Rosemont College 2014 Annual Issue
From the Editor’s Desk: Rosemont College’s tagline is “the power of small.” It is printed on every college pamphlet, newsletter and postcard, and is even on the website banner, with “power” in all caps. It is a motto, an ideal, and a challenge. I am proud to say that the work of Rathalla Review over the past year has more than met this challenge. Between two staffs of eight editors, a handful of readers, two advisors, innumerable cups of coffee and one academic year, the Rathalla team has curated two beautiful collections of prose, poetry and art totaling 80 pages! Not only is this a huge accomplishment for such a small volunteer staff, but the vast majority of our pieces are from emerging writers and artists, and our publication costs depend entirely upon the generosity of donors and sponsors. Our successes are proof that the “power of small” goes a long way, indeed. I’d like to first thank every supporter, whether you chipped in five bucks, bought a t-shirt, made cupcakes or spiked our write-a-thon numbers. The magazine relies on all types of support, and every bit counts. Thank you to the following businesses for sponsoring our fundraisers: Arden Theatre Company, The Wilma Theater, Merriam Theater, Bertucci’s in Bryn Mawr, Big Blue Marble, Bristol Riverside Theatre, Bucks County Playhouse, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Shubin Theater, Adrienne Theater, Prince Music Theater, Bryn Mawr Running Co., Francesca’s Closet, Lantern Theatre Company, Leisure Fitness, Main Point Books, Pennsylvania 6, People’s Light and Theatre, Philadelphia History Museum, Rosenbach Museum & Library, Showcase Comics, and The Wardrobe Boutique. We appreciate your contributions and encourage our readers to patronize these great small businesses! Many thanks to all those who contributed their weekends and effort to our events and fundraisers, including the Bertucci’s dinner, the Halloween movie night, the bake sale, the November Write-a-Thon and the Networking Holiday party. A special thank you to Rosie Corey and Rae Pagliarulo for going above and beyond in their planning and fundraising efforts. A huge thanks to our spring and fall genre editors for their expertise, hard work, and passion for the creative arts: Tori Bond, Rae Pagliarulo, JJ McCullough, Joe Magee, Christian Cornier, Megan Hovermann and Susan Ruhl. John McGeary and Feliza Casano, thank you for getting Rathalla off the ground, showing us the ropes and giving me the opportunity to serve as Managing Editor. And lastly, my deepest gratitude to Anne Willkomm, Carla Spataro and Monica Lopez for your immeasurable guidance, support, wisdom and dedication to all that Rathalla is and does. And finally, thank you to our readership and the writers and artists who submit their work. You are the reason for doing what we do. Yours truly,
Rathalla Review 2014 Annual Issue
Managing Editor Kara Cochran
Production Manager Monica Lopez-Nieto
Flash Fiction Editor Tori Bond
Creative Nonfiction Editor Rae Pagliarulo
Selection Staff Emily London
Table of Contents Featured Artists Paloma Pucci & Enrico Pagliarlo
Fiction A Visit to the Old House
Creative Nonfiction Leavenworth
Robert F. Sommer
Riding the Escalator at 30th Street Station
Poetry We Had Lots of Songs
A Monsoon Wedding
Ellie Swensson Fabiyas M V
O, How I Had It All Wrong
J. T. Ledbetter Randall Brown
A Conversation with Anne Kaier
Featured Artist: Paloma Pucci Paloma grew up in Lima, Peru. She took part in her first collective exhibit as a part of her IB Art class at Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American School of Lima. From there, Paloma has lived in Buenos Aires, Brazil; Salamanca, Spain; Siena, Italy; and Paris, France. In the Art History program at the University of Salamanca, Paloma discovered her passion for bodypainting. An ERASMUS scholarship brought her to Siena, Italy, where she earned her degree in Cultural Heritage Studies at the Universita degli Studi di Siena in 2013. As Siena’s only bodypainter, she organized bodypainting events including a group interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica. Paloma is now living in Paris, where she continues to bodypaint and is working on a new collection influenced by the city, beautiful and hostile at the same time. She hopes to inaugurate it in 2015.
The title of the piece featured on the cover is “El Emigrante.”
Featured Artist: Enrico Pagliarulo My father introduced the allure and mystery of capturing light on film to me in 1962, since then, photography has been my mistress. I still shoot analog chromes but long gone are the darkroom and smells. Now, my “darkroom” has monitors and post-processing software. However, I do miss the wonder of watching an image slowly appear before me in the developer pan. “The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It’s not like ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You’re not supposed to look at the thing; you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window.”- John Szarkowski
Leavenworth Robert F. Sommer
We are gliding over the smooth pavement of a lonely cemetery lane with the car windows open when a ruckus erupts in a grove of oak trees. It’s near dusk and the grounds are mostly deserted. Just Heather and I in the car. No one else around. One of the collective nouns for squirrels is scurry. That’s what it is—a scurry of squirrels, chattering and barking. In their midst, on the grass, a red-tailed hawk with a bloodied beak clutches a limp gray body in his talons. I stop and shut off the engine and we watch. The squirrels chatter frantically, trying to drive the hawk away. But he (if it is a he) coolly stays put, unthreatened, indifferent to the clamor, likely resting from the kill. Then, abruptly, he spreads his wings and leaps into the air with his quarry. The squirrels quiet and linger for a moment, until, one by one, they skitter off into the canopy or onto the ground to forage for acorns. This deadly encounter would have passed without human notice if we hadn’t happened by just then. The distant white noise of nature, which often seems playful or joyous to our ears, is mostly the sound of turf battles and fear, of life and death. The history of our nonhuman fellow travelers is unwritten, unrecorded in their own ranks; their deaths uncommemorated, their battles untold. It’s tempting to imagine some imprint of loss lingering in the squirrels’ collective memory in that moment before they resumed the work of survival. More likely they were waiting until the shock of the encounter faded and it was safe to return to their business. We’d come here to Leavenworth National Cemetery to visit our son Francis, whose remains rest in Section 58A, on the north side of the cemetery. In real estate terms this section is “newer,” platted but still unsettled. The few trees on the easy hillside are saplings, so there’s no
shade. Grass turf has recently been laid but is not complete. The ground is muddy after rain and snow, hard-packed when it’s dry or cold. It will take on the manicured look of the rest of the cemetery in time, but that will require the sad business of occupancy to continue. Friends of ours recently laid their son to rest nearby. His gravestone is now in place too, but the turf progress has yet to reach westward the dozen or so rows from Francis to his grave. Several rows to the east of Francis is the marker for a soldier who also served in his Army division. This troubled boy—he was barely more than a teenager—took his own life, one of many in the epidemic of suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. These three are nestled among veterans and casualties of Viet Nam, Korea, World War II, even a few soldiers from The Great War, as it was known before the twentieth century’s great wars required numbering. We’ve begun to feel a kinship with a few of Francis’s immediate neighbors, as if, being older, they might look out for him. An odd bond to form, one-sided, I realize, but still a comforting conceit, one of many unexpected sensations we’ve experienced in losing him. Another is our connection to this place. Until we lost Francis we didn’t know it was here, an admission I make with a dose of embarrassment because it’s only thirty minutes from home. We’d passed the main gate at Fort Leavenworth, the Army post at the north end of town, many times. There’s a cemetery there too, while Leavenworth National Cemetery, here at the southern edge of Leavenworth and just over the city line from Lansing, is a different venue. The two are easily confused. This region is thick with historical and geographical points of interest. Across Muncie Road from the entry gates to the national cemetery, a double row of chain link fencing crowned with glittering concertina wire surrounds a cluster of unmarked warehouse-like buildings. Here, inmates at Lansing State Penitentiary manufacture office furniture and other goods. Prison labor has progressed, if this is progress, a long way from stamping license plates. This prison has its own unique history, most notably the execution of the infamous killers Truman Capote immortalized in his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. Fortunately, the prison grounds slip quickly from view as you pass through the cemetery gate. For many the word Leavenworth is synonymous with the storied federal prison, officially known as United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth. This is up at the north end of town, not far from the military post. With its massive stone facing and countless rows of barred
windows, it could be the setting for a black-and-white James Cagney movie from the 1930s. It even looks black and white. Oddly, despite its fierce reputation (and appearance), it’s now a medium-security prison, mostly because of age and the efficiencies of building new prisons elsewhere that incorporate the latest innovations in penal technology. In our home Leavenworth is a metonym for the national cemetery. Other uses require a modifier: the city of Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth. When Francis passed away we were offered a choice between the cemetery on the Army post or the national cemetery. In the fugue of grief we weren’t certain what to do. It seemed like a distinction without a difference. But then I realized that national cemeteries are open to the public, while if we brought Francis onto the Army post, we—and our family and friends—would not be able to visit him without passing through a checkpoint. From past trips to Fort Benning and Fort Drum while he was in the service, we knew what that meant in the post-Nine-Eleven universe of the military—producing IDs and insurance cards, telling blank-faced soldiers clutching automatic weapons why we were here, possibly having the car searched (happened more than once). It wasn’t difficult to imagine Heather sitting beside me and stoically enduring these exchanges until we were allowed to pass. Unlikely as it was, there was always a chance we’d be turned away. I would never approach the gate without anxiety or the infinitesimal fear that my reason for being there wouldn’t be good enough on a given day. I imagined this haze of anticipation infecting our grief. We were so deeply submerged in grief in the days after we lost Francis that we had not begun to learn its shape and parameters, how it later becomes a kind of cloud or fog that surrounds you at times and then slides off into the distance for a while, casting shadows on the horizon, but never out of sight and always likely to blow in again soon, and surprisingly, how welcome it is when it returns. At that moment, sitting at a polished walnut table with Heather and the funeral director, as amorphous music in the key of sorrow drifted through the room like incense, I realized in some instinctive way that we would come to value our grief and that soldiers with weapons and low voltage suspicions would forever taint our visits. The future unfolded itself, not seen, but felt—the permanence of death, our commitment to wherever we took our son. The funeral director acknowledged that the national cemetery was the better choice. That’s what it would be, though we’d never seen it and didn’t know where it was. It’s been over two years since we brought Francis here. His services now seems like a wind-blown mirage. A gusty day, unseasonably
warm for February in Kansas. His flag billowed and flapped as if resisting its role in the ceremony as the honor guard struggled to fold it. Salvos of blank rifle fire sent jolts through our gathering. When the first order was called, I squeezed Heather’s hand as if to brace her, or maybe myself, for the shock—but nothing helps. We were as dazed as if we’d found ourselves on the moon. One of Francis’s Army friends, Isaac, a staff sergeant in dress-blue with whom he’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan, retrieved a few spent cartridges from the grass and brought them to me later. A tradition or custom—I didn’t know—one of many small gestures that became part of our initiation into this side of our lives. We’d now passed into a new place. Everything about it was strange; the life we’d known was gone, or forever altered. Matt, the soldier who’d given his eulogy, lingered until the gathering dispersed and then walked up to Francis’s urn in stiff, formal steps. His shoulders quaking, he saluted Francis, an image I still find so moving it’s difficult to set down in words. (These last two sentences required several restarts.) Our visits to the cemetery have evolved since then. The grounds are familiar. I’ve looked into its history too. Human activity in this region long predates the U.S. planting a flag in the Kansas territory—or anyone even calling it Kansas or a territory. My friend Craig, who lives not far from here, showed me spearheads and other stone tools dating back thousands of years he found along a creek bed that runs through his property. He also loaned me an old map of the tribal provenance of the region, but before I get into that I must share a few words about my son Francis, who brought us here. He was twenty-seven when we lost him. His life began and ended in less than half the years I had lived by then. This is one of the many hard things about losing a child, reckoning the measure of your own life as it surrounds his. When he was born I had already been alive longer than the full length of the life he would live, and now I’m beginning to measure the interval since he died in years. Time becomes elastic and slippery in such calibrations. The mind wants a spatial or pictorial model to comprehend it. Instead, random images from that parenthesis of time, like thumbnail pictures in a digital folder of photos, swirl about chaotically, darting this way and that like minnows in pond water. He’d been out of the Army three years when late one night—or rather, early one cold February morning—his car drifted off the road
and struck a utility pole. He was alone, listening to “Here Comes the Sun,” and had been drinking. Our tragedy is not unique. Excessive drinking and reckless behavior are common among veterans of our recent wars. Still, every grieving family grieves in its own way. The private and personal nature of such loss and grief obscures the larger pattern of so many similar incidents; that and the fact that episodes like this often involve veterans rather than active-duty soldiers. How Francis died is not counted among statistics about veterans. Studies have been done, to be sure. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are known to drive recklessly and engage in dangerous behaviors. A veteran of these wars is 75 percent more likely to die in a car accident than most Americans. Drug and alcohol abuse are widespread among recent veterans. In this Francis is included in the statistics because he was treated for alcoholism by the VA. But whether tallied or not, stories like ours surround us, hidden within sight, pushing shopping carts in grocery stores, driving past in other cars, checking us in at the doctor’s office, teaching our children at school. The manner and moment of death are not the defining elements of a life. Francis enlisted at nineteen and became a civilian once again at twenty-four. Youth seems incongruous with being a veteran. It’s easier to think of veterans as old men in VFW caps glittering with pins or tattooed, grizzled bikers with Viet Nam rockers on their vests. Of course, those vets were young once too. And now the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have flooded the country with hundreds of thousands of young vets like Francis. But his status as a veteran is frozen in youth. He will always be young. He is one of the youngest in the field where he rests. I have walked it and found myself compulsively doing the arithmetic of dates on headstones. There are no children in a military cemetery. The only soldier I’ve found younger than Francis is the suicide I mentioned earlier. Francis was heavily decorated. He neatly arranged his medals and awards on a shelf in his room that remained undisturbed and uncluttered even as fishing tackle and biking gear accumulated in his room, the bed went unmade, laundry piled up, and dust gathered on the awards. We weren’t surprised at the dust, but stray clutter never landed on that shelf. He received Commander’s Coins for eight separate missions in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal twice. He also received top honors for a leadership training course at Fort Drum—beating out a hundred other men, including his eulogist, Matt, who told me the competition had been fierce and he’d come in second behind Francis. The items on the shelf included a blue infantry
pin with a cluster to indicate he’d been in battle, assorted ribbons and pins and dog tags, and a bullet he dug out of his boot after a firefight. Still, the display had a sorrowful look, and not only from the haze of dust that settled on it. His eyes went vacant when he talked about some of the items here, as if they seemed trivial now, as if they were honoring events too awful to remember and actions too banal to be honored. They were meticulously arranged, but in a way that seemed utterly lonely. Only Heather and I and his brother and sister ever saw these medals. It wasn’t until he was gone and I assembled everything into a shadow box for his wake and funeral that his friends and extended family saw them. He was surely proud of his honors, too—most had come after great hardship and much bloodletting and loss of life—but there was sadness, even guilt, in the way he assembled and spoke of them, as if these conflicting emotions swirled about like oil and water in his conscience, and the medals were there as much to remind him of one as the other. He deployed to Iraq for a year and then to Afghanistan’s notorious “valley of death,” the Korengal Valley (the corngall, he’d say), for sixteen months. He rarely spoke about his deployments—almost never about the missions, the battles, the firefights, the killing. We caught random glimpses, like realizing a hummingbird had just buzzed past after it’s already gone. He described carrying his friend’s lifeless body away from a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He recounted the stertorous breaths of an enemy fighter dying in a language no one around him understood. (That soldier’s copy of the Qur’an also had a place on Francis’s shelf.) On a satellite call from Iraq he told me in a hollow voice that he accidently killed a translator attached to his unit during a firefight. The man, Francis said, had inexplicably wandered into the cross-fire, and Francis only realized what he’d done when he saw the translator crumple to the ground through his rifle scope. I have no idea how many more incidents like these he kept to himself. The stories would fade rather than end. His friend Matt told me that in Afghanistan Francis was the squad’s “designated marksman.” Even though Francis hadn’t attended the Army’s rigorous sniper training program, Matt said, soldiers who filled that role “were sometimes called squad snipers.” Francis never mentioned this, or even that he’d earned a marksman pin, which I only discovered when I examined his medals sometime after we’d lost him. I have a photo of him with his rifle painted in cammie colors, the Army’s venerable M14, versions of which have been the standard weapon since the 1960s for killing a human target at a distance of nearly a mile, so
far that the “target” never hears the shot that kills him, or maybe only its distant snap after he realizes he’s been hit. I don’t know how many nameless and distant fighters Francis killed, but I do know he lived with their ghosts. And many others too—like the children whose bodies his unit collected after a Taliban bomb exploded in their schoolroom. In shorts, a t-shirt, with an iPhone in his pocket, he was the man in the grey flannel suit, one of the “invisible walking wounded,” living with guilt and sorrow, dealing with chronic ailments, physical and mental, and bewildered at the disconnect between life at home and all he’d lived through overseas. It wasn’t only he who was invisible, it was the wars themselves; for most Americans, little more than gray clouds in the distance, blips on a TV screen that disappear with a flick of the remote, links on the Web that are never clicked open, even as one decade of war passes unnoticed into another. The Nootka Indians of the Pacific Northwest believe four generations of peace have to pass before a people who’ve gone to war will regain their sanity. If that required peace-time compounds like interest for successive generations at war, America may be waiting a long time indeed for sanity to return. Wandering among the headstones, you can’t help but notice that war or its shadow has been part of every generation. History’s current runs from one war to the next here without straying down the countless byways of our cultural and social and political past. There’s a fine simplicity in this version of history. Visiting here sometimes feels like carrying a tightrope walker’s pole over a vast chasm, with the serenity and beauty of the setting at one end and the nature of the place—what it is and why it exists at all—at the other. Certainly it is a place to contemplate such notions. Heather and I never imagined this part of losing our son, being here, that is, even in those moments when Francis was deployed and we feared the worst. How we might have imagined that seldom took us much past the moments when soldiers would appear at our door. We would know why they’d come as soon as we saw them. Returning from an errand to find a car parked in front of the house turned the last hundred yards up the street into a gauntlet of apprehension. Ditto a strange car turning around in the driveway or the doorbell ringing. But nothing happens quite as you imagine it, or even close most of the time. Losing him in the way we did, years after he’d left the service, seemed—still seems—indescribably unfair.
The cemetery has entwined us in its history, past and future. A
headstone from the Mexican War evokes the image of someone reading my son’s name a century, two centuries from now. And while I may wish to think that visitor will find this place well tended—still under “perpetual care,” as the VA’s website confidently asserts—my friend Craig’s ancient Indian tools are a reminder of how futile our best efforts are to immortalize ourselves. The people who made those tools once walked and lived on these very grounds. Who were they? What were their names? What kind of lives did they live? History swallows us all into obscurity sooner or later, and ultimately will swallow itself. This would be the place to insert a suitable quote on mortality from Ecclesiastes or a thousand other sources. One of the most curious headstones in the cemetery reads simply: TWELVE UNKNOWN INDIAN BODIES The marker itself is undistinguished from others nearby. You can easily wander past it in the tessellation of thousands that surround it without noticing anything unique but for the epitaph—if your eye happens to catch it. In fact, I did just that a couple of times and finally made a special trip to view this grave after I learned about it, which, if you do visit, is Section 34, Row 21, Grave 8, across the lane from the original committal shelter. These remains were unearthed just over a century ago, when ground was broken for one of the buildings at the nearby Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center, originally called the Western Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and founded in 1886. The bones of these twelve bodies are collectively buried in a single grave in the oldest part of the cemetery. The surrounding graves are from the Spanish-American War. These people were probably among the few surviving members of the Munsee Tribe, which migrated to the Kansas Territory in the mid-nineteenth century. The street name of the cemetery’s address, Muncie Road, is a token reminder of that tribe’s presence here. The Munsees, by then numbering fewer than a hundred, came here to rejoin the Lenni Lenape tribe, also known as the Delaware Tribe, of which they were part. Their migration, as well as that of the Delaware, is but one fragment on a tragic and grand unwoven tapestry
of discarded treaties and forced resettlements that, as it relates to this region, stretches back into the seventeenth century and chronicles relations between European settlers and native tribes from the Middle Atlantic states, the Ohio River Valley, and finally what became known in the nineteenth century as the Kansas Territory. Curiously, even the name Delaware is not of native origin. The English named the river along which the Lenape once lived for the first governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, and so named the tribe they associated with the Delaware River. According to Craig’s 1857 map of the Leavenworth area, the cemetery and much of the surrounding land once belonged to the Delaware Indians, by then several times removed—in the active sense of that verb—by way of Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin and Missouri from their original homeland in southern Pennsylvania. According to The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, the Delaware Tribe and its offshoots suffered more than forty removals from land granted by the U.S. government. By 1829 the tribe had been settled in the Kansas Territory on a stretch of land that ran from the fork of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers at Kansas City northward through Leavenworth. With the growing economy all around Fort Leavenworth, as well as the railroad under construction along the Missouri River, this land turned out to be valuable. The Delaware later ceded much of it back to the United States, reducing its tribal hegemony by 1860 to what came to be known, in the saddest, though surely most accurate, of geographic names, as the “Delaware Diminished Reserve.” While these transactions made the Delaware one of the wealthiest tribes in the country, it’s impossible to measure the financial benefit to one generation against the misery and cultural losses suffered by their ancestors over more than a century of removals and broken treaties. Spread across 130 acres of rolling hills, Leavenworth National Cemetery overlooks the Missouri River Valley, where the river separates Kansas from Missouri. From a hill on the east side of the cemetery you can look out over a vast stretch of land belonging to the Stigers Farm, so named for Stigers Island, which this section of land once was. According to Craig’s map, a channel of water once surrounded it. The Army Corps of Engineers later redirected the river for the benefit of the railroad and the shipping channel, and so joined the island to the rest of the territory. When heavy flooding inundated the upper Midwest in the spring of 2011, several months after we brought Francis here, the Army Corps released water from dams hundreds of miles away in Iowa and
submerged the Union-Pacific railroad tracks alongside the river. The Stigers farm morphed into a vast lake, with muddy water so high it nearly submerged the silos and utility poles in the distance. Indeed, the tops of those structures were the only visible evidence this wasn’t a natural body of water. So much for the Army Corps’ efforts at “managing” the river, but that’s a different story. It was a great comfort to us that the cemetery occupied high ground. From the crest of the same hill, you can turn around and look west for an inspiring view of the cemetery, with its wide fields and mature sycamore and oak trees and winding lanes. Straightaway on the opposite hill, mostly buffered by trees, is the complex of buildings that make up the Eisenhower VA Medical Center. Whatever this land may become in a century or a millennium, it is maintained with great care now. The hallmarks of our national cemeteries are the uniformity of the headstones and precision of their alignment. If this cemetery were a poem, it would be a sonnet. The field’s grade and contour create gentle sine waves in the sweep of the rows. A slight rise may give one of the headstones a minor advantage in height, but still they line up in startlingly precise rows and columns. The overall sight is hypnotic. As you drive slowly along the paved lanes and up and down the hillsides, they reshape themselves in kaleidoscopic Escher-like patterns. The uniform whiteness of the markers strongly affects these impressions. Quarried from underground mines in Mount Dorset, Vermont, premium marble is cut to the exact same dimensions for each stone: 42 inches in height, 13 inches wide, 4 inches thick. They all weigh 230 pounds. The stones are not embellished; they’re all alike but for subtle design changes over the past century. There’s something appealingly egalitarian in that sameness. It’s not a little remarkable to realize that this meticulous design is fully at the mercy of Earth’s whims, of heavy rains, long dry spells, the extremes of every season. And we do get extremes in Kansas. So there’s a subtext in the sight of these ranks and files too, in the fragility of their arrangement, despite the great care the cemetery receives, and the reality that it too will pass into the ages, like all that has previously passed on this land. No matter the weather when we visit, I always open my window as we turn off Muncie Road and drive through the ashlar stone gates. The air feels different here, as if the place were drawing long, slow breaths and inviting us to share in its peace and serenity, and its past. I could be accused of several literary crimes here, from purple prose to the most pathetic of fallacies, but that sense of a place having its own breath is an image I owe to Francis, so its second-handedness is why my prose comes up short. It’s from one of his phone calls home from
Iraq and has stayed with me. It was characteristic of the quickness of his mind and sharpness of his perceptions. I had asked him what it was like to be there, in Iraq, what did the place feel like, and he thought for a moment, as if turning the question over (or maybe it was just the delay we always dealt with on his infrequent satellite calls). “You know how when you’re in Colorado or somewhere out in nature,” he said, “and when it’s quiet, you can hear the Earth breathe? Well, there’s none of that here. It’s just dead. Everything is dead.” I suppose it’s part of the weird, tilted logic of the universe Heather and I now inhabit that it makes perfect sense to me that a place for the dead should breathe with life, while for him, given why he was there and what he was doing, that place in Mesopotamia, the seat of civilization, should have seemed dead. It is evening. The maintenance crews have gone home. Lawnmowers and tractors cool in the dark tool shed and murmur in low metallic accents. Quiet reigns but for the occasional passing of a train or a jet overhead. Call it stillness rather. Quiet is such an elusive thing in our world, even here. A variety of birds thrive here—bluebirds, flycatchers, warblers, larks, jays. Hawks do profitable business from their perches in oak trees up on the hill. Kingbirds dart among the headstones, picking off insects, lighting on the branches of young maples that line the roadway. I trace the chiseled letters of my son’s name with my fingertips in a numb kind of amazement that it should be here, those letters, engraved in marble and accumulating into the name we gave him almost thirty years ago. Soon we have to leave. Fingers comb the grass over his ashes. I kiss the stone. We wipe tears, buckle seatbelts. Slowly ease down the lane. On the way out a commotion in a stand of trees breaks the mood. We stop to see what it is before heading home.
Such is the place our son Francis rests. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the Rathalla Review, “Leavenworth” is adapted from a work-in-progress entitled Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War. Excerpts have also appeared in New Plains Review, The Kansas City Star, Prick of the Spindle, and The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers.
Robert F. Sommer is the author of two novels, Where the Wind Blew (Wessex 2008) and A Great Fullness (forthcoming). He holds a doctorate in American Literature from Duke University and is listed with Poets&Writers. He is the Director of Development for the Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter and teaches at the University of Saint Mary. Bob and his wife Heather make their home in Overland Park, Kansas. To learn more about Francis,
“Acadia Reflections,” Enrico Pagliarulo
“Jurassic Park,” Enrico Pagliarulo
We Had Lots of Songs Paul Smith
We had a song for love There was a song about not having love A song for not loving We had a song about Not wanting love Another one for uselessness & yearning Morning dew on the grass Another about the highway That stared back at us on the Kansas plains And we never asked Did this compendium make sense Or could we reconcile their disparity Because they all had A good beat
Paul Smith lives near Chicago with his wife Flavia. He is a proud member of the Rockford Writersâ€™ Guild. He writes fiction & poetry, likes to read history of just about anywhere. For writing inspiration he walks along the canal and takes the Milwaukee Avenue bus.
J. T. Ledbetter Our cat plays the trombone and studies Latin. Neighboring cats tend to shun her and call her Kitty Bitch when she recites Ovid. We have told her to keep a low profile, but as you can understand, it is difficult. She sits on the corner playing her own arrangement of “The Beautiful Refrain from Loitering,” which brings dogs and cats to tears. Humans hear something they like but cannot tell where or from who (or is it whom?) it comes. Kitty is a stickler for pronouns.
Her nights are like most cat nights. She eats a light meal then disappears into the darkness of ferns, geraniums, gardens—even into the backyards of the local killer dog who snores and does not inhale cat. She tells me she sits at the door of his doghouse and stares at him, troubling his dreams, watching his back legs kick and his eyes blink rapidly. It is great fun, she says. Limp but content, she follows her markings through the night and finds a niche in our garage, safe from the coyotes who have met in solemn conclave about how to kill and eat her. Although, a pair of coyotes were sighted sitting side by side, in what can only be called love, who were more interested in her music as she played a part of the Mozart Horn concerto on her trombone. She says it was priceless the way they rolled their eyes and raised their muzzles, sending forth paeans of wonder to the moon rising over the Santa Monica Mountains. The local vet has asked for permission to study her. It would mean sea travel to Zurich where other intelligent and aestheticallyinclined animals live on a private estate. We want the best for her, but when does one forego one’s own pleasure for the sake of one’s cat? We have talked it out with Kitty as she quotes the Ancients and practices scales whilst sitting on the top of our fence. “One can never be sure about the meaning of happiness,” she says, her tail twitching, her eyes narrowing to slits as the neighbor tabby
cat inches closer. The slide on her trombone is quick and effective. “I want to go,” she says, “to meet others of a variety of ilks.” Since she said it in Latin I will admit to being so impressed that I hadn’t the heart to tell her it was a bad sentence. My wife and I have decided to let her go. Her two small trunks are packed and stand by the door. One is a chintz pouch that contains her self-prescribed allotment of catnip, two little mice toys, and a slim volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her trombone has been sent ahead to the Villa where she will be staying with cats of her ilk. She raises an eyebrow at my ilk-cringing but seems loathe to tell us she is sure she knows how to use language, thank you very much. She is in a kind of state. She recites a bawdy bit of Chaucer, then muffs a high F in her Dvorak. “Is it a funk?” she mews. “I have heard from others of my...that such is often the case when life gets in the way of pure fun, even reason. Art often loses. Doubtless it is one of the great mysteries—much like why humans do not like to sleep on something narrow with their heads hanging off.” Since her sailing away on the Princess Katania, our house and yard are quiet. The moon still rises, but slower and with less light, or it’s a pale light as if it, too, is loathe to rise without the accompanying notes of a Catalonia Sonata. Our children threaten to bring home as many cats as it takes to find one who plays the trombone and recites Latin verse. We discourage their search, but applaud their corda iracundus, and instead buy one a ukulele and the other a tambourine and watch them climb the wall with their instruments and their Mother Goose and, like our faraway but never forgotten Kitty, recite, play, and sing with that human, animal, and plant blessed assurance that the bright moon will rise “over the bent world...with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” 1
J.T. Ledbetter’s fiction has appeared in The Hawai’i Review, The Bitter Oleander, Bateau, Knock, Lake Effect, and others. A collection of his stories, Death by Violin, was published by Stephen F. Austin State University in 2012. Ledbetter is cmyk
Manely Hopkins, Gerard. “God’s Grandeur.”
The scene is set in the middle of nowhere, A hotel room draped in Best Western swag, Luxury shot like a flare out of Colorado flatland fields. My mother pacing. How do you justify it? She likens my acceptance of pornography to a tolerance for rape. I swelled in your womb, But built my own kaleidoscope brain, My own design, so it seems, Foreign in your hands. All I feel is the space where my love should reside, A privileged presence replaced by echoes And a fading bite mark accenting her beautiful bones. The hour glass I left in Columbus, Set for two years, Out of sight, but in mind with each gravity stricken grain. Justify it. Bring me the thunder, Her silent, shaking thunder, Her breath, her heart, her gracious metronome pulse.
But for now it’s the woman who bore me And sent me wet and reeling into a world we seldom share. I’ll wash my hands clean and bury it again, More hours that I can’t pass through, Thick as blood. The loneliness here is matched only by the sanctuary that greets me With every rising sun, Effortless union with the souls I was taught did not exist, Sweating, passionate, battling bodies with purpose filled tongues Natural and inevitable as fertile tides. This work is never done; That umbilical clamp failed us both, So it seems, You are still cradling your arms to fit my fall. Save your strength for yourself. I am steady.
Like Alicia Ostriker, Ellie Swensson wonders when poets decided to stop being actual people. While searching for an answer, she received the Ohio Poetry Association’s William Redding Memorial Poetry Prize in 2012 and her work was accepted for publication by Exile, Hive, Semicolon, Rathalla Review, The Love Shovel Review, Interkors and LuNaMoPoLiS. She currently lives in Boulder, CO where she is completing her MFA at Naropa University and curates the Bouldering Poets reading series with her partner, Mike Malpiedi.
Editor’s Note: The spring 2014 issue incorrectly titled this poem, “Labor of Love.” This version is listed with the correct title, “August 8th.”
O, How I Had It All Wrong
She rolled down the window, no matter the season, over the wind callin’ out anywhere, arising to ride beside me like that promise I made to myself never to be like them, trapped and dreamless. She waited in the car as the conveyor belts sent parts to my spur to count and package and throw in boxes. Parents transformed to bosses as I went into that factory in light, came out in the dark, the car empty. The skies waited, opened up—and Mary in the flood, drowned, a faraway voice yellin’ out let it rain, let it rain. I heard she married a fireman, gave birth to a son the world had no place for. She never was like all those other girls. You’ve got to go home to find her again—to take her to that anywhere that hung forever on her lips. But home is all parts and boxes, fire and water, pharaohs and I used to dream of all the places I could take her. Maybe she’s still that scared and lonely girl waving from the porch, but now it’s good-bye. The garden’s gates are shut tight, like eyes and chests. O Mary, how I dreamed of saving you.
Randall Brown is on the faculty of Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He has been published widely, both online and in print. He earned his MFA at Vermont College.
Tina Tocco I’ve learned to think in halves. Whole is a blending, an amalgamation, a joining. It is the suction of the door as it closes in the morning, his feet up the stairs, the shoes I picked out for him tight in one hand. It is the in-and-out of the top drawer, soft and even, where I have folded his Christmas flannels. It is the humming at the bathroom sink, which I have not heard since our studio in Brighton. But I’ve learned to think in halves. In mine, it is a rumple into the hard spring on my side. The scratch of a pillow case, stiff and unyielding, cooling that new line in my cheek. A breath, when I remember. But it is only half. Whole is breakfast, chairs once scraping close under the little circular table. Then Lifestyles and Business snapped between us. Now quick footsteps over the marble with a Danish I bought him and a travel mug I did not. Eco-Ware. Magenta. With stripes. But I’ve learned to think in halves. In his, it is a shower, past midnight. The top sheet pulled left to right. A giggle. The way he has always done. After. But it is only half. Whole is years of morning murmurs through the shower door. Of exams. Of last night. Aruba. The neighbor’s yards. The children. Then steam dripping cold. No morning wish streaked across the mirror. Just the snap of a compact. A toothbrush dropped in a plastic cup. A light clicked to dark. But I’ve learned to think in halves. In mine, it is the hang-up that one morning. 2:49. Or that Saturday I skipped the gym. It is the sound of keys pulled softly from the credenza for a Sunday meeting. A Honda, motor running, two doors down. But it is only half. Whole is cheering from the sidelines when the boys played varsity. Or calling him to dinner over the porch railing. Or
white lilies, remembered. Then a gym membership. Calls stuck in traffic. A hint of lilac, or maybe jasmine, in the wash. But I’ve learned to think in halves. In his, he does not move until morning. He rises without me. No kiss, so I will not wake. He must get to the office early, he told me once, putting his whitening toothpaste away. Have to keep up with the younger guys. But it is only half. It is an arm over my hip at dawn. A squeeze close. A groan. A name. And it is my hand to his. To lift his arm. Bring it near. To keep still, as long as possible, in the half-light.
Tina Tocco’s flash fiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Roanoke Review, Harpur Palate, Passages North, Potomac Review, Portland Review, Italian Americana, Clockhouse Review, Border Crossing, Per Contra, Fiction Fix, and other publications. She was a finalist in CALYX’s 2013 Flash Fiction Contest and a semifinalist in The Conium Review’s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest. Tina earned her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College, where she was editor-in-chief of Inkwell.
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A Visit to the Old House Lynn Levin
On the rare occasions that my sister Alice and I traveled back to St. Louis—usually for a wedding or funeral—we had a ritual: a burger and fries at Steak ‘n Shake followed by a visit to our old house. It was a two-story built in the 1930s. Its red brick reminded me of an itchy tweed jacket I used to have. With its arched Tudor door and windows eyebrowed with rays of white stone trim, the front of the house looked like a face mildly surprised to see us. Over thirty-five years had passed since we lived there, and yet we yearned to see the inside once again. We would park in front, sit in our rental car intending to knock, chickening out at the last moment. The aftermath of our childhood was nothing that a fortune in therapy and a commitment to letting go couldn’t fix, but Alice and I were junkies for bad memories. We popped them like pills. Hepped up on the bygones, we would gaze at the curtained picture window and relive the old Punch-and-Judy show. It didn’t make us feel good, but it made us feel real. What sort of family lived there now? A happy one we hoped. We imagined cheerful moms and dads who raised their kids according to the most enlightened theories of child psychology. Never on any of our stakeouts did we catch a glimpse of the residents, not even through a lamp-lit window at night. Our stepmother, Elsa, had called us in a panic. Dad, now eightyfive, was in the hospital, and Elsa feared the worst. We flew in at once, Alice from San Diego, I from Boston. Little movies of good-bye scenes— confession and forgiveness, tearful embraces, the damages of the past blown away in apologies and sighs—played in my mind. I was surprised to see that Alice, two years my junior, had grown so gray. Bleary-eyed and rumpled, she met me, as planned, at the rental
car desk at Lambert-St. Louis. We were sisters of a certain age, all right: both of us suited up in oversized tops of ochre and cinnamon, the right hues for fall, and black elastic-waistbanded slacks. As I drove to Missouri Baptist Hospital, Alice treated me to a call-by-call of her scramble to find three different neighbors to care for her three dogs, and she kept phoning and texting those neighbors to see if the dogs were okay. It was easier for me. My cat had died a few months ago. Some condolences from Alice about my loss would have been nice. An infected gall bladder, said Dad’s charge nurse, and caught in the nick of time. Dad’s quick improvement, the physical side of it at least, astounded everyone. We found him in the bed, Gulliver-style, pegged down by leads and tubes. A bag of darkish urine hung by the side of his bed. He turned to us with a friendly but vacant half-smile. Several days of white whiskers (couldn’t someone shave him?) put a frost on his cheeks and chin. Elsa was absent, but I spied two bags from Neiman Marcus on the floor by the window. I assumed that Dad had yelled at her. She was a revenge shopper with excellent taste in clothes and a big stack of store credit cards. Dad had not been so generous with Mom during their marriage, but he got off easy in the divorce. Only ten years of alimony, and then she died. “Hi, Dad,” we chimed. We embraced him with quick fluttering touches. Birds landing, birds taking off. We weren’t big on hugs. “Well, I guess I’m someone’s dad,” he said in a sociable tone. Alice and I caught each other’s eye. Elsa had said nothing of dementia. “Do I know you?” Best to try to take it in stride. “We’re Alice and Deborah, your daughtes,” I said, my throat catching for a second. “Elsa said you were in the hospital, so we came to see you.” I told him he looked pretty good for a guy who just had surgery. “I guess they thought I was a goner. They call in the daughters when they think you’re a goner.” “Oh come on, Dad. You’re not a goner,” Alice said. “You want some juice?” She brought a little plastic cup of apple juice with a straw up to Dad’s mouth. He shook his head. Alice flashed him a big smile. He mirrored back a sort of watch-the-birdie grin. Dad asked where Elsa was and when she was coming back. We embarked on upbeat monologues about our jobs. Alice, who worked in the produce department at an Albertson’s, filled Dad in about all the new fall squash. When my turn came to update him about my
routine in the mailroom at Boston University, he faded into sleep. The sight of my father ebbing made me not want to let him go. We hung around for a half hour while Dad snoozed. The smudgy humid odor of hospital chow choked the air. None of it was for him. No solid food for at least another day. Alice kept calling and texting her dog sitters. Channel surfing on the staticky hospital TV, I came upon a program about a young Kenyan filmmaker who’d made a movie about reconciliation workshops in Rwanda after the genocide. Perpetrators and survivors got together and talked. Crimes were confessed. There was weeping. Terrible weeping. Following the interview show, a program came on about decluttering your home. Dad continued to sleep, so we left. Steak ‘n Shake with its familiar red walls and black-and-white tiled floor, its odor of steakburgers, onions, and fries, tried to trick me into thinking it was still old times. A polite teenager in a paper cap took our order. The skinny matchstick fries arrived piled on the white plate like a little heap of straw. The right mix of crunchy, salty, and hot. As good as ever. I squirted on some ketchup.
“Elsa and Dad have side-by-side plots all picked out,” I said.
“I don’t think the old man’s checking out yet,” replied Alice. “And I like this dementia thing. It’s smoothed him out some.” She took a long slurp of her milkshake. It had two flavors, strawberry next to chocolate, in one glass. They called it a side-by-side shake. “I wonder how I’ll feel when he’s dead,” she said, her voice flat as a sidewalk. She checked her cell phone for news of her dogs. As a kid, Alice got the worst of Dad. He hit her more. He liked to let her know how disappointed he was in her. Sometimes she couldn’t take it and back-talked. On the day of her eighth birthday, she said she didn’t have to pick up her toys because it was her birthday, and just like that Dad cancelled her party. Sent the little girls home in their party dresses with their wrapped and ribboned gifts. Then he punched the cake Mom had baked and threw it into the garbage. We didn’t plan any birthday parties after that. Images from the Rwanda program hovered in my mind. I told Alice that I kind of wanted Dad to admit he had some regrets about his parenting. That would be enough for me. “Fat chance, that’ll happen. At least he’s got a new personality now. We should just try to enjoy it. The new, refreshing, harmless Elbert Ridley.”
“I don’t know. Mean then. Nice now. The old crimes still stand.
But before he kicks the bucket. Some admission. Some regret.” I thought of Elsa’s shopping bags in the hospital room. Maybe he didn’t yell at her. Maybe it was retail therapy, not revenge. “It’s not like he’s a war criminal, Deborah. Suppose he did have his mind. Do you think he’d apologize for anything? If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you just forgive him? Unilaterally.”
“Why don’t you?”
Alice’s face tightened up. She picked up her phone and started to scroll through her contacts, I guess to call one of her dog people.
“Okay, sorry,” I said.
“Okay, sorry,” said Alice.
It was early October, and the huge maple that shaded the old house shed its leaves in the breeze. As usual, we parked in front. The people who lived there had hung a pineapple flag, the sign of welcome, over the door. I had been taking an American architecture course at BU and now saw that our old house was a textbook example of Depressionera St. Louis brickwork. They didn’t build middle-class houses like this anymore. Symmetries and arch shapes abounded, same and different. A zigzag line of brick demarcated the first story from the second. A checkerboard band of raised and recessed brick wainscoted the front wall just above the foundation. Why had I never noticed that before? I had always admired the white stone rays over the windows, but now I saw that a separate set of rays sunshined over the front door and another set of white stone trim fanned out over the arched, many-mullioned picture window. On the window seat inside, we used to wait long hours for Mom to come home. In junior high, we sentried there on the lookout for Dad. The maple leaves were thick on the lawn. “Deb, do you remember the time that Dad made us rake the leaves, and we got really sore arms and didn’t finish the job?” “And you tried to put a book in your pants so the spanking wouldn’t hurt?”
“But then he figured it out and slapped me silly.”
“He slapped me silly, too, don’t forget.” A young mom was pushing her baby along in a stroller. “Alice, do you remember when Dad got mad and threw a knife across the table, and it stuck in the milk carton? And it made a white fountain.”
“That was a good one,” she said. “Deb, do you remember when Dad hit me so hard he broke his hand?”
“And I pulled him off of you?”
“Then he started beating on you.”
“Well, I did save you.”
“Yes, you saved me.”
“Then he went around with a cast on his hand, and when anyone asked what happened he chortled like a big kidder that he broke his hand beating the kids.”
“That may have been the all-time best one.”
“I wonder if anyone believed him.”
Rating Dad’s outbursts was one of our pastimes, but the sob sister thing was starting to bore me. Always the same lousy stories. Not that our Mom was any Shirley Partridge. She screamed at us each morning before we left for school. We miss her anyway. We could cry to her, and she’d understand. She used to make chicken pot pie and decoupaged pictures of the Monkees onto key chains for us. When we were in high school, our parents divorced and sold the old house. Dad moved to Kirkwood, and we went to live with Mom in bland modern condo in Creve Coeur. By the time Mom got ovarian cancer, we were already living on separate coasts. She donated her body to science, so no grave. The young mom with the stroller disappeared down the block. The pineapple flag beckoned. “I’m going in,” I announced, marched up the front path, and banged the brass door knocker. Our old horseshoe-shaped door knocker, but polished now. I rang the ding-dong. No answer. Relief started to wash over me. Emboldened by the owners’ absence, I ventured to the back of the house and immediately found myself in an alternate universe. Not because things were so different, but because they were so the same. The detached wooden one-car garage, repainted in the same brown and beige, still stood at the end of the driveway. The old screened-in porch remained as well. Odd that no one had removed or renovated it. It held a few wicker chairs and end tables. On the floor I spied some brightly colored plastic toddler toys. I remembered how we played there on hot, humid summer days. Then I climbed the old cement stairs, guarded by the same pipe railing, and tapped at the back door. Again, no answer. The amber stained-glass fleur-de-lys still emblazoned the kitchen window. Walking back to the car along the concrete
driveway, I squatted down to peek through one of the basement windows. Unable to see anything in the gloom, I recalled the rathskeller’s knotty pine paneling and musty odor, the built-in bench seats with liftoff tops and scary underneath storage compartments, also very musty. In those compartments, we stored broken toys and games with missing parts. I reported my findings to Alice. She declared that we would have to return when the owners were there. Then we went for manicures. Dad and Elsa were watching a dance show on TV when we came back to the hospital. Like Dad and Mom in their better days, Dad and Elsa were ballroom dancers. Elsa, looking attractive as always, wore a light-blue pantsuit with silver jewelry. She was trying to act extra chipper. Dad recognized us this time. After the greetings, I told them that Alice and I had been by the old house.
“Those were the good old days,” Dad said.
Alice and I registered no expression.
“We were hoping that a happy family lived there,” I said.
“We were happy there,” said Dad, sounding nostalgic and lighthearted, not at all like himself. The historical revisionist thing ran against my principles. And Alice’s. “We were not...” began Alice, but Elsa cut her off by making the “sounds like” sign from charades and then a shadow-boxing move, by which she meant sounds like fighting. Instead of speaking, Elsa sometimes pantomimed. It was kind of pathetic, but it kept the peace. Elsa said something about the TV personality who was trying to do the twostep. Dad tilted his head as if he didn’t understand. Then he stared at the TV. I patted her hand. She was a young senior, only in her seventies. She would be able to care for Dad or at least arrange for attendants who could. It wasn’t like we’d have to change the paternal diapers or anything. Dad and Elsa had plenty of money. Our father had made a good living at Weber Land Development.
“He seems a little, uh, jovial,” said Alice.
“Not the same Elbert,” I said.
“They have him on Celexa and Wellbutrin,” whispered Elsa. “Makes a difference.”
“You mean that’s all it took?” said Alice. She looked at Dad this way and that as if to get an ID on him. Elsa shrugged; she, too, was in awe at Dad’s transformation, though she was used to it. He’d been on those pills for a year. We invited Elsa to go to the movies, but she wanted to stay by Dad’s bedside. They’d been each other’s habit for thirty years, married way longer than Mom and Dad. “We should go back to the old house,” said Alice as we walked to our car. “That family should be home by now.” The curtains of the old house were open. The glow of lamplight warmed the windows. The pineapple flag ruffled in the evening breeze. Parked in the driveway was a Mazda; an SUV stood out front. We saw a man walk across the living room. Alice strode to the door and knocked. I stayed a few paces behind. The man, a good-looking guy with dark wavy hair, answered the door. Weirdly he was wearing a Weber Land Development sweatshirt. It was that alternate universe thing again. He looked at us like we were about to hand him copies of The Watchtower. Blushing and stumbling over her words, Alice got it out that we’d lived in the house as kids and wanted to see it one last time. She added a little bit about Dad in the hospital and us in from out of town. And what a coincidence: our Dad had worked at Weber, too. “Had you ever heard of him?” I asked. “Used to be comptroller. Was a good dancer?” “Way before my time,” said the man who introduced himself as Mitch. He shook our hands. His hand was warm. “Hey, Mama,” he called to his wife who was sitting on the sofa, reading a book to a little boy and a little girl. “That okay with you? These ladies used to live here.” The wife, Beth, was all for it. She said she was eager to know more about the biography of the house. Mitch led us into the living room. None of the inside architecture had changed. The shape of the space felt so familiar that it was like being inside my own head. Now I wanted to confront the memories, both good and bad—even if they were memories that wouldn’t have been made had Celexa and Wellbutrin been around. Maybe. And if our father had agreed to go to a shrink and take the medication, another
“Nocturne,” Paloma Pucci
maybe. There in the time warp, I felt right at home. I knew my way around. I gazed at the living-room fireplace. Its cement mantelpiece now sported a line of neatly angled family photos. I recognized the arch between the living room and dining room and the French doors to the screened porch. I was very impressed with the arch motif. All the previous residents had respected the inside spaces of the house. Never knocked out any walls.
“Look how small the window seat is,” I remarked to Alice.
“It seemed so big when we were kids.”
“Remember when we used to sit there and play ‘the next one’ waiting for Mom to come home?” The young couple exchanged a glance. Beth adjusted her tortoise shell headband. Alice shot me a corrective frown. I worried that Beth, at first so interested in the house’s biography, now took us for a jinx. In the tiny kitchen—new fridge, new stove, of course—the original wood-paneled cabinetry remained. I smiled as I looked at the amber fleur-de-lys in the lattice-patterned window above the sink. I always loved the stained glass. On the tour, Mitch carried the little girl, who hugged her dad’s neck and looked at us with big eyes. Beth acted as tour guide. The boy, who seemed to be about six, followed us clutching a plastic T. Rex. I could tell that Beth wanted to contain the tour to the first floor, but I asked her if we could see our old bedrooms. Her sense of hospitality won out over her reluctance, and she led us up the stairs, which were very out of code by today’s standards, too steep, too shallow. How often we tumbled down them to the landing where the telephone niche was, the niche that held our heavy, black, cloth-corded phone. Now the niche held the couple’s wedding photo. And there was a baby gate at the top of the stairs. I stepped into my old bedroom. I wanted to get the feeling back. I expected excitement, fear, maybe anger. Instead, I stood in a mist of regret and sorrow. “That’s where we had curtains with animal eyes,” I said, pointing to my old window.
“Don’t tell me the place is haunted,” said Beth.
“Nah, I had a weird imagination.”
We followed Alice as she wandered into her old room. She asked if she could open the closet door. I knew why she had to see it. After Dad had punished her, she would go to the closet to sob. As we grew
older, Dad still hit, and hit with words as well: what was to become of you? who would ever marry you? and so on and so forth. But then there was the time Alice got bitten by a dog, and Dad carried her to the car and took her to the emergency room. Sometimes, we’d get through a day with no trauma at all. Not that we could trust the peace.
“I used to think that closet was so big,” Alice said.
“That was our toy closet,” I told Mitch and Beth. “Happy times there.” Alice hung back a little as we descended the treacherous stairs. I asked one last favor: permission to see the rathskeller. Opening the basement door—it was the same planked basement door—I sensed a new openness and lightness. The walls now wore a coat of jonquil. The storage benches with the dead doll compartments had been removed. The musty smell was gone.
“Where’s the knotty pine?” I asked.
“It was too dark down there. I had to freshen things up,” said Mitch. “I painted over the paneling. See? And put in these overhead lights.” I couldn’t recognize the rathskeller. It was so bright. So new. So not Ridley. “It’s lovely,” I said, only half meaning it. I regretted that he’d painted over the knotty pine. Alice and I thanked the couple. They were old enough to be my children, had I ever had children. I wanted to tell them that the house was happy now, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I wished them many joyful years there. As we walked to our car, the mix of strange and familiar fizzed in my head. I turned to have one last look at the old house. With its open door and bright windows it looked pleased and comfortable with itself. I’m doing just fine, it seemed to say and you should, too. Mitch and Beth waved to us, and we waved back. Although the doctors and nurses kept shaking their heads in awe at the miracle of Elbert Ridley’s recovery, we knew that our father had embarked upon his long slow decline. Mild as milk, he busied himself with word-search puzzles and TV. He grinned a lot, spoke agreeably about everything, took his pills without complaint. Alice, who was still calling her dog sitters three times a day, kept maintaining that we should just enjoy our harmless new old man. But was the past not real? I asked her. Had we not worn it all our years?
We extended our visit a few more days, but our leave time was running out. When it came to say good-bye, I held my father’s papery hand then bent my face to his neck. I started to shake and weep. I wept because I was afraid of death, because I felt light and free and not quite myself, because I had a new dad, though not for long. “There, there,” he said. “Don’t cry. It will be all right. Elsa, Elsa, help this lady. Ask her what is wrong.”
Lynn Levin’s newest books are Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry; Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets with co-author Valerie Fox (Texture, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books; and a translation from the Spanish, Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), by Peruvian poet Odi Gonzales. Lynn Levin teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com.
“Migration,” Enrico Pagliarulo
A Monsoon Wedding
Fabiyas M V
A rural priest rolls and throws out the wedding mantras. The ritualistic ululation and the music of a toot and drum warm the monsoon up. The bridal garland like a noose awaits a brideâ€™s neck. She bows her head in rural Indian coyness. Our groom learns to forget all beside the glitz of dowry gold. A burning wick yields to the darkness beyond the nuptial rhythms. The froth of cheated love runs down Miss Hemaâ€™s chin. She is stranded on the bluish eternity, along with the pressed love in her womb. An opened phial lies on the floor of a hut, showing its void up. Fabiyas M V is a writer from Orumanayur village in Kerala, India. He is the author of Moonlight and Solitude. His fiction and poems have appeared in Westerly, Forward Poetry, Literary The Hatchet, E Fiction, Structo, and in several anthologies. He won many international accolades including the Poetry Soup International Award, USA, the RSPCA Pet Poetry Prize, UK, Speaking of Women Story Prize, Canada, and The Most Loved Poet For March 2014 Award by E Fiction, India. His poems have been broadcast on the All India Radio.
Commitment Sam Gridley
“Uncle Len?” Missy called, tapping with her knuckles. “Hello? Anybody home?” The grime-crusted screen door scrawked as her hip forced it wider. Enough crud for two dustpans lay in the bottom corner of the jamb. She knew the bell didn’t work, so she knocked again with her palm and then pounded with her fist, vibrating the inner fiberglass door on its hinges. She paused to listen. A breathless quiet surrounded the mobile home park. Above Len’s trailer the leaves of the big honeylocust dangled motionless, limp and almost translucent at the tips, as if they were starting to dissolve into the steamy atmosphere like the missing birds, squirrels, insects and humans. Today was just too hot for living things. Two lots over, an air conditioner offered a low bass note that was less a sound than an underlining of the silence. Beyond the hill, back out the gravel road, the highway traffic made only a ghost of a hum. A haze hung at the edge of her vision. Len’s air conditioning was bad—that was one reason she needed to check on him today. Also he hadn’t returned her phone calls this week. Also, most important, her boss had heard about a tornado watch for the late afternoon and evening. That was common for the season, but when the boss left the office at 4:30, Missy seized the chance to cut out early as well. On the drive here she’d held the wisp of a hope that Len would recognize the danger and come stay in her apartment tonight. She wanted, for once, to be the one giving shelter, as part of her repayment for all he’d done for her. In recent months he’d rarely left the trailer park, but there was always a possibility of rational persuasion. She believed in reason, or thought she did. Missy rapped hard on the door once more, willing herself to be aggressive. Len must be around—his rusted red pickup squatted there on the gravel. She felt he was ripe for what people called an
“intervention”; yet if he wouldn’t answer, what could she do? When the corroded two-step metal platform shifted under her feet, she tilted dizzily. Clutching the screen door, she blamed her tipsiness on the heat. But at the level of nerve and muscle, her body was remembering another sweltering June day nine years ago.
“Fuck you,” said Megan to Missy.
Though this was typical of her older sister’s mouth, Missy’s temper flared. She spun on both heels and marched toward the kitchen. “Now don’t get pissed off,” Megan laughed, flipping her ponytail. “It was just a suggestion. Seriously, it might do you good.” Missy wouldn’t dignify that with an answer, though she spoiled her stiff-backed, square-shouldered exit by stumbling on the doorsill. Actually, Missy had uttered the first provocation. Their mother, preparing for a Saturday night date, had called from her bedroom to ask Missy to look after younger brother Mason—though at 12 he hardly needed a babysitter only three years his senior. “I’m running late, we’re meeting for cocktails,” Mom had yelled; “can you take care of dinner? And make sure he eats something?” Dutifully Missy said she’d handle it. She hollered upstairs to inform Mason, and traipsing to the living room, she told Megan as well: “I’m making spaghetti, 5:30.” Megan said, without glancing up from the couch where she was lounging to watch Saturday afternoon movies, “I’m outta here by then.” “By 5:30?” Missy snipped, and at this point she let her resentment show by adding under her breath, “What, your friends are getting wasted earlier than usual?” To which Megan gave her foul-mouthed answer. To which Missy responded with her attempt at a cold shoulder. Megan was two and a half years older, but the gap between the sisters might have been reversed. Missy had always been the serious, studious, reliable one. Megan had been, since as early as Missy could remember, capricious, volatile, a flirt and manipulator—and in spite of all that, gorgeous and captivating. You couldn’t dislike Megan even if she mocked you. And Missy didn’t usually mind being the family’s designated sensible person, the object of teasing because of her steadiness. But when humid summer weather coated northeastern Nebraska like barbeque sauce, everyone got cranky, Missy included. With her dark bangs stuck to her forehead, her armpits slimy, she couldn’t keep from
poking at her sister’s nonchalant blonde perfection. In the kitchen a radio on the windowsill played Mom’s favorite oldies station—no one had bothered to turn it off since lunch. While Missy checked the cabinets for spaghetti and sauce and scrounged the refrigerator for a vegetable, her mother came in wearing a tight, strapless, low-cut, pale yellow dress that made her boobs resemble honeydew melons. Short and full-figured, Mom was decent-looking for her age but had no concept of fashion. “How does this look?” she asked, and Missy answered, sharper than she intended, “Like you might explode in the guy’s face.” “You think?” Mom worried, glancing down and adjusting. “But I wore this last year, and my weight’s the same.”
“What’s this guy’s name anyway?”
“Milt,” she added, “or Milton, sometimes. You met him a couple weeks ago, the finance manager for Stempel Ford? Tonight it’s some sort of business reception, then we’re having dinner downtown. He said it’s a fancy occasion, so I thought—” “It’ll be fine, Mom. That dress will keep you cool. And I’m sure Mr. Milton Milt will be impressed.” Mom cleared her throat. “It’s Milton McIntyre… Is something bugging you?” “Nuh-uh,” said Missy, shaking a spaghetti box to estimate its contents. In fact she was bugged by everything in their lives, from the men her mother dated back to the divorce that sent their Dad packing back to the decision of those two incompatible people to marry. Why commit to getting hitched and having three kids if you weren’t serious enough to keep it going? Not only were the people in her family irrational and unreliable, they were often absurd. For instance, Mom and Dad—Molly and Mike Muller—had named their kids Megan, Missy and Mason, like there was no other letter of the alphabet. Did they think it was cute or what? “Missy” was mushy in itself—she planned to have the name changed when she reached legal age. And now there was another stupid double-M in their lives, this Milton McIntyre. And this yellow dress two sizes too small, and the desperation that made Mom wear it. No wonder Megan, just out of high school with no plans for college, got trashed every weekend. No wonder Mason spent half his waking hours in a bowling alley, nursing the ridiculous idea of turning pro as soon as he finished school. For her family, the only response to absurdity was more
of it. If she could get through the next three years, Missy had been telling herself, she’d head far away to college, someplace where the cultural heroes weren’t football players or barbeque chefs, a place where the air didn’t turn to soup in the summer, where women like Mom aspired to more than secretarial jobs in the school district office, where Saturday night offered more opportunities than booze and drugs and sweaty groping. The whole town with its smug Midwestern chain-store mentality disgusted her. What new mentality she would adopt, and where she might find it, remained a vaguer concept. Maybe Casablanca, she mused, thinking of the Bogart movie. Or Sydney, where they were bold enough to put sails on an opera house. Or Edinburgh, with its “Fringe” festival of experimental arts. Edinburgh was located, she had read, on the Firth of Forth. Imagine living on a firth! Wherever she went, she would do something that made a difference for human life on the planet. As the quiet, dependable daughter, though, she knew to keep quiet about her opinions and ambitions. On this afternoon she told her mother, “I guess Mr. McIntyre’s a nice guy. Otherwise, you wouldn’t waste time on him, would you?” Mom let out a long sigh, suggesting oh-so-much she couldn’t explain, or wouldn’t. Missy took this as a rebuff and resented it. On cue, the radio began crooning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” a pop song from a Disney movie—an irony that Missy thought she alone could appreciate. A moment later Megan angled into the kitchen—she always seemed to move at a slant, her ponytail on one side, hips jutting in tight jeans, eyes not catching yours. From an upper cabinet she tilted out a bag of cheese curls.
“I’m making real food,” Missy snapped, “if you wait a half hour.”
“Can’t, got plans,” mumbled her sister through mashed carbohydrate. “And I won’t ask who with because I don’t expect the truth,” Mom put in, “but you will be home by eleven.”
“Ditto,” said Megan, swallowing.
“What?” “You be home by eleven, Mommy Dearest, and we won’t ask questions.”
Though Megan was grinning, Mom was too nervous to grasp the
nuances—or so Missy thought afterward. Mom got rattled and worked herself into a huff, which led to ludicrous vibrations in the yellow dress and bubbled sweat on the bare skin above. There was a lecture about who was the minor, who the adult, who had what responsibilities, etc. “Fuck, I didn’t say anything,” Megan griped, and this led to further remarks about who had better watch her mouth. For the moment Missy hated both of them, so while they argued she concentrated on the radio, which had shifted to a news bulletin about a tornado watch in the area—the fourth or fifth watch so far this month, an excuse for news in a place where nothing ever happened. It occurred to Missy that she could use her key. In the four years since she moved out, Uncle Len had never fixed the sagging gutter or the cracked front window or the flimsy steps, so of course he had never changed the lock. She had no trouble finding the key on her ring. When she came to Kearney she’d discarded her old keys, along with everything else from her previous life, and at 24 she had yet to accumulate enough new ones to confuse her. But the door tumblers seemed to have taffy in them; even pressed hard enough to hurt her thumb, the key threatened to bend or break rather than turn. Sweat ran down her arms. Despite the honeylocust, this side of the trailer got full afternoon sun, and the doorknob nearly blistered her fingers. At last the lock snapped and she nudged the door inward. “Len?” she called through the opening. “Uncle Len?… It’s Missy, hello?—I’m coming in. Are you awake? Are you OK?” She was seriously worried now. It was seven years since his wife had left him, four years since Missy too had departed, a year since he’d retired at age 56 from the Postal Service, eight months since Teddy the fat shepherd had died—each event marking a stage in Len’s depression. Having studied psychology in college, she knew the names of multiple therapies that might benefit him, but not how to convince him to start. Refusing her suggestions about getting help, he sat day after day in a creaky recliner—the upholstery still covered with dog hair—where he drank beer and stared at the TV whether it was turned on or not. She expected to find him there today, drunk and dozing. Shoving the door past the buckled linoleum in the entranceway, she stepped in. It was dark—all the windows closed, most of the shades shut—and the temperature must have been over a hundred. She could feel the sun’s
smothering violence through the trailer’s skin, thickening the air into jello. A light switch on the wall didn’t work. The dirty carpet clung to her shoes. Gasping for breath, she sneezed, and her foot sent a small object clattering—a beer can? She herself had given the place a good cleaning last September, shortly before Teddy took his last siesta on the couch, and she suspected Len hadn’t lifted a broom or mop since. As her vision adjusted, she located his chair, empty. With sweat sliding into her eyes, she stepped into the small kitchen, where, despite the sour odor, there was little sign of food. A crusted plate on the counter might have been there for weeks. The sink held an empty mini-keg. The refrigerator contained two dried-up pizza slices, a spoiled pint of milk, an empty juice carton and sixteen cans of beer. Lately, it seemed, Len had given up eating as well as cleaning, and as for bathing, she didn’t want to think about it. Someone could die in these conditions. Her stomach turned. She hurried back toward the trailer door and stuck her head out to gasp the humid air that only a moment ago had seemed intolerable. In the past months, she’d gone as far as discussing the situation with her boss’s wife. Missy worked for a small insurance brokerage, helping people (mostly business owners) file claims and revise their policies. Jack, the middle-aged owner, was either dry and businesslike or goofy, depending on his mood, but his wife Amanda had taken to the young assistant, and as a social worker Amanda knew some of the ins and outs of dealing with mental illness. When Missy asked about options if Len kept going downhill and refusing to help himself, Amanda told her about involuntary commitment. It was a difficult process, apparently—complex steps to go through, with a need to prove the person was endangering himself if not others. But Missy had been wondering if she ought to take those steps before it was too late—and fretting about when “too late” might be, and how Len would react if she messed with his life, and whether she had the right to interfere, or the guts. Today he must be out. No, his truck was there, she reminded herself. He never walked any distance, and he didn’t visit neighbors. He could be lying unconscious or dead in his bedroom. Panicked at this thought, she stepped all the way outside, into the sun’s glare, and teetered on the metal steps. No way could she deal with this! But if she didn’t, said a larger dread, she’d be responsible, or maybe she was already—and this, the same horror she’d been dodging
for years, buckled her knees and sent a hot trickle down her back that chilled as it pooled against her spine. The house quieted when Mom and Megan left. Mason was a decent kid, moody with weird taste in music, but appreciative of Missy’s efforts. Long and bony, he ate enough spaghetti for five truck drivers and ignored the salad. He’d gone bowling earlier in the day and was basking in the glow of a 542 three-game series. Though the score meant little to Missy, his pride rubbed off on her, enough to keep her happy as she cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. Once Mason had disappeared upstairs, though, Missy’s irritation surfaced. Even if she’d rather be at home with air conditioning and a book, it annoyed her to be taken for granted when others went out partying. On the way to the living room, she detoured to the mirror in the front hall where Mom had done a final exam of her eyeliner (too heavy) and a last hitch of the yellow dress. Missy’s own reflection offered a different sort of challenge: a skinny face with wire-rimmed glasses, no cheekbones to speak of, straight black hair that hung limp on humid days, a long neck leading to wide shoulders and (she glanced downward) boobs that would never rival Mom’s or even Megan’s. But she had long attractive legs, a narrow waist, a firm butt—overall a not-so-bad body, she told herself, if she could just make her face more interesting. Different glasses? Contacts? A haircut to match where she was going rather than where she’d grown up? But here her native timidity set in, as well as uncertainty about the way women in Edinburgh or Casablanca might be styling their hair these days. She took her book to the living room because the bedroom under the eaves she shared with Megan was always too hot. Mom had snatched this bungalow outright in the divorce settlement, but it was old and cramped, on a large but lackluster town lot, with only two bathrooms— one of which Mom hogged for herself, leaving the two girls and Mason to fight for prep time (not that Mason needed it—he always looked grungy). The lack of private space was another reason Missy couldn’t wait to move out. Each nail-polish smear from her sister, each crimped toothpaste tube littering the sink, smacked her with a fresh insult. Tonight she had planned to start on the high school’s summer reading list for rising tenth graders. An essay about one of the books would be required in the fall. Skipping over tales of young adult self-realization, which she figured would be too predictable, she had chosen The Hobbit because she liked the cover image of green mountains and the
promise of “the greatest fantasy epic of our time” (though the copyright date made “our time” seem a fudge). She had sampled and disliked the Harry Potter books, but maybe a dose of intelligent fantasy was what she needed to escape the world of Milton McIntyres.
Plopping onto the couch and opening the book, she read:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The cutesy language appalled her. Would the inhabitants be Henry Henderson and his wife Henrietta, with their kids Hank and Hester and Holly? No—she ventured a couple of paragraphs further—it was Bilbo Baggins, even cuter! After the description of the hobbit species, their “long clever brown fingers” and “deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it),” Missy tossed the book aside and sulked, blaming the school, the teachers, the town and the Midwestern United States for their childishness. She was done with juvenile fare, she decided. She already read adult authors like Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. In fact, if she were out on a date instead of Mom, she’d impress the guy with her maturity—and with a dress that actually fit her. Or if she were hanging out with Megan’s friends, she could spot the one boy who was good for something other than getting plastered. She’d have a long discussion with him about, about…well, life, friendship, the architecture in Sydney, the stupidity of American families, the poems of Emily Dickinson—
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then, at the end of the night, he’d kiss her and caress her neck with his sensitive fingers—he was a classical violinist, she thought— and when his hands began to wander she would allow it to a point—to about here—but then remark wisely that they ought to cool it until their second meeting, when they would stroll along the lagoon under the huge old oak trees and… Her eyes popped open. Something had startled her. Looking around, she saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the commonplace, well-worn living room furniture, the TV, the framed landscapes on the walls. The house and neighborhood seemed preternaturally quiet—no sounds of kids outside or cars, only the faint whoosh of the air vents and the reverberation of Mason’s stereo through the floorboards.
She got up and looked out the window at the motionless grass. Unnerved, she switched on the TV to create some noise, and what confronted her was a giant blob of blue, green, yellow, orange, red—a weather map, it turned out, with a voice announcing that a funnel cloud had been spotted twelve miles to the north-northwest moving in a southerly direction at an estimated speed of… The details blurred. The tornado “watch” had become a “warning,” that much was clear, and Missy jogged upstairs yelling for Mason. She stuck her head into his slope-ceilinged lair, a sticky grotto where some rock band was screaming “Yeah-h-h-h-h… Gotta leave town,” and after signaling him to lower the volume, she managed a short conversation: “Listen, they’ve put out a tornado warning. Get ready to scoot down in the basement if we have to.” “Not yet, I been watching online. It’s miles from here. It’s not even raining outside. I got a site that’s updated every couple minutes.”
“You don’t know which way a tornado’s going to…”
“Hey, I’m on top of it, Missy, I’ll come get you if we have to do the basement run, OK? We’ll grab a bottle of Mom’s wine on the way.” Missy snorted at that, hesitated, then headed back downstairs. Though she laughed at her brother’s similarity to every other 12-yearold in the United States, she admired him too. The kid was good at multitasking, that was for sure. He’d been reading a comic book and clipping his toenails while listening to music and surfing websites. The whole family had taken to the basement once before, when Missy was little, and what she remembered most was the argument between her mother and father about the proper corner to sit in, the windward or leeward side. They’d ended up in opposite corners, making the kids choose between them, and not long afterward the split had widened into separate houses. Missy was in no hurry to repeat that experience with her brother. She wondered if she should call Mom and Megan to tell them about the warning, but wouldn’t they know already, wherever they were? Dancing, eating barbequed shrimp, getting stoned, whatever, the people around them would have heard, there were sirens downtown for emergencies, and anyway she was sick of being the mature one in the family. Them out having a good time, her at home worrying, it was all too typical of their life. Mason said he was following the storm on the Internet, so OK, so let him handle it for once.
She left the TV on but turned the sound low. She picked up The
“La Soledad segun Dexler,” Paloma Pucci
Hobbit again, read about the old wizard with “a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots”—and threw the silly book across the room. Because there was no one else to do it, Missy forced herself back into the trailer and fumbled through the unbreathable goo. Locating a hall light that worked, she passed the bathroom, where a repulsive reek drifted out, and the little room she had slept in, which Len hadn’t used since she left. At his bedroom in the rear, the door hung three-quarters closed. Its hinges screeched a protest. Inside, in the smudged glow from the windows, she made out the body slung diagonally across the double bed, face down, one arm dangling to the floor, hairy legs splayed.
“Uncle Len!” she screamed.
She stumbled against the door frame, hand to her face, wanting to run but knowing she had to phone someone—ambulance? police?
Then he twitched, rolled over and sat up. “Bliiihhh,” he said.
His arms were nearly as pale as his sleeveless undershirt, and a pasty flap of flesh hung above the checkered boxer shorts. Matted gray hair fringed his head and crawled across his cheeks, and a darker tuft poked through his gapped fly. Every visible piece of skin sagged, from his eyelids to the pouches around his knees, making his weight loss obvious.
“Jesus, I thought you were dead!”
“Who?” he said.
“Doesn’t your air conditioning work at all? How can you stand it in here? Have you been out of bed today? Why haven’t you called me back?” A dismissive rumble emerged from the back of his throat. He pushed hard on his knees to stand, then trundled toward the bathroom. Passing her, he smelled like spoiled mayonnaise. After he had taken a long, audible piss, she followed him to the kitchen, where he got a beer from the fridge and held a second out to her. She waved it away. “Have you eaten anything today? No? Uncle Len, I want you to come with me. There’s a tornado watch, and you know how trailers get thrown around like tennis balls—it’s not safe here. You
can cool off at my place, the air conditioning’s great. You can take a nice shower. I’ll fix some dinner, whatever you like—burgers? Or we could pick up some ribs?” He popped the top and tossed it in the sink. After a long slurp, he wiped his forearm across his mouth, scratched his ass and shook his head. “I’m good,” he muttered. “You go have fun with your friends.” “Didn’t you hear me? This weather is dangerous! You could— damn it, you could die in this heat or in the storm that’s coming!” “Nah. Long as I got refreshment,” he smirked over the beer can. “You’re a good girl for thinkin’ of me, honey.” A sense of doom descended, thickening the sweat between her shoulder blades. After a few more pleas in a weakening voice, she bolted to her car. The honeylocust shook in a sudden wind. She watched the sky darken as she raced home, panicked by the purple clouds on the horizon. The jangle startled her from a reverie or doze—had she been asleep? She lurched toward the phone.
“Megan?” an agitated voice yelped.
“No, this is her sis—”
“Is she there? Have you heard from her? It’s gone, it’s just like, vanished!”
“Who’s this—Vicky? What’s vanished?”
“Armando’s, where we were gonna meet. It’s—it came right down the street, we heard a siren and ducked in the ice cream place, everybody was running downstairs, there’s this huge crash and stuff and we’re all crouched in the basement with the boxes of cones, then we come out, lookin’ up and down and it’s real quiet like nothing happened, like there’s not even a storm except a kind of mumble far off, and then we see Armando’s, it’s—it’s missing! Like, not there! Somebody said there’s pieces three blocks over. So we’re checking on the people that were supposed to—Megan’s not picking up her phone, did she call home?” Right then, Missy knew for certain, even before she tried calling her mother.
She didn’t guess the specifics. She didn’t guess that “three blocks over,” in the lobby of the town’s best hotel, a plate-glass window had exploded as the guests at the cocktail reception rushed for a safe room. Nor did she suppose that, with two of the three regional deaths coming from one family, there would be front-page articles about them in the newspaper. For now, Missy just understood that she had failed to warn. When she put down the phone she drifted to the front window again. Leaves were blowing past, but otherwise the street remained quiet. How could it be so calm in one spot, so shattering a couple of miles away? On TV the multicolored map continued to flicker. No one blamed her—the idea was so far from anyone’s mind, no one even assured her she wasn’t to blame—but that didn’t matter. She knew. Before and after the two-coffin service, the family weighed options. Missy’s father, who had left when she was six and seldom been in contact since, lived in a Sioux City apartment with his new wife and their son. The boy’s room was large enough to accommodate his halfbrother, but a girl wouldn’t fit at all. The grandparents on both sides, all moved to southern Texas, were too old and too retired to take in a teenager. So the assembled adults decided that Missy would go to her maternal uncle Len and his wife Norma, who had a three-bedroom house in Kearney and no children. One of their extra bedrooms contained Len’s fishing gear, the other Norma’s craft supplies, and Missy was given her choice. She picked the fishing room because Norma seemed less reconciled to inconvenience than her husband. Missy didn’t think she should inconvenience anyone, and if the adults had assigned her to an ice cave in the Arctic, she would have accepted it as more than she deserved. In any case she had it better than Mason, who had to live with a father who’d abandoned them. When the adults told her to pack, she took as little as possible from her mother’s house, which would be sold to create a college fund for her and Mason. Photos, school yearbooks, iPod, posters on her bedroom wall—everything was a reminder of her betrayal, and she ditched it. She even welcomed her separation from Mason. Rather than cling to what was left, she looked forward to barrenness. Yet as she settled in at her new home in Kearney, she couldn’t help but become a 15-year-old girl again, in some respects. She made a few friends in her new school. She bought new jeans. She laughed at
dumb jokes. She grew increasingly fond of Uncle Len, who had a soft voice and told funny stories about postal customers. They did weekend errands together and stopped at his favorite diner for milkshakes. After dinner he exercised his wit on the reality-show contestants they watched on TV, sharing the couch with Teddy the overstuffed shepherd. Aunt Norma was pricklier. She didn’t like Teddy on the furniture, for one thing, and sometimes she shouted at Missy for trivial offenses. Though Missy was perhaps the best behaved teenager in the city—going out of her way to help with dishes and laundry—she was conscious every day of the sins she was atoning for and the debt she owed these people for taking her in. Besides, she didn’t blame anyone for disliking her. When the irritability between Len and Norma morphed into arguments, Missy figured her arrival had upset the balance. She sobbed when Norma announced, two years into this arrangement, that she couldn’t tolerate her lazy jackass of a husband anymore. “You can have him all to yourself,” she snickered at Missy, “and his goddamn shedding mutt too.”
Missy could only snivel, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
This began the transformation of good old Uncle Len. Partly to satisfy Norma’s demands for alimony, he sold the house and his fishing gear and moved himself, Missy and the dog into the cramped trailer, where Teddy often blocked the entire hallway. