to go. Sitting in front of the computer, I contemplated the web page for Virility Pro, as seen on Time, CNN, ABC, and other places. Medically proven Virility Pro Pills would enlarge my penis naturally, believe it or not! A busty woman of divine smoothness, wearing a thong bikini, knelt in a low tide in the wet sand and looked over her shoulder at me, a glance that said, “Take this pill and you’ll be able to do everything I need.” I wanted to order the pills, to have them work and write my own customer testimonial. “These pills made me so much larger that I can actually see myself at last! Says Charley S. of Blanktown, State of South Blankana.” Even more professional in appearance was the page for Alpha Male Plus, where I learned that deep in Canada lives an animal scientists believe to be the most prolific lover in the entire animal kingdom, the male Wapiti Elk, cervus elaphus. The pill was red. A picture of a handsome man in doctor’s clothes looked out at me. The doctor was blonde, with full, red lips. The page included a chart comparing the sexual performance of the average middle-aged male with the average middle-aged Wapiti Elk, and we humans, alas, fell woefully short. Sex you’ll talk about for weeks. In the case of an erection that lasts over four hours, please seek medical help. I pictured myself with my true love, the girl in the commercial about the cell phone, whose face I could no longer remember very clearly, so that she occasionally morphed into Halle Berry or, sometimes, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Under the effects
of Wapiti Elk hormone, I show her the time of her life. We are in front of the gigantic fireplace in Shangrila in the movie Citizen Kane. Sex is just as good in black-and-white as it is in Technicolor. We’re pawing at one another for hours, and Halle/ Catherine never even considers using a vibrator. In the background I can hear Deutze cleaning the house. She’ll stop to smoke a cigarette soon, work a while, smoke another, and so on, for another three or four hours. She’ll come again in three days. The next check I write her will bounce. If all goes well, she’ll be the one to find Carmine’s body, she’ll be the first to know.
Elizabeth Bradfield works as a naturalist and web designer in Anchorage, Alaska. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and her poems have appeared recently in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Field, and elsewhere. She is web editor of Ice-Floe: International Poetry of the Far North and founder and editor of Broadsided Press (www.broadsidedpress.org). The poems included here are from Interpretive Work, a recently completed manuscript.
Mid-Trip Mid-Season Cocktail hour in the lounge & today the special is “glacial flowers”—muddy booze, blue ice. I am not allowed to drink. But I must mingle, chat, smile. I pretend that I smoke. On the crew-only fantail: diesel fume and drone, the slow wear of my hearing. But breeze. But sea. But permission to be silent and expectant. In the lounge, they’re comparing colleges and home towns, that other kind of history. No one wants to know what’s outside unless it’s off the charts—a bear swimming to a moose being ripped by killer whales as a wolf pack howls on shore, bald eagle watching from a cedar snag. That kind of thing. Otherwise they’re exhausted by attending, by my demands to look, look, to look at the broad blur of vista, no points of interest assigned by placards, and find wonder. Whether we see anything on the brochure or not. And I am not yet tired of looking but have lost for a while the will to ask the simple questions that open a place to being seen: Where are you from? What made you come to Alaska? What did you hope to see? Yes, I love it. Yes, I’ll show you why. Elizabeth Bradfield
A Reminder At inlet mouths and confluences, they bob around the boat, common enough to overlook. If after days sailing among them I asked you to sound their call, you’d be unable in good company. And they don’t help much, ducking under or hustling into loft, fast-stroked and determined, just when you’ve got the focus clear. Little mottled divers. No tufts or ostentatious bills, no plumes or bright gape—unhelpful in snagging our wonder, which catches on the obvious dramas like fog on the peaks of Baranof or chum bottlenecked at the falls. At my desk, I whistle their simple cry, but, out of context, its haunt is hard to conjure up. Marbled murrelet, your nesting site undiscovered until after I was born, let me not assume that what surrounds me is common. Let me trust that mystery still eddies, that what’s daily and familiar is worth a second look.
Nonnative Invasive Lupine, gentian, chocolate lily. We’ve been naming, been exclaiming, been looking up in our guidebooks the alpine flowers. But look at these! Amy says, pointing to the dandelions’ bright heads at trail edge like airplane aisle lights. How pretty! Don’t you want to pick bunches and bunches and bring them home? A swell of roadside by my house yellows with them now, excessive petals turning to excessive seed. There, I’m glad they are not lawn. But they’ll invade this meadow, push out with brash cheer forget-me-not and wooly lousewort. I want to reconcile them, but I can’t. I hiked up to see anemones and saxifrage, to get away Elizabeth Bradfield
from landscaping and what landscaping weeds out. I think of how they arrived, seeds embedded in boot-dirt, stuck to our socks and the fur of our dogs. Praise their tenacity, says Amy. But she’s just arguing a point. None of us is glad they’ve hitched a ride up here. None of us knows how to accept the way love changes what it’s drawn to —smudging self across what’s seen— when what thrilled us first was difference.
Succession In the neighborhood called Magnolia they’ve planted magnolia trees to right an old mistake made when George Vancouver’s crew saw thick-leaved madronas on bluffs over Elliott Bay and misnamed them. Magnolia trees outside the coffee shop, magnolia trees— native to this continent but not its northwest coast, land of cedar and salal. They are leafed-out, staked-up witness to our desire for truthmaking— outside the post office on Magnolia, magnolias. Magnolias glossy and tended by the antique store, fenced in the sidewalk by the bus stop. Meanwhile, the madronas, whose peeling trunks, burnt-orange and sleek, colors layering from granny smith to pomegranate, papery with curls I’ve peeled and scrawled, here since the last glaciation, slow-growing and picky, waste away in neighborhood parks while beautification committees worry, worry and try, unable to hear what for madronas is truth: what the tree wants is burning. To burn among huckleberry and Oregon grape Elizabeth Bradfield
then bud from the leftover roots. Moldered by lawn and dogs and what else we’ve brought with us to make things nice, the madronas wait to argue their need against our tended ideas as lightning, as welcome fire.
