VOLUME 49 | ISSUE No. 2 | Spring 2020
Phoebe (Vol. 49, Issue No. 2) is a nonprofit literary journal edited and produced by students of the MFA program at George Mason University. We are open for submissions in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction twice a year. Our print edition is available for $7. Back issues are available for $6. For complete submission guidelines, please visit www.phoebejournal.com.
Phoebe 49.2 is dedicated to this year’s
Spring Contest Judges
JENNIFER SINOR is
the author of several books, including Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe and the memoir Ordinary Trauma. Her forthcoming essay collection, Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World, will appear in 2020 from the University of Nebraska Press. Jennifer teaches creative writing at Utah State University. She lives in Logan with her husband, poet Michael Sowder, and her two sons.
THEA BROWN is the
author of the full-length collections Famous Times and Think of the Danger, as well as the chapbook We Are Fantastic. She lives in Baltimore, where she was the 2016–2017 Tickner Fellow at the Gilman School, a 2016 Rubys Artist Project Grant awardee, and the recipient of a 2017 UCross Foundation fellowship.
BOGGS is the author of The Gulf: A Novel, The Art of Waiting, and Mattaponi Queen: Stories. The Art of Waiting was a finalist for the PEN/ Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and was named a “best book of the year” by multiple publications. She is an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, where she also directs the MFA program in creative writing.
Cover Art by Rachel Linn “We Looked” Ink, watercolor, colored pencil, and collage on cold press paper Design and Composition: Timothy Johnson Phoebe is indexed in Humanities International Complete. ©2020 Phoebe firstname.lastname@example.org www.phoebejournal.com
phoebe EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Rachel Purdy MANAGING EDITOR Melissa Wade FICTION EDITOR ASSISTANT FICTION EDITOR Lindley Estes Zachary Barnes NONFICTION EDITOR ASSISTANT NONFICTION EDITOR Abi Newhouse Sarah Wilson ART EDITOR ASSISTANT ART EDITOR Rachel Purdy Melissa Wade POETRY EDITOR ASSISTANT POETRY EDITOR Blake Wallin Millie Tullis WEBMASTER ASSISTANT POETRY EDITOR Jenna Kahn Christian Stanzione FACULTY ADVISOR SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER Jason Hartsel Millie Tullis READERS Kevin Binder Kathy Callahan Meaghan Clohessy Lena Crown Frannie Dove Mansoor Faqiri Tara Fritz Amanda Ganus
Laura Handley Julie Iannone Ben Inks Timothy Johnson Jenna Kahn Kate Keeney Su-Ah Lee Chris McGlone
Jace Smellie Grace Taber Meagan Trammell Sean van der Heijden Katherine Vinogradoff Melissa Wade Andrew Joseph White Mary Winsor
SPECIAL THANKS TO Jason Hartsel, David S. Carroll, Kathryn Mangus and the George Mason University Office of Student Media, Gregg Wilhelm and the George Mason University Creative Writing Program. VOLUME 49 | ISSUE No. 2 | Spring 2020
TABLE OF CONTENTS FICTION
Itâ€™s a Phase
The Shape of Grief
Virginia is Not Your Home
ERICA PLOUFFE LAZURE
The Duck Walk
ART GALLERY I 57 58 59
Goodbye Blue Monday, No. 4 Eternal Sunshine Platonic Solids
Icon of a Condor
We Ran We Played Dead
A Wide Landscape of Blanks
ART GALLERY II
K. JOHNSON BOWLES
107 108 109
Veiled Threats A is for Anxiety Abuse of Power
K. CARLTON JOHNSON
Last Known Address
The Four Elements VII
Triptych: Year with Three Towers
GUSTAV PARKER HIBBETT
Oil Painting of a Hand Holding a Taxidermied Bluebird
This Tired Flesh
KATHRYNE DAVID GARGANO
manifesto for the bones of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling
Emily Dickinson and the Poet Perambulate
Acts of Colonial Defiance
127 / trănz /as in “a trans of clouds”
LIZA KATZ DUNCAN
MARY JO AMANI
I was taught at a young age that the earth was sacred. Yet, every two weeks or so, I’d back my little truck up to the edge of the Divergent Dam and throw our garbage into the gorge below. My mother didn’t like that the Kayenta Township’s Transfer Station charged $12.50 for a bed of garbage. She’d say, “I don’t want to pay those motherfuckers to take my trash. Who in the fuck pays to get rid of trash? I’m not paying that damned township any more of my money.” So, we started dumping our trash at the dam. I’d done it dozens of times without getting caught. At this point it was second nature. Load up the garbage, chase off the dogs trying to get into the garbage, drive it to the dam, and watch the black bags explode down the cracked ravine. But this particular evening was different, the scent of decaying food was more pungent, and the dark juices leaking out of the garbage bags didn’t smell like Dr Pepper anymore. I felt sweat bead on my chest and run in a small rivulet between my breasts. Maybe it was the sweat coupled with the garbage, but when I picked up the last bag by the black plastic, the bag ripped, spilling soured frybread dough down the front of my blouse. And I vomited. I prided myself on my strong stomach. That’s why whenever we butchered a sheep, I cleaned out the stomach. That shit smell didn’t bother me. When my mother couldn’t make it to the toilet after a night of drinking, I’d clean up her puke. Cleaning up my mother’s mess—shit, piss, puke, whatever—that was my job. After puking I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. Shaky and lightheaded, I pulled off my soiled shirt and sat on the tailgate of my truck. From the back, someone could have mistaken me for a boy with an Ace bandage wrapped around his chest. The evening light bathed the sandstone domes lining the west Kayenta horizon in a golden haze. The maroon rock formations FICTION | 3
deep within the gorge turned the dense shade of a fresh bruise. Swathed in the shadows, several willow trees rustled in the wind. This dam was an oasis for those trees, the dandelions, dots of morning glory, and the fluorescent algae growing in what was left of the summer monsoon. Desert plants were resilient that way. They were short and looked nearly dead, but beneath the alkaline soil, where most plants couldn’t grow, their roots clenched into the earth like wiry brown fists. When my grandmother was alive, we’d chase her sheep down to the ravine to drink water. That’s before my mother sold off all my grandmother’s livestock to pay for her accumulating debts. Sometimes, I think that the monsoons left us for good along with my grandmother. It only seemed logical that they did, because everything had all but dried up. Feeling woozy and restless, I hopped off the tailgate and headed to the cab of my truck. The door opened with a groan. As the engine turned over, a fiddle whined through Willie Nelson singing, “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, because they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone even with someone they love.” My mother liked this song, probably because she dated a lot of Indian Cowboys. Like the ravine, this song diverted the truth. Because white babies growing up had choices to be different things, doctors, and lawyers, and such. But Indians, even us girls, we’re born cowboys. We don’t get to choose anything. My stomach grumbled against my sterling silver belt buckle, despite my Levi’s feeling tighter than ever. Somewhere in the cab of my truck under a pile of bills, my cell phone buzzed. Probably my latest snag. Based on the pink-tinged horizon, I knew a dust storm was coming. The wind picked up, funneling through the cab of the truck, stirring the eagle feather hanging off of the rearview mirror. Before the dust storm could reach me, I rolled up my windows and drove home. I worked as a bagger at Bashas’ the summer before my senior year of high school, the same summer I met Aaron. I saw a lot of folks come through my check-out line. Young moms, drunks, cheating husbands, and traditional Navajo grandmothers whose 4 | PHOEBE 49.2
veins clung in clusters beneath the skin of their hands like turquoise squash blossoms. I scanned all of their items: hydrocortisone cream for open sores, hemorrhoid cream for the unwashed, condoms for the fourteen-year-old boy, and Gatorade for his thirteen-year-old girlfriend. At some point, I stopped processing what the items were and just scanned them, took cards or cash, and said goodbye. One day at the beginning of my shift, baby shampoo, seven cans of evaporated milk, ground beef, fishing line, and a sewing kit came through my line. The man buying the items looked like he just walked off the pages of an outdoor magazine. He had a welltrimmed reddish beard, sported a blue zip-up sweater paired with khaki cargo shorts, and cradled something against his ribcage. He wasn’t a local. I could tell that much. There were only a handful of white people in Kayenta, many of them married to Navajos. “Did you find everything you need?” I asked. I gave him my best customer service smile. “Yeah, do you guys carry rubbing alcohol? I couldn’t find it anywhere,” he said. “You’ll have to purchase that at customer service.” I motioned with my lips to the glass display that contained cough syrup, rubbing alcohol, and any other type of drug or cleaning supply considered dangerous to drunks or children looking to get high. “Oh,” he said. “You’ll need a valid form of ID,” I said. Holding his side, he slipped his hands into a cargo pocket and pulled out a distressed wallet. “I don’t need your ID, they do,” I said, as I bagged his items. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked, his brow crinkling. “I found this little guy behind my trailer.” The man pulled an orange tabby kitten from his sweater. “He’s in pretty rough shape. I’m not really sure what to do with him.” Dry blood matted the kitten’s striped back and face. Its body hung limp from the man’s hands emphasizing its pale swollen underbelly. “Does this town have an animal shelter or anything?” He held the kitten the way someone would hold a gun, not quite sure what it was capable of. “No, we don’t sir,” I said, “but we do have a vet van that comes around every two weeks with medicine.” FICTION | 5
He looked down at the kitten in his hand. “I don’t know if he’ll make it until then.” He tucked the kitten back into his jacket. “I think the vet van stops in Tuba today,” I said. “Is Tuba close?” This guy was clueless. Tuba was only an hour or so away, and he didn’t even know that. He needed real help, help that only a local could offer him. “Look, I get off my shift at noon. If you want to come back then…” I looked at him hard for a second. He didn’t look like a killer and if he was, I could butcher a sheep in 20 minutes flat, so I could take him if that was the case. “I’ll take you to Tuba.” Relief flooded his face. “Definitely—I mean thank you. Yeah, I’ll be back at noon. Thanks a lot,” he said as he looked from my face to the name tag on my Bashas’ apron, “Bernadine.” “You’re welcome,” I said with a grin. “And your total is $27.98.” “I bought those for the cat, so… I guess I don’t need them anymore.” I shook my head. I was going to have to put these random-ass items away. “Thanks a lot, dude,” I said laughing. “My name is Aaron, by the way.” He offered me his hand over the register. I half-heartedly pinched his fingertips with my fingertips. We Navajos called that an Indian handshake. White people weren’t crazy about them, which is the reason we gave them. In our culture offering any part of your body was an invitation given only to friends and families, and definitely not strangers you’d just met. A few hours and a couple hundred scanned items later, Aaron came back to Bashas’ and we searched the grocery aisles for some munchies for the road. He’d changed since that morning. He wore a fitted tan shirt screen-printed with a bearded man wearing psychedelic sunglasses, a nicer pair of outdoor hiking shorts, and thick nylon strapped sandals. He was at least a foot taller than me, which I noticed when I didn’t want the bottom shelf case of blue Gatorade, and he was able to grab the top shelf flavors. He wasn’t 6 | PHOEBE 49.2
muscular in the bulky way my uncles were. Aaron’s muscles were long and lean, except for his calves. His calves were disproportionate to the rest of his body, cartoonish almost, and they were thick and covered in a generous layer of blonde leg hair. When my coworker, Kamisha, checked us out, she eyed me. We’d known each other since kindergarten, back when our teeth were capped in silver because we’d sneak Dr Peppers from my family’s cooler during volleyball games and drink them under my porch. She was more like a cousin than a friend. We shared a running joke that neither of us had any friends, only cousins. I acted as a lookout when she lost her virginity to her boyfriend underneath the shade of cottonwood trees, near my grandmother’s cornfield. She was there the night my mother got her stomach pumped for the first time. We looked like real cousins, but then again, all Navajos look related. When we walked out of Bashas’, four drunks stood outside the grocery store doors wearing piss-stained Wranglers. They all shared the same glossy expression, as if their faces were varnished in alcohol. I wished I didn’t know them. “Bernadine,” one said to me. “Come here baby. Daddy needs some money just to get to his next paycheck. Just 20 dollars.” Underneath the shopping cart canopy, I recognized the man as Irvin, my mother’s last snag. Aaron tensed beside me. I shook my head. “Just ignore them,” I said. “That’s no way to treat family,” Irvin spat, before proceeding to laugh with his friends. “How’s your mom doing?” Irvin asked. “Your mother’s no fun when she’s sober.” Irvin’s drunk friends joined in a chorus of laughter. “I’ll tell you what, our house smells better now that we don’t have to clean your shit up off the floor,” I yelled. Irvin spat back, “Bitch!” Aaron drove a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. It still smelled like new car when I opened the door. He had placed the kitten inside a cardboard box labeled fragile kitchen filled with old t-shirts on the floor of the passenger seat. Once we started driving, Aaron didn’t say anything for a long while. FICTION | 7
“Thanks again for all your help, Bernadine.” “No problem,” I said, looking out the tinted windows as we drove past Tségi Canyon. Tségi Canyon was only 12 miles from Kayenta and translated into English as in between the rocks. I always felt drawn to Tségi’s sheer red-orange sandstone cliffs dotted with dark green juniper trees. I’d think of all the times I stood at the base of those cliffs running my hands against the rough crackly lichen that the Holy People smeared on their broad faces. Tségi Canyon reminded me of the summers I spent with my grandparents watching our sheep graze on scarlet globe mallows and sour weed from the cab of their little truck. Tségi Canyon always flitted by the windshield too fast, leaving me with a lump in my throat and an ache, sandstone heavy, in my chest. On the drive to Tuba, I would find out that Aaron was 24 years old and student teaching at my high school. He blamed his late start on a two-year religious mission served in Taos, New Mexico for the Mormons. During his time in the Education program at New Mexico State, he decided Mormonism was no longer meeting his spiritual needs. He stopped shaving his beard and got 1 Corinthians 3:16 tattooed on his rib cage. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” He thought his tattoo was ironic and in the most peculiar way, I thought it was kind of sexy. I also found out that Aaron’s eyes were light sensitive, and he wore cargo shorts, so he could carry sunglasses around in his pockets. After that, I noticed two pairs of sunglasses in the side door, a pair clipped to the passenger sun visor, and another pair in the cup holder. I didn’t tell him at the time I was 17. Because sometimes it’s nice to get attention from someone not like you. Late July is apricot season in northern Arizona. The tree next to our trailer bowed heavy from the weight of the fruit. I filled a wide mouthed aluminum bowl marked with my grandmother’s initials R.D. It was our nicest bowl. The bowl we used to collect the blood after we butchered. The blood sausage bowl. The rim of the 8 | PHOEBE 49.2
bowl bit into my hip. I’d filled the bowl well above the lip with the orange, plush fruit all precariously balanced on top of one another. I chose the ripest apricots. The perfectly sun-softened ones whose flesh gave way beneath my fingertips. This was the only tree left alive on my family’s property. It grew out from beneath the abandoned truck bed camper. The wood floor had broken through. The windows busted out. We butchered sheep under the apricot tree, so the soil was rich with iron. It’s where the stray cats birthed their kittens. They sensed the earth’s fertility here. So, the earth was also rich with placenta, blood, and water. Which could be the reason why this apricot tree lived. I looked up at its branches snarled like an elderly woman’s arthritic fingers. The apricots hung heavy. Some were still green, too bitter to be harvested. I looked past the trailer to see the other trees my father had planted. Three cottonwoods. They’d all died. The goats had leapt over the panels we’d set up and eaten the weak saplings. I headed back to the trailer. I set down the aluminum bowl. It was still early. My ride for school hadn’t arrived yet. I had time to slip into basketball shorts. I walked past my mother’s room. She wasn’t there. Her pilling floral comforter spread across her bed untouched from the night before. She worked late most nights, but I assumed she was snagging some new guy who stopped in at Sonic. She did that a lot. The worst part was when she’d bring them home. I’d see them stumble shit-faced and fumbling into her bedroom. At night I could hear them making drunken love. She’d always cry afterwards, a high-pitched whine, the sound the wind makes when rushing in through a cracked window. I was convinced it was the windows. I went to Ace Hardware and caulked her windows closed. The following night, the whining still rang through the house. My mother always chose jailbirds. She’d try really hard to keep them, but they never stayed. I think it’s because that kind of devotion warranted love, but drunks only loved themselves. They were like river rocks—brown, round, and constantly slipping out from beneath her fingertips. My phone buzzed from my pocket. New Message from My Homie JT: I’m outside. Out in the dirt driveway, JT sat inside his white 1997 Chevy Camaro. That wind-scratched car was his whole world, even though FICTION | 9
it looked like a damned spaceship. JT lived about four miles away from my house. He lived with his grandma, so he knew Navajo real good. His mom left him and his dad for some Mexican guy who owned an adult video store in Albuquerque. After that, his dad dove into the bottle and never came back up for air. His dad was such a drunk that sometimes we just pretended he was dead. JT resented his parents—his mother for realizing she was pregnant too late, and his father for leaving him. JT always wore a black cap. He hoped that people wouldn’t notice how small his eyes were in proportion with his broad cheekbones. With his cap on, fetal alcohol syndrome didn’t exist. “Morning, Cousin, howzit?” he asked, bobbing his head to the drums booming from his subwoofers. Only a Navajo would get subwoofers just to play Native American Church music. “My mom, she didn’t come home last night,” I said nodding to the trailer. He looked over his shoulder as he backed up the car. “You worried?” he asked. “She’s tough,” I said. I wished I’d never brought it up. Like a cat in heat, my mom had a wide circumference of travel. And like a good friend, JT never made me talk about anything I didn’t want to talk about. “I got the quote for my ride. The mechanic wants 1,500 to fix the tranny on ScarJo here.” He smacked the plastic dash displacing sand and dust. “But, you know what? I told him no! Cuz’ I’m going to fix her myself. You just watch me, once I graduate.” JT whistled. “I’m outta here, shoot, I’m going to be an underwater welder, then I’ll make enough money to fix her.” Dirt roads weren’t good for the struts of JT’s Camaro, and he’d learned how to weave between potholes to avoid high centering his car. But every once in a while, you’d hear the sandstone scrape against the undercarriage, and JT would let loose in a stream of never-ending “Fucks.” Tuba didn’t look much different from Kayenta. They shared the same sandy red hills, juniper trees, yucca plants, and scrubby bushes. Tuba had a slightly larger Bashas’ and a slightly bigger popula10 | PHOEBE 49.2
tion, but despite that, they were very similar. Once Aaron and I got to Tuba City, we were able to track down the veterinarian van easily. It was usually stationed across the street from the Navajo Nation Vital Records Office, in the parking lot of an abandoned car wash. The vet van was run by an older woman with frizzy blonde hair named Crystal who tanned so fiercely she had to have skin cancer. “Oh, this poor baby! He’s lucky you got him in just now. We just got a momma kitty whose litter got eaten by coyotes.” She looked at us eyes wide, mouth open, in horror. “Can you believe it? Poor thing! I’m sure she’d love a new baby. Mind if we take him?” The vet stroked the kitten’s chest. “Yes, please,” Aaron said, “I don’t know the first thing about cats.” Crystal let us say our goodbyes to the kitten before she placed it into the kennel with the mother cat. When we left, the orange tabby kitten had latched onto the mother cat and was nursing peacefully. Aaron and I walked back to his car, side stepping the shattered 40 bottles that had become an integral part of the soil on the reservation. “Is there anything else you need to do in Tuba?” Aaron asked, pushing his slipping Ray-Bans up his nose. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Aaron yet. I suggested we go to the flea market. He’d only been to the one in Kayenta, which in recent years wasn’t all that great. The flea market itself was dusty. Most of the vendors sold used baby clothes and worn out Western boots. One vendor, Jasper, who always sported black Dri-FIT NBA trucker caps, sold bootleg DVDs. I grew up buying DVDs from him, until he got shut down by the cops. I guess that film piracy wasn’t just a myth on the rez. Jasper did time for it, but after he got out, he went straight back to burning DVDs out of his suburban. While browsing through the DVDs I found a John Wayne movie called Stagecoach. “Aaron look at this!” I flipped the DVD case over and read the poorly photocopied movie description. “It’s John Wayne’s breakout role. My grandma was in one of his movies. I think it was this one. I have to watch it.” I reached into my pocket to pay Jasper, but by the time I grabbed the cash, Aaron had already paid. FICTION | 11
“Technically it’s my DVD now.” He held the case up to his head. “So, you can watch my movie, at my house sometime—if you want.” My stomach flipped. “Only if you buy me a piccadilly.” I said, pointing to a snow cone stand that listed all of their flavors on fluorescent pink poster board paper. “What in the hell is a piccadilly?” he asked. “It’s a Navajo delicacy, white boy. It’s a snow cone topped with pickles, Kool-Aid flavor, gummy worms, and red-hot chili powder.” When I got my piccadilly, we sat down at the food tent next to the snow cone stand. A group of liver-marked elders with yellowed bifocal lenses stopped talking as Aaron and I sat down at a table near them. I shot them a knowing look. Aaron and I were a strange match, to them, but it was none of their business. Interracial couples always had a hard time on the reservation, especially when the woman was Navajo. We were only thought of as leaders and matriarchs when our bodies bore brown babies, born for Navajo men. Outside of that, we were lost Indians, left to live with our reservations. So, I leaned into Aaron and held a spoonful of piccadilly out to him. I made sure every element was there. A red Kool-Aid dyed pickle and a hardened sour coated gummy worm sat on top of a neat pile of crystalline tiger’s blood shaved ice. He wrinkled his freckled nose at it. “Come on, eat it,” I teased, inching the spoon closer to his pursed lips. His eyes flitted up to me, as I leaned in across the splintered table top with the piccadilly packed styrofoam cup. “What am I gonna get out of this other than a stomach ache?” he said, cocking his head and smiling. “The locals-only experience.” I said, scooping the melting bite into my mouth and tucking the pickle into my cheek. “But it looks like you’re too much of a little bitch to try some.” I stuck out my blue raspberry-stained tongue at him. He smiled a kind of smile that reminded me of fresh frybread drizzled with warm honey. “Can I have a taste?” he said, meeting me halfway across the table. 12 | PHOEBE 49.2
When our lips touched and Aaron opened his mouth just right, I shoved the pickle chunk into his mouth with my tongue. He pulled back immediately and the old men next to us busted out laughing. Aaron chewed the pickle, his face heating to the color of a stove coil, with embarrassment. “What did you think?” I asked between bouts of laughter. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said after swallowing. “I’ll have to try that again sometime.” That following weekend, we watched the John Wayne movie at Aaron’s trailer. We made out on his couch. Later that evening I took him to my favorite snagging location, the cottonwood trees. He wanted to go back to his trailer, but I’d taken every snag here, and I didn’t want to break my streak. He told me to slow down when I unbuttoned his cargo shorts. So, instead, we made out some more. I let him touch my breasts, but he apologized for it after. It took more than two weeks to get Aaron into bed. Maybe that was a remnant of his Mormon ways. We watched a lot of movies. Made out in a lot of sand dunes and my neck became one big hickey, so I had to bring Navajo grandma scarves back into fashion. Finally, after my two-week no sex probation, we’d finally done it. I stood at the edge of Black Mesa overlooking Kayenta. In the distance I could see the flicker of orange burner lights from the Kayenta power plant thickening the horizon one by one, like stray embers. A breeze thrummed through the surrounding pinyon pines. Aaron sat cross-legged in our tent wearing those God-awful cargo shorts. Those shorts were a constant reminder to me that Aaron was in fact a mild-mannered white man. Those shorts and his apologies. I guess that made him more attentive than my usual snags. “I’m sorry, am I on your hair? Oh, I’m sorry, did that hurt?” he would say pale-faced, drenched in sweat, between grunts of satisfaction. It was fun for me too, fucking a white dude. It was different. Aaron was unexpectedly hairy, as if he had more secrets to hide. He wasn’t slick like the Navajo men you get on top of and feel like you’re going to slide right off because they’re smooth as river rocks. Aaron’s body was different. He glowed in the dark like those little ceiling stars. His body attracted the light. And his body was littered FICTION | 13
with tiny freckles, infinite in number, and they were everywhere. They reminded me of little bugs clinging to every part of him, his arms, his back, the whitest parts of his thighs. After sex the first time, once I knew he fell asleep, I checked my own body for freckles. In mid-September the cafeteria always smelled like Clorox and canned spinach. Our summer tans were fading. We Navajos turned less brown-red and more brown-green. The opposite colors of the changing seasons. I was keenly aware of the sweat accumulating around my midsection. Navajo girls and boys swept through the cafeteria with their hands glued to each other or their cell phones. New school shoes squelched across the blue speckled linoleum, gum popped, trays scraped across lunch room tables. Why was everyone being so damn loud? The lunch line was too long. I rocked myself back and forth on my heels. “You okay?” JT asked. I think he tilted his head, but I didn’t know if it was him, or if my balance was off. “I feel like I’m going to throw up,” I said, looking outside the cafeteria windows where the fifth graders hurled each other in circles on the merry-go-round. We shared a small campus with the other grade levels, while their building underwent construction. JT laughed. “I’m telling you, you need to stop drinking on school nights.” Aaron stood on the other side of the cafeteria conversing with the new gym teacher. I think her name was Lorna Littlewood, or some crap like that. She’d just moved from California I think, or at least, I’d heard something about her California ass. Asses were something really special to Navajo boys. Most of them acted like they’d never seen a white woman’s ass in their lives. Today, her ass was particularly accented. The flesh-colored lycra clung to her like Saran wrap on frozen beef. Everything about her looked frozen in place, from her perky ass and her toned shoulders, to her thinlipped smile. I fisted deeper into my sweatshirt pockets. The pilled cotton lining felt rough against my knuckles. Aaron had told me not to worry about her, but I couldn’t help it. She was everything that men were supposed to like. I wasn’t the only jealous one, though. Aaron 14 | PHOEBE 49.2
was very suspicious of JT, although I stated time and time again that JT was like a cousin to me. “Can we get some Bashas’ pizza?” I asked JT. We got into his Camaro and sped the four miles to the grocery store. Inside Bashas’, I sent JT to get some pizza from the deli. Without him watching, I bought what I needed. I had Kamisha check me out. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to say anything either. Neither of us wanted to speak this reality into existence. The bathrooms were in the back of the grocery store past the bakery and dairy aisle, kitty-corner to the meat display. I sulked past approximately three of my coworkers. Once in the bathroom, I chose the wheelchair access stall. My nervous energy made me want to pee. Crossing my legs, I pulled the pregnancy test out of the plastic bag. The test was safety wrapped so tight, I couldn’t get a grip on it. I felt a prick of warmth between my legs. I bent the box in half and worked it back and forth a few times before piercing the plastic with my teeth. I could hear the test in there rattling against the box. When I ripped the box open the pregnancy test directions fell on the floor. The crotch of my jeans cooled against my skin. I ripped the test out of its individual package and pulled off the cap. With my body pressed up against one stall wall, I rocked back and forth, not wanting to piss myself completely. After pulling down my jeans along with my panties, I sat down on the toilet, and placed the test between my legs. One, two, three, four. Remove test from urine stream. Placing the test on top of the toilet paper dispenser, I tried to distract myself by trying to dab the wet spot on my jeans with a wad of toilet paper. For three minutes, I thought about Aaron. I’d move into his trailer that smelled like a Sears catalogue. He’d let me paint the walls a color other than beige. He’d be a good father to our son or daughter. He would privilege our child in ways I could not. I imagined what she would look like. She would have a lighter complexion than me. She’d have light eyes like Aaron. Our beige baby. Three minutes later, I checked the plastic window of the pregnancy test. Single red line. Not pregnant. FICTION | 15
I had JT drive me home after that. I found my mother fast asleep in her bed. The comforter twisted around her body. Her Sonic shirt on the floor. The bedroom, void of the smell of male musk. It was just us. Intuitively, I knew it would always be that way, burned SpaghettiO’s, and drives to the gas station for chewing tobacco. Cleaning up her vomit. Mopping up piss at the end of a long day. Despite all of that we were in sync, our menstrual cycles, our love for each other, our fears. My mother was erratic, but we belonged to one another. She was the only being who could ever be mine. When she was asleep, everything about her softened, the lines in her face, the sharp angles of her elbows. She didn’t seem as bony, she didn’t hunger then, not for men, not for beer, she didn’t need anything. I wondered if I looked the same when I slept. If I was void of hunger. The only person who could tell me that was Aaron. I remember the day Kamisha and I found her. Irvin had called. He told me he left my whore of a mother out in the desert. He suspected she was cheating, which was true, but the infidelity went both ways. We found her passed out near mile post 162. She didn’t wake when I nudged her. As the ambulance carried us to the clinic in Tuba, we passed El Capitan peak, a dormant volcano, only seven miles north of Kayenta. El Capitan’s jagged ridge scissored into the night sky. In some ways, I realized my mother was dormant like that volcano. I’d wait for her to resurface and demand recognition for her monumental existence. I think we were both like that, ancient geologic wonders, just alkaline soil where nothing would grow unless we gave ourselves to the earth. Our blood, salt, iron, and placenta.
16 | PHOEBE 49.2
It’s a Phase CONTEST WINNER
My nephew takes pictures of dead animals with a disposable camera. My sister said this might be an issue when she asked me to watch him for the weekend. “It’s a phase,” she tells me. “Mark and I think he got it off the TV. Just don’t let him watch anything on the Syfy channel.” “Does he touch the carcasses?” I ask. This is my first time doing this: caring for and protecting a small human. “Should I be having him wash his hands? My sister looks at me like I am the disappointment that I am. “No and yes.” I’m an absolute last resort in her book, but when four babysitters, Mark’s mother, and the dog walker cancelled she asked me to watch him while she and Mark go away to Divine Duet Oasis—a couple’s retreat and spa—to “detox.” “So Mark’s been hitting the sauce again?” She tucks her bottom lip under her top teeth. I’ve been her brother long enough to know there’s something she’s not telling me. “It’s not like that.” “There’s a difference between an alcoholic and a functioning alcoholic.” “You would know.” “You’ve met Jerry before.” “Unfortunately.” She expects me to screw up, and even makes a point of showing me the survival-grade first aid kit she’s tucked in the boy’s backpack. “For when you need it.” “You mean in case we need it.” “No, I mean when you need it.” Before she leaves she kisses the boy on the cheek and gives him a wad of twenty-dollar bills. “Have your uncle take you to dinner,” she tells both of us. “And no friends over. By friends I mean Jerry.” FICTION | 17
“Why don’t you give me the money?” “Because I know you’ll spend it on drugs.” She’s not wrong. She is paying me to watch the boy, but she only gave me half up front. I guess to ensure I keep him alive. That’s my sister for you. The boy and I watch her slide into her Mazda and zoom off. The boy is brown-haired and straight-standing. He rarely talks, and when he does it’s in pointed, accusatory statements. “You buy drugs. What kind of drugs do you buy?” “The best kind,” I tell him. “Now go play. I have a lot of work to do.” That part wasn’t a lie. I’m filing my quarterly taxes, which, as a small business owner, is mostly me sifting through soggy receipts and notes written on napkins while the boy wanders the woods behind my apartment. I write off half my condo as a home office, bundle my $600 in parking tickets under “vehicle expenses,” and explain away nearly every grocery store trip as a “business meal” while taking breaks to smoke a joint and peek out the window. My nephew is still alive. I have a bag of mushrooms that I’ve committed to not eating the whole weekend. I think my sister would be proud. *** Not two hours go by before he’s back in the house. “What is it? Do you need water? How often are they feeding you?” The boy tells me my neighbor yelled at him for walking in her backyard. “She told me to get the hell out of her section of woods because I’ll scare the Sasquatch.” “Don’t curse,” I tell him. “Fine. She told me to get the bleep out of her bleeping section of the bleepity-bleep bleeping woods.” I put my head in my hands. My neighbor Angela is a bit loony-toons. She has this idea in her head that there’s a Bigfoot roaming the woods behind our properties. I look at my computer screen. I’m going to owe the IRS a lot of money if I don’t get serious about fudging these numbers. 18 | PHOEBE 49.2
“I’ll talk to her. You just keep doing whatever you were doing. And wash your hands.” Angela and I used to get along. When I first moved in, we’d wave and say “hi,” and ask each other how it was going. She baked me a tray of her gooey butter cake and I brought over left-over pizza. But a few months ago, I got really drunk and peed in her window well because I thought it was mine. Common mistake. She caught me because it was around 2 p.m. on a Saturday and chased me back into my house with her riding lawn mower. I tried to explain that I was taking a nap and must have been sleepwalking. And sleep peeing. But she wasn’t buying it. We haven’t been on the best of terms since. Outside, Angela is trimming her hedges with big cartoonish shears. She’s wearing a leopard-print shirt, skin-tight leather pants, and thick, red lipstick. She always does this: gets all dolled up to work in her yard. I wonder which neighbor she’s trying to impress today. One day I’ll make an elaborate spreadsheet of all her potential romantic interests. But not today. “Angela,” I say. I’m too afraid of her to make eye contact, so I talk to the patch of grass in front of her. “You keep that boy out of my section of woods. I don’t want him spooking the Sasquatch.” She snaps the big shears with vim and vigor, her taut and wiry forearms glistening in the afternoon sun, and I can’t help but imagine it’s my head she’s thinking of every time she squeezes the shears together. “He’s only here until tomorrow, Angela, he isn’t bothering nothing.” “I don’t want him stepping in the fox traps.” She says this softer, more concerned than angry. I nod my head at the ground. The last thing I need is the boy walking with a fox trap clamped to his foot. “Once you catch something,” she tells me. “Those things are hard to reset.” I tell the boy to stay on my side of the woods, and that seems to satisfy Angela because she heads back inside. I wave two middle fingers at her back. The boy giggles at this and I feel good suddenly, having earned the boy’s approval. FICTION | 19
*** I find some spark of creative energy and bundle all my illicit drug purchases under “health expenses,” which isn’t untrue; back in the fall I ate a bunch of mushrooms and cleaned a hot tub for four hours. Time to celebrate. I sit in the backyard and smoke a joint while the kid wanders in the woods like Bigfoot. I’m pretty high when he emerges from behind the boxwoods and scares the bleep out of me. “How much is my mom paying you to watch me?” The boy says this like I’ve committed a crime. “$300 for the weekend,” I answer truthfully. “Which I could really use.” The boy nods and stares at me. Then he pulls out the wad of twenties my sister gave him. “I’m hungry.” “Goddamn,” I say, “me too.” We’re about to leave when suddenly, in one of the oaks, a red-tailed hawk and a squirrel start going at it on the top branch. They’re really duking it out, too: the hawk flapping and screeching, the squirrel clawing and squeaking. I clap my hands hard together and yell, “Hey, be friends. Break it up.” But this doesn’t do anything, so I find a medium-sized landscape rock in Angela’s yard and lob it up at them. The rock doesn’t come close. I take the boy’s disposable camera and chuck it, this time a bit closer, and scare the hawk away but hit the squirrel in the head. I apparently hit it just right because it falls to the ground without a sound and doesn’t move. The boy and I go and stand over it. It’s super dead. “Don’t tell your mom about this.” The boy snaps a picture of the dead squirrel with the camera that just killed it. *** We drive to Applebee’s. I drive. The neon apple welcomes us like moths to a lamp. Shockingly, the place is nearly vacant. We’re seated immediately. “Get whatever you want,” I tell the boy. “We’ll eat like kings.” 20 | PHOEBE 49.2
“Anything?” “That’s what I’m doing.” I order steak with a side of chicken and request a bowl of French onion soup be poured over all of it. The boy orders an old-fashioned doughnut with cheese curds and a side of bacon. I also tell the waitress it’s both of our birthdays. She doesn’t even ask to see any proof, just brings out one of those skillet cookies with a sparkler candle stuck in the middle. No one sings to us and I am happy. The meal is mediocre but we scarf it all down without hardly speaking. We make primitive grunts as we mash our food. At some point in the middle of it all the boy stops and smiles at me. “This is great,” he tells me. “My mom would never let me do this.” If there’s a definition of happiness, it’s this right here. “If I were your mother I’d raise you differently.” And I imagine, briefly, our life together: me waking up responsibly every morning, not hungover, frying eggs on the electric stove; sending him off to school with a sack lunch of mostly Chips Ahoy! cookies, which he could trade for better food; taking him to his baseball games and harassing the umpire; giving the sex talk. I wait patiently for the boy to say I wish you were my mother, or I wish Mark would die, or something as heartfelt, but he just does this half smile without opening his mouth and dunks a chunk of his doughnut in my soup. I’ll take what I can get. We keep eating. We eat until we can’t eat any more. Then we eat until the plates are thoroughly cleaned. The boy pays the bill while I pick at my teeth with one of those fancy toothpicks and show him how to calculate a 20 percent tip. “Your mom’s a cheap bleep but I’ve worked these kinds of jobs. This is people’s livelihood.” The boy just looks at me blankly and I take this as him understanding me. On the drive home I pull over and we both throw up by the railroad tracks. FICTION | 21
“I’m so proud,” I tell him between hucks. “I’m not even drunk.” *** I start a pit fire in the backyard and sit with my bottle of Jim and my joint while the boy wanders the woods with my headlamp and his camera. “Remember to use the flash,” I call to the boy. “Stop yelling.” Angela emerges from behind her hedge, decked out in camo. She nearly scares the bleep out of me. “It’s a full moon,” she tells me. “The Sasqui are most active during a full moon.” I just nod and take a long drag from my joint. Angela heads into the woods to spend the night in her deer stand. It occurs to me that she is batshit crazy. I watch her disappear into the brush and feel my business/personal/burner phone vibrating in my pants. It’s a flip and built like the piece of shit I am; the caller ID screen is broken, the antennae is missing, and calls always break up on the other line. But I always answer the calls. Business never sleeps, except in the off-season, and I need the money, especially when it’s the off-season. “This is Desperate House Guy: Handyman For Hire.” “It’s me.” “Who?” “Your sister. How’s he doing?” “Who?” “My son. Your nephew. Have you used the first aid kit yet?” “He’s fine. We just got back from dinner. Did some real bonding. We’re having the time of our lives.” I yell to the boy, who is pushing a massive branch into the fire. “Come tell your mother how much fun you’re having!” The boy shakes his head as the branch catches fire. The flames spit and lick their way up the gnarled wood. I tell my sister her son is busy. He’s writing what looks like the word BLEEP in the air with part of the burning branch. The smoke outlines words in the air like a plane’s exhaust or a child’s crude handwriting. “By the way, how’s Mark? Does he have the shakes yet? Best not 22 | PHOEBE 49.2
to go near him. Leave the bathroom door unlocked. Maybe fill the tub with water. Let him sweat it out.” I can hear her sigh on the other line and I imagine she’s doing that lip tuck thing. “Listen, I think we’re getting a divorce,” she says. “Mark and me.” I let the crackling fire fill the silence. My sister is crying on the other line. Maybe I’m a worse person than I let on. But I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s disapproved of nearly every lifestyle choice I’ve made in the past 15 years. Her husband—I guess soon to be former husband— a small business lawyer, hasn’t once offered me even a shred of pro bono advice. The both of them lead miserable lives. It’s the boy I feel sorry for. Maybe if I were a better person I’d have something more supportive to say to her than, “I hope this is the best thing for the boy.” But that’s what I say. Eventually we hang up and I tell the boy his mother and father miss him a lot. I grab a flaming branch of my own and write the word divorce in the air but it just appears as a jumble of smoke. *** That night I dream I wander into the woods to spook Angela, sneak up behind her in her deer stand. I lurk around by the light of the full moon, tiptoeing amongst the architecture of the forest, sticks and bramble and spider webs, in my drunken state. And even though I can see well I don’t notice the fox trap that wraps around my foot and digs its teeth into my ankle. Blood trickles and shines crimson in the moonlight. And I yell for the boy but my words come out more beastly and guttural than any sort of human communication, something like, “Ahhhh Rawrrrrrr!” The pain is mine and the noises are my pain and the more I pull on the fish hook-like trap the more it latches into my flesh and the pain and the noises my mouth make become one in the night. By the magic of my dream world, all the pellets of Angela’s shotgun whip around me and pass by me and flow through me. I am immune. I am Martial Arts. And we meet face to face there amongst the mighty oaks, Angela’s gun aimed at my head. FICTION | 23
“Please don’t kill me,” I plead. “I need to care for my son.” Suddenly the boy is giving me my bottle of Jim, commanding me to drink. And while I gulp down the nectar he and Angela pry the trap from my foot. He bandages it with gauze from the first aid kit. I see Angela is crying and I tell her “Don’t cry, I’m not dead yet. You can’t kill me that easily.” But she shakes her head and says there never was a Sasquatch it was just me, her dumbass neighbor, all along like her friends had tried to tell her. She feels dumb and I look at the boy bandaging my leg and feel equally if not more dumb but the boy reassures us then that everything will be okay and to never stop believing, to never stop dreaming. And then I’m awake and the morning is banging my head like a hammer, I’m still drunk. Highly unusual for me. Honestly hasn’t happened since college. And there’s a throbbing pain in my leg. And it’s wrapped in gauze. My bottle of Jim is empty on the nightstand next to the open first aid kit. So there’s that. I close my eyes and try to fall back asleep, try to slither back into the dream world where life is simpler and I can create a happier reality. My leg hurts so bad I could cry. I think I am actually. The pain is like stubbing my bare toe on cement. It’s like slamming my finger in a door. It’s like when my folks told me and my sister they were getting a divorce plus when my sister told me it was my fault. All of these things combined except concentrated in my calf meat. And I can’t possibly sleep with this going on. I hobble into the living room and the boy’s watching TV and eating a bowl of cereal I didn’t know I had. If I wasn’t drunk and in pain I’d be impressed by his industriousness. He doesn’t look at me. I stand in front of the TV. He tries to look around me. “Last night sure was fun, aye?” I try to smile but the pain in my leg has somehow moved to my mouth and it hurts to move my cheeks more than necessary. “You got really drunk last night.” He’s acting…what’s the word for it: standoffish, talking at the floor in front of me and the popcorn ceiling above me. “Has Angela said anything?” 24 | PHOEBE 49.2
“She begged me not to call the cops. She was swearing a bleep ton.” “You don’t have to tell me.” “You’re worse than Mark.” This hurts. “I guess your mother will be happy we used the first aid kit.” “I called my mom.” This hurts more. Everything hurts and I think about crawling back into my bed. I realize the boy is safer without me around. We sit without saying anything, watching Bigfoot Hunters. On TV, two men with shotguns wander some back country and talk in low whispers, and then it cuts to grainy footage of a Bigfoot bumbling through the brush. I catch Angela in my window, face pressed against the glass. Literally the last person I want to see. “Jesus H. are you okay?” she mouths from behind the glass. “I’m so sorry.” I open the sliding glass door and invite her in. She doesn’t stop saying, “I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry.” “It’s okay,” I say even though I’m not sure if it is or if it ever will be. “I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry.” “Angela.” I try to ignore her by watching the TV. I point at the TV. “Ten bucks says they won’t find anything.” The boy says: “Duh. The government would cover it up.” “It’s true,” Angela says. I can’t argue with this logic, so I don’t. The two backwoodsmen don’t catch anything, shocker. I stick out my hand for my ten dollars and the boy gives me the disposable camera. He tells me he’s used up all the film. I read the small print on the cardboard casing. The thing holds 30 pictures. “These can’t all be pictures of dead animals.” The boy nods his head in affirmative. As a last ditch effort to reinsert myself in his good graces I drive him to the one-hour photo. I drive with my left foot which if you’ve never done it is a lot harder than it sounds. FICTION | 25
We play Jurassic Park pinball at the bar across the street while we wait. The boy has natural ability and will one day be better than me if he keeps a consistent practice. But he’s not yet strong enough to tilt the machine like me. I beat him easily. We get the pictures and look through them right there at the counter. It’s just dead animals; I don’t really know what else I was expecting. Dead squirrel. Dead raccoon. Dead bird. Dead bird. Dead bird. Dead field mouse. Decapitated rabbit. The lady working the one-hour photo gives me dirty looks while the boy and I thumb through them, but I don’t give a bleep what she thinks. The boy and I are bonding. “These are memories,” I tell her. “What about this one?” The boy holds up a blurry image of something brown and hairy standing upright, half-hidden behind a tree and some brush. I take it in my hands and inspect it more closely. It could be a bear. It’s definitely big enough to be a bear. Or it could be something else. “What do you think it is?” The boy’s voice cracks and I can’t help but smile. His cheeks flush red. He’s growing up right before my eyes. “Bigfoot?” he asks again. “Evidence,” I say and shove the picture in my pocket. *** My sister shows up looking like she hasn’t slept all weekend. She doesn’t ask about my foot or anything about last night or the weekend at all, and so I keep my mouth shut too. She leaves the Mazda running so I know my time with the boy is limited. I’m sad to see him go. “I’m not going to hug you,” he tells me. “Because that’s weird.” “Fair,” I say, and put my hand to his shoulder like I’m going to instill him with some sage advice. He doesn’t know yet just how hard things are going to get. And I know this dead animal thing is probably going to get worse. My leg might be infected and I should go to the Minute Clinic. But all I can think to say is, “Try not to watch too much TV.” “You too.” I give a nod to my sister, and do something I would never 26 | PHOEBE 49.2
imagine doing and I give her a hug right there, a big ole’ bear brother sister hug. “It’ll be okay,” I say. “It’s not your fault.” She doesn’t say anything, just kind of noodles in my arms until I let go. Her and the boy peel out of my driveway. Back inside, the Syfy channel is still on. I watch a little of Bigfoot Hunters until I spot Angela out in her yard. I remember the picture in my pocket and I hobble outside to meet my neighbor.
FICTION | 27
The Shape of Grief In the doctor’s office, a woman describes the shape of her pain. “There is a hard pillar inside of me,” she says. “Cylindrical. Metallic. It stretches from the pit of my stomach up to my throat.” The doctor says this is an usual symptom and asks if she has any others. “Lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, lump in throat, fatigue. On account of the pillar,” says the woman. The doctor inquires if she’s seen a therapist. The woman sighs. She has seen half a dozen therapists and as many doctors. They all assume the pillar is metaphorical, or perhaps psychosomatic. But the woman knows her insides. “Doctor,” she says. “Please. Just X-ray me.” The doctor shrugs and orders the X-rays. The woman changes into a hospital gown that looks and feels like a disposable tablecloth. In the imaging room, a lab technician positions the woman in front of a box-like apparatus mounted on the wall. The woman likes to feel her body manipulated by the technician’s cool, soft hands; it feels like being cared for. Her hands are placed on grab bars on either side of the machine. Her chest presses up against the plate. A lead skirt is looped around her hips, protection from the fine, carcinogenic waves that will wash invisibly over her. As the technician adjusts the X-ray tube, four quadrants of light fall onto the woman’s back, shaped just like a window. The technician leaves the room and the procedure begins. Inside the X-ray tube, electrons pour from cathode to anode and radiation ripples outward. The waves vibrate into the woman’s skin, piercing clean through blood and soft tissue to bury into bone, soaking the loam like a sponge. She thinks about how the beams filtering through her are only a few trillion hertz away from visible light and decides to picture that instead—her body glowing with color, washed by rainbow, brilliant as a prism. 28 | PHOEBE 49.2
Afterwards, the woman waits on an exam bed that is cold and crinkly with paper. Finally, the doctor returns, X-rays in hand. “Well, I’ll be damned if I can explain it,” he says. “But here it is.” He mounts the X-rays on the illuminator. The pillar glows, electric white and undeniable. It is bright and opaque against her shadowy bones. “You shouldn’t be alive,” says the doctor. “Did you swallow something?” The woman shakes her head. She feels sad and unsurprised. “I want it out of me,” she says. “It hurts so terribly.” Teams of specialists are brought in. CT scans are performed. The doctors are baffled, incredulous, intrigued. But the woman knows what this is and she knows it is nothing that can be examined away. It is just there, hurting, and must be removed. The surgeon decides to go in through the stomach. He anticipates all sorts of complications, but there are none. Except for the pillar, this woman is healthy. They open her, extract it, sew her back up. Afterwards, they want to keep the pillar to study it, discover an origin, name a pathology. But it is unremarkable. Once wiped of blood, it reveals itself to be a simple steel beam, 3.9 inches in diameter, 20.3 inches tall, weighing 68.6 pounds. “What a weight to carry,” a nurse says to the woman. The woman nearly weeps. In post-op, doctors with clipboards ask her how she feels. “Emptier,” she says. “The pain is gone?” ask the doctors. She hesitates. Is the pain gone? She can still feel something inside her—or rather, a lack of something. She can feel the shape of absence, a pillar-sized gap, an emptiness at her core refusing to fill. It is less painful than disorienting, as if a familiar landmark has vanished, the sun scooped from the midday sky, the tip of her nose erased from its permanent place in her field of vision. There is a sense of gone-ness, of missing-ness, a hollowness refusing to be named. The woman says, “The pain is gone.” She is discharged the next day. A doctor holds the pillar out to her. “Want to keep this?” she asks. “We’ve done all we can with it.” FICTION | 29
The woman stares at the pillar. She is afraid of it. She remembers how its edges cut into her, a sharp circumference at either end that left her insides stinging. She remembers the weight, how hard it was to pull herself from bed, drag her body from A to B. How hard even to just sit still, holding such heaviness. But somehow she finds herself reaching out, accepting it. She holds it with both arms, rests its cold mass against her body. She breathes its metallic odor—industrial and sweaty—and feels a chilly kind of comfort. At home, the dishes in the sink look sad. Each one holds a different shade of tap water: tannic brown, bleached Malbec, the oxidized greyish of week-old smoothie. A pot murky with pasta starch stares at her like a cataract. The woman tells herself Now I will wash the dishes. Without the pillar inside her, she moves easily—too easily. Her body functions like an equation in a high school physics textbook, the kind that ignores the reality of friction, posits a world smooth enough for the laws of motion to work perfectly. She feels loose, automatic, unanchored. Her organs shift around the empty space inside her, skirting its perimeter without crossing over. The lack of pain persists. As she washes dishes, she glances at the pillar, which she has placed on the sofa. It is smaller than she pictured. She had imagined Grecian columns—the Pantheon, the Parthenon. Hardly rational, but what about the situation was? Now, submerged to her wrists in greasy dishwater, she cannot quite believe her house can hold this strange object, the same way it holds coffee tables and vases of flowers and rows of clothing on hangers. It is strange that the pillar has dimensions, texture, temperature. As much as she believed in its reality, half of her also believed it existed in some alternate dimension, otherworldly and inaccessible. To see it lying on her lumpy couch, looking dull, mundane, in need of polishing, feels…irreverent. To wash dishes in its proximity feels perverted. So she carries it to a spare room, stands it vertically on top of a bookshelf, like a statue or an idol. Better. She returns to the kitchen, washes the rest of the dishes, eats some canned soup. Then she stands in the middle of the room and wonders what to do. The evening light 30 | PHOEBE 49.2
is coming through the blinds in cool blue bars. A dog is barking. People elsewhere in the world are feeling happy, their organs packed tightly inside their bodies, liver, kidney, stomach, lungs, all nestled together like a finished jigsaw. The earth is rotating on its axis at a painfully constant speed. The woman pictures the globe split in two, half day and half night. She pictures the hemisphere of sun sliding slowly away from her. She goes to bed and lies on her back. The ceiling above her, shifting with the light of dusk, contains all the absurdities of space and time. How am I here? she asks herself. How is time still moving? How is my body still a body? She cries. Tears catch in the hollow of her ear. From her throat come animal noises. She gets up from bed and crosses the house to the spare room. The pillar on the bookshelf is undeniably solid. Its shadow slants darkly across the wall. She wraps her arms around it—what familiar heft—and carries it back to bed. She draws it close, lets its edges dig into her. The pain feels real and good. Absence becomes presence. With her face to the cold steel, she closes her eyes and falls asleep. *** After that, she takes the pillar everywhere. On her first day back at work, she straps it into the front seat of her car and takes it into the office. Carrying it in the elevator, she struggles to push the buttons, but a kind coworker offers to help. All her coworkers are very kind. They smile at her in that half-smile, half-grimace way, their lips tucking back toward their teeth, their eyes crinkling with sympathy. They do not ask about the pillar. They try hard not to stare at it. The woman wishes they would say something. Anything. Nice pillar, maybe. Or even, What the hell is that? But, unsure what to do with evidence of such pain, they refuse to acknowledge its presence, and so the woman too avoids mentioning it in conversation. She places it upright next to her office chair so she can periodically reach down and rest a hand on its surface. She carries it with her when she goes on lunch break, and when she attends staff meeting. She begins to memorize the subtle deviations in its surface—slight warps, minute rough patches. It is heavy and cold and sharp-edged, but it is a comfort. A thing to touch. A thing to carry. A thing that exists in the world. FICTION | 31
After several weeks, some of her kind coworkers ask her out for a drink. She knows they have decided it is time for such things. When she shows up with the pillar in her arms, they exchange uncomfortable glances, but quickly resume their cheerful smiles. The woman rests the pillar horizontally across her lap. The coworkers on either side of her scoot slightly away. She orders a New York Sour. She has not been eating or drinking much lately—the sensation is too strange. Her esophagus curves like a playground slide down to her stomach, which scrunches like a folded sack, almost touching her pelvis. As she sips her sour, she feels the icy alcohol slosh circuitously through her, further demarcating the boundary between what is there and what is not. She wishes she could describe the absence, attach words to it, even such empty words as dull, dead, numb. But none of these comes close. There is simply nothing there. Even this sentence feels like a lie. To speak of a there, to employ the to-be verb is, are inaccurate ways to talk about a void. An illusion out of grammar. Fiction in syntax. An order of parmesan truffle fries arrives for the table and suddenly the woman is crying. She brims with such longing. Such need. The sense of missing spills out of her. Her alarmed coworkers pat her arm, speak in soothing voices, offer her hot, oily fries. All she can do is grip the pillar to her and let its weight strain against her sternum. Her coworkers are saying things like Oh honey. Oh sweetie. Don’t cry. But they misunderstand; the tears are a relief. They exist. Slick, salty, warm. Proof of loss, which is otherwise, by nature, invisible. On the cab ride home, the woman slumps against the seat and closes her eyes, holding her pillar close. She feels tired. As she drives through the city, she thinks about all its negative space—all the emptiness between things, between buildings and trees and cars. She thinks about the empty wedges between bicycle spokes, the holes in a chain-link fence, the hollow tunnels carved out of the earth to accommodate pipes and wires. The gaps between people, who spend most of their time not touching. How much of the earth is made of emptiness? She goes home, lies in bed with the pillar. The empty space inside her gets emptier. The last of the blood cells evacuate, lymph 32 | PHOEBE 49.2
and plasma draining like bathwater. A tiny vacuum blooms from the matter-less space. She feels its force begin to tug at her; soon she will crumple in on herself and swirl away. There is only one thing to do. She goes to the bathroom and takes a razor blade from the drawer. She has learned this: agony is preferable to absence. So she will make an incision in her gut, slot the pillar back inside. She will live with it, that terrible heaviness, for the rest of her life. She will bear it. She will relish it. It will be there, alwaysâ€”as memorial, as tribute, as such sweet and solid pain.
FICTION | 33
Virginia Is Not Your Home They hung that name on you at birth, but Virginia was never your home. Read Nausea by Sartre and give yourself a new one. Trumpet your new name to the liver-spotted washroom mirror, like a coronation. Gape your mouth then angle your tongue behind your teeth. While you’re at it, work to remedy those other afflictions: that fetid high-hill r that has planted itself in the middle of words like wa-r-sh. Scrub the stink of manure from your clothing and while your young body churns over the basin, keep whispering your new, still-secret name. Believe that if you can just change this, you can change everything. When your furtive girl body begins to unfold, pull your hair back so severely that the boys don’t tug you down below the bleachers. Take to wearing Daddy’s fishing flannels to ward off solicitations to tissue paper dances. Don’t accept it when they ask, Who do you think you are? Don’t accept the moldy hymnals, the marquee salvations. Don’t ache too badly for milk cows in the pasture, their slick contoured ribs pressing through. Take French, lock your doors, and trust in your own 16-year-old self. Fill out an array of applications, but don’t tell Momma when you win a scholarship to an all-girls college toward the center of the state. Instead let the screen-door clap closed behind you. Let the brisk air rush by as you sprint barefooted to the creek bed. As breath stings your lungs and a stitch claws up your ribcage, howl victorious into the night sky. At freshman orientation, chew up and swallow the first nametag they give you. Write yourself a new one. Someday soon you’ll make it official, this new and chosen name. Smile with restraint so that no one can question the slant of your eye teeth— those hidden incisors, white as fresh, warm milk, since according to Momma, there was fluoride in the well-water. According to Momma, she did not expect a girl-child and one light as her after all. 34 | PHOEBE 49.2
According to Momma, nothing is promised in this world. Tell the other girls you’ve lost both of your parents when they ask why you didn’t go home over Thanksgiving break. In the coming months, they’ll invite you places: a cottage On the Cape, a brownstone in Georgetown for New Year’s Eve. These young women who grouse over dining hall menus, who can’t imagine divining supper from scraps. Take note of the weight of their family silver, the line of first edition books along their parents’ mantels. Read Camus and Kafka to tatters. Read Simone de Beauvoir. Work harder still and, as soon as you are able, transfer to a bigger school, one with a better language department. Don’t fret that it still sits in your namesake state—Virginia or Ginny, like your sweetfaced grade school friend used to call you. Those girls you grew up with who preened in pick-up headlights, who got knocked up then abandoned before reaching legal drinking age. Study your new suburban suitemates but don’t follow them to their beer-soaked parties. Instead, take a Greyhound to a protest near the White House. Lead a chant against the bombs being dropped in a desert you can’t properly name. Shake your fists at those suited, greedy men determined to devour the world before you even taste it. Work double shifts on weekends at the rural country club on the outskirts of your Blue Ridge college town. The steep, winding bike ride reminds you of Momma’s family land. Ferry trays to round tables of aging patrons: gin and tonics, jumbo shrimp cocktails, chicken cordon bleus. Couples shift in dusty three-piece suits and gowns glinting with costume jewelry. All that pomp against your black V-neck sweaters and second-skin leggings. Men ogle your cleavage, a few pinch your bottom: They all command you to smile. Watch how, as soon as their wives turn away, they circle back to lay more money on your table. Save every goddamn penny and buy a plane ticket to Europe. Ride trains from Firenze to Munich, from Munich to Prague. Tell yourself, I am here, I am here, like a song. Here is history and culture and power. Here are the old writers who wrote books that you believe saved you. Here you are with your notebook outside a café: If you hold your mouth right, you feel like you nearly belong. FICTION | 35
Never mind that cobblestone recalls rutted gravel and your hostel’s stark duvets summon Momma’s mildewed quilts. Bolt upright in your sleeping carriage at the knock in the night as your train crosses yet another border. Curt foreign voices demand Passaporte! Hand over your full and legal name. Outside a discotheque in Paris, lean into a striking dark-haired man. He whispers your chosen name to you, his accent making it new again. When he asks where you’re from, list a string of cities you hope to soon visit. Tell him London. Tell him Lisbon. Tell him Barcelona. Hurry back to his place and allow him to take you—a satisfying shock like diving into spring water. Call out a strand of inelegant rrrrrrs followed by a sob of release. Turn your head, catch the eye of another man, less beautiful, but an artist—a photographer—and from a good French family. Don’t go to bed with this second man right away. Stay with him in the city in his family’s flat, weeks past your flight, forfeiting your final semester. Promise yourself you’ll go back and graduate in the spring. When this man questions you about the States, answer him as if America is a dream you are still dreaming. Close your eyes and recall vast open spaces and sleepy small towns. Recollect men with skin so much darker than yours curled over saxophones. Speak to him in French of art and ambition—those foreign words rattling around in your neediest places. Flash him your crooked eye teeth and hope he sees what you mean to show. Marry this man in nine months’ time, a small, secular ceremony back at your parents’ home. The animals have all been sold off or buried, but there is still that one narrow pasture. Tell yourself it’s only a handful of days, it only makes sense your new husband needed to see this place. Don’t tremble inside those peeling-paint walls. Don’t startle when Momma lays a tattered family bible in your hands. Silver photos chafe between yellowed pages, those pale, abiding ancestors of hers whose lives ended here where yours began. Your parents look older than their years, their faces creased and furrowed. They refrain from using your new name but also hold the old one deep in their throats. Let Daddy walk you down the grassy 36 | PHOEBE 49.2
aisle, dark and stoic in a well-pressed suit and wingtips. Let the girl from Momma’s church scatter petals on the ground. Your new husband seems to find all of it charming, even the new A&P in town, even Momma’s cola-soaked ham. As you walk with him along the muddy bank, notice how he mimics the way Daddy mumbles crik for creek. Rent a place just outside of D.C. since a prestigious firm there wants to represent your husband’s work. Tell yourself it will be six months more in Virginia, a year at most. Your husband photographs looming constructions: bridges, facades. He’s out the door well before the light goes golden and works through sunset when the day is nearly gilded again. While your husband is away, metro to Foggy Bottom, metro to DuPont Circle. Step through the automated doors into swampy summer heat. Don’t bristle at the sight of homeless men who sit near the exits with cardboard coffers open at their feet. Don’t stare too hard at the girl who brings your tea at the teashop, at her deep brown skin and closely shorn head. Metro to the National Mall in winter. There you are, a dot of a girl in a wide gray landscape, gloves off and waiting in your lap. Scrawl something you remember of your one time in Europe: a story—you hope—of a girl who got away. Come spring, dredge yourself from a nightmare of sinking to find yourself unaccountably seasick. Your husband is somewhere in Rome photographing famous ruins. Accept that this is your own fault, after all these years of brutal care. You’ve been reckless in the ways you’ve wanted, as if there was no end to want. As if the hungry burden of your husband’s foreign body could free you from your own. Let motherhood present itself as a dull ache at your center. His voice ecstatic on the phone, your husband says he’ll be home in five days, seven at the most. On your next call, Momma, she gets sobbing—from joy? From grief? Eat Ho Hos and canned corn and thick cut bologna. Don’t ask yourself, where am I headed now? Abandon yourself to wrenching labor, break open and birth a son. Eighteen months later, bear a girl, a daughter. Choose your son’s name, a clever French name, but let your husband name the FICTION | 37
girl. It sounds like a fine name, the way he first says it, but soon your daughter plucks a nickname from it, perky and provincial. Your husband’s career continues to lift, his inky seascapes lining gallery walls. While his agency flies him all over the world, you are tasked to stay behind and raise the children. Dig your nails deep into your thighs each night, but never let the inky bruises show. Let your husband buy you a house in the suburbs, an outpost from which to raise these fair and fitful beings. Whenever he’s home, petition him still. Tell him you could live in Bordeaux or Brussels. Tell him you would live in Madrid. Never mind that already you know his stock answer, that the money is better working from the States. Insist on a long trip to Europe each summer, though it reminds you of how big the world remains. Stay near La Rochelle, by the water, where your husband’s mother now lives. This woman, who wears crisp, white linen, who speaks to you in formal French and plants dry kisses on the children’s cheeks. The whole time you’ve known her, she’s kept the same servant, a North African lady who cleans and cooks and shops like a wife. When you glimpse this second serf of a woman, feel outraged and full of envy. Those early years are trying: Persist! The children beg you to play on hands and knees. The children run screaming to greet their father whenever he bursts through the front door. Notice the lavish way he lifts them with only a weary peck on the cheek left for you. Jet-lagged, he collapses on the king-sized bed, leaving luggage for you to unpack. Much later, wake to the light of his cellphone, its blue glow in his eyes and your shared bed lurching to his needy rhythms. Let yourself feel something too, a pulsing sadness, a lumen of want, even if before you can whisper his name, he emits a shuddering groan that gives way to snores. Notice how quickly the years are unfurling: the children double then triple themselves. The boy is five, the girl is ten, the boy is fifteen. Your husband’s gone bald, still women swoon at his stubbled jaw and muscled chest, as if he grows brighter even as you dim. You hear him outside, below your bedroom window, the same morning you find those forgotten notebooks full of your eager, awful words. 38 | PHOEBE 49.2
Gawk at those futile, straying stories and don’t pick up the phone when it rings. Momma’s voice will rise out of the machine to tell you your father has passed. Feel numb and at the same time untethered, as if an invisible cord that anchored you has now been severed. After the funeral, at the stoplight in town, your husband palms your stockinged knee. Believe he is consoling you until he says, We might consider moving here. For your mother’s sake, he adds. Promise yourself you’ll never move back but take Momma’s calls every night. Each small thing she says makes its own kind of sense, but taken altogether, recognize a jumble of despair. Your husband’s been home for six weeks in a row, his unflagging presence setting all of your routines askew. Turn away when he mentions moving in with Momma, though he says this as if it’s a high-wire trick that might well save you. See how he sidesteps all talk of his dwindling work, the partial mortgage payments, the growing distances between you. Put the house on the market just to see what it will bring. You are falling farther and farther behind so what else can you do? Accept the highest middling bid and let your husband call this Freedom. Your son, tall as you now, makes fists when you tell him, his young mouth twisting as if he holds kindling inside it. Your daughter slams her bedroom door, leaving you outside of its dry rattle. Press your ear to hear her mewl on the phone to a middle school boyfriend, a person you’ll never meet. Those first weeks back are trying—hold on. The old rambling house is a circus and Momma’s confusion, a grotesque new exhibit. See how she stumbles over the children’s names—how she acts like a child herself some days. One bleak winter night, she wanders off though you don’t realize till the corded phone in the kitchen blares. Some city-sounding couple is on the line; they must’ve bought your old neighbor’s place. Race down to find Momma in your car’s searching headlights, alone in a grove of pine. Momma caped in a mossy quilt and spinning, your son’s filthy sneakers like rank mittens on her hands. Move Momma into a nursing home and visit every day. Even though, whenever you walk in, her body seizes with agitation. FICTION | 39
Take a break, don’t go back, one day then another, until a week has passed. The first time you return, Momma grasps the arm of a passing staff member. Hear how she implores this uniformed stranger to tell her who in the world you are. Your husband accepts sporadic assignments up and down the coast. He drives himself to Portsmouth, to Lexington, leaving you carless and stranded. He shoots portraits and street fairs and weddings, all of it ephemeral and small. Eventually he packs his cameras away, reminding you that he’s always loved jazz music. He uses the last of your savings to open a boutique record store in a strip mall in town. The children attend your old high school—classrooms from which you once plotted escape. Each day they grow less tied to you, leaving longer swaths of your days free. One rainy spring morning, after dropping off your husband, collect a rustling stack of applications. Tell yourself they are for your daughter, but never show them to her. What could you do here with no real qualifications, not even having finished your degree? Could you be a clerk? A secretary? Could you wait tables again? Meanwhile mulch Momma’s feral azaleas. Resurrect the kitchen garden that fed you as a child. Fashion a series of raised beds from the railroad ties abandoned behind the shed. Eat lunch on the side porch—white bread with sliced tomatoes—your face turns to the breeze. The next time you visit the nursing home, Momma flies up in her wheelchair. She clenches you with such ferocity, it feels like you’ve only just met this woman who raised you. There are letters, she tells you, in the house. Letters your own dark and somber father once wrote to you. Promise me you’ll find them, Momma says. Hold her cloudy gaze. Graze her downy cheek. Let her warm breath fog your face. Rifle through drawers, overturn crates, leaving everything gaping and churned. Even after days of fruitless searching, admit to yourself that you want to believe. Read in bed by ocher lamplight of glaciers liquefying and waves of refugees breaching Europe. When your husband asks what’s the matter with you, let your old wounds gleam. Look at him and plead, Take me away, 40 | PHOEBE 49.2
even though you don’t know where there is to go, exactly. Your husband answers you in French, so quickly you can’t catch the words. When you ask him to repeat himself, he frowns and shakes his head. He reaches over and past you. With one bright click, he pitches the room to black. After you and your husband separate for good, fill out each application. With central hiring and background checks, your legal name is required here again. All this time you promised yourself you’d change it, and now it feels too late. As you hurry out of the new Super Walmart, don’t dwell on the line of accented girls working three registers in a row. Did they come from Ethiopia? From Egypt? How did they end up belonging better than you in your nowhere, hill-tucked town? Balance heavy bags of groceries in the crooks of your arms and pinch yourself to keep from crying. Your nearly grown children sleepwalk beside you—the girl a sophomore, the boy a senior who will graduate soon. Their eyes remain pinned to the cell phones they hold of which you don’t approve. These devices were given to them by their father, to keep in touch, now that he’s moved back to the continent. Keep moving and look straight ahead when you hear someone call after you: “Virginia! Virginia!” the voice draws nearer even as you quicken your pace. “Ginny! I can’t believe you’re here!” Feel red heat spread across your chest. Here is a girl you used to know, her face pale and still pretty though swollen with age. Let your body twist, let your arms fly up, even as your grocery bags fall to your feet with a clatter. Lunge in and holler, as loud as you can, “Virginia’s not my fucking name!” Roar into the glassy face of the grandchild this woman holds and tries to shield. Take in an endless, jagged breath, then squeeze the arms of your own wayward offspring. Slam the car doors shut and swerve away to a stench of burning oil. Take in the tableau in the rearview mirror: gaping mouths, your own daughter’s eyes welling and all those lost groceries which you can hardly afford to replace. Know that they are real, and you will soon find them, your Daddy’s letters. You’ll unearth them in an antique chest, varnished in mold, that your father’s own people gave to him. Each letter will speak of dull but dogged yearning, each one will be hand-addressed FICTION | 41
to you. Virginia, you’ll confess to the foggy washroom mirror, your reflection thicker, age spots blooming on the backs of your hands. You’ll look hard and wonder how the time passed so swiftly, how your mark on the world remains shallow. Tell yourself you can still start again—there is still time! Tell yourself, this time, you’ll trek across Asia. You’ll sail to Antarctica to witness the great ice caps weeping. This time, you’ll go to Africa to follow the last wild elephants’ run—you’ve read they have a secret language, sonographic as whale song. You’ll sing them a dirge and kiss the dust. Lay a humble ear to the ground and listen.
42 | PHOEBE 49.2
ERICA PLOUFFE LAZURE
The Duck Walk I am a known heretic in these parts because I mow the lawn on Sundays. I can feel my neighbor’s eyes on my back on the Lord’s Day as I maneuver through my special, signature Square-in-a-Square mow pattern, or when I take out the trash, or clear brush from the swamp. I know they’re watching, and so for the hell of it I’ll sometimes go bare-chested, pot-belly-proud like my Daddy. If I think of it, I’ll up the throttle on the mower right when the neighbors drive by. And I slow and look at them, and they slow and look at me, and it’s like I’m telling them with my eyes: Mowing the lawn on Sundays is not a sin. And the look in their eyes says back: Yes, it is. And today the child’s eyes are on me, too. She’s my sister Anna’s kid, going on five. Cassidy Penelope. It’s classic Anna to pick for her child the longest, most complex name she could find. It’s also just like Anna to up and leave a situation that doesn’t suit her, and then call one of us to go and comb it all out. Like leaving Cassidy Penelope on a friend’s porch so she could go fight fires in Montana. Then calling our sister Carla from a bus stop in west Kansas to ask if the child could come and live with us instead. You should have seen Carla when she got the call. She walked all the way from our house to the gas station, all ticked in her housedress, looking like some sweathog’s sister in orthopedic boots, with the curlers all ripped from her bangs. “Anna told me Cass is my second chance,” Carla had said. “She said, ‘You raised me; Look how well I turned out.’ I could just kill her.” It is not easy being the brother of these women. Ma always liked to say before she died that each of our fathers was as different as they make men, and she had the kids to prove it. We each turned out favoring our daddies: Carla all stern and round; me, oil-stained hands, sandy-brown all over and sideburns to boot; Anna redblonde and vixen-trim and always on the take. And why Anna picked firefighting over child-raising is beyond me. I know some women just aren’t hardwired that way, FICTION | 43
and, to be sure, Anna got the calamity gene from her daddy. Even when she was a baby, she’d explode at the slightest sign of something gone wrong. I can remember when she was seven, her little lungs blew out the eardrum of a classmate who’d joked about our mother going bald. Later she and her best friend Dora would sneak out braless in suede skirts, taking backseat double dates with college boys. They’d give out names that matched their hair color, like Noire and Rouge. They’d come back late and fight on the front porch with Carla about sex laws and curfews. When Anna got pregnant she’d come over to the house to use the phone and holler long-distance cuss words at her ex-boyfriend Kurt, who left for his station in Germany not long after they split. It was no surprise that Cassidy Penelope and her twin brother were born with screaming in their cells. I drove Carla to see Cassidy Penelope and Clay at the preemie ward, a few days after they were born, and even then Cass’s mouth was all puckered, her fists clenched and moving like a little prizefighter under a cake tray. Carla claims Anna’s anguish is what made them come two months early, and why Clay died three months later. “Anger pipes through the umbilical cord. It shows in the milk,” Carla had said as we walked back from the burial in our backfield. “Some babies can’t take it. That child was poisoned.” “Don’t go looking to lay blame,” I told her. “SIDS, my foot. Poor lamb. He’ll watch over us now.” Well, all I can say is, if Anna wants fires to fight, they got plenty here in Mewborn. Like that little time bomb impersonating a lemon on the porch. It’s not enough to say she is a quiet child, because she’s been here a week and hasn’t talked yet. It’s a strange kind of quiet, too. There’s something in that cinch-sac expression of hers that tells you she’s taking in your every move, stockpiling it, like a miser of information, or a little judge whose job it is to clutch an ugly stuffed duck. So it makes me wonder if she’s noticed my Square-in-a-Square pattern, if it impresses her how I hit every corner at a right angle, how I overlap the path by three inches so when it’s finished the grain of the grass holds a striped pattern. 44 | PHOEBE 49.2
But I don’t see how she could miss any of my signature lawn moves because her eyes follow me with such precision they look like they’ll turn rectangular and at one point I turn off the mower to tell her so. She was supposed to be at church like the rest of Mewborn. I’d planned to mow the lawn in peace like I always do and for a few hours not have to think about Carla, the child, or her little puckered mouth. Carla had made a big deal about getting Cassidy Penelope all ready for church. She’d found an old yellow apron dress from a closet somewhere, got her nails clipped, her face clean. Pigtails. Scrubbed sandals. All of it. “Your big Red Banks Baptist debut,” Carla kept saying. Cassidy Penelope did look like a real little girl with all the flounces, the kind you’d actually take to church on a Sunday morning, and expect everyone to fuss over afterwards. But when I reached out to scruffup her hair, I noticed how each strand looked like it was made of copper wire, like her Momma’s, just dying to get out from under the rubber bands and be free. “So why didn’t you go to church, Baby Girl?” I asked her. “Don’t you want to go learn how to be good? Good with God?” Cassidy Penelope did not respond. I think she could sense that even I did not believe what I was saying. Even with the yellow dress and pigtails, even though Carla had given Cassidy Penelope her very own children’s picture Bible, when we pulled up to Red Banks Baptist, the child refused to leave the car. She cinched up her mouth and shook her head from the back seat of the Crown Vic. Her arms and legs folded up onto themselves, the stuffed duck trapped in the knots of her body, like an angry pretzel in a yellow dress. The child would not go and Carla did not insist. “I can’t take a stubborn child to church,” Carla said. “Not today. I’m on schedule to give the host.” “What about saving her lost soul?” I said, as Carla swung open the door and got out of the car, yanking the static from the ass-end of her dress. “Suffer the children?” So I told that child a whole string of knock-knock jokes all the way home and she didn’t laugh at a single one. Wouldn’t even say, “Who’s there?” FICTION | 45
*** So there the child sits on the porch, watching me as I push the mower in my special, signature, Square-in-a-Square pattern. Square-in-a-Square, Square-in-a-Square every Sunday morning. You start out at the farthest corner of the lot, and then push the mower along the edge of the lawn, overlapping the path by three inches. When the squares are done, I backtrack over near the swamp, and mow that, too, which is about as unsatisfying as having a remainder at the end of a long division problem. “Don’t you want to color?” I said. Cassidy Penelope held the duck even tighter to her chest and sat down on the porch steps. I gave up and started to mow the lawn again, thinking about how different Sundays were for me. Used to be, before she left, Anna’s pal Dora would come by in her red truck and after the lawn was done we’d go into the house and get wild like we liked. Ever since they were kids, Dora and Anna were always more like sisters in spirit than Carla could ever hope to be. And together they were about as dangerous a combination as bleach and ammonia. It was Dora who came up with the schemes they’d try to pull on Carla; it was Dora who’d introduced Anna to Kurt downtown; Dora who pushed me out to the back field one night, where her family’s property meets ours, and with her blue eyes shining made me love her. She was seventeen then, I was twenty-two. The thing is with Dora is her teeth are spaced out and strangely shaped, and yellowed from the liquid penicillin her Meemaw gave when she was a baby. Even then, when she smiled, you didn’t really notice the gaps in her upper deck, the bicuspids below crammed above her jaw like shoppers at Christmas. She’d been taking a few classes out at Mewborn Community after she got her GED, and she’d visit the station every day with some snack from her uncle’s store, some Drake Cake or Lemon Fruit Pie or Hostess Honey Bun. Then there were our wild Sundays, and dinner out at Elm Center Café twice a month. Sometimes she’d stop in when Anna came by the house with Cassidy Penelope. Until she got pregnant, life with Dora in it for those five years had been all right. And you’d think a baby might firm up the 46 | PHOEBE 49.2
general plan of spending your life together with someone, and I believed until the moment Dora left me to go to Massachusetts that that was the case. But she came to see me with her car packed to tell me she’d gone to see the doctor, and, even though we’d told everyone to the contrary for the past two months, there was no more baby. “Tell them I lost it,” she’d said. She was smoking a cigarette, leaning against her car in the dark. “Tell them it’s none of their goddamn business.” My friends down at Duck’s always ask what am I going to do next, when I’ll get out from under Carla’s batwing. It’s like they forget it’s been two years since Dora left and there’s no one else around to take Carla to get groceries, to bring her to church, the doctor’s. And she won’t get her license, even though I told her it’s easier than a tractor, and faster, too. I’ve come close a few times to answering an ad for a vacant apartment in the paper, but I don’t care to spend my money on couches and dishes and all that. And it’s not like I enjoy washing my own clothes, or that I’m some master chef or anything. Where I live it is not easy to get laid, especially when Sunday morning is my main window of opportunity. I got a Maybe once from a gal up in Falkand who said she might swing by sometime. And even if she never shows, there’s always the lawn to mow. And there’s the church-going neighbors to piss off, and there’s my guitar, and beer, too, as long as I remember to buy it on Saturday. And now there’s Anna’s child to look after. But you can only do so much for a child who doesn’t talk, or cry, or tell you her ducky’s name. But I got to say, Cassidy Penelope won’t stop watching me. I sneak looks back at her from time to time to see if she does. But all she does is clutch her duck, and ignores all the crayons and the teakettle and the stuffed rabbit and Carla’s Redbook magazine I’d set out special for her. So I figured maybe I ought to give her something to look at if that’s all she’s gonna do. So I start to skip and mow. I mow walking backwards. I duck walk. And I don’t look at her once. Because I know that’s what she wants. My silly moves made me think back to when we were kids, before Anna was born. Carla would put a parlor doily on my FICTION | 47
head and make me wear one of Ma’s old dresses. We’d drink sugar water from plastic teacups and play Visitor on the porch. Sometimes Ma would join us, her legs crossed in slacks, feet in slippers, and pretend to sip tea, too, joking how much I must like my big sister cause I let her put me in a dress. And I’d make them laugh, walking around the front yard on my tip-toes with a teacup in my hand, pinkie extended, eyes crossed. And you could catch Anna at any age lying there for hours drawing in her sketchpad, and later, smoking cigarettes in a mini skirt or a tie-dye sundress at sunset. Sometimes, Anna’s daddy, before he left, would get all generous with us and he’d bring home ice cream, and Ma would get out of bed for it and we’d eat it right there on the front porch to keep Carla from fussing at us about the mess in the kitchen. Those ice cream nights made you forget awhile the stench from the swamp, that Momma was sick, that Carla at sixteen was running the show. Anna rarely left Ma’s side then. I guess she needed her more than any of us did. And now here Cassidy Penelope needs Anna. Or somebody. At one point during my duck walk, I noticed I messed up my mow line. I looked at the child. Her knees are bent, her bottom extended, hands on her hips. Looking like a duck herself. And it hit me that maybe Cassidy Penelope just needed someone who would play with her. She needed something fun like duck walks and maybe ice cream, so she’d know that the people in our family aren’t a bunch of angry idiots who leave each other on people’s porches. So I cut the engine again and called her over to ask about the ice cream situation, her scowl shifted to a grin after a minute and she kicked barefoot at the grass clippings. “Wait. Does a grin mean, ‘No Uncle Andy, I don’t want ice cream?’” She shook her head like it would fall off, still grinning. “I see,” I said. “I figured a girl looking as pretty as you couldn’t be deaf.” Instead of returning to the porch, the child followed me as I pushed the mower. After a while, she skipped in big steps, holding her duck by its wing, trailing me as I completed my Square-in-aSquare mow pattern. She turned a few somersaults that stained her dress and showed her underwear. The grass covered her in clippings 48 | PHOEBE 49.2
and I figured I’d let Carla deal with the stains, the blades of green in her hair, stuck to her legs. When we got to the swamp, I cut the engine and got on my haunches to tell her a few things. First, to stay away from the stone wall. I told her to not even think about catching frogs, or going for a swim in the green gunk that some people around here call a pond because I wouldn’t jump in and save her if she did. And it took just a moment for me to turn my back and hear her howls over the engine and find her waist-high paralyzed in green water sobbing, her little legs caught in water vines. Her whole body splashed down in the mess when she tried to run. When I jumped in to untangle her I could see the ruby pink swamp flower she probably tried to pick and I held her to my chest. The lily pads had trapped her good. I carried her to the grass and the green clippings clung to us and I smoothed her hair and told her we’d be okay. And she cried for a long time, these loud messy sobs like I’ve never before heard and all I could do for her is sit in the grass and hold her to my chest and wait. Finally she whimpered one little word in a voice so quiet that I had to huddle close to her mouth to hear. “What’s that, Baby Girl?” I said. “Holly,” she said. She pointed to the swamp. The ducky. “I’ll get her.” Probably the last place I’d want to be is on my knees, elbow-deep in muck looking for a goddamn ducky and instead pulling up an old housedress. Or plastic baby bottles with ratty ribbons around them. Then I found three pacifiers and tiny pairs of shoes and no duck anywhere. And I think the other last place I’d want to be was on that lawn, dumping before the child the mess of bottles and binkies and baby shoes and handing her the pond flower and telling her I couldn’t find Holly. And I might have gone back to get it right then for the look on her face, but I had my own grief to deal with, because I knew now what Carla had done with the favors she had bought for Dora’s baby shower. Carla had refused to give Anna a shower for the twins, said she didn’t deserve it. She didn’t think Dora did either, but since I was the father, Carla decided to go all out. She came out of FICTION | 49
the Woolworth’s one day loaded down with bags of pacifiers and bottles and ribbon and such and spent the next three weeks filling the bottles with lilac-colored M&M’s, tying pale pink and blue bows around everything. I told her it was too early to think about a shower, that Dora was hardly showing. But Carla jumped the gun as only she knows how. She said she wanted to be ready. And of course thanks to Carla the whole town knows how Dora went and saw the doctor before she left for Massachusetts. Looking at the mess of it at my feet made me wonder what else Carla had dumped in that swamp, what I’d find if I went back in there. And the child calmed a little when I told her I’d go back later for her duck with a fishing net. We were covered in the scum of the algae, the grass clippings, the swamp-bottom mud. But that was nothing compared to the smell of sulfur. I knew better than to even try to get into the house to wash up. I carried the child to the shed, found the garden hose, and took aim. It probably wouldn’t have mattered even if I had changed the setting to spray. The child screeched when the water caught her in a full-force jet-stream on her chest. She ran back to the front yard, toward the swamp, screaming as though I’d shot her with a BB gun. When I caught up to her she already had in her grasp one of the muddy bottles. I grabbed her by her wrists and told her she had to stay away from that swamp. I sounded angrier than I really was, but she had to understand. She’d already nearly drowned. Her tears cleared paths down her dirty face as she collected the pacifiers, the little shoes, into the apron of her dress. “I need you to say yes,” I told her. “I need your word.” She nodded but wouldn’t look at me and I picked her up and carried her back to the shed, and it was then I decided I needed to fill up that sinkhole swamp for good. I filled a bucket with water and tried to get her to wash up with me, at least our hands and faces, but she wouldn’t. I even put the garden hose in her hands, showed her how it worked. Still she wouldn’t take aim at me. Instead she started to sort into piles all the party favors: the filthy pacifiers and bottles, the pairs of baby shoes. Then she dipped each one into the bucket and set them to dry on 50 | PHOEBE 49.2
the lawn. I tried to distract her with the idea of ice cream. I told her that we couldn’t have ice cream unless we got clean cause they’d never let us in the store elsewise. She did not seem to care. When I wiped muck off the face of my watch, I saw that we’d almost be late for Carla if we didn’t leave right then. I found a plastic tarp in the shed and spread it out across the front seat of the Crown Vic. The swamp gunk had begun to crust our skin and clothes. I carried the child to the car, plopped her down on the plastic, and drove into town. Her dress looked gray nearly, and that little apron made a filthy nest for the pacifiers and bottles in her Indian-crossed legs and the entire car smelled like eggs gone bad. Even her pigtails looked like rat tails now, all slick and stuck together in a half-dozen stiff points. I looked into the rearview mirror at my own muddy reflection and laughed aloud. We’d looked so regular and clean when we dropped off Carla. Now we had on us the mud and the swamp stench, the filthy clothes, all those binkies and bottles pulled up from the bottom of God knows where. I could see Carla lecturing us both the whole way home about the perils of the swamp, about Cassidy Penelope’s ruined dress. And those shower favors, which, I might add, Carla had said she’d given to charity. I was so worked up about what Carla was going to say I almost didn’t see Cassidy Penelope point up to sign for the Golden Goose Car Wash across the street from the church. I guess maybe the goose logo reminded the child of her ducky. But I had no excuse for what I did next. I pulled in, fed the machine a few dollars, and hit the button for Basic Wash, and rolled down our windows. I put the Crown Vic in neutral and let the auto track guide bring us through the yellow cement bay. The child clutched one of the bottles to her chest like she had done with her ducky. “You got to close your eyes, now. Hold your breath when I tell you,” I said. The green light flashed and the motors inside the car wash bay started rumbling as we moved ahead. The child closed her eyes and I closed mine as the first blast of warm water and suds shot into the car. I whooped when it hit, then laughed so she’d know it was all right. FICTION | 51
When I said, “Now,” I felt her little hand reach for my thumb on the steering wheel. She pulled my hand to her chest, and I was glad that our eyes were closed, glad that we’d be clean, or nearly so, for Carla when we picked her up. No doubt she’d be mad about the wet front seat. But I’d coddle her with the promise of ice cream, lay out the tarp on the floor of the backseat to keep from wrecking her special ortho shoes. Besides, even if the backseat were damp, it wouldn’t kill her if her ass got a little wet on the way home from church. Maybe it would help cool her off. We’d figure it out later.
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ART GALLERY I
Gallery List KYLE CROMER “Goodbye Blue Monday, No. 4” Collage and ink pen page 57 KYLE CROMER “Eternal Sunshine” Collage and ink pen page 58 KYLE CROMER “Platonic Solids” Collage and ink pen page 59 ZEV LABINGER “Icon of a Condor” Acrylic, gold, wood and feather page 60 RACHEL LINN “We Ran” Ink and watercolor on cold press paper page 61 RACHEL LINN “We Played Dead” Ink, watercolor, and embroidery on cold press paper page 62 KATERYNA BORTSOVA “Defense” Acrylic on cardboard, collage from found objects page 63
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A Wide Landscape of Blanks The directives you received as you advanced through the uterine canal misrepresented you. Your name, your body, your pronouns. You moved through childhood believing a mistake had been made, but not by you. You always knew. It’s a phase, they said. When the phase continued they opted for coercion and compulsion. Certain types of clothing became off-limits. Questions about your name came back with glares. Attempts to use other pronouns resulted in anger, angst and agitation. No one wanted to hear what you thought about the name you’d received or the pronouns they chose for you. So you piped down and disappeared into oversized clothing and undernourished eating. Moving through the world terrified you. Freak! What are you anyway?!? Every mention of the name they gave you felt like a prick and made you cringe. If you didn’t dress that way, you wouldn’t confuse people. Every time they used their preferred pronouns, they stole your breath, until finally you were suffocating. You needed to run towards your body. But the directives they gave you implied a fixed location. You believed this story until you discovered the existence of a map known to certain Scientists and Doctors and Therapists and people like you. They offered another destination, one they themselves had devised through research and professional practice and had drawn on a map, a cartographic intervention to alleviate your suffering and the suffering of others like you. The destination they revealed, while also fixed, was a harbor you could reach by following their directions. Their path was strict with established and approved checkpoints they defined, yes, but this map changed everything for you. NONFICTION | 67
Their goal matched your ideal. They were the only ones offering you any permanent comfort in your body and relief from others. You would gladly follow their guidelines. You sit in your apartment on Carmen Street in Chicago and wonder where others like you congregate in 1996 America and again review the map. It possesses a single, straight line between two round, black circles. Thick and unbroken, the line bisects the crisp, white paper, and directs you to your destination. Save for this line, blankness covers the map. No shading, no contour lines, no wayfaring marks, even a legend. The vast white space springs any tension the line offers. The directness and simplicity suggests an easy journey. Pure white defines the blankness, bright in its hope and transcendent in its glory. All will now be well. The shortest distance between two points is, after all, a straight line. “Sometimes it’s very tempting to be satisfied with what’s easy, particularly if people tell you it’s good…It is very, very important to avoid all preconception, to try to see only what exists…to translate one’s sensation.” —Alberto Giacometti The testosterone’s effects mark significant changes in your body. Yes, sir! How can I help you, sir. Men flirt hard. Women adjust your tie. Whether you share your viewpoint or not, people now desire your opinion. On anything. Just because of the changes. Masturbation becomes a part-time job. Will you ever not feel so horny? Oh, how lovely breasts now seem. More so than before, the curves and nipples and bounciness drive you to masturbate all the more. Your voice sounds like a frog and frequently cracks and provides the soundtrack of your second adolescence. In your first adolescence, which you define as all the months and years before you injected testosterone, the pitch of your voice marked you. By your mid-teens you’d grown to 72 inches. A suit and tie framed the 72 inches in an attractive package. But your voice ruined the ensemble. 68 | PHOEBE 49.2
No one hassles you now. Walk here and there, speaking and singing with your froggy, croaking, deepening voice, and the world expands in every direction. Your world has become as wide as the blankness on the map. You fly in total freedom as you walk that straight line on the map to your final destination. Pull out the map and a pencil. At a point on the line, just past the midpoint, trace a few musical notes. (You’d thought about sketching in “oh so horny” but couldn’t quite figure out how to draw that.) In the legend write = voice (!). You expect to arrive at the second point on the map, very soon. With the station just around the corner you decide to buy groceries in Lincoln Park with your solid gold voice. You attempt to pay by check. Your voice matches your height and the clothing you wear. The name on your driver’s license, though, makes you appear as a criminal, and a stupid one at that. What kind of man attempts to defraud a supermarket using a woman’s checks and driver’s license? The cashier stares at your check, then you, then your driver’s license, then back at you. Manager to check-out four. Manager to check-out four. You will be the best part of her harried and thankless day. A stupid con man on the loose and I caught you! She turns to look for the manager. A man hurries over, a scowl smothers his face. She explains the situation and offers her evidence. The manager, in a crushing blow to her veracity, barely acknowledges her or the cognitive dissonance you create. With a distracted movement of his hand he approves the check, and presumably you, too. Weird, isn’t it? How you’re on the manager’s team now? How he believes you over the woman with the supporting evidence of your crime? How such a development isn’t on the map? Of course you should have known. Who wouldn’t suspect you? You’d probably suspect you under the same circumstances. But it’s the threat to your safety that scares you. The police. Jail and worse. Once again you’re a freak, closer to the originating station that you want to admit. NONFICTION | 69
But where did the Scientists note this on the map? No double red lines of caution. No wayfaring signs that read, Danger ahead! All mortals beware. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Maybe you missed a secret code on the map, the kind that reveals itself if you rub a cut lemon over it. Just to be sure you double-check the map. There it is. A single line, clear and hard. No evidence suggests any codes or symbols, hidden or otherwise. No reverse text that, when held up to the mirror, reveals the bumps and scars along the journey. The vast, brilliant white space says, Nothing to see here, move along. Since the map offers ample evidence of the ease and safety of the journey, and since you think you see things on the map that (probably) aren’t there, you reach an inexorable conclusion: You must be the problem. Apparently you can’t read a map with a single, fucking line on it! A knock at the door sets you on your heels. The old darkness has returned. You push your back against the door and force it away. The darkness scares you. Testosterone and the hes and hims banished that foe, or so you thought. A new thing lurks at the furthest edges of your consciousness, unnamed, unknown and terrifying. Run the tips of your fingers over the smooth and white blankness on your map. The emptiness soothes you, but only just. You replay the grocery store encounter. A curious notion occurs to you. Write down what has happened to you. Nothing epic, mind you. Just enough to help you remember what you might later forget and maybe offer a few suggestions for future travelers on this journey. You jot down in a few sentences on what happened to you with the cashier in the upper left quadrant of the map and offer the following advice: Wherever possible pay in cash. Touch the sports bra you wear to bind your breasts. God how you hate them (Yet on women you adore them) and how, for your entire life, you’ve wanted them gone. 70 | PHOEBE 49.2
Pick up the pencil you’d been using to enjoin future travelers to pay cash. Begin to trace a contour line around the single solid line and musical notes. The pencil moves in a slow steady manner. A fury erupts. The pencil moves back and forth, back and forth. The line becomes heavy and thick and jagged. What are you anyway? What do I call you? It?? You will wear what I tell you to wear. Do you really think you’ll ever be a man? You come to. What have I done? Stare at the map. Your pencil work eviscerated the Scientist’s line. This can’t be right. The map looked so pristine a few minutes ago. You’ve ruined it. Yes, I have ruined it. You’ve failed to maintain the illusion of control. A cornerstone of masculinity now eludes you. So the problem lies with you. You can’t read a map nor keep it together. Since other men can effectively execute these two simple actions, and you can’t, and you’re on testosterone, what are you? You can’t keep paying cash forever. You must fix your driver’s license. Otherwise what do you say if the police pull you over? Or you want to apply for a new job? In pre-9/11 America a driver’s license will suffice but not one with a woman’s name on a man’s body. The name and gender need to match who you are. You talk with other wayfarers like yourself about how to best accomplish this goal. 1. Obtain a legal change of name at the court. 2. Ask your Primary Care Physician to write a vaguely worded letter on official stationary about the efficacy of changing the gender moniker on your driver’s license. (This step requires some finesse. Most of the time you need to have a changed birth certificate. But sometimes you can get lucky and somebody at the SOS will change your gender.) 3. Take the certified judge’s orders and the PCP letter to the best Secretary of State. (Go to the SOS on ____, your acquaintance NONFICTION | 71
tells you. They process a lot of immigrants from ____ who don’t speak English. When the clerk realizes you’re American they will zip you right through.) 4. Do as you are instructed. Arrive with required documents and chuckle at the irony. You will change your name and gender at a bureaucratic office shortened to SOS. The SOS employees, you soon realize, don’t toss life preservers to just anyone. Why do you think you are able to have a driver’s license? a clerk asks a young male immigrant. Of course he asks the young man in a convoluted form of English. That’s part of the bloodsport of shitting on those beneath you. The young immigrant can’t answer the question. The clerk laughs at him. The young man stares back, sure he is being mocked. Stifle every urge to intervene. Yes, the clerk behaves in an abominable manner, but he, and they, have what you need. Yes, you’re an American. And yes, you are white. But you want to change your gender. In 1996. The unknown and unnamed thing that terrifies you slides in a little closer and says, Hello. Shut your mouth and keep your head down, follow the directions your fellow travelers gave you, and the clerks will reward you handsomely. The one helping you barely reads the doctor’s letter. Fingers glide over the keyboard. His arthritis, though, forces him to periodically withdraw his fingers from the keyboard and shake out the pain. Finally, after what seems like about seven years, he manages to tab through various fields and stops. You hold your breath. Maybe turn blue a little. The clerk extends his right index finger, presses the backspace key and hits the M key. In less than two seconds, he affects the change it has taken you 32 years to accomplish. He directs you to the woman who will take your photograph. Walking towards her smiling and welcoming face, you observe 72 | PHOEBE 49.2
the same young immigrant man still standing in front of the same clerk, who is again laughing at him. You return home and toss the map on the kitchen table along with your wallet and keys. Next to the map you place your brand new driver’s license. Pencil in hand you write out Notes to Future Travelers above your advice about cash and underline it. Beneath Wherever possible pay cash you write that citizenship and native language skills keep the path between the two stations clear, much clearer than you ever imagined. Walking on this journey requires complicity. You saw it for yourself. On this path you also need an understanding of complexity. The clerks wielded power over you, too. Having completed your notes you draw Complexity and Complicity as undulating lines and shadings over your eviscerating scribble, the Scientist’s line and what remains of the space that had been blank. You think of yourself as a field agent walking through a region previously unmapped. Keep your head down and keep moving. The destination is just up ahead. “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” —Rebecca Solnit One night in your apartment building you prefer to dash for the elevator. The doors are closing but you slam the safety latch hard. They reopen. A thin, slight woman stares out at you, eyes wide and filled with apprehension. The fedora you’re wearing and your towering 72 inches may contribute to her concern. Don’t worry! I won’t hurt you, you want to say. I used to be a woman six months ago. You can’t say this to her, of course. You might become the object of her wrath, or worse, you may add revulsion and confusion to her fear. NONFICTION | 73
Say nothing instead and turn away to the closed elevator doors. Inside the apartment Jack the Cat purrs and bumps his head against you. The woman has just confirmed your humanity, your deepest heart’s desire. You wanted to be a man? You got it. Except the map they gave you had no diversions or dead ends. They had drawn a straight line from one point to the other, clear and hard. There were no dead ends or detours. And the path just didn’t stop in the middle of nowhere. You must document this new development. Lay out your map. On the line that marks the path over which you have been moving, pencil in an X at the center of the line. X marks the spot to no turning back, the moment you realize you can’t go home. Strange as it is to ponder, woman and women were a kind of place to rest awhile. The road behind you vanishes. Women no longer experience you as a woman nor do they see you as in-between. No. The woman in the elevator read you as what you have always wanted to be: a man. Take a pencil and draw a new contour line. Name it the Land of Bitter Truth. It surrounds the contours of Complicity and Complexity. Did the Scientists account for this reality? Is it another hard pill they neglected to share with you? Your desired destination now sits within the Land of Bitter Truth. How will women want to date you? How do you date women now that they seem to fear you? How did you skip this fear when you lived as a woman? Yes, you knew about sexual assault and leering and so on, but this instant fear when you were alone with a man? You never experienced that. And because you never experienced it, now that you have, you must decide between relief, survivor’s guilt or, the most difficult to understand, shame. Shame that you were so stupid to have thought women wouldn’t fear you, that your past as a woman would shine through the mud of social conditioning and sociological realities as if you were some kind of golden buddha. That the sheer force of your personality and personal history could soften your edges hardened by testosterone. 74 | PHOEBE 49.2
You can’t believe it and hold the map up to the window just to be sure. Station F has begun fading from the map. The line between Station F and Station M also seems much longer than it had in the past, as if more miles got added between the two. Your scratchings and notes have begun to clutter the map, like weeds in a garden in Versailles. Holding the map up to the window, where darkness waits, one line seems longer. Held up to the kitchen light, they appear the same length. A slow sensation of drowning. You can’t categorize what you don’t understand. You can’t return to the beginning. What had been true is now gone. The needle of testosterone in your thigh tomorrow ensures your fate follows the new path, however long it turns out to be. But space between the unchanging nature of the Scientist’s line and its malleability in your own life make it impossible to move. Welcome to the rest of your life. Get after it and walk like a man. I’m gonna kill you faggot, he shouts. His companion laughs, his twisted mouth more terrifying than the homophobic barker driving. Two men in the left turn lane drive a dented and rusty 1984 white Ford pickup truck. The wiry driver leans out the window. Your heart races and you lift your legs faster and faster. Hear the engine gun. You had wandered down U. S. 12, the old Chicago Road, the Great Sauk Trail one day around the time Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman. Walking provided a free form of relaxation and release, suitable for your underemployed status. Now it had become a death march. You’re gonna die you fucking faggot. Adrenaline turns your brain to jelly. Run into the bank parking lot. Try to situate yourself between cars or hide under one of them. Those ideas don’t occur to you, though. You’re too busy trying to squash your fear. People enter and exit the bank building. Accosting them for assistance doesn’t occur to you, either. Instead a primal urge to run keeps your feet moving in a diagonal towards the post office on the NONFICTION | 75
opposite corner. In case the driver cuts you off by the post office you formulate a plan B. Just at the moment when the driver thinks you’ll cross the street to the post office, you’ll dart left towards the library. You slow down to safely make the jump to the curb and turn your head to search out the location of your tormentors. A quick reassessment of your options may be in order. The truck is now heading south on Hamilton Avenue, on the other side of the parking lot, opposite to where you stand. Catching your breath, you replay the epithet like a needle stuck in a record. Faggot. Faggot. Faggot. Are you a faggot now? You’ve been trying to keep the darkness away by living in your body in this very moment. The be-here-now, kind of thing. Everyday you suppress your breasts underneath a very tight sports bra and convince yourself your chest looks hefty. Of course you’re not a faggot. If you were that’d be okay. But you’re not and what those men saw reflects a you you don’t see in the mirror. Are your hips really that wide? Your chest more breastlike than you imagine? You must be more feminine appearing than you think. That is, after all, what a fag looks like. Feminine not masculine. You wander towards your favorite convenience store and buy cigarettes you can’t afford. At home you draw the burning nicotine into your lungs. You pull out the map and, as you lift it up, laugh at yourself. Just the other day you recall you hadn’t opened it in a long while. Nothing new to add. You’d even fooled yourself into relaxing a little into the unknown, unnamed, terrifying thing at the edge of your consciousness and even into the darkness. You’d left your apartment. Find a pencil and sharpen the lead. Deeper into the Land of Bitter Truth you draw a bullseye. Under Notes to Future Travelers add that feminine-appearing men are targets, easy marks. Add a gun because, like all feminine-appearing men, you are now open game. 76 | PHOEBE 49.2
Admit to yourself, finally, as you gaze at the map with its firm straight line undiminished by your useless scribblings what an abject failure you are. You keep your breasts in place with a binder and your menstrual blood at bay with testosterone. What you had to do was so easy. The Scientists had drawn it out as simply as possible. You mucked it up. Light another cigarette and contemplate an option whose origin you can’t determine. Whether it comes from that unknown, unnamed, terrifying thing or the darkness you can’t say. But you do know for the first time since you began hormonizing yourself you might just stop. For a moment that no longer feels like a worse option, just one now different from this new, in-between place you currently inhabit. You’d still be read as a fag. A state of constant vigilance would make it all but impossible to relax. But even though your love life sucks right now, you can’t even imagine how to relate to women in an in-between place you willingly choose. You want to be heterosexual, even with the mixed up, whacked out body you live with. So while the way forward seems bleak, you agree with yourself that the way back is suicidal. Walk on and teach yourself how to go from walking to running. Very quickly. “Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster.” —Saul Bellow Even though you still live in an in-between body you decide you will seek partners who want to date a man, love a man, marry a man. Even one like you, Mr. In-Between. Love will find you in the most unexpected manner. A fling becomes a passion. Her hands touch you everywhere, urgent and transcendent. She loves you as the man you have always wanted to be. This love doesn’t exist on the map. The Scientists can’t account for love and certainly not a Bi-Trans love. With your pencil begin drawing a line near the edges of the paper. Trace it around the NONFICTION | 77
entire page even outside the edge and even onto the table. Name it The Land of Pure Desire. This land encompasses everything you both have been and are. She is bi and you are trans. You walk together through a scrim of a right to marriage you both find awkward and uncomfortable. You extend the shading and lines of Complicity and Complexity to the Land of Pure Desire. The unknown, unnamed, terrifying thing you’ve been living with looks up and smiles. Even darkness waves hello. You propose marriage. She says yes. You begin the lengthy pursuit of the necessary blood rituals to a new birth certificate and finally, a federally-issued passport. In order for them to approve your request, your gender must confirm their gender. So they ask questions like: Have you ever tortured animals before? Do you really understand what you’re getting yourself into? By marrying a guy without a penis, they want to say, but don’t. So much of this Science that has dictated your life and sense of self worth rests on euphemism and condescension. Of course she knows what she’s getting herself into. She’s been fucking me for two years. Keep your mouth shut. You both keep the end goal in mind. The passport finally arrives. You now suspect the Scientists who created the map created the blank space as a reflection of their rigorous standards. The large absence lent weight and authority to the line on the map. But they forgot that their map included only surfaces. They concerned themselves with their notions of your mental health, not yours. They made no account for depth, of your experiences or their assumptions. They didn’t indicate where to put your past or how to address qualms you had about transition. The sounds and smells of your skin color and the money you grew up with they found impossible to map. They accepted a convention of so many of these maps — that there are only two stations and that these stations constitute the entire world. They mistook the journey as land-based, when in fact it seems to you to be largely oceanic. Eddies, tides, currents flow over hid78 | PHOEBE 49.2
den surfaces, deep and shallow; wave action caused by a tide hitting an extended underwater point. Sailors know what lies beneath can be as dangerous as what appears above. Sure a hurricane can kill you, but so can that rock hidden just far enough below the surface to rip your body apart. Transitioning is a force, of nature, you want to claim, but that sounds hackneyed. And yet how else can you account for the thousands of years of human conditioning, social mores, customs, attitudes, laws and practices you’ve willingly chosen to walk into? The Scientists treat the single line with two stations as some unchanging fact. It is single, without histories, communities or contexts. But so much you can’t control. When you tell people you’re transitioning, for example, people assume you’re becoming a woman. How will you love? Can you be a feminist man? Who were you to think you’d have it all figured out before you ever injected testosterone? The Scientists prefer lies to support their own gender. You were never really in mind when they drew the map. They wanted a fantasy, not a human life. Recall the woman in the elevator and realize, as if for the first time, she is African-American. She saw you as a white man. You stare at the map for a long time and attempt mapping this new understanding of yourself. Lines and shadings fail. The map assumes a bias, one that again lacks any dimensionality. The map assumes one-way directionality and movement. The convention of the line with two points creates a projection of only men and women. But what if your gender stayed the same and your race changed. Is a white man the same as a white woman? Isn’t it entirely conceivable that your gender fundamentally changed how people read your race? You don’t know the answer. But the Scientists’ fantasy (and also an Academic one) delineates transsexuality as an experience of gender. Everything else — race, class, ability, nativity, language —they erase in the blankness. NONFICTION | 79
You decide then to turn the map on an angle and then upside down. Now you can space walk or swim along a z-axis. Blinking hard and shaking out your legs, you survey this area. This projection relativizes the line the Scientists gave you. What had been the entire world, a universe of only Station F and Station M, actually exists/ed in a series of narrow coordinates within a vast sea or oceanic space You realize that while you did change your gender your race remained the same, that yes, while you are a man, you are still white. A tingling sensation rises through your fingers and up your elbows. The Darkness rubs your arm and gently places a box in your hand. The Darkness has given you the gift of humility. How to denote it on your map? You can’t. Humility exists beneath the surface of your map, maybe down in the ocean or up in the sky. But then again perhaps you can map humility; or perhaps you will put that map away, finally, and learn to walk into the unknown, unnamed, terrifying thing. Accept that you’ve been moving through this thing since the beginning. You get scared. Secretly or perhaps not so secretly, you like the safety of the two-stationed single line. The simpleness of it eases your anxiety. Mapping the Unknown seems impossible, and maybe it is. But you’ll try anyway, maybe as a rock beneath the surface of the two-stationed line or an expanse above. The Darkness and the Unknown pay it no mind. They wait quietly by your side as you exhaust your attempts to quantify infinity. Awake in the most agonizing pain of your life, a buzzing that blots out sound, shoots down your left leg, causing you to scream in bed. Early Christmas morning, you can neither stand nor sit. Only laying completely flat in the bed offers any relief from the pain. Your Beloved coaxes you to visit the doctor. You refuse. You are a man now and so must bear the pain alone. 80 | PHOEBE 49.2
She visits her parents for Christmas. You lay in bed and watch episodes of a cancelled TV show and stare at the blue sky out your bedroom window and struggle to assimilate the very real fact that you may never walk again. Jack, your cat companion for 16 years, lays with you in bed, raising his head when you rustle the sheets or move your legs. Even if you never walked again, you acknowledge to yourself and Jack, that would be okay. At least you’re alive. You will still have your mind and heart and Jack and your Beloved and you would find other ways to move in the world. Kissing would surely count. After two days, as the pain still persists, your Beloved orders you to the doctor. He prescribes muscle relaxers and Vicodin and schedules another visit with your primary. Your primary physician diagnoses you with a severely herniated lumbar disc. Your primary doctor and back doctor and massage therapist all recommend walking. You stick with Vicodin. The woozy feeling is fun. But the pain is still so strong you don’t believe what they tell you. How can walking, something which only causes numbness in your leg, heal you? Vicodin will claim to be your best friend, until it isn’t. At a bookstore several weeks after your diagnosis you see a woman yammering into her phone about surgeries and hurt feelings. You imagine digging your thumbs into her orbital sockets and crushing her eyeballs and feel no remorse at all. She enrages you so much, you leave the store to refrain from shouting at her. The next visit to your back doctor you’ve already broken up with Vicodin. Can you prescribe something non-narcotic? I would be absolutely delighted to, she says. It’s rare people voluntarily take themselves off pain meds like Vicodin. Yeah, well, you say. I’ll try these new pills and walking. The walking takes you around Ford Lake, a body of water created by Henry Ford when he flooded the Huron River to power a Ford factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Gallup Park, in Ann Arbor, becomes a new friend. The bicyclists and joggers and retirees and University students venture out into the still snow-covered paths to worship the emerging spring sun. NONFICTION | 81
From the University Health Care system to Argo Dam, you walk, sometimes with your Beloved, but mostly alone. Moving one foot in front of the other, hoping and believing your ambulations will save your back and your life. Your Beloved holds your hand through the miles you walk, your back strong and straight. Walking without a purpose, take everything in as you find it. Leave the map at home. You want to believe you can get lost. Of course you know you can in a literal sense. Maps can be confusing. But you want to stop thinking about your body for even a moment. Let go. Fall into the Unknown and the Darkness that has surrounded you your entire life. You resolved to expand the map the Scientists gave you until it encompassed your entire world and provided a path through every possible moment of shame and fear. But this map that you’ve been working on for half a century can’t help you. Recall the time you got bashed by those two guys in the truck, for example. Remember that anything feminine, on a female body or a male body or any other kind of body, gets cornered in public. Hey faggot I’m gonna kill you! Hey sweetheart, why don’t you smile? Hey bitch! Why don’t you suck my dick. You can’t go out looking like that. I don’t mind homosexuals as long as they don’t flaunt it. You guess walking on the busiest thoroughfare in your tiny town constituted flaunting something, though you’re still not sure, almost twenty years later, what that could have been. Except you are sure. It was you. The feminine you, the soft, wide-hipped, breasts hidden under a sports bra/binder you, daring to walk down the street. Your mere movement in space and time, your breathing at the intersection, excited those two men. Maybe because they had wanted to fuck a man or be fucked by another man or maybe they were sociopaths or maybe they reasoned the same as Samuel Beckett’s assailant, they did it because they could. 82 | PHOEBE 49.2
No map nor cartographic convention can envelope your shame and fear, nor theirs. “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.” —Louise Gluck You wish you had something wise to say about it all. When you began hormones you followed the map the Scientists gave you with the devotion of a zealot. But Station M kept moving, disappearing and reappearing. You must have failed at reading the map correctly. So you checked your compass, recalibrated your position and plotted a path to the terminus’ new location. But with each arrival you found the station gone, convinced the fault was with you. Only when you realized the map the Scientists gave you contained a hidden convention could you see the game as a protection racket for them. Once you understood after more than fifty years that Station M and Station F are infinitely regressive, you let the map fly away in the wind. The unknown and the darkness are now wed and offer protection and safety. Now you walk and walk and walk without a map. You know less but find more awe and transcendence in the throng of humans moving around you, in their fierce and beautiful broken bodies. The lines and shadings of their travels traced on their face, a deeply marked chart on each forehead. Those men in the truck? Maybe they were blinded by a light, a false clarity misleading them. Maybe they believed terrorizing you would restore their vision. But moving through the unknown in darkness, the embrace of complicity and complexity, the acceptance of everything good and awful within you, revealed your truth path. NONFICTION | 83
The years youâ€™ve spent mapping the cartography of Station M worrying that you missed an important line overlooks the point. You walked the map they gave you into the unknown, into the darkness, into the blank. You filled the void, sketched the lines representing paths you chose, and wrote a map as you lived it. You sought a sureness and light that have not, nor ever will, exist, anywhere, no matter how straight the line on any map. You chose here and now, where the darkness and unknown saved you.
84 | PHOEBE 49.2
CONTEST WINNER Beyond the backyard of my childhood home, through a thicket of trees, across the field and down the street was the white-paneled house where the Hartmann family lived. Two girls and one boy, all homeschooled. The girls, Root and Roseanna, were my closest friends. Together, we concocted potions out of crushed flowers, made red paint with smashed bricks and water, and drew maps of fairy kingdoms with sidewalk chalk. Root’s real name was Ruth, but she never answered to it. She was a spinster in training, with her little bird mouth, high forehead, insignificant chin, and round wire frame glasses. She wore her dirty blonde hair in two long, staticky braids. Root was special in the pale way that those sickly Victorian children you read about seem special. She floated in and out of rooms, singing hymns in a soft, secret voice. She was oblivious to others’ eyes. Once, we played mummies and wrapped ourselves head to toe in toilet paper and she said, I feel like a cloud in heaven. I always liked Root best. She took our games so seriously that they felt real. If one of her made up characters was heartbroken or wounded, she would cry real tears. Roseanna was nine—the same age as me—and two years younger than Root. She was quicker and harsher than her sister, and often lashed out at her siblings. She liked to play chasing games and she always had scratches on her knees. Sometimes it sounded like she had too much spit in her mouth when she talked. I thought she would do something unexpected when she grew up, but I wasn’t sure what. Quit the faith, become a lesbian, move to Vietnam, sell ornate ashtrays. Jean-Luc, the only boy, was a mystery. His hair was always doing something strange, something I couldn’t believe the parents had allowed. Gelled into a mohawk. Dyed pink. Shaved zig zags into the sides. Other times, it grew curly and brown, haloing his sullen teenage face. Roseanna told me he was a foster—the son of a French woman who couldn’t take care of him—and this was the NONFICTION | 85
only way I could make sense of him. He moved through the house with the body language of an uninvited guest. Once, during the last summer I called them friends, I went to see if Root and Roseanna were around to play. Jean-Luc opened the front door. My heart rocketed up into my throat. “Hi, Willa.” The interior of the house was dark. “Are Root and Roseanna around?” “They’re at the pool,” he said. “Oh,” I groaned, my chest deflating. “It’s not even that hot out.” Jean-Luc shrugged. “I’m grounded. Watching the dog.” He drew back into the foyer, moving to close the front door. I stepped forward. “What’d you do?” His eyes slouched. Merle the dog barked from the kitchen. “I took the Lord’s name in vain.” “What’d you say?” “Willa, come on. What are you, like eight? Goddammit. I said Goddammit. Root and Roseanna aren’t around today.” Jean-Luc never paid much attention to me when I was over—I’m not sure that he’d ever even spoken to me before then—but he was five years older, had mean eyes, and was unlike the rest of his family. My dad said the Hartmanns chose to homeschool their children so they could brainwash them into being good Christians. Jean-Luc didn’t seem brainwashed to me. He seemed dispersed, as if he’d secreted little fragments of himself in private corners of the house to withdraw from the rooms he didn’t want to be in. Whenever I came over to play, I kept an eye out for these fragments: a punk CD, crushed coffee cup, black guitar pick. I thought if I collected enough, I could string together some justification for the way my thoughts flurried around him even when he wasn’t there. Everything the homeschoolers did, they did as a family. An only child, I spent much of my free time alone, acting on whims without having to defer to a larger whole, except on the playground at recess. Root and Roseanna’s time was often at the mercy of family plans, but they never seemed to mind. Their mother had moved to America from Germany, and every now and then she would lead the family in baking a batch of soft pretzels from scratch. Mr. and Mrs. Hartmann 86 | PHOEBE 49.2
mixed ingredients in advance, allowing time for the dough to rise, and once it was ready, Roseanna rolled and beat and kneaded it into easy knots. Jean-Luc dipped the shaped pretzel dough into boiling water one by one, with a precision so delicate it made the breath catch in my throat. Root liked to add the finishing touches, brushing the pretzels with egg yolk and placing them in the oven. If I came over on a pretzel day, they’d let me sprinkle the salt. On gardening days, the parents dug holes to plant flowers. Roseanna tore up weeds with an angry vengeance, and Root watered what was left. I often watched them working in the yard from across the field, timing my visits so I’d arrive just as they were finishing up. One morning in June, I watched Root water the last corner of the garden, then invited myself over. We sat, legs crossed on the lawn, plucking up the weeds Roseanna had missed to make flower crowns. Root knew about a lot, and I thought she might be able to help me. “Have you ever had a crush?” Root cast her large eyes on my forehead. “A what?” “Like, have you ever felt really nervous around someone?” “Nervous,” she echoed, adjusting the strap of her overalls. “What an interesting question.” Root always said that when she wasn’t going to answer something. What an interesting question. When I asked if she ever wished she could go to public school, she’d said the same thing. But she always had answers for the questions I didn’t even know I should have, and she answered those questions with uncharacteristic certitude. Where do we come from, What happens when we die, and How can you be so sure? I stared at her hands. “Why is Jean-Luc always grounded?” I asked her. Root completed her flower crown with careful fingers. “JeanLuc is a sinner.” I asked what she meant, but I never could remember her answer, or if she even had one. The Hartmanns held class in their finished basement, which housed a large round table, a row of bulky desktop computers, and several plastic Ikea chairs. During games of hide-and-seek, I hid between computers, careful not to unplug anything. And once we were older, NONFICTION | 87
we played elaborate games of Manhunt with the other neighborhood children. Manhunt was played in the dark. One team was ‘it’ and the other team was scared out of their minds. We chose a spot and made it jail, and the only way to escape was to touch the hand of an undercover spy. The whole thing required a big set of lungs and electric feet. Manhunt was a way to see the neighborhood with new eyes. Streets and sidewalks were danger zones, reserved for running. We cultivated intimate knowledge of the neighbors’ yards, noting gardens with tall plants, good climbing trees, and unlocked sheds. We scattered into the dark, clambering over gnarled terrain on hands and feet, scanning the dim contours of our neighborhood for some makeshift refuge by the cold light of streetlamps. We were fugitives, hunters, and spies, and we took great pride in the loyalty these roles demanded of us. Roseanna was always on the ‘it’ team and she was merciless. Root and I preferred to hide, although she was a much more accomplished hider. One night in July, we hid in the rabbit hutch out back and it took them hours to find us. Root prayed silently while I watched the rabbits shiver and clean themselves in the glow of the house’s motion sensor lights. I tried to come up with my own prayer, but couldn’t imagine what a prayer was supposed to look like. I wondered how Root’s prayers looked in her mind—if they took the shape of words or images or something in between, or if they had any shape at all. Rubbing my knuckles against my eyelids, I tried to trace the kaleidoscopic neon fuzz into images, but the swirls and stars took no meaningful forms. Sitting in the dark, waiting, I learned three things that night: one, that rabbits eat their own dung; two, that they communicate with their ears; and three, they sleep with their eyes open. Four—I learned four things. I learned that Root didn’t care about being found. She could wait for hours. Jean-Luc used to play Manhunt with us. He wasn’t too old for that yet. The boys always ended up on the ‘it’ team with Roseanna, so I didn’t see too much of them. You can’t see what you’re busy running away from. As the summer wore on, he stopped showing up, and I wondered if he was still grounded or if he had finally outgrown tag. I thought about asking Root in the rabbit hutch, but I didn’t want to interrupt her prayers. Instead, I imagined Jean-Luc running after me in the dark, grabbing the skin of my t-shirt, and dragging me to jail, saying Goddammit. Goddammit. Goddammit. 88 | PHOEBE 49.2
*** Root and Roseanna shared a room with bunk beds. Root slept on the top bunk, where she was “closer to Heaven,” and Roseanna slept on the bottom. I thought Roseanna lucked out, because her bed had star-spangled curtains draped around it, affixed to the top bunk. With the curtains pulled tight, it was like her own little room. The sisters kept their belongings organized and apart. Root’s dolls were proudly displayed in plastic stands atop her wooden desk, while a crate of Roseanna’s spilled onto the floor. Dolls clothed, dolls naked, dolls with detachable feet, dolls with detachable hair. They had a rug designed to look like city traffic and sometimes we played road rage, beeping and honking as we steered tiny sports cars up and down the soft black streets. Root and the mother went to Chile in August. They went every few months; I didn’t know why. I spent all my time with Roseanna and our games were rough and cruel. She didn’t like to narrate games of pretend like Root and I did—she acted on instinct, knocking toys together and crying out in affected pain or anger. It was a late afternoon. We were playing car crash. I hadn’t seen Jean-Luc in almost a month. “Roseanna?” I gathered doll heads and feet into a pile on the rug. “Is Jean-Luc in Chile with your mom and Root?” “No. BANG. BOOM. Your stupid truck blew up,” she declared, tossing my truck into the pile of doll feet and wreckage. “Is he still grounded?” Roseanna dropped the Cadillac and stood up, motioning for me to join her on the bottom bunk. She pulled the curtains closed and folded her legs pretzel-style, facing me. “Willa, is Jesus Christ in your heart?” Her eyes were shining and her cheeks had real color. “Oh,” I said. “I don’t know how to tell.” “Well, do you read the Bible?” “We don’t have a Bible at my house. And there are too many words on every page. It’s hard to read.” “Do you pray to God?” “Sometimes,” I lied, reddening. “Do you thank Him for your blessings? Do you ask forgiveness for your sins?” “My sins?” NONFICTION | 89
“We’re all sinners.” Her voice lowered to a hiss. “Willa, if you don’t let Jesus into your heart and beg him to forgive your sins, you’ll be sent to Hell when you die. There’s no water in Hell and you’ll be so thirsty you’ll beg for water every day. And guess what? No one will give you any.” I fixated on the curtains over Roseanna’s shoulder until my eyes stung and the starry pattern seemed to pulsate. I could feel her gaze, hot and unblinking. I wanted to wrap the curtains around my head and bathe in the cool indifference of stitchwork stars. “If you go to Hell, all of your body parts will burn off over and over again and you’ll feel it every time. Forever. Don’t you want to go to Heaven with me and Root?” “I don’t know,” I tore the curtains open and gulped air. “I think I have to go home for dinner.” “Okay!” she said brightly, disorienting me with her sudden burst of cheer. She jumped down from the bed and resumed her game of car crash, stabbing at a pair of doll feet with the nose of her Cadillac and shrieking with mock agony. She glanced up as I made for the door. “See you tomorrow?” I ran down the street, across the field, and through the trees to my backyard. I didn’t see Roseanna the next day, or the day after. A week passed before the Hartmanns’ phone number appeared on our caller ID. I shoved the phone into my mom’s hands, shaking my head wildly. She frowned, then told Roseanna that I was under the weather. I didn’t see my friends until a month after Root returned from Chile, and from then on, we continued to see less and less of each other. By nine—and, in Root’s case, eleven—we’d slowly lost interest in playing pretend and discovered that outside of our games, we had little in common. Roseanna took up soccer and Root studied the violin. I became best friends with a girl at school and together, we invented a secret language. I still spied on the homeschoolers through the trees behind my backyard. They still played Manhunt. I could hear them screaming and chasing after each other, tearing across the field at night. Root often went out to feed the rabbits and Roseanna kicked her soccer ball around the cul-de-sac outside their house. I never once saw Jean-Luc, 90 | PHOEBE 49.2
but I spent long afternoons inventing reasons for his absence: he had saved his pocket money and booked a flight to Paris, where he could speak his mother tongue and dye his hair and sin all day long; he had been sent away to a Catholic boarding school, where he would write Bible verses over and over on chalkboards and the nuns would brandish rulers and beat his knuckles bloody; he had found the perfect hiding place and never come back out, the reigning champion of Manhunt; he had died, and the funeral was arranged by his birth parents, who didn’t know to invite me. The week before Christmas, a card from the Hartmanns arrived in our mailbox. I pretended to be uninterested as my mom ripped open the envelope. “Oh, how strange. Willa, look.” I stared at the card, blinking incredulously, then snatched it from her hands. Smiling up at me were Root, Roseanna, and three toddlers I had never seen before, with tan skin and black hair. Beneath the photograph, in loopy red cursive: Merry Christmas from the Hartmann family, all seven of us. My stomach lurched. Suddenly, I realized why they’d made all those trips to Chile. Root and Roseanna had never mentioned anything about new siblings. And they’d never told me where Jean-Luc had gone. I pictured three tiny children, pure and without sin, sleeping in a new bedroom and dreaming in a new language. They would learn to fold pretzels and tie fairy crowns. They would memorize Bible passages and sing hymns with bright, clean voices. They would find their own hiding places in the vast expanse of trees and hollows between our houses. And as for Jean-Luc, I pictured him in some strange place, wearing strange clothes, his hair some other color. I hoped he had his Walkman with him. I hoped he would listen to something lonely and defiant. In bed that night I said my first prayer. Simple and angry, it went like this: Goddammit. Goddammit. Goddammit. My words formed a net, catching nothing. There are times when I say this prayer even now, but I have lost the trick of it, the certitude, the sweetness.
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Recrudescence A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. —Philippe Ariès I. May 19, 1980: grey ash falling like a dirty, late spring snowstorm in northern Idaho, shuttering the sun and blanketing the world into a black-and-white post-apocalyptic scene—all color erased, all sound dampened, everything gone still. Five years old, dressed in light spring clothing despite the sky’s grey swelter, I went outside armed with a dust mask and specimen collection jar, surveying the blurred and silent landscape, inches of ash lying silky and dimpled with the winding tracks of insects. I was alone, my father at work, my mother having sped away, rooster-tails of grey spitting from her tires as she drove the two hours from our backwoods mountaintop to the nearest airport, jetting to her mother’s deathbed just in time to hold her hand and say it was okay to stop struggling, to stop gasping for air, to give in and let go, the cancer completing its endgame just as Mount St. Helen’s blew, its volcanic eruption swallowing the light and cloaking the world in the colors of mourning just as my mother lost her own mother—a very literal “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” rendition. From that point on, I understood death as a kind of deep, mournful nightmare. Throughout that year I would lie in bed long after being tucked in and think about Gram dying, imagining my mother and father dying, leaving me forever alone, forever without them. I felt this alternate version of reality deeply, its sorrow moving me to sob-weeping night after night as I fell asleep. I felt it as surely as if it were already my own reality: death’s dramatic, destructive force— whether human or in nature—a lesson that would last me a lifetime. II. January 3, 1995: the snow and cold in the Idaho mountains settled in heavy. I was seven months pregnant with our first son, my 92 | PHOEBE 49.2
abdomen beach-ball round and streaked silvery with stretch marks. Just past New Year’s, and my husband’s mother was pulling decorations off the Christmas tree, wrapping the ornaments in tissue and storing them in boxes for next year. My father-in-law wrestled the stripped, bare-needled tree out to the front yard, planted it upright in the white-heaped snow bank, and then fell over dead of a massive heart attack. My husband and I were shopping in a valley town an hour away when the call came—the ambulance speeding toward the hospital, EMTs performing CPR and pumping his father’s body full of drugs on the winding mountainous road, trying to revive him even though he was already cold when they’d reached the front yard. When my husband hung up and told me what had happened, I shook my head with sure and complete confidence, saying over and over: “He can’t be dead, they’re wrong. He’s not dead,” bent on denial this time instead of an active courting. There’s a kind of sheer disbelief to it, when confronted with loss so suddenly—a liminal space where your loved one is still very much alive, still very much existing inside the space of your life, their world intersected with your own, before the truth sinks in, before you understand that they’re really gone, and that therefore a part of you is forever gone, too. The reality of it so unforgivingly, unrelentingly final. III. August 1, 2014: beating-hot summer, the sun bearing down like a relentlessly burning god-eye. I was walking out the door to a meeting with the director of a PhD program that I was seriously considering, a list of questions tucked under my arm, full of nervousness over the possibility of taking on a new doctorate student life, when the phone rang. I thought about ignoring it, letting the machine answer, but at the last minute I picked up. My father’s voice on the other end was nearly unrecognizable. I was used to his frequent phone calls, him chatting on for an hour or more, repeating stories I’d heard many times before, quelling his loneliness after my mother’s divorce from their forty-year marriage. Now he lived alone in a tiny place overlooking a lake with a little dog that I had NONFICTION | 93
talked him into getting named Skipper, who was always barking in the background. But this time there was just the sound of my father’s sobbing as he kept saying, “Oh, Annie, oh Annie, I just can’t believe it,” over and over, his voice sucked in, wracked into a new wavering pitch—the most broken I would ever hear him. I sat islanded in a chair in the middle of the kitchen, trying to take in what he was telling me. My brother was dead, shot by San Antonio police in the middle of the night after someone had called in a vehicle prowl. My father’s only son, my only brother. In shock, after I hung up, I walked hot, tree-heaved sidewalks to my meeting, inanely apologizing for being late to the program director, telling her as we stood in line for coffee—the space warm and buzzing with light, friendly conversation—that my father had just called to tell me my brother had been shot by the police. My emotions not yet caught up to me, I sat down and asked the woman my pre-written questions and dutifully recorded her answers, but I remember nothing of those details, only the sunny table where we sat, coffee beans trapped in artful patterns under the glass, my head swirling with the violent newness of it, the woman regarding me with uneasy concern. Later, at home, I looked up the San Antonio news online, trying to understand what had happened, what had gone so terribly wrong, unprepared for the first thing I saw: photographs of my brother’s body, the top of his tousled head, in the grassy field where he’d been shot, emergency responders, police, and yellow police-line caution tape surrounding him. Photographs of EMTs zipping his body up in a bright blue body bag and lifting him onto a gurney. Photographs of his body being wheeled into an ambulance and taken away. The shock of it was paralyzing, surreal, like something you watch on a crime show, or in a movie, only this time it was real, and so unrelentingly public—blood of my blood, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. IV. It only took six months for my father to follow. February 7, 2015—his body and mind broken beyond repair, giving in to what he’d been courting for some time with his binge drinking, his loneliness and self-destruction. 94 | PHOEBE 49.2
For weeks, I drove to my father’s hospital bed and then nursing-home hospice bed—first to the ER, and then, when the delirium tremens kicked in, the ICU, his ankles and wrists cuffed and tied down, both of his hands bruised deep purple, his long, white, hairless legs exposed, gunshot and scarred from a rough and wild youth, but as shapely as ever. Legs he attempted weakly but persistently to maneuver off the various beds, trying to sit, trying to push himself up with each labored breath, trying to leave, escape. When I told him he had to stay there, in his bed, he said, “What the hell for?” and I said it was so he wouldn’t get hurt any worse. When I showed him his bruised hands, his scabbed and torn arms, his IV taped where he couldn’t tear it out again, he said, “So what?” And that’s how he’d been living—especially after my brother was shot. Drinking himself to death. Falling and bashing himself to smithereens: cracked ribs, blackened eyes, his body covered in bruises and scabs and tears. The owner of his little local store called me to express concern: my father had been buying and drinking four bottles of wine and a six-pack of beer every day. He often showed up confused an hour before opening and was using a twoyears expired driver’s license. Once, driving drunk, his car broke down on the highway and he tried to walk the seven miles back home on wobbly legs, holding onto his cane. I had called the sheriff’s office and the VA social worker; my sister from Texas had called Idaho Adult Protective Services. But there’s no stopping a person who doesn’t want to be stopped. A lifetime of smoking, of drinking. Of feeling adrift in a sea you cannot find bearing in no matter what you do. No matter how skilled a carpenter you might be, no matter how natural of an outdoorsman you might be—teaching your daughters, your wife, your son-inlaw, your grandsons and granddaughters, your boy-scout troops the way of the woods—no matter what, the drinking is the only thing you have left. That and your voice. A quaking hand lifted weakly to your mouth, from your hospital bed you said, “You know me, I love to talk.” And so you do. Story after story, even dying and shackled to a hospital bed. As a family, after we move your things out of your house and drive your car home, we sit in the hot tub tracking constellations, NONFICTION | 95
looking into the night sky. Steam rising and drifting, I try to find some kind of reckoning after it all. Like a moth, I can’t stop my eyes from going to the source of light—the candle’s flicker, the porch with its yellow-walled glow, Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper’s handle, pointing oddly this time of year, upside down. There, Uranus. There, Cassiopeia. In the winter air, we tell stories of you as if you are already gone. Only a little time left now before you are. My teenage sons wearing your work boots, loading your tools, your life, in the back of their trucks. Your crockpot full of cold, fat-scrimmed stew. Your cocked and loaded pistol we find lodged in the side of your recliner where I know you sat and sorrowed over your wrecked life, contemplating taking it, my mother talking you out of your final plan: going out on the lake in your canoe to do the deed. Your laundry in the hamper. Your soiled shorts. Your soiled sheets. Bag after bag of snack food opened, then left in your kitchen drawers. Forgotten? Distasteful, like the carrots your sister fed you tonight in the hospital. A spoonful of juice. A spoonful of milk. A spoonful of blueberry yogurt from which you spit a single blueberry onto your naked chest. In the hospital and the weeklong stay at the nursing home, wishing you weren’t there, you talk about paddling a canoe, of how you don’t like winter, of how you already know from experience that you will be lonely, that I won’t visit as much as I say. You break my heart with your sobbing. With your bird-boned chest and shoulders. With your bruises and self-destruction. ER. ICU. DTs. TIA—everything an acronym of your state. A damn drunk. A kind man. A lost soul. Toolboxes full of dreams, your brothers circling in for your things, you not even gone yet. Wood smoke in the air, in the hot tub we talk of firewood. Of your backpacking gear. Of your wood-bending skills. We laugh over your crazy hair and eyebrows—the same as my brother’s, the same as mine. We reminisce about the life you once lived with my mother whom you still love. Whom you will always love. Sorrow lying in your wake. Your long legs bloodied along the shins from trying to escape the chair and bed the nursing staff put you in. 96 | PHOEBE 49.2
That last Saturday, I walked your little dog Skipper to visit you, played a classical CD in your room, read the weekend newspaper after covering your purpling feet, talked a little in the quick moments when you were awake—let you know I was there, that I cared. Then, fifteen minutes after I left, walking your little dog toward home, the nurse on rotation called to say that she’d felt a ghostly tap on her shoulder out in the hall and immediately went to your room, reaching your side just as you took your last breath. And then you too were gone, just like my childhood nighttime mournful imaginings. Your things dispersed amongst us, the warmth of your little dog settled on my lap, your life stories reframed into forgotten family lore. V. I’ve learned to sorrow without sound. To cry when there’s not too much to do. But there’s always too much to do, too much to feel, too much to think, to say. Years pass this very way. The busy business of living, and of dying—drugs, hospitals, nursing homes, ambulances, body bags, transportation to the morgue, morgue services, caskets or burnings, grave-diggings, hearses, headstones, all the accounts to pay up and then close down, all the sorting through and out. When my husband’s father died, his mother found one way to save. We begged her to cremate, but her religious beliefs didn’t allow for future resurrection without a body, so she asked my husband to take care of the transportation—to drive her 1980 twowheel-drive, two-tone-brown Suburban to pick up the casket and bring his father to the cemetery. With the back seats taken out to make room, the morgue workers loaded the cardboard casket into the Suburban and my then 26-year-old husband drove two hours on the winding, mountainous, winter roads, alone with his father’s body, trying not to imagine it in the casket behind him rolling along with the corners, trying not to imagine his father’s body there behind him at all. When he got to the cemetery, the gravedigger—a bearded, scruffy, out-of-work logger—helped him unload the casket, asking him which end was the head, but my husband didn’t know, so finalNONFICTION | 97
ly they hazarded a 50/50 guess, set it in the frozen cavern of earth, and called it good as the family started gathering for the service. Nearly 25 years later, it is still the only formal funeral we’ve gone to—solemnly standing graveside, our first son kicking out from beneath my heavy winter coat, shovelfuls of dirt thudding onto cardboard, intonation of a funeral sermon. Not one of us has ever returned to the grave since. VI. The rest have all been ashes. In late August 2014, when I got the flesh-colored package-pick-up notification, I took it and stood in line with the rest of the patrons mailing boxes off—chatty, cheerful people trying to turn the post office wait into a shared smalltown comradery. But I kept my sunglasses on, my arms crossed over my chest. When I reached the counter and handed the woman the slip, her face changed, some kind of code communicated on the paper, some special box checked. She glanced at me once quickly but held quiet as she went to the back and retrieved the box prominently marked “Human Remains.” She handed it to me carefully and I left quickly before any more emotion could seep out, the surprising weight and heft of the box something like shock. When I got home, I packed the car with some food, camping gear, my brother’s letters, and the unopened box of his ashes. I sobbed the whole drive. My brother’s cremated body sat in the passenger’s seat, and I wound my way up the mountain corners to the river we’d all loved. On that lonely, empty road I didn’t expect the flashing lights of a police cruiser, but suddenly they were behind me. I couldn’t stop weeping as I pulled over and an officer approached my window. I pointed at the box and said what I was on my way to do. The officer let me go with a warning to be careful, the concern clear in his eyes. At the river, I packed a knapsack with my brother’s ashes and then hiked the fern and cedar-lined trails until finally I dropped down to the shoreline. I set up on a large flat rock, the swath of water winding its way past me, blooming asters and paintbrush studded with butterflies on all sides, an otter, kingfisher, and osprey vying for their waterborne prey. I lay a cloth down and sat cross98 | PHOEBE 49.2
legged, making up my own ritual as I went, ceremonially smoking and drinking as I arranged the items in front of me: childhood letters, a leather pouch, a box of ashes. After I had cried and reminisced, after I had re-read my brother’s letters and then wrote him back one final time, I stood calfdeep in the cold, clear water on top of a slippery, oblong orange rock the shape of a coffin and spread the bits of bone and handfuls of dust that formed the shape of my brother’s life, watching as they formed a calcium-rich shadow and drifted downstream, settling in the river silt, glinting like mica. VII. It took me longer with my father. My husband and I picked up his ashes and a heavy-cast Army plaque from the funeral home in February—too early in the year to reach the river, the road still buried in snow. Not wanting the emotional weight that might come from confronting his ashes in the house each day, we made a place in the shed instead, balancing the box of ashes on a shelf made from my father’s old carpenter-shop sawhorses. It stayed there for more than a year like a haunting. One time the padlocked shed door stood inexplicably open, and from that point on each time we went in the shed, we would greet the box uneasily. “Hi, Pa,” we’d say, trying to laugh about it. We told ourselves that even when it was baking hot, he would have liked it in the shed, surrounded as he was by whitewater kayaks, fly fishing gear, and the uneven lengths of oak and fir boards awaiting our next carpentry project. Finally, August 2016—two years to the month since I’d spread my brother’s ashes—we gathered up our camping gear, fly-fishing equipment, my dad’s little dog Skipper, and the box of ashes and as a family, headed for the river. We hiked to the little white sand crescent beach just up from the funeral rock and settled beneath the towering cedars, fishing and swimming. Skipper barked and chased sticks, then lay in the sandy shade next to the box of ashes, my dad’s old fly box and reel next to them, the whole scene arranged like a funeral still life. My sons and husband standing on the shore behind me, I once again waded out and stood on the slick, orange rock releasing NONFICTION | 99
handfuls of ash into the clear swirling water, periwinkles leaving the trace of their slow crawl behind, trout swimming in close, curiously nosing bone in silt. We set the plaque hidden in a trio of boulders and alder brush just back from the funeral rock, hoping to keep it out of the reach from the high roiling of spring waters or any would-be vandalizers. We haven’t been back yet, but I imagine it papered now in lichen and dust, the drifting ash of wildfire. The periwinkles crawling, dragging their pebble-studded cases formed from bones baked as hot as glass—shiny-edged bits that glint like teeth from beneath our feet. VIII. Another August—this one 2017, the pale blue paper box of ashes with its affixed label stating my grandmother’s name, date of birth, and date of death, finally in my mother’s possession after thirty-six years of languishing in my uncle’s bottom dresser drawer. She’d told him that it was time Gram was freed, that she would spread the ashes where their mother had always loved to be, even though the thought of facing her mother again left her shaken and full of trepidation—all those buried emotions, all that dark history of alcoholism and abuse that she’d worked for decades to move beyond. But by now I was the experienced one, so I told my mother I would help her with the decades past-due release of her mother, that we would do it together, that there was nothing to fear. This one would be easier after all. A grandmother who had died when I was five years old, even if hers had been my first death, accompanied by a familial mortality-awareness that had already haunted me a lifetime. Each death echoing out from the other. Each death carried differently. A continuation, a deepening. A conversation I’d learned how to speak. My husband, mother, and I carried the box with us to Indian Island, Washington—a naval-base island on the Salish Sea where my grandmother had once loved to go clamming. A dozen people in rubber boots were spread out below the parking area, humped over and digging in the damp tidal flats, the morning tide receded well into the minuses, leaving exposed kelp and clam-beds. 100 | PHOEBE 49.2
We walked the beach for a mile until there was nothing but rocky shoreline, steep sand cliffs, and the sea’s shallow, kelp-thick reaches. Sheltered from the wind by the cliff, my mother and I opened the box, took out the plastic bag inside, and walked down to the water, wading out knee-deep to a sandy-bottomed stretch that was surrounded by green and red kelp beds—a garden of swaying growth. My mother stood nearby, watching as I dumped the remains of my grandmother’s body in an arc around me, as the now-familiar calcium cloud dispersed in the water and the driedout bits of bone settled into the sand below, indistinguishable from what had always been, from what will always be: matter and form, past and present—the movement of our lives, our bodies, into memory and story.
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ART GALLERY II
Gallery List K. JOHNSON BOWLES “Veiled Threats” Mixed media collage page 107 K. JOHNSON BOWLES “A is for Anxiety” Mixed media collage page 108 K. JOHNSON BOWLES “Abuse of Power” Mixed media collage page 109 HYEWON CHO “Paradise” Acrylic on canvas page 110 K. CARLTON JOHNSON “Last Known Address” Acrylic on canvas page 111 JOSH STEIN “The Four Elements VII” Metallic acrylics on canvas page 112
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Triptych: Year with Three Towers January Their ashed cigarette tips leave stormed murals on the sidewalk: willow boughs reading last rites over a river’s whitecapped flesh wounds. Murals left to scatter, ash to blow away— Jewish Jesus, come back; it’s time. The couple shares smokes—carcasses drip dry in the streets as the snow melts. Take time and twist it between your fingers until it disintegrates. If only they were claymation, the cracks in their spines would be visible. Their irises would spill shredded from their eyes.
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May Cobwebs in the grass. He milks the goats. This is primordial: the foolish man submerging, waist deep, into tar. What narrative isnâ€™t tragic, or more importantly: where do we walk when the ground is soggy? He drags his dog. Cup of warm coffee in hand, tells the trees this is photographic, this is paradise. Break open the trunk of your body to find an abscess spilling out a vcr recording of your toddling father when he was four, red flannel, just wild about the falling snow, chubby cheeksâ€” every moment, a bag of loose-leafed milkweed seeds. To be alone To be alone is to be in sanctuary, and who the hell wants to be purgatorial?
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October Burnt popcorn, chicken shavings left in the sink, maggot community thriving. Sand caught under my waistband erodes its pattern, even after I come to bed and you brush it off. Human-blue lights flashing through the window shades. Fishing for birchbark faces—everything falling in pixelated chunks. Stop me before it’s too late, stop me before I’m alone with the streets.
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MACHINE CONTEST WINNER I’d been all morning trying to fix this damn thing. I was aiming to finally nail down the symbolic. The field by the airport walked right into me. Someone was supposed to mind the landscaping, but now it’s just all overgrown in my gut. Sometimes Meryl says I need to shut off the machine I use for generating lies. Meryl has these nice fingerprints that remind me of ten penguins in a desert. But there really is a certain kind of eyehook you can use to attach paradise to any working memory. If my mother who is made of rain ever phones me again I’ll head straight out this window and stand in the air.
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GUSTAV PARKER HIBBETT
Oil Painting of a Hand Holding a Taxidermied Bluebird HONORABLE MENTION Center-right: wings invisible, pinned like buttoned fronts of jackets around a rigid waxdrop body; small-clawed feet fixed or glued or stapled straight, perch-ready, pointing out the painting’s south-left corner, down past the wrist. Human death delivered formaldehyde stiffness, at the cost of first death’s stillness, between some hand’s thumb and dull-white forefinger, against the background beige, but the show lights and the painter’s soft-edged strokes bring the simple, broken, body back some life, leave it glowing, almost princely. In chiaroscuro blue, gem-like, lambent; and the golden glint of gallery lamps returns something, not quite but almost sunlight, to the soil-black shimmer in the single open eye.
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creation myth sometimes, in my perversity, i see our dead brother as a priest, peeling back his black suit coat, releasing the button at his neck and taking off his collar, laying it in a special bowl he keeps on his dresser. vain about his feet, he’ll have traded the ugly brogans for motorcycle boots, an homage to the hippie priest that took him and his buddies to see the summer of ’42, back when a girl washing her hair was pornography enough. shoes removed and down to his boxers now, hospital blue, he’s standing on his jesus feet—long bones and knuckles buckled with ache, encased in steaming argyle. i imagine our brother knowing everything about sex from that movie, that day, just from accepting, when offered, a sip of water.
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This Tired Flesh I traded a girl two apples for an orange. I hate citrus but she was beautiful. —Jim Harrison Emerald ash borer killed the trees on the mountain. The government cut the ones closest to the road and burned the wood before we could gather it. A half-day’s walk into the forest there’s a clearing where hundreds of white pine stumps rise like an upside-down graveyard of sawed-off elephant legs. Birds and trees mark the passage of time by what they perceive. A meth lab in an old hunting trailer blew up last winter, sending smoke signals skyward and two cousins life-flighted to the burn unit in Pittsburgh. When a coyote crossed the path, it lowered its tail and didn’t look back at me. They kill the very young and the very old. To eat an elder you have to allow for scar tissue, which takes the longest to chew. The kingfisher that divebombs the creek reminds me we live in a world of flight. The girl who lifted my heart off the ground was fed rattlesnake in the crib. Friday night she put a drop of acid on my tongue, and for the past three days I’ve hung on the point of a waning moon, peering down at her breasts through a threadbare dress. Her grandmother fried everything in bacon grease until her heart stopped while she smoked her pipe on the back porch. After we put the old woman in the ground, the girl’s meth-head brothers scoured the mountain for dens, pouring diesel down holes. When they dropped the struck match, purple and orange flames thrashed the air for hours. Some of the snakes slithered out, scales on fire. The brothers used an ax to cut the heads off, a knife to collect the rattles. The girl I love wears a necklace that shakes when she walks.
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KATHRYNE DAVID GARGANO
manifesto for the bones of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling the boy says:
devils cannot move human semen locally! he cries it in the streets, flogging his papers / so sensational, this boyâ€” he forgets so earnestly the way women are born out of the sea / the lapping foam against the sand becomes rivulets & indentations / swollen limbs bright with moulding or the wolf that swallows a starling & spits her back out with two legs timber-like / the meteor that edges the atmosphere & breaks into tiny women, marbles in the ancient snow or a bonfire / her arms a basket she will carry to catch the girls unwanted by apple seeds / tipped over the curtain of a mouth 122 | PHOEBE 49.2
Emily Dickinson and the Poet Perambulate All her dresses were fine white operettas, but it was the dark-seizing spheres of her eyes which sang. Amnesty is a season. She sang yellow roses. Light runs through three cycles: absence, presence, becoming. Seasons, twelve. Morning and evening—both becoming. Between the summer and the fall—a different song Than between winter and spring. The dress tightened itself around her ribs, wound itself around her ankles. “You’re supposed to be a messenger,” I told the angel. “You never listen, anyway,” she spat and lay down in the grass to watch a better world. Souls trouble the fingers of the wind with aching. Souls tremble in the grass beneath. How may I—must I— live. I walk the hills like schools. I walk the hills like lace. I walk torn, gathered into layers of white smothering cotton, her voice flower petals turning into scythes wraps my throat. Still I dance. She’s still, still all around, allsinging unembroidered.
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Acts of Colonial Defiance This cold day—I bought A tree—the idea of it & soil Spilled beyond—gathering Home we went—roots bared to wind The way—we made it—then—arranged A room inside a room—I saw that— I am—too—but roots that reach— A bucket’s width—a shallow Shape—a rounder thought than proof
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Changeling I would keep my twin, who did not live, deformed with strong vinegars among the root cellar jars. Provisions scarcely seen this low, there are some consequences whose crime is a simple price to pay and ravishing. An emergency of hawthorn and burdock, the phlebotomistâ€™s butterflyneedle reveals no relationâ€” a changeling, I am unbrothered, ransoming at the wiccan hour, the orchard soured in a season of early frosts.
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Postpartum If it helps, pretend this is the beginning of a dream: our son’s first diaper filled with his last swallow of womb, broken swaddles resisting their mending, so many hands passing his newness like a warm coin, fields of wine on a joyful grandfather’s breath. There’s no need to wake right now. Remember the babymoon in Denver, the hundreds of Monet’s in the special exhibit, how, “The Truth of Nature,” seemed a bad title for impressions of truth a hundred times removed. Beyond the birthing room window, the sun hasn’t risen, the statue of Saint Rose covered in mold the color of afterbirth doesn’t exist yet. Your tongue is still clovering an ice chip.
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/ trănz /as in “a trans of clouds” shifting; complete, yet not at all; movement as in train, but trackless without the i; snaky motion; indirect; sly;
a parting of the grass & sky; exciting, unpredictable, promising;
rejects the past & denies the future; is & is & is; is with God & is God; the quality of breath attended; paper in flame; shoulder season; seasonal labor; full of wind & bluster; what precedes the rain; mackerel or mare’s tail
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LIZA KATZ DUNCAN
We rode the storm out on the porch, waited for waves to gather, then crest over the bulkhead. Fog was the shabbiest color, known by its smell of salt, outside those houses where weâ€™d learned to feel the tightening of a hasp reverberate in our chests, how the wind forked every birch that bent at the waist, tore the pear treeâ€™s husk from its stake, unclustered elderberry, elderflower. Some things break at the first sign of decay: a canoe, poisoned oysters in the bay; then, farther, sinews from some other, storm-slaught house: its plumbing, kitchen tiles, shingles laced with tarp. In the driveway, a boat trailer harvesting rust.
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Illumination Yet another sun rises like an incandescent lemon, and my attention is a thick shirt slung over a drying rack. Lord make me better, by which I mean less bored. At this moment ants heave brick dust to and fro as they construct the sacred dome of their living, a rabbit bolts from a sudden noise, her ears aligned more precisely than the downhill skis of an Olympian. If I’m as straightforwardly chemical as the buzzing air conditioner, I should fuss less, like the pallid sturgeon that skim rivers from Montana to New Orleans and ply for food with their needle noses, ancient and mute beneath the water’s surface. Who made this mind to pout and marvel and tell you its every bend in thought? Make me a sturgeon: threatened by extinction, without panic I’d haunt the lower currents, hungry even when I slept.
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MARY JO AMANI
Pay careful attention lest with all the fluctuations of thoughts the greening power which you have from God dries up in you. â€”Hildegard von Bingen writing to an Abbot 1 I bought an alabaster blue bird when I was only nine visiting Florence with my family. I remember nothing of the city now but the store, everywhere I turned, unscratched beauty. It seemed to me a grown-up purchase, something precious wanting me and late at night I stroked its calcite body and whispered who? 2 Little girl lovers, we took turns playing the naked princess in bed, the other a naked prince. Even Jâ€™s earlobes dripped in the heat. She moved away when I was twelve. I sent the blue bird with her.
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I cried when I heard it was dropped, beak chipped, for years regretted giving it. Everywhere I turned what I thought was unbreakable, broke, except the craving. 3 I read the lives of the Saints. 4 My mother walked, without clothes, down the hallway, round and comfortable in her body, peed with the door open, while at gym I dressed in the bathroom stall, a small gold crucifix tapping my flat chest, the other girls brazen with their breasts, their pubic hair dark and dense under the changing room light. 5 My father beat me, only once, for squinting my eyes for months at my mother while he was away at sea, for the “duh” at the end of my sentences, for the way I contradicted his politics. Goading me, he said: “I’d be proud POETRY | 131
if you grew up to be a Playboy Bunny.” It was the 70’s in Jacksonville, Florida, the Jesus Movement occupying, my father scared for his modest girl-child, a book worm, a good-girl, a wanna-be nun. “In my house, my opinion is your opinion,” he said. For thirteen years, my father was God. He broke the contract with a belt and I hated him. 6 At the Nikki Cruz Crusade in 1971, the Puerto-Rican-ex-New-York-gang-member found-Christ Crusade, I walked up and was saved. Short and muscular, dark flowing hair, not unlike that picture of Christ I bought and hung in my room. Run, Baby, Run, he wrote of his life, violent and empty. I was running toward something new, unknown. I found Jesus through Nikki. Jesus was Nikki. I read his book, again and again. No one mentions in catechism the stifled moans in the longing for God, the glimpse of eternity in youthful ecstasy, the trembling, reeling thoughts in the dark of the night,
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7 the Light entering. I shook and wept until I fell, beyond all reason, beyond all things I knew and I forgave and was forgiven. 8 It stayed with me, night prayers, night rapture, family oblivious of the heat behind the closed door, yes, Jesus stayed. It was love I made with God, his Son, in my small room kneeling beside a white French Provincial canopy bed from Sears, my hands folded in prayer on a pink lacy coverlet, my body bursting over and over until I lay prostrate on the floor of my bedroom un-known words tumbling over un-known words.
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9 Then the words became babble and nonsense and I returned to books, transfixed by stories: Oedipus, Lancelot, Rochester, they all returned, night visitors, presumptuous, alluring, slipping under the covers, they took me away, as stories do, away to where one feels most at home, or at least away from where you don’t feel at home, not not home, away from the random placing in a splitlevel house, a split-level father, pushing me farther and farther away, each story instructive. Words on the page became my temple. The minister called them Satan’s works, or, maybe it was my father’s new rule that drove me further in: No more reading in your room, alone, the door to your bedroom
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must remain open at all times (but just before remember oh body in the dark you knew what it meant to be one to be alive with the word with everything in silence stirring with the light in the bedroom the Holy of Holies body tremulous murmuring shy spirit melting joining oneâ€”). 10 I complied until he forgot, found ways to sneak, to pursue what I loved, to follow the one who wanted me. 11 Then the words, marauded, ragged, became mirage, dust in stars. 12 Where is that short, dark, Latino stand-in on the stage, Jesus-Nikki, Nikki-Jesus, flicked words, sparks into crowds, words that flung
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through manicured lawns on the golf course behind Fairway Lane, ripping, exposing until I stood naked before Him, the Body, supple and ready and said yes, oh God, yes— words beaten by a father who loved me, an earth-bound father, his jagged words pushing me to turn from him. 13 What can a father do or be for a daughter so inclined? All I know is I’ve never come so ripe as when I was thirteen, fresh, timid, open— 14 Hafiz says, You have not danced so badly, my sweet, crushed Angel, trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One. So what if the music has stopped. Yet, there are moments, still, when I’m walking, when a smell on Alameda Santa Lucia simmers in the air, 136 | PHOEBE 49.2
when the women in their huipiles stand beside the spoiled and the dung of the previous day, stand with their aprons beside stacks of avocadoes, beside newspapers announcing another murder, another politician in jail, when a voice shouts to everyone, â€œCinco manzana por ocho,â€? when some sharp thing pierces my chest and I shudder, and that old-new-familiar-new stab, that it-thing, circles around his words, that lance that wound that union jumps out strikes me and I feel itâ€” again
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Contributors MARY JO AMANI (PacificU, MFA, 2016) lives with her husband and hikes in the foothills of Jones Mountain in western North Carolina. She’s currently writing green-girl poems and researching the collision between Celtic and Roman Christianity for a comingof-age novel set in 400 AD Ireland. She sponsors the Red Shoes Writing Fellowship and the Vermont Studio Center’s Lukas Riveros Amani Writing Fellowship. Founder of the non-profit Libros para Niños in Nicaragua, she passionately supports community libraries in Guatemala, where she lived for years. She’s also the author of the children’s book, Excuse Me, I’m Trying to Read. JAKE BAUER is the marketing director for Saturnalia Books. He is also co-author of Idaho Falls (SurVision Books, 2019). His poems have recently appeared in Threepenny Review, Thrush, Third Coast, and Poetry Northwest, among others. KATERYNA BORTSOVA is a painter and graphic artist, with a BFA and MFA in graphic arts. Works of Kateryna have shown in many international exhibitions (Taiwan, Moscow, Munich, Spain, Macedonia, Budapest etc.). She won a silver medal in realism from the Factory of Visual Art (New York, USA), as well as honors from the 2015 Emirates Skywards Art of Travel competition (Dubai, United Arab Emirates). K. JOHNSON BOWLES has exhibited in more than 80 solo and group exhibitions nationally. Feature articles, essays, and reviews of her work have appeared in 50 publications around the country including SPOT (Houston Center for Photography), Sculpture, Fiberarts, and the Houston Post. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship and a Houston Center for Photography Fellowship. Recently, she served as a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. She received her MFA in photography and painting from Ohio University and BFA in painting from Boston University. CONTRIBUTORS | 139
MARY BUCHINGER is the author of four collections of poetry, including e i n f ü h l u n g/in feeling, Aerialist, and Navigating the Reach (forthcoming). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI, DIAGRAM, Gargoyle, [PANK], Salamander, Slice Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Hollins Critic, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She is president of the New England Poetry Club and professor of English and communication studies at MCPHS University in Boston; her website is: www.marybuchinger.com. HYEWON CHO is a sophomore attending Korean International School in Seoul, South Korea. When she is not making artwork, her hobbies include walking her two-year-old collie and experimenting with old film cameras. She is currently building a portfolio for university. KYLE CROMER was born in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, the son and grandson of large animal veterinarians. He currently lives in Palo Alto and works as an instructor in the department of Pediatrics at Stanford. Because he can’t play a musical instrument or paint worth a darn, he tries to create through his science and his collages. IRENE COOPER’s poems and reviews have appeared online and in print. She writes freelance copy and teaches in central Oregon, as well as co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, her debut speculative spyfy novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2020. TODD DAVIS is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Native Species (2019) and Winterkill (2016), both published by Michigan State University Press. His writing has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and the Chautauqua Editors Prize. New work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Poetry Northwest, Missouri Review, South Carolina Review, and Natural Bridge. He teaches environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College. 140 | PHOEBE 49.2
STACIE DENETSOSIE, a Diné fiction writer and poet, is Todích’íí’níí (Bitterwater) and born for Naakaii Dine’é (Mexican). She was born in Tuba City, Arizona, and raised in Logan, Utah where she earned her undergraduate and MA degrees from Utah State University. Stacie is currently pursuing her MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’s accepted a poetry fellowship and the Václav Havel Scholarship from the Prague Summer Program. Influenced by Native writers, as well as her maternal grandparents and her summers at their ranch in Kayenta, Stacie shares her culture, and her work attempts to reconcile grief and enact ceremony through the craft of storytelling. LIZA KATZ DUNCAN is an ESL teacher in New Jersey and an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Poet Lore, the Cartland Review, the Journal of New Jersey Poets, Vinyl, and elsewhere. KATHRYNE DAVID GARGANO hails from the Pacific Northwest, but isn’t very good at climbing trees. She received her MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin. GUSTAV PARKER HIBBETT is a black poet and fiction writer currently pursuing his MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. He holds a BA in English from Stanford University, and is originally from New Mexico. His work also appears in Déraciné. KIRA HOMSHER, a Philadelphia native, is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech, where she has served as Fiction Editor for the minnesota review. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Ghost City Review, among others. You can find her at kirahomsher.com. JOCELYN JOHNSON’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Guardian, Shenandoah, Prime Number, and elsewhere. Her short story “Control Negro” was anthologized in CONTRIBUTORS | 141
the Best American Short Stories 2018, guest edited by Roxane Gay, and selected and read live by LeVar Burton for PRI’s Selected Shorts series. She lives and teaches art to elementary-aged public-school children in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find her at http://jocelynjohnson.com/ or on twitter @jocelynjohnson. K. CARLTON JOHNSON is both a visual artist and poet. She lives on the banks of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. ZEV LABINGER is an artist and ecologist. Born in 1962 in the USA, he later immigrated to Israel in 1986 (because of the birds!) where he now lives with his wife and two daughters. His interest in nature and together with art has been an almost lifelong pursuit. Through his many years of extensive field work, Zev has become intimately involved with the subjects he paints. He has exhibited internationally and his art can be found in private collections, museums, books and field guides. ERICA PLOUFFE LAZURE is the author of the flash fiction chapbook, Heard Around Town, and fiction chapbook, Dry Dock. Sugar Mountain, a flash fiction chapbook, is forthcoming by Ad Hoc Press (UK 2020). Her fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Carve, Greensboro Review, Meridian, American Short Fiction, The Journal of Micro Literature, The Southeast Review, Fiction Southeast, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine, Vestal Review, Litro, and elsewhere. She enjoys snorkeling, hula-hooping, and guitar, lives and teaches in Exeter, NH and can be found online at ericaplouffelazure.com. ANNIE LAMPMAN is the author of the novel Sins of the Bees (Pegasus/Simon & Schuster, September 2020) and the letter-press printed limited edition poetry chapbook Burning Time (Limberlost Press, August 2020). Her narrative essays, poetry, and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals and anthologies. She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a 142 | PHOEBE 49.2
Literature Fellowship Special Mention from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and a national Bureau of Land Management wilderness artist’s residency in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. She lives with her family in Moscow, Idaho and is an Associate Professor of Honors Creative Writing at the Washington State University Honors College. https://annielampman.com RACHEL LINN holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, where she received the Eugene Van Burne prize for her thesis. Her visual art merges drawing, collage, printmaking, and needlework techniques and often takes the form of handmade books (including some to be assembled by the reader). She has a collection of linked stories paired with pop-up illustrations forthcoming from Meekling Press. Her writing and illustrations have also appeared in Minor Literature[s], Calyx, Rivet, the St. Louis Metro Arts in Transit program, and elsewhere. She has served on the planning board of the St. Louis Small Press Expo since 2018. DEVON MILLER-DUGGAN has published poems in Rattle, Margie, The Antioch Review, Massachusetts Review, and Spillway. She teaches at the University of Delaware, and has been missing her students. Her books include Pinning the Bird to the Wall (Tres Chicas Books, 2008), Alphabet Year (Wipf & Stock, 2017), The Slow Salute (Lithic Press Chapbook Competition Winner, 2018). ALEX MOUW’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, RHINO, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. His nonfiction and scholarship have appeared in Ruminate and Christianity and Literature, respectively. He lives in St. Louis. DANIEL NEFF’s poetry has won an American Academy of Poets Prize and has been published in Diagram, Zyzzyva, and Ninth Letter, among others. Daniel has also taught creative writing and English composition at the University of Michigan and with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. Daniel lives in Ann Arbor, MI, where he bakes bread, keeps a few plants alive, and is establishing a chapbook prize for undergraduate poets. CONTRIBUTORS | 143
SAMUEL PICCONE is the author of the chapbook Pupa (Anhinga Press, 2018). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sycamore Review, Passages North, Denver Quarterly, The Pinch, and elsewhere. He received an MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University and serves on the poetry staff at Raleigh Review. Currently, he resides and teaches in Nevada. ALYSSA QUINN is the author of the chapbook Danteâ€™s Cartography (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019). She is currently earning a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah, where she is a prose editor for Quarterly West. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Passages North, The Pinch, Indiana Review, Hobart, Juked, and elsewhere. You can find her at alyssaquinn.net. ELIZABETH SAVAGE is poetry editor for Kestrel: A Journal of Literature & Art. Her most recent work appears in Court Green, Hotel Amerika, and Shenandoah, as well as in a new chapbook from Dancing Girl Press titled Detail. JAY SENNETT is a publisher, writer and author of Self-Organizing Men: Conscious Masculinities in Time and Space and Moxie, Vol. 1. Jay transitioned from female to male in 1995 and began his writing career at Chicagoâ€™s LGBT paper Nightlines/Outlines. He has spent more than two decades writing creative nonfiction essays that explore transsexual narratives outside the confines of the therapeutic and medical models. He was a 2019 Key West Literary Seminar participant. He is currently at work on his first novel and lives in Michigan with his wife and cat. JOSH STEIN is a lifelong multi-mode creative artist, musician, writer, professor, and adult beverage maker. With formal training in calligraphy, graphic design, and color work; more than two decades as a researcher, teacher, and writer in cultural analysis in the vein of the Birmingham and Frankfurt Schools; and a decade and a half as a commercial artist and designer for multiple winery clients; he brings his influences of Pop art, Tattoo flash and lining techniques, and Abstract Surrealism and Expressionism to the 144 | PHOEBE 49.2
extreme edge where graphic design and calligraphy meet the Platonic theory of forms. KEVIN STERNE is the author of All Must Go (House of Vlad). His fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Maudlin House, Monkey Bicycle, Literary Orphans, and other great places. He lives in Chicago and loves running and trees. Read more at kevinsternewrites.com. TAYLOR SUPPLEE is a gay poet from the Midwest who earned his MFA from Columbia University where he served as the Lucie Brock-Broido teaching fellow. A finalist for the 92Y Discovery Award in poetry in 2019, his poems have appeared in Baltimore Review, Foothill Poetry Journal, Hotel Amerika, Midwestern Gothic, The Moth, Rattle, SLAB, Quiddity, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
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Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art selected for phoebe's 49.2 contest issue.