quick brown fox the five college literary journal 2013
issue 03 - spring 2013
Editorial Board Editors-in-Chief: Grace Critchfield, Hampshire ‘13 Madeline Zehnder, Smith ‘13 Managing Editor: Holly Mitchell, Mount Holyoke ‘13 Layout Editor: Keenan Hale, Mount Holyoke ‘13 Web Editor: Rowena Leung, UMass ‘14 Events Coordinator: Michael Samuels, Hampshire ‘13 Campus Representatives: Emma Binder, Hampshire ‘15 Chase Berggrun, UMass ‘13 Jamie Samdahl, Smith ‘15 Quick Brown Fox is the literary journal of the Five Colleges, founded in 2010 and dedicated to publishing the best emerging talent in the Five College undergraduate community. We seek to bridge the barriers between the colleges and to promote our generation’s voice by providing students with space for writing, discussion, and a collaborative intellectual experience. Contact us: email@example.com http://qbfquickbrownfox.tumblr.com/ This publication is supported in part by grants from Hampshire College and the Amherst local cultural council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.
Contents Britannia /Â Antonina Palisano / 4 Untitled / Alana de Hinojosa / 5 All Those Stones / Rachael Clifford / 8 Currents / Amanda Mattingly / 17 Shall I Compare Thee / Jacqueline Leahy / 18 A Family Essay / Matthew Davis / 21 Ancestors: A Self-Portrait / Rae Henaghan / 27 The Frustrated Poet Is / Diana Babineau / 30 Untitled 1 / Caleb MacKenzie-Margulies / 31 Bedford Stuyvesant Summer Triptych / Anna Meister / 32 4D / Susie Svendsgaard / 34 Procne, afterward / Patricia Hartland / 42 The Go Ahead / Nik Shumer-Decker / 44 Shining Up Our Insides / Liora Bard / 57 The World Whistling Champion / Emma Styles-Swaim / 60 A Comforting Thing / Senti Sojwal / 62 For my body, when I am old / Jesse Steinmetz / 71 Nothing Here is Yours Anymore / Jacob Powers / 72
Chalk and creosote. Radium vapor. Tincture of opium. The milk cure, or seven weeks on a diet of curd. Light housekeeping and a plot in the garden. Autumn in Venice, and a steamer west to winter at the Basel clinic. Realize what it is to be trapped in the orbit of your body. Collapse therapy is the puncture of a bleeding lung. Think of the oblate mimosa in the English garden, the way the flower folds into itself if touched. Think of a spade in English soil as the needle turning the earth in your chest. Â Laudanum blots the edge of an Alpine sky. Dream of a garden running down to the sea, and of the breathing tide.
Alana de Hinojosa
I dropped my book for thoughts in a puddle last Tuesday, after lunch. Maybe I let it slip from my han, to remind myself what it feels like to release, to let go. The lined papers drank the muggy water, filling full. I had to dry the notebook with my sad little ten dollar hair dryer. The watermarks looked pretty once the pages dried. ______________ Hey little Dove, are you there? I wish I could be, you know, closer. Is this the closest I can get? I can get closer. How? Turning time backward on my watch. And not forward? I was closer to you then. ______________ The drool stain on my cotton pillow looks like a pear today. Yesterday it resembled a light bulb. I know those two things look awfully similar, but to me they seemed to occupy different voices. The pear asked me to turn the pillow over to the other side. Your morning breath doesn’t suit, she said. The light bulb asked me to twist its tiny wires so it would never work again. I told her I didn’t know how. ______________ 5
There’s always a small glass of water by my bed, for you. I know you told me to keep it there in case my tongue gets dry, but I don’t seem to mind the way my tongue cracks and folds in the morning. In fact, it resembles my mother’s knitted handkerchief, the one in my underwear drawer. And I like that. Besides, the water’s for you. I have too many watermarks already. Did you know the handkerchief is next to those lavender panties you like so much? The lacey ones that are rather uncomfortable. Have I told you I don’t mind the discomfort? ______________ Sometimes I want to go looking for where I’m supposed to be, you know? Where’s my country? The country under your skin? Yeah. Yeah. That sounds good. Could it be with me? I think your country may be too old. With age, you know, eyes water more. Exactly. _______________ “Go placidly, and take care of yourself,” Mama told me. Okay, maybe she didn’t say placidly, but her ice-chipped words sounded careful as she spoke. I tried to catch them. Would she be proud that I denied myself water, just because I thought my body was prone to leaking? I couldn’t hold 6
any water, my bladder much too small. Two cups and I was headed to the bathroom. Would he be mad I left his water by my bed? That at first I changed it out, but now I leave it there so the water cracks and folds like my tongue? _______________ I want pear juice. And to learn how to twist the wires of a light bulb. Â Â
All those stones
We happened upon Oscar on the first snow of the good winter. We were on that bit of road between Schuller’s and the abandoned barn where everyone went to smoke pot. It was one of those mornings where the earth looks seldom kept, unwarmed and unbothered by human hands, the way a first snow will. Hollis thought he was dead. “Don’t get too close. The smell will make you wish you were dead too,” he said with a sureness that suggested he’d come across thousands of dead bodies. In reality, his parents wouldn’t even let him watch MTV. We all kept inching forward anyway, drawn to Oscar like buzzards. He lay there like a failed beast, a big, broken hulk of a boy, vomit and blood everywhere, breathing like shit—like someone had yanked a lung out of his chest. “What the hell happened?” “Who are you?” “Can you hear us?” “Who did this to you?” The boy at last opened one pale, nearly see-through gray eye and looked at us like he wanted to kill us. To be fair, it’s hard not to look violent with a smashed nose. * * * We lived above the river that would drown my dad. The way the house was perched on a hill, you could climb onto the kitchen window and make a leap for the water if you were desperate enough. “A fool built this house,” said my mother, and besides the problem of the kitchen window it really was a shaky, shoddily built house, though beautiful. Eventually it became a wild creature requiring special care and coercion just to hold together. “Easy, easy,” you crooned on windy days when it threatened to fling its shutters off. Or, 8
“Sleep, sleep,” you shushed when it creaked and stirred uneasily in the night. The most important thing about the house lay beneath the front porch, where one could find a majestic collection of stones. From here I picked my worry stones. I measured the quality of my life by the number of worry stones I carried. During the good winter I only carried two. The first was curved and deep black, with pale flecks of blue on its flat underside. It was for my great aunt Flora, who was dying from dementia, which I thought was strange. How could you die from forgetting? “What a tragedy,” I told my mother as we left our visit at the nursing home one afternoon. “Let’s not get carried away,” said my mother. “Great Aunt Flora is ninety-eight years old. She’s lived a good, long life already. No need to be greedy with one’s years.” The second worry stone—a piece of rough, scorchedred clay—was for the universe, which I’d had the misfortune of learning was rapidly expanding and shrinking at once. It sounded violently chaotic and destined to end in something ugly and empty. I wasn’t sure which was more horrifying—the fact itself, or the pure exuberance with which Mr. Quigley, my eighth-grade physical science teacher, delivered this devastating existential blow. “Eventually,” he said excitedly, forgetting that we were only children, “the universe will collapse in on itself and disappear entirely.” “How do we stop it?” I said, outraged. Now, of course, I can’t recall whether that feeling of ugly emptiness was always there to begin with, quietly waiting to burst to the surface and swallow us whole. * * * Oscar didn’t die. The way he told it, it was because he was a principled person, and he didn’t believe in death. The doctor just said that he hadn’t lost enough blood. Maybe if we’d known Oscar before he got the shit beat out of him and before there was no one to pay the hos9
pital to put him back together—maybe if we’d known Oscar before all that, we’d say, “Boy, he really changed after that.” As it happened, though, the only Oscar we ever knew was the Oscar who could scarcely remember his name and had no recollection of his age or where he was from or who beat the shit out of him—or at least claimed not to. Hollis, Joel, Marnie, and I crowded around his sickbed and fired question after question at which he either shook his head or sighed. I thought suddenly, strickenly, of Great Aunt Flora and said to Oscar, “Forgetting is a kind of terminal illness, you know.” I was already envisioning the underbelly of the porch, mentally selecting a third worry stone. But Oscar assured me, “I haven’t forgotten anything. I just can’t remember it. I’ll know my life when I see it.” But with no family to contact and no identity to confirm, the social worker soon arrived to find a place for him. This quickly proved problematic. “What’s your name?” “Well, I believe it’s Oscar.” “How old are you?” A long pause. Then, “Fifteen or so,” he said thoughtfully. “What happened to you?” “I believe I got my ass kicked, ma’am.” It was hard to trust him with that torn mouth and broken nose and all that thoughtfulness and believing. He was either fifteen, which was a child’s age, or so, which perhaps wasn’t. He couldn’t be put in the children’s home because he might have been a man, and that wouldn’t do at all. None of the town’s foster parents wanted him—he was too old, too violent, and far too ugly. The hospital refused to fix him if there was no one to pay, and so, with his limbs and organs and tissues in varying states of disrepair, they released him. * * * For months afterward, I wished the drowning of my 10
dad had something to do with the fat, dusty books of poetry piled against the wall of his study, or that alarmed way he looked over his newspaper every morning, or even the scuffed-up old boots he refused to throw out—but really, he just couldn’t hold his liquor. He drank too much one night and fell into the river. The morning of it, I found him down in the kitchen, leaning worriedly over the coffee pot and the Times. I was carrying a box. “What’s that you’ve got there?” “Stuff for Oscar’s house.” “Be careful.” My dad said Be careful the way Joel’s Catholic grandmother hailed Mary: reverently, devotedly, and multiple times a day. It served both as a conversation opener, displacing the usual How are you, and a conversation closer, indicating Goodbye. It took me years to realize that he was usually giving you some direction about the trembling old house. As in, be careful, don’t step so heavily. That board’s loose. Or, be careful, don’t move so quickly. Something will fall. “Do you think he was sad?” It was just a day after. There are several things to be done after a man drowns. My mother was flying around the house, banging doors, shouting through the phone, breaking hearts, settling debts, and generally not being careful. “Sad!” she said, yanking her coat from the hook. She was on her way to the funeral parlor. “No. He just had too much to drink, baby. He never could hold his liquor. Can you look after yourself ?” “Yes.” It was an odd and mystifying idea, the idea of not being able to hold one’s liquor. As though liquor was a strange and beautiful monster you wanted to tame but that kept wriggling and thrashing to get out of your arms. Hollis, Joel, and Marnie came clomping up the hill later that afternoon. 11
“Sorry about your dad.” “We’re sorry, Temperance.” “He was really nice.” How to explain to them that I didn’t want apologies, assurances that he was a nice person as though death put a person’s character into question—I just wanted to know why. Why had he been here one day and gone the next? Why so suddenly, so all at once? Why not like Great Aunt Flora, who you could see was dying in pieces? I sighed. “Let’s just go to Oscar’s house.” * * * We called it a house; it was more like a cave, a carvedout piece of rock and earth in the tangle of woods behind Joel’s backyard. We found Oscar blue-lipped and shivering, the way we usually did. No matter how many blankets and sweaters we piled over him, he was impossible to keep warm. There was simply too much of him, sprawling out in every direction. We swore he grew an inch a week that winter. “He’s running out of firewood,” said Hollis. “I’ll get it,” I said. “No.” Hollis looked at me with a firm and unyielding pity. “You shouldn’t have to after what happened to your father.” Oscar frowned. “What happened to your father?” I shook my head. “Couldn’t hold his liquor.” As the January and February weeks wore away into that awful spring, we realized with unease that things weren’t going to be getting much better in terms of Oscar’s face. The bones of his nose hadn’t been set properly and had healed at a strange and unnatural angle. A ragged permanent scar extended up from his jaw and across his right cheek. One afternoon we were walking through town, trying to find his life, when he caught a glimpse of himself in a shop window. “Holy shit,” he said. “Who’s that ugly bastard?” He threw his head back and roared with so much 12
laughter it was hard to believe it was coming from just one boy. People stared, but Oscar was used to it, the way anyone would be used to it if they had eyes like his, eyes that were too beautiful for his face. We tried to find his life on the shoulders of dads carrying kids and in the arms of mothers soothing babies. We looked for it in the sleepy, tree-draped streets of Cornelia and East, and along the midtown bridge so noisy with sea. We strained to hear it in the meandering conversations of grandmas on checkout lines and in the easy laughter of boys on bikes. Occasionally we’d see someone who could maybe be Oscar’s sibling or grandparent or even his mom or dad. Something around the eyes or the mouth, or perhaps the way the voice fell on certain words. Rarely was Oscar as excited as we were. He’d barely give them a glance, a cursory listen, before saying, “Nope.” It seemed the more we went out looking for it, the less interested Oscar became in finding his life. Marnie was the first to lose patience. “You’re not even trying, Oscar.” “I’m doing the best I can.” My pockets sagged with worry stones. A smooth silvery one for the life Oscar didn’t care about finding. A flat skinny black one for the way my mother would no longer look at you but past you. A lumpy white one for the unread newspapers piling our front walk. And a splotchy yellowish brown one for my dad’s old boots, which I’d started wearing and which were heavy and cumbersome and let ice in through the toes. * * * Even though Joel came yelling up the hill like someone had cracked the universe in two, even though the next day we spent hours on our bikes riding up and down the streets calling and calling till our throats hurt, even though we asked every person who would stop if please please, have you seen this boy, he’s called Oscar. I think we had always known deep 13
down that Oscar couldn’t stay, wouldn’t stay, had to leave. So we did our best to make sure that when he did leave, he wouldn’t get his ass kicked again. “Say mercy, Osk!” And one of us would pull him into a headlock, even though we weren’t quite sure how many places he was still broken. Or, “Betcha can’t beat me, Osk.” And one of us would take off running and he’d take off too, even though his lungs were still so tired. Or, “Betcha can’t down five peanut butter and bologna sandwiches in ten minutes, Osk.” Oscar’s mealtimes were heavy affairs. He ate much more slowly than the rest of us, and each small, leisurely chewed bite was accompanied by a deep gaze into space. He never got anywhere, so to bulk him up we convinced him to pretend he was in one of those television eating competitions. It all worked spectacularly. Oscar was getting better at walking, better at breathing, better at everything. He could free himself from Hollis’s steeliest headlocks and dodge Marnie’s most well-placed roundhouse kicks. He could run faster than Joel, the third-fastest kid in the eighth grade, and he could down a whole can of sardines in sixty seconds flat, which included opening the can. His insides were remembering how to keep him warm, and he didn’t shiver nearly as much anymore. He spent less and less time in his house, and it began to feel like a place someone had started to move out of but had stopped halfway. Sometimes we could tell from the stillness of it that he hadn’t been there in days. The Thursday before Oscar left forever, I bumped into him on my way home from school. I was thinking dark thoughts about black holes, which Mr. Quigley had taught us about that day and which were these awful regions of space that not only absorbed but trapped everything around them while managing to reflect nothing. There was a certain dishonesty to black holes. 14
“Look at you, Temperance.” These days when I walked I tried not to look at anything or anyone because my pockets had become so lumpy with stones by then that I physically could not contain any more worries, and so the best strategy was not to find any. It only made sense that I’d bump into Oscar. “Look at yourself, Oscar.” Oscar laughed his thousand-boy laugh. “How are you ever going to get anywhere in those boots, with all those stones?” “Nowhere to get.” “Can I ask you something?” “What?” “What was your dad like?” I opened my mouth and you’d think the words had been piling up for years and years, they came out so fast. “He liked newspapers but sometimes they made him anxious. He wasn’t careful. He wore things until they were falling apart. He loved coffee and he read poetry.” “Huh,” said Oscar, and he patted my shoulder and walked away with such a funny faraway look on his face I swear he saw his life. Did he have a father who read poetry too? A mother who loved coffee? Did they all live in a trembling old house built atop a hill of stones? “Oscar,” I yelled. “Yeah?” “Did you see your life?” He tilted his head to the sky and spread his arms. “I’m looking and looking.” * * * When I got home my mother was working in the garden. The spring was ending. It was getting too warm for coats, and Mom’s berries were bursting from the bushes almost faster than we could eat them. “Mom, can I ask you something?” 15
“What’s that, Tem?” “How am I ever going to get anywhere in these boots, with all these stones?” She smiled her old smile, slow and so wide it nearly split her face in two. “I don’t know, Temperance. You tell me.” I think I’m going to put some of these stones away.
you look charming with a rum and cola in your hand, the ginger but especially the whiskey is ringing in my ears in a warm way and liquid bass shimmers down my throat through my legs a song I hear everywhere taps my feet into the dirty shiny floor and you are still smiling at me my heart is a dark propeller, dripping with wind
Shall I Compare Thee Jacqueline Leahy
Shall Shall Shall Shall Shall I Yesterday was cold and dark in Sumptuous light. Yesterday was Cold in a thin, damp way, the air was Air. The air was heavy as her hair, Heavy, grey, hot, damp. The sweat And the crying sky. Sweat, window— With the lamp on, the light came Thick against the pane, Came, Like love, to the window and We got out of bed. Age in a filter: Dolly at ten Dolly at nine Bicycle girl Bicycle time Winnowing, the years Swinging up, knees knocking Winnowing the years To thin, grey hair, damp as the clouds, Swinging down to knocking knees Desolate and watery. Sweat Driven down. The pots and pans, the upshot steam The sweat, the steam, the desolate “I will make you dinner, Let me make you dinner” Hands clumsy as water, aged— I can take it 18
I can take age—Shiver, where All or none or few do hang, as aged meat. Ache. My hands pass the thyme. Splitting light is anxious, heavy, Damp as flicking lids beneath a Lampshade, anxious and thin, The outside cold and dark As apple’s uncut crust anxious In the dark, it will, in flicking, Die, no dying uncut beneath Uncut outside the lamps without A shade, the streets, so thin Where few do hang are anxious Passing swift lids onto jars Of ache, jars of unshut window Light, lamps unfiltered shock Outdoors—the living in the Thin places, the living in the Shock, the jars, the shock— Isolation grey. Isolation, Envious few in hanging grey love Love of the none, love of the lamp Unstable flickering damp against the pane My love, her hair as grey as the clouds In summer, as grey as the clouds in neat Jars, lamps, pane, the bruised pane In shock, in envy swinging bicycle light Spokes, ten, nine, knocking, knocking Yesterday away like summer’s flicking Lids. The none against the none Into the day, the none comparing Bright to dark to grey, like hanging hair, The none, in potent envy, making Dinner, passing time, isolation, Time will let 19
Will let time Compare I thee, isolation, Day summer I compare. Shall, shall, bright compare thee I Day summer shall compare Thee, bright, I, To summer, To Day In isolated passing. Â
A Family Essay
Every couple of weeks Dad would turn into a Tan Tan Guruag. Most of the time he was an engineer, but every couple of weeks he was a Tan Tan Guruag. The last time it was breakfast. Mom was reading the newspaper while Dad was staring at the bubbles coming up from the water cooler, and it was very quiet. I was eating cereal staring at Dad staring at the bubbles coming up from the water cooler. I could see one come up—a shining membrane tracing its negative space—and he would stare, and then another came up, and I could see his eyes looking at the plains. Breakfast continues for him, but not in the kitchen, on the plains, and he’s not eating eggs anymore, it’s the meat from a lame horse he slaughtered. He looks around the kitchen table, holding a fork full of quivering eggs as if it were a tool and not a utensil, his fist clenched around its handle. He holds it up, arm out, as if ready to stab into the horsemeat in front of him. He looks around the table and says: “We must hurry if we wish to get to Guruag’hai before nightfall. Finish your meal, family.” I can see Mom fighting the urge to sigh and lower her head. In an admirable feat of acting, she looks straight at Dad. She is a Real Estate Agent, and telling people what they want to hear is part of her job. “Of course, husband.” She stands up and puts an arm on his shoulder. “Why don’t you follow me into the other tent?” He swipes her hand away and shouts at her, “Woman! This is no time for love-making! We must make it to Guruag’hai before nightfall if we are to sell the goats!” Shrewdly, Mom replies: “There’s a sick goat that needs to be put down over here, and I can’t do it. I’m a woman.” Dad looks vacantly ahead and eats his forkful of 21
eggs. Still chewing ponderously, ignoring the flakes of egg on his lip, he says, “Of course…” He jumps up and shouts in a deep voice, “Show me the goat, woman! I shall slaughter it and save our herd!” Mom leads him to the guest room across the hall and locks the door behind him, which he does not notice. I hear a muffled, “Aha! Here is the goat! Watch me woman!” followed by a sound that I suspect his Dad punching the pillow several times. Mom sits down and says nothing, but I know she is trying not to think too much. For the next few hours the sound of serious conversation will make its muffled way through the door, and we will hear about how important it is to keep an eye on the dog when he is near the goats, how one of the tribe is drinking too much mead and fighting, how cold it is in the morning when the frost hasn’t lifted. In a few hours more we will hear the sound of snoring, and then Mom will quietly unlock the door, and Dad will emerge, and we are not to discuss it. In school, we are learning American history. It is November, so we are studying the first Thanksgiving, when the Indians and the Colonists stopped fighting each other and were thankful for what they had. I am in suspension reading the assigned text, because I gave another kid a black eye. He deserved it, but I suppose it wasn’t very Thanksgiving-ly of me. I could smell smoke and whiskey when I stared up at the hairs on my father’s upper lip, red and translucent, camouflaged against his skin. The small dog that lives next door will not stop barking. The bits of glass are shining bright white and the water is still dripping off of the table. I am in suspension for breaking a glass. I am writing an essay on what I am thankful for for Thanksgiving. I write about the nature preserve that Dad and Mom take us to every couple of weeks. We walk Rocko there. Rocko is our dog. Mom says he is so named because his fur is grey like a rock and Mom was obsessed with Rococo at 22
the time and the color of the dog’s fur and the word Rococo were shaken up in her mind like a martini and she came up with the name Rocko, to which Dad had replied, that’s funny honey, more amused by his little rhyme than Mom’s description. I like the nature preserve the best when it is winter time, or just very cold. I like to step on the ice that forms where the puddles used to be on the dirt path, and I like how the light is reflected off the lake that lies on the eastern side of the path. We go early in the morning, so the lake catches the sunrise. Rocko is rolling in the snow. “Look at that boy,” says Dad. “He looks happier than a pig in the mud.” Dad smiles and squints at the sun, which is only the sun that hangs above the earth. We move on, not minding that Rocko is still rolling around, because he eventually notices that we have moved on and excitedly leaps through the snow drifts to catch up, either unaware of or unconcerned about the path of much shallower snow which we and other pedestrians use to walk around the lake. We get about halfway around the lake when I notice Rocko is looking at something. Mom and Dad are ahead of me, so I call to them. “Come on now,” Dad says, although I am unsure whether he is speaking to me or to the dog. Neither of us answer him, because Rocko is moving off the path now and I am staring at Rocko, trying to see what he sees. Rocko makes investigative sniffing noises—the sharp and abrupt ones that mean a dog is looking for something. I move a few feet off of the path and all of a sudden a man pops into view. He was behind a tree before, but now I see him. Rocko nudges his face and he groans and rolls around in the snow, clutching his head. Dad grabs me by the arm and pushes me back, and Mom holds onto me. “Come on Rocko, come on. What are you doing here? It’s 40 degrees out, did you sleep here?” Dad sounds angry. There are plastic bottles surrounding the man, and he 23
wears a parka covered in vomit. “You’ve got to help me,” says the man. His voice is hoarse and sounds gurgly, as if he had drowned but could still talk. “I hurt my hand, man, help.” The man lifts up his hand, which is covered in blisters and partially blackened. “Jesus,” says Dad. “Jesus, come on guys, get back.” He pushes me and Mom back, and Rocko follows. Dad keeps pushing us back until we can’t see the man any more, and he keeps looking back. “Jesus,” he says. Dad pulls out a cell phone and calls the police. He says he saw a vagrant and that he ran away. We meet the police officer at the entrance to the lake, and I stomp on the frozen puddles that are made by the pooling water in the divots in the path while Mom and Dad talk to the police officer. We go home early that day, but on other days we usually walk for longer, and I am thankful that we go for walks at the lake then. Mom went to visit her sister in Boston. She says she will be back toute-de-suite, which I think means soon, which is good, and she also told me to look after Dad, which I think means locking him in the guest bedroom sometimes. I click a red brick onto the mast of the ship I am building. The carpet in the living room is the best for Legos, I think, since it is dark and most Lego bricks are brightly colored, so it is easier to avoid stepping on forgotten pieces since I can pick them up after I am finished, which I always do, and Dad is watching me on the couch, too, so I won’t forget. He was doing sudoku on the coffee table, but I think it was too difficult for him, and now he is slouched on the couch watching me, with his chin on his chest, breathing loudly out of his mouth and it is distracting. Like Dad’s sudoku, the directions in the pamphlet are difficult to follow. “Hey Dad?” I ask. “Could you please breathe quieter, please?” Dad takes a minute to respond, and continues to breathe and stare at me while he considers. “I could,” he says. I am unsure of what he means by this, and so I look 24
back at him blankly, in a way which indicates my own confusion. He closes his mouth, swallows the growing puddle of drool which had accumulated behind his teeth. He looks to the side, and pushes himself up. “Sorry about that kiddo.” He listens to the clock on the wall, while I look back at my directions. I dislike the suggested color brick that the people at Lego want me to put down, and so I surreptitiously put a blue brick on top of the red brick which is on top of the mast. I ignore the fact that Dad has put his elbows on his knees and is now leaning forward, in a way which suggests scrutiny. “You’re always playing with those things,” he says with a drawl, despite my lack of eye contact. “What’s so fun about them? They’re only plastic anyhow.” “They’re like the puddles,” I say as I carefully select the next appropriately colored brick from an organized pile. “What?” “At the lake, they’re like the frozen ice puddles. They snap when you push on them.” He stares at me with one eye cocked and the other one squinting, mouth again open and breath again loud. “Jesus.” He breathes the word rather than says it. He cracks a smile and says to me, “What is going on in that head of yours kiddo?” He laughs, lifts himself up, and relocates to the kitchen with his soduko. In ten or fifteen minutes, I will be able to smell the cinnamon-scented candles which Mom has strategically placed around the living room, which she occasionally lights, and I will no longer smell the strangely smoky smell that surrounds my father. Since Mom is visiting Boston, Dad picks me up from school. He says that we are going to go grocery shopping. I like the grocery store because it is white and clean and arranged into rows of brightly colored cereal boxes, like brightly colored Lego bricks, which are like puddles of ice because they snap when you push on them. Pond, living room, grocery 25
store, I think to myself. Pond, living room, grocery store. In the grocery store, Dad holds a box of Trix and a box of Lucky Charms in each hand. He looks back and forth at them. The hum of the air conditioner and the fluorescent light bulbs in the store strike a harmony together, sometimes oscillating out of sync but then coming back together in a way that is thrilling. Dad’s eyes stare at the boxes of cereal and they widen, in fear or in wonder. The air conditioning and the fluorescent light bulbs oscillate together, and he is not in the grocery store. Dad drops the cereal boxes and tells me, “Come child.” He walks briskly to the meat aisle and I have to run to keep up. He grabs the cart of a lady dressed in purple who says, “Hey! What are you doing!” as if it wasn’t clear what he was doing at all. Dad ignores her and grabs a bunch of packaged meats and throws them into the cart. He turns around and stares straight ahead, muttering to himself about “supplying food” for his family. He walks down the cleaning aisle and stops, backs up, and eyes a mop. After a few seconds, he grunts to himself in approval. The purple dressed lady is talking to an employee of the store. Dad picks up the mop and holds it upright. The employee walks up to Dad with a confused and angry look on his face. Dad is walking away. The employee says, “Sir, what do you think you are doing?” as he grabs Dads shoulder. Dad grunts in surprise, swings around and whacks him with the mop. He shouts, “I AM SUPPLYING FOOD FOR MY FAMILY!” He shouts and swings wildly at the now confused and frightened employee, and I am laughing at Dad and at the employee. After he swings a few more times and grunts assertively,he and I run towards the exit of the store. I can barely keep up but he is holding my hand and I am laughing because this is fun and good, and I think that I like the Tan Tan Guruag.
Ancestors: A Self-Portrait
I. Death Work Cohoes, N.Y. 1966 My Pipere used to work for the dead— aligned their clothes, painted their faces for their bright futures. His six children would sometimes sneak into his office—shut off all the lights and dare each other to get closer and closer to his customers. The bravest child once placed a single fingertip over the casket and onto a customer’s dark blue burial suit. They were always poor, my Pipere and his six children. I wonder if it was because they had off-put the customers with their dares, if that’s why the dead never paid well. II. Born & Learning Femme & Butch, Buffalo, N.Y. 1940-1950 I am born in a gash. In screaming they took 27
your lover away &I am born. My fetus made of your saltwater, her face slammed into blue. I learn desire in the space where your heart used to live. Writhing in the silence between stitches ripped open by the teeth of a bashed in door, to the backroom. Where the howl of your sweat demands to know if she remembered her three assigned articles. Your touch no longer a roadsign on an empty highway---your touch a punctured tire. III. Mimere Coxsackie, N.Y. 2009 The cardinals sometimes ask if I am happy & I give fallen acorn answers, I do not know how they could ask that of me when we sleep in the same forest.
Mimere, like the cardinals you have secrets of living I do not know how to ask for. IV. Whale Trans*, Lost As whales, the lampreys drag our carcasses to ocean floor. With vigour we are eaten. I found a crescent of your tissue. You do not smell like the ocean.
The Frustrated Poet Is Diana Babineau
a child squatting in the cold, hardening dirt of a graying garden, jar at hand, searching. It is dull, most days. He spends his mornings turning and turning over the earth. Impatient fingers find loose pebbles, or occasionally a listless beetle rises up, and the petty fly drifts in. But these wonâ€™t do for his collection. By evening, his knees ache. His jar, empty, rests nearby. Only some days is he that lucky child who thinks to roll the unnoticed stone away, revealing a hole, shallow, where there lies the sleek scarlet salamander with the onyx eyes. 30
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Bedford-Stuyvesant Summer Triptych Anna Meister
I. (busted fire hydrant) Hottest day of July so far, they say. Say you could cook your breakfast right here on the sizzling sidewalk. These old women sit in folding chairs behind black iron gates & mop their beading foreheads with flowered handkerchiefs. The ice-cream truck rolls down the block, its plunking notes captured by the concrete valley. The children squirm with delight. Better lick it up quick. Don’t you dare come in this house with your fingers stuck together. The children shoot each other with water guns whose spit barely grazes the elbow. Then the young voices ask for me, call my name so sweet. A little help & I sing, split open like a giggle escaping the throat, raining down in sheets. I lick every salted thing, soaking cotton through to skin. See my rainbows reflected on blacktop puddles & every palm up & open, praise. II. (brownstone stoop) Call me resting place. Where the patchy, rib-close cat stops to stretch her curving back. I’ve got knobby knees & long grandfather legs. Come sit on my lap. Big trees lean & shade me with their leaf manes. Call me neighborhood watch. Watch me watch the Bed-Stuy boys run with their shiny heads, the crude words that don’t fit their mouths mimicked from the corner. I can see it all from here. Call me bartender. Crack open a brew. Listen to the soup of sounds on Nostrand: church 32
bells, exhale of truck, & grind of sidewalk drill. Hiss of burgers grill on the saucer to my left. Call it a block party. Call me a host. Add some sparklers, racing feet. Steel drums & Hip-Hop meet. All of us out here, family. Proud & ancient, with some boarded up brothers in between. III. (broken bottle) I was once something whole. & now, I am spread wide like the nightâ€™s shouting, like the voice of the man who held me, all bulging knuckle, as I held the malt liquor, let it beat against my insides like an angry sea. How green I glowed in the streetlight, & how I gave the man all that I had. How we kissed & for a moment, everything fell silent. How he wiped the foam from his dry lips & then, how I flew, past the trucks & bodies & bright buzzing signs. The sound I made, clean & high, one for the dogs. The contact with brick & pavement, the shards of spit I have become. Come morning, I will be shop owner swept or kicked by young feet, each gnarled tooth facing the sky.
The rain is coming down slow in the orchard. A lot of rain, but light rain, a falling mist. My window is under the gutter and I can only hear the fall of the thick drops from the gutter’s holes. An irregular rhythm, like an uncertain child clapping her hands. Everything else in the world is silent. The apples fall noiselessly into the grass. The grass wilts noiselessly into the dirt. Far over the hill, I see the pines shifting and creaking in the wind, but I am too far away to hear them. I am sitting at my kitchen table on my favorite stool, drinking bitter orange tea, my husband’s gift from Wales. I am wearing blue slippers and grey sweatpants. I am sixty-one this December. My hair is falling out in the shower and my hands look like my mother’s hands. I am waiting to break a man’s heart. A young man, poor and brilliant. I am wealthy and I have always been wealthy. I was an only child. My childhood home had four bedrooms and a study that once was a bedroom as well. The wallpaper in each room was a different shade of green. That mansion (townhouse) was taller and stricter than this mansion (farmhouse), but they are both empty on Sundays in September. My parents were research microbiologists. Even though you could have fit every organism they studied on a postage stamp, their job-lives felt enormous. We were always going places. South America, especially Peru. France. Once, rural Thailand. I don’t remember if traveling was actually part of their job or if I only told my friends that, to seem less strange. It’s just a business trip, I said. I’m only going because they don’t trust me staying alone at home. My husband has children, but they were grown old before I met them, so in this house I am still an only child. In this house, I am trusted to stay home alone. 34
My husband is also a scientist (entomology), as is Joseph (who believes that we are finally going to take a walk alone). Joseph reads thick books of mathematics, sciencefiction, engineering. He once told me that if you close your eyes and imagine stapling together the boundaries of two three-dimensional spheres, you can imagine a sphere in four dimensions. I cannot keep both spheres still while imagining this—they keep moving away from each other into space. But Joseph can imagine things in many dimensions. He says seeing a four-dimensional sphere is like seeing a movie in color. I am the only person I know who is not a scientist. I once had friends in the city who painted murals and ran cash registers and raised children, but I could no longer recognize their faces in a crowd. My parents are dead, but somehow they are still scientists in death. Their ashes are dust in thousands of beakers and cylinders by now. Of all the people who have died in my life they seem the most— There is a knock on the mudroom door. Out the window I see Joseph in profile, raindrops coalescing on the brim of his hat and letting go. His peacoat hangs open and I see that he is wearing all the same clothes he wore last Friday. I think they are the only matching things he owns. (Belt, shirt, pants, shoes; grey, blue, black, grey.) As if he has heard my thoughts, he turns to my window, then runs over, lanky, and puts his face to the glass. We stick out our tongues together. His breath on the window grows a wet halo. I let Joseph in the mudroom door. He says he’s missed me. (It has only been a week.) I say that I have missed him as well. He takes off his coat and throws it on the radiator. I tell him that he should have come in the front. No one’s home, I say. He says he knew I’d be here, and the front door is awfully far away. I say I always hear the doorbell. (This is another lie.) He says it’s disgusting weather for a walk. I say, all the better for it. We stick out our tongues again. Joseph is twenty-six years old, the son of farmers. His 35
hair is the color of new potting soil. Many months ago, I saw him writing furiously on a public bench, sometimes looking up and hoping for the passing women to ask what he was writing. I watched from across the street, holding my grocery bags in a bundle in front of my chest. When no one else was in sight, I went to him. I asked. He said (like a punchline to a joke he had been waiting to shout all day) not a novel! I am certain this is the first time we met but Joseph does not remember it. He says, tea first? I say, I can’t stand another minute in this place. I bend down to take off my slippers, but Joseph drops to his knees before me. I lift up m right foot, delicate. He takes the slipper with both hands and puts it in his lap. Now the left foot. He holds this foot in one hand. Under his long, white fingers I see my foot like a charred log. He looks up at me, winks, says, my lady. He thinks these sentimental gestures are flattering. He gets up, brushing off his pants, and I put on my Wellingtons. He puts his coat back on. (I touch the sleeve. He doesn’t notice. It’s barely warm.) He tells me he’s had a brilliant idea that I must know about immediately. I tell him to wait until we get to the pines. He knows how my neighbors overhear. In the orchard the rain has stopped and the water on the grass feels like late afternoon dew. I have not picked apples the last few days, and the field smells like a clean cider rot. The sky and the clouds are layers of blue best expressed in watercolor paintings, not photographs. I step on an apple core and it surprises me. When I was a child, even the corpses of fruit made me feel gross and sad. If I look at the gras,s I can see the worms coming out of the ground, and everywhere I step I am cutting them in half. When we get to the pines, Joseph lets out a whoop. No, don’t be embarrassed, he says, I could be anyone alone. 36
And that hill is so tense! Don’t you feel tense walking there? Like you are going invisible through a bears’ den. How can you live next to such shitty people? I’m sure you hate your neighbors. I say that my neighbors are very easy to hate, which makes me feel like I shouldn’t hate them. Joseph tells me I am always this contrary. I tell Joseph that I am trying to be a more empathetic person. Joseph says, O Isabelle! You don’t need more empathy. This is why I love you. A crow flies over the pines, a black and borderless shape. We both look up. I am struck by the loveliness of Joseph’s posture, the way he leans back from his hips, his belly making a small, perfect arc, the tendons in the muscle of his arm as he brings it up to his eyes. He turns to me, like he is waiting for me to speak. I am about to tell him, I am going to tell him, I will be kind, I know I will be kind— Joseph says, about that spaceship! I say, how did I know you were going to tell me about a spaceship. Joseph says, I thought of it just for you. I spent a whole hour and a half sitting in my kitchen and thinking it. I say, do you have diagrams? Joseph says, no, as soon as I thought it up I came over. I couldn’t wait. I tell Joseph he knows I don’t know anything about spaceships. Just what you tell me. I can’t imagine anything. Joseph says, What about a library? This is how Joseph says we met: He was in third floor of the big library in town, the one next to the school. It was late evening in July (the night of my husbands birthday, in fact). The third floor of the library was all one room, where they keep the ugly books. There was a staircase on one end and a broken elevator on the other, and between them these rows of gunmetal shelves bolted to the wall, like prisoners 37
in the hull of a ship. The carpet was grey and thick. Joseph was the only person who ever went to the third floor of the library. He would take off his shoes and leave them on a shelf (“Biographies Cont: J”). For a momen,t he’d hang there, barefoot, saturating himself with the light and air in his secret domain. And then: he paced. This is part of Joseph’s talent. Alone, for hours. Up and down the row between the books. Time stopped in that place. Joseph went to the third floor of the library every day last summer. The schoolchildren began whispering that there was a ghost. But that evening (when I was sitting quiet at a bar forty miles away, with my husband and his children and his sisters and his mother), when Joseph reached the top of the library stairs and, slipping off his shoes, stepped into his grey, dust-soft world, he was not alone. Standing in front of the elevator, he saw a smooth pale shape in a green dress, holding an umbrella. For an instant he was struck cold and violated, then he could feel his heartbeat in his neck. It was like seeing the ghost of someone vitally important but who he couldn’t quite name. Joseph said, how did you get in here? The woman said, the same way as you. Joseph and the woman looked at each other for a long, long time. Joseph says now he’d never seen a person as beautiful. Joseph says he almost kissed me then. Joseph is almost finished describing the spaceship. He says, and that’s how it would stay aloft. And maintain internal gravity, too. Rotating slowly. I say, it would just have room for one person? He says, yes. One person. Surrounded by books, where beautiful Isabelle ought to be. I think it will (finally) make you happy. I tell Joseph he doesn’t know me as well as he would like to imagine. We are nearly half a mile into the pines. Here the ground is wet with needles and bulbous with black-bark roots. There is no other life here. Even the daylight dismisses this place. Large rocks are scattered between the trees like 38
frozen animals. I shift my weight back and forth. We are facing each other. Joseph puts his hands on my shoulders. He tells me that I am exceedingly difficult to know. (He winks when he says this. How like a scientist!) I tell Joseph that he should start writing the spaceships down and selling the ideas to movie companies. Joseph says he doesn’t want to go to movie companies he wants them to be a secret for me. Joseph says he thought I knew that the spaceships were just for me. I tell Joseph that his hands are heavy and that it is making my shoulders hurt. Joseph keeps his hands on my shoulders. He says, why do you keep looking behind me? I say, Joseph, I don’t. Don’t be stupid. Joseph says, is this about sex? I step back from him and push his left hand off. His face is suddenly alien and fearful to me, like a face in the bark of a tree or the crack of a bathroom tile. Joseph says, I don’t need to have sex with you, Isabelle. It’s okay. I want you to know that. I say, Joseph— Joseph says, can I hold you though? Just hold you in my arms? It doesn’t have to be sexual at all. We don’t have to kiss with tongue. We don’t even have to kiss at all. I say, Joseph, I don’t think we need to talk about this. Joseph says, I don’t need sex, Isabelle, I’m not like other people. I never need it. I say, Joseph, I really don’t want to hear this. Joseph says, but it matters! I want you to know that I respect you. I say, I don’t care, just stop. Joseph says, you’re just so I say, please don’t say Joseph says, you have to listen to I say, no I don’t and Joseph says, but Isabelle I 39
I say, no you don’t I say, you should stop talking now I say, maybe we should altogether stop But we don’t walk away from each other, then. We keep standing there, his hand on my shoulder like a cable carrying electricity between two towers. Distant birds crackle in the pines. The pines sink, slowly, deeper into the ground. The whole world looms down to us. Joseph tells me I’m confused. He pulls me into an embrace—our first. (It is different than I imagined, there is the smell of mold.) I tell him, ok. He says, before you make up your mind, let me show you. I consent. We walk deeper into the forest. Joseph holds my hand. We pass the sandstone bench that marks the end of my property. When my husband bought this land, he thought that his first wife (a poet) would write here, in the slanting sunlight. He does not, now, remember the titles of her poem,s but he knows that she was lovely writing them. He no longer comes to this bench to remove the leaves and dirt. He has fewer pretensions about my life. This is comforting, in a way. When we pass the edge of the property there is no discernible change. The pines are cold. The day is grey. The ground is soft, empathetic. We reach the bottom of a hill. I feel as if I am standing before a cathedral hand-hewn from rock. My hand is sweating but Joseph never sweats. He turns to me. He looks into my eyes so deeply he cannot see any other part of my face or body and my vision goes blurry. He tells me there’s nothing to be afraid of. On top of the hill, in the center of a clearing, we find it. Small, to fit one person. Letting out a low hum. Rotating like an egg in water. Like seeing a movie in color. 40
Joseph often tells me he wants to watch me read books because I get so involved. It’s true, when I’m reading, a person can shout FIRE! and I won’t hear. Joseph wants me to read books because he thinks I empathize with them in a way he cannot. I would like to live in his world of me. Listen: I don’t feel anything when I read books. I can remember the stories and the characters but they are as transient and voiceless as clouds. I bring the back of Joseph’s hand to my lips. I bite it. Hard. The rain is starting up slow on the ship’s hull.
from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses’’ Patricia Hartland I. mother would lean over my sugary half-sleep whisper things I would come to know, like how to please a husband (good, mountain silence) or how to take love. I must have forgotten there were other advices II. tender this word tender is new: having a delicacy of youth or to stretch olive oil is tender the earliest yellow gleams like my son’s arms as they seek my neck its own softness yes they are 42
tender, too but what else? what else? III. and from some place other the gods reach my limbs brush from them an orange aching where now sprout feathers IV. I count tiles on the floor dress undress lift a cup of rose petal tea to my parted lips the sunâ€™s fiery chariot gives way to constellations great bear archer I wait for his voice to steal my name mother! mother! he steals my name where did he go? where does he hide?
The Go Ahead
Nik Shumer-Decker Inside the base, Daniel Harris works alone in one trailer in a line of many. His pilot uniform is pulled down to his waist and the sleeves are tied. He sits in a brown leather chair, facing an arcade of high-definition screens. It’s 0130 hours Nevada time, which means it’s 1030 hours on the Pakistan border. To his right, an empty brown leather chair faces an identical work station. They are short staffed this week, so although it is technically against protocol, Harris has been operating alone for the past six hours. Harris has seen hideous things on the screens and been responsible for some of them. Now and then, he hears animal noises coming from the open desert. Harris looks down to plot coordinates for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that is flying over the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, then returns his attention to the screens. In the semi-dark of the trailer, the screens light up his face and torso. The high definition image is crisp and detailed and can seem distorted, sharper than the world unmediated and deceptive. Off and on for the last five days, Harris has been tracking a single target. During that time, he has observed the target in humanizing contexts: eating, interacting with his family, buying food from a market, but, for the most part, the target has been tucked away in a gray concrete compound. Hour after hour, Harris has observed the same square, flat roofed building from the perspective of a circling UAV. Most likely, the target will be killed but the higher ups are waiting to see if he goes anywhere interesting first. Those are his captain words, wait for the go-ahead, see if he goes anywhere interesting. Harris hears a door bang, deep voices and erratic laughter as the technician in trailer three is relieved from his shift. Trailer three is operated almost exclusively by new 44
operators: pale boys who stick together and share inside jokes from the worlds of gaming and cyber attack, where they got their start. Soon, Harris will be relieved from his shift and forced to drive home. He has become increasingly nervous around his wife and two young sons. Harris worries that the “go-ahead” might come down the chain while he is gone, when Justin or another operator is at the controls. He is a professional, and he has never hesitated to initiate a strike when ordered to. But he has been watching this one for a while. No one in the target’s life has ever observed him as diligently as Harris has. None of the other drone operators have spent as much time with this target. When the command comes down, Harris would like to be the one who presses the button. He thinks that would be best. For the first half of the past year, lethal force was authorized conservatively. Since then, the number of strikes ordered each week has changed from month to month, susceptible to election cycles, political winds, ghosts and demons in the economic machine. Recently, Legal has relaxed the burden of proof. One lawyer reviews every case and gives the go ahead before a mission can continue. He works in D.C. in a large office overlooking the cubicles of lesser lawyers, like a foreman keeping watch on the shop floor. He is a big man, brilliant, insanely driven, known to threaten his staff when they make mistakes and brag wryly that he is singlehandedly responsible for making assassinations legal. Or so Harris has heard. The two have never met. These days, Harris’s base alone is carrying out three or four strikes per week. Unlike some of the younger operatives, Harris once piloted B-52’s over Baghdad, dropping ordnance on munitions factories, train stations—who knows what—they never told him. He floated in the night a mile above the clouds. The stars were like nothing he had ever seen. When he was over his target, the radar system automatically released the plane’s 45
weapons soundlessly into the perfect dark below. Relief is on time as always. Harris works with Justin, a skittish and strange young operator whose background is in cyber defense and the programming of combat flight simulators. To Harris, all the young operators seem like aliens created on the internet, then birthed into this world fully formed. He remembers one thing Justin told him in particular. Want to know a secret? I’m a programmer so I know. The drone program is just a video game with no real world component. It keeps us from feeling restless even though we’re completely impotent these days. They might cancel it. Everyone still feels impotent. Then he had laughed, that’s what they call a coping mechanism, and he laughed again, no more or less ironically than the first time. But what did he mean? What was a coping mechanism? Out in the parking lot, he stalls before opening the door to his truck. Harris leaves through the front gate and begins his drive home. In the nighttime desert, he imagines ghouls and shape shifters, women with no tongues or hands or eyes. Harris has never told his wife that hell creatures live in the desert. They feed on each other, when there is no one else to feed on, and their coyote shrieks carry across the plains. The headlights illuminate his path home, and Harris feels calm in his truck because nothing is asked of him while he drives,but nervous because he cannot drive forever. He would like drink and stay up late before finally passing into a sleep without dreams, like he used to. But there are others in the house now and he must act a certain way around them. At home, he tiptoes into the bedroom and curls up with his back facing his sleeping wife. He wakes up at dawn and climbs gingerly out of bed to use the bathroom. When he gets back in bed, Harris listens to his wife Rachel’s breathing and wonders if she is asleep or just pretending to be asleep. He wakes a second time in an empty bed at 0900 hours. It’s Sunday, so when he goes downstairs, his two sons are huddled in front of the family’s PC 46
and Rachel is reading on the couch. She rises to kiss him on the mouth. In the corner of the living room, Harris’s ten year old son Zach plays The Sims and his seven-year-old Jonah looks on. After getting coffee, Harris sits at the dining room table. He watches Zach puts his Sim family in a swimming pool, then remove the ladders. Harris has seen his sons do this before. When a Sim drowns, a cartoonish ghost floats off its dead body and off screen. Harris once asked Zach why he killed his own Sim families. Zach had shrugged and said there was not much else to do with them. Both boys sit cross legged in their chairs, hunched toward the screen. Zach talks quietly, and Jonah sometimes nods. Harris has to go to Jonah’s soccer game later in the day. It would be strange if he didn’t but he dreads sitting exposed in the bleachers. Zach stays at the house while the rest of the family goes to the game. They have only recently decided that it is okay for him to be home alone. Harris sits with Rachel in the back row of the bandstands, wearing an old baseball cap and sunglasses. It’s actually pretty nice to be outside. Harris likes his son and likes watching him, as Jonah runs around and tries to kick the ball with the other seven-year-olds. Down the metal bleachers, other parents sit together and cheer moderately for their children. At one point, Rachel stops watching the game and her hand moves as if to touch Harris’s leg or hand but does not. She has been asking him, are you okay?, more and more recently and it terrifies Harris every time although he does not know why. On the soccer field there is little strategy, just running and kicking. Please don’t ask, Harris silently begs. The game ends in a tie, zero to zero. When the game ends and all the parents begin to collect their children, Harris has a change of heart. He would like his wife to check in, ask how he is feeling, but they are already climbing down the bleachers and it is too late. Harris tells his son he played well while they walk 47
to the car. The baseball field shares a parking lot with a Home Depot. At the center of the lot, three men are loading something into a jeep. From above, it would be hard to tell whether it was a fertilizer bomb or just fertilizer for farming. For a moment, Harris is angry at these three men. Don’t they know what this looks like? Why aren’t they more cautious? Then he hears his son carefully ask for ice-cream. “I was wondering if it might be possible to stop at Friendly’s.” Where did he learn to talk like that? Harris wonders. He watches the jeep glide across the parking lot, turn left out onto the main road, and then disappear from sight. At Friendly’s, Harris gets a mint chocolate chip cone, his son gets a sundae and Rachel does not get anything. The ice cream is sweet and nice in Harris’s mouth although a little too cold. He has never been the kind of person who can bite into a cone without hurting his teeth, so he licks and slurps at it, trying to keep dribbles from falling in his lap. It’s a fifteen minute drive to the house; located in a suburb half populated by military folk. Their community stands out at the edge of the plains, all new and pre-fabbed houses that look like models in a sand box when viewed from above. When they pull into the driveway, Harris is struck by how strange his house looks in daylight. Back at the base, there is a small dry erase board in each trailer with days since an industrial accident permanently written at the top and the number of days written in Sharpie underneath. The previous night, the number of days had been up to thirty but it is back to one when Harris returns to relieve Justin at 1900 hours. Justin is at the controls and looks like he was born to operate through screens. He wears a shirt of his own design. On it, the words The Zipper Project appear above an image of a yellow smiley face with a closed zipper for a smiling mouth. Justin once told Harris that he was pushing the “the zipper project” as the unofficial insignia of the base and was already selling “the zipper project” T-shirts to 48
new operators like proverbial hot cakes. There was an accident in trailer four, Justin tells Harris. A kill order came down with jumbled coordinates, and the operator who carried out the order fired three hellfire missiles into what basically ended up being a school for young men. Somewhere around twenty people killed, they estimate, but it is impossible to know since most of the bodies are now in pieces. After the strike, they monitored the scene throughout the day. The locals dug bits of the bodies they could find out of the ruble and gathered them in a pile. A line was formed, and each family that lost a son received an allotment of flesh—a foot, a hand, a clump of skin and cloth fused together by the heat of the explosion—to take home and bury. “…totally like Apocalypse Now-type horrible,” Justin says looking back over his shoulder at Harris. After a pause, Justin says, “I didn’t see any heads…” seemingly to himself. Then to Harris, “luckily, they were all combatants.” All young men are counted as combatants, Harris knows, so the collateral damage stats will not be affected. Harris does not know when Justin is being serious. He feels stupid and angry. Does Justin actually care about stats, or is he enacting some kind of mordant and sarcastic critique of the drone program. Harris feels that there is no way for him to know. After bringing Harris up to speed, Justin leaves the trailer, presumably to drive home, and Harris takes his seat in front of the screens. The kill order has not yet come. The target is home, somewhere inside his light gray compound. Harris could turn on the drones thermal imaging system and locate him exactly, but as of yet, it is not operationally necessary. It is a great comfort for Harris to be back in his trailer and alone. He wonders if the target also enjoys being inside, or whether he feels like a prisoner. Outside, the sun has set. On the plains, Harris knows demons and werewolves and half-dead witch doctors come out at dusk. They materialize slowly in the half-light, only 49
shadows, suggestions and holograms, but by night they are fully formed. Driven by a hunger for something that cannot exist in this world, they wander lost, mumbling to themselves. Harris does not speak of these creatures to anyone. They are his secret, and they belong to a world Harris feels he can hold onto and understand. In the trailer at night, scanning in highdef a town on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Harris feels safe. Two hours into Harris’s shift the target leaves the compound. Harris watches him get into an old Toyota pickup truck with two bodyguards, one of whom begins driving north. The pilot switches the predator drone to manual control and follows the vehicle as it moves through the village, passing flat brown and gray buildings on both sides. He focuses the camera on the truck and increases the zoom. Harris has seen this truck parked outside the compound before. It is compact and dust stained, with high suspension and a souped up engine. Past the village, the truck moves along hilly dirt roads snaking out and away and Harris keeps the UAV above and behind it. Fifteen minutes pass and Harris no longer recognizes the terrain and the road the truck is travelling is not on any of Harris’s charts or maps. During training, Harris’s captain once told him that people for the most part do not accurately map or understand the lay out of their own environments. The issue had to do with imaging, he had said, by which he meant training and point of view. People lived in subjective worlds with emotional associations, codes of behavior, private, public and secluded areas, unmemorable alleys, worlds filled with symbolic and allegorical meaning, breathtaking views. As operators, the captain had said, they would all learn how to see an environment objectively, as an abstract shape. As his captain spoke, Harris had been reminded of the trailer park at the edge of the small rural town where he had grown up. It had been hidden from Main Street by a thin outcropping of trees. Even 50
though it was only a few hundred yards from the route he took to school, Harris had not known the trailer park existed until he happened to meet someone who lived there. The real art and advantage of piloting a UAV is the ability to see an environment more objectively and more fully than any local. It seemed impossible to Harris that the target’s truck could navigate this terrain better than Harris could. The truck leaves the road, scrambles over hills of solid gray and black rock, then across dusty valleys, sparsely dotted with green shrubs. After driving for forty-five minutes, it turns onto a road headed northeast. Harris sees the outcropping of hovels before anything else, clumped and scattered along the ridge on both sides of the road. Many are partially comprised of tattered plastic tarps, half-tents and half-shacks. Harris keeps the camera panned out, in part because he doesn’t want to lose track of the truck and in part because he doesn’t want to see. On the other side of the ridge, a massive garbage dump spreads across the valley, for almost a mile in every direction. The truck stops at a gate before entering the trash fields. At the center of the valley, a heap of trash stretches up almost as high as the mountainous ridge that surrounds it on all sides. Past the gate, the road becomes paved and runs across the trash fields and then spirals up the trash mountain ending in what looks like a parking lot at the mountain’s summit. From high above, the dump looks to be comprised uniformly of mud and confetti. Harris zooms in on the rolling hills of disintegrating plastic and cardboard, some of the waste is in plastic bags and some of it loose. Even zoomed in, it is hard to distinguish single objects: the dump has been picked clean of anything remotely usable. The truck stops at the gate only a moment before the gate lifts and the truck continues across the fields of trash and then begins its spiraling assent. Whoever is working the gate is obscured from above, but Harris is able see the figures scattered and 51
clumped throughout the open expanse scavenging in the waste like farmers of old. Harris is not sure he can trust what he sees. He has heard of hackers, glitches and tricks in the network, digital breakdowns and crossed wires. One pilot who had been tracking a high priority target began to see footage of his own hometown, shot from above, spliced into his feed. That’s the story, at least. The truck stops at the top of the mountain. The driver stays in the car while the target and one of his bodyguards get out, climb down a small path on one side of the mountain and then disappear inside. Everything seen by the drone’s glass camera eye is recorded and filed on base. Harris pilots the UAV in a wide circle to avoid being spotted and studies the trash mountain’s surface. During the two hours the target spends inside the mountain, Harris finds and notes down two entrances he is sure of and one which he is not. Trash pickers avoid these doorways. Eyes down, they skirt in wide arcs to avoid them on their zigzagging paths up and down the mountain. The drone’s eye is trained on the wrong side of the mountain when the target and his bodyguard emerge and get back into the pickup, which pulls out immediately and begins its journey back to the compound. Noting the time stamp, Harris marks the last three hours of footage for review by his captain. The next time Harris sees Justin, Justin is wearing another one of his homemade T-Shirts. This one says “Killing Terrorist Ad hoc” written above the image of a hawk flapping its wings backwards, its beak open and a missile with a gray smoke tail in the bottom right, as if fired from the hawk’s mouth. Home at night, Harris lies awake thinking of the mountain of trash and when he falls asleep he dreams of it and when he wakes in the morning he thinks of it still. The house is empty, both boys in school and Harris’s wife at work 52
in the same school’s library. While drinking coffee, Harris doodles on the corner of a newspaper while watching the news. Before last night, he had never seen anything like the trash field before, not on the news, not while piloting drones. He wonders what is underneath and imagines a glorious subterranean kingdom. He arrives on base early. Inside his trailer, Justin sits and looks through a folder of satellite images while blasting dubstep over the control station speakers. When Harris enters Justin looks up, slightly surprised, and reaches to turn off the music. The first thing Harris notices is that the monitors are turned off. Justin follows his eyes to the dark screens. “Order came in a little after you left last night. I got him driving just outside town.” “What about the garbage dump and the trash mountain?” Harris asks. “It’s a mountain,” Justin says slowly, “made of trash.” “I know, but have you heard any intelligence on what is going on there,” Harris asks. “No, no intelligence on Trash Mountain, just trash. That’s why they call it Trash Mountain,” Justin says. Harris takes a deep breath. He needs to be taken seriously and know that Justin knows what he is talking about. “While I was observing the target last night I came across a garbage dump…” he begins but Justin shushes him. “It may or may not be a hub in a vast subterranean tunnel system, like a huge underground marketplace of sorts,” Justin explains in a whisper. Harris cannot read Justin’s expression. It is the same as before, the same as always. Justin says that the ruling just came in; higher ups are marking it down as zero collateral damage. Harris tells him “well done soldier” and nods. “We have two days off,” Justin informs him. “Then they are assigning us a new target.” Harris tries his captain from the trailer’s secure line but no one answers. He has two days off and nothing to do and does not want to 53
leave the base but does not want to stay, either. At home, Harris goes online and tries to find some reference to the trash mountain but does not know where to start. He has several hours before his family will return together from school. It is while searching “Pakistan trash dump” that he notices someone’s previous search for PTSD symptoms. He goes to the site and reads the symptoms with sick fascination. The most important thing, he knows now, is to convince his wife he is not depressed or crazy. He practices saying, yeah, no, I am feeling good I’ve just been tired recently, in the mirror. They will cast me out, he thinks. He refuses to simply plod along while his family becomes increasingly suspicious. Almost instinctively, Harris begins to cook; he sears four steaks in a pan, begins chopping potatoes and steams a mess of green beans. Working in the clean, sensibly organized kitchen, he does feel good and can’t remember why he ever dreaded coming home. With his back to the stove, there is a clear line of sight from the kitchen through the living room to the front door. Harris watches the door while stirring mash potatoes in a big glass bowl, hoping to finish before they get back. When his wife and kids get home, he tells them that he has made a feast for everyone. It is only four in the afternoon, and they are probably not hungry, Harris realizes. Rachel says that it smells great and smiles, and even though her smile might have a hint of concerned suspicion in it, Harris is grateful. They sit down at the dining table and even Harris’s picky seven-year-old says that everything is quite delicious. When Zach, Harris’s ten-year-old son, asks if he can be excused Harris says of course and the two boys jump up and run to the TV wear they plop down on the floor and play FIFA on the Xbox 360. Harris knows that they use Xbox controllers to pilot the smaller UAV’s that are deployed by soldiers on the battlefield. Most soldiers already know how to play Xbox so it just made sense. The predator drones which fly attack mis54
sions overseas cannot be controlled this way, a fact that the younger operators complain about bitterly. It was a matter of PR, Harris’s captain had explained to one young operator. It was one thing for soldiers deployed in combat zones to use the Xbox controller since those soldiers faced death every day up close. With what we do we can’t play into this idea that we just sit around and play video games. That should be pretty fucking obvious, he had said. Harris suddenly has the urge to tell his family about all this. “We use those controllers at work,” he begins, and then he corrects himself. “Well, we don’t but some people do.” Then, he stutters and stops, having forgotten the point of the story to begin with. Immersed in their game, Zach and Jonah don’t seem to hear. Across the table, Rachel looks at him inquisitively for a second, and then, as if deciding not to notice Harris’s outburst, relaxes her face without making a sound. That night, Harris cannot sleep. He wants to leave his house and get in his truck and drive but he does not want to worry his wife or undo whatever good will he may have earned by making dinner. He cannot toss or turn because it would wake her, so he lies mostly still in the dark and his need to get out of the house and drive grows and becomes wild. Eventually, he inches out of bed, fumbles to get dressed, and walks downstairs and out to his truck. Turing left out of his driveway, he heads out on the road in no particular direction. At first, he is only consumed with guilt and wishes he had stayed in bed. He drives through the suburbs, going nowhere in particular, passing mailboxes, dark houses, driveways with children’s bikes left where they were dropped hours earlier. He enters a small town he does not recognize. As he passes a twenty-four-hour gas station, he sees Justin slouched, smoking a cigarette under the florescent lights. Harris wants to ask him about the mountain of trash. Maybe Justin could tell him 55
something he couldnâ€™t say on base. But by the time he turns his truck around, Justin has left the circle of light surrounding the gas station. Harris hunches over his dashboard, squinting out at the dimly lit sidewalk and sees Justin duck into a doorway a block or so ahead. He pulls up and parks, then waits in his truck for fifteen minutes, hoping Justin will come back outside. There are a bunch of doors in a row and Harris canâ€™t be sure which oneâ€™s right, so after waiting another fifteen minutes, he drives back to the gas station. Harris does not know the way back to his house. In the parking lot of the gas station, he sits awhile in his truck before going inside, thinks of the trash mountain and imagines a dark network of tunnels and a subterranean bazar in a dome hollowed out underground and buzzing with activity, somewhere at the edge of a new world. Harris knows that he cannot drive to Pakistan, of course he knows that. Just for the moment, though, he lets himself pretend. He imagines reaching Trash Mountain by morning and finding beneath it a vivid world unlike his own.
Shining Up Our Insides
my mother is planning for her death and so she keeps a calendar and crosses off all the Jewish holidays she will not allow herself to die on Tisha B’Av is the first to go because “it’s just too quiet” “and the world would hear me trying to gather my breaths into an envelope for you and I want it to be a surprise” she makes me promise her things that when her soul flops out lopsided out of her breast pocket I will catch it I see her vomiting up skin she is ashamed of what she has touched she only wants to wear her organs so god will think she has not sinned and let her in but I say sing yourself to me sing me your breathing your weaving how you sewed into me living sing me now momma sing me now so I can remember her hands began in silence and not violence she wrote love letters to my unborn feet she looked for recipes in every Jewish women’s magazine for what I should eat 57
it’s Tisha B’Av and mother will not die we are marching through the synagogue in our matching pink shirts and colorful scarfs we have no idea what page we are on in the prayer book and mother will not die so she starts laughing it stops starts again like I didn’t know mothers could laugh like I thought they gave all their laughter away to their children I just didn’t know the woman with the right page tells us to be quiet it is Tisha B’Av and mother will not die Tisha B’Av is when people don’t laugh and they know what page to be on it is when people kiss quiet and walk quiet and hear things in the quiet waiting for god to burn up that hole inside you turn spine into glittery grime let god shine up your insides we are not waiting we are not mourning we are laughing tomorrow we will watch holocaust movies all day and fast let our sorrow eat us clean today mother looks over the wall separating the men from women to see my brother (everybody is looking at my mother looking at my brother) “he’s praying” she whispers and we are praying opening our mouth swallowing sunrise spilling in our direction 58
light isnâ€™t used to people with skin like us skin you tried to turn to rust you were so intent on the music of turning people into dust but mother you must sing yourself to me splatter me with your living thankÂ the god sleeping inside of us the moon looks like a fruit-crepe I want to squeeze the living light out of it radiate hope the angels will retrieve your skin tell you that you deserve everything you own sing me now momma sing me now because when you are gone I want to forever remember that you sang into me home
The World Whistling Champion Emma Styles-Swaim Is a tall white man with a lean from walking with the wind on his back, and his fingers are thin, and cold, and would hold you firmly about your soft waist even though everything about him is hushed. He has a Saint Bernard and speaks fluent French, and hardly a day goes by that he does not think of his fat, sweet mother. If you look into his eyes, he will blink, and then a sky will rise; a blue, soft sky, with golden rye above and below. He likes to whistle Chopin and sometimes Dylan and for breakfast he often has Cream of Wheat. He seems to always be in places where the sun streams in in golden strokes, and if he ever had a daughter he might name her Anne. 60
One wonders if his wife knows something the rest of us donâ€™t, if the kiss of a whistling champ carries a song, a single high note that vibrates in the curve of the tongue and behind the ears.
A Comforting Thing Senti Sojwal
He asks her to meet him at a bar—a seedy spot on Eleventh and Third between a laundromat and a Chinese takeout restaurant. Elvira’s, it is called, and with its shabby pine colored door and single greased window it is easy to miss if you are not really looking. But Leela is looking, has carefully copied the address into her leather bound notebook, takes care to inspect each bar that she passes on her walk from the Astor Place subway station to make sure she doesn’t miss it. She enters to the tinkle of bells as a soft rain begins, takes a seat on a stool and orders a whiskey sour even though it is only three in the afternoon and usually she would not do such a thing. But today is different; she is looking to soothe her nerves. The only other patron is a Santa Claus type nursing a pint by the window, cradling a worn copy of Finnegans Wake in the weak bar light. Leela wishes she had thought to bring a book, is suddenly aware of her arms hanging uselessly at her sides. The bartender hands over her drink; it is strong and burns her throat on the way down. She does not much like the taste but sips it hurriedly anyway, leaving half rings of nude lipstick on the glass. He had called last Tuesday as she was walking home from her barista job in Chelsea, daylight waning as winter approached. It was an unknown number. “Hello?” “Hi, Leela.” She was in the middle of a crosswalk, an onslaught of city traffic barreling forward. She froze for an instant before remembering herself, sprinting the rest of the way. She was suddenly unbearably warm despite the October chill. “Adam?” “Yes, yes it’s me. How are you?” 62
“I’m okay. No, I’m great. I’m so good.” The voice did not sound like her own. “I’m glad to hear that.” A pause. She heard him breathing heavily on the line. “Listen, are you still in New York?” he asked, though she felt he already knew the answer. “Yes, I am. Where are you?” She looked around the busy street as if he would be there, watching her, casually propped against a wall amidst the whirl of rushing bodies. “I’m sort of in Austin, I guess. For now. But listen, I’ll be in Brooklyn to see my brother next week and well, I wanted to know if you were around, I guess. To catch up. I don’t know. Are you?” “I’m around,” Leela answered, looking down at her oxfords, one lazily untied, the laces brown with city grit. “Good. Well, I’ll call you then.” “Okay.” “Okay.” Leela does not know what they will talk about, or how they will fill up the empty space between hello, how are you, and this was nice, it’s been so long, it was good to see you. It was with Adam, her freshman year of college, that she had first fallen in love, as she had with the rolling blue hills and golden autumns of the small Massachusetts town where she spent those years. He was the first boy to kiss her on the forehead, to say her name while making love; to sleep beside her, their limbs like entwined roots. After he called she stood motionless on the street corner, flooded with jumbled memories of those days. She saw them losing hours beneath the glow of Christmas lights in her dorm room, going for drives through the Berkshires to admire New England’s autumnal splendor, feverishly kissing in a freak blizzard that hit one Halloween and killed the power for three days. Leela saw herself holding him the night his twelve-year-old Saint Bernard died, running her fingers through his blonde California curls, 63
saw him smiling at her from across so many crowded rooms, pictured them weeping the night of his graduation when she still had one year left, and finally, she remembered him boarding a flight to Senegal one June afternoon in a red cardigan, a bag slung over his shoulder, a travel guide in the crook of his arm. Leela remembered reinventing herself for Adam, becoming a version of herself that was as kind and loving and quick to laugh, to enjoy little things, as could be. She remembered how she had felt new with him, as though she was shaking off a layer of dust that had long settled. It was with him that she learned that love can make you feel like that, like you are seeing the whole world with fresh, unblemished eyes. He said he didn’t think they should keep in touch; it would be too hard, he loved her too much. Begrudgingly, resentfully, she agreed. He sent just one postcard, seven months after he had left, as she was in the midst of her senior thesis. The image was of the Taj Mahal, its gleaming marble dome against an amber sunset. Impossible not to think of you while I’m here, he had written. I hope you are doing well, that you are happy and getting everything you want. It is every bit as incredible as you said. He didn’t even sign his name, but then, he had not needed to. Leela remembered her own trip to the Taj Mahal, at fourteen, on a family visit to India. How she stood before it, just one in the throng of visitors on a sweltering August day, something in the lustrous ivory arches and slender minarets causing her heart to ache. Years later, in bed on a foggy winter morning, she told Adam it was the most glorious thing that she had ever seen. Sitting in Elvira’s, Leela wonders what she will say about her job at The Paradise Café, her monotonous days frothing milk for cappuccinos, dusting cinnamon onto lattes and donuts, how she has come to hate the smell of vanilla 64
and the sharp whir of the milkshake machine. She wishes she could tell Adam she is writing again, that she works at a publishing house, that she is putting her degree in English literature to good use; that in an office somewhere, anywhere, she is highly valued and appreciated; that people ask her opinion. She wishes she could casually mention a boyfriend, the summers they spend together in Montauk and their love of Sunday evening films at the Angelika. She bites her lip, a nervous habit, and wonders how she would insinuate that this imaginary boyfriend is handsome and intelligent and thanks his lucky stars every day to be with her. Truthfully, Leela had moved back home to her childhood apartment on 68th and Amsterdam after college and her days seemed to pass in an unvarying gray haze. She tells herself with each passing month that she will really get a move on, start looking for a place, temporarily move in with Amber in her Alphabet City loft. “It’s fine,” Leela’s mother always says. “Your father and I love having you at home again, there’s no rush.” She gives the signature tender smile, the one that seems to say, please just stay a while longer. Leela’s father will nod in approval, not looking up from the paper, because she has lied and told him that she has started on graduate school applications, so what is there to fight over? Sometimes Leela fears that if they do not push her, she will remain with them forever, never fully able to make herself do the difficult things. After the sudden death of Leela’s grandmother last July, her mother had mostly taken to her bed and it became harder to look for apartments, to apply to jobs in far-off cities. They flew to Bombay for the funeral, Leela, her parents, and her sister Maya, who met them at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport after flying in from San Francisco. It was mid-summer, the air pregnant with monsoon rains, the streets, in some areas, already flooded into shallow rivers. Her grandmother’s body was dressed in red bridal silk, decorated 65
with sandalwood and garlands, one round of cotton placed in each of her nostrils, gray hair loose around her face. There was a photograph of her on her wedding day, blown up and fixed to the wall, framed by strings of white flowers. She looked up at the camera beneath heavy-lidded eyes, a vision in gold and crimson, holding out her hennaed hands. A priest read scripture in languages neither Leela nor her sister could understand. The body was cremated, Leela’s eldest uncle lighting the kindling, the air thick and nauseatingly sweet with incense. Leela had remembered only that morning that in India white, not black, was the color of mourning. How strange she had felt there, how far removed from the activity surrounding her though she looked like everyone else in her white linen dress and thin beaded scarf. Leela had not wept for her grandmother. She could only remember her in fragments, in fading smells of rosewater and Sunsilk shampoo, split images of her red lipstick and the single black braid that had fallen to her hips when Leela was a child. There was a gathering after the service at an aunt’s apartment on Marine Drive, overlooking Chowpatty Beach. The home filled with the scent of turmeric and curry leaves, frying onions and coriander. None of her relatives found it strange that Leela was still home one year after college, for that was the way it was done in India, where no one left home, it seemed, till they were married. Maya was instructed to tell everyone only that she was at Stanford writing her dissertation, leaving out the part where she was living with her boyfriend, Mark, the divorced art dealer twenty years her senior, father of three, who had no desire to remarry. Leela’s mother cried all evening, surrounded by her sisters. Her father disappeared periodically to smoke cigarettes with his brotherin-law, a hunched professor in his fifties with thick graying eyebrows. Leela and her sister hung awkwardly in corners of the apartment, feeling like outsiders at the family gathering, avoiding their cousins. 66
They brought back pounds of her grandmother’s jewelry to New York, covered the dining table one afternoon with the clinking gold bangles and bejeweled necklaces, the numerous pairs of bell-shaped earrings so long they grazed the collarbone. “Take whatever you like,” Leela’s mother had said to her, fingering the gold with a loving hand. Maya had left for San Francisco hours ago. She had not even come home for a night before hurriedly kissing the rest of them on the cheek and departing for her flight. The jewelry looked wildly decadent to Leela; so ostentatious she knew she would never be comfortable in any of it. She would look foolish wearing these things, and though they would forever live in the dark Leela gingerly wrapped each glittering piece in newspaper squares and placed the bundles in her desk drawer. He is now fifteen minutes late. Leela wonders where in Brooklyn he is coming from, if he is on the subway, brow furrowed at a map, or walking the streets in the gentle rain, squinting at building numbers. She feels a twinge of annoyance at how even after so long, she can be anxious at the lack of his presence, that he did not take the utmost care to do something as simple as be here exactly when he said he would be. She orders another whiskey sour despite disliking the taste of the first; she cannot be bothered to think of something else to drink. When it is presented to her she doesn’t care, sips it eagerly, greedy for the warmth in her head the alcohol will provide. She thinks of the two lovers she has had since Adam, of Lucas who cared too much and handled her body as though it was made of glass, of Daniel who never kissed her on the lips and liked to recite her Russian poetry in the dark and took his coffee with only sugar. Leela finishes her drink in one gulp, this time finding the burn strangely gratifying. She replaces her glass on the counter, and suddenly there he is, apologetic and wet with rain, somehow the same but different. 67
He leans forward and kisses her on the cheek. He smells like he used to, clean and familiar, and woodsy somehow, like a cedar closet. “You look nice,” he says. He looks nice, too, in his black jeans and flannel button-down, and she tells him so. Maybe it’s the alcohol, she thinks, but filling the silence comes easily, naturally, and she remembers again the nights beneath the Christmas lights. He tells her that he arrived in the States two months ago to take a position teaching history at a school in Austin, a city he has come to love. He lives in a red brick house with two roommates, his favorite coffee shop is around the corner, he goes to listen to live bluegrass on the weekends. He is calm and measured in a way that he was not when she knew him; he seems older, more self-assured. Leela wonders if she appears that way to him, if anyone could notice anything different about her today. She thinks of how she still wears her hair the same, the tangle of black curls falling freely, and has not strayed from her penchant for delicate patterns and unfussy shoes, dresses that cinch at the waist and collared shirts that must be pressed. Adam orders a drink and tells her of his adventures after school—of going from his teaching program in Senegal to backpacking through Nepal and then to India, his days in the Himalayas, in the fishing villages of Cochin, how he learned to eat neatly with his fingers and cook vindaloo with coconut milk, the humid summer he spent in Bombay in an apartment overlooking the ocean, just like Leela’s aunt. It is strange to imagine him in a place she so associates with her restless childhood summers, bored at family gatherings, tired of the spicy food that made her sweat and the lack of air conditioning. Leela feels a twinge of regret when she realizes she has rarely spoken of her months in India with his kind of wonder. They reminisce: do you remember the times we stayed up all night, exploring campus while everyone slept, 68
that Christmas Eve at your parents’ house, we got wasted on eggnog and I smoked a cigar with your father, do you remember skinny dipping in Norwich Pond that summer night after Evan’s birthday party, that time it snowed in April and we watched the sunrise from your window, remember how I took those photographs of you in the woods, the sun in your hair, I still have them somewhere. When Adam asks how she is, Leela tells the truth, because she is flushed with whiskey and he is handsome and so close and was the first boy who ever mattered. “I’m working a job I hate, I’m still living at home and I feel stagnant, immobile, I don’t know where my life is going.” It is a relief to say these things. She itches to also say, I think of you still, I miss the way you once looked at me, I am different when you are gone, but she refrains. The bartender puts a record on the player. Elvira’s is the sort of establishment whose patrons appreciate the romance of vinyl. The song that plays is sad and sweet and there are no words. Adam reaches out and puts a hand on hers. He opens his mouth to say nice things, to reassure her, but she is overcome with a sudden and strange bravery, leans in close and says quietly, please take me home with you. Adam’s brother is gone from the apartment. They enter, he presses her against the doorway, they undress and his mouth tastes bitterly of gin, his fingers meet the wetness between her legs like so many other times, everything familiar and new all at once and she is hungry to know every part of him, to uncover all the secrets. Afterwards they lie on the patterned carpet and say nothing. The apartment has one full wall of windows. It is dark outside and Manhattan glitters from across the river. Leela feels an immeasurable calm, a contentedness she has not known in many months. She says to Adam, “Tell me something I don’t know.” He says, “I met a woman in Nepal and I tried to love 69
her but it wasn’t the same.” They are quiet. She wonders how you try to love someone, how you even begin to force yourself to long for someone else’s scent or feel tenderness when their arms are around you. He says, “Now you tell me something.” “I am afraid my mother will die alone of sadness in her bed,” Leela offers. “And I don’t know my sister anymore, because she moved to California to get away from us.” Leela thinks of the stacks of newspaper-wrapped gold jewelry in her drawer, how she will never wear any of it but somehow its presence in the room where she sleeps is a comforting thing. She imagines her mother looking beautiful in all that gold, and young again, and natural, and maybe happy. He says, “I thought if I dropped everything and went on a grand adventure, I wouldn’t feel restless anymore.” She says, “Sometimes when I am out in the open, walking down the street, I feel as confined and desperate as if I were trapped in an elevator.” He says, “I’m here in New York because my brother has cancer.” They are quiet on the carpet for a long time, a slice of moonlight illuminating the floor. Leela thinks of her grandmother, how she was married at seventeen with a crown of jasmine in her hair, how life slipped away from her in the middle of the night and she did not feel a thing, and if Adam’s brother were to die it would probably be very different, in a fluorescent lit room in a hospital bed, with ominous machines beeping all around. She reaches for Adam’s body, hooks her index finger onto his. He is silent but does not pull away. Leela looks at his form in the dark, breathing delicately, and she thinks of how Adam once made her feel new, and that even if all they are ever going to have are those years behind them and this one day, his chapter in her life is one she will remember with fondness. She feels, for a moment, unbelievably young. 70
For my body, when I am old Jesse Steinmetz Count your scars. Let your beard grow. Compare the hairs to the scars & if they are close, good job. Small & beautiful monster, I hope you still run mouth open & naked, winter in your throat. Right now, my hips orbit the bodies I love. While this universe expands I hope you continue to revolve around warm suns. Does our fantasy come true? Does the lagoon love you enough to swallow you? The bullfrogs, at least, will watch. Remember, now, my feet are only moist. 71
Nothing Here is Yours Anymore Jacob Powers
All of this started the night Lou wrapped his Monty Carlo around the sycamore tree at the foot of Patterson’s Hill Road. Like any other night, our shift ended at five. We scrubbed the grease from our hands with a dab of Go-Jo from the dispenser in the shop’s bathroom, hung our coveralls in the locker-room, and touched the worn rabbit’s foot tacked to the door frame on the way out; happy to be leaving with the same number of fingers we’d walked in with. Lou pulled his shirt off on the way to the car, trying to catch the last bit of sun before it sank on him. “Beer in the cards tonight, Curt?” he asked. “Without a doubt,” I replied, even though I knew Marcy would be waiting for me to come home and spend some time with her. Lou drove us down to the Lion’s Den. The place was vacant, besides Eddy, the bar tender, and the mounted elk’s head that hung over the liquor shelves as the bar’s only attempt at atmosphere. We took our seats at the polished pine bar. Lou joked with Eddy, but I was thinking about getting home to Marcy, since this kind of thing was becoming a habit. I’d thought since the ring was on her finger she was a bird in the hand, but that thought would change along with everything else. We left around nine o’clock, since the shop opened at seven every morning but Sunday. Things were steady in those days. We were both twenty-six, and veterans at the machine shop by then. Lou and Trisha were living on the top floor of a three-family Victorian on South Main Street. I was with my fiancé, Marcy, shacked up in a trailer at the back of her father’s property in the hills, saving up money to put a down payment on some property 72
after our wedding in December. That night, after we’d left the Lion Den, Lou and I were barreling down back roads toward my place, the engine of the Monty Carlo struggling through the hills and hollows. I was wondering what Marcy would say when I walked through the door. Maybe she’d just give me those eyes since she knew I wasn’t listening much anymore. Lou drove with one hand on the top of the steering wheel, the other along the edge of the window. He urged the gas in as we approached the bottom of Patterson’s Hill. That’s when the engine gasped. I heard Lou say “Christ,” and before I had time to look over at him, there was this pop, a sound like someone had put the universe in a paper bag and crushed it, and then for a split second the metal roared like the furnace fueling hell. That’s when everything stopped. I came to standing alone in a field, maybe thirty feet away from the wreck, staring back at it through the blood in my eyes. That was deepest I’d ever seen the darkness, like being at the bottom of the ocean. I’d never felt so alone. The passenger side headlight was still glaring, piercing the darkness before me. The orange turn signal was flickering on beside it. The worst thing about it all was the silence, like every animal and insect in that meadow around us had gone into a state of mourning. I remember feeling like I was drowning. I’d hit my chest hard on the dashboard before I came through the windshield. But most of all I remember the feeling that came when I realized Lou was in the wreck; I was relieved someone was out there with me. Trisha tried to stick it out with Lou, but after five weeks of coma and five more months of rehabilitation, she couldn’t keep it together. One afternoon she stopped by our trailer and told me that she was leaving Lou for good. After that I began taking the bus to the Massachusetts Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Rehab Center each week to visit Lou. His family was never really around, so I brought Mustang ciga73
rettes and magazines, and he shared his painkillers with me after they cut mine off. He knew Trisha was gone before I told him; even in the coma, he could hear everything. Eventually, once his insurance ran out and Trisha told him he couldn’t come home, the state set him up in a senior housing complex on a Section-8 voucher, and forgot about him. The months crept on, and whenever Marcy asked me if I was going to go back to work, I told her the pain was too much. She couldn’t understand it; I was having these dreams, hearing the engine gasp in the dark at night. Instead of working, I spent my days at Lou’s helping him with basic things, cooking food, getting up and down for the bathroom, trying to teach him how to walk again. I guess I felt like I owed him something since the wreck had taken so much from him. Marcy went to work for a travel agency in town, and told me about all of the places people were going, and what kinds of things happened in them. This went on until the shop owner called me and said they’d hired someone in my place. He wished me the best of luck with my recovery, and said to tell Lou the same thing. Then one morning, without any notice, I woke up in an empty bed and found a note on the counter that said, “I can’t give you the help you need. I’m leaving.” I stayed a couple more days alone in the trailer before I went and knocked on her father’s door. Nobody answered, even though his truck was in the driveway, so I packed my clothes in a trash bag, locked the trailer, and walked to Lou’s. Every couple of days, I’d take a walk up to Marcy’s father’s place. Usually I brought something with me, a bouquet of flowers or some chocolate I’d bought with money I’d borrowed from Lou. The last time I went, our trailer stood out against the forest at the back of the property, topped in snow, with red rust lines coming down like tears along the sides where the bolts held it together. I knocked on her father’s door and rehearsed what I was going to say to her if she answered, “I need help. I want to get better. I can’t go on 74
without you.” There wasn’t any answer that day either, so I walked along the tree line through the snow to the trailer where I’d seen Marcy last. I thought maybe there was something I needed inside, some hint as to where she’d gone off too, some way to contact her. I tried my key in the door, and realized the locks had been changed. Then, just as I leaned over to look in through the window I heard someone crunching through the snow behind me. “Nothing here is yours anymore,” I heard her father say. He was standing there with his Remington rifle pointed at an angle toward the ground. “I need to talk with Marcy,” I said. “Marcy can’t help ya, Curtis. She’s moved on,” he said. “Where is she?” “Moved on,” he said. There was nothing I could say to that, so I dropped the flowers I’d brought right in front of him and walked back to Lou’s. He was sitting in his recliner watching a movie when I walked through the door. “Looks like it’s me and you from here on out,” I said. He handed me a cigarette. I thought I should cry then, but nothing came when I tried. I spent the next year sleeping on Lou’s couch. Most of our time was spent getting high on his painkillers, trying to forget about everything we’d lost. For a while, all Lou talked about was how Trisha had left him when he needed her most. Sometimes he cried. Then he met Marilyn and stopped thinking about Trish altogether. One sunny morning in March, I woke up to Lou poking me in the ribs with his forearm crutch. He was towering over me when I opened my eyes. He began turning himself, pivoting on one crutch, while he dragged his legs around with the other. I listened to the click-clack of his crutches as he 75
lurched back through the door into his bedroom. There was no clock on the wall; Lou didn’t like how it never stopped spinning. He said it just slowed things down. The sharp white sunlight was seeping through the curtains, sullying the room. On the wall behind me, the electric heater hummed and clicked as it struggled to heat the place. I sat up, still fully clothed from the night before, with an awful pain in my head. “I need you go to Big Roy’s,” Lou shouted from the bedroom. “Marilyn’s coming over. I want her to have some wine.” By the time the sun was overhead, I was walking along South Prospect Street with Lou’s EBT card in the palm of my hand. The trees were still naked along the riverbank and trembling as the wind slipped through and up across the road where I was walking. The sky was perfectly blue, motionless over the brick mills across the river, and the sun was warm with spring settling in. Pillars of smoke spiraled from their stacks. I pulled my shoulders up and carried on past the driveways of the little houses with little yards full of melting snow. Big Roy’s stood a half a mile from Pine Bluff with a broken gas pump that still read $1.28 per gallon and a rusty ice chest by the front door. The bells on the door rang as I passed through, and I picked out two boxes of red wine with a French name. We’d convinced Roy to let us buy liquor with the food stamps, so long as he could take an extra twenty-five cents to each dollar. I paid him, made a quick comment about the weather, and left before he started talking; Roy was lonely and he’d talk just to keep you around. Normally I’d stay, but I just wasn’t up for it. Marilyn waved as I approached the building and yelled, “Hey sugar,” as I made my way up the walkway. She was sucking down a cigarette, wearing Lou’s bathrobe on top of her jeans and t-shirt. Around the first of the month, she’d 76
show up and get high with us for a few days until Lou kicked her out. Then she’d disappear back to her father’s house where her kids lived. We wouldn’t see her again until the following month when Lou got his check and scripts filled. Then we’d do it all over again. Lou had met Marilyn at the pharmacy where she was working as a cashier. “Maybe she likes cripples,” Lou had said as he looked down at the phone number she had written on the back of his receipt. I knew it didn’t have anything to do with him, but it wasn’t my place to say so. As I passed into the building Marilyn grabbed one of the boxes of wine from me. The spout was pulled through the cardboard by the time we passed through Lou’s door. He was shirtless in his recliner. His thick brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, ribs showing on either side of his chest with the dark red wound in the middle of his throat where the tracheotomy had kept him alive during the coma. Once we were high and felt faded on the wine, Marilyn began pacing the apartment, wiping the dust off of things, organizing the cupboards, sweeping the floor. “Why don’t you sit down,” Lou said after she walked past the television a couple of times. “I just need to put things in order, Lou,” she replied, taking a gulp of wine from the coffee mug she had poured it in. “You sound like my old man. Why don’t you sit, Marilyn? Why don’t you be quiet, Marilyn? Why don’t you, why don’t you, why don’t you? What if I don’t want to?” she said. Lou turned up the television. “You should be writing your old man a thank you card,” I said. “Yeah? Why is that?” she asked. “Where would your kids be?” I asked. “Don’t you start in on it too, Curtis,” she said. Lou sighed and started rocking his recliner. “I know something about both of you,” he said. “But it’s not worth 77
saying since you don’t really want to know it.” He shook his head. “You know,” he said, a thread of frustration in the tone of his voice. “This is the whole reason why Trish left me.” Marilyn closed the fridge and moved over to the sink to wash dishes. I looked over at Lou and waited for him to finish that thought. “She couldn’t stand the fact that I’d come back from the dead with a better idea of life than she had.” With that said, Lou slipped out of his chair and crawled on his hands and knees to the bathroom. Marilyn turned the sink off and poured herself more wine. When the bathroom door slammed, she turned the sink off and sat on the couch beside me. “Lou’s thingy doesn’t always work anymore,” she said, and smiled so her lips parted, revealing a row of uneven teeth, wine stained in the spaces where they met one another. “I think that’s why Trish left him.” When the toilet flushed Marilyn started laughing. “What’re you laughing at?” Lou asked as he pulled himself back through the bedroom and back up onto the recliner. “Curtis told me a joke,” Marilyn said. “Go ahead,” Lou said. “I know you’re talking about me. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got it made. Not a worry in the world. So let’s hear it, you can’t hurt me.” “How’s about Marilyn tells us a story,” I said. “Yeah,” Lou said. “Make us cry, Marilyn.” Marilyn looked over at me surprised. I could’ve killed her for what she’d said. Lou lifted one leg with his hands and secured it over the other. He looked at me, smiled, and then looked at back to Marilyn. “Tell us the first thing that comes to mind,” Lou said. Marilyn pushed herself back into the couch and 78
looked toward the curtains. I wondered what she was thinking about—her kids maybe, or their father beating her brains out in a parking lot somewhere. Then she said, “I know something.” “Alright, let’s hear it,” Lou said. She put her coffee mug down on the coffee table next to the box of wine. “Since you’re acting like my father, Lou, I’ll tell you about how we used to spend our weekends.” “Alright,” Lou said. “Well, he used to come down from Vermont and pick me up from my mother’s. Then he’d bring me to the dog track when it was still running up there. He’d get drunk and blow all of his money,” Marilyn said. “That’s not sad,” Lou said. “Shut up, Lou. Let me tell it,” Marilyn replied. She placed her hand on my forearm for a moment and dug her blue eyes deeply into mine. “I just remember those dogs,” she said, frowning. “You know anything about these dogs, Curtis?” I shook my head. “Well, the horn goes off and this little lure whips around a dirt track. Like a white rabbit, you know, a little stuffed thing. So the dogs chase it, and the people in the stands yell and curse and move to the edge of their seats like they’re just going to explode. But that’s their own fault, you know, they blow it. Those dogs though, they don’t know. They spend their whole fucking lives chasing this little thing around in circles, and they don’t even know it.” “They don’t know the difference,” Lou said, and took a long sip of wine. “That’s the point,” Marilyn said. We sat there together in silence for a while after Marilyn’s story. Lou rocked in his recliner, flipping through the channels. I was just imagining Marilyn as a little girl with a 79
dress and saddle shoes on. Then I looked over and saw these tears pulling long threads of mascara from her eyes like kite strings. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but before I had the chance, she kicked the coffee table across the room into the wall with the sole of her slipper. Lou glared at her. He continued rocking casually in his recliner. Then, with this agility I thought he’d lost in the wreck, he picked up his crutch and threw it into the television. The rubber tip hit the screen, leaving a black smudge before it rattled onto the floor. “You see this?” Lou said grabbing one of his pant legs. He lifted it with his withered leg inside. “Why don’t you cry about this?” He asked, and shook it. “Cry about some stupid dogs.” When Marilyn stood up she pulled the bathrobe across her chest and stormed into the bedroom. She screamed when the door was closed, and then things started smashing against the back of it, furniture was being pushed around, drawers pulled from the dresser. Across the room, Lou rocked harder, pushing off of the ground with his feet until the recliner groaned. “Hey Curt,” Lou finally said. “You mind taking me for a little walk. I need to get out of here.” “Yeah, of course,” I said, thinking some fresh air would be nice. I helped Lou into his wheelchair. Marilyn was still wrecking the bedroom when we left. I wheeled Lou down the long hallway, and out through the front door. Some of the elderly residents were sitting on lawn chairs, enjoying the sun. They glared at us as we passed. Lou waved. “Shitty place to get old,” he said as I wheeled him past. “Yeah,” I said. We took the sidewalk toward Big Roy’s for a bit before Lou pointed across the street. “Let’s go down to the river,” he said. 80
I agreed. I’d taken him down before to fish and try to kill time. I tipped his chair back and eased his wheels over the sidewalk. Once we were across the pavement, I had to lean into the back of his chair to get the wheels to move over the mud and dead leaves. Lou used his arms as we passed through the thicket, moving saplings and low hanging branches out of the way. “Wow,” he said when we reached the bank, “Look at it move.” The brown water surged past, swollen from that winter’s melted snow. I wheeled Lou down the bank and onto the muddy incline, almost to the edge of the water and put the wheel locks on. We stood there watching the force of the water until the constant roar of the current just seemed like silence. I could smell the metallic scent of the water on the mist blown from the top of the waves. I was behind Lou, watching the trucks run along the depot road behind the mills on the other side of the river, lights blinking on top of the smoke stacks. “Hey Curt,” Lou said. The silence changed back into the thundering sound of rushing water after he spoke. I leaned over and placed my face beside his. “Yeah?” I asked. “Do me a favor, will ya?” He said. “Sure, Lou, what is it?” I asked. “Push me in,” he said. “Will ya? My wheels are stuck in the mud.” His hands were resting on top of the wheels, but the bottom third of them had sunk into the muddy bank. I didn’t know what to say. He was facing away from me, but I knew he was looking into the dark water. I stepped up behind his wheel chair and gripped the handles. I could tell there wasn’t an ounce of fear in that emaciated body of his. Just a quick push, I thought, that’s all. Then I could throw the wheelchair in behind him. I looked up at the back of the brick mills then, 81
the trucks stopping to collect cargo and taking it away. Lou was waiting patiently, but I couldn’t do it. “I wish I could, Lou,” I said. “Just do it,” he said. “Why can’t you?” I could feel the despair in his voice like it was my own. “Where would I be without you, buddy?” I said. He didn’t answer. He just lifted his hands from the wheels, and placed them on his lap. I took a cigarette from the pack, lit it, and handed it over his shoulder. When he took it, I lit one for myself. We smoked there together in the mud on the riverbank, listening to the water roar past until it turned back into silence. I was glad I wasn’t alone down there. Then, when the cigarettes were gone, we threw them in the river, trudged back up the muddy bank, and went home.
Contributors Diana Babineau, Amherst ‘14 Diana Babineau is an English major concentrating in poetry. She will be an editorial assistant for The Common literary magazine starting this summer. Liora Bard, Smith ‘13 Liora Bard has been writing since she was seven years old. She finds inspiration for her poetry everywhere whether she is riding the subway or waiting in line at the supermarket. Every moment is a moment for poetry. Rachael Clifford, Hampshire ‘15 Rachael Clifford is from Albuquerque, NM, and is studying political science and environmental studies. When not writing, she can be found listening to excessive amounts of Scottish indie folk and anxiously reading newspapers. Matthew Davis, UMass ‘14 Matt Davis says, “Hey you! Keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Patricia Hartland, Hampshire ‘14 Rae Henaghan, Hampshire ‘13 Rae Henaghan studied queer resistance and poetry at Hampshire. Their work aims to rewrite traditional queer narratives and serve as an archive of queer emotional experiences. Alana de Hinojosa, Hampshire ‘15 Alana de Hinojosa is Div II student at Hampshire College, where she studies creative nonfiction writing, immigration 84
history, and political theory. Her favorite story is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Jacqueline Leahy, Smith ‘14 I am a junior at Smith who loves imagist poetry and philosophy. I am quite pleased to be featured in QBF. Caleb MacKenzie-Margulies, Hampshire ‘14 “Again, voices from beneath.” Amanda Mattingly, UMass ‘15J Amanda Mattingly is somewhere between a sophomore and a junior at UMass, where she is giving college a second chance. She is majoring in English and minoring in Women’s Studies. Anna Meister, Hampshire ‘14J Anna Meister studies poetry, memory, & maps. she is a lover of knees, compound words, & all things coconut flavored. Antonina Palisano, Hampshire ‘13 Nina recently completed a poetry manuscript about death, deviance, and tuberculosis, titled “Human Confection.” She graduates this May with a degree in religion and creative writing. Jacob Powers, Amherst ‘13 Having grown up in a struggling mill town in Western Massachusetts, my experience of rural New England remains incongruous with the romanticized notion of New England as depicted on postcards and calendars. The larger project in which this story appears is dedicated to bringing my readers past the romantic field-stone walls and tobacco barns, and into the lives and communities of those who subsist and struggle in the mill towns and rural communities nestled within this beautiful landscape. In all of my writing, I strive to 85
depict the human experience, in all of its horror and beauty, that I might give a voice to those individuals who are so often obscured by images and ideas that remain easier to behold. Nik Shumer-Decker, Hampshire ‘13 Nik Shumer-Decker studied creative writing and political theory while at Hampshire College. For his Div III, he completed a collection of short stories tentatively titled “You Always Come From Far Away.” Senti Sojwal, Hampshire ‘13 Senti Sojwal was born in India and grew up in New York City. In her time at Hampshire, she has mainly studied gender, sexuality, and postcolonialism. Jesse Steinmetz, Hampshire ‘15 Jesse’s poetry career started in 5th grade when he wrote haikus about nature & girls. He still writes about similar things. Emma Styles-Swaim, Mount Holyoke ‘14 I am a junior at Mount Holyoke from Oakland, California, and I love cooking, classical Indian dance, and hiking in the California fog. I’m studying Medieval Literature but I also love to write. Susie Svendsgaard, Hampshire ‘14 Susie Svendsgaard is a third year from Hampshire College. She studies literature and minimalist syntax. Next year she will be in Bath, England to write more short fiction about spaceships.