Splitters & Joiners Holy dove of all the above-fluttered madonnas (who I believe in only in paint, art, & the brush lending pigment to hope), in books you are the same as pigeon, winged rat that cities have tried to rid. Sparrows, all the sparrows and their mottlings. How do we tell them apart? And the new-world tyrants—willow and alder flycatchers so alike that only song separates them. We separate them. But the wrens? These are the old arguments, scientists on either side, splitters and joiners. And which will best serve truth? That there are more kinds or that the two are close enough to call species, call same? And which will best serve this patch of cranberry, salal, this stand of shore pine, madrona? Which will slow change unconsidered and regretted? This morning, in Maine, the dove, mourning, tells me All so sad, sad, sad. This place among all the places I can’t call home having left too quickly, left even while I still was joined, was discovering—Vashon, Duwamish, Stellwagen, Chugach— allow me to be responsible to you. See how you are linked, if only by my basted presence, my quick hem of love. Allow me to care, even if unearned by years and birth. Even if others have more claim. Pigeon. Dove. Birds known to us, with their own stories and associations. Elizabeth Bradfield
Joined to us. Separate from. Flying through. Wings like a machine stitching air which we all take in, hold, and release changed.
Industry She paid my dad a nickel for every crow or jay he brought her. Not easy money, scattering from the old oak at any sound. He learned to line a few into one shot, carried them home like trout, legs tied to a string, feathers glistening marine, arm held up above the field’s wet grass. Her foot, trundling the sewing machine, counted out his pace. The feathers caught every light, and she would look down as she pushed them into needle, into cloth, into hats and ties she hoped to sell, her thoughts punctuated by the spit of his gun, the hoarse protest moving to a further tree. Sometimes she thought she felt the feathers lurch beneath her hand, but this was difficult to confirm, or even to mention aloud. Superstition, the ruffle of down in a closed room, does not bear that weight. Only the feathers restless with color in a basket. Only the machine’s hum whispering to her: fly.
Love Song of the Transgenecist
-Transgenics: the science of transferring genetic material from one organism into the DNA of another.
Like chimes, these tens of vials in their shallow tray as I take them from the room of electronic arms to the room of electronic eyes. Like the cut drops of a chandelier trembling at footfall. Because it’s late, because the chief technician’s home— sighing over the heads of his children lined up before the tv, which they love with the pure desire of an equation: evening = blue light on the far wall + someone prompting laughter ÷ a father’s unamusementn— because I’m here alone and love the cool glass warming in my palm I select one. In the lab, beneath the long, audible bulbs, a fan turns on. New note in the underlying hum of machines at wait. Like monks chanting, this sound; like the buzz I heard once by a river, the earth’s own stasis, its churning; like the overlapping breaths of animals in a barn midwinter. I bend my imperfect retina to the machine that allows magnification.
This is what we’ve done: frozen golden orb and common garden, ground them to brown powder. From that the single gene extracted, injected, birthed. Raised the goat through its bleating, its stubborn first year. Then pulled the warm pink teats, smelled the white froth, skimmed the fat, salted the skim and watched the foreign protein curdle and sink like snow. Separated the powder into vials. Added water, spun the thick, gold liquid into strands.
My mother disapproves. Silk from a goat? (click of knitting needles) You must (purl two) know what you’re doing (dropped stitch), dear. Elizabeth Bradfield
This is what we will provide: medical sutures that will dissolve, no need to recrack the body to retrieve them; fishing gear that, lost, will not catch and drown, catch and drown in its own tide, unhauled; lingerie that can stop the bullet that would kill a prince, a cop, a nurse on the front lines; and more unimagined.
In the electron hum, in the stoppered vial a dust—like vapor becoming rain. Look. We’ve expanded the world’s possibilities which, I know, I know, were already more varied than our catalogues and abstracts reveal. Look at the white sift illuminated, its perfect, tensile form. Another machine breathes to life on a timer someone’s set.
This is what we promise: It’s safe. You can drink it. The chief technician took some home and poured it on his children’s cereal (wheat free, as they’ve developed this allergy; their cupboards careful, also, of strawberries, of corn, the borrowed things in husks and cells).
O, our shifting fractal views of what is beautiful— aqueduct, thresher, cesarean, quark, heart valve, Tupperware, pygmy goat, microchip, cul de sac— this silk woven from a loose helix we all share, these small fingers of glass, my script naming each one, the notebook heavy in my lab coat pocket. When I step outside (airlock, airlock, punch code, guard) into the sweet, fluid night, my favorite sound. Little bells on the red-collared goats in the compound’s pasture. Still possible, still in the process of becoming. And I whisper to them: It will be better. It will be of help. It will answer our undeniable need.
Again Already, you don’t know what has passed, or when, precisely, it started. The sky has been shifting into something red for over an hour, and you’ve been blinking, taking a sip from a glass, turning a page of your book, daydreaming. The moment is close. The light is condensing into a smear of orange along the horizon, and then something happens—bee trapped inside the window, crash from the kitchen— and you’ve missed it. When I was small, my father once had me race up a long flight of unsteady, wooden stairs yelling run at my heels. Go. Faster, or you’ll miss it. And at the top of the stairs, we watched it again, the sunset. And that changed everything. He was thinking of math, the earth’s curvature and the great trick of altitude. He was thinking that he’d like to see again the sun slip into that particular evening’s end. And why shouldn’t he? Pointing off across the bay, out of breath, he lifted me to stand on the shaky rail where I swayed above a steep fall of blackberries, bees humming around the fruit as if they were in orbit around dark, clustered suns, thinking the sun couldn’t know what we’d just gotten away with. I knew it wasn’t magic, that time can’t be fooled. My legs burned from the run. I knew it was just quickness. Light. The relative pace of things. Our willingness to find ourselves out of breath above a humming decline of pollen. The sunset twice in one night, leading me to all this longing. Elizabeth Bradfield
The Voice of the Manatee The voice of the manatee is shrill, harsh as a rusted pennywhistle. This only increases my pity, my sad head shaking at the propeller cutwork lathed across its muddy hide because although its screeches rise toward the whine of machines, it can’t hear the Evinrude, all cavitation and churn speeding the bungalow-lined and dredged canals of Cocoa Beach. It doesn’t flinch at kids, loud with riffs of jibe and cheer, tossing Snackables into the mangrove roots. The pitch of harm has been recalibrated, and the manatee’s ear isn’t tuned. To it, danger sounds like distant rumble: a car door slams two blocks away and the manatee lazing by the culvert, suckling the sweet water of a garden hose left running, twitches its bulk and slowly begins to flee. Above, another space shuttle flares toward space. Below, turtlegrass grows through old tires. Warm water flows from the power plant. Here is what it senses: the grass is sweet, the canal’s currents slow. A ways off, another manatee skrills: sweet grass, still waters, warmth.
Off the Beach For a while there were six of them or seven. Even with binoculars and steady attention, I can’t say. But our entire purpose then, for that span of time we weren’t yet sure of, was to watch them rise and breathe. To see their odd skin surface and sink back through a wave. My parents. My sisters. We didn’t need Elizabeth Bradfield
to say much. And the whales couldn’t tell or didn’t care that we continued watching. But we did. There wasn’t much exclaiming. There wasn’t much drama, but, I suppose, relief that such a simple thing, a thing so out of our grasps, should perform this task demanding our attention. Could allow each of us, in our own way, to attend.
Psyjunaetur -Iceland: The Night of the Fledgling Puffins New school shoes an excuse for boxes to save, unflattened, in garages, in closets, under beds— the shaded, angular nests lined with tissue or bluff-grass, ready. The year is closing down, the world’s light moving from the long Icelandic summer, its remnants pooling in lamps, sconces and other humming beams that work to trick the body when dawn comes late. Then it happens. Uncalendared but expected. Hatched, fledged, hungry, the candy-billed young set out to see if it’s true—In the lighter sky, where stars are doubled and the moon’s twin shines beneath you, herring glide in flocks thick enough to overspill a thousand beaks & you can fly through vast & oily feasts. They ruffle and launch from rock cleft toward what glow they see, the streetlamps, where children wait with outstretched boxes, catching them, nesting them, carrying their slight palanquins to the sought shore, learning from this tenderness, years later, when the birds return, how delicious are the things we’ve freed.
No More Nature No more nature we say after fourteen hours on the water in August, skin ready to crack, lips too tender to close. No more nature in November when blackfish strand in the salt marsh and we’ve stood in sulphur muck as the tide falls out to dark, their breath whistling hard as we dig pits for flippers scraped raw by sand, as vets try to predict which could survive until flood, which should get the syringe of chemical sleep. No more nature after the storm blows up while guiding kayakers across the bay, which means towing home the shoulder injury, prow lunging the chop, tow rope cinching the gut. No more nature after waking before dawn to band birds in first frost, shin after shin ringed with numbered metal, wing after wing teased from nets until we almost forget how frightened their small hearts made us when we first held them. No more, we can’t take it, can’t resuscitate our wonder, can’t keep up with its unrelenting. But then we have a beer. We take a shower. We decide to walk around the pond and look for turtles. After all, we could see a coyote lapping its reflection, we could find the nest of the great horned owl that calls each night as we lie in bed, unable to not listen, unwilling to miss anything.
Jason Ockert is the author of Rabbit Punches, a collection of stories published by Low Fidelity Press. His stories have appeared in The Oxford American, McSweeney’s, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and many other places. “Drifting” is a chapter from his recently completed novel, Passers-by.
he expressway is busy with vacationers on their way to OceanNation for the fireworks display. The show is supposed to be spectacular—rain or shine. Bored clouds overhead shrug. Bister has to eat his dinner quickly between cars. He knows better than to expect to see Mindy. He gets mustard on his lower lip and although the driver of a gold-colored Maxima tries to point it out, Bister’s eyes are elsewhere—the sharp angle of a bird slashes the thick, acrid air—and the car chugs forward. Many cars that pass today are named after celestial bodies. The small talk Bister hears from drivers who feel obligated to say something when they pay the toll has moved from sympathy for the accident victims on the Expressway to consternation about Arabelle: “They say the hurricane is on course for this area,” an auto mechanic in a Saturn says. “My friends in South Florida purchased airline tickets to Connecticut for the week just in case,” a retired nurse in an Aerostar offers. “I’m thinking of taking the train to Topeka to see my brother.” “If I were you,” a woman with uneven bangs driving a Mercury mentions, “I’d keep an eye on the sky. I read somewhere that tornadoes precede hurricanes. Your little booth
wouldn’t stand a chance.” “Arabelle’s a pretty, pretty name,” a middle-aged yellow-haired man with Illinois tags on his Nova says wistfully. When it’s time, the light in the booth pops on. The cars thin out. Factory smoke from Brunswick steals a streak of color from the sunset. Momentary silence swallows Bister. He tries to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the child in the brush is back—just there on the cusp of the day. The next car to come through, a Sky Lark, is dolled up in patriotism—there’s an American flag draped across the dash and the driver has written, “God Bless America!” with shaving cream on the windows. The man is in a hurry. Because his daughter was putting on makeup, they have gotten a late start. If they’re going to make it to OceanNation for the fireworks they’re going to have to fly. He hands Bister a buck. Bister says, “There are so many different shades of brown. My mom could name them all.” The man in the Sky Lark furrows his brow. “The first memory I have is when I was baptized in the murky shallows of the Chattahoochee,” Bister says. “I was three. To think about that time now, everything’s still
crystal clear in a blurry way, if you know what I mean.” The man looks over at his daughter in the passenger seat who is fiddling with her cell phone. “My parents took me down to the river’s edge with five or six sets of parents and children. There was also a burly born-again cane farmer wearing overalls and muttering to himself as we arrived.” As the memories start to clarify, Bister raises his voice. He looks at a miniature Statue of Liberty dangling from the rearview mirror in the Sky Lark. “Sure,” the man says, “happy Indy day.” Bister raises the gate and continues with his story. He tries to tell it better than he did yesterday. Better, as in, more right. In saying it a second time, the memories are shored up. The things that were, for a moment, become the things that are. People pass through. Those that would ordinarily make a comment about the weather or the holiday— whether or not the fireworks will be seen through the cloud cover—remain quiet when they hear Bister talking, unimpeded. Most travelers are not willing to interrupt. Bister gets through the early part of his life and continues: “I remember asking mom how I could avoid being like that and she told me the best way to be a good man was to think like a woman. I had no way of
comprehending this advice. What I wanted to know was what was in those letters. She said, ‘Prying is unbecoming. Learn how to listen; learn how to hear.’” “I don’t have time,” a woman wearing a thin dress says. “I’ve got to protect the windows.” “My exposure to anyone other than mom and dad was limited,” Bister says. “I’d occasionally meet other boys and girls on other boats and play with their toys, and then we’d move on. No faces or names come to mind. People were like clouds or birds, unique when you stare at them but otherwise unremarkable. Some books held my interest, most didn’t. I never really understood why a story had to start and then stop. Life, as I saw it, drifted into and out of scope without any neat arc. When I was twelve I spied a couple having sex on the banks of the Pearl. Later that year I nearly bumped heads with a bloated old dead man on the Red. I didn’t know where these people had been or where they were going and that was fine by me. They hadn’t existed until I noticed them and if I didn’t mention them now, they wouldn’t exist at all.” Bister nods in the direction of the boy in the brush, “Like you, in a way.” There is an imprint in the weeds where Bister tossed the cross. “Rivers are full of things other than water. I’d sink soda cans with rocks and skip roof shingles from one bank to the other. I’ve seen everything from diapers to false teeth; infant to elderly, people dump it all in the rivers. If the water’s deep enough, you don’t notice half of what’s below.” “I suppose that’s true,” an older woman driving a Mitsubishi agrees,
nodding and offering a crisp dollar bill before heading on. “On the Missouri, my mother made a decision. We were going to St. Louis so she could get her teeth fixed.” “Gapped?” the driver of a limo full of war veterans inquires. “To me, they looked fine,” Bister says, “but to her, they were impossible. Her parents never thought they were bad when she was a child. They didn’t push for braces when mom was a girl and as a result, over the years her overbite worsened and her teeth spread out with a mind of their own. She never smiled with open lips and said she never would until her mouth was fixed. Dad claimed he wanted nothing more than to see her smile.” “Root canal?” the limo driver, still idling, asks. “Mom talked to a dentist who explained what it would take to rearrange her teeth. I don’t know why she was willing to sacrifice so much. What the doctors had to do was break her bottom jaw, shift it forward, and then straighten her teeth with braces for a couple of years. Mom had a three hour surgery. Dad and I stayed in the waiting room. When they said we could see her, pointed us to the recovery room, we hurried down the hall. There were two women in that room. I was thirteen and behind my dad. For a split second my dad hesitated, he couldn’t tell which woman was mom—both women had swollen faces and hospital gowns. I saw the hurt explode in my mother’s eyes when it registered that dad didn’t know who she was. I hurried over to her side and squeezed her shoulders a few times; consoled her. Later, when we were out of the hospital—she couldn’t talk for months because they wired her jaw shut—mom typed me a let-
ter which read: Those three squeezes you gave me back in the hospital stood for, “I love you.” That meant the world to me, son. “Just give me my change,” a driver wearing gloves says. “I wish I still had that letter.” “I wish you would shut up,” the gloved driver mutters and winks at his date in the passenger seat. “Dad navigated the Fiona to a quiet cove on the Gasconade where my mom could recover. With her jaw wired shut, she could only eat through a feeding tube—a large syringe we filled with a liquid food supplement—that she squeezed through a space the dentist made by pulling her front tooth. Dad and I only ate soup and ice cream to show our support. Mom had to be careful not to get sick because the vomit wouldn’t have anyplace to go. She’d swallow it and die. She kept a special pair of scissors on a metal chain around her neck in case of an emergency. I moved around slowly and tried not to rock the boat.” The radio is on so loudly that a teenager in a Pathfinder doesn’t know that Bister has said anything and when he sees Bister’s mouth moving he looks away. “Since she couldn’t very well argue, mom let dad teach me about working. All dad’s ever done is work. It’s what he believes makes a man a man and he couldn’t wait to show me.” “Don’t work too hard on the holiday,” a young woman in a Probe says as she slips Bister quarters. “The town of Mount Sterling needed someone to repair bikes. It was early fall and biking season in Missouri. I didn’t even know how to ride a bike then, but I figured out how they worked. They’re pretty simple, really. My job was to spoke wheels and balance tires. I was paid
four dollars an hour and I worked ten hours a day. My dad worked in a pickling plant up the block. My boss was an Italian man without patience. Everyday I waited for him to fire me for moving too slowly. Before he could, my mom’s jaw was unwired, her braces fitted, the biking season was over and we were on the river heading south to skirt the cold. Dad had sworn off the cold years earlier.” A few determined stars poke through the light-glow enveloping the tollbooth. Headlights approach while taillights retreat. The boy listens from the brush. Still talking, in a moment of calm, Bister opens the booth and steps outside. “In the swampy waters of the Catahoula I met a Cajun girl named Ulee-Lou. She was a tall girl who looked like a prying mantis; all knees and elbows. I was fifteen at the time having spent an isolated year in a logging camp in Southwest Georgia. Mom tried to keep me occupied on the boat with school stuff and board games, but I grew anxious. Dad was chomping at the bit to get me out working again and I was almost ready to go myself in order to rattle the monotony.” Bister dashes across the road and lifts the cross up out of the grass. The boy backs away and stays on the perimeter of Bister’s sight. He returns to the booth and slides it under the shelf holding the cash register, next to the baseball bat. “In her braces, mom looked years younger than she was,” Bister says, breathing heavily. “A family from Decatur confused her for my sister and this tickled her to death.” “I’m sorry to hear it,”a woman with a faint moustache says as she hands Bister a five. “Keep the change,” she says before pulling away in her RX7, “for your sister’s sake.”
Bister tries to hand the money back, but cannot in time. “Inland a ways,” he says, stuffing the money in the cash register, “from the Catahoula were cattle farms and that’s where my dad went. Mom let him bring me along to help with the work and I got trampled in the first week. I was minding my business, shoveling manure in one of the barns, and wham, this crazy speckled stud named Apostrophe came galloping into the stall and knocked me flat. My head split and I was resigned back to Fiona with a mild concussion.” A sergeant leading a convoy of military trucks stops at the booth. He waits for a break in Bister’s story before he says, “Normally, we don’t pay toll.” “The doctor that treated me brought powders and roots and blew smoke over me. Ulee-Lou was his assistant and his daughter,” Bister says. He lifts the gate. The sergeant nods appreciatively and the truck lumbers forward leading the military parade. “She handed him what he needed and kept a cool washcloth on my forehead,” Bister says. “Apparently, I hallucinated.” Bister keeps the gate raised as camouflaged trucks with stern soldiers pass slowly. “Mom said I talked gibberish and tried to take my clothes off,” Bister continues raising his voice over the rumble. “I don’t know about that. My mind doesn’t remember losing itself. Anyway, I got better. The doctor handed my care over to UleeLou. Her therapy involved whispering stories that scared and aroused me all the same. I wouldn’t do them justice if I tried to tell one now. Well, I’ll try anyway: There were two young lovers living on a plantation that ran up
against the Catahoula. For whatever reason, they got into a fight. The reason for the fight was irrelevant. I just remember Ulee-Lou said the words, illicit love, and that was good enough for me.” A woman with recent menopause blinks her eyes and waits for her change. Her Saab engine is making an odd panging sound. She just wants to get home to a cold shower. “The woman found a voodoo doctor and put a hex on her lover. The man went to church and asked a priest for the strength to forgive his lover. Ulee-Lou didn’t say who she thought had the moral high ground in the story, not that I remember. When she whispered those stories, although I was paying close attention to her, I wasn’t always listening.” A snake bird makes a sudden cry in the swamp. “So, the lovers sat around waiting for things to resolve themselves. Nothing happened for three weeks. I do remember that it had been three weeks because that seemed unlikely, how can nothing happen in three whole weeks? Ulee-Lou hissed that that was not the point. All waiting comes to an end, eventually. In blew a storm. It gathered up over the plantation and sent everyone running for shelter. Everyone except for the lovers. They met on a bridge because they couldn’t stand being apart anymore. They may have met under the bridge, actually, to stay out of the rain. Anyway, at the moment that the bridge collapsed and either crushed the lovers or sent them to drown in the swirling river, they were both about to apologize. Sometimes, at night, you can hear their spirits moaning, Forgive me, love, forgive me down where the old bridge used to stand. She told it better. She put a lot
of energy into it and gave the lovers names and convinced me she had heard the moaning personally. After a few more stories like these I was better than ever.” Out of the corner of his eye, Bister sees a shoe along the side of the road. “I was grateful to finally get off the boat,” Bister says as he squints up the road. It is a woman’s shoe, a pump. He’s sure it was not there in the daylight. “Time passes so slowly when you’re young and sick and visited by possibility in the form of a slight and beautiful Cajun girl.” Bister pauses a moment and takes a sip of water. There aren’t any cars coming. He could run out and snatch the shoe and be back, if he hurried, before the next car came. He doesn’t really want the thing but it makes him uncomfortable sitting there unmatched and over-turned. Opening the booth door, Bister says, quietly, “My dad put me back in the same barn, shoveling fresh crap from Apostrophe’s stall. He told me not to be afraid, accidents only happen once. I found this advice skeptical at best, but something was wrong with that horse, even I could tell.” Bister carefully steps out into the road. “It hung its head and looked exhausted. Whatever fear-turned-to-anger I had stored up toward Apostrophe fizzled into pity when I saw the bleak sadness in its monstrous cue-ball eyes. I whispered forgiveness to the sick thing my first day back.” When he is five steps away from the booth, approaching headlights cause Bister to scramble back and settle quickly onto his stool. A journalist with a head cold who has been contracted to write a report about the fireworks at OceanNation, who is late, and will miss them if he doesn’t hurry, stops and looks Bister over. He saw the toll worker
scamper from the road and into the booth and wonders if this operation is legitimate. “What were you doing there?” the man asks, stuffed up. “I’ll never forget our stay on the Catahoula for a number of reasons,” Bister continues, a little out of breath. “Ulee-Lou was one. All day she assisted her father wherever there were sick people. At dusk, though, we caught up. Next to the farm where I worked, a big corporate operation raised chickens. There were millions of them; we figured nobody would miss one or two from time to time.” The reporter, mystified, says, “What? Are you for real?” “Ulee-Lou moved fast, so she was in charge of snatching a relatively quiet chick, and then we’d head over to the Cat’s Elbow. The Elbow was more like a cove with still water that seeped into a marsh. If you didn’t mind getting muddy, it was a fine place to fish. And that’s what we did. Sort of. With rope I stole from a hay loft, I’d tie a neat harness around the chicken and we’d wait for night to fall. I don’t remember what we told our parents we were doing and I’m not sure how we avoided trouble. About the time the cricket and bull frog sounds got heavy we’d hear the low-quick unmistakable alligator grunts sounding off as they slithered out from the swamp to feed in the Cat’s Elbow. By sweeping flashlights over water you’d occasionally catch a pair of eyes like treasure winking back at you. That’s when I’d toss the chicken. Ulee-Lou and I held onto the rope, she in front, me anchored behind. We stood there in the mud, braced, and squinted out at the awkward white bird flopping around in the water. We never waited long. A gator would hit and roll and we would start the tug-of-war.
The game was to see how close you could pull the alligator before it either bit through the rope or let go of the chicken. The big ones were the toughest to pull in and the most reluctant to let go. I remember struggling with an eight-footer for a halfhour and yanking it nearly on top of us before it severed the rope and whipped away. I can’t say why, but it never occurred to us to let go.” “That’s something else,” the journalist mentions. A Cutlass pulls up behind him. “You ought to write that down,” he says, moving forward. “Afterward, we’d swim in the river to clean our clothes, strip down and dry them over a small fire, then drink warm beer we’d stolen and stashed in a cardboard box near the railroad tracks. She told me she worried about her older brother, Tyree. He learned how to control his body so that he didn’t sweat, even in the noon, August heat. He used this talent to stick his head into an alligator’s mouth for pay in Gulfport, Mississippi. And, he drank anything he could swallow.” An Isuzu speeds to a stop. Other than the driver, the cab is full of bed sheets. Bister raises the gate and goes on: “Ulee-Lou said she’d like to fix him. But she didn’t just mean Tyree. That’s what she wanted to do with her life—help people. I could understand her saying that. There are always people to help. She said, What about you? I told her the pirate’s life was the life for me. But since I’ve had time to think about it, I don’t think she was asking me what I wanted to do with my life. That was early July, six years ago. I was going on seventeen. Seems like forever now. Everything’s changed.” Bister reapplies repellant. “With work and Ulee-Lou, I
spent little time with mom. I should have appreciated her more. She and dad were drifting. They were taciturn over dinner. Maybe they had always been that way and I wasn’t paying enough attention. It’s hard to say. They’d bicker about our next destination. Mom complained that she was hot and frustrated. The braces had cut up her gums and she said chewing with her re-fitted jaw was like chewing with someone else’s mouth. And, she thought it was time to pay a visit to her parents. It was odd to see her miss someone. We had always been enough. Mom said that when her braces came off she wanted to sit down at a table on cold northern water with her parents and eat ear after ear of corn on the cob. ‘By God,’ she said, ‘that’s what I want.’” A young woman in her Cherokee smiles weakly at the toll man. She’s had a long day. She works for the state mowing down tall weeds and grass that grow like crazy along the sides of I-95. Today she earned time and a half. Her crew is in charge of about twenty-five miles. After her crew has cut back the northbound scruff, the southbound needs mowing again. In her first week, the woman plowed over a family of ducks—the bodies were minced unceremoniously—a few feathers hung in the air. When she confided how she felt to her co-workers, they told her it came with the territory. They each had their own animal story to tell, which they did over beer in a Brunswick bar called Dirty Mugs. The woman wasn’t cheered by the stories. The next day she tried to mow cautiously. Still, she suspected something slow might linger underfoot. One day last month the woman decided, after she had mowed the stretch of stuff she was supposed to mow for the day, to climb down
from the machine, hoisting a big broom, and spend the evening, her own time, walking through the tall brush and trying to rustle up and frighten whatever lived along the shoulder she was going to mow the next day. Every night she has to pick brambles and twigs from her socks. “We all knew this wasn’t going to happen, though. Dad was too headstrong,” Bister says. “I remember, when mom brought up the idea of settling inland, he said, ‘People are mostly made up of water and they’ll get in trouble if they stray from it.’ Mom responded, ‘People are made up of much more than water.’ I asked, ‘Like what?’ ‘Pixie dust,’ my dad interrupted. ‘Your mom thinks people are full of magic. She doesn’t know, like you and I know, son, smoke’s no good. It’s fire that’s important. You go chasing hot air you’ll wind up empty handed.’ ‘You ought to watch how close you get to the fire,’ Mom said quietly. ‘What your father doesn’t realize, Bister, is that a hand can cup eternity if it reaches deeply enough.’ Dad smirked and shook his head; said, ‘Talk don’t put food on the table.’” The woman in the Cherokee heads home. A PT-Cruiser pulls up to the booth. “That year was cloudy on the Fourth of July,” Bister says, “and the fireworks that were supposed to burst over the Catahoula were cancelled.” The teenager in the Cruiser says, “The fireworks were cancelled?” “Before we knew there wasn’t going to be a show, mom, dad, and I sat out on the deck in the drizzle and willed the clouds to break. The rain did stop and the mosquitoes came in heavy from the swamp to descend upon us. Mom was in a de-
fiant mood that night and made a game out of swatting the mosquitoes and smearing them on the deck. She said the last one to go below deck won a prize. I don’t remember what the prize was and it doesn’t matter because she stayed out there the longest, getting devoured and slapping the air with that unmistakable buzz in her ears.” The teenager, confused, says, “The fireworks were cancelled?” “I don’t know,” Bister says quickly. “You said they were.” Bister ignores the kid and says, “In the morning my parents woke up with a stiff neck and back. This wasn’t enough to stop dad from going to work, though. He didn’t use sickness as an excuse. Still, he wanted me to work with him out in the field to pick up his slack. Sometime over the course of the day while I tried to do whatever I could to ease the pain my dad tried to swallow down, I learned that Apostrophe had died.” “I’m calling my parents,” the teenager says, grabbing his cell phone. Bister takes a sip of water. He can clearly see the shoe on the side of the road illuminated in the Cruiser’s headlights. It’s blue and sheen. “The stiffness that my parents felt turned itself over to fever.” “Hello, Mom,” the teenager says. “Ulee-Lou and her father came aboard with their herbs and medicines. After a few day’s my dad’s temperature broke and he hurried out to the fields to work doubletime,” Bister says. “It’s the dude in the toll booth,” the teenager says into the phone. “He’s all whacked out on something.” “My mom’s fever broke too, but she started having severe headaches and her body tightened up so that
she couldn’t walk properly,” Bister says. “No, no,” the teenager says. “He said the fireworks were cancelled. Is that true?” “Ulee-Lou and I took care of her. When mom dozed off, I tried to fool around with Ulee-Lou. She let me, a little, up on deck. It was an awful thing to do, in retrospect, with mom wilting below.” “All right. I’ll meet you down there,” the teenager says. “Mom’s headaches grew worse. I remember that she told me, one night while I was reading a romance novel she wanted to hear, ‘Sometimes the neck gets tired of holding the head.’” “I will,” the teenager replies. “I told her to keep her chin up and if she couldn’t, I’d hold it for her.” “I love you too,” the teenager mutters under his breath. He snaps the phone shut. “It’s still on,” he sneers and then speeds off. “This made her laugh. And that laugh slipped into a coughing fit which caused her to choke.Water wouldn’t help. I fetched Ulee-Lou who brought her father. With effort, I got my dad out of the field, and we pulled anchor. My good-bye to the Catahoula was rushed. Ulee-Lou made me a leather necklace with an inch-long alligator tooth dangling from it and handed it to me with a lot of hurt in her eyes. That’s this necklace I’m wearing now; minus the tooth, plus the beeper.” “Let me see it,” a curious motorcyclist says. Bister holds the beeper out into the light. “Nice. I once wore a mouse skull.” “The wind picked up as I pulled the moorings aboard and we churned south down into the St. Louis Bay and over to the nearest hospital we
knew in New Orleans. Somewhere somebody was burning something big enough to make a swatch of the sky gray behind us. I went below deck to check on Mom.” A yellow El Camino with loud brakes stops at the booth. The man driving continues the conversation he started with the hitch hiker he lifted back in Beaufort. “So my daughter refuses to pay the ticket even though I told her she’d better,” the driver says. “You don’t mess with the law, right?” Gray Thule, the hitcher, is carsick. The driver has been all over the road. Since they stopped for fast food in Savannah, the middle-aged business man has had a sesame seed caught in his teeth and it is driving Gray crazy. Then he began the story about his daughter’s move to Daytona. It’s not the story that bothers Gray, he’s a good listener, it’s that the driver continues to interrupt himself and read every sign he spots on the side of the road. He’d say, “When she was going to CCC, her grades weren’t great, but she was passing. She just needs to study at night after work instead of hanging around her boyfriend—Mike’s Automotive, Exit 19,” or “that kid wasn’t going to bail her out, no way—Give the workers a brake,” or laugh loudly at vanity licenses plates like the one on a Lotus from Texas which read, HAR D HAR. Now, as they idle at the booth, Gray is trying to figure out what the toll worker is saying. “Shut up,” Gray hisses at the driver, “I want to hear what this guy is saying.” “This guy?” the driver says, hurt. “Why?” “It might be important. He could be issuing a warning. There’s a hurricane, after all.” “She didn’t look good,” Bister says. “Her hair was heavy with sweat
and matted, her skin looked papery and white, and her eyes were dilated. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her things would turn out. Then she started convulsing. Her whole body jumped around like she was on fire inside. I called out to my dad who was trying to give Fiona speed in the fighting wind. Dad told me not to let her swallow her tongue. I hadn’t thought of her tongue at all. That seemed like something private. Reluctantly, I pried my mom’s jaw apart; her mouth looked like some kind of machine with those braces, reached down with my thumb and forefinger, and pinched hold of her tongue. After a while her body settled down and she relaxed. I kept holding. Then her eyes cleared for a moment, she looked up at me and said, ‘Do Be Da.’” “’Dobeda?’” the driver says, paying. “That makes no sense. We’re leaving.” “I didn’t immediately know what she meant and I was too afraid to let go of her tongue so she could repeat herself,” Bister says. “And then she died.” “She died?” Gray says as the El Camino pulls away. “My daughter is too much like my ex-wife, to tell you the truth,” the driver, without competition from the toll worker, continues. “She can’t seem to stay focused.” “Do better,” Gray says. “Don’t you tell me. I do the best job I can. Sure, I may not have gone to all of her soccer games and plays, but I made sure she ate right and did her homework. I keep telling her to go down and apply for a job at NASA. When she was a girl—Prepare to get dunked! You’re almost to OceanNation!” “That’s it,” Gray says, “stop the car.” “What?”
“Pull over and let me out—under that billboard is fine.” The driver, confused, flips on his blinker, slows the car, and moves off onto the shoulder of the road. “Here? In the middle of nowhere? I thought you were going to Jacksonville?” Gray opens the car door, tucks a few strands of hair behind his ear, and grabs his beaten backpack from the bed of the El Camino. Lights on the billboard illuminate two children trying to give a dopey-looking costumed shark a high-five. “This will do,” Gray says, hitting the car’s roof twice for emphasis. “All right,” the driver says reluctantly, still unwilling to leave. “Go away,” Gray says loudly. He kicks the front tire. “You’re fucking annoying.” “You said Jacksonville,” the man repeats meekly as he leans over the passenger seat. “Get,” Gray says, pounding his palm against the windshield. “I ought to call the cops,” the driver threatens as he speeds off. Gray grimaces. Prowling police make hitching hard. Even on a holiday. He rests his back against a billboard pole and lights a cigarette. There is no wind and Gray’s airconditioned skin soaks in the humidity. Headlights from on-coming cars paint momentary stripes across his chest, and Gray welcomes the relative silence. He reconsiders his direction. Gray left Albany eight years ago, when he was fifteen. Even as a boy he knew his world was drab. The sky sometimes stayed gray for three months and everybody under it dragged their feet along, half-dead and boring. Plus Gray’s parents were never really around much and when they were they treated him like he was still a child. They never
took anything he said seriously and this made the things Gray said seem more important than they were. Gray was certain his parents were a bi-product of the place. It wasn’t really their fault. They were stuck and didn’t know any better. Out west, he learned in history class, life was different. The sun touched the mountains and there was gold in the hills and if you had a horse, everything worked out. Gray convinced a friend to come with him. The pair stole $500 dollars that had been raised for the Senior Ball and then hightailed it into the woods, across the county line, onto a bus, out of the state. In Ohio, the friend wanted to go back home. He was hungry and intimidated by the infinite rows of corn. Gray chided his pal. He said, “Go on back. I’ll bet your mom and dad will have a warm bottle of milk waiting for you. You can tell them that you left as a boy and returned as an infant. Not me, brother, not me.” Eventually, Gray sent his busy parents postcards letting them know he was all right: Mom and Dad, There’s nothing out here I can’t handle. You’d be proud of me. The other day I de-blinded a litter of kittens—their eyes just needed some warm water. Do you understand? Gray’s parents called the police, waited for them to discover that he was gone, then hired a detective to bring the boy back. Although he found this gesture endearing, it sort of pissed him off. He was nearly snagged in Little Rock working a rodeo and was embarrassed when he had to run away in front of a few cowboy acquaintances that laughed and laughed until they spit. On his eighteenth birthday, Gray
called his parents, who didn’t pick up the phone, and contemplated leaving a message saying, “I’m free, I’m free; you all can kiss my ass.” Instead, he set the receiver down and ate a birthday breakfast on the house at Denny’s. Since then, every time he calls home, nobody answers. Gray figures his parents are giving him a dose of his own medicine. It’s something they would do—a character builder, a lesson, comeuppance. Now, for the most part, Gray’s stayed adrift. Last week, however, something curious happened. He was working the goldfish stand where people tried to toss an oversized Ping-Pong ball into one of many small-mouthed fish bowls at the Beaufort County Fair. One evening a large woman with crumbs on her lip complained after her ball fell into a bowl that held a dead goldfish. A group of dirty children huddled around the woman and clung to her stretch pants. A few of the kids clutched ratty-looking stuffed animals. Gray was prepared to give her a different fish once she stopped shouting. Midway through her rant, something occurred to her and she quieted. “You look familiar,” she said, scrutinizing Gray. Then she shook the children away and stretched out her large, faded teeshirt. The woman’s exposed stomach jostled and Gray momentarily glimpsed her fortified beige bra. On the tee-shirt were silk-screened faces of a dozen smiling kids beneath block letters reading: “HELP ME GET HOME.” “You’re him,” the woman said pointing to a mealy kid toward the bottom of her shirt. “Nope,” Gray said, taking off his smock. “That’s you,” the woman insisted as she tottered forward to study
Gray closer. “You’re older, but chins don’t change. Is your abductor in the vicinity? Nod once if you want to say, ‘Yes.’” “Lady,” Gray said, “that’s not me. And even if it was, I’m not a boy anymore.” “It is you,” she said. “Once a missing child, always a missing child. You’re Gary Thule,” the woman reads the name beneath the picture. “No, no,” Gray said. Then he bolted. It was instinct. He didn’t have anything to hide, but he didn’t like being remembered like this. The woman made big noises behind him. She contacted the police and convinced them that bad things long ago had probably warped the boy’s sense of self. Soon the County Fair was abuzz. Several alcoholics were arrested just in case. Days later Gray’s face, a sketch of what he sort of looked like now, appeared on TV with grim speculations concerning his whereabouts. The police made a half-hearted attempt to contact Gray’s parents, but they couldn’t be found. This hullabaloo invigorates Gray. Most of the time people don’t care. They leave him alone. These few near-misses allow for Gray to better appreciate the journey. What he’s looking for is companionship. Somebody like himself but better. This someone isn’t easy to find. Crisscrossing the country hasn’t revealed much more than minor variations of the same flawed prototype. Now, beneath the billboard, in the mug, Gray tries to relax. The cigarette helps a little. Eventually, the frustration of the El Camino will fade, Gray knows, and knowing this steadies his breathing. There is calm to be found in the rhythm of the passing cars and the murmur of the billboard light. The sky to the south suddenly
explodes. Clouds are illuminated as they swallow fireworks. Gray shoulders his backpack. He pulls his flask, recently topped-off by a generous trucker from Wilmington, from his pocket, and takes a nip. Gray’s legs are cramped and the walking feels good. He’s too far to hear the boom from the fireworks, but the lights are pretty in the sky. Something catches Gray’s eye off to the side of the road and glinting in the quick light from a car on the Expressway. Gray investigates. There’s a stuffed bear in a small green outfit winking at Gray as light hits the marble-shaped eyes. “This,” Gray says as he grabs the thing, “will make a fine pillow.” Thunder sounds to the east, brittle and low. “Where are my manners?” Gray asks the bear. “How about a tweak? It’ll put hair on your chest.” Gray hits the flask, chuckling to himself, walking gladly down the road. Up ahead, along the median, Gray sees the silhouette of a car. Someone has pulled over, Gray figures people have stopped to watch the fireworks—this could be an easy hitch if he plays his cards right. Then he sees a figure dart out into the road with a bucket and a brush—when there’s a pause in traffic—scrub at the concrete furiously, and dart back to the safety of the side when cars come. “Hey,” Gray calls out when he’s close enough and sees that it’s a woman, older with short hair, hunched over the bucket and preparing to run back into the road. “Do you need help?” Julie looks at the young man standing a few yards in front of her. She dips the brush into the bucket of ammonia and water. It has taken her three hours to scrub away about fifty feet of skid marks left by the
lumber truck from the accident and she still has about a hundred and fifty more feet to go. Her hands are pruned and cut. “Where did you get that bear?” Julie asks over the sound of a wave of oncoming traffic. Gray squeezes the bear closer to his chest. “I found it up the road. Why?” “Is it yours?” Gray thinks maybe hitching a ride with this woman isn’t a good idea. She has a narrow half-smile and a wicked twitch under her right eye. Julie stands up from her crouch and runs forward, reaching. “Give that to me,” she says. Gray yelps and jumps back. He has to twist out of the woman’s grasp on his backpack and swat her arms away. Then he hurdles a drainage ditch and high-steps into the swamp. He runs blindly and trips over swamp knees; gets covered in mud. Eventually he is far enough from the road and the woman to stop and catch his breath. “What the hell,” he says, to the bear. Rain starts to fall. Gray hunts for a patch of semi-dry land and then pitches his tent. He nests into his sleeping bag and falls asleep with his head on the bear listening to the rain pound on the canvas like heartbeats.
Elizabeth Bradfield Jim Grimsley Brooks Haxton Jason Ockert Jeff Parker Taije Silverman
Published on Nov 9, 2009
Published on Nov 9, 2009
Published by the University of West Florida, Panhandler is a national literary journal that features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews...