Phoebe (Vol. 47, Issue No. 2) is a nonprofit literary journal edited and produced by students of the MFA program at George Mason University. We publish our very best submissions in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art twice annually. We produce a print issue in the fall and host our annual writing contest in the spring. This yearâ€™s print edition is available for $7 and back issues are available for $5. For complete submission guidelines, please visit www.phoebejournal. com. Cover art: Matt Gold. Design and composition: appliedtype. Phoebe is indexed in Humanities International Complete. Distributed by Ubiquity Distributors, INC. ÂŠ 2018 Phoebe email@example.com www.phoebejournal.com
VOLUME 47 | ISSUE No. 2 | spring 2018
phoebe Editor-in-Chief John Guthrie Assistant Editor Kate Branca Fiction Editor Josef Kuhn
Assistant Fiction Editor Michelle Orabona
Poetry Editor Janice Majewski
Assistant Poetry Editor Andrew Art
Nonfiction Editor Andrew Cartwright Webmaster Jenna Kahn
Brad Radovich Jeff Lipack Lily Wright Grace Brenner Lindley Estes Tara Fritz Carol Mitchell Sean van der Heijden Mary Winsor Heather Osial Chris Boss Aryelle Young Jarrod Clark
Assistant Nonfiction Editor Kyle Franรงois Social Media Manager Sarah Batcheller
Madison Gaines Joseph Massa Su-Ah Lee Devon Nelson Laura Handley Rose Chrisman Sanjana Raghavan Mansoor Faqiri Edward Jesse Capobianco Jordan Keller Sarah Laing Caely McHale
Alayna Nagurny Katie Richards Joshua Sackett Blake Wallin Elizabeth Board Beth Dalbec Darcy Gagnon Kristen Greiner Abi Newhouse Rachel Purdy Alexandra Ruiz Sarah Wilson Alaina Johansson
Special Thanks To Jason Hartsel, David S. Carroll, Kathryn Mangus and the George Mason University Office of Student Media, Eric Pankey and the George Mason University Creative Writing Program. VOLUME 47 | ISSUE No. 2 | spring 2018
The Rubber Tapper’s Knife
RICHARD HERMES, FICTION CONTEST WINNER 14
Been Fighting Since
K CHESS, FICTION CONTEST RUNNER-UP 25
ISABELLE GILBERT, FICTION CONTEST READER’S CHOICE 35
This Life May Be Monitored for Quality and Training PurposeS
daniel paul 49
roy kesey from A Book of First Sentences:
50 52 53
TEXUAL BROW eNJAMBMENT INK
laynie browne NONFICTION 55
KATE FINEGAN, NONFICTION CONTEST WINNER 58
Hearts and Minds
NOLAN CAPPS, NONFICTION CONTEST RUNNER-UP 67
LAUREN W. WESTERFIELD 92
BRIAN phillip WHALEN 108 Excelsior Springs Bottling Company BERRY GRASS 110 Pruning the Fern SHEILA SQUILLANTE 121 Astral Weeks K.C. WOLFE 135 Telling Stories ALYSIA SAWCHYN 141 What Happens When Love Changes ADRIENNE CHRISTIAN 157 The Thing I Donâ€™t Understand BRENDAN STEPHENS poetry 175 Sieve as a Verb BRIAN CLIFTON, POETRY CONTEST WINNER 177 from Indivisible LAYNIE BROWNE 182 CONGRATULATIONS CHELSEY MINNIS 184 GOLDDIGGER CHELSEY MINNIS 186 GOODBYE CHELSEY MINNIS
188 A Theory JANE HUFFMAN 190 E-Dusk JJ ROWAN 195 [The entirety of my juvenilia …] LEVI ANDALOU 196 Then There’s the Garden’s Opulent Hollowing
GINA KEICHER 198 Grief ARJUN PARIKH 199 Horse and Puddle PETER KRUMBACH 200 ixodes pacificus: tic tick H. SIMONSEN
FICTION KARAN MAHAJAN PRIZE JUDGE
The Rubber Tapper’s Knife RICHARD HERMES
FICTION CONTEST WINNER
The metal beds of the military trucks burned the bare chests of the men who were thrown in first, men stripped to the waist, arms bound behind their backs, laid face down in rows and stacked in layers four, five, six bodies high. Malik was put in more gingerly than the others, almost kindly even, close to the top of the heap by a young soldier with a southern accent. He’d felt the drops of another brief rain. He did not need to see it to know that, outside, the concrete released its own steam. And where was his nephew, Jaemu? Malik had called for him repeatedly since they were separated. Face down in this pile now, the cords chafing his wrists, it seemed futile to call out again. The man above him must have been unconscious, so fully limp and heavy did his weight press down on Malik, his slowly heaving ribs digging into the back of Malik’s head. The truck had not yet left its place in front of the district police station, and below him bodies already pleaded for air. “I beg you,” came a high-pitched, desperate voice. “The weight is too much.” But there was nothing anyone could do. Malik was almost never helpless. He was the equal of any rubber tapper in Tak Bai district; it did not matter that he was blind. But this day had unfolded as if in the restless dreams Malik sometimes had in the cool, dark corridors of the older part of the rubber grove, where he would doze with his back against the trunk of a tree, tapping knife sticky by his side, the cutting having been started well before dawn and finished before the morning grew too warm. He always 1
finished with extra time. Some days, as he rested and listened to the grove, the long rows all weeping together their thin white sap, the trickle of it filling up the bowls like a slow, silent lullaby, he woke with a start to a mosquito sting on his poorly wrapped neck, to the eerie dead air of midday and the jarring awareness that the bowls from the first trees would already be full, the sap congealing in the suffocating heat. It had been that kind of day, a slow escalation to a startling unreality. He’d gone to town with Jaemu around 10 a.m. to pick up the cloth that Yaena would use to cut herself a new kurung for Eid. She had already picked out the material; he only needed to retrieve it. He regretted now his insistence that Jaemu carry it in a plastic bag when they walked to the demonstration outside the district police station rather than leaving it tied to his moto at the mosque. He hated the thought that it lay discarded in some puddle where he and Jaemu fell, or under the tire of one of these trucks. It broke Yaena’s heart to lose nice things to carelessness, and he trusted Ma-daw when she said this cloth was worth the expense— he had felt between his fingertips the soft fineness of the cotton. Her description of it as a bright, swirling orange and red sounded to him like the sunsets he saw as a boy with his father when he still had his sight and they would travel to Satun to help his uncle with his catch during the month that was rainiest on their own side of the peninsula. How strange that he could often “see” such things as colors with his fingers before being told? No stranger, perhaps, than the way the rain could be so relentless in Baan Nam Bo when they departed for his uncle’s on those childhood mornings, the surf so grey and churning, while just a few hours later, a hundred miles across the Kra Isthmus, the fishermen floated on a sea of 2
glass. Independent of that other reality back home on the Gulf, the long stem at the bow of their turquoise boat jutted up out of the Andaman into a liquid sky, a swirl of citrus and purples and blood. Something dripped onto his head from above and made two trails through his hair, one sidelong toward his ear and one straight over the meridian of his skull, toward his forehead. At first he assumed it was sweat or water from the men who’d been soaked with water cannons or pulled out of the river, but what he felt creeping through his hair now was too thick to be water. It tickled his scalp despite the pressure squeezing him from all sides and despite the scene outside, the barking of the uniformed men and unofficial rangers for hire who had failed to persuade the demonstrators to disperse and then, panicking when the army’s own tear gas blew back on them, cowered behind obstacles and shot blindly into the crowd. This was according to frantic descriptions by Jaemu, delivered while they clung to each other’s shirts in their hiding place on the riverbank. Even in that chaos, Malik had insisted Jaemu tell him everything that was happening, before Malik tripped on someone lying on the ground and they slipped and fell and were separated. It distracted him, that slow itch moving across his scalp, over the revving of other vehicles leaving the lot, over the increasingly urgent cries of the men lying piled underneath him, begging the others to try to stand up, to take some weight off the bodies at the bottom, the men higher up saying, “Brother, if I could I would stand, I would tear a hole in this canvas, but I can’t move my legs”—even over all of this, the sensation on his scalp did not abate. Malik wanted to scratch it or wipe it away but with tied hands all he could do was rub the back of his head against the body above him. The satisfying friction he hoped to feel wasn’t there. Instead, the man’s skin was SPRING 2018
slippery with the same blood that was crawling toward his face. He stopped immediately, the patch of baldness on the crown of his head sticky-wet now. At the first amplified pop of the mosque’s old loudspeakers, the pile of men in the truck fell silent. The activity outside halted for a moment too. The call to the late afternoon prayer meant that it was around 3:30. There was something unfamiliar in the voice of the muezzin as he sang his call—it had none of its usual mellifluence, none of the vocal flourishes at the end of the Arabic words, the trilling notes and half-notes. None of the usual mix of melancholy and anticipation, the resonance of pious sacrifice. There was sorrow, but it was a muted sorrow, the syllables not drawn out extravagantly as usual but flat, perfunctory, hastened through. The voice sounded older, drier. All of this he thought in the first few syllables of the call. By the end of it he knew it was the voice of the imam, not that of Rosuemai, the usual muezzin. In the most sonorous voice he could muster, Malik sang out an answering prayer. Breaking the silence felt briefly energizing, as if his bones had been struck with a tuning fork. Men at the top of the pile followed, drawing the sound out until others, farther buried, joined with shortened breath. The melody was enough to make him briefly forget the sensation of the blood nearing his eyebrow. One man in particular extended the prayer after the others had finished. Even in its breathlessness, Malik thought he recognized the voice. “Rosuemai?” “Yes.” He said it with no intonation of a returned question. From the distant quavering of his voice it sounded as if he were lying toward the bottom of the pile. When the prayer was over, Malik called to him, but a second guard, standing at the end of the truck 4
and distinguished by his deep voice, gave a command to be silent, and all the men obeyed except for Rosuemai. “My son,” Rosuemai said. “Are you all right?” His voice was a thin thread. “Abidin?” The young soldier who had helped Malik into the truck interrupted. “Elder, you cannot speak,” he said. “I’m fine, father,” said Rosuemai’s son, from somewhere to the left of the truck. “Where will they—” The boy’s question was cut off with a sickening thud, and another. “Shut your mouths,” said the man with the deep voice. Malik did not consider himself a pious man. He never saw the point of memorizing an entire book in a foreign language for the sound of the words alone, divorced as they were from his mother tongue of Jawi. He failed his exam on the Koran three times, the imam from another village frowning as Malik groped in vain for the first few words of the passage that followed the one the imam had recited in his perfect Arabic. The imams and hajis were the only ones who understood that language, and they liked it that way. When his father called him away from the ponoh to help with the planting, it was nothing more than a way to save face—he would have been sent home anyway. Once or twice a year, when he had business in the provincial capital, he spent an afternoon at a secluded house outside the city where he and an old friend wagered on fighting cocks. He swore frequently, flirted with the girl who ran the mango stand by the convenience store when her mother wasn’t around, flirted with her mother when she was. He had never been unfaithful to Yaena in all their years of marriage, but he still thought of himself as handsome. Women at the traveling market told him so to disarm him when he SPRING 2018
tried to bargain. Even so close to 50 he craved that attention, still let himself be taken by the arm so that he could smell the scent of women who were young enough to be his daughters. There was a reason women in villages covered their hair with scarves and wore loose fitting clothes, and kept their distance from the opposite sex until they were married. Piety is a learned thing. But no kurung could hide a woman’s shapeliness, and a headscarf only framed and further accentuated the most symmetrical faces, of which he had seen many in his youth, before the sudden, sharp pains in his eyes, the aching in his temples, the otherworldly halos around electric lights and the moon. Before his corneas, too, became their own foggy silver-blue moons. No, there were devoted Muslims in this part of the world but they would never adopt the ways of Arabs, whose women cover themselves in black from head to toe. Here, life was too sweet for that. Life was sweet, even as it was being slowly drained out of him and the rest of these men, who gave off a woody musk that reminded him, strangely, of his adolescence in the village. His thirst was a desperate vacuum in his chest. Yaena had told him to stay away from the demonstration. Standing at the end of the path, she stopped them and grabbed his arm where he sat on the back of Jaemu’s moto and scolded him so that he could feel her breath on his cheek. He always smiled in the face of her exasperated tone. After all these years, it still retained its hints of tender playfulness. It still sounded to him like love. Her insistent grip on his collar was a caress. The bodies were pressed so tightly together that he could feel one straining through another. “Uncle,” the young man underneath him said, “can you shift your weight to the left?” He did what he could, but he could not bring himself to ask the man’s name or where he 6
was from or what he had seen that afternoon. “Have you seen my nephew?” he had asked earlier to the group, but when no one had, he ceased to try to converse, choosing instead to conserve his energy. It seemed that the others were doing the same, aside from those on the bottom who drifted in and out of fits of sighing. The man on his right whispered something in his ear that he could not understand. It was soft and intimate and senseless, like a quiet hallucination. Nothing had passed his lips that day, for it was Ramadan, but as the blood crept further down his face—across his left cheek and alongside his nose—he fixed in his mind a terrible possibility: eventually the blood would reach his lips, and opening them would mean a breaking of the obligation of the day. Though he had cheated the fast many times in his life, what was at stake for him now was something more fundamental than piety—difficult to name, but much more urgent. He felt determined not to break the fast in such a gruesome way. The blood reached his nostril and the left corner of his mouth and he drew in a long breath, as if preparing to plunge underwater. The truck lurched into gear and the whole pile briefly shifted, the sound from the engine wrapping them in a gauze of noise. At the frequent stops and starts, it was clear that the swaying of the pile gave no relief to those on the bottom; it only multiplied their suffering. They moved along country roads that Malik had long ago memorized, the blood gathering in both his nostrils and pooling between his grimly clenched lips. He could barely breathe now. He had lost his sense of time. From his left a young man whispered, “Talk to me, old man, or I think I will die.” He was no stranger to slaughter. He knew how to lay the cow down between two trees on Eid al-Adha and string it tight by its SPRING 2018
horns and hoofs. Many times he helped hold the animal down, calming it during the sharpening on the whetstone, the pulling taut of the long folds of white skin under the chin. The quick back and forth of the blade, the baring of teeth, the knife slipping into the hollow pockets of the neck. The kicking legs, spilled life filtering through dry leaves and dirt. When the salty-sweetness hit his tongue, it didn’t taste like anything from a cow. It tasted opulent. His mouth watered at the sensation. It was nourishment; he wanted to vomit. Below, others already had. “Tell me, my friend,” he said, “has the sun fallen yet?” “Why do you ask that question? Can’t you see the space under the tarp? “I cannot,” he said, his words slurred with blood. “I gather, then, that there is still light.” When they finally arrived at their destination, sometime late in the night, Malik was again helped down off the truck with some consideration by the guards, the young soldier with the southern accent and the man with the deep voice. Finding it difficult to stand, Malik put his arm around the necks of the two men. As they carried him to the edge of the bed of the truck and prepared to hand him off to others, Malik let his right palm graze against the side of the face of the man with the deep voice. He wanted to know its shape. His fingers saw a wide nose with bulbous nostrils, longer hair than a soldier, some flabbiness around the jaw and a thick mole on his cheek, out of which grew long, coarse hairs. Malik was ordered to stand off to the side while they unloaded the rest of the men and brought them to where they would be kept. They 8
were counting them in groups of ten as they came off. When Malik felt sure that the truck must be nearly empty, he heard the voice of the young soldier drop in exclamation. A superior ordered someone to “Check them all for breathing.” There was a commotion, a sound like fish flapping on the bottom of a boat. Someone called for a doctor, but it was drowned out by the screams of another man. Malik was bumped from behind as several soldiers pushed past him and voices converged on the spot; then he was ushered back some distance with the others. He heard a guttural rage, a few voices urging calm, others excited, making sharp clucking noises like men corralling an angry bull. A struggle, the sounds of something hard striking flesh and a collective sucking in of air. Then, for what felt like minutes, the thickest silence, broken eventually by a few low sounds from the soldiers around him. “Ai kaek,” the man with the deep voice said, breathless. * Malik sits and sleeps in a room with a cement floor. Four days and no bath. Early one morning, the young soldier with the southern accent comes to inform Malik that he will be going home. He asks Malik if he’d like to make a call to a relative or friend. Malik follows the young soldier outside to a bench and table where there is better reception. If not for the tobacco smoke, Malik wouldn’t have known anyone else was there. “Pardon,” Malik says, to the other person at the bench. “Can I have a cigarette?” “A blind man detained by the military?” It is the man from the truck with the deep voice, whom he has come to think of as The SPRING 2018
Mole. “You must be the most dangerous cripple in the world.” Rather than hand one to Malik, he tosses the pack on the table. As Malik feels for them, his fingers graze other things: a mango, a small box, a smooth stick with no bark. He puts a cigarette in his mouth and asks the man for a light. Malik sits facing outward, away from the table, while the young soldier and The Mole stand on each side. “You’re a ranger?” Malik says. The Mole laughs. “I’m like police. You can tell I’m not a soldier?” Malik smiles. “Where are you from? Not here.” “Not here,” the Mole says. There is no more talk while Malik finishes his cigarette. He thinks The Mole will walk away from the silence, but instead he lights another one. “What happened on our truck?” Malik says. The Mole spits and describes an unlikely scene where men on the bottom rows, chatting with relief at the prospect of being released from the trucks, suddenly go into convulsions after being freed from the weight that had been crushing them for so many hours. Malik was taught not to be violent, but he is not a pious man. “Is this your mango?” Malik asks The Mole. “In that case, is there a knife to peel it?” The Mole drops something heavy in his lap. It has a brushed leather sheath, fastened around the handle with a snap. “What do you do to support yourself?” The Mole asks. “I am a rubber tapper.” The Mole finds this extremely amusing. “The equal of any tapper in the district.” Laughing, The Mole says, “What’s your secret?” “A very sharp knife. I depend on it like my dearest friend. Or a son.” Then, he adds, gently thumbing the blade, “Yours is sharp too.” 10
“That is no rubber tapper’s knife,” The Mole says. As skillfully as the woman at the mango stand, as if it is in fact his own knife, Malik cuts off the knot where the fruit meets the stem and begins to peel from there. To the other one, the soldier, he says, “How old are you, young man? And where are you from?” “Satun,” the boy answers. He does not give his age, but his voice sounds younger than ever, and not unkind. Malik’s fingers flutter over the edge of the fruit where the unpeeled skin meets the wet, raw flesh. It is not unlike tapping for rubber, cutting the thinnest V-shaped strip of bark from the trunk, making sure not to cut too deep for fear of hurting the tree. In this case, the liquid that drips over his wrist is sweet juice, not sap. He raises the fruit and his knife together in both hands and catches the juice running over the base of his palm in his lips. “How many men died?” Malik asks, in no particular direction. The young soldier does not say anything, but The Mole says, “Seventy or eighty. They were weak from fasting.” Then, The Mole exclaims, “I thought you were a Muslim! Why are you eating fruit now?” “Has the sun already risen?” Malik asks. He knows it has. “About twenty minutes ago,” the young soldier says. “That is what our commander says. That they were weak from fasting.” “I have a nephew about your age,” Malik says to the soldier. “His name is Jaemu. Have you seen anyone with that name in the camp? From the way you speak, I imagine you would have been friends in another life.” “And you are not supposed to believe in other lives,” The Mole says. “Soon I will be convinced that you are not a Muslim at all, but a proper Buddhist.” SPRING 2018
On the flickering screen of Malik’s mind, the young soldier is the one more easily convinced to bring himself nearer to Malik—more ready than The Mole to believe that Malik is hard of hearing as well as blind and thus lower himself closer to Malik’s ear. He is lither and therefore more inclined to bend at the waist, to jump forward out of polite nervousness to accommodate another handicap. As he sees it in his mind’s eye, then, it is a sad practicality for Malik, not justice—far from justice—that makes him choose the boy as the one to draw close enough to reach the back of his neck with one hand while driving the knife deep into his windpipe. This is what Malik imagines, but it is not what happens. What happens is more pedestrian: he scrapes the remaining meat off the mango pit with his teeth and slowly wipes both sides of the knife on his thigh before putting it back in its sheath. The young soldier asks him if he wants to make his phone call, and he thinks of Yaena, who, Malik will learn, has already sold a small piece of their rubber plantation—a newer stand, not the older part of the grove where he likes to drift off in shade—to hire a lawyer who will help her and other families post more of their land as collateral for bail. The following day, after two weeks apart, Yaena arrives to take him home. She comes with Jaemu, who escaped to the side of the demonstration where the women were sitting and lay behind them, covered in Yaena’s new cloth, until the last soldier had left the scene. At the funeral for Rosuemai and Abidin, the men discuss what happened on the trucks, how so many died. It is a topic of endless speculation. Some say that most of the 78 suffocated. Others insist they were executed at the camp. One young man, home from university, speaks of an “imbalance of chemicals” in the blood caused by muscles being crushed. Malik remains silent. Instead, 12
he asks Jaemu to be with him outside the front of the house. There, they listen to a family of singing doves making their music in the late afternoon. Jaemu asks where the birds first came from, to what place they are native, but Malik is engrossed in the shiver of a glorious thought: next Friday, he and Jaemu will go to the mosque and present themselves to the imam. “Dear Imam,” he will say. “God grant you peace. If it pleases you, we would like to learn the art of the call to prayer. I am not a pious man, but if it is God’s will, I would like to be a muezzin.”
Been Fighting Since K CHESS
FICTION CONTEST RUNNER-UP
Myriam drinks coffee with the ghost of Joseph’s twin as dusk falls on the Love Parade passing through downtown Berlin in a storm of techno noise. From where they sit, she can hear the amplified relentless bass and the roar of an intoxicated crowd on Strasse des 17. Juni. Earlier, she swallowed a capsule of MDMA; she knows that the drug must still be in her system because of what she’s seeing. She sips her espresso. Across the table from her, Joseph’s brother swings his legs. He is barefoot, wearing red shorts and a clean white tank-top. His name is Agun and he appears to be about eight years old. According to Joseph, he’s been missing—presumed dead—for two decades. “Where is he?” Agun asks. His voice is deeper than one might expect, and he speaks English with the same incongruously posh accent that Joseph picked up in provisional schools at the refugee camps of his youth. “I think he’s with our friends.” “Joseph can climb higher in the thorn tree than anyone,” Agun tells her. “He always climbs when Baba calls us. Only I will come. It makes me angry.” This is the boy she’s longed to meet, a small version of the man she loves, undamaged and beautiful. His eyes are bright, his dark skin glossy. The upturned palm of his hand has the same vivid orangeypink color as the inside of a conch. How strange. She wants to reach out and touch that fat little hand, but she’s fairly sure it is not really 14
there. Instead she reaches into her weave, fingers the place where the tracks are sewn to the spiraling cornrows underneath. “I’m angry with him too, right now,” she says. Her eyes close, just for a moment. When she opens them again, Agun has disappeared into the festival crowd. * Myriam knows the facts: that Joseph and his twin were in a far pasture minding their family’s cattle when the earthquake noise of heavy trucks and AK-47s down the hill announced that the army had come. That, concealed in a ditch, the two children heard government soldiers shouting orders, saw them shooting men and boys and babies, taking away women and girls. Agun and Joseph hid until the fires burned themselves out. Then they fled, living on bird eggs and groundnut paste, chalky jackalberry fruit and termites, their heads swimming, their bellies swollen with kwashiorkor, walking miles each day after sundown. Myriam knows these facts, because Joseph told them to her. She can’t understand what it was like. Somehow, Joseph and Agun reached the camp just over the national border, the U.N. tents and lentil rations. There, a man from their home district took charge of the brothers. They were supposed to be safe. But two months after their arrival at camp, Agun ran away to join the rebel army. From there, she knows only what happened to Joseph, the twin who stayed behind. It’s easy for her to write it off—her vision of Agun at the cafe, her conversation with him—as a very strange hallucination, a reaction SPRING 2018
to all the substances she’d taken that day, a frustrated broken-mirror reflection of the argument she had with Joseph earlier and her underlying awareness of a wound in him she can do nothing to heal. When they meet up after the parade, she doesn’t mention it. But she doesn’t forget. * The second time, it is the middle of the night. She gets off the U-Bahn at Hallesches Tor, Joseph’s stop. She spots the boy from across the plaza, in the light of a halogen mounted above a dry cleaners. His small body is silhouetted against a faded mural of a large peach hand and a brown one grasping each other fraternally, defaced by three layers of graffiti. She stands there in bare feet, holding her high-heeled pumps. It is after 4 a.m.; too early for birds. What is such a small child doing out before dawn, she thinks to herself for an instant, before she recognizes who it is. Agun. Her ghost. As she walks closer, she sees how he’s changed. His features are gaunt, his abdomen bulges out horribly. The bones of his little arms are painfully visible through dusty stretched-tight skin. His bleak eyes are enormous. She notes a faint family resemblance still—the shape of the jaw, the way he holds his head—but at the same time, his suffering generalizes him. He seems unreal, an unfortunate from a humanitarian aid commercial. All starving people look something alike. Unreal. He is literally not real, she reminds herself, in order to stay calm. Not real. Why is she seeing this? What is it about her brain? Agun still has the red shorts, but he has lost his shirt somewhere along the way. His chest moves up and down quickly, like a panting dog. “Are you alright?” she asks stupidly, first in German, to which he 16
does not respond, and then in English. In primary school, another girl showed her a website with photos of vagrants who’d been struck and killed by trains. She’d visited this site again and again in secret, on the public computers at the library. And the Holocaust books she read by the dozen, safe because it was all over, safe because it wasn’t anyone she knew. Now, she wants to be sick. She wants to cry. She isn’t strong enough to look anymore. “Where is he?” the boy asks. “Where is Joseph?” “In his flat,” she tells him. “I told him I would leave him, and I did, but I’m coming back. Don’t worry. I’m coming back.” She was drinking before, but now she is sober. She is sorry. “Is he safe?” Agun asks, and she can see wrinkles of concern in his little forehead. Unreal, but it is real, the terrible hunger. It’s what really happened to him—to Joseph—when they walked to the camp. She wants to tell him yes, his brother is safe now, she wants to tell him yes. She doesn’t speak. Myriam is certain that Agun is as insubstantial as a memory or a dream, that he cannot hurt her, that she cannot help him in any way. He moves one step closer. It is fear, not pity, that makes her drop her shoes and turn. That makes her run away as fast as she can. * Myriam and Joseph. They met six months ago at a party in East Berlin, two foreign students, vodka and pills. The next morning, she woke inexplicably in the West, in her own shabby pre-war Moabit bedsit, to the sounds of a stranger in her kitchen cooking breakfast, and she thought for the first time, maybe this is a problem. SPRING 2018
Even after Joseph told her the story of the evening, there were blanks. She didn’t remember him taking her home on the night bus, didn’t remember him holding open a carrier bag from the PennyMarkt for her to vomit into, didn’t remember him helping her to ease off her tight jeans. “You took out your own contact lenses, though,” Joseph assured her, “and wrapped your own hair. Then you ordered me to get in the bed with you.” He laughed a little when he saw her look of horror at this prospect, but not unkindly. “I didn’t take you up on the offer. I slept on the rug. It seems to me that you must have a lot of trust in yourself.” “Are you trying to be funny?” His mouth was straight, but his eyes smiled. Yes, he was teasing her. “I only mean to say, I would never allow my body to walk around without me. Who knows what bad decisions it might make?” * Agun seems better nourished the third time. He is entirely naked now—no shorts, even—so she can see clearly that he has put on weight. His stomach doesn’t protrude as much and his skin has regained some of its luster. Carefully, she looks away from his genitals, those prepubescent versions of ones she knows well. She can’t help noticing that his left eye is swollen, puffed to a slit. “What happened to you?” she asks the little boy. “Did someone hit you?” Time is moving forward, in the world he has come from. What is going on for him there? At the moment, they are together at the park by the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, the monument built over the mass grave of five thousand 18
Russians. It is past midnight; this is a good place for ghosts. Myriam sits on the steps at the base of the plinth where a giant Red Army soldier stands guard. In his bronze arms, a similarly giant-sized European child huddles for protection. The child in front of Myriam shakes his head, dismissing the question. “You know my brother. Tell me about my brother,” he demands. She feels a duty to this ghost. If Agun is with her, he is safe. In order to keep him here, she must act calmly, and not show her fear. “Joseph is good,” she says simply. “A good man.” “No.” Agun shakes his head. “Tell me about him, now. What is he doing?” He is so solidly insistent. She imagines him back where he belongs, sharing a bedroll in a musty tent with Joseph, twenty years ago and halfway across the world. “Weren’t you just with him? Don’t you know?” His eyes dart at the dark benches around them. “I’m frightened. I need you to say. What is he doing? Is he sleeping?” “I’m not sure,” Myriam says. “I know he’s safe at home.” She pictures Joseph at his kitchen table, a thick German-language law text open before him. He seems to spend as little time with his eyes shut as possible. “Where did you leave him?” she asks Agun. “Are you still in the camp? Isn’t someone looking after the two of you?” In a blink, the boy is gone. She sees his expression clearly as he vanishes into thin air—the misery, the regret.
He only comes to her when she’s alone. And he only comes to her after dark. And he is more likely to come when she and Joseph are quarreling. She still hasn’t told Joseph about any of this. She knows already what he would think. “Why didn’t you fight for the rebels?” she asks one morning when they are together in his room. He stiffens and quickly she backtracks. “I’m not judging your choice—I would never presume. I don’t know. I just wondered…” The refugee camp, as he’s explained before, was located in a desolate wasteland. Every day the same. Boys scavenged for firewood, stood in line for water, memorized lessons in the flybuzzing heat. No work-papers for those without connections. No way out, she thinks. The two brothers would have craved action, adventure, revenge, escape. The man from their village—did he look after them well? Was he kind? Joseph has never mentioned this. Now, Myriam pictures Agun’s bruised face. “It must have been tempting to run away,” she says. “Wasn’t it?” “What are you really asking?” Joseph sits in bed, ramrod straight, handsome in his clean white undershirt. “My brother joined the rebels after our home was burned, only to burn the homes of others. To continue the killing. It was wrong of him.” Against all odds, Joseph has grown to be a strong and healthy adult, not much like the terrified child she has seen, but there are swollen circles under his eyes. “Is that what you want me to say?” She hears the challenge in his voice. Yes, she’s been poor, but she’s never starved. Her parents have made mistakes, but they are alive. The daughter of immigrants, she felt like a stranger growing up, but she was never a refugee. 20
Joseph goes to the cabinet where he keeps his clothes. “The rebels gave the boys the worst jobs. Made them walk in front of the column, looking for mines. There were not enough guns to go around, so the boys were the ones who ran into battle with sticks, waving their arms, high on drugs—taught by madmen commanders to think they were invincible. The state army picked them off from helicopters. And back at the camp, we heard what the rebels did to boys who didn’t follow orders fast enough.” He steps into a pair of jeans. “Make a move they didn’t like and you got shot in the head, hung from a thorn tree. No army’s a safe place for a kid.” Myriam pulls the duvet up high to cover her breasts. From outside in the courtyard comes the sound of children yelling in play. “Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks. “What do you mean?” “Spirits, you know. Do you believe that someone from the past could visit us here?” “I don’t believe in the past at all,” Joseph says, voice muffled by the shirt pulled over his head. “I’ve made the past vanish. I’m a Futurist, now.” “Like the art movement?” Myriam examines his face when it emerges from the collar, trying to gauge his sincerity. “Yes. I’ve adopted it as my philosophy.” He balances storklike on one long leg, pulling a sock onto a narrow foot. “I love danger and I worship speed. I advocate the destruction of all formal institutions: museums and libraries and places of worship.” She smiles, pleased despite herself. “Sounds like a lot of work when I’ve never seen you near a church.” He shows his white teeth. “Why do you think I choose to live here. Where everything’s been blown to Hell already.” SPRING 2018
He will be gone for hours and she knows that when he returns, this conversation will not be discussed. It will be part of the past. Myriam drinks and gets high; Joseph has his own, different ways. There is nothing she can do. She has nothing to lose. “What happened to your brother?” she asks. “Do you even know for sure?” Joseph pauses, his hand on the knob. “No,” he says. “I don’t know.” * The fourth time feels inevitable. Myriam stands at the Burger King and looks at the boy across the street on the island of the Innerstadt in front of Kaiser Wilhelm’s half-ruined cathedral. Traffic streams past, even at this hour of the night, and when the gritty Berlin wind blows, she can smell the animals in the Zoo. Agun is wearing new khaki shorts and a khaki shirt—not a formal uniform, but reminiscent of one. Is he taller than he was? Is he growing? For a week, two weeks, she kept him away. She was careful to stay in after dark. While Joseph studied in the next room, she’d dreamt of a hobo on the tracks, his legs torn off, weltering in blood; she’d dreamt of a Khmer Rouge soldier bashing a baby’s brains out against the trunk of a Killing Tree; she’d dreamt of malnourished Ukrainian peasants waiting for death in the collectivized fields; she’d dreamt of a roomful of Tutsis burning, the door barred. All the worst things she’d ever heard of, until she could not stand it anymore. She wanted to put down the camera. She wanted to lift the latch. Now, it’s over. She crosses Kurfürstendamm to stand with Agun. “What do you do during the days?” she asks the little ghost. 22
“When you’re not with me. What do you know about what’s coming?” He seems not to hear, but this time she won’t let it go. “You can’t continue like this,” she tells him. “You’re going to get hurt. Do you hear me? I don’t want that to happen, because I love you.” “You don’t love me,” he says in his froggy, childish voice. “No one loves me anymore.” “I do,” she insists. “And Joseph does. Run away from the rebels, tonight. Save yourself.” “You don’t understand.” “You’re right,” she says. “I don’t understand.” His small features are set, his expression stubborn. She knows that he does not want to let her see him cry. “Even so, I love you,” Myriam says. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. You still have a choice. Listen to me carefully. You’re going to get hurt if you stay.” She can’t say killed. She must tell him. She can’t. Is it possible to warn someone who’s already dead? “Go back to the camp,” she urges. “Joseph can keep you safe, there.” Then she remembers. Agun and Joseph, climbing the thorn trees together. A body hanging from the lowest branches. What the rebels did to those who disobeyed. Traitors. Deserters. She stretches her hand out to the boy hopelessly, knowing that he is incorporeal, anticipating the way that her fingers will close on thin air, how he will vanish again, but there it is, his forearm firm and real beneath her touch. Agun’s skin is flesh-warm. She can feel the bones, radius and ulna, and the stringy muscles. SPRING 2018
Echt. Instinctively, she lowers her hand, starting back like she’s received a shock. “They don’t just let you leave,” Agun says. “It’s too late.” What if he were a real child? What if she could take him home, feed him scrambled eggs and wrap him up in the duvet with the television on? What if he has fought his way through time and space, eluding death just to give her this chance? Her lover’s shadow-self, his past made tangible. What would Joseph do, if he found Agun in his bed? Echt. He has become a real boy, or perhaps he always was. She reaches out for him again, but then she stops her hand. “No,” she says to him. She means, yes. Yes, it’s too late. The damage is done, and who am I to argue with history? Yes, I give up. Myriam turns back to the Burger King, half-expecting the twin to follow her. Her whole body tenses, waiting for the press of his small hand on her arm. But she doesn’t feel it. And when she looks over her shoulder, he is nowhere.
ISABELLE GILBERT FICTION CONTEST READER’S CHOICE
I met Jill when I was twelve years old and living in a van. My mom stopped at a pay phone in Clovis. It was a hot day and I sat on the van’s running board. Jill’s mom had product, my mom wanted to sell it. From Humboldt she got weed, from Mexico she got coke, from Fresno, apparently, she got acid. I drew a heart in the glittering sand with the toe of my shoe. When my mom came back to the van she said, “Get in. There’s a girl your age there.” I climbed into the back. I asked what the girl’s name was. “No idea,” my mom said. She held out her hand for a bag of peanuts and kept it there until I found one for her. It was late afternoon when we arrived. I’d been to other trailer parks, but this one was sparse. The trailers were far apart and no grass grew. Some were fragile with rust. Some had wood or tin shacks built up against them. We drove toward an oasis of brush. On the other side was a large, new-looking tow trailer, a pickup, and an old car. I heard fast pops, then a whizzing sound. My mom stopped the van and I got out. I looked. I saw Jill. I’d had playmates in Humboldt and I saw other kids sometimes, in restaurants and at rest stops, but they had houses and bathrooms and new clothes. I never understood those kids or liked them. They seemed tame, like house dogs. I was a wolf. 25
Jill was tall and skinny, her bony knees large on her stick legs. Her light brown hair was pulled back into a greasy ponytail. Her tan skin was mottled pink and red with scabs, scars, and fleabites in all stages of being scratched. She wore shorts that had, probably years ago, fit her and been white. And she wore a loose grey bra. She had a box of matches and a package of firecrackers. I walked over to her. She looked me up and down. Then she stepped away. “This here sounds like a Uzi.” She put the firecracker on the ground, lit the fuse, and ran back to where I stood. The firecracker exploded near my feet, in short bursts that felt too close to be safe. She watched me. I didn’t move. I tried not to even blink. “What’s your name?” she asked. “Katie,” I told her. “My name’s Jill,” she said. She spoke differently than I did, dragged her vowels out longer. She turned her back to me and set off each firework until the bag was empty. Early evening was still bright. It was summer. “Want to see a dead dog?” she asked. We walked across hot dirt and gravel. “That’s the range,” she said, gesturing to something ahead of us. I nodded. Jill’s feet were bare but her step was sure. We reached a pile of mangled garbage—old refrigerators, broken couches, and metal bent in ways it wasn’t supposed to bend. Inside the shell of a car, on what had once been the back seat, was a skeleton curled into a ball, as though asleep. It was held together by pieces of skin, dark and dry as leather. We leaned into the car to look at the small body. The dog’s lips were gone and its teeth were permanently bared. Jill took my hand. 26
I followed her, watching the perfect pointy bones in her long spine as she walked. I liked the clammy heat of her palm and the way her slender fingers entwined with mine. Inside, a window unit whined chilly air into the trailer. Our mothers were sitting on the couch smoking a joint. Two men sat at a small table attached to the wall. Everyone had a can of beer. The men were the kind my mother liked: large, loud, with big hands and big boots. When we came in, one of the men said, “I bet it tastes good, too!” The other man said, “That one’s wearing a bra!” They all laughed. Jill led me to the kitchen. We both knew when to be quiet. Jill took a can of onion dip and a bag of potato chips from the cupboard. We sat side by side on the floor, our backs against the fridge. I held the chips in my lap. She held the dip in hers. The length of our thighs squeezed warm together and the food tasted good. We licked our greasy fingers, enfolded in the familiar smells of pot smoke and beer. Jill whispered to me that she had a cat and we should find it. Outside, we breathed in the dust and the sun. Jill disappeared into the brush that hid her trailer from the rest of the park and I looked underneath the cars. My mom, Jill’s mom, and the men came out of the trailer and got into the truck. They were arguing about where to eat. The dark-haired man winked at me and said he wanted a muff sandwich. The truck’s radio turned on with the engine. Neither of us found the cat. Jill said they wouldn’t be home until morning, probably. I’d sometimes slept in the van alone, parked in a driveway or parking lot. I hated it. With my mother there, we could always leave, but alone I was trapped. It was different with Jill. I hoped they never came back. Jill went inside and came out with a small, black gun. She pointed it at our van. SPRING 2018
We walked through the sand and brush, past where we’d burned the fireworks. A boy ran by with a slender, writhing snake in his hand. “It’ll bite you, Nickel,” Jill called after him. “Satan lives inside us all!” he screamed. The gun swung heavy in Jill’s small hand. We went to the range at the edge of the property, a sunken outdoor enclosure full of broken bottles surrounded by dirt and gravel berms. Jill showed me how to fill the clip. I loaded eight bullets for her but my thumb got tired and I couldn’t do the last two. I held a bullet in my hand and thought about how something so shiny and smooth could kill someone. With each gunshot, dust rose and bloomed. The ground shook and the air quivered. I put my fingers deep in my ears. I loaded the clip again and again. Jill shot into the berms. “There’s enemies all around,” she said. “I’m killing them.” She turned and shot, turned and shot. She lay down on the ground and shot. “I’m under a car,” she said. The sky turned pink as the sun began to set. She asked me if I wanted to try. She sat down and placed the gun next to me on the bench. The pistol looked heavy and cold. “Only aim it at your target.” I touched the hole at the end where the bullets came out. “That’s okay,” I said. “You’re scared,” she said, laughing. She asked me if I wanted to make brownies and I said yes. She told me when you kill someone you have to get rid of the evidence so the police can’t find you. We hunted for shell casings, the shiniest, newest ones, and filled our T-shirts full of spent bullets.
I sat at the table and watched Jill mix eggs and oil into brown powder. We watched the brownies bake. We watched the surface dry and crack like the desert. I closed my eyes to smell them better. We tried to let them cool but we couldn’t wait. We ate the whole pan with a shared fork then cleaned it with our thumbs. It was dark outside. “You like rum?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said, but I’d only ever had whiskey. She took an RC from the fridge and split it between two plastic cups, then added three generous capfuls of rum. “That’s how Charlene likes it,” she said. I took a sip. It was good. We drank from our cups. We sipped, breathed, looked at each other. I took her hand and squeezed it. Jill started giggling, then I started giggling. We stumbled and pulled each other to the couch. Jill folded her knees underneath herself and leaned against me. “China Beach is coming on later,” she said. “We don’t have a television,” I said. She put her head on my shoulder. I started to feel warm, light, relaxed. I leaned against her. I let my head rest on hers, my forearm on her knees. She wriggled closer. We watched a show about a fat guy and a handsome guy catching criminals. The handsome guy had a cruel square face. Then China Beach started. A tambourine jangled and the sun rose. Suddenly, I was a nurse. I was in a war in the jungle. I ran from bombs. Soldiers died in my arms. “I want to be Nurse Colleen McMurphy,” I whispered to Jill. SPRING 2018
“I want to be K.C.,” she whispered back. “Let’s join the army.” “You’ll have to shoot guns.” “I know.” We sipped our drinks. I felt her breathe. She grew warm and heavy against me. The trailer got darker and darker. My head felt far away from the rest of my body. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. After China Beach, we took our cups to the kitchen and Jill refilled them with more rum and RC. I steadied myself on the counter. I opened the refrigerator. It was filled with cans of vanilla pudding, leftover pizza, a large brick of cheese, gelatinous and half-eaten in its silver sleeve, bread, hot dogs, eggs, jelly, Red, White & Blue beer, and more soda. And there was a narrow closet with chips, cheese doodles, cake mix, and a lot more things in the back I couldn’t even see. My chest hurt looking at it. My mom and I ate peanuts and apples in the van and sometimes we stopped at a drive thru or a Denny’s. My mom wasn’t hungry most of the time but I was hungry all of the time. I felt Jill looking at me. I closed the pantry door and put my hands in my pockets. She shrugged and sipped her drink. “Have whatever you want.” I closed my eyes and thought about what I wanted the most. I read the directions on a bag of frozen tater tots, then emptied it onto the toaster oven tray. “How do you work this?” I asked Jill. Halfway through the 11 o’clock news, I smelled smoke and got them. They were greasy and slightly brown on top. I bit into one and exhaled steam. I dropped it on the counter and ate it when it cooled. It was crunchy on the outside and salty and soft inside. I 30
brought the tots into the living room with a stack of napkins and a bottle of ketchup. “They’re hot,” I said and put my hand over them. I couldn’t drink the second cup of rum and cola. I got a new cup and filled it with plain RC and ice. There was a carton of cigarettes in the back of the freezer. Jill finished her drink. She ate one tater tot. I ate the rest. “I wish I had a TV,” I said. “We only get three channels.” Jill finished her drink, and mine. Then she lay down and put her head in my lap. After the news, an old man came on and made jokes. I could feel Jill’s breath hot and slow on my legs. She smelled like scalp, rum, and firecracker smoke. I stroked her hair and looked down at her. I ran my fingers through her ponytail. I used the clicker to turn the volume down. It was quiet outside, except for a small mewing at the trailer door. I fell asleep. When I woke up the old man was still on and my shorts were wet with pee. I shook Jill awake. “Let’s take a shower.” “I don’t feel good,” she said into my leg. I pulled her off of me and felt the couch where I’d been sitting. It was slightly damp, not soaked. I wanted to wash the smell of pee off me and put on some dry clothes but I didn’t want to leave Jill to figure out what I’d done. I put my arm around Jill’s waist and led her, stumbling and confused, to the tiny trailer bathroom. The shower was barely big enough for one person. I ran the water, nice and hot. I took off my wet underwear and pants, rinsed them and hung them over a towel rod. SPRING 2018
Jill took off her bra. She couldn’t keep her eyes open. I slid her shorts and underwear to the floor. I guided Jill into the shower. Hot steam filled the bathroom. I stepped inside with her and shut the door. Jill leaned against the plastic wall. Her back was rounded and her head hung. I pulled her toward me. She rested her face on my shoulder. I stroked her back and felt her breathe. I washed her hair with shampoo that was deep pink and smelled like strawberries. I raised each of her arms and washed there. I cleaned her face with my soapy fingertips. I touched her cheeks and her crooked mouth. I felt her slender neck and her tiny recessed chin. I rinsed the soap off of her. I touched her heavy eyelids. She moved against me a little. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She turned away. The vomit was dark from soda, then big chunks of brownie that got stuck in the drain, then something lighter at the end—chips and dip maybe. It splattered against the shower floor and up onto our feet and legs. The smell made me gag. When she was done I rinsed our legs and pushed the chunks into the drain grate with my big toe, smashing them through the metal until they went down. Jill rinsed her mouth and spit. She turned to face me. I could tell she felt better. I turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. I found one towel, large but thin. I hung it around Jill’s shoulders. “I’m cold,” she said. I hugged her and she wrapped it around us both. She got us clean T-shirts and underwear. I found a bottle of pink perfume that smelled like baby powder and sprayed it on the pee 32
spot. We brushed our teeth with her toothbrush and combed our hair with her comb. The TV illuminated the living room. Jill opened the trailer door. A small black and white cat ran inside and mewed loudly. Jill emptied a can of food onto the kitchen floor and the cat ate every bit of it, then it licked the floor clean. “One day she’s gonna run away,” Jill told me. “Your mom?” I asked. “No, the cat. That’s what my mom says.” “I think she really loves you,” I said. The cat rubbed its whiskers against Jill’s fingertips. “My mom?” “Your cat.” I filled a cup with water. I drank so fast that it dripped down my chin and onto my shirt. I filled it again and handed it to Jill. On TV a giant truck hunted a worried man down the side of a mountain. The music was scary, but the volume was so low I almost couldn’t hear it. I lay down on the couch and Jill lay down in front of me. I slid my bottom arm under her neck and fitted my knees into the crook of her knees. She took my hand in hers and pulled it to her chest. We looked at the TV. We smelled like strawberry candy and sulfurheavy water. The cat jumped onto our feet and stretched into an elongated version of itself, yawning with a little crackle of jaw. We all fell asleep. I woke up to the sound of our mothers yelling. The lights in the trailer were on but outside it was dark. Jill was heavy and warm, SPRING 2018
her full weight resting against me, her breathing slow and deep. My mom and Charlene were looking for something. They were pulling open cabinets and drawers and slamming them shut. Something crashed loudly to the floor. “What were you thinking?” my mother screamed. “You do not fuck with guys like that.” Charlene kicked the couch. “Look in the bedroom you dumb cunt,” my mother said. Charlene was drunk. She righted herself and stumbled toward the back of the trailer. My mother grabbed my arm and pulled me up and off the couch. Jill flopped onto her back. She put her finger to her lips and pointed toward the door. I shook my head no. My mother clamped a strong arm around my waist and a hand over my mouth. I looked at Jill and then I was outside the trailer, wearing a borrowed T-shirt and underwear, being dragged barefoot into the night. Inside the trailer Charlene screamed, “Where’s the gun, Jill? What happened to the gun?” It was then I remembered. We’d left it at the range. We’d wanted brownies. We held hands and we walked away from the gun. Just left it lying there, as though safety would find us.
This Life May Be Monitored for Quality and Training PurposeS DANIEL PAUL So, before my shift at the call center, my manager calls a training meeting. He tells us that he has a new phrase that he wants us to add to our script. Whenever a customer curses us out or threatens us over the phone, we should say: I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM; THAT’S NO PROBLEM; WHAT I CAN’T HANDLE IS YOUR ABUSIVE LANGUAGE. My manager is really proud of the phrase. I deduce this because he is clasping his stapler like an award that he is giving the acceptance speech for (and also because he tells us he is really proud of it). He tells us that the phrase just came to him when he was in the shower, which is something that supposedly happens to people all the time, but had never happened to him before and was a source of sadness and insecurity for him even though he is a big shot call center manager. Then he makes us repeat the phrase back to him five times and he reprimands a guy who does not pause between I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM and THAT’S NO PROBLEM to his exacting rhythmic standards. During these rehearsals he directs us with flourishes of his stapler, which causes several people to take a step back from him to avoid being hit, forcing me into uncomfortable proximity with a corkboard and the plastic nubs of its assorted pushpins. Briefly, I imagine what it would be like to be a coupon: stuck to a board, powerlessly counting down the days before expiration. Then he scolds us for wasting so much time before getting to work, tells 35
us that he’s cancelling our breaks for the day, and sends us to the floor to answer some fucking phone calls. So I go back to my cubicle and belt myself into my chair—we are required to be locked in during our shifts, except when using our restroom credits, a policy which my manager says is necessitated by our commie, pro-union bowels—and barely have time to tell the first customer that his call may be monitored for quality and training before he jumps right in yelling at me. He asks how I can in good conscience work for such a dick-wagon of a company unless I am a dick-wagon driver, or perhaps an ass-mime (though he says he doesn’t have the time to sort out exactly who is juggling what in whatever kind of butt-circus we have going on over here). And boy am I relieved I have the new phrase to defuse the situation— normally I get pretty rattled when customers tell me that I’m worthless, because even though we learned in training that THE CUSTOMER IS NOT ALWAYS RIGHT despite what the liberal media tells us, it’s easy to believe the customer that you are worthless, because they are so confident, and, seriously, what have you actually done with your life? So, even though the caller is still cursing me out, I smile—because my manager says that the customer can hear your smile over the phone, which sounds pretty stupid if you think about it, but it’s important that I believe my manager is smart if I’m going to have faith in his ShowerPhrase—and I give the bobblehead doll on my desk a tap to get him nodding. (We are all allowed to have one object at our desk, supposedly for morale, but I think more to make it easier to navigate the gray labyrinth of cubicles by populating it with landmarks. For example, I sit at the desk next to the desk with the football helmet gumball machine, which bears the logo of no recognizable team, so full is its commitment to the 36
nonpartisan project of dispensing gumballs.) I find my bobblehead’s goofy nodding smile (which seems to be acting as a metronome for the caller’s uninterrupted and lyrical profanity) encouraging, and, nodding and smiling right along with it, I say, SIR, I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM; THAT’S NO PROBLEM; WHAT I CAN’T HANDLE IS YOUR ABUSIVE LANGUAGE. I’m not sure he even hears me. He is still yelling, saying that the only reason he isn’t going to come over here and slit my throat with one of the little swords they use to keep sandwiches from falling out is that his buddy Gus, who had been a sniper in ‘Nam, has come all the way downtown with him to sit on the rooftop across from my office with a rifle pointed at my window, and that it would be just plain ungrateful to rob Gus of the pleasure and sense of usefulness that would accompany killing me, no matter how much the caller might want to do it himself. And now I’m freaking out a little bit because I look down and see the red dot of a sniper rifle’s laser scope which has nosed its way through a crack in my window blinds and is now crawling searchingly up my shoulder and toward my temple like a blind bug. We were never trained on how to handle this kind of situation, so I improvise and I try to apply the ShowerPhrase to my current predicament, saying, louder this time, SIR, I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM; THAT’S NO PROBLEM; WHAT I CAN’T HANDLE ARE YOUR THOROUGHLY CONVINCING DEATH THREATS. The line is silent for three seconds (the length of every call counting up is displayed on my monitor, and I cannot help but notice how much faster my heart is beating than the second-by-second beeps) before the caller says, Well, sir, you can’t put it any fairer than that! And then I hear him tell someone (presumably Gus) that he doesn’t need to shoot me just then, and that, if the concrete of the SPRING 2018
roof is anywhere near as uncomfortable to lie prone on as it looks, then he should feel free to take a break—maybe go downstairs and get a coffee or something? Then the caller gets loud again and says that his PROBLEM is that we’d added a sneaky fee to his phone service, and that he can’t pay it, and that it was only on account of Gus owning a phone that he was even able to call and complain about it, and that if I really wanted to HANDLE HIS PROBLEM, which I had just told him would be NO PROBLEM, then I should waive the Sneaky Fee and make his phone work again so all the people who are always calling him to tell him good news could get through again. And maybe it’s because I’m still a little nervous about not using the ShowerPhrase exactly as the script intends (and/or about dying), but I answer way too quickly, saying: Oh, shit-no! There’s nothing we can do about that Sneaky Fee! (And it occurs to me that the name of the company might even be SneakyFeeTM Phones or something like that, though I can’t really remember because I’ve only ever seen the company logo on the coffee mug they gave me on my first day, which I accidently dropped and broke and they didn’t give me another one because they said dropping the mug was like burning the flag and I was lucky not to be fired.) And the caller jumps right back in being profane and hostile, telling me that I’m a liar ‘cause I said it would be NO PROBLEM to HANDLE HIS PROBLEM if he would just stop with the cursing and threatening (which, truthfully he had done, even going so far as to tell Gus to go get some coffee) and that he had been a fool to put his trust in me, but now he knew I was a nothing but a fuel tank of shit-oil that had run aground, and that I deserved to be forced to watch my internal organs be used as chess pieces by a bunch of drunks who think they’re playing checkers, and he tells me that if 38
Gus doesn’t get back in the next five minutes—with or without the fucking coffee!—he’s just going to have to come over here and slit my throat with the sandwich sword after all and hopefully, later, find a way to make it up to Gus for coming down here for no reason. Now, we are trained to never tell the customers that they can talk to our manager, because, as he reminded us this morning, they’ll always want to talk to him because we’re just lowly customer service reps for a shitty phone company and we never get ideas in the shower, or, if we do, they obviously aren’t lucrative shower ideas or else why would we still be working here? But something about this particular angry caller (who has just told me that he plans to use my skin as a canvas on which to paint a humiliating caricature of my dumbass face using my blood and some cheap acrylic) makes me feel like this is an exception. So I ask the caller, Would you mind holding for a moment while I discuss this with my manager? And he says that he supposes that would be fine, but only on account of that Gus might be a while coming back because it’s still only nine in the A.M. and the line at the coffee shop is liable to be long as an elephant shit sausage, and Gus has a policy of WHEN HE GETS IN LINE HE STAYS IN THAT LINE UNTIL HE GETS TO THE FRONT which maybe he learned in ‘Nam and maybe is just his way of making sense of living—one line at a time and never quitting—but, anyway, what was he talking about? Oh right, he really ought to wait for Gus to come back before shooting me considering that he not only dragged him all the way downtown in rush hour—asking him to lie prone on concrete which proved to be more stubbled than a draft dodger’s shaved asshole— but he had also sent him down to get coffee at a time of day when the Starbucks was going to be more crowded than . . . the mall, so Gus should really have something to show for all of it. Go ahead and SPRING 2018
talk to your manager, he says, maybe he’s got more brains than you and can figure out how to waive that SneakyFeeTM so we can all get back to the lives we were living before you people blocked the light from my world like an alien taking a shit across the sun. So, I use my day’s bathroom credits to unlock my chair—which is a setback, because going to the bathroom is probably the most exciting thing I do all day at work, both because of the relief it provides from the accumulation within my bladder of coffee and other liquid agents of energization that I must ingest to keep my positivity and consciousness at management-approved levels throughout the day, and also because urination is such a freewheeling good time: the porcelain being a perpetually blank canvas against which to write or draw without monitoring or judgment. I go to my manager (who is reclining in his office chair, feet up on his desk) and I tell him what’s going on. He asks me if I used the special phrase—the ShowerPhrase—and I tell him, Yes, but it didn’t work, and he gets silent for a moment (bringing his feet down from his desk and upsetting a container of paper clips, which scatter like shrapnel). He asks me if I had paused between I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM and THAT’S NO PROBLEM like he had told us to, and I tell him that I had, and he doesn’t believe me, so he makes me say it aloud to him like I said it to the caller, and he has to admit that my rhythm is perfect. Now he’s feeling kind of glum and suicidal because he was really proud of that phrase and he thought it was going to be the start of a new era of his life in which he always had good ideas in the shower, but now he’s sure that his life is not going to change at all. I don’t really have time for my manager’s personal narratives right now because, even though I’ve never met Gus and I only know 40
he exists because of the red dot-bug that he put on my shoulder, I’m pretty confident that he is going to come back for me soon. Also, I’m sort of mad at my manager anyway because, alone with him in his office, I notice that the corkboard that I had been pressed up against during the meeting earlier doesn’t even have anything tacked up on it, and so I now have to live with not only the pain of that encounter, but also the pain of knowing its purposelessness. But I need advice, so I say, Boss, it’s not that the ShowerPhrase is bad (his frown vanishes), it’s actually really good (a smile returns), it’s just that I told him that I could HANDLE HIS PROBLEM, that it would be NO PROBLEM, but really I can’t HANDLE HIS PROBLEM at all. So then my manager asks, Well, what’s his PROBLEM? Maybe I know how to HANDLE it, which would actually be better because it would mean the ShowerPhrase works, but only when I use it, so it’s like it’s my secret weapon, and the things I come up with in the shower will be for only me and I won’t have to share them (his hands grasping the stapler again as if I were a threat to steal it from him). I reply that, Well, his PROBLEM is that he got hit with that SneakyFeeTM, and he can’t pay it. The smile goes off my manager’s face and he says, Well shit, there’s nothing we can do about a SneakyFeeTM, even I can’t waive a SneakyFeeTM, I don’t think there’s even a button for that, but wait! what if you just tell him you’re going to waive the SneakyFeeTM but that it will take a day or so to process, that way he’ll go home and he won’t shoot you! No, that won’t work ‘cause he might just call up again in a few days when he sees that the SneakyFeeTM is still there, and he’ll just come and shoot you then, or worse, what if someone better than you—like Jim, who makes that dip I like for the holiday party—what if Jim picks up that call and he ends up getting shot? No, won’t work, no point in kicking SPRING 2018
the can down the road, just go back to your seat and maybe lean back a bit so you’re harder to hit, I mean, he has to shoot through the blinds, which, by the way, you people are always whining that we have no light what with seasonal effectiveness and your cliché daydreams—tropical birds landing on the ledge, or beautiful women sunning themselves on nearby fire escapes—but now, when it’s harder to get shot because of the blinds—I’m just saying a little gratitude would not go amiss. Really, you should be fine, I mean, why are you even wasting my time with this? Break is over! So, I go back to my desk, belt myself back in, and pick the phone up. I say, Sir, I checked with my manager and unfortunately I cannot HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM. The caller starts yelling again, calling me a Fucking Cock-Fencer—though I do not know if he means to fence as in “to fight with swords, especially as a sport” (which, assuming that one could sustain an erection and that the principles of fair play could be agreed upon, does not seem like the least entertaining diversion one could undertake with their penis) or, more ominously, to fence as in “to deal in stolen goods” (in which case I would be a fencer of cocks: a merchant of stolen or otherwise free-floating dicks, an occupation which, I am forced to admit, would be worse even than my current job at this call center, a thing that prior to being called a “CockFencer” I could not have imagined). YOU SAID YOU COULD HANDLE MY PROBLEM, NO PROBLEM! He tells me that I’m lucky that Gus likes pussyass sugary coffee drinks, either because since ‘Nam he made joie de vivre a personal point of emphasis, or on account of the hypoglycemia, and that these drinks take a long time to make. But then, it comes to me! (even though no one has trained me to say this): I say, Sir, maybe I can’t HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM with the SneakyFeeTM, but if you had another PROBLEM, maybe I could HANDLE 42
that one, and then maybe I’d live up to my end of the bargain and then Gus wouldn’t have to shoot me. And this time the clock on my screen clicks a whole five seconds of silence before he comes back on the line and says, Well, you can’t put it any fairer than that! Then he just starts telling me his problems. And fuck if they aren’t all harder to handle that the Goddamn SneakyFeeTM. He tells me: I got more problems than your breakfast cereal has shitberries; my doctor tells me that if I don’t stop tying my laces I’m going to lose my foot, but if I don’t tie them I’m going to lose a shoe, and those shoes were the only thing my granddad brought back from the war, plus I had to slaughter my mule cause I’m so poor I couldn’t afford any eating-food, but the meat was so salty that I couldn’t eat it without blood pressure pills, which I’m out of for starters, and for seconds taste like the lowest grade of cat shit—like was shat from a cat that just ate its own asshole. You think I got time to be on the phone all day fighting about SneakyFeesTM with fucking dogshit-for-pomade using sons of bitches like you? I got a backyard so full of weeds I can’t even picture what Eden might have looked like, and I got a car that can only go in reverse, when I feel like I’ve lived my whole life going backward and was so hoping in retirement to move in the right direction for a change, but I can’t ask Gus to drive it for me because he gets the posttraumatics every time he has to look over his shoulder, and my dog got eaten by my other dog—which is nature—but what I can’t figure is how the smaller dog is the one who ate the bigger dog, I can’t wrap any part of my head around that and it’s making me wonder if I’m wrong about how the rest of the world works, and, you know, I could handle all of that (and the recession and the Citizens United and all of it) if you could just get my phone to work, could stop blocking all the phone SPRING 2018
call microns in midair, because even though, honestly, no one really calls me, not even Gus (who is more of a grunter than a talker really on account of what happened in ‘Nam all those years ago) I know that everyone who ever loved me must have decided to call me and change my life the exact moment that my phone got turned off for the Sneaky Fee, because isn’t that just the piss-drowning way that life works: to have everyone call you just when you can’t answer the phone? So instead of spending my day listening to people tell me that they love me, I spent my day on hold—listening to all manner of jazz that’s smoother than my shit on rapture day—just for the pleasure of talking to some duckfart-appraisal-school dropout like you who can no more remove a SneakyFeeTM than tie his own laces without getting shit in his shoes! So, mister I CAN HANDLE YOUR PROBLEM; THAT’S NO PROBLEM, can you handle any of those problems? because—praise the Lord!—Gus has found his way back up onto the roof, and was only so long in coming back because he stopped at the Walgreens for a fleece blanket (Gus, you say they were twofor-one?) two fleece blankets to lie down on so he can have the Goddamn comfort he deserves, what with his service to his nation and all, when he shoots you in the fucking head! And I’m on the other end of the call thinking, Shit! I can’t handle any of those problems. I say, Sir, despite my best hopes, I cannot HANDLE a single one of those new PROBLEMS either. And as you might expect, this triggers another burst of obscene aspersions against my truth-telling—such as, You tell more lies than . . . Fuck you!—and he tells me that even though he’s going to enjoy watching Gus shoot me more than a duck-fucker enjoys fucking ducks, he’s always going to regret not getting to slit my throat with that deli sword, and that this regret was one last lace-bowed shit-bouquet from me to 44
him—one last shovel-fucking from people like me who he groups under the larger heading of Ass-Gardeners—and there was not a PROBLEM of his on earth that I could HANDLE, not a thing I could do for him but try to die without any fine print (which, devoid of a new ShowerPhrase to save me, seems likely to happen), so really we’re back where we started, with Gus’s red dot crawling on my neck, groping for my jugular. And I feel so terribly far from the safe road of the call-script. We never did have a training session about HOW NOT TO BE AFRAID TO DIE. Which seems odd to me now because I cannot presently conceive of anything else that could possibly matter. I want to tell him the truth, and in a way he will understand: that I want to live, that I think life is cloud-rimming beautiful, that even my bobblehead is cock-arbitraging amazing—how is it STILL rocking? Rock on little friend! Don’t let anyone stifle your verve!—even if it no longer seems to be smile-rocking, and is now rocking in sobbing convulsions. And I want to tell the caller I wish I were on that roof with him and Gus, and not only so they were not aiming their gun at me, but so I could watch them love each other: a love I feel coming from across the street more surely than a whale-fucker feels the salt of the sea on his balls. I want to say all of this, but what comes out is, SIR, I CERTAINLY UNDERSTAND YOUR FRUSTRATION, because even with only a few minutes to live you still can’t stifle the synapses that fire—pop! pop! pop!—when the fuse is lit by a customer service call, and because I have been saying these things for so long that I’m not sure I can separate myself from the call-scripts I’ve been reading off. (I once called a woman I loved MA’AM during sex, and asked, after the logical conclusion of a particular intimate act, IS THERE ANYTHING SPRING 2018
ELSE I COULD DO FOR YOU? to which the answer proved to be a firm and nonnegotiable NO. And as she walked away from me for these transgressions—and countless other instances where I could not unwrap my own formality—I felt exposed, as if my whole life were being monitored by a higher power for the sole benefit of training others how not to be like me.) But the caller is not privy to my internal monologues, nor to my pitiable and potentially mitigating histories. He yells, derisively, that if I really UNDERSTOOD, then maybe I could do something for Gus—who did, after all, take a bullet for our country when I was just a shitlet in my mammy’s stink-pile. Perhaps I could be so kind as to open up the window blinds, because it was harder for Gus to get a clean shot through the slits now that he was jittering from his coffee and/or the pussy-ass accouterments he took it with, and even with the fleece blankets it was still a pretty uncomfortable roof, and the day wasn’t all that warm come to that, and then maybe we could all get on with our lives and/or deaths and then he could get off the phone and stop running through Gus’s minutes, which he felt bad about. I have to admit there is something moving about the thought of Gus—loyal Gus!—shivering on that roof, something about Gus’s glossy eyes looking through the rifle scope, Gus hoping that he can still do what he had done so well for so many years, hoping he won’t be let down by his body and that he won’t let down his friend, wanting to make the simple connection between his red dot, the only thing he really sends out into the world anymore, and another pulsing human body. And even if I could find a way to break out of my chair without any bathroom credits (there is a rumor that if you soil yourself to a sufficient degree, the chair sensors 46
automatically eject you) and managed to run away, my manager is right; they’ll be back another day. And if they don’t get me, they’ll get someone else—and Jim does make a fantastic dip, a dip better at being dip than I am at anything I’ve ever done, and that’s not melodramatic, that’s just some RealTalk re: the dizzying zest of his transcendent ranch—and even if they do kill Jim instead of me and I end that day free to walk out into the wide (albeit dipless) world, you can’t stop what’s coming. Maybe I would get hit by a bus the next week because—how did the caller put it?—isn’t that just the piss-drowning way that life works? And besides, as I look at the gray office (and I see that the gumball dispenser on the desk next to mine does not even have any fucking gumballs in it!) and I think about the caller’s last request, I realize that I’ve been working here for however long and have never even looked out of that window. Maybe there is a beautiful woman sunning herself on a fire escape, or a tropical bird on a window ledge. Maybe the bird’s feathers are so bright they will burn the gray of my ceiling bright red? Maybe the woman is an amateur dominatrix who prefers to be called MA’AM, and who is turned on by sexual favors proffered in the parlance of scripted customer service? Oh, how I would delicately and respectfully handle each of her problems to the best of my abilities! Or, even if my manager’s right and these are all the cliché daydreams of a man who will never come up with his own ShowerPhrase—there are no women on fire escapes, probably no fire escapes come to that, nothing to save us from the flames, and no tropical birds that haven’t been scarfed down by the pigeons like they were rotting mule meat, or maybe the birds are eating the fire escape women, eating them one after another rapid-fire, like the phones that keep ring-ring-ringing . . . It would be so nice to lean SPRING 2018
out of the window and feel the cold air on my (finally) phone-free ears. It would be so nice to listen to the waves of wind crash against the brick of the building: sounds that ask no questions and expect no answers. I lean toward the window and open the blinds; the long, clearplastic rod spins in my hand like a music box ballerina as I twist it. The thin metal strips crinkle, followed by the loud crack of a bullet shattering the glass. The air coming through the window is wonderfully cold. Papers fly off desks in its wakeâ€”Oh! If the gods of man and customer service are telling the truth, and my life has been monitored for quality or training, then I hope they are listening now, and I hope they donâ€™t bring me back as a man; I would prefer to spend the next life as a stiff gust of wind. The bullet misses me but hits my bobblehead; the top of its porcelain head explodes in a cloud of chalklike dust. Its chin is still intact, though, and it nods at me furiously on its springy neck. I ask it if everything is going to be ok.
Storm ROY KESEY
She fitted the skis to his wheelchair and cinched them tight. He moaned, and she snugged his hat, tucked another blanket around him. Then she pulled on her ice cleats, and pushed him out onto the frozen lake. In places the ice beneath them was almost transparent. His hands twitched against the armrests. The gray stream in the sky grew wider and darker as it neared, and now it poured down toward them. It was gulls, thousands of them, landing at the center of the lake. They crooned and cackled and cried. She pushed him closer, and the near edge of the flock lifted from the ice. Closer still, beneath the flock as it rippled back into the sky, and it circled them, faster and faster, a storm, and he was its eye.
from A Book of First Sentences: TEXUAL BROW LAYNIE BROWNE He invited me over for dinner, with sirens and interruptions. The windows were weak and loud. We all wore the same book covers on our sleeves and read each otherâ€™s faces covered in type. Or to be clear, what I mean is, text erupted all over our bodies. Ever since the election. There was nothing we could do about this so instead of making conversation we read to each other from our faces, and oddly enough we were always surprised at what our faces revealed. We had not only no control of the text appearing on our bodies (undressing for bed could be an adventure) but also the text on us was not necessarily characteristic of anything we might have said or written. So our friends or acquaintances and especially our intimates couldnâ€™t help but to take it personally. The words would come and go and we felt no sensation, so we only knew exactly when it was happening by the way others looked at us. The text appearing sometimes reflected the weather with expletives, or the political climate (revolting, hideous, depressing) or internal frustrations (slighted again). When meeting new people, and on first dates things were particularly confusing. I observed a couple; one kept saying to the other: What am I saying now? Shall I paint a portrait of your head? A face expands and fingers fly. I lament the fact that any onlooker might be disappointed by the text on my brow. If you read every other word and interlace the text within the words (I mean the persons) sitting next to you, you might feel better. That is to say sometimes I noticed that if I deliberately sat 50
next to someone the language erupting on their body began to correspond with the language on mine. And this could distract us from the initial conversation we had tried to begin. The language on our bodies might be irrelevant or rude or deliberately resistant to what we wanted to say, until it seemed that we were running or speaking up a precipitous mountain, until we were drained of breath or impetus, until all of our clashing dueling language had decided who we were, until we were rendered speechless, distraught and powerless and yet I also knew that language contained the possibility to do the opposite, to revert to wholeness, to reveal, to protect, and to coincide with our essential selves.
from A Book of First Sentences: eNJAMBMENT Two women looking at the water and plummeting. Pummeled by the time of life often called blindways. The middle constantly misled the light falling away after drenching their features earlier in the afternoon. They paid the light no attention until it began to depart, darkening, first turning the waters pink and later thick. They dared not drink the mixture of crenelated blue. They dared not even to think about hypothermia. Summer is two women examining previous seasons. Beckoning spaciousness as if it were still a child. Not only would the light not come, they had momentarily lost the language one uses to speak to light on water. Their language was lost in enjambment: mother, daughter, sister, sphere.
from A Book of First Sentences: INK
She thought she was the date but wasnâ€™t sure. The ink was deep blue and startled her, as it flew from the pen. Her head turned in a particular direction in response to an external stimulus. The words fit in between tiny rows of dots, barely visible. She wrote particulars of each day as a remedy to the days bleeding, one into the next. This morning was velvet antlers, through the waxberries and brambles. Then a mouth, dark bottom lip lined in fur and the large wet nostrils. The face of the deer turned toward her. And the tops of the waxberries shook. A crow was a crow, and said so. A ferry trotted by, a person, another deer. And a cough, placid, on legs. The legged-water was calm. She studied the wooden floors, pretending nothing. A young girl no longer a girl with asymmetrical hair turning toward or away from wanting to meet the name of a tall two-legged male who had only time to his forelock. Instead the velvet antlers and the trim brown back moved toward her, and then another, with dark tail flashing white as it moved. She examined her page wonderingâ€”where does it lead? Did others have this need to be always generating whim or worry rambling? She thought about sitting still and the eyes of the deer turned again. The deer were thick about her ears. Between her toes. What is a Sunday? A Sunday is a type of mash, a mixture of sudden weariness and wide open waters. Words bathed in velvet. A Sunday is to be eaten blandly, on a rock, with birdcalls and green grammars edged in tall grasses. Nodding heads tipping over. Sunday ignored her. The mouths eating ignored her. The antlers ignored her, having their own inks to tend. 53
NONFICTION SHAWN WEN PRIZE JUDGE
Foreign Body KATE FINEGAN
NONFICTION CONTEST WINNER
I will trust my memory in this—how my foot (eight or nine years old, calloused from a barefoot summer) accommodated the thin, silver nail; how the skin encircling the small post, rimmed in pink, stretched around it like a mouth, puckered, as I pulled the metal from my flesh. Summer. So I spent my days reading or running free on the farm where my mother was raised, where her mother raised her—my grandma who, days before her death, when she couldn’t get a breath of air, asked that an ambulance be called, specified that the sirens remain silent, the flashing lights dark, dead. She wouldn’t want to make a fuss, not at night, not in town. When my mom nudged me awake on July Fourth, the summer of my fifteenth year, to tell me my dog had died, I thanked her for telling me and pulled the covers to my chin. A friend was on my floor, sleeping over. When we awoke, we watched TV, stayed in my room. I opened the door, went to the bathroom, watched from the window as my mom and dad lowered Lucky’s body into the ground. I wanted to run out and pet his ears one more time, but I didn’t. When it rained, I thought of his wet body. That’s when I told my friend, and only then, and only because I didn’t want her to find out at the breakfast table, in the company of others. When a bat swooped near my sleeping face, twenty-two years old, I awoke to see it dancing with the fan blades. I didn’t shriek. I swallowed, nudged my partner awake. I climbed out of bed, emptied a box (it was our first night in the place), and waited for the bat 55
to land on the wall. Trapped it beneath the box and slid it to the window, thankful our landlord had not yet installed a screen. It slipped into the night, nearly fell, then righted itself and soared up. I went back to bed, silent, and heard my cats’ breaths slow as they recovered from the excitement, the hunger, the chase. Mine is a panic of sweaty palms, quiet. The panic of a free diver, caught in a cave and so many pounds of pressure ready to flood the lungs, ears already bursting. When I asked a man for directions in Amsterdam, eighteen, on my own, and jet-lagged, and he said he’d show me a good time, I released a sip of air, then pinched my lips shut to save my lungs. When he asked where I was staying, I laughed like it was all a joke, this drowning; marveling to see my precious air turn to so many unwanted, wasted bubbles, floating up and away, out of my reach. Drowning doesn’t look like drowning. The lungs don’t have enough air to scream. Finding my pocket of air was a silent matter, a quiet gulp. The man paused, turned from the road to pee on the sidewalk, and I escaped down a side street, didn’t start running until my mind finished its mental math to determine, no, he won’t hear my footfalls. No, he won’t hear my burning breaths. No, he won’t hear. No, he won’t. So many animals give birth in relative silence. For a story, I bingewatched videos of sheep laboring lambs into the screaming world. I watched their quiet, as farmers slid hands into their slick, warm bodies—magenta, ready, that breach punctuated by a single bleat, maybe two. And when the lamb slid out, after beat after silent beat hung heavy with waiting, the sheep’s body stretched around its young, like lips around a straw, new life born and borne from that pliable skin, molding itself to a new presence, then an absence. When my grandma died, I didn’t sob in the silence after her final 56
breath left her lips ajar, a door waiting for someone, something to enter—another gasp, then another, then another, but they didn’t come. The room was open, empty. In her life, she would never call my mom, too afraid she’d interrupt something important, and my mom now does the same to me, reluctant to impose her sounds upon my silence. My grandma’s yard was dark, and the moon was so bright, if someone had been watching, studying, they’d have seen my pupils contract as the sun’s reflection flooded them with light just before salt tears drowned them. I didn’t sob until I saw the moon that night. Not a moment sooner. Not till then. That night—fourteen, fifteen years earlier—at the house where my grandma raised my mom who raised me, I stepped from the dining room to the kitchen and felt my skin part, open for the nail my foot had found—synesthesia, even now I could swear I heard a sound like a balloon being carefully punctured—not popped, but the sound of taut skin’s small release. The house was full of people, but the kitchen was not. I hobbled on the side of my foot, maybe hopped, to the bathroom. I locked the door, double-checked the lock, sat down on the toilet, and crossed my ankle over my knee. I remember holding my breath as I pulled the nail free, how the skin was like a fish mouth, sucking in air. I wrapped the nail in toilet paper and buried it deep in the trash can, under tissues and tampons, deep so no one could find it. I didn’t want to be found out. Not ever. I didn’t want to be asked about my wound, to uncover it, to give it voice, or breath, or air. I cared for the nail, hid the foreign body like a corpse, then tended to the perfect hole in my foot. I disinfected it and kept a constant refrain whispering in my head for days—don’t limp, don’t limp, don’t limp. Run, jump, play. Smile, don’t grimace. Learn what to show, and what to hide—the scar that’s still there, hidden on the sole. SPRING 2018
Hearts and Minds NOLAN CAPPS
NONFICTION CONTEST RUNNER-UP
The boredom of deployment was real. In September, when I arrived at Panda Ridge, every moment promised exquisite danger. At least once a week, our patrols would be punctuated with the delivery of that promise—bullets lethally hissing, unexpected and unceremonious explosions, screams and horror. Sleep, my cheap vacation, was tainted by the buzzing flies that clouded the air. I would feel them in my dreams, wiry legs tickling my lips and cheek until I awoke sweating in my cot to a life that couldn’t really be mine. Now it was December, the flies had died, and the crack of enemy rifles had gone silent. Unstimulated, I lived meal-to-meal and sleepto-sleep as I counted the frigid, identical days. My squad prepared for a patrol through the nearby village of Chorga, but my mind was preoccupied by near desperation for intoxication, for an escape from the drab, mud-colored abyss that extended forever around me. For a moment, my eyes were blind to the valley beyond the razor wire where Chorga lay. My shoulders were numb to the ponderous weight of my flak vest, and Sergeant Perot’s patrol brief was an indecipherable drone. It was perhaps my fiftieth patrol, and I could have given the brief myself: we’ll depart from the east entrance, taking the pitted dirt road between the mosque and the graveyard into town. We’ll tour the outskirts of the village, observe for any unusual activity, and take a secure position in the square on the southern side of Chorga. There, while the rest of the squad keeps a lookout, our 58
squad leader, Sergeant Perot, will meet with one of the village elders to discuss the construction of a new well for the villagers. Our company commander hoped the promise of new infrastructure would help us win the hearts and minds of the locals. I was ignorant of the larger scope of my country’s mission in Afghanistan, but I knew my own mission during the patrol would be to find someone in town who could supply me with some hashish. I had a deck of cards for trade, which was a much less common commodity than a chunk of hash. It should have been an easy endeavor, but my previous attempts had come up short, foiled by my own lack of knowledge of Pashto, and a lack of trust between the average villager and the average Marine. Fortunately, I was not the average Marine, and I was determined to break down any and all cultural barriers if doing so would allow me to catch a buzz. I led the patrol down the steep dirt path from Panda to the pockmarked floor of the valley a quarter-mile away. I was the point man, or the sweeper. My job in the patrol was to choose the path for the rest of us to take. If I saw signs of IEDs, such as disturbed dirt, or a suspicious pile of rocks, or if the metal detector I carried made a strong beep, I would investigate. The investigation process was called “probing.” It involved the sweeper lying on his belly and gently brushing dirt from the suspected IED, trying to reveal its buried components without making the device explode. When I assumed the duties of sweeper, I was terrified with every step I took, and I investigated with great caution every whisper the metal detector made and every strange spot on every path. That phase quickly passed. Like many dangers of war, the personal risk I took to find a safe route for the rest of my patrol SPRING 2018
became mundane. After surviving several forays as a sweeper, I instinctually followed fresh animal tracks and goat trails through the valley whenever I could, and I strove to avoid, rather than investigate, possible IEDs. In two months as a sweeper, I hadn’t unearthed a single explosive device, an achievement I credited more to my incredible good luck than to my observation of hoofprints and stool. “Hey!” Called the second man in our patrol, Lance Corporal Greene. “Don’t you think you should check this spot out?” I turned back, bitter at the second-guessing of my admittedly questionable sweeping philosophy. Greene pointed self-righteously to a dark spot of dirt five feet away from him. I backtracked to Greene’s position while the rest of the patrol took a knee and surveyed the rim of the surrounding valley for threats. I was positive from the first glance that this spot Greene had indicated was not an IED. It looked like the darkened remnants of a fire, a soot-colored black circle. I passed my metal detector over it, and there was silence. I dragged the edge of my canvas combat boot over the dark circle and found packed dirt. I looked back at Greene, muttered “Nothing here,” and then began passive-aggressively beating the ground with a fist-sized rock to prove to the patrol that there was, in fact, no IED concealed in Greene’s suspicious spot. We pressed on, and in another 200 meters we arrived at a narrow gravel section of road between Chorga’s first building and a crude graveyard. The building was a mud-brick mosque, nearly twenty feet high, with an open roof and ragged, brightly colored flags lining the top of the outer wall. The entrance lay within the village’s first alley, recessed into the mud and covered with an ornate limegreen door. The file of Marines followed me past the door and into Chorga’s heart. 60
It was becoming unseasonably warm this afternoon, and the villagers were out milling through the sunbeams that snuck into the alley ahead. I felt a sensation almost like hope. “Salaam Alaikum,” I called to an old man in a flowing white dress. “Walaikum-Salaam,” he responded cheerfully. A pack of children darted toward us to shake us down for candy. “Chocolate my give!” They screeched, and “Biscuit, biscuit— Chocolate maata raka.” “Nesta, nesta,” I responded. I don’t have any. One of the Marines in the middle of the patrol gave out a few pieces of gum and some of the bigger boys began to brawl for it, throwing dust from the dry streets into the air. We rounded the back of Chorga, past a small store boasting some shriveled produce and a few cartons of Korean cigarettes. A thin green stream coursed through the middle of the valley a half a mile away and threw up a glint of light at my face. After an hour of uneventful walking, we reached the small courtyard—Chorga’s town square, where some of the richest men in the village lived. One end of the courtyard was open to a few irrigated fields where the village ended, and mud compounds, as big as mosques, formed two other sides. I knew if I stayed with Perot and Shawn, I might get invited into one of the elders’ homes for chai and biscuits, but I needed privacy for my objective, and posted up at the far side of the square, keeping watch down an alley out of my squad leader’s sight. The patrol formed a perimeter around the courtyard while Perot and Shawn found an elder to pester. I was in the corner closest to Panda Ridge, the ominous American outpost which loomed only a half a mile away from our patrol’s current position. We were mostly spread apart with a hundred feet or so between each Marine. I was SPRING 2018
out of earshot, and I attempted conversation with a young villager I recognized. “Amin-Allah, A salaam alaikum.” Amin-Allah, a fair-skinned Afghani boy of about twelve, rattled off some Pashto I didn’t understand, then some that I did. “Cigarette, maata raka.” It sounded like an order, but his pleading eyes turned it into a question. I dug a pack of Japanese 7-Stars out of the shoulder pocket of my cammies and produced one for each of us. “Hashish, Amin-Allah?” I questioned between drags of stale smoke. He rapidly muttered back at me and laughed. He motioned for a lighter and I gave it to him. “I’m not joking, dude!” I protested as the boy flicked the lighter and took a drag daintily, like a girl. “Hashish maata raka,” I ordered again, exhausting all the Pashto I knew. We smoked together for a while and I tried, unsuccessfully, to get Amin-Allah to sneak into his dad’s room and steal me some hash. “I know he’s got some!” I yelled at the boy’s back as he left me and threw the butt of his cigarette into the dirt. I turned back down the alley, where nearby a few older men were lounging in a buttery square of sunlight. They were strangers, but I decided to see if they could help my cause. I approached them with a wave and pulled out the deck of cards. The men’s eyes lit up when they saw the deck, and like the earlier children with the candy, a chorus of adults insisted, “Maata raka—” as they pawed at me. “No!” I said emphatically as I put the cards away and drew back. “You maata raka ME some hashish, and I’ll maata raka you the cards.” As we argued, a middle-aged, well-fed man with a thick, greasy beard and an olive turban passed through the alley toward the square. He drew near cautiously and cocked his head. “Shish?” He whispered slyly from the opposite wall. 62
“Wo, wo!” Yes, yes! I exclaimed, “Wo, hashish maata raka.” I produced the cards again and signaled that I would trade them for some hashish. “Hashish!” The man said again as he drew close to me. He became animated. “Abdul Matil, Abdul Matil!” He announced as he pointed at his broad chest. “I’m Nolan,” I responded. He put together a string of guttural syllables, and the meaning I deciphered was I can get you some hash! “Take,” I gave him the cards with the assumption that Abdul Matil already had some drugs on his person. “Abdul Matil, Abdul Matil,” he answered me, nodding. The cards disappeared into a fold in Abdul’s dress and he attempted to conspire with me. I understood nothing. Then, the man began drawing on his hand with his finger, making invisible designs. “You want a pen, dude? A Kalaam?” He shook his head again and made the mysterious symbols on his palm. It looked like numbers. I wondered if he was asking me for money, and I remembered I had been carrying around a fivedollar American bill in my wallet for months. Something told me that I could trust Abdul Matil. I still couldn’t understand what he was asking, but I felt compelled to pull out that bill and press it into Abdul’s hand. “Hashish maata raka.” Abdul Matil unfolded the American money and his eyes popped. Five American bucks are worth quite a bit in Afghanistan, about as much as a female goat. My new friend nearly jumped up and down at the receipt of such a sum. “Abdul Matil, Abdul Matil!” he reminded me as he glowed with excitement and vanished down the alley. SPRING 2018
“Capps, we’re RTB,” the distant Greene announced from the center of the courtyard. A week later, on a routine security patrol around Chorga, I saw Abdul Matil again. I was taking the squad through a trash-speckled alley and ignoring the numerous beeps from the metal detector. Abdul, from within a doorway to a mud compound, saw me pass and materialized by my side. “Abdul Matil, Abdul Matil!” he whispered as he jerked at my sleeve. He walked with me and held out his left hand in front of us. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of his appearance or his sudden gesture. Then I looked at his hand. Abdul was holding a slab of tan hashish so big it nearly covered his palm. Unbelievably, my new friend had come through, and he was ready to pass me more hash than I had ever, or would ever, see in my life. In America, the slab would have been worth over a hundred bucks. I tried to process my disbelief that, not only was I getting this much hash for five dollars and a deck of cards, but Abdul Matil certainly made a profit from the sale. I came to my senses and snuck a quick glance over my shoulder. Greene was about thirty feet behind me, diligently scanning the roofs and windows of the buildings we passed. I snatched the hash from Abdul, slipped it into a pouch on my tool belt, and vigorously shook the man’s hand. “Thank you so much!” I whispered, forgetting my meager Pashto in the excitement of the moment. The euphoria of breaking the rules and not getting caught was nearly as strong and satisfying as the intoxicating smoke of hashish itself. My head reeled, I clapped Abdul on the back like an old friend, and realized I was now part of an elite club, a club more exclusive than Marines or even combat 64
veterans. I was now a servicemember who had bought drugs on patrol. What brave and reckless individuals had gone before me? â€œAbdul Matil!â€? He reminded me as he departed back to his home, and I gave the man some grateful parting words. The patrol continued as before, while I reflected on my magnanimous contribution to the local economy. Despite my self-satisfaction, I had the presence of mind to know that if we didnâ€™t make it back to Panda safely, my victory was meaningless, and I became vigilant as we returned up the ridge to take the southern entrance into our outpost. I lacked the patience to wait for an opportune moment to smoke some of my dope. I knew the hash smoke would be pungent; I would have to go to the outskirts of Panda Ridge under cover of darkness to keep from being seen or smelt by Gunnery Sergeant Ross, the post commander. Instead, after our safe return, I broke off a chunk of the pliable slab about as big as a pea and ate it. The oily hash stuck to my teeth, and the taste was like honey and flowers with a bitter, herbal undertone. I stashed the rest of the slab in an empty cigarette pack, which I further concealed inside one of the sandbags that formed the almost-bulletproof wall of my hooch. When the time was right, I would share the stash with my buddies, at least the ones I could trust. But I knew that dinner, where my squad regrouped after the patrol, was not the right time. After dinner, Shawn, Blalock, Brooks, and I made a small fire in an ammo can, put on some tunes, and started killing time until our night watches. As the night fell and the orange glow of our fire grew fierce and reckless, I started to notice the effects of the drugs. The first sign was a rare sensation of peace and contentment. I had no interest in our usual games of blowing up batteries or seeing who could pull the most hot rocks out of the fire. The music SPRING 2018
stirred me, and for the first time in weeks I felt emotions other than frustration. I spit hard, visceral laughs at my peers’ jokes, and a pleasant, glorious heaviness and energy thrummed through my body. I relaxed totally, gazing into the fire’s heart as I whittled a brittle gray stick into a spear. “Kops, can I borrow your knife?” Shawn asked. The interpreter spoke excellent English but struggled to pronounce my last name. I closed the blade and passed it to him, and he sliced open a beige package of MRE noodles. I noticed him close it again before he returned it to me. “Thanks. You know, in America,” I mused, “We think it’s bad luck to give somebody his knife back without closing it first.” “In Afghanistan also,” Shawn said, and I felt satisfied by the shared superstition. While I lost my train of thought, a shadowy man in an olive green turban approached our south post with a warning. The wind buried the sound of his footsteps in a cosmic yawn, and a shooting star burned for an instant across the endless night.
The Gift LESLEY JENIKE
“Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.” —Ophelia, Hamlet I once met a man who was a doctor in the Vietnam War, and I don’t mean my father who was also a doctor in the Vietnam War. This man—the man I mean—is a poet. Since he came home from that other country, decades ago, this man has spent the bulk of his time working as a doctor and not talking about the war at all. Then the war showed up suddenly in a story he wrote about fly fishing. It was unexpected, he says. But necessary. Now he helps vets recover physically and through language too, so I suppose I mean intellectually and emotionally. He told me some get better, and some don’t. I told the man about myself, my daughter, my husband. I told him about my father—how he can only really talk about the war over bourbon, disguising his stories as jokes. We walked together across a bucolic liberal arts campus in June, and I was pretty sure he was teaching me something. “Yeah,” he said. “Everyone has their particular way of moving on.”
The next day, the man brought to class a long prose poem with my name and my daughter’s name in it. He read it aloud. In the poem, I was the mother character and my daughter was the daughter character, and in the poem, I pass down an heirloom jewelry box from my great-grandmother to my daughter who is six. When the oldest daughter in the family turns six—so the story goes—the jewelry box is passed along to her—a small, pewter box with a hinged lid and a painted bird on the top, so on her sixth birthday, I say to my daughter ceremoniously, “This is yours now. Put in it whatever you want, and it’ll be your secret to keep.” And my daughter says, “What should I put in it?” The character who is me tells her, “You’ll know when you know.” Time in folk tales is odd, like mother-time. It speeds up or slows down illogically, suddenly. It talks in riddles. Weeks go by and one day in summer, I ask my daughter if she’s found a use for the box yet. “No,” she says. In the summer, mother-time is so sluggish it practically solidifies— but I mean mother-time of a certain kind. For other mothers, water doesn’t harden and never slows. The amber they make won’t show the magnitude of their work for millennia. Summer becomes fall and my daughter goes to school. But in real life, my daughter is still a toddler.
In the fall, mother-time speeds up a little. I start back to teaching and I become necessarily distracted. We hurry toward the holidays, starting with Halloween—the one my daughter likes best. I liked it too—not for dressing up as someone else, but for the deification of my favorite things: cats, pumpkins, owls. This is the owl-time of year, the time of dappled radiance, mutation and maturation, variety and harvest, the time when Keats was born, Washington Irving-time, and the time in Richard Scarry’s children’s books when his illustrated worlds for word-learning turn russet and gold, and his little animals are at farm stands buying corn to eat while standing outside under really busy clouds, and I remember carrying lots of books in a bag too big for my body at a time in my life when I had the suspicion someone else owned me, and I smelled meat cured and hanging in smokehouses and had an ancient, time-bending moment when all the little souls crept down from their trees, as in that Louise Glück poem, All Hallows, my most-loved reckoning with how we come to be an I in the first place. The character who is me is cleaning my daughter’s room one day in September and accidently knocks the jewelry box off its shelf. I hear something rattle and sigh and it takes all my willpower not to look inside. Whatever is in the box sounds indescribably fragile, as though “if I shook the box too hard, what was inside might break.” I realize, however, that it’s my daughter’s secret, so I put it back on the shelf. SPRING 2018
More time goes by. It’s November now. I’m walking past my daughter’s bedroom and I hear singing. This isn’t unusual. My daughter—the real one—sings constantly. For the lyric I, however, the singing must have been significant, so I stop and open the door a crack—just enough to peek in and see her kneeling on her bedside toy box, elbows on the sill, casement open, singing out into the dark, into the big fir tree outside her window, “Who cooks for you? Who? Who? Who cooks for you?” Then I hear a voice call back, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” The owl is a decahedron for love as in, love has many faces, and love can turn its faces fully around. Memes on the internet show us owls seen lately floating on a little piece of ice in the midst of many little pieces of ice on a rolling sea, or rescued from a highway and wrapped in a towel with blood pooling in one yellow eye. The owl professes to the other forest creatures, is old and venerable, was never a chick, has a library as replete as Alexandria’s stuffed inside an oak, knows the stars, hunts reluctantly or never hunts, does not accept the notion there is no scheme, only reactions triggered by madness, or that she is part and parcel of the lack, or reacts to madness as the schema dictates, or that she is implicated in your death, or mine. She is only an owl, though people talk—as they will—and say she was something altogether different: A baker’s daughter, for example. 70
Let the emphasis rest on was. What she is now is the owl. But what she was meant early morning wake-ups, yeast rising, the act of shoveling dough into an oven to let heat and time do their trick— that is, if she even did these things at all. More likely, she went to school and her dad went to work and sometimes after class she’d help out in his shop, doing her homework back behind the counter, called out once in a while to be shown off. This is a scenario from another time not so long ago, but long enough to seem quaint and contrived. The owl is a significant piece of the dream, and she is a baker’s daughter and the baker owns her dream. “This is the barrenness / of harvest or pestilence,” says Glück of her “assembling” landscape in which on stolen land a pastoralist makes his claim and his wife loses hers again, is left to make a fairytale bargain “with her hand extended, as in payment / and the seeds / distinct, gold, calling / Come here / Come here, little one…” What perches in a tree if not a bird, and what’s more like a soul? Keats wrote, “I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that school—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook.” The hornbook was a wooden paddle on which was written the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer in vellum or paper, covered over with a layer of bone or horn, then attached to a child’s belt. Imagine a six-year old chained to the mechanics of her language and religion, weighed down by it, carrying it wherever she goes. Imagine her clambering atop a wooden bench to look out a window, calling SPRING 2018
out in human words to the presymbolic, the way the farmer’s wife leans out the window, calling “Come here / Come here, little one” to the unborn in its schoolhouse of the tree, that owl. What is a soul and where does it roost? Keats was a doctor too. We tend to forget that. I’ve heard doctors described as flesh mechanics, as real in a way I am not, since I work on words. Doctors can bring patients back from the dead as easily as they can kill them. They are learned. They are wise. They are God, are gods, though modern medical schools lately try to disabuse their students of this particular disease of the mind; my father caught the fever early on, however, and it burned in him from the beginning. The character I am in the story tries to shut the bedroom door quietly, but my daughter hears me, and turns away from the window. “Mommy!” she says, “Mommy, I have to tell you that I know now. I’ve known since right after school started!” Long ago a large horned owl came to roost in a farmer’s barn because she was tired of the other birds pecking at her and treating her like the enemy she obviously was. She found a spot in the loft’s rafters and settled in for the night. Then, news got around town a monster was in Farmer So-and-so’s barn, and all the bravest men lined up to yank her from her perch and run her straight through with a pitchfork, maybe hang her with a noose. One after the other they strode into the barn, only to grow frightened, calling her enormous, 72
ominous, a fiend, but she was only an owl, and still they ran away, screaming. Finally, a man proposed they pay the farmer for his store of hay and grain and burn the whole barn to the ground with the owl inside it. So that’s what they did, and “let anyone who will not believe it, go thither and inquire for himself.” Prior work has shown a relationship between parents’ beliefs and children’s macro-evolutionary concepts (Evans, 2000, 2001). Therefore, we conducted a set of correlational analyses to evaluate whether parents’ religious beliefs and practices and evolution acceptance had any relation to children’s variation judgments across Studies 1 and 2. We expected that parents’ stronger religious commitments might relate to increased essentialist responding among their children, whereas stronger evolution acceptance might relate to decreased essentialist responding. —Natalie A. Emmons and Deborah A. Kelemen, “Young Children’s Acceptance of Within-species Variation: Implications for Essentialism and Teaching Evolution” Jesus walks into a bakery. (Lord, this sounds like a joke.) Jesus walks into a bakery. It’s one of those rustic places—all local ingredients, employing an “ancient method of fermentation,” and a stone hearth, for a harsh, carbon-black crust. It’s the kind of bread that tastes like the Bible and people go nuts for it. The bakery is in a non-descript, low-lying building with a corrugated roof in a trendy neighborhood’s industrial zone, only open until noon. Jesus walks in at 11:50. SPRING 2018
“I had a little trouble finding the place,” He says by way of excuse. “What can I do for you?” the baker asks. He’s young(ish) with a carefully curated, nineteenth-century moustache. “I have no money,” says Jesus, “and I’m hungry. Can you spare some bread?” The baker, who is sensitive to need, who has been groomed in empathy thanks to his Psychology degree (with a minor in Art History), who impregnated his girlfriend early but never regretted it, climbed Machu Picchu and napped in the sun below St. Francis’ crypt, who happily wept at the opening bars of Debussey’s “la Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin,” who cut the cord on his cable and never looked back, looked into Jesus’ great big sad yellow eyes and said, “Of course, man!” He reaches into a pile of country sours and pulls out a plump, warm loaf. His daughter, fourteen years old and an avid tree climber, a real rooster, already better at saving money than her parents, and skeptical, emerges from behind an “Employees Only” door with a scowl on her face. “Dad,” she says, “you’re not seriously going to give away your bread for free? That’s not a good business model.” The baker laughs nervously, shrugs at Jesus like, Hey, what can I say? She’s a spitfire.
Jesus is stoic, unamused, and starving. “Honey,” the baker says, “it’s ok.” “No, it’s not.” The baker’s daughter feels certain she’s in the right, that she’s protecting her dad from financial ruin, that her body is the most beautiful of all bodies, her hair the color of linseed, and when she runs she makes no sound—her wings are that soft. And when she climbs the flayed-skin sycamore at night she can see faraway into the dark, and so the baker’s daughter sees crested cow wheat, autumn squill the lapwing and swift and little egret, the willow and shrill carder bee. She sees the Dark-bellied Brent goose overhead, the skipper butterfly, emerald moth, the rush, drooping red water avens by the bank, the squirrel, the swan, the musk mallow in her folded apron, hears the hare’s rush at dusk to bolt the little owl, the lick of water on her leg, a mirror carp leaping from, falling back, the splash it made. Nearer the gazebo, just in the cattails there—a rowboat rocks from small wind, that doll, the grosgrain ribbon, hawks on branches, smell of blood somewhere, the moon at first quarter, her tea set, a portrait on a chain, dove wings burst SPRING 2018
from a thicket, a sigh, a slap, her black hem, God’s torn jacket, the song, grass, fox, ask, when, ring, racket, walking into water with stones in her pocket. Yes the Lord said yes, my darling, come the sky the sky the sky
has another side. Turn it over like a stone and see. And before she knew it, the Baker’s Daughter was an owl again, perched in a burning barn on another man’s property. Preliminary analyses revealed no differences in parental responses on self-reported measures between Studies 1 and 2 or by age group. Nevertheless, we controlled for any potential effects of study version given that 7- and 8-year-olds performed differently in the two studies. Partial correlations revealed that 5and 6-year-olds were less likely to accept variation if their parents 76
reported greater religiosity, more strongly believed in God, and more strongly endorsed that God created all biological organisms (rs P .372, ps 6 .05). Those whose parents more strongly endorsed that evolution explains the origins of all biological organisms were more likely to accept variation (Emmons and Kellemen). My father went to art school for a little while after high school, would draw my mother love comics, then eventually cast art aside for medicine. In the war, he says, he treated lots of communicable diseases, but saw few combat wounds—probably because of his station in Saigon. In any case, a war was on. To get his mail without having to salute every officer he came across, he’d duck under his hat and run to the post office, was in thrall to an older doc who shirked all decorum and would stamp check-marks on his patients’ foreheads to show the higher-ups he was doing his job. Years and years have gone by and my father suddenly finds himself in a room full of older men busily scribbling in journals, crying in a group therapy session, writing an essay about his life he titles “Serendipity,” and the war is on again, only it isn’t fly fishing that gets him there, but tennis and his estranged-but-mostly-okay family. Keats studied medicine then cast medicine aside for verse. Of Keats, his teacher Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “His last operation consisted in opening a temporal artery; he was entirely successful in it, but the success appeared to him like a miracle, the recurrence of which was not to be reckoned on.” It’s said during operations Keats would watch motes and insects and sparkling scintilla in beams of sunlight streaming through the window, and lose himself SPRING 2018
inside his own thoughts, emerging only after poetry: I must be near the middle of my story. O may no wintry season, bare and hoary, See it half finish’d: but let Autumn bold, With universal tinge of sober gold, Be all about me when I make an end. The vet—who is not my father—who wrote the story about me and my daughter, said of his job as an army surgeon, My job as a diener required, among other skills, the ability to remove an intact brain from the skull of the dead patient without making it impossible for an undertaker to restore some version of normality. In fact, with my medic, the process started rather nonchalantly, and when I realized I was singing Beach Boy songs, a terrible wave of guilt came over me. For extra cash in medical school, the man who is not my father, “prepared 50 corpses for autopsy,” while the man who is my father drove a delivery van for a laundry service and came home from class smelling like dead fish, with guts on his tie. Keats worked at an apothecary, mixing tinctures, clinking small brown bottles together, “turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.” In the poem my daughter tells me, “I know now!” I ask her, “What do you know?” She pulls the jewelry box off her shelf and opens it. Whatever is in 78
it is small and dark; I can barely see inside. “Little bones and fur and wings,” she says, “all together in stones my teacher says come from an owl’s belly.” She says, “I’ve been walking along the fence under the fir tree where the owl calls, ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all!’ and I found them there. They’re made up of mouse tails and claws and little skulls— I was going to wait until I had enough stones to fill my box, then I want to ask if you could help me bury them somewhere away from people and where dogs won’t dig them up, where nothing wild will ever eat them again. Will you help me do that, Mommy? Will you?” Turn the stone over and see. In a storybook I bought for my daughter, an owl teaches the forest creatures’ children—the kit, the cub, the mouseling, the chick—but is overworked, exhausted, and needs a vacation. “Go ahead, fly off somewhere and get some rest,” says the magpie, “and I’ll take over their education.” So, the owl agrees and flies off to perch in a hollow tree in a distant part of the forest. He gets some good rest, spends the day puttering around his rented room, and at night he emerges to hunt on his silent wings. After a few days of this, the owl feels restless. He misses the children. He misses his job as a teacher. SPRING 2018
Meanwhile, the magpie shows the children how to make a magpie’s nest, though many of them are not birds at all. Instead of the usual ABCs and 123s to be recited from their hanging hornbooks, the children use their claws and beaks and teeth to sculpt a thing they won’t use but find beauty and satisfaction in all the same. Of the book, The Owl Goes on Holiday, a woman in her Goodreads review writes, “Cute story. Why do stories always have the owls as teachers?” My dad would come home from work and my mom would ask him how his day was. “Saved some lives,” he’d say, then he’d proceed to tell us about the lives he couldn’t save. Heart attacks. Stints. Pacemakers. It was like he was going over it all again, considering possible miscalculations, controlling for biological progressions beyond his control, talking himself out of remorse or despair, and we were forced to listen. Later, for escape, he’d fall asleep to episodes of M.A.S.H. or finish another crime novel, then start a new one. Does the I live in the heart? Keats, who saw actual hearts, who dissected and diagramed them, who reached into chests and plucked them out like berries off a vine, thought the heart was a hornbook, on which is written in velum, lacquered over with bone, the raw intelligence; something else was needed for the I to be made—a teacher, maybe, who could translate the heart. In ancient Greece, an owl accompanied Athena who in turn 80
accompanied troops to war. If an owl was seen by a solider before battle, victory was imminent. Centuries later, someone decided the owl was evil, by which I think I mean, learning can be dangerous. But the owl, in and of itself, knows what it knows, and that is all. After he finished reading the story, the doctor/poet/war veteran folded his hands on the seminar table, kept his eyes down. I sat in shock. There was some silence, then the class began to talk. “This poem doesn’t want to be a poem. I think it wants to be a story,” someone said. “Too much exposition, not enough descriptive language,” said someone else. “You’re probably right,” the man who is not my father said, “It’s a story. I just didn’t realize. You can have it,” he said to me. “Use it in whatever way you want.”
Depth Control LAUREN W. WESTERFIELD
It is a rainy afternoon in late October. I am dressed for it: tight black jeans, black Salvation Army mock-neck polyester sweater, sleek-black coat. My favorite leather boots—heel-strike worn, the wood abraded at a slant—click against the dampened pavement. By it, I mean the weather, but also, the tattoo. My first. The sweater’s particular shade of nearly-black, its ‘70s vintage, signal [to my mind, at least] a suitable equation: poise and thrift and subtle edge; sleeves just loose enough to roll above the elbow. It is a Tuesday. After the tattoo, I will attend a lecture with a visiting writer. I will sit in a black-box theater in my black mock-neck sweater and prepare something articulate to say when asked for feedback. Underneath the sweater, the skin of my right forearm will prickle, smart, and redden. But I won’t know what that feels like until later. Until then—before the smart, before the theater—I am here. Unmarked, and walking. I listen to the speed and measure of my heels against the sidewalk. I wait for the traffic light to turn, hang left in front of the Wells Fargo, turn right into the alley off Third Street. I enter the tattoo parlor from a whitewashed wooden door. I turn the brass doorknob, step out of the rain-slick street, feel the warmth of yellow lamplight 82
pouring through the un-screened windows. The hour is high noon. The darkness of the day makes it seem later. I shake the rain off my umbrella, my coat, and scuff my boots against the doormat, then walk across the cream and orange patterned floor, past the black ceramic cat—head cocked to the side, yellow eyes following me, sidelong. I perch along the edge of this: minute, hour, brown crushed-velvet couch. Above me, the roof is silver aluminum; around me, the walls are red brick, peppered with framed prints: cave paintings, 70’s flowers in a vase, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, phaser out, rendered in neon pastel-on-cardboard. To my right, a heavy wood reception counter sports dried flowers, a dark blue globe, a deer skull painted gold. I’m excited. I’m nervous as fuck. I’m here alone, by design. Last night, my boyfriend B left a card on my doorstep—a note of encouragement, a promise to buy me a celebratory drink afterwards. I appreciated the gesture, but found it unnecessary—grasping, even. I wasn’t having second thoughts. Hadn’t been since August, back when my California license plates expired and A, my ex, had called to explain how he’d failed to forward my registration forms in time to legally renew without excessive fees, back when I’d found myself at the Latah County DMV—a single room with clean gray carpet and two sweet old ladies working the desk and only one person ahead of me in line, a place unrecognizable as a DMV after Downtown Los Angeles, after the massive gray cement compound with its numbered service stalls, endless lines, cheerless staff, terrifying parking lot. I’d found myself SPRING 2018
fingering the free literature, then examining the custom Idaho license plates, wildlife-themed, available for purchase. I could opt for bluebird, elk, or trout. The plates were $35 each, and proceeds went to nature conservancy programs on the Palouse. I looked, and I considered. I liked the elk, but felt no affinity for it. For a moment, I reconsidered the $200 it would take to keep my white plates, blue numbers, cheesy red-loop script—California. Something in my throat filled up. So what I mean to say is this: the card was something of a reach. Then again, the tattoo artist, Thad, is a friend of B’s, the same one who did his rolling Palouse hill tattoo, and this acquaintanceship gives me some small comfort. Like an insurance policy, security against unsteady hands or careless harm. This is what I’m thinking as I sit here now, perched, too nervous to lean back into the plush. All my senses are on fire. I notice that it’s warm inside. I notice that it smells good: not chemical or sterile, but sweet and slightly woody—palo santo, maybe, mixed with something richer and more feminine. The light, too, is warm and soft. Something groovy on the stereo. Since I’m killing time, I ask: Surf’s Up, The Beach Boys, 1971. The tattoo parlor is familiar in a distant sort of way. I’ve been here twice—first for a poetry reading, then for my initial consultation with Thad. But today is different. Today, from noon to two [or whenever we are finished—that’s the length of my appointment], I’m here and only here. I breathe it in: the orange, cream, and velvet brown; the black ceramic cat, the woody sweetness. Today I want it all inside of me, underneath the skin.
What are the chances of it going wrong? I’d asked, back in September. In reply, Thad had stretched both his thick forearms out towards me, palms up, displaying half a dozen different images—a dinosaur, a sparrow, a weeping Madonna—all inked in hues of charcoal gray or deep black-green, pronounced against the bourbon of his skin. You think that I’d keep doing this if it were high? My skin is sensitive. I bruise easily, flush quickly. I’ve never done well with extremes. When it comes to wounds, I’m risk averse. I want to understand my vulnerabilities. I told Thad all of this, more or less: after I’d shown him countless images of Western Cypress trees [Cupressus macrocarpa a variety of chaparral native to the California coast]; after he’d enlarged my favorite photograph—a wide-stretched, old grove stunner from Point Lobos—then fattened the trunk, funked up the branches, and applied a stencil twice the size I’d asked for to the inside length of my right forearm. The stencil ink was loud. A dankish purple, abrupt against the pinkwhite of my skin. Together, we’d admired and critiqued my new reflection in the mirror as I rotated my arm outwards, then inwards, examining the way the branches reached towards my wrist bone, the way the skin and fascia moved in concert with a ghostly wind. I wore the purple stencil on my forearm until it faded. Then I made the appointment for today’s tattoo: the real thing.
I’m not left waiting long. Thad is prompt. He calls me back behind the wooden counter, back to the corner of the studio where he sits at a drafting table, then pulls up the image of my cypress on his desktop. We don’t know each other well, and every time he laughs—loud, wideopen mouth, all teeth—I struggle to take him seriously. But watching him work, I notice different things. How tall he is, for instance. Eyes big and dark; rich brown hair; thick beard. Italian, perhaps, or Greek, the way his skin is always golden brown. A sometimes brand of handsome. I notice the arsenal of chemicals as he sets them out: gentian violet, Dettol, green soap, ink. The smooth-cold feeling as he rubs my forearm clean, then presses down the final stencil: a tribranched cypress, roughly four inches long, roots aligned with the ulnar side of my wrist, branches reaching from my elbow-crease [that sensitive and vein-rich nexus that tattooers call “the ditch”] towards my flexor tendon. When he isn’t working at the tattoo shop, Thad draws portraits and pinups: Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth. He works in charcoal, pencil, and pastel. The Mr. Spock portrait, I learn, is one of his—the cardboard medium, a signature. Now he’s pulling on bright blue latex gloves, and I’m nervous-talking, asking questions about art school as he lines up tiny cups like thimbles, each brimming with black or gray ink, a scoop of Vaseline swathed out with a tongue depressor, a stack three inches deep of torn-off paper towels. I tell him about my parents’ love of early Star Trek episodes, about how much my mom would love the portrait. We laugh. He takes up the electric needle; removes the sterile plastic cap. When it comes to wounds, I’m curious. About the cost. About the different routes we take to sturdiness. Tattoos and immunity rely on one another. The minute a needle touches flesh, armies of 86
macrophages are deployed to eat the ink. Fibroblasts race to soak it in, to keep the dermis from transforming. But the cells remain suspended in the dermal layer, their efforts in defense against the ink serving only to ensure its survival. A tattoo, then, is less an act of writing on the body, of scarring the surface, and more a means by which to crawl beneath—that is, go under; get inside. Following instructions, I lie down on the massage table. Thad sits to my right. I press my booted feet down into soft black pleather, turn my head to the left, just like I always do when getting blood drawn. I’m looking for distractions. There are plenty: whitewashed shelves bedecked with geodes, succulents sprouting out of seashells, a long-dead bat preserved beneath a dome of glass. Okay, here we go, Thad says. We are starting with the first branch, how it breaks free of the trunk. I inhale sharp. The needle whirs. I look away. He scratches the first thin line—gnarled, and erupting from a mound of coastal rock—into my arm. I turn my head towards him once again, and there it is. The ink. Except that now, the ink’s a branch. Indelible. The ink, the tree: no longer each to each. At first, I scarcely feel it, so caught up am I in all of this observing. But as the work—the whirring, buzzing, scratching—continues, I find myself drawn closer in: to the sensation, to the bend and curl of pain. I grow curious about the difference: between what I experience, lying here, subject to the needle, and what it’s like to be the author. To stitch into the pattern of a stranger’s skin. SPRING 2018
How is it different for you than drawing with a pencil? I ask. For one thing, Thad begins, a pencil stops when pressed against a sheet of paper. This answer gives me pause. I am compelled; I am afraid. I reel my mind back from its customary wandering—association, definition. This takes effort. The effort seems well worth it. What I mean is this: for once, it seems wiser not to wonder what a needle does when pressed. Soon, it becomes difficult to separate the literal sensation of the needle from the sound. Sever what is happening between the epidermal and the dermal layers of my skin from that telltale clatter in my ears—mechanized and violent, like an electric sewing machine mated with a lawn mower. I lie there, face upturned towards the silvery aluminum, and try—before the feeling grows familiar, before the shock of newness dissipates—to find the words for what it feels like. I try to do away with hearsay associations [like what B had said—it’s like a bunch of little beestings], keep my mind from drifting into worry, into tangents, and stay present with my skin, my nerves. Every pinch and tingle. I watch Thad’s blue-gloved hand in my periphery. I try to notice what he smells like, but I can’t. Even with him leaning over me, his body so close to mine, the Dettol and the wood-sweet incense and the musk of my own perfume-muddled sweat have taken over. Instead, I will the sound, the whirr, to leave my consciousness. I recall being a little kid in school: drawing on my hands, with ballpoint pen. And I realize, in fact, that’s exactly 88
what this feels like: a pen. Very sharp, ultra fine, razor precise. No cushioned rollerball. A sharp pen pressed beyond the surface of the skin, past the point where many times before I’ve jotted notes or names or meeting reminders along the tender flesh between my pointer knuckle and the big joint of my thumb. So ultimately, it’s a matter of mastering depth control. Thad says this as he works: beyond the outline, into the shading and the contours, the contrast and the patterning of gray against the black. As I begin to grow accustomed to this scratching, to the variations in the pain—now superficial like a sharpened fingernail, now deep and vibratory like a Brillo pad. As I finally grow bored looking away, and turn, instead, to watch. Watch the stark black ink embedded, line by line, stroke by stroke, beyond the peach-pale sheath that holds my body closed. Watch the gray ink filling in: foliage and shadow. Depth control. The phrase sticks with me. In spite of myself, I can feel the mental gears shifting and buzzing, the morning’s adrenaline morphing now into something not unlike a caffeine high, but deeper, better; a sort of intellectual arousal that occurs whenever I’m struck by the seed of a really neat idea. Usually, I’m alone at my desk, or at the coffee shop, or walking briskly when this happens—when my body floods with sudden energy, with a rush of sapiosexual horniness, and I want to somehow write and fuck and drive over the speed limit all at once, all at the same time. I don’t, of course. I stay inside my head, or write things down. I walk faster, or break into a run, or go get a beer. Usually, I just push through the moment and the rush, then talk to an imagined audience later that night, naked, in the shower, letting heat and wet run over me until my skin turns red, until the feeling dulls. SPRING 2018
But this feeling, now, under the needle, is a different feeling. More satisfying, in the sense that I am trapped. Even as my mind is buzzing, looping, it returns right back again to this—to needle, Dettol, palo santo, skin. A tiny circuit, tight and hot. Nothing left to do but lie here, still, and feel it. The needle moves. It bites. It fills. Sometimes, I wince. Sometimes, I feel like I am getting a massage. Time passes. Sooner than I would have thought, Thad is putting the finishing touches on the reaching branches. I’m watching, and I’m feeling, and I’m thinking things about infection and erosion, about biting in, and wearing down. Now that it’s nearly over, I free myself to think beyond this: minute, hour, forearm, present. To consider depth, and pencils, paper—what Thad’s hands might feel like on my skin without those stupid plastic gloves. Or what would happen if the needle sunk too far: where it might land, and where the ink would go, and what’s beneath all this. Depth. The word suggests a destination. The surface of the ocean to its floor. Or distance measured, quantified—as in, the needle penetrates my skin to a depth of 1mm. Feelings can be deep: incomprehensible and tiny in their truths, like the strange affinity I felt with that dead bat beneath the glass when I stood close enough to see its jaw propped open in a death scream or a yawn, its tiny canines smaller than my half-moon Saturn finger scar. Depth is a gradation of color. Like the effect of rendering and shadow, the effect of light yielding to dark, gray ink to black, the knobby elbow of a branch made real as mine with the right contrast and intensity. Or else it is some darkness—some unknown thing inside that no one sees. My body, for example: underneath the skin, right now, as I am sitting up and 90
Thad is tidying the weeping edges—seeping fluid, bloody trace— then giving me a spiel about Saniderm, the bandage he adheres over the fresh tattoo. The Beach Boys are still playing on the stereo: “Feel Flows” [this time I recognize the song]. My right forearm throbs with heat. On the inside, immunity is kicking in already. Pressing back against the biting and the plumbing, against the newly married ink and skin. On the outside, I am smiling and saying thank you. I am gathering my things, pausing for a moment to roll up my sleeve, examining the gnarled roots, the fishhook branches, the way the textured foliage reaches and warps as if imbued with salt and wind. I swipe my credit card in the machine, taking quick note of the time: 1:38PM. I sign the digital receipt like this: my finger, just a single curl of black. I scoop the bucket of my green knit hat over my hair and snap the buttons of my coat. And then I turn my back, and turn the handle of the door, and open my umbrella to the rain.
Living Archive BRIAN PHILLIP WHALEN
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” —Joan Didion “We tell each other stories that we pray will be transformed in the telling…made believable and about us all, no matter who we are to one another and who we are not.” —Russell Banks “We have to be careful of the stories we tell about ourselves.” —Nick Flynn
STORY On June 23, 2008, William Zebulon Hamblen shot himself in the head. For 11 days and nights my sister, Zeb’s girlfriend, was imprisoned on a charge of deadly assault. [Police said Hamblen and W----- both lived at the Grace Street address...the initial investigation indicated the shooting resulted from a domestic argument.] It was only after Zeb died, in a room in VCU Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, that the forensic reports came in, corroborating my sister’s account of the night of Zeb’s death. The charge was dropped, and my sister, released. One year earlier, in July 2007, I told my sister she was not allowed in my life again until she got clean, turned a new corner, made amends. Ten years have passed; we have not spoken. 92
One year after Zeb died, in November 2009, while I was high on Vicodin and drunk on vodka, I impregnated a girl named Brittany. She was 22 years old and a stranger to me. I made a case for abortion. But in August of the following year, just weeks before my first term in a PhD program in upstate New York [I left Iowa to pursue the degree], my son was born. I am not in his life. ARCHIVE The philosopher Georgia Agamben defines bare life as life that can be “killed but not sacrificed.” STORY My sister was a drug addict for seven years before Zeb killed himself. She’d been in and out of prison; she and Zeb were in and out of rehab. They lived with my parents awhile, or they were living with Zeb’s parents in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Zeb’s father was a gun and knife enthusiast, a doomsday militant: the origin of Zeb’s own interest in guns. During one of the many periods in which my sister and Zeb were broken up, my sister dated a drug-dealer named Robbie. On weekends, she ran guns with Robbie out of the trunk of his car. I remember a night at the kitchen table in my parents’ house [before our estrangement, before Zeb’s death] where my sister proudly told me how she could dismantle and reassemble a handgun in under a minute. ARCHIVE In an interview, Nick Flynn speaks to the need for universality arising from the personal: “In order for memoir to succeed, you have to dissolve the self into these larger universal truths, and explore SPRING 2018
these deeper mysteries. If it’s purely autobiographical and egodriven, it’s going to fail.” Flynn advises memoirists to “seek out archetypes,” that “persona is good for the messier emotions.” In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Flynn uses archetypes to juxtapose the mental instability of sons—e.g., Hamlet—with the instability of fathers—e.g., King Lear. Flynn incorporates archetype into his work via citational appropriation, embedding lines from literature into his own prose, italicized: “Only his voice does that, the air moving through him, vibrating out as words. What is word made of but breath, breath the stuff of life?” [Hamlet]. Other times the references are oblique. In the chapter “ulysses,” Flynn writes: “Many fathers are gone. Some leave, some are left. Some return, unknown and hungry. Only the dog remembers.” Archetypal fathers, absent but fated to return. “All my life my father had been manifest as an absence, a non-presence, a name without a body.” Flynn admits to a strong Melvillean influence in his writing, a saturation that merges with his narrative as the archetypical layerings become the memoir-as-object: the thematic and physical bindings of the “book you hold in your hands.” The act of writing is Flynn’s Queequeg; the memoir, published, becomes a floating coffin, à la Ishmael’s salvation. By forging experience into form and order, by publishing [birth], Flynn asserts his right to authorial agency—thus freeing himself from the paternal curse. [Why, then, does he end the book in his father’s voice, leaving us with the haunting presence of the father’s monologue?] STORY I assign John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire in my writing class. I assign it again the next semester. I assign it again for the undergraduate reading group that I advise. I keep assigning the book, 94
because I want to talk about genre, complex pastoral imagery, and race [and the body, and violence, and time]. But what I’m also doing is walking myself over the coals of Wideman’s prose: fathers and sons, daughters and brothers, neglect and apologies, violence and sex, escapes and returns. When I come to the book again—writing this essay—I discover forgotten passages, as though the book was a territory I’d visited many times, but failed to walk all promontories: Say the word father. Now say son. Now think of the space between father and son, as they are words, as they are indications of time and the possibility of salvation, redemption, continuity. Think of these two words in natural order and sequence. One comes before the other, always, forever. And yet both must start somewhere, in order to begin one must break in, say one or the other, father or son, to begin. I’m not looking to give you consolation. I wish I was able. What I’m trying to do is share my way of thinking about some things that are basically unthinkable. I cannot separate myself from you...We don’t know what the future will bring. We do have a chance to unfold our days one by one and piece together a story that shapes us. It’s the only life anyone ever has. Hold on. My first son, myself, my father, his father, the male string stretched taut as a bow ready to be fired.
[My paternal grandfather was a detective in the Korean War. My mother’s father served in World War II and helped to liberate Buchenwald. My father left college to join the Army, narrowly missing Vietnam. All I’ve ever done is read and write. And teach— other fathers’ kids.] SPRING 2018
ARCHIVE It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past...it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come...A spectral messianity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it...to a very singular experience of the promise...The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future...The trouble de l’archive stems from mal d’archive. We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives...to burn with a passion. It is never to rest interminably, from searching for the archive, right where it slips away...it is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. —Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever
STORY The brother volunteering at a homeless shelter in Des Moines, touring homeless camps outside the city, spying hookers on 6th Avenue, fundraising for a “sleepout” where high school students construct “houses” out of cardboard boxes: to sleep under the stars in Drake University Stadium. The brother: drunk every night, discovering the numbness, the weightlessness of pills, a growing sleeplessness, a declining loss of faith in the power of redemption. The sister: sleeping under bridges in Virginia, drunk and disorderly, living in and out of shelters, clinging to her dead lover’s pocket knife for safety—for salvation. The brother, surrounded by citizens 96
with a zeal for service, hoping he’ll fit in, go unseen, be mistaken for part of the crowd. While the sister ghosts through life like pages torn from a book. Both alone. Directionless. Each cut of the cloth from the same family quilt. Same upbringing, same squandered opportunities. Same psychiatric seas: raging storms, rising tides. There but for the grace of God the brother, by some miracle, afloat. ARCHIVE In her essay “Make Me Worry You’re Not OK,” Susan Shapiro tells memoirists: “The more of a wreck you are from the start, the more the audience is hooked.” By the second page of Stephen Elliott’s memoir, The Adderall Diaries, Elliott admits: “I feel ready to kill myself.” Elliott establishes an early pattern of being a wreck by recollecting a memory of his father: “I dreamed of footsteps, then screams, then something hitting my face. I woke trying to hide from my father’s fists. He pulled me by my hair into the kitchen where he had a set of clippers waiting. He forced me to kneel at the cabinets while he shaved my head. It was the second time he had shaved my head.” Toward the end of the memoir, Elliott writes: “I’ve written about [my father] and made him a villain. I’ve made him unhappy. I’ve mythologized myself and withheld my love, pretended my actions were justified by his actions. I put that on with my clothes and wear it throughout the day.” The prose in these passages illustrates one of Elliott’s signature techniques: matter-of-fact representation of violent behaviors and traumatic experiences. He glosses over his heroin abuse, concisely: “Two years later we were living in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. By then I’d overdosed on heroin and Josie was overcoming a cocaine habit.” Elliott’s narrative approach conceals a deeper hurt. Elliot himself writes: “We understand the world by SPRING 2018
how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” He continues: “What we remember, and how we order and interpret what we believe to be true, are what shapes who we are.” Memory—and the process of recording it—may hide the cuts that formed ours scars, but history is always present, at once shaping, and limiting, new experience. STORY I wrote Paul a letter my first year in Albany. More than a decade had passed since I’d sat in his creative writing class, a freshman in college, listening to him quoting Didion [we tell ourselves] as he’d recount to us admonishing stories from his days of addiction. Paul assigned us Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, sermonizing on the grace the baker showed the grieving mother in the story “A Small, Good Thing.” Paul taught us Chekhov. In my letter, after telling Paul what I’d been reading lately, I told him about my son, about Vicodin, about how I think of Paul when things get dark, about how all I learned in life was how to play the fool, about how Albany was full of drunks—and, finally, about how I was planning to visit my son for the first time [it would also be the last, though I didn’t know it at the time] that summer. Paul wrote back. He said he wished me luck with Lithium, that it had served him well for a decade or so, but recently he’d fallen off the wagon, for a couple years, and got hooked on Benzos [he wrote a memoir about it]. He said: “glad you’re still at it—the reading and writing. I always thought you’d do interesting things, and sounds like you have. you have a great deal to write about too. iowa, booze & vikes, americorps, zazen, veering wildly up and down.” [Eight years earlier, after college, I’d written Paul a different letter: to tell him I was headed to graduate school 98
and that I wanted to be a teacher. This initial foray into higher ed was an American Studies PhD program in Kansas, where I fell into a depression, nearly failed out, and left the Midwest swearing never to return. Paul replied by email, a single line without punctuation: “welcome to the sinking ship”] ARCHIVE The growing dissociation of birth [bare life] and the nation-state is the new fact of politics in our day, and what we call camp is this disjunction...we must expect not only new camps but also always new and more lunatic regulative definitions of the inscription of life in the city. The camp, which is now securely lodged within the city’s interior, is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet. —Georgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
STORY ABANDON [Merriam Webster] transitive verb 1a: to give up to the control or influence of another person or agent b: to give up with the intent of never again claiming a right or interest in <abandon property> 2: to withdraw from often in the face of danger or encroachment <abandon ship> 3: to withdraw protection, support, or help from <he abandoned his family> 4: to give [oneself ] over unrestrainedly 5a: to cease from maintaining, practicing, or using <abandoned their SPRING 2018
native language> b: to cease intending or attempting to perform <abandoned the escape> abandonment noun abandoner noun ARCHIVE There is a pivotal scene in Imre Kertész’s first novel Fateless[ness] where the narrator, a 12-year-old boy, has the choice to speak up and live, or to remain silent and be carted to the crematorium: And in spite of any other consideration, rational thought, feeling of resignation or of common sense, I still couldn’t mistake the furtive words of some kind of quiet desire rising from within myself, as if embarrassed because of their senselessness, but yet consistently stubborn in their persistence: I would so much like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp!
Kertész’s narrator is governed by bare life—basic survival—no longer caring about his freedom. In Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Kertész elevates bare life to the realm of procreation: the decision whether or not to have a child. Bare life is externalized—an ethical factor: no longer the existential choice between death [suicide] and survival; it becomes a conflict of obligation toward new life and the responsibilities contingent to the reproductive contract. The word “no” begins the novel, and “no” plays a central part throughout the text, recurring often, a single word fired like a bullet from the narrator—a mimesis 100
of refusal. In Kertész and the Problem of Guilt in Unfinished Mourning, Esther Faye explains the meaning of this iterative “no” in Kaddish: A ‘No’ addressed by the narrator to the very object-the-child-whom-herefuses-to-be-let-born, and to the woman whose desire for one he refuses... With this ‘No’ he not only murders his potential child, but destroys his whole world. And, in place of everything that he destroys with his refusal, and in place of this non-existent child/children whom he refuses to beget yet still keeps ‘alive’ as a negative ‘ex-istence,’ he chooses instead to live a life of work.
STORY Halcyon MFA days...you live alone in a garden apartment prone to flooding...get a shock each time you turn the bedroom light on...turns out it was moisture under the carpet, took you years to realize it...you drink hard and drive drunk...at 3 a.m. you test the limits of your Saab 900 Turbo’s suspension...take corners fast, accelerate on off-ramps, daring yourself not to brake...write until dawn, sleep until dinner... channel Bukowski, Balzac, Henry Miller...make up for self-indulgence by volunteering in a correctional facility, teaching writing...sister in jail again, 1000 miles east, a prostitution charge...you think to yourself: at least she’s inside [Wideman: Why would we allow anyone, adult or child, to suffer untended, alone, an agony enacted not deep in the forest but in a so-called civilized city, in a building with a number, on a street with a name, in a cell with a tiny window we pay people to watch?]...MFA ends, blink of an eye...work for AmeriCorps, as fill-in volunteer coordinator for the homeless shelter...paid coordinator is out on maternity leave [true story]...your job to organize volunteers for Reggie’s Sleepout...you visit the real camps at the edges of the city...you bring the men white socks...Homeless? Have a banana... SPRING 2018
the night of the sleepout, the youth director uses his “dad” voice to quiet rowdy teens...and you, beside him, floating all night on the oiled rails of Vicodin...your job to video tape [time lapse] the event, the erection and tear-down of the housing units...from bare field to cardboard castles, back to field again...risen, flattened...you stand in the cold alone in the press box popping pills, staring down at the candy land...kiddie camp...a heuristic spectacle for fundraising, for “public awareness”...a night to build compassion, drink hot cocoa, take photographs...Halloween had come and gone, the night with Brittany in your rear view mirror...then, suddenly, December hits: grains of sand, flakes of snow—the image of the fetus of your son [this essay] growing in his mother’s body. ARCHIVE “Fiction or not, don’t we become, eventually, one way or another, our father’s executioner?” —Peter Orner, Am I Alone Here?
STORY Summer . Time at the shore with your parents. Outer Banks. Ocracoke Island. Isolation. Contemplation. Pushups in the morning on the bird’s nest balcony. Naps in the afternoon sun. Steamed shrimp each night. Read about zazen, read the stoics [first and only gifts you’ll give your son: copies of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Shunryo Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind]. Mid-week, a phone call. An interview. Shelter Director asks you why you want to join AmeriCorps. Why volunteer at the shelter. Why help the homeless. You tell him: “My sister.”
ARCHIVE In an essay from The New Yorker, Joan Acocella cites another critic’s comment that Paula Fox is “sometimes hard to the point of cold” in her writing. An accurate reading—however, Acocella is wrong, later on, when she faults the memoir’s structure, complaining that it “dithers in its second half: this happened, then that happened.” As Fox herself has said, “I think it’s not helpful to over-psychologize. It substitutes for the chaos that most of us live in.” Fox’s memoir maps the chaos of experience via emergent recollection, plotting Fox’s childhood displacements in prose that is anchored by an emotional distancing, a calculated reserve. The dithering, distancing, love/ hate here/not relationship with Fox’s parents; the random locales and disparate encounters; the lack of an apparent governing formal principle all flows toward the memoir’s ending. In the final chapter, Fox visits her dying mother [an unremarkable encounter, a failed relationship], and soon after hears news of her mother’s death. “I had lost out on a daughter’s last privilege; I couldn’t mourn my mother.” A white space follows. Then Fox reveals: “When I was two weeks away from my twenty-first birthday, I gave birth to a daughter.” [Earlier: “When my mother was nineteen, she gave birth to me.”] This hard, cold way of arriving at the central aspect of the book—Fox as absent mother—elicits a mood of sorrow, muted by the damper of Fox’s “hard” prose style: “[m]any years later, Linda found me.” They rendezvous in San Francisco, where Fox lived when she was pregnant. “When the airplane was a few hundred yards from the ground, I wished it would crash. In the face of great change, one has no conscience.” Fox and Linda meet, and the book ends: “I’ll leave us there, sitting close together on the curb. Now and then someone passed by but paid no attention to us as we told SPRING 2018
each other stories from our lives, falling silent every so often.” The chapter is called “Elsie and Linda,” the only chapter named for people, not places. STORY [palimpsest] We abandon memoirs. We abandon sisters. We abandon long-established beliefs about ourselves and our capacity to do the right thing. On desperate nights, with wild abandon, we make love to strangers, unprotected; and afterwards, with selfawareness, protecting our self-interests [and—we tell ourselves, and we believe—the child’s], we return home, clear our head, quit drinking [it takes years], see psychiatrists, manage medications, work our ass off, earn our degree. We get our lives in order; we get married. We’ve every intention of keeping in touch. [How do you compose a story when you’re living it, when day by day the page is coated in new paint? If we always wait until a story is ready to be written—wait until we’ve made amends, tied loose ends, augmented every dissonant note, reached a point in our lives where we feel affable and worthy of forgiveness—we risk not telling certain stories. Sometimes we have to be ugly.] ARCHIVE “[H]istory is not an act of the imagination.” —Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda “On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary”
STORY There is a real gun in this story, Zeb’s gun, and my sister’s hand was on it when the gun went off. [Residue tests confirm this: my sister 104
swore Zeb forced her hand to the gun; she was trying to put the safety on when he pulled the trigger; hers is the only word.] There are other weapons. Knives: two of them [three if you count the knife my sister keeps on her body at all times, except when she’s in jail]. One knife I have in my possession, on my writing desk: it was Zeb’s, taken from the apartment where he killed himself. The other is a knife I sold to Zeb’s father, when I was 21-years-old and fresh out of college: a hunting blade from a catalog for CutCo Knives, which I sold door to door. [Do I tell about the time I sharpened Zeb’s knife on a precision stone, put the edge of the blade against my forearm, cutting into my skin?] I admit to my deep fear of Zeb’s father, after Zeb died; but how do I portray the facts of the matter so that when I drop in anecdotal information—my being in Zeb’s father’s home, selling arms—it resonates with my paranoia during the eleven days my sister was suspected of Zeb’s murder. I feared that Mr. Hamblen would appear in the darkness, at a window, or the edge of the fence in my backyard in Iowa, where I once saw a rabbit run down and killed by a neighbor’s dog. I’d be out for a cigar in the summer air, Zeb’s father in military camo and a rifle [two guns in this story], or the knife I sold him; and what if he took his revenge by killing the only son of the father whose daughter had, allegedly, taken the life of his only son? A revenge tragedy. The father of all archetypes. ________ Stephen Elliott: “It doesn’t matter if I call it fiction: I know as well as they do that’s not an excuse. I don’t bother trying to defend myself. It’s not defensible, it’s just what I do. I spend years crafting SPRING 2018
a two-hundred page story, all the time my life sits next to me like a jar of paint.” Nick Flynn [appearing as a character in Elliot’s memoir]: “The Ticking Is The Bomb is not really about torture... it’s really about me.” Elliott’s response: “We’re all just writing about ourselves.” ________ Sometimes strangers share the deepest hurt. During our one night together, naked and entwined, Brittany told me that her father killed himself when she was twelve years old. The first of two suicides in this story: the latter [Zeb’s] a symbol of addiction and depression, the former a tender, brutal piece of evidence explaining why a young woman gave birth to a stranger’s child. Her own father, a stranger himself, haunted her—but not because of his absence. Brittany confessed to me, before I left Iowa, that the little time she’d spent with her father produced her most salient childhood memories. She’d made her mind up long ago that if she ever got pregnant, she’d carry to term. She told me no matter how alone we are, we have our family: if only for a spell. Those moments—however brief—are beautiful. Her father had taught her that. A dying lesson, a father’s bequeathal: the burden of choice. When the choice became hers, Brittany chose life. ARCHIVE In his “Postscript” to Archive Fever, Derrida shifts from criticism to memoir: “I wrote these last words on the rim of Vesuvius, right near Pompeii, less than eight days ago. For more than twenty years, each time I’ve returned to Naples, I’ve thought of her Gradiva.” [She 106
who walks.] In a book that places strong emphasis on circumcision, the male foreskin, and fathers, to conclude on location at the site of a volcano [a literal infolding] alludes to the vaginal: the womb, the natal. That ultimate site of bio-social contracts: the site of potentiality, pregnancy, birth [our primary abandonment—delivery]. Yet Derrida cannot shake his spectral influence, his Freud, and so remains afflicted with doubt in his struggle against what he names the “paternal phantom...who is in a position to be correct, to be proven correct—and to have the last word.” [Essay, in the French tradition, is a “trial, attempt, endeavor;” in Latin, “a weighing, a weight.”] I do not have Freud over my shoulder, as Derrida did; but I am writing with two “phantom” readers in mind: my sister and my son. In lieu of concentration camps, I have, as bystander, as agent, as witness, the homeless camps of central Iowa; a fatherless son; the imagined camps in a sibling’s living nightmare. Knowledge of history trumps individual suffering. Yet I struggle, still, with the cage of genre [to document or dramatize, to invent or represent]: as if “I” matter. In a just world, we’d all be forced to reconcile our art with our lives. To survive the curse of history, perhaps we must abandon the archive completely. Leave behind our metaphors, mythologies, apologies, anxieties, our obsessions over story and form. Yes, to transition away from the safety of the literary self to the boulevard—to move from bracing against the world to embracing it. Were real life so simple.
Excelsior Springs Bottling Company BERRY GRASS Thereâ€™s just a house with a trampoline out front now. They used to bottle enough water here to fill a train car every two days and now thereâ€™s a house that looks like my old house. The Midwest is perhaps best defined as a place where domesticity is used as a cover-up. The first time I applied makeup to myself was when Mom taught me to use foundation and concealer to mask the bruise from my dad clutching my twig of an arm and tossing me into a wall. The Midwest is perhaps best defined as making the bed. After the divorce, during our custody visits with him, Dad was frequently using meth. Having no practical ways to entertain or nurture his two kids, Dad would take us into the woods, up the large hills of Excelsior, to search for shiny somethings, to dig in the dirt. These pica weekends were spent tracking down marbles and Dad rattled off marble terminology, telling us how to separate agate marbles from mica marbles from End of Days marbles from glass marbles. He also had us looking for glass bottles. He was especially interested in local glass, from the Pepsi bottling plant which used to be here, or the mineral water plant which used to be here. And really I think of those days with my dad as his terrarium. In those days his ideas of the land & its history were preserved for him, and I was preserved for him in all of my potential to be the ideal small town Midwestern man that he once thought himself 108
capable of being. Even now, breasts filled out and dusky rose lipstick applied, he still has this conception of a son he never had, as if heâ€™s keeping it under glass. Or maybe under agate, flecked with mica. I could never remember what he tried to teach me about marbles. I could never remember which materials reveal and which materials occlude. A pane of glass can be a false transparency, the scene lying beyond it staged, an artifice. The Midwest is perhaps best defined as a museum exhibit.
Pruning the Fern SHEILA SQUILLANTE
The Boston fern hangs in the front porch the first summer my family lives in Pittsburgh. I buy it at Lowe’s after noticing its pretty sisters in the doorways of neighboring houses. Calm and elegant, it turns slow circles in the breeze, against the dark brick, next to prim white impatiens and the leggy pink petunias that were my father’s favorite. Through the hottest months, I care for it along with the other new plants in my new yard. Stella D’Oro lilies and giant sunflowers obscuring the house’s crumbly foundation. Bearded iris that sends up just one, tall spike so purple it’s almost black. I imagine the way this one plant will spread in years to come if we let it. If we stay in this house long enough to see it. Every morning, before the strongest sun, I go to my plants—I can’t yet call them a “garden”—with watering can and confidence. I spray garlic and cayenne to deter bugs. I deadhead the annuals and give everything a good, long drink. I snip the singed tips of the fern fronds that strayed in their growing from the porch’s shade. I tend to it and it grows gloriously green all summer long. But when the fall comes, I let it go. * I used to be a tender. I knew myself by this word and this action. People would ask 110
me for help with emotions and green things. In graduate school, while housesitting, I got it in my head to re-pot all of my friend’s houseplants as a surprise before she returned. I spread newsprint out on her small deck in the sunshine and, one by one, loosed them from outgrown terra cotta, careful not to rip the roots. I spooned in dark, rich soil and moved them up to the next largest size, exchanging one for the next and the next, until each had a new, roomy home. I used to think this was how I knew I’d be a good mother. * I stand in my kitchen on the day of the first snow and look out the window at the tall trees my neighbor and I worry will come down in a windstorm. Some of them are rotted, we’ve been told, and fragile. But the landlord says it’s not his responsibility. The trees do not belong to him. It’s true that they terrify me—our kids play in the yard—but I also think there’s great elegance in their flexibility. I like watching them. They bend far and sway, but, so far, stay upright. I don’t know yet that this winter will feel and act three seasons long. Grey and relentless and colder than any other of my life, it will almost break me the way it will break my dining room windows, cracked through as if made of ice. I’ve been depressed and the fern has been living on top of the bookshelf in our front room, where we will put our live Christmas tree later in the month. It sits in a crumpled aluminum pan and I water it when I remember to. When I feel like it. I brought it in, optimistic, when the first freeze came, but by now it’s more than half dead. Light as a breeze and browning steadily from tip to root. SPRING 2018
* Our last Christmas in our old town, we needed new lights for the tree. At Target, Paul and I let the kids pick them out, and they, being children, chose the brashly-brightest, blinkingly garish, colored LED strands. I had my reservations. I may even have expressed them. But clearly I was overruled. We decorated the tree and stood back to take it in. They were delighted. I was despondent. For most of my own growing up, we had subtle white lights on our live Christmas trees. But when I was very young, I remember color on an artificial tree in our living room with the white carpeting and the gold and green striped couch. I remember sitting in my mother’s huge wooden rocking chair with my knees tucked up under my chin, my feet bare against the cool, smooth seat. I think I remember Christmas music, but it’s possible I’m filling that into my memory because it makes for a more picturesque scene. What I’m sure about though is that I was crying. I am sure that I was looking at that tree and feeling an inexpressible sadness that had, as far as I could tell, nothing at all to do with the lights on the tree or the music or the holiday in any way. I spoke to myself in my head: “Sheila, why are you sad? There’s nothing sad about Christmas.” It seemed ridiculous. I was maybe six or seven years old and when I think back on this now, I know with certainty that this memory marks the first recognizable moment of depression in my life. There have been many more moments since then, surrounded and informed by many different contexts, but the shape and timbre of the thing—the cold empty inside me—has never changed. 112
* I’m alone in the house and can feel my mood collapsing in increments, the inverse of the snow piling up inch by inch outside. When this happens, everything feels like too much. The stack of unsorted bills and homework on the table, the dishes and cups un-picked up throughout the house, the cat boxes, the cats themselves. In our old house, before we moved to Pittsburgh last year, every Saturday unraveled me. Something about all those hours at home without the structure of the work or school day, filled with domestic expectation, has always filled me with malaise and overwhelm. I should be cleaning out the basement. I should be folding laundry. I should be enrolling my kids in music lessons. I should be teaching them how to ride bikes. I should be applying for better jobs. I should be exercising. I should be writing. I should be able to snap myself out of this. Instead, I do nothing but snap at everyone all the livelong day. Paul says, “Mood colors world,” and he’s right. In despair everything takes on the color of a toothache. My therapist (#4 of my adult life), says, “Notice when you’re catastrophizing. Interrupt your racing, negative thoughts. Find something to do with your hands.” So, I bring the fern into the kitchen and set it on the counter. Frigid air slides under the back door. It pushes through the poorlyinsulated outside walls, into the cabinets below the counter, spills onto my feet, which, like my hands, never feel warm. With the red-handled scissors, I approach my pitiful plant. I begin to cut away the dead bits. Some land on the counter, some float to the cold floor. SPRING 2018
* I used to be a tender. People, friends or not, used words like “calm” and “calming” to describe me. “Nurturing.” “Motherly.” I do mother pretty well. Well enough to see (worry, lament) that both of my children have tendencies like mine. A daughter who, at four years old, cried for so long and so hard about the loss of a grandfather she had never met that I thought I would never be able to settle her. Who tells me she “doesn’t know why she feels sad, she just does.” She writes him a letter on his birthday and we plant his favorite pink petunias in pretty window pots. A son who, at nine years old, imagines asteroids, rogue planets, galaxies colliding with humanity in the impossibly far future. Who tells me he “can’t turn off his mind.” When my sister gives him a telescope for Christmas, he cries and cries and reminds me that he’s terrified of space. In the first year of my new job, the one that moved us to Pittsburgh, I would lie awake all night, and watch my own thoughts burst like constant, small explosions behind my clamped-shut eyes. My anxiety—Am I good enough for this? Will the kids thrive here? What if I fuck this entire thing up?—bloomed inside me and crept like vines around the room, snarling everything. * In the kitchen, the terrible fluorescent strip light—the one extrashabby element of our new rental that I couldn’t stop thinking about after we signed the lease, the one that made me want to cry every time 114
I imagined living here—buzzes above as I cut and cut. It becomes obsessive. I do. I need this plant to survive. (I used to be a tender.) The more I cut away, the more I want to cut away. I am surgical. Pull the lightest pieces away with my fingers, strip the fronds bare. I am surprised to find green fiddleheads, the tiniest furled shoots pushing through the thick tangle. Again, with scissors, I go in and trim close to the soil, except I can’t really see the soil for all the debris. I consider getting tweezers to pick away all the dead brown leaves in between the fronds. I wonder if it’s even possible to remove every single one. Maybe if I work in sections, I think. Maybe that would make it easier to tackle. I try to work, but in this pruning, I’ve created a sharp spiky landscape that pricks my fingers. I am scraped and bleeding by the end, but there is clearly more green growing there and I must get to it. I bleed and laugh under a shitty strip light in a freezing kitchen, realizing this whole thing is an embarrassingly obvious metaphor that I can see, but will not be able to write about for another year, at least. * I’ve pruned back my life. Where it used to be easy to tend my close up and faraway friendships, in this Pittsburgh year, it’s become near impossible. Where I would drive hours several times a year to visit. Where I would mark birthdays with presents and calls.
Where I would look forward to socializing. Where I would answer my phone. Where I would call anyone, just to talk, ever. Where, at the very least, I could write my way through dim and dark places. * Blood or no, I get scissor happy and, when attacking a thick, woody stem, I slip, and a tender green shoot comes loose in my hand. Shit, I say. And then, I’m sorry. Because I’m aware that maybe this is not helping the plant at all. Maybe I’m even hurting it. But it makes sense to me that pruning would be a good thing—all the energy diverted back toward the vital essence of the plant. But I’m really no gardener. Surely there is a too-far here. Still, I’m tempted to sheer it all the way back, the way our old landlord did every year with the ornamental grasses I planted to hide the water meter in front of our place. They always grew back, green and tall and lush, but it still hurt me to see them hacked to a stubble. There’s something so elegant about those thin brown fronds, waving through the winter.
* Every so often, I am tempted to sheer myself all the way back. Chop my hair off. Change my style. Do something extreme. People do this sort of thing to battle depression, don’t they? But are those people really depressed? Bored, maybe, which can feel like gloom if it goes on long enough. Caught in a monotony of one kind or another. A pixie cut! A new tattoo! is just the thing to stir things up! I don’t really believe these distractions will help. And yet, a faded vine of ink circles my wrist, a desperate gesture from the Zoloft days, right after my first husband left. I worried constantly. What would I do without his salary? I worked in the mall. How would I ever be able to afford graduate school? He had paid for my first night class. How I worried and how I loathed myself, then. Could not imagine any person treating me with desire again. I laid awake nights and watched mind-fireworks exploding: alone, alone. Looking back, I think my therapist (#1 of my adult life) was flirting with me. “You know, Latino and black men love women with your shape.” But I couldn’t tell such things then. I had no sure word by which to know myself. My sadness seemed like it could not fit inside my skin, even while I could feel it bumping against my bones. I gave myself over to his care because he said he would help me, and I needed someone to help me. The pill he prescribed was meant to help quell my racing brain, dial down the constant terror and tears, lessen the lonely. Instead, it gave me crushing headaches and ruined my orgasm. SPRING 2018
We had talked about the possible side effects during a session and decided (we? decided? how could I have agreed to this?) that, “well, since your husband’s gone, you’re not having much sex anyway, so…” * That’s one of the mind tricks of depression—you can’t see the whole of the thing, only the garish, glaring ugly staring you down. You can’t see, for instance, past the migraine-colored LEDs to the full green branches, or the strands of popcorn and cranberries that will later feed the birds. You can’t smell the pine sap on your fingers or hear the bottom branches swish as the cats pass beneath them. You can’t see the antique blown-glass moon your uncle gave you when you were ten, or the straw ornaments your father brought back from his trips to China when you were fifteen. You can’t see the clothespin soldiers or the Santas or the hand-painted-by-yourown-kids angels—all of it dangling and dancing and dazzling right there in front of you. * The snow stays steady all day and the fern is not going to survive my efforts. Though I know this, I put it back in the Christmas tree room anyway. This time not on top of the bookshelf, but on a table right in front of the window. It will sit there for months and I’ll continue to water it on Paul’s insistence. I learned this part from him. He scolded when I put the petunias, spent at season’s end, out for the trash. He refuses to believe a plant is too far gone to save. A year before we were married, we rescued a snake plant from 118
the dumpster in front of his apartment. It was small and damaged, pretty pathetic, but my new meds were working and I was a tender. We took it home. * When my first husband left, my therapist tried to convince me that my depression was only situational. He dismissed my childhood Christmas story as just so much nostalgia. He believed that all a young, beautiful woman like me needed was time, some movies with friends, more exercise, maybe some (orgasm-less) sex. Iâ€™m not saying those things didnâ€™t help. But I knew, even if he did not, that it would get bad again: Two years later, in graduate school, still grieving my father and worried that Iâ€™m not smart enough. Three years later, when another nowhere relationship ends badly and my father is still dead. Eight years later, postpartum and terrified with a new son and my father is still dead. Nine years later, on a sunny Saturday. Ten years later, when I feel such profound disconnect with my infant daughter (who will herself grieve deeply my lost father) that it rearranges everything I have ever known about myself. SPRING 2018
Sixteen-and-a-half years later, during the longest winter of my life, pulling brown bits off of a dying Boston fern, making obvious metaphors and wondering if Iâ€™ll ever feel warm again. * In a few months, just before our second Pittsburgh summer, the snake plant will send up greenish-white spikes of blossom in the light of the front room. We will be so surprised. We didnâ€™t know it could do that.
Astral Weeks K.C. WOLFE
Music surrounded us from the very beginning. One of my first memories of Sarah is when she visited my roommate in college and we stayed up after everyone had fallen asleep to replay Radiohead’s No Surprises, ad nauseam, singing off-key, with incorrect lyrics. When we lived together, three years later, she had an alarm clock that queued a CD track to wake you, and evenings in her bedroom we argued over what the next day’s first song would be, flipping through CD books spread out on her twin bed, pulling discs out as evidence for the mood we willed to find when we woke up. The longer we spent together, the more our musical idiosyncrasies lined up, to birth not some chimeric matrimony of taste but a dizzying expansion. The soundtrack of my life supplemented the soundtrack of her life, and vice-versa. Our universes doubled in size, and finding that vastness together—the way music brings crowds of strangers and groups of acquaintances closer, the way it does this as tragedy and heartbreak and hope do—cemented a bond, I think, neither one of us had known before. Sharing this bond with a girlfriend was new, this vulnerability in giving one’s attention to music, an art that is so often soundtrack for doing other things. During the fall we fell in love, we made whole evenings of sitting in the kitchen of her house in the country outside of Syracuse, drinking wine, scrolling through iTunes. I annoyed her by skipping back halfway through tracks to replay the flashpoint of a crescendo, and she annoyed me by repeating entire 121
songs, notably if something in her day had upset her and hadn’t come out yet, as if the music itself would facilitate some clearing or catharsis. We ordered time by albums, determined routines by track lineups, played the same disc for days and across stretches of our seasonal moods—trying, I think, to find some truth in our early twenties by giving shape or grace to all that was inarticulate, and lost, and anxious. It’s the music that stays with me a decade later, a soundtrack that colored that fall, and the desperation of our youth, and the descent into another winter in the Rust Belt birthplace we still found ourselves occupying. And music brought us to the snowless December night when she was twenty and I was twenty-two, sitting on the floor in her kitchen, drunk on gin, a young Van Morrison warbling out of the speakers. At first, I think, we talked of leaving Syracuse, of traveling and returning renewed, figuring out life after we’d gained perspective somewhere else, and somehow—I don’t remember how—Alaska came up. It felt as if we had tripped over some Alaskan thread and realized it had been there the entire time, but nothing ever works that way. Whether you knew it or not, you’ve already unspooled the thread. “Can you drive there?” she asked, and grabbed the atlas; after a moment of studying its pages, she looked up at me—hopeful, warm, renewed. She asked if we ought to go there together. I said sure. That night we burned our cigarettes in an old tire we found in the yard, drew up a budget, made dramatic vows. We got through the next six months together dreaming of somewhere else, and then, as if waking, we left. By a strange turn of circumstances, we ended up housesitting a remote, mountainside cabin for friends-of-friends-of-friends in 122
northern Colorado, alone for the first six weeks of the journey, and thus our escape west became, in its first leg, an escape toward further isolating ourselves. We grew used to the elevation. We read and hiked and listened to music. Weeks passed without seeing anyone else; we lived in a shared, isolated bliss—not much different from the life we had escaped except that it felt, for the first time, like our own. At the cabin those six weeks, we listened to Van Morrison’s album, Astral Weeks, which seemed to live independently of season, or mood. We both wanted that dreamy music always; we never got sick of it. It did not suffer Sarah’s veto power, invoked when my selection was too dark or depressing, as it so often was (e.g., Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Mogwai). Nor did I find it too bright, too unrealistically happy. If all the other music we obsessed over gave us shared moods and languages, communal experience, ritual, even myth—then Astral Weeks gave us a mirror, a small one, held wide enough to fit both of our faces. It seemed to always be on: when we woke up, when we made breakfast, when we made love, when we took the odd drive to town for supplies. It seemed to fit our new life, and thus it too became the soundtrack for when we left that place, on a Friday in July, cork-screwing down and out of those mountains from Allenspark, headed to Alaska. We didn’t speak for most of the first hour on the road. Some sadness lingered, following us because we had come to love that place, had grown comfortable there in the apex of our seclusion. Or that sadness came from the music—fixed, it seemed, in loss, in transience. The album brought long, pensive stares at the canyon walls and out over the edges of cliffs to the spreading prairie below. Sarah grew car sick. And she cried. By then, we knew the drive north SPRING 2018
was no longer a visit; we wouldn’t be able to afford a return trip. The gravity of that new reality seemed to pull us down to sea level. We drove to the rest of our lives. The first leg of those new lives stretched 500 miles, to the Tetons, our goal for nightfall, after a stop in Laporte for music. Weeks before, I had lent an acquaintance, T.J., a book of CDs when we had come to see his band in Fort Collins. That week we were leaving, T.J. had called with an invitation to his wedding that weekend, but we were determined to get past Colorado, mostly because we were low on cash: the longer we waited to get to The Great Land, the longer it would take to find work, and the closer we would come to that dark winter. A clock began to tick, forcing time upon us after weeks of existing outside of it altogether. I spoke up, breaking the spell of Astral Weeks. I told Sarah that we needed to make it quick, that we couldn’t spend any time in Laporte. “You make it sound like a robbery,” she said, sniffling. We plunged into and then out of the remainder of the canyon, crossing and re-crossing the Big Thompson River. Sarah curled up into a ball. I stayed in my head. Astral Weeks played on, and again we found ourselves lost in it. When the canyon flattened and opened into the basin that cradles Fort Collins, Sarah’s nausea followed the topography and faded. At the first stoplight over the Cache La Poudre, we could go right for Fort Collins or left for Laporte. Traffic congealed at the light. The sun had risen a quarter of the way into the sky, stark over the plains, bright and open for business. Even though it hadn’t been that long, I felt that we were already haunting that world, the world of other people, and all I wanted was to move on, to drive. I think Sarah knew that. 124
“It’s not too late to stay for the wedding,” she said. “Maybe we just do that, be social, take it from there.” Beneath us, Morrison’s voice whirled and crooned. I said nothing. She knew my answer. She sat up. She put two hands through her dark hair and restarted the title track. “Okay,” she said, waving her hands at her face, drying the tears off. The light turned green. She turned the music up. “I had to get that out of my system. Okay. Okay. We’re driving to Alaska.” But we didn’t drive anywhere. The gas went to the floor and the cars ahead lurched forward without us. The Chevy didn’t budge. I turned the ignition, but it didn’t turn over. I flipped the music off. “Go, honey,” she said. “Green light.” Lights flashed on and off on the dash. Commuters behind us beeped. I tried four or five times to turn the engine over, hearing that death-click, no revolution, and immediately my mind went to the worst—head gasket, starter, something in the engine—while cars began to pass us, trying to catch the light, some with brazen idiocy. It’s a miracle how far the mind can go in ten seconds: our scrapping of the car, our bags in the luggage compartment of a bus, our forlorn looks out the windows, our parents and friends when we returned. I thought: for fuck’s sake, what irony. This was as far as we were supposed to go. She climbed over and shifted to neutral, and by the time I stood at the rear of the car, a pale, middle-aged guy in short sleeves and a tie stood there in front of me, waiting. “Just to the side?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about. He sounded like a waiter. “Help?” he asked, and slapped the trunk, a gesture that was supposed to say: your car, let’s push it, but to me, for a split second, sounded like an indictment. I was on SPRING 2018
that bus still, in silence, watching the country roll on and on, as we retreated back east. “You need help getting this to the shoulder?” he asked, as if I were slow. He was forty-five maybe, freshly shaved, bespeckled. He looked like a high school science teacher. We pushed, grunting in unison until Sarah let off the brake and the Chevy rolled across the gravel and onto the shoulder. The orange sun seemed to slant directly into us. A man in an Oldsmobile honked as he went by, raising a frustrated hand through his window. “You need a ride?” the Good Samaritan asked, and my first thought was that he was trying to hustle us. I shook it off. Shook panic—and the idea of turning back home—out of my system like a leg cramp. This man was being kind. “Thank you,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thank you so much. But we’ve got people here.” In ten minutes, Gretchen—T.J’s bride-to-be—arrived in her Subaru wagon and backed up in front of us, sticking out into the perpendicular lane. She maneuvered her car with grace, unperturbed by the horns of the frustrated. She was an Iowan—svelte, with dark hair and nebulous Midwestern features. She had done a stint in Alaska, working for a repo man, a story we only found vague references to. It gave her an air of brashness and adventure and pragmatism. “We’re so sorry,” Sarah said. “This must be a busy day.” She waved it away. “I’m no bridezilla,” she said. “Don’t be silly.” I hitched a tow cable to the Subaru with maybe five feet between us. Sarah climbed in with Gretchen. Gretchen stuck her head out the driver’s side window. “Anywhere?” she asked. 126
“Whatever’s closest.” Closest was a dingy, nameless place with two garages on Laporte’s main drag, a mile east of T.J. and Gretchen’s house. Inside, a bare reception area held an industrial coffee maker with week-old coffee and an antique soda machine. A middle-aged couple milled around behind the desk. The woman was on the phone, negotiating the price of a mysterious part. I told Gretchen not to wait, and she said to call or come by the house whenever we wanted. “And stick around for tomorrow night,” she said. “Plenty of room. You’ll love it.” The shop’s lone mechanic was a tall guy in his late forties with busted teeth and the names of naval vessels tattooed on his oildarkened arms. The embroidery on his shop shirt spelled Paul in looping cursive. He took his time. He asked where we were from and where we were going, which made me self-conscious about our New York plates, suspicious he might want to rip us off on account of our desperation or perceived New York affluence; in retrospect, how anyone might perceive affluence from the image of a beat-up 1994 Chevy Corsica and two kids who’d been in the mountains for weeks is beyond me. We were skinny. Our clothes had holes in them. My beard had grown in red and patchy—the smears of hair coming out horizontally, if not failing to come out at all in certain places, especially where a mustache was supposed to be. Still, I thought admitting where we were headed sounded aimless, naïve, driving all that way in this aging car when the world seemed to offer so many more practical things to do, especially, perhaps, to a mechanic in Colorado. We had barely spoken to anyone in a few weeks, and in my sensitivity to its feelings about our making it, I feared the world was conspiring against us. “We’re headed north,” I said. SPRING 2018
Paul bent over the open hood of the Chevy, squinting in the sun, a cigarette dangling. “Where north?” he said. “Wyoming.” He nodded and grabbed at a few hoses in the engine compartment. “Then Alaska,” Sarah said. I rolled my eyes. Paul bent up and his face brightened, and I wondered if it was because he saw more dollars on the horizon. “Alaska?” he said. “Shit, never been there. Been alotta places too, but not Alaska.” As he fiddled with the car, Paul listed the lots of places he’d been while in the Navy, which covered nearly the entirety of the Pacific. He leaned over in the dusty Laporte heat as the Chevy sat immobile. I watched our chances of making it to the Tetons that day rise up and evaporate like his exhaled smoke, while Sarah kept trying to think of the names of Pacific countries, as if she were trying to stump him. “Samoa?” “Of course,” he said. “Singapore?” “Lovely place.” Paul lit one cigarette after another, which made me drool. I had, by that point, gone without smoking for nearly six months. I watched his mouth as the smoke curled upward, and his words piled out. Sarah prodded Paul for more: the cuisines he’d tried, his unlikely friendships with different peoples. All of this probably would have been interesting had I been paying attention, but all I could think about was the car’s likely death, and how fitting that the soundtrack that had been playing for months would find its end, like a coda, back in Syracuse, having made it not even halfway. I couldn’t shake this thinking—realizing how vulnerable we really 128
were, and how much we depended on each other, and on that car, and on all of its parts working. I thought of taking Sarah aside and explaining that, had she been cold to Paul the mechanic, he’d be working more quickly, and that would maybe save us money, but what I really wanted to communicate was that she should be as anxious as I was, that she ought to be sharing in this wavelength I was stuck on. After twenty minutes of talking and fiddling inside the engine compartment, Paul stood up, tossed his cigarette and brushed his hands together. The diagnosis: one dead alternator, not to exceed $300, including labor. That was probably a quarter of our available cash, and so I asked him how much the part was, and his price seemed high for an alternator. “That seems high for an alternator,” I said. “Well,” Paul said, expressionless. I had no idea if that actually was high for an alternator. Just a feeling. I told him we’d think about it and walked out to a phone booth near the shop where I looked for a number for a parts store in Fort Collins. The store I called quoted me at twenty dollars cheaper, and when I asked Paul about the difference, he said, “That’s my markup. How do you expect us to make a profit?” I didn’t have an answer for that. “You can tow it somewhere else if you like.” “Ah, fuck it,” I said, with perhaps a bit too much passion. Paul raised an eyebrow. Sarah frowned. “Sorry, sorry. Go ahead. Order the part.” “Make yourselves at home then,” Paul said. “It’ll be a bit.” SPRING 2018
Sarah and I sat in the reception area and discussed taking Gretchen up on her offer. If this took until the afternoon, we wouldn’t make it to the Tetons until late at night, unlikely to find a place to camp. We milled about the shop alone for a long, hot stretch—Paul’s wife, or whoever she was, had apparently dissolved into the heat. At one point an ancient, husky-like dog wandered in, panting. She resembled a geriatric she-wolf. Sarah found a bowl and ran into the bathroom to fill it, and then stroked her matted fur as she drank. The she-wolf was our only visitor. No humans came. No packages were delivered. A cop pulled up later on and, after a brief pause, turned his cruiser around and pulled out. After an hour or two, I walked to the gleaming convenience store a block away and bought a Pepsi for Sarah and a soft pack of Camel Lights for myself. Once the thought of smoking had entered my mind, I couldn’t expel it. “Sorry,” I told her, when I came back, unable to meet her eyes. “It’s just for today.” She sighed. The cigarette tasted like the first ones I ever tried— like fire, but somehow sweet. There’s nothing like boredom mixed with anxiety as motivation for vice. I savored having something to do, but then felt weak and guilty. I smoked one more and threw out the pack. It hurt but we paid the $300, and as we prepared to drive off, new alternator alternating, Paul explained without my asking that the car looked in grand shape for a long haul. He must have picked up on my anxieties, which after weeks of flat-lining had risen and fluctuated all day long like a heart rate monitor. Or he just liked Sarah. Or he felt sorry for her, stuck in the car with a jackass like me. “This baby’s hummin’ good,” Paul said as we pulled out. “It’ll get you there.” 130
Astral Weeks still played on that short drive to T.J. and Gretchen’s, but it had lost its potency, didn’t offer up the mirror as it had, nearly nonstop, during the previous month. We didn’t talk to each other on the drive; instead, I stayed in my head, picturing the gray, inevitable return home in failure. Though the car had been fixed, I couldn’t shake that feeling, and this drove me to considering turning back right then and there in Colorado, before some part went awry in the middle of Alberta or B.C. and getting home would become something we’d desperately want to do but couldn’t. What would life look like back home? A bit worse than it had been, for sure. We’d need to find jobs. We’d probably be living with parents. The desire to leave would be stronger than ever but now more difficult to follow, and in that tension, everything would fall apart. We’d break up before we even got home. Laporte was baking by the time we got to T.J. and Gretchen’s. We explained to Gretchen that we were taking her up on her offer to stay the night. “Absolutely,” she said, noting our exhaustion. She asked if we wanted to take a nap and showed us to a guest room. “Get some rest,” she said. “You two look exhausted.” She soon left, running around town picking up party supplies with her mother, and Sarah and I fell asleep in the refrigerated air. I slept deeply and dreamed vividly, the way one does only during afternoon naps in strangers’ homes. I dreamed at first of being chased by some gothic monster, unseen in the dark recesses of the dream, and then later of bluegrass music and dancing at a big party, like a pow-wow, with hundreds of faceless people. I watched from the sidelines as everyone danced. The music remained when I woke a little before five—upright bass, mandolin, guitar. It was haunting. I sat up in the bed next to Sarah, who was out cold. SPRING 2018
How novel that lingering music was, though also creepy, uncanny. It felt like a psychedelic experience, the reality being there but also not. The syncopations of the bass danced in the pit of my gut. Voices rose in the bluegrass harmonies where the third and the fifth fell in, staggered and twangy, escalating with the help of each other, optimistic yet desperate all the same. Done right, it’s a lovely sound. This was done right. After a few measures, the song snapped shut and was followed by laughter and intermittent conversation. Then it started up again. Strange business. With Sarah still asleep, I crept out the bedroom door and stumbled through that empty, unfamiliar house. As if I were in a dream, all of the edges cloudy, I found myself in front of a wide picture window in the living room. Outside, just beyond the window, four bluegrass musicians in their late twenties played on the front lawn underneath a big cottonwood. They stood in the shade, drinking cans of Pabst, and didn’t notice at first when I came out and sat on the porch. They were exquisite pickers. The mandolin player—a short, red-faced, darkhaired man in a western vest—picked so fast you couldn’t follow his left hand. He sang with a lovely twang—a buttery stream of sweet, Appalachian earnestness. When the bassist plunked, you felt it in your intestines. The other two were guitarists—a stocky bearded guy on rhythm, and a pale, lanky, long-haired guy on lead. The long-haired guy was the first to introduce himself. His name was Jon, and he had that warm, unguarded confidence you can find in musicians, especially, perhaps, in bluegrass musicians: happy to be there, to be playing this music, as if it were a gift, a privilege, which I suppose it was. The others introduced themselves, taking turns shaking my hand. They were friends of T.J.’s who had driven from Portland to play at the reception. Jon offered me a Pabst and I begged them to continue. 132
“Keep playing, please,” I said, and savored the beer. Jon counted off and then I fell into their picking and circling, their hollering and yodeling, those humble, hopeful, blue harmonies rising up like a good breeze. I sat on the porch tapping my foot, drinking their beers. Sarah came out after an hour—clouded and clingy in sleepiness—and sat beside me, mid-song. The players nodded at her, smiling. She took a sip from my beer. The shade underneath the cottonwood was as pleasant as a cool bath. “What is this?” she asked. I shrugged and she smiled and leaned into me, putting her head on my shoulder. I think we both felt less lost there, in front of the music. I think we recognized the shadows of some opaque truth we had stumbled upon. We listened until the daylight grew weak, until everyone came home. That night we broke bread together—me, Sarah, the band, T.J. and Gretchen and Gretchen’s parents, a few friends in town for the wedding. We sat around afterward, drank wine and told stories. The evening among these strangers felt boisterous and tensionless, light, graceful. And then it became clear to both Sarah and me that we’d have to leave in the morning. I remember looking up and seeing that in her, during a moment when the conversation turned to noise and I felt myself apart from it. Those big eyes across the room, no longer searching for anything. The clarity in her face. We didn’t have to discuss it. The urge was to move on, but it was no longer desperate. A wholesome impulse, a longing to leave this place of warmth and carry it with us. It washed over like a wave. After dinner, we talked music with Jon, the guitarist. He and Sarah and I sat in the captain’s chairs in the band’s conversion van and watched the lightning finger picking of a Gypsy jazz guitarist on SPRING 2018
the small television set mounted above. “You listen to this stuff,” Jon said, pointing to the screen, “and you forget about everything. He mesmerizes it right out of you. Brings you out of yourself.” We tapped our feet to the pulse of the swing’s tempo and smoked Jon’s cigarettes and drank his beer and the noodling of the guitar took over everything, pulled us in. Then I became pleasantly drunk. Band members came and went from the van. Sarah explained our trip, looking up at me as she filled in details, as if to confirm that she was right, that what we were doing was right, and I nodded and smiled. No one asked why we were going. They understood. We ate more. We drank more. I forgot the unease that had taken over earlier in the day. I forgot that the rest of the day had occurred. We traded stories back and forth like sips from a bottle, always coming back to music: the bands we’d seen, the voices that spoke to us, the failure of language to capture what happens when the world makes sense in a way you can never have words for, and the moments when, by virtue of that clarity, you’re not lonely anymore. Early the next morning, we rose and left before that house awoke. I grabbed the CD book. Sarah left a note. We started Astral Weeks again, and pointing the car north, sang along.
Telling Stories ALYSIA SAWCHYN
When I was maybe fourteen, I rode a clattering tram with another girl to the outskirts of Riga, in Latvia. The car screeched to its final stop on the line, and we could see the city’s last edge of industrial buildings flattening into countryside. I don’t remember where we were trying to go, but that wasn’t it. We were visitors to the city. My friend spoke only English, and between my eyes and her skin, we were marked as foreigners even if we kept quiet. The fall sun sets early in the north, and long shadows from the Soviet-era architecture crawled and lengthened across the streets. We had no map, no smartphone, no understanding of the local language. The tram driver squinted at the sound of my mangled Russian: Where are we? How do we get back? He gestured in a vague direction toward a line of taxis. The address of the home where we were staying was written on a small piece of paper. It had crumpled in my pocket and then again in my cold hands while I tried to negotiate the trip with a cab driver. Do you know this place? How much? “What language are you speaking?” the man asked. I shrugged. For most of my adolescence, I feigned fearlessness, and it worked in my favor a surprising amount. The cab driver knew the address. We had enough money. We made it back. I can’t remember if we told anyone that we’d even gotten lost. I have many stories like this one. I spent five years, all of middle school and the beginnings of high school, growing up half wild 135
in Ukraine and Poland. The international schools I attended had agreements that allowed students to travel easily and often between countries for various tournaments and events. During these visits, we were assigned host families, usually parents of children attending the local school, who fed and housed us. Everyone meant well, and we were supposed to be supervised, but it was easy for us to wander like packs of feral cats, all hormones and hunger. Many of us were at these schools for only a year or two at a time, moving at the whim of our parents’ employment. We cycled in and out of each other’s lives quickly, but our memories remained. In Prague, I walked with another girl down cobblestone streets, passing bar after dimly lit bar. Her hair haloed red in the streetlights. Miniature liquor bottles leaned against one another in wooden cases nailed up by the doorways. We spent our last night in the city at a hotel, and the morning of our return flight, drank orange juice and leftover champagne we’d purchased from a kiosk for breakfast. It was a halfhearted and desperate mimosa. We didn’t know the name for the drink or that there even was a name. The alcohol was flat and warm. When I drink, my cheeks and nose pink up, but it was easy to blame the color of my face on the cold. It was easy to say I wasn’t feeling well because I don’t like flying. When I look back at my past, I can see so easily the beginnings of patterns that now shout like warning signs. Compare those stories to a night in Bucharest with a Ouija board and an earthquake. If told the right way, this story seems tame and quaint, something out of a Nancy Drew novel. Imagine: three girls, giggles interspersed with shhhhhs and nervous squeals, and small socked feet tiptoeing over a wooden floor. I was thirteen and had never seen a Ouija board outside of a movie. Li was just a few years older. I called her my sister because 136
we were friends and everyone asked if we were related, but this says more about where we lived than about us. We don’t actually look alike except in the broad strokes of a racial category—flat nosed, dark eyes and hair, skin that takes well to sunlight. We sat crosslegged on the floor, fingers on the planchette. “How many heart attacks did my grandfather have?” I asked the board. The pointer moved. Our other temporary housemate, Kirsten, watched from the sides, preaching damnation. She was all Veggie Tales and weekly choir practice and prone to what I believed were hysterics. Never far from her inhaler, she complained of asthma and allergies at what seemed like only the most convenient times. Li looked down at our fingers. “How many heart attacks did he have?” she asked. “Five,” I said. “Holy shit.” She flung the board across the room. The planchette had landed on five. We went to bed shaking. The next morning, our host mother asked how we had slept. She seemed surprised when we said everything was fine, given that Li and I were on the floor. “You didn’t feel it?” she asked. “The earthquake?” “No,” we said. Kirsten looked triumphant. She knew our attempts at communicating with the dead might be somehow responsible for the earth’s shudders, but she kept quiet about it. ***
Outside the frame of any story is context. What we leave out can change everything. The night we arrived in Bucharest, Kirsten felt asthmatic at the thought of sleeping on the floor, and claimed the one single bed for herself, but it wasn’t enough. She sat upright in the bed, mouth quivering like a puppy learning to howl, eyes watering as she blinked so fast they looked shut, dark eyelashes a hummingbird’s wing. I slapped her. “Stop it,” I said. Kristin held her face where I’d hit it, eyes wide like a film starlet. Her expression twisted as if she’d cry in earnest and, with it, something around my diaphragm did, too. “I’m sorry,” I said. Then, quickly, “You’re making it worse. I was trying to get you to breathe.” That’s the same story I told the next day, back around the other girls from school: I was trying to get her to breathe. I said the sentence like I’d acted wholly in her best interests, like I was handing out a cough drop. But I knew—not even deep-down, but consciously, with jangling nerves lighting up my skin—that I had done a bad thing. I knew if she told the story before I did, I would be in a deep kind of trouble, and I would, this time, wholeheartedly deserve it. *** My grandfather, my mother’s father, died when I was two. For a long time, I believed he’d died during his fifth heart attack. I’m not sure where I got that number. Any man surviving five heart attacks is unlikely, and it’s even less likely for my grandfather, living in Southeast Asia at the end of the twentieth century. As an adult, I 138
assumed he’d suffered one, maybe two, but when I asked my mother for a count, the story changed again. “He didn’t have any,” she said. She wasn’t sure what he died of, exactly. He was very old when he went into the hospital, she said, and had trouble with his lungs. Some combination of the two, exacerbated by a lifetime of breathing polluted air, proved fatal. Of course, I looked when my and Li’s fingers were on the planchette so many years ago, but sometimes there are lies within lies. Sometimes I don’t know I’m doing it. Sometimes I misremember. I would like to say I learned to drink normally and responsibly. I would like to say Kirsten was the last person I struck. Even that would be too easy; sometimes, the strangest and unlikeliest memories are the true ones. No one I’ve asked can remember the exact dates of our trip, but that earthquake did probably happen. Romania is located in the Vrancea seismogenic zone, and there were five earthquakes in the county this past year, not counting the numerous small shocks that are felt but register under 1.5 on the Richter scale and so go unrecorded. Bucharest is the most tremor-prone capital of Europe. A girl gets lost, a girl drinks day-old champagne, a girl hits another girl. I’ve always felt the need to appear more callous than I am, and I am a person who plans ahead and tells stories to set the ground for a softer fall later on. On my bookshelf, in a photo album, I have a creased, undated picture of Li and me sitting over a Ouija board. I look so young; my hair is unceremoniously pulled back with a fat, clunky scrunchie, and my glasses are too round for my face’s shape. Kirsten must’ve taken the photo, and I don’t know how it came to be mine, but if I could SPRING 2018
step back in time to that moment Iâ€™d tell all three of those girls a story about my grandfather, about how he had asthma, too.
What Happens When Love Changes ADRIENNE CHRISTIAN The year was 2000, and I was running with a group of ladies called The Fun Girls. (Some said that I was running that group of ladies called the Fun Girls.) We were living in a white wooden house on White Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we were all University of Michigan students. Folks called it The Fun House, but not everyone would call what was going on in The Fun House fun. Some would call it lascivious, deviant debauchery. (Other, more reasonable types would call it College.) Technically, I didn’t live at The Fun House, but I had a set of keys there, and I was there every day without fail, with the ladies who did live there—Stephanie Walter, Tanya Thomas, and Gabrielle Mol (called, G). Everyone called me Ebony. It was there that we giggled at Ricki Lake reruns weekday afternoons at 2, and there that we made thick-sliced maple bacon, eggs, and home fries for breakfast every morning. Some mornings would find us on the front porch swing, drinking Milwaukee’s Best, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., as oftentimes, that was when one or all of us would come tumbling home. We talked literature and life, boys and men, music, The Young and the Restless. We talked of graduation, too, when and if we were sober. Because G and I were both English majors, we also wrote poems together, each one of us taking turns adding a line until we’d crafted one we both liked. And we wrote and read fiction stories, too. G might look up from her book to ask me a question like, “Hey babe, what’s ineffable?” I’d say, “Use it in a sentence.” 141
So she’d say, “A sentence? OK then. What is the definition of ineffable?” Then we’d fall out into laughter. It wasn’t unusual for random boys (and men!) to be hanging out at the House. Say the four of us were at the wine store buying booze and rolling papers, without fail a group of guys (or men!) would ask, “Where the party at, ladies?” It was always me or G who would offer up our address and an invitation. And they’d end up in our living room, all of us smoking and drinking whatever we’d intended to buy, but that they’d ended up buying for us. We never asked them to buy us things; they just did it because of Men Math—Stephanie plus G and Tanya and me equaled men-hand-over-your-wallets. I was vodka; Tanya, wine; G, beer; Stephanie, bubbly. They always bought us whatever we wanted. G and me were also affectionately called The Black Martha Stewarts because of the way we catered to the Fun House guests. I’d hand out glasses (Glasses! Not that tacky white Styrofoam) and G would follow behind me, pouring whatever was your poison. We’d drape napkins across guests’ laps and then fill them with Cheetos, Classic Lays, good chocolate, and/or Totino’s pizza rolls. These stranger-guys always grinned and said the same stupid thing—damn, they couldn’t decide which of us ladies to choose!—at which we’d smirk and grow slightly annoyed because, What made them think they’d be getting any one of us? Just because they were in our House eating our chips and chocolate, and drinking our liquor, and we were flirting with them, and we were walking around in our bras and panties because it was summer and we didn’t have A/C, and because we were smoking their weed—it did not mean we were there for their getting. It meant we were Fun Girls in a Fun House. 142
When we weren’t having these impromptu parties, we were having official ones. We were famous for the parties we hosted, all dressed in black clothes and stilettos. Tanya, who was tiny up top, was Padded and Black. Stephanie with her amazing back muscles was Backless and Black. I was Black and Mini because of my Tina Turner legs, as folks called them. And G was Black Halter and Black Jeans, because that was G—she loved her some jeans. Jeans we’d have to help her get into with a wire clothes hanger: she’d lie flat on the floor and I’d place my foot on her belly button to flatten it; she’d (squeeeeze) try to pull both sides of the zipper together, to meet in a kiss. Once she had, Stephanie would slip the curl of the clothes hanger through the square in the zipper, and yank till the zipper came all the way up. Then, G could finally fasten and stand. She wasn’t plus-size; she was phat. At the University of Michigan, football was a religion. And every one of those sexy, big-body ball players broke curfew to party with me and my crew. I’m thinking now of one in particular; his name was RJ Staples. His shoulders were so oh-my-gawd that he could’ve carried that pigskin and all four of us Fun Girls into the end zone at the same time—us beauties balanced on those beauties, a tower of short-skirted cheerers, RJ with the ball tucked in the crook of his left elbow, with his right hand extended out, Heisman-style. RJ, Bobby Junior, was kind, too. He always took out the trash after our parties, and always fixed whatever his rowdy teammates broke. If there was a fight—and there was always a fight—it was RJ who stepped in to remind the drunken fools that “Y’all brothas fools!” and brothers had no business fighting brothers. Lots of times, the cops got called for our guests using the front lawn as a vomitorium, and for us having the music so loud we set off not only car alarms, SPRING 2018
but once, a campus building alarm. RJ and his teammates would sign autographs for the cops’ kids and get them to go away without ticketing us. One teammate, Shane Whittman, whom we all called Whit, was the one who’d kept calling us Fun Girls at the Fun House. Needless to say, the name stuck. And we were all sticking too! In fact, the Fun House could have been called The Glue Pot, given all the sexing going on. And with the way we were all trading partners, it could’ve also been called the Stock Market. It was nuts, but lovely, because we were all good friends. When the guys had homework due, G and I would help them. And on the days when practice left them with knees and ankles the size of basketballs, it was me, her, Stephanie, and Tanya who would touch them soft and ice them, and not tell anyone on campus that they’d cried. The Fun House fell down when two strangers came into town. The first was Saundra Forrester. She sublet the house next door to The Fun House because, like all of us Girls, she hadn’t wanted to go home to her mother’s for the summer. She’d had a falling out with the friend she’d lived with in May and June, which is why we didn’t meet her until late summer, in July. Saundra was also a junior and an English major. G could say to her, “Hey, give me another word for acumen,” and Saundra could give it to her. Saundra also had a car. If G. didn’t feel like cooking, she could say, “Want me to go pick you up something, Doll?” (I noticed she began calling G “Doll.”) Kevin Christopher was the second stranger to come take a wrecking ball to The Fun House. He was 10 years older than us Girls, and was a dope dealer, a dough boy. KC was the stereotypical African-American urban drug dealer too—he had one of those cars 144
with hydraulics that, at red traffic lights and stop signs, bounced up and down to the beat of the bass (when he actually stopped at red lights and stop signs). His speakers were as big as his car. His house was a big as two houses. He kept thousands of dollar bills in shoe boxes under his bed, because he didn’t think dollar bills were real money. “Dat ain’t nuttin but play dough,” he’d grin. “Dats fuh my nieces and nephews.” (Play-Doh.) Saundra had met KC at a Detroit nightclub called The River Rock. That night, she and G had gone there together; Tanya and Stephanie had gone home to Stephanie’s house in Flint, Michigan; and I was holed up with a kitten cat named Derrick Can’t Remember His Last Name. He only lived across the street from the House, but for the two weeks that we “dated,” he was so goddamn! that I didn’t see the light of day, or my Girls. It was SexSmokeSportsCenter. SexSmokeSportsCenter. SexSmokeSportsCenterVodka. With him. When I went back to the House a couple weeks later, KC was there, at the dining room table. Saundra was seated beside him, Gabrielle seated opposite. When I walked in, he didn’t even (or, perhaps it was he couldn’t even??) hide his interest in me. He stood and pumped my hand up and down like I was the President. And he wouldn’t stop grinning, showing all his pearly whites and one gold cap. (In the time I’d spent away with Derrick CRHLN, KC had been spoiling G and Saundra for weeks with food, wine, weed, and pills. He’d taken Saundra out solo to a nightclub once, but he hadn’t slept with her.) Eleven days in a row, KC came to The Fun House to “see Saundra,” but wouldn’t stop gawking at me. I could sense what was happening so I stayed out of his way, unless I was pouring his drink, plating his chips, or setting fire to his spliff. Saundra wasn’t the hostess G SPRING 2018
and I were, so she was cool with me serving him, and her. He kept smiling at me, “Thanks, E. Thanks, Eb.” Kevin’s gold tooth—or, as he called it, his goal toof—yuck. (What the fuck.) Even though it wasn’t one of the ones in the front, it was still, ya know, a gold tooth. Even if he did like me, Saundra had absolutely nothing to worry about. Sure, I’d kicked it with ballers and dough boys back home in Detroit, but I mostly liked nerds— smart private school boys who wore glasses, who’d already been accepted to Michigan’s Ross School of Business, or the Michigan School of Engineering, who were already wowing in their internships at Yazaki, GM, and Ford, who were dreaming of MBAs. Besides, KC had a belly. But there’s something about a man with a mansion, cool cars, and a wallet that shoots out money… He made his move on the 12th day, when he and two of his friends took me, G, and Saundra to the MGM Grand casino in Detroit. None of us ladies were yet 21, but we’d all had fake IDs since we were, like, nine. They were bad IDs, and Security at the door knew it. But KC had clout, so they let us in. What got us bounced out of there, though, was how the three of us girls started jumping up and down, hugging each other once we made it past the door security. (We were too green to know about The Eyes in the Skies, the security cameras.) So, before we could guess red or green at the Roulette table, four cats with big muscles in black t-shirts came and kicked us out of there. “The only reason you ladies aren’t going to jail is because you didn’t yet touch the tables,” one said. So, the six of us rode back to White Street, quiet. The boys felt like they’d let us down, not having shown us the good time they’d promised. And us ladies, well, we felt like girls too stupid to know 146
what to expect at a casino. KC had rented a limousine that night (he always rented limousines to go to the City, if he knew he was going to be drinking.). He sat with Saundra on his left and me on his right, across from Al Smith, Stone Wakefield, and G. KC put his hand on my leg and said to me, “Ebony, baby, I’m sorry.” I didn’t object to the move because Saundra saw him and didn’t say anything. And because there’s something about a man with a mansion, cool cars, and a wallet that shoots out money. G also didn’t say anything that night but when we woke up the next morning, she looked at me, shook her head, and TSK TSK TSK’d: “I knew it I knew it I knew it.” The next day, when I was ready to ask Saundra if she minded if I dated Kevin, I didn’t have to invite her over. She’d already become a fixture—a welcome one—in our House, though it was mostly because of her car. Not having to push our groceries a mile home over concrete in a metal shopping cart was priceless as far as all us Girls were concerned. She saved us that embarrassment. We hugged her and told her we didn’t know what we’d do without her. She was becoming part of our crew; so I simply said, “Last night, Kevin told me he likes me. You don’t mind if I go out with him, do you?” She said, no, she didn’t mind. I said fine. And the five of us girls spent the day as we would any day. I believed Saundra when she said she didn’t mind because, as I’ve mentioned, us Girls were always sharing and trading everything. If we were at a nightclub and G wanted to kiss a guy, she’d say “E, quick! Loan me that peppermint.” I’d take it out of my mouth and give it to her, even if I wanted to kiss a guy that night too. And, say, Stephanie’s dad came to visit and we’d forgotten he was coming, and we were all lounging in the living room watching The Young and the Restless when we heard his “YooHoo,” Stephanie could rush over to Tanya and say, “Quick! I need a pair of panties.” SPRING 2018
And Tanya would take hers off and hand them over. It was the same way with men. If Stephanie dated a guy, and then discovered that he was an ass cat (a guy who loves to eat ass), she’d tell him she had a girlfriend who was more his speed, and then trade him off to G, because that wasn’t Stephanie’s thing. “G, have at it,” she’d laugh. Tanya wanted to stay a “virgin” until she got married. So all the cats who were cool with just anal or oral (ao cats) got passed on to her. I liked guys who loved to go downtown, so I got most of the kitten cats. G’d loan me a dress. I’d loan her a purse. We were a family that shared. Even when I was hopelessly in love with Paul Griffith—a cat I wanted so bad I sent him flowers—when I saw that he liked G more than me, I pulled him out of my heart and set him down before her. And I didn’t make her come to me and ask for him; I offered! That first night they went out, I sobbed in her bed until she came home and called me a fool. “Lord, please send lightning to strike down this fool if she’s crying over a boy. Especially Paul Griffith’s dumb ass.” She laughed. And I laughed. And we made popcorn. Not that awful microwave stuff. Whole kernels in real butter. In the red nice Calphalon popcorn popper Stephanie’s dad had bought for us. We watched Janet Jackson videos on VHS in G’s bed, and fell asleep in our sundresses. Sundresses. The day Saundra bequeathed Kevin to me, he and I spent five hours on the phone talking soft. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he was smart. And Funny. When I told him I liked corny jokes, he asked me what a gingerbread boy covers up with? Then he said, “A cookie sheet.” And he was romantic. He said, “What do you call a dough boy who’s got a girl like you?” (“A man with everything.”) And he told me I was fine as frog leg hair, and that if I’d have him, 148
he could provide anything I desired. The next morning, around 11, he pulled up to the Fun House in his black-tinted Escalade to take me shopping. He bought me Coach bags (plural!), perfumes (again, plural!), Victoria’s Secret bras and panties, a charm bracelet, and two dozen slinky sundresses. After leaving Briarwood Mall, he took me to dinner at Ann Arbor’s famous Gandy Dancer, where we held hands across the table and played footsie underneath. When he ordered champagne for the table, the waiter brought it without asking me for ID. We both smiled at our secret, that I was under 21, his goal toof glinting in the candlelight. And when I told him how much I really loved the champagne, he phoned Al and had him deliver a case to The House. ****** I didn’t want Brian to rape me, but I did want him to be, like, rape-y. Like, if he had morning wood while I was asleep, he could squirt on KY and take it. The craziest place I’d ever done it was in church when I was 15 and dating a guy whose dad was a pastor. Louis and I were only allowed to see each other at church, so we’d sneak off to the choir room where I’d suck him on the piano. My mom made twenty-seven thousand dollars a year. My financial aid would be late that semester because mom had sent in the paperwork late. Because she hadn’t filed taxes the year before. Because she hadn’t had the $99 it cost to file. SPRING 2018
The Christmases my dad had sent me gifts, he’d spelled my name wrong on the wrapping paper. All four of us kids had different daddies and different last names. Once I asked mom if she could change all of our last names to hers, so the message on the answering machine could say, “Spencer residence,” like how, on The Cosby Show, their message said “Cosby residence,” and she smacked me. My mother would have these years where she would just completely check out, and completely neglect us, and everything. There’d be so many roaches, they’d be wallpaper. Some crawled in my ears and were the causes of my girlhood migraines. Mice lived beneath the coils of our electric stove. They’d hang out on the stove until you came in the kitchen, and then run down into the oven. When mom got better and tended to the problem of roaches and mice, my classmates’ parents still wouldn’t let my girlfriends come to my house. Because I lived in Detroit. And because there were steel bars on the windows, fire hazards. When I was 16 my mother came to my school and beat my ass in front of my Physics class. I don’t remember what I’d done. I do remember glass beakers flying everywhere, horrified Ms. Mills. When I was 14, my mother pimped me out to a “family friend.” Everyone knew he was a pedophile, but she needed the money, and with the way the guys on our block were after me, she figured I was already having 150
sex anyway. (I wasn’t.) So when he showed interest in me, she made me spend weekends at his house, “babysitting his kids.” His kids were never there, though. We’d talk, and he’d help me with my Pre-Calc. He’d give me Grants to buy lip gloss, uniform blouses, McDonald’s, a TLC CD. He gave me Absolut vodka and oral sex and never asked me to return the favor. But only at first; later, he made me. I remember the horror of his 34-year-old jizz in my lil mouth, and how I’d cried, and how he’d yelled at me: “How many times have I taken care of you! Now you take care of me!” It was the first time he’d ever yelled at me. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I found out my mom had orchestrated it all. She’d come to his car window and he’d slip her B. Franklins, when he dropped me off at home on Sunday nights.
All these things and more were in emails I’d shared sophomore year at Michigan with my then-boyfriend, Jeremiah Michaels. He had this gift—he could ask probing questions without being offensive. He loved to listen, and I needed to talk. He loved me, and he got me. We even talked about us getting married. But, I cheated on him, with someone he knew, someone in his fraternity. And when he found out—his frat brothers told him—he was humiliated, and he hated me. Later, when I started dating KC, Saundra also felt humiliated, though I didn’t know it. Every time he came to The House, it was a reminder to her that he’d chosen me over her. She’d given him oral sex once, but it was me he was showering with gifts and affection. I didn’t even think to be humble about it. I’d model my new clothes right in front of her. Like Jeremiah, she grew to hate me, and the two SPRING 2018
of them joined forces to teach me a lesson: he forwarded Saundra every email he and I had ever exchanged, and she forwarded them to every organization on campus. Every sororitiy and fraternity— greek@umich. Every student athlete—Athletics@umich. Arts@ umich. Studentgov@umich. Intramural@umich. Every body at Umich. Including G, Stephanie, Tanya, RJ, and Whit. The Girls sat and cried with me, and had nothing more to do with Sandra, but when I proposed some retaliation, they said they didn’t want to get in trouble. They said they could understand why she had done it. “Well, Eb, you did flaunt KC and all your new clothes and cash in her face.” I screamed, “Well, you bitches did help spend the money, and you did drink my case of champagne!” I wish I knew what Saundra had told Jeremiah to get him to agree to join her in destroying me. Probably her apple bottom, waterballoon breasts, and princess laugh did all the talking. I wish I knew, too, when and how they’d even met, and how it came up that he and I had dated. I didn’t know, but I knew that my life was over. I decided I’d jump out of a window. I walked to my apartment to do a quick Internet search of how tall the building needed to be. The last thing I wanted was to fall and not die. While I was sitting at my desktop computer, another response to Saundra’s email pinged. It was from Tamika Johnson, who’d responded-to-all. “Family, let’s not respond to this foolishness,” she’d written. “This is not our business. This is wrong.” And just like that, all the responses calling me Church Whore, Roach Girl, and Mouse House just stopped. Not a single message came after hers. 152
Tamika was beautiful. Regal. Respected. A senior at Michigan. President of lots of clubs. She had a car. And she was kind. I’d met her just once, at a Meet-n-Greet at the Michigan Union, where she was in a group of students leading a political discussion. She talked about why it was a bad idea for the US Military to colonize the moon, because it’d leave so many peoples vulnerable, she’d said. “No nation would ever be able to contend with us at war. From the moon, we’d see them assembling, and thwart the effort!” I fell silent while in Tamika’s presence. What did I have to say to a woman like her anyway? That some baller had left a turd in The Fun House toilet? I was the turd compared to her, and I knew it. I didn’t like it. (But, if I didn’t like football players and dumb Fun House talk, how was it that I’d even ended up at the House?) I found out when Saundra’s email literally forced me into hiding, where in my solitude, I met myself. But first… It was easy to go into hiding—the ordeal happened at the end of the summer, when apartment and summer-sublet leases were up anyway. G, Stephanie, and Tanya had to move out of The House, and Saundra had to move out of the house next door. I was also moving out of my Island Drive apartment, into a one-bedroom on Division St. But I needed help moving. And, I still owed my new apartment rental agency $800 before they’d let me move in. There I was with no friends and not enough money, when KC came to the rescue, sort of. He showed up at Island Drive unannounced, wanting to know where I had been, and why my Girls had told him they hadn’t seen me. “I guess I ain’t yo man no mo,” he said. “I never said that,” I answered. “You don’t call me.” SPRING 2018
“The phone was in my roommate’s name. She had it disconnected when she moved out.” I paused and whispered, “And I don’t hang out over there anymore.” “Let’s go get you a cell right now,” he said. “There’s other things I need more than a cell phone, Kevin.” “What you need, Gorgeous?” “Help moving,” I said, then whispered, “and money, $800.” KC shocked me when he cracked up laughing. “Aw, hell naw, Boo, I’m the one you call when you need a body moved, not when you need no damn furniture moved.” He gave me the money I needed, but I never forgave him for not giving me the muscle. That day was the last day I’d speak to him. Back then, I was barely 135 pounds, but I hoisted those boxes up on my head and shoulders like I moved furniture for a living. I folded my mattress in half like a one-piece-of-bread sandwich and shoved that badboy through the narrow front door. Out there on the lawn, I shoved and shoved it with my foot till I got it to the Uhaul. Because I didn’t have a toolset, I kicked and kicked at the bedframe’s screws until finally I disassembled it. Angling my big desk through the narrow doorframe was a rhinoceros too. The darn legs didn’t screw off. The darn drawers kept sliding out, too, and I’d long ago run out of packaging tape to tape them closed. It took seven hours to get everything boxed up and out of the apartment. But, even with that done, I still had a ton to do. Get all the posters off the wall. Get all the pieces of masking tape used to affix all the posters to the wall off the wall. Get everything out of the refrigerator: toss the condiments, wipe out the flaky onion and garlic skins left in the vegetable bins. It was 3 a.m. by the time I was finished. As for the Uhaul—not only did 154
I drive it, I drove it in the dark. I backed it into the narrow driveway too. I unloaded it, and carried all its contents up the three flights of stairs to my new place. “I did this all by myself,” I thought. Maybe I don’t even need Stephanie, Tanya, and G. While I was unpacking, one of the books I uncovered was Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. I didn’t remember ever buying that book, but there it was in my collection. “A spiritual guide, huh?” I thought to myself. I’d turned to God shortly after the Sandra ordeal first happened, spending eight straight days lying in bed reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, highlighting, underlining, and starring all the passages that promised God would smite my enemies. (I really liked the smite-my-enemies parts!) The problem was I’d also found the Bible sexist and misogynistic, and I needed a God who loved girls (a God who could even love Girls). I’d closed the Bible and decided, I’ll be spiritual, not religious, which is why Ms. Cameron’s book caught my attention. And while I found her book insightful and restorative, it was another book she’d listed in the index as a suggestion for further reading, that gave me an answer about why I’d been drawn to The Fun House. The book was Home Away from Home: The Art of Self-Sabotage. Reading it, I learned: That sexualization is a form of sexual abuse in which parents don’t necessarily touch their children in inappropriate ways themselves, but introduce them to sexual conversation, scenarios, and images before they are ready. Girls who are sexualized often become hypersexual—having multiple partners, being addicted to flirting, flaunting their bodies, and the like. That The Fun House was the Home I’d always longed for—clean and comfortable, with brownies baking, and the matriarch serving everyone. SPRING 2018
That the name “The Fun Girls” was, for me, like the last name I wanted on the answering machine, to signify we were a whole, healthy, happy, functioning family. That G was a kind of mother figure for me, and that I was one for her. So when she said, “Well you did flaunt the things KC bought you,” it was pain like a child losing her mother, but also pain like a mother losing a child. (No wonder I wanted to kill myself.) That I wanted to be “raped” because I’d grown up on that. One of the chapter’s in The Artist’s Way explores what Julia Cameron calls “Gain Disguised As Loss.” It means that what you think may be the worst thing to ever happen to you may actually be the best—the unwanted child who becomes the great love of your life; the cancer diagnosis that makes you really start living, knowing tomorrow isn’t promised. Saundra sending out those emails to everyone on campus was my gain disguised as loss. I lost my Girls, but in doing so I found the space and time to heal—recalling Tamika’s compassion toward me, I began to develop compassion for others; learning that abusers are often abused themselves, I decided to forgive my childhood molester; inviting my mother to join me in counseling, she and I took a giant step toward restoring our relationship; and, walking Cameron’s path to higher creativity, I discovered I was a writer.
The Thing I Don’t Understand BRENDAN STEPHENS
Steve and B were straight-edge punks and metalheads who hadn’t even turned thirteen yet. During lunch and on the bus and after school, they sang hardcore riffs to make each other laugh—an inside joke that annoyed everyone, even their other friends. Eventually they wrote full songs, each having their own parts in their purposefully generic Acappella hardcore songs. When they bought tickets to see one of their favorite hardcore bands—Uniform Choice—Steve said they should jump onstage between bands and do one of their songs. B said they definitely should, thinking that Steve would forget in minutes. But as the show got closer and closer, the joke built and built until it was no longer a joke at all, but an inevitability. After the opening band had finished their set, Steve and B climbed onstage and grabbed the microphones which were still damp with breath. They sang their riffs to an audience that mostly ignored them. Those who watched were either baffled or pissed. Were these two dark-haired Florida kids mocking them? In a sense, Steve and B both were and weren’t. They truly loved the music, but they also found the macho-seriousness that many in the scene exuded unintentionally hilarious. After almost exactly a minute of fucking around, they dropped the mics with a thud and feedback and then crawled off-stage. They were embarrassed and tried to blend in, which of course was impossible until Uniform Choice took the stage. Only then could they once again lose themselves in the music. 157
When the opening bass line for Uniform Choice’s most popular song “Screaming for Change” started, Steve handed B two rolls of pennies. When the chorus kicked in and the vocalist shouted, “I’m screaming for change,” Steve and B threw handfuls of pocket-change at the band. There are a lot of joke-bands in the punk scene. Get a couple of alienated teenagers with musical talent together and inevitably a joke turns into a novelty record. It probably has something to do with how the genre prides itself on both sincerity and seriousness, though it could also be due to the relative age of the most active members in the scene. The life-blood of the do-it-yourself scene are the teenagers and early-twenties punks that would never skip an opener or leave without buying a shirt, and naturally, they infuse the scene with inside jokes that are pushed until someone has written a song. Long-running bands like Gwar and Aquabats turned their gimmicks—claiming to be intergalactic space-invaders and a league of superheroes respectively—into successful music careers. Studio projects are even more common with multiple releases from bands like Hatebeak—a band with an African grey parrot named Waldo providing all of the vocals over blistering grindcore music. However, the most bewildering band of the bunch is Steve and B’s band, Jud Jud. Jud Jud only has one punchline: they are an instrument-less straight-edge hardcore band. Emulating the palm-muted riffs in cliché hardcore songs, the two vocalists in Jud Jud say “Jud” with syncopation. Less often they say “wahnahnah” for guitar hammeroffs, “bubububub” for double-kick drum beats, “shpish” for cymbal crashes, and other onomatopoeic noises as needed. That’s the entirety of the joke. 158
The comedian Will Forte said this about repetition comedy: I think it’s almost like a waiting game. You know, saying, “I’m going to keep doing it. You’re going to have to respond at some point.” You have to take that chance that they might never respond and then it’s really, really horrible. But usually if you just keep doing it, they have to. Even if it’s just to get you to shut up, they’ll respond in some way. On SNL, Forte once wrote a four-minute sketch where the joke is that when asked to spell the word “business” a man proceeds to rattle off nearly a hundred letters, mostly consonants including a series of twelve Q’s in a row. The response that Forte gets from the live audience is the same response that Jud Jud often gets because both are pure repetition comedy. The first ten seconds of a Jud Jud song are really funny. Halfway through the first song it is a little less. Later it’s funny again until it isn’t. Listening to Jud Jud is like that—the humor hits in waves; sometimes the commitment to their schtick is hilarious, but it is just as likely to be met with straight-faces until something about the repetition brings on another wave, then another. Part of the joke is that the band parodies straight-edge. As a reaction against the addiction and self-destruction in the hardcore scene, the band Minor Threat created the term straight-edge which describes a punk-lifestyle of choosing to abstain from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and promiscuous sex. At its core, straight-edge rebelled against the rock n’ roll lifestyle that punk was supposed to be reacting against. Straight-edge adopted the letter X because many venues that sold alcohol put an X on the back of the hands of underage show-goers to alert the bar to not sell them alcohol. SPRING 2018
Sometimes straight-edge punks even voluntarily opted to X their hands long past turning twenty-one. As time went on, other bands took Minor Threat’s loose philosophy and codified into rules. It seemed like everyone had their own interpretation. People argued whether caffeine was breaking edge. What about medication? Did promiscuous sex mean waiting for marriage? Some bands added that to be straight-edge, you needed to go vegetarian or even vegan. The heavier the straight-edge bands became—adopting more influence from metal than punk—the more hardline the views seemed to become, taking a marked right-wing turn. Some of these bands wrote songs that expressed an Abrahamic view of sex that denounced masturbation, pornography, birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Hardcore had splintered along with straight-edge, creating subcultures within subcultures that had both their own sound and interpretation of what it meant to abstain. It was against this backdrop that Jud Jud declared themselves the ultimate straight-edge band because they were too edge for instruments. * Music took over my life in 8th grade, when my older brother started to drive me to school and forced me to listen to punk. By the end of the year, I had dyed my hair black, switched to only wearing band tees, and started my first band. By college, I was in three different bands, which I took out on tour through as many of my breaks that I could afford. All of my bands were sincere, perhaps to a fault. At twenty-three, I convinced my roommates, who were all in various bands themselves, to start a hardcore band just so that 160
I had a chance to play drums. We were all straight-edge, and I assumed we’d be a serious band that were more likely to give leftwing speeches than preach about how others should live. To us, straight-edge wasn’t a calling, just a choice. The decision to be a straight-edge band was partially based on the fact that we all happened to be straight-edge and partially based on our plan to play fast 80’s hardcore like the bands that we grew up listening to. But the problem was that I’m actually a guitarist or front-man. I’m a terrible drummer with no chops to sustain even a minute of blast beats. Rather than give up on the project, the band shifted to playing almost nothing except slower breakdowns, which are associated with militant hardline bands even though only a few of us were familiar with the sub-genre. Truthfully, I was the least into that brand of hardcore—coming into DIY punk through chaotic idea-driven bands, rather than through a search for sheer heavy, brutal riffs. But I liked playing drums, even poorly. We had a recording studio setup in the basement for our different bands, so I recorded the music for the songs before we had ever sat down to write lyrics. The songs spanned twenty seconds to two minutes, and we referred to them by names such as the one with the doofy riff or the cave-man riff or the “ooooh-shit” riff. When we had a demo finished, the three of us sat down to write the lyrics together. Listening back to the tough-guy riffs we had composed, I said, “This sounds like the type of shit where someone goes, ‘If you edge break, we’ll put you in a neck brace.’” I didn’t even mean for it to be a joke. The songs really sounded like a lo-fi version of those militant bands that thought of straightedge as a call for violence. But the other guys laughed hard. “I don’t give a fuck,” the singer said, “We are using that or I’m out.” SPRING 2018
From there, all of us tried to come up with lyrics that were more ignorant and violent than the last. Songs about threatening to fight smokers at shows turned into songs about hiding the bodies of drug dealers in the river. In between the promises of committing crimes, the lyrics were peppered with childish insults, calling out eggheads, posers, and chumps. By the end of the night, we knew our schtick—we would be the most unapologetically violent straightedge band to ever exist. * Before the internet made it so easy to see all of an artist’s credits, people who stumbled upon a Jud Jud record had no way of figuring out who exactly they were. The only names given were Steve and B, no last names. There is only one picture of them online that isn’t photoshopped—two dark-haired, white boys X-ed up and wearing shorts in a generic Florida parking lot. Short of actually knowing Steve and B, there wasn’t anyway to make sense of how this record was made. But the internet’s cataloging of knowledge and a 2017 interview with B—the only one where he has spoken at length about Jud Jud— has made the band somewhat knowable. B Rousse was a prolific drummer in the power-violence and hardcore scene, playing in many short-lived bands like End of the Century Party and In/Humanity. Steve Heritage was in many bands as well, but is mostly known as the guitarist and vocalist for Assück, an anarchist grindcore band that is often hailed as one of the most important bands in the genre. Between the two of them, they have been on over fifty different records with over a dozen different bands. 162
By the time B and Steve were in their late teens, their non-jokebands were taking them outside of Tampa for weekend gigs and regional tours, but they took Jud Jud along with them in Spirit. As they got older and became more established within the music scene, Jud Jud went from an annoyance to an oddly respected presence— an inside joke that everyone was in on. They would regularly both be at a DIY venue or a house show when the promoter would suggest that Jud Jud should play a few songs between bands, and they’d go along with it. Occasionally, Jud Jud would even be booked as a proper act. Eventually they met one of the founders of No Idea Records, Var Thelin—another wiry, dark-haired Florida punk. No Idea had cultivated an absurdist element into punk in the local Gainesville, Florida punk scene. Thelin immediately got the joke, even going so far as suggest that Jud Jud’s “genius knows no bounds.” By this time Thelin had quit his job as a screen-printer in order to make the label his full-time gig. He was putting out early records by Less Than Jake and Jawbreaker—bands that would go on to be national headliners and would sign to major labels. Not only did Steve and B become friends with Thelin, but he agreed to be the sound engineer for the first Jud Jud demo. Even A cappella joke-bands need to rehearse when preparing to record. Jud Jud discovered an advantage that their other bands didn’t have—they could practice over the landline phone. They set a time and then Steve called B. Then in their own apartments they would “Jud Jud Jud” and “Ditalit Didalit” and “Wah Nah” and “EEE EEE.” Do barbershop quartets and choirs hold conference calls? Does the millisecond lag throw the timing off? Do they argue over the pitch and tune of electric signals? SPRING 2018
Calling Thelin a sound engineer is a little generous. His role was essentially to show up at Steve’s apartment and hit the record button on the Digital Audio Tape recorder. Steve and B plugged in two mics, hard-panning the vocals: Steve on the left, B on the right. They never bothered figuring out how to record with a digital metronome or how to use overdubs. Instead, they just ran through the songs that they had been singing for eight years. The first Jud Jud demo was called XafiX, which is pronounced like “crucifix” except with an “X” in the first syllable. This is a play on Bold’s song “Nailed to the X,” a popular straight edge song where the vocalist claims that he is so dedicated to straight-edge that he is, well, “Nailed to the X.” Whenever End of the Century Party or Assück went on tour, they brought along these demo cassettes, spreading Jud Jud demos throughout record stores all over the United States. After recording another demo, Steve approached No Idea Records with the idea of pressing both demo recordings onto a seven-inch record. The first Jud Jud album, simply known as X THE DEMOS X, was released in 1997. The text for both the band name and the title is in varsity font. On the cover B and Steve are white outlines against a royal blue background—a parody of a Side by Side album, You’re Only Young Once. On the back of the Jud Jud seven inch, all of the songs are encased within X’s and caps-locked: “X GALLOP SONG X” and “X FAST SONG X” and “X HI HAT SONG X.” The first run was 2,146 records on three different colors of vinyl: black, clear, and blue. It sold out in a little over a year without any touring or promotion besides word-of-mouth. Since then, X THE DEMOS X has sold out and been repressed in 1999, 2002, 2004, and 2007. These repressings received a new cover, the text now in gold and the background an Elmo-shade of red. All told, there are 4,417 164
copies of the record in circulation, still sold today in punk distros. To put that in context, many of Steve and B’s touring bands had pressing runs of less than half what the Jud Jud record has received. Without misinformation it is hard to know whether the record would have sold so well. Steve knew that mystery would pique more interest than reality. The average person who bought a Jud Jud record, when trying to understand how this record existed, found nothing but lies in liner notes. The record’s credits claim to have been recorded by legendary hardcore sound engineer Don Fury in 1987 and 1989 rather than in 1996 by Thelin. The booklet contains fake show flyers of the most famous 80’s hardcore bands opening for Jud Jud. Along with the lyrics—complete with every single syllable on the album—was the following quote: “Our lyrics have always been the most important part of JUD JUD. We write them separately and feel that is it necessary to print what each of us has to say. These words represent values, ideals, friendships and motivation. They define who we are. Thanxxx to everyone who has supported us over the years. You have made our dreams a reality. Go!” * Jud Jud Jud
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* For my joke-band’s first show, we ordered ski masks online. We created a whole backstory about how the band had to wear balaclavas at all times because we had so many felony warrants out. Back then, I used to setup house shows at our place every couple weeks back then because it was the only consistent option to play all-ages shows in my small college town in Appalachia. One week, our band was going to open, so before anyone showed up, we setup all the gear. When people asked about the opening band, I said, “I haven’t heard them. I can’t believe they are running so late. But they should be here any minute.” Each of us changed into gym shorts, black tee shirts, and ski masks. Then we paraded through the house giving people the finger and telling them that they were now in a war zone. “You’re not safe,” the guitarist said, pointing at one of our friends and then did the slit-throat gesture. The friend looked around wideeyed, too shocked to even ask, “Who? Me?” We played through the set, and between songs, instead of giving a speech about community—as other bands often did—the singer threatened to shank anyone caught smoking outside. Then we left, delivering more insults on the way out. We changed and then went back outside to the show, our hair slick with sweat from the ski-masks. The friend that the guitarist had singled out came up to me and was like, “Dude, what the fuck was with that band? They were scary as fuck.” 166
I just said, “Wait, they just played? I was out at the ATM.” Every few years, we continued to put out a new album that added more and more new felonies to the band’s criminal record, all committed “in the name of straight-edge.” The albums were just uploaded online for free. The only promotion was a post or two from the band’s only social media page. Tracking the downloads, each release has been a little more popular than the last, despite the lack of touring or any significant promotion. Occasionally, random people contacted us about whether we were for real. Most people seemed to be in on the joke, but Europeans and South Americans routinely either had some disconnect in their translation or perhaps the idea that a punk band full of armed-tothe-teeth wanted criminals is exactly the sort of thing they believe happens in America. Eventually a European record label approached us about releasing one of our records. But before our fourth record went to the pressing plant, the label sent an email that began with this line: “I feel stupid asking this, but are you guys for real?” We sent back all-caps, typo-fueled responses about how there is nothing funny in our music, and about how we have even begun recruiting a straight-edge militia in preparation for the incoming Edge-War— an army of self-described “muscle monsters” with X face-tattoos destroying edge-breakers with the same violent vigilance that they destroy chumps in the mosh-pit. * Jud Jud Jud Jud Jud Jud Jud Jud Jah
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* On YouTube, there is only one grainy-live video of a Jud Jud performance captured on tape. They are playing a show at the Tampa Blue Chair. By then, Steve and B no longer grabbed the mics at larger shows. Instead, they were properly booked in advance. It was the same gag, but one that the audience was in on. In the video, a drummer from another band breaks down his drum kit while Jud Jud play two songs. They rock out to an imaginary beat as they trade off saying the word “jud.” A few people in the front row throw their fists in the air, singing along as if to their favorite band. B holds the mic out to the crowd and one of the members of the audience gives a few “juds” himself. They perform with the confidence and commitment of any other hardcore band. If the volume is turned off, it’s hard not to imagine that this is just a locally popular twovocalist band with the other members playing off-camera, especially when Steve ends the set with a stage dive. For a one-joke, joke-band, it would have been easy to call it a day after finally getting an album on wax. But a year later, they released a follow up seven inch: No Tolerance for Instruments. It offers eight new A cappella songs of generic metalcore riffs with titles like “X SPEED PICKING SONG X,” “X DOUBLE BASS SONG X,” and “X HAMMER-ON SONG X.” The most impressive part of the album is that it doesn’t try to add to the joke. It is Jud Jud doing their thing, which is repeatedly saying the words “Jud Jud.” 168
Those confused at how Jud Jud managed to get X THE DEMOS X on No Idea Records—a label that many punk and hardcore bands would’ve given anything to be on—only became more confused when the second record was put out by Victory Records, a label that launched the careers of Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, and Hawthorne Heights in the mid-2000s. But before Victory Records was a label that put out post-hardcore and emo records, they were releasing the exact tough-guy hardcore records that Jud Jud mocked. Many Victory bands advocated the more militant hardline view of straight-edge and often encouraged violence at shows. If No Idea Records was the side of punk where you’d chug a Pabst, do a stage dive, and pick up a stranger who had fallen in the pit, then Victory Records was the side that brought in a crew jonesing for a fight, ready to sucker-punch strangers in the pit. But, at that time, B had been hired by the owner of Victory Records, Tony Brummel, as the art director. Brummel is notorious within the punk scene as a shrewd businessman, racking up many more lawsuits from his artists than most other independent labels. More than that, Brummel is known to be a humorless guy who threatens violence over email whenever he feels slighted. When Brummel mentioned that he missed putting out records in the time before there were press packets, PR blitzes, managers, contracts, and inter-continental tours, B floated the idea of a single-series for up-and-coming bands. If the single received enough hype, then the band could move over to Victory Records proper. In order to sell the owner on the idea, B floated that the first seven-inch would be Brummel’s own defunct band. Brummel liked the idea and gave B free reign to helm the single-series. The second seven-inch that B selected was, of course, Jud Jud’s No Tolerance for Instruments. SPRING 2018
Brummel approved the record without even listening to the album, without knowing who Jud Jud was or that it was B’s joke-band. After this release, Brummel pulled the plug—ending the single series— and refusing to discuss the record with B entirely. * Jah Nah Jah Nah
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* Some bands have a true falling out, a fist fight or wrestling away of rights, but most end unremarkably. A member has a baby or a side project takes off or there just aren’t any plans left. Half a year later, one member asks, “Are we still a band?” and another member says, “I don’t think so.” In 1998, B moved to the Berkeley to pursue a philosophy degree at the University of California. Though they didn’t have a proper farewell show, the last Jud Jud show was a fitting end. Steve and B invited everyone on stage that knew the songs, divided the stage in half, and had everyone “jud” along with them. After the show, well-past midnight, Steve talked about future 170
Jud Jud plans—the first tour, a full-length LP—but B, even if only subconsciously, knew that this would be the end. There wouldn’t be any more landline practices. When B visited home on the holidays, neither would schedule a show. Sure, they’d hang out, but in the nine days of spring break, time slid by too fast. They weren’t kids anymore. After ten years, Jud Jud had run its course. * When I moved away—also for grad school—all of my bands broke up, except for the straight-edge joke-band. Swapping out members is significantly easier when wearing a mask. But though on the most recent album I’m still treated as a full-fledged member, my only contribution was a couple of generic song ideas that the others worked out and some lyrics written under a pseudonym. Over Thanksgiving break, I only was able to spend one night with my former roommates, but we spent it like we had eight years before: collectively trying to outdo one another with boneheaded empty threats to edge-breakers. There are more records planned, and every few weeks or so, in the group email chain, someone posts a new song idea or a new insult to call edge-breakers. But I’m not around, so everything carries on without me. My only connection to music—the only thing has mattered to me for most of my life—are these emails that I sometimes send, which say things like, “The next album should only be belligerent shit-talking by a maniac,” or “Underused insults: dipshit, candyass, and little boy,” or “What about a song with fake guest vocals from someone named Brass-knuckles Brian who sounds like Rick Ta Life.” SPRING 2018
At eight years and counting, I recently realized that this jokeband is the longest running project that I’ve ever been a part of. All of those bands that I took out on tour year after year exist within a particular time. Even though I’d love to play music with those old friends if given the chance today, those songs are rooted to where I was at the time. But the joke-band keeps going because absurdity is timeless. I’m thirty, still laughing at the same jokes. That’s the thing that I don’t understand—how B and Steve were able to let it go. * In the two decades that followed their dissolution, Jud Jud has steadily grown within the hardcore scene. In their sole interview, B said, “I’m genuinely surprised that anybody cares…. But at the same time, I totally get why anybody cares. I think it was a great joke. And a great joke doesn’t have an expiration date.” Jud Jud released the type of records that while flipping through a friend’s record collection, a punk will say, “What the fuck is Jud Jud?” The friend is like, “You haven’t heard Jud Jud? You got to hear Jud Jud. They changed my life. They’re the most important band in hardcore.” He’ll slide the record out of the sleeve and place it onto a hand-me-down record player. The stylus will drop. The friend will fight to keep a straight face while watching the punk, not wanting to miss even the slightest reaction. A familiar crackle of dust and static hits. In that moment, anything could happen.
Work Cited Anthony, David. “The Story of Jud Jud, the World’s Only A Capella, Straight-Edge Hardcore Band.” Noisey. 10 Oct 2017. noisey.vice. com/en_uk/article/j5gbwy/the-story-of-jud-jud-the-worlds-onlya-capella-straight-edge-hardcore-band
POETRY DOROTHEA LASKY PRIZE JUDGE
Sieve as a Verb BRIAN CLIFTON
POETRY CONTEST WINNER
As a child I learned if I pushed a boy’s head to the ground both of our bodies would follow—one after the other into earth’s hard bed. Later, I learned a sheet could cover a mess until the smell became unbearable; hold me up to the light, let the wind whip my corners ragged. A body is best pinned not by blocking a twist, a bucking, but by a body 175
that has settled into its lot. So now when I do things, I do them slowly or I donâ€™t do them at all. Sprawled across the mattress, I tuck the sheet into the far corner and pull it taut. When I fall in, for a moment, it all floats above me.
from Indivisible LAYNIE BROWNE
Certain words you use like water. If the cloud is halfway between you and the light, each crystal acts like a mirror pointed downward. You know they are what you are made of, but sparingly. Indivisibleâ€” wax from distraction, relevant from knots. Withholding from though. Lack of dominion is the dimmest of inks, dense as snow. If I knew composite from haunt would this be easier? Calm fluid letters quickly crossed and loosened around your waist. Indivisibleâ€”disrupt from cycle. Back from setback. Tame from stow.
As if the exchanging of books were not bodilyâ€”fluid from apologies, doorstops from reading, paper from weight. Make a list of accomplishments: preferring not to look, missing you terribly, soliciting an edge. You asked a friend to write you a letter, then reread the letter daily. Street from skate, rink from rail, slide from flight, nether from furl. Passages must be extracted by needle. Spindle barefoot, trot, clip. Mirror skies. Do you still accompany my days?
She longed for an antiquated spelling of a word. Alternate from ultimate. Rippling from skin, salt from ebbing, obsidian from sand. An obsolete articulation, highly perishable. She dreamed only invincible sounds. Indivisible. Waking from wax. Yesterday as I was walking toward yourâ€”. Guarded center. Circle of invented birds. I tried to translate. Brink from circling. Prolong from pleasure. Kiss from shore.
But what I want to tell you does not fit inside the little gilt edged card, nor hand. Light lives outside of tunnels. Together the crystals form a cluster of mirrors floating at different heights, showing you the light as a column. We, our. Where shall we go? Moment we elasticize, wish would never over. Receiving. Ruins of day. Rink street. Sliding filigree trees.
Feeding on gold light, filtered. I wish I knew what you were sinking. Which words put you to sleep. How often my name occurs in paper masks. Folding nests of years. Apothecaries, scruples and drams. I lived in your mouth. Indivisible. You were an echo and I a sound. Faith without ordinary consent. Which words encoded bring you into a diaristic frame. The tiniest knot ever tied.
CONGRATULATIONS CHELSEY MINNIS
I told you once I was going to have to tell you something. Well, this is it. There’s something about you that makes you a treat. And there’s something about you that makes you a louse. Sometimes I ride the Ferris wheel for hours not thinking of you.
Please don’t step on my accordion! Let’s have a drunken rumble & don’t take it seriously. I don’t hate you, darling! You happen to be a nice side of beef and you are a man. But someday, someone might want to get witty.
I like you! Except on occasion. I’m going to be sick & I am sick! Now, let’s pull the corkscrew out of our neck & keep going. I don’t know how good this is. You can shake my hand, but don’t hold it and pet it.
Why do you insist on breaking my tiaras? Baby, it’s not good for you to be so evil. Darling, you have such a soft belly. 182
I always want to cut a soft belly. I can’t help it. No, don’t try to get away.
Nothing’s wrong with you, so, congratulations. What will you do now? Stand on the balcony looking good? Nothing’s wrong with you and I like it. I’ll take your silence as a non-goodbye.
It’s yes or no, isn’t it? After all, I’m a big girl. And famished for diamonds. That means it’s bedtime. Now, where did I hide that champagne?
Baby, why don’t you give me an oil well or something? Now, don’t get mad, baby! What do you think I want? Money? Yes, I want money.
I’ve been so terribly broke all my life. You see, I haven’t your advantages. I don’t approve of me either! Why don’t we all go to bed? Gentlemen, nothing would please me more.
I need to lie down on the carpet and rest. Then let’s get dressed up and go out. Let’s wear too much confounded lip rouge! I can amuse you for months. 184
But how many swimming pools can I have?
Less flattery and more cocktails. Eggs, bacon, and ham in large quantities. A 30-piece string orchestra. It’s simple arithmetic, darling. I haven’t even pity for you.
Other people think they have it, but you have it. Now I’m going to climb into a bikini. Darling, let’s be poor! But first, let’s be rich.
Now, don’t kiss my forehead again. Now dole out some pearls. Come over and drag me around because I like it. But if you really love me, you’re dropping diamonds from your crop duster.
We were pals, if that’s what you mean. Well, no one’s indispensable. I may as well be nice to you. I’m going to give you up. Now, that’s a fancy name for murder.
Couldn’t we be cockeyed fools for once? Let’s wear our black velvet shorts. I need some cold cuts and champagne. Baby, please stop winking. But first, goodbye.
Let us have a cutoff. And quick as the devil! Don’t put your fist to your mouth and cry. Look, all our broken parts are scattered around the room. We have to reassemble ourselves into separate robots.
Now even though we’re a couple of rats, I think we’re marvelous. I’m having a swell time. Now let me alone. Goodbye, monster. 186
It’s no use chasing me anymore. I was born into this merry-go-round.
People in their nightgowns, smoking cigarettes, they give great speeches. I like it like upside-down sunsets. I like it like a mess of emeralds. I like it when you gesture from your forehead, “So long!”
A Theory JANE HUFFMAN
First, there was the poem in which fruit spontaneously ripened on all trees. The poet leaned a two-pronged ladder against the gutter and knocked the refuse down. Next, the poet sat at the hand-crank, peeled away spires and Js until the apple was shaped like a spool of white yarn. Later, the poet recognized the fruit for its components: reel, marrow, wheel of seeds. The poet then wrote from the gallbladder of a cherry-picker. This poem contained no fruit. After a time, the poet capitalized on the rhetoric of orchards. A fruit grinder in a glass room. The poem addressed the cider crank, the cider, the basin, and the rinds. The poetâ€™s next few poems were exhaustedâ€” which was itself a kind of regularity. 188
Soon, the poet squinted at a pear tree, the heavy bladders of the apple’s brothers. Then at the pear blossom—o, iconoclast— and for once, it stood for nothing. The last poem invented the epigraph: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” So the poet wrote of her father. No plums this time—nothing as literal as that.
E-Dusk JJ ROWAN AFTER DANA WARD I. There is a birthday month buried under a substantial amount of gravel. August 6, 2017. Somewhere in the future the ground is freezing down at least two feet, unsuitable for quick burials. A whole valley holds its nose, I mean the smoke is thick but bearable, I mean the glue that holds a body of water in place holds a body in water, too, a different kind of holding who’s held in the vicinity of rock. & now the sunset almost never happened but for those of us driving around each other where the ground gave a little under circular thinking. Is it morning yet if I never step backward? Time’s little odometer? You could look up sunset’s schedule on the internet or you could get that internet feeling under the smartest tree. A dragonfly eats the air. A large avian eats the water. I think about placing this rock under my tongue.
The gut says stagger but the heart holds out for more grace than that. A series of stories as told by the color wheel. A survey of shapes too familiar to be true. Maybe Jesus was just another dude on a board. It’s convenient to forget the part of your body you promised to suffering, whose hairline gives you away, whose story is significantly boring. Is it boring to have decided to be alive if you’ve said so x number of times? Ink times surface area is the equation you’re looking for. The water doesn’t care how queer you are before you step into it but there is that little internal survey and the subsequent series of doors. Hinges are easier to undo at certain angles & it’s not a full on your back scenario. I mean the slope of the ground is about right. I mean you’d lose the better part of the dying light, etcetera. I mean when I die I won’t need my skin anymore please oh please make me that noise the crickets make loud enough to cover any human sound and sink the rest of me in the sludge. SPRING 2018
Lorde says hard feel-ings / these are what they call. Keen on those moments when the sky’s light hit the water. When the water’s edge turned hard pink and then faded down to a flare’s wake. When a ripple. When I reached into myself to grab a tear, to tear me away that I might not turn to water so much as I am already water, so much as I am the absence of water left in particular layers of earth. Of the stone heart what’s more true: cold or hot. The moment before sand or the moment just after. Whose responsibility a fault line. As children the layers of mica peeled away easy without the stop to consider what’s after. Been missing those iridescent pages right at hand or maybe we looked harder then, maybe more diligent to discern a shine, maybe the sun just so between the leaves, maybe more re-bar than deer path, maybe more rock than slime. See there where I broke? One’s own habit through the lens of one’s own anything else. Fuck this wired day or how to miss the eclipse 192
by running up and down two sets of stairs. This was a poem about the single tree as it looked out upon Emigrant Lake & before that this was a poem about how one might hold oneself back from a makeshift baptism in slime before which the poem was about sour women and earlier on still a love poem, a sugar contrast to the plastic wrapping which makes its way across the ground, wind or no, the desire for a layer which looks or feels like plastic, the request the wind made to wait on geese in formation. I type this poem directly on the nonexistent page just like I’ve told everyone not to. If my body feels more like a machine my machine feels more like a promise. In today’s promise, already a span which has forgot its own numbers or stretched them to cover back over themselves gauze-thin and stiff with pride. You’ve whisked the poem up against itself hoping to stick. The landscape’s artificial and water’s memory clouds itself: hours? Weeks? The landscape, actually, is actual, add: two layers of glass. Add: SPRING 2018
divisive purpose. Subtract: what exits the ground to preserve the ground. I didn’t see it before, rows cultivating themselves with the memory of how many pages might loose from a phone book before the spine loses integrity. I’m talking about sound. I’m leaving now. Consider the whole in the shape of the part. Stop talking about the legacy of tones added after the fact. Even the landscape can’t just be the landscape without being the landscape being something altogether else: what said animal says about you or I or this substantial ledge of rock or this root w/ a key under it or this immature observation or that boat’s wake or the way you can see but not hear the highway. II. Is it the most mischief to remain self-contained?
[The entirety of my juvenilia â€Ś] LEVI ANDALOU
The entirety of my juvenilia consists of a seven foot pit dug with a trowel in the backyard, c.1986. Provenance: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Andalou; The Arizona Highway Expansion Program of 1989. My verso depicts an abandoned rendering in ink of various megafauna, now extinct. That is, dead, dead, dead. Can we still claim to be unaware of a mounting anticipation that can find resolution only through a cataclysmic disappearance? Count backward to exert novel anxieties.
Then There’s the Garden’s Opulent Hollowing GINA KEICHER Never saw a garden so full of itself to drop every petal at once. Some movie roads are shot to make you feel like you are walking them. Forever songs on Valley Radio wake us, alarm the peonies. The Architect in a florist’s smock says hers is a vision for a breed that makes it down an aisle in fall. It’s difficult to break some habits, to get the pearls off a string in a dream, to find the source of dampness where we do not want water. White lines on basement walls to show how high a flood rose, like a mother ticks her child’s height in pencil in a kitchen corner. I am sorry that your lonely and my lonely do not match but we can wait in the car on the next train while sun melts our foreheads. Call in to request our song. I’d say I’ll never dream again, but that sounds like a warped record trying to balance itself beneath the needle. 196
O, Elvis. O, malt shop. O, maybe I am dreaming the Architect’s bad advice to get up on the stage beneath red and blue carnival bulbs, a silver pole mounted on a square of unpainted plywood. Her advice, to keep sliced lemon in my purse, to suck the sour wedge at nightfall. Does the sun ever feel crowded in the universe? Does a room ever feel claustrophobic in a house? Sophisticated people buy picture rails, rare hunt. Endangered everything runs through our hair. I’m not saying this to scare you but when I was on that stage I did not see the faces, just the lights burning the ceiling. I don’t mean to scare you but I asked the Architect and she told me the foundation crack is called spalling. I ticked its ends in pencil so we may watch the break grow. You and I are amateurs. We don’t know the first thing about what can curse a house.
Grief ARJUN PARIKH
I know someone who always wakes up before the end of her dreams. Last night she was with the redwoods counting ashes like lovers count stars when suddenly, before she was sure that the ashes were all there, she began to fall as if the ground had opened beneath her feet. Just above the threshold she caught herself, and in a cold sweat she rose from her bed and stepped into her slippers and walked gently through the hallway before opening the last door. She peeked her head through the opening with caution, like a child checks the closet for familiar ghosts, to see if my bed was still empty.
Horse and Puddle PETER KRUMBACH
I wish I were a short horse standing on a breezy slope somewhere in West Region, Ireland. I’d be the only horse who’d know he is really a human, a wish clad in dark bristles, as if seen by dragonflies. I’d clump to a rain puddle, lower my plush head to the surface, fascinated that while I sit in a wicker chair in California, I can make myself into what I now see in this country water, the brown eyes regarding themselves, lips curled, teeth bared out. In fact, I’d be so fascinated, I’d grow light, begin to drift off, the puddle reflecting less and less of me, until there’d be nothing left, not even the puddle, the hill, or the wind.
ixodes pacificus: tic tick H. SIMONSEN
i. a spot of skin en:trance point, ring of light burner xe bore a ringlet of light || the language act || Iâ€™ve played darts our hair on fire
ii. the two figures are Janus, Headless (feminine) one to valley * one to headlong what happens then, when women grow erect? 200
is it perverse, Madras, when I paint your breasts?
iii. a char-stained aperture not by eye fragment shelter animal shelter lust * hobgoblin come near, fetter swell the ululations rat rattle no chain
iv. all these redwood mouths charred and slack-jawed murmur toward an almond grove where is xe now? the sweet mouth-feel after the bitters SPRING 2018
v. four men in dust masks hack with double machetes this dry grass : engine spark a Kleenex, Bud Light can, Gatorade bottle If a lion attacks, fight back Pick up your children without bending down, an instructional figure shows two feet and four small arms There is no connection between devastations There are no connections among beauties On the shelf Iâ€™ve found the tome of how to slash (where) how to burn
vi. turbidity and suspended sediment disturb roily uproot the azalea as __x___ receded from view it ___y___ re / in / carne : : the body
vii. apology is discordant desire is straw bundles assembled by straw dogs who shit moonglow make the bundle, phantom mark the bundle, phantom
viii. on all fours, kicking up dust westfalia fog too thick to see, what the gaze of the city is beyond us but the sounding point is a sportscar charging the open road nightplanes cross the Pacific what i cannot detect are waves, the known cleaving of the ground
ix. the sounding winds drone heads back and forth
furiously, for we are dogs the new brute comes out of his cloth flaccid and shapeless as the brute’s lips perhaps the coiled millipede is not dead, rather “playing,” as they call it.
x. Xe taps upon the table eenie meenie miney moe what ruthless error in assumptions on how to photograph the lenticular loose your straight pins for we are all ready to disappear, which is the kind of wind to spread your arms to move a bowl of hulled berries put a pad of softened butter back into the fridge xi. all of day is a horizon study all of night, something else -a total recall of the spherical, perhaps 204
but for now four crows habituate the last limb of a dead ponderosa when they take off, it isn’t my eyes, but a monsoon gone missing haven’t you heard? all day, someone’s been learning to fire a gun
work has appeared in BOMB Magazine and is forthcoming in Tampa Review and Pembroke Magazine. The Poetry Editor of Black Warrior Review, J. Taylor Boyd, has said of his work: “These poems are surprising, and their linguistic turns reinvigorate the prose poem.” He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. is a poet, prose writer, teacher, and editor. She is author of thirteen collections of poems and three novels. Her most recent collections include a book of poems You Envelop Me (Omnidawn 2017), a novel Periodic Companions (Tinderbox 2018) and short fiction in two editions, one French, and one English in The Book of Moments (Presses universitaires de rouen et du havre, 2018). Her honors include a 2014 Pew Fellowship, the National Poetry Series Award (2007) for her collection The Scented Fox, and the Contemporary Poetry Series Award (2005) for her collection Drawing of a Swan Before Memory. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Chinese and Catalan. Her writing has appeared in many anthologies including The Norton Anthology of Post Modern Poetry (second edition 2013), Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology (Trinity University Press, 2013), Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 2006) and The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008). She teaches at University of Pennsylvania and at Swarthmore College. LAYNIE BROWNE
grew up in Lexington, South Carolina. After graduating high school, Nolan enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantryman, and much of his writing, including “Hearts and Minds,” details his experiences in the military. He currently attends Lees-McRae College, where he runs track and serves as the president of the school’s creative writing club. When he isn’t NOLAN CAPPS
running, writing, or attending class, Nolan plays guitar and sings in his band, Rude Mood. K CHESS is the author of the novel Famous Men Who Never Lived,
forthcoming from Tin House Books. She was a W.K. Rose Fellow, and her short stories have been honored by the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology (Special Mention), Midwestern Gothic’s 2015 Lake Prize (First Place) and The Chicago Tribune’s 2015 Nelson Algren Award (Runner Up). She teaches at GrubStreet in Boston. Check her out online at kchesswriter.com or on Twitter @kchessok. ADRIENNE CHRISTIAN is the author of the poetry collections
12023 Woodmont Avenue (Willow Books 2013) and A Proper Lover (Main Street Rag 2017). She is a Cave Canem fellow, whose work has been published in The LA Review, frogpond, Obsidian, Alimentum, Falling Star, Silk Road, and other literary journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jolie, Today’s Black Woman, and African Vibes. Adrienne earned her BA in English from the University of Michigan, and her MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. She is earning her PhD in English at the University of Nebraska. BRIAN CLIFTON co-edits Bear Review. He is a PhD. candidate at
the University of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. He is an avid record collector and curator of curiosities. KATE FINEGAN’s work has appeared in The Puritan, Midwestern
Gothic, The Fiddlehead, and others. She has won The Fiddlehead’s
short fiction contest, been runner-up for The Puritan’s Thomas Morton Prize for fiction, and been shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize. Her novel-in-progress was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She lives in Toronto. lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is currently working as a nanny while she finishes her M.F.A. thesis. Her story “Warhawks” is online at The Collagist. ISABELLE GILBERT
Born in Coshocton, OH, MATT GOLD is based in Brooklyn, NY, where he divides his time between music and photography. As evidence of the democratizing nature of his approach to photography, Gold has no formal training in the visual arts. His first image, a picture of his cat on a Sony Ericsson Z310A flip phone, was taken in 2008, and he has continued to explore the aesthetic possibilities of that instrument, resisting the updated phones and apps available and revealing a contemporary nostalgia that encompasses the prolific imagery of our visual culture. Gold’s work has been featured in numerous publications and journals. has lived in Kansas City, Tuscaloosa, & now Philadelphia. They are the author of Hall of Waters (The Operating System, 2019). Their essays & poems appear in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Sonora Review, BOAAT, and The Wanderer, among other publications. When they aren’t presently reading submissions as Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling. BERRY GRASS
is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Tennessee, and he holds an M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota. His awards include the Tamarack Award and a Luce Scholars fellowship to Thailand, where he lived and worked for eight years. His fiction has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Minnesota Monthly, and he has written for the Bangkok Post, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and Utne. He was the editor of the 2017 issue of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, which won the Parnassus Award for Significant Editorial Achievement from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. RICHARD HERMES
JANE HUFFMAN is a third-year fellow at the University of Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, where she completed her MFA in poetry in 2017. Recent poems and essays are featured or forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, phoebe, Ninth Letter, New South, FIELD, Typo, Third Coast, Witness, and elsewhere. She is co-founder/editor-in-chief of Guesthouse, a new literary journal. LESLEY JENIKE’s
poetry and nonfiction have appeared or will appear soon in At Length, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Bennington Review, Verse, Rattle, Waxwing, and many other journals. Her most recent collection is Punctum:, a chapbook of poems published by Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches literature and creative writing at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, where she lives with her husband and two small children. GINA KEICHER is the author of Wilderness Champion (Gold Wake
Press) and two chapbooks—Here is My Adventure I Call it Alone and
Ars Herzogica—both from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in New South, Poetry Northwest, and Salt Hill. ROY KESEY divides his time.
was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Poetry Review, RHINO, Salamander, and elsewhere. Diane Seuss selected his prose poem “Fugitive” as the Mid-American Review 2017 Fineline Competition winner. He lives in Del Mar, California. PETER KRUMBACH
lives in Boulder, Colorado. She writes both poetry and screenplays. Her fourth book of poetry Baby, I don’t care is being published by Wave Books in the fall of 2018. CHELSEY MINNIS
work has appeared or is forthcoming from Into the Void Magazine and Black Fox Literary Magazine. He is an undergraduate student at New York University concentrating in African-American History and Literature. After he graduates in May he will be moving to San Francisco to teach middle school English. received his M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and humor writing have appeared or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta Review, Passages North and other magazines. He has been awarded prizes for short fiction from Briar Cliff Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Find his work at danpiercepaul.wordpress.com. DANIEL PAUL
JJ ROWAN is a queer poet and dancer living in Southern Oregon’s
Rogue Valley. Her work has recently appeared in Dream Pop Journal and with Nate Logan in the chapbook “mcmxciv.” (Shirt Pocket Press). ALYSIA SAWCHYN currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she
is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. H. SIMONSEN works in ecopoetic collaboration with her native
landscape, The Great Salt Lake. She operates under the thesis that ecologically disrupted sites offer access points for the body to experience language as a product of the earth. She works on the page and off, incorporating installation art, performance art, sound experimentation, and ephemeral sculpture into her poetic practice. In 2010 she circumnavigated the southern portion of The Great Salt Lake, a journey of over a hundred miles, as poetic ritual. She recently served fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. is the author of the poetry collection BEAUTIFUL NERVE, as well as three chapbooks. Recent work has appeared in Waxwing, Copper Nickel, River Teeth, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University, where she edits The Fourth River. She also serves as blog editor for Barrelhouse. SHEILA SQUILLANTE
BRENDAN STEPHENS is a writer based out of Houston, TX.
His work is forthcoming and has appeared in Epoch, The Southeast
Review, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. Currently, he is in the Creative Writing and Literature program at the University of Houston. is an essayist and poet from the Northern California coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Baltimore Review, Hobart, Sonora Review, [PANK], Noble/Gas Quarterly, Permafrost, Redivider, and The Rumpus, where she has also served as an Assistant Essays Editor. She currently cohosts the POP-UP PROSE reading series in Moscow, ID, and serves as the Nonfiction Editor of Fugue. LAUREN W. WESTERFIELD
BRIAN PHILLIP WHALENâ€™s work has appeared in The Southern
Review, Spillway, Mid-American Review, Poets.org, and elsewhere. Current work appears this year or is forthcoming in Cherry Tree, Thin Air, Chautauqua, Stone Canoe, Willow Springs, and Hotel Amerika. Brian received his PhD from SUNY-Albany and lives with his wife and daughter in upstate New York. K.C. WOLFEâ€™s
essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Gulf Coast, Joyland, Harvard Review, Redivider, Under the Sun, Swink, and other publications. Wolfe edits nonfiction for the journal Sweet, which he co-founded in 2008. A native of Syracuse, NY, he teaches creative writing at Eckerd College and lives, on average, in St. Petersburg, FL.
RICHARD HERMES K CHESS ISABELLE GILBERT DANIEL PAUL ROY KESEY LAYNIE BROWNE KATE FINEGAN NOLAN CAPPS LESLEY JENIKE LAUREN W. WESTERFIELD BRIAN PHILLIP WHALEN BERRY GRASS SHEILA SQUILLANTE K.C. WOLFE ALYSIA SAWCHYN ADRIENNE CHRISTIAN BRENDAN STEPHENS BRIAN CLIFTON CHELSEY MINNIS JANE HUFFMAN JJ ROWAN LEVI ANDALOU GINA KEICHER ARJUN PARIKH PETER KRUMBACH H. SIMONSEN
Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art selected for phoebe's Spring 2018 issue.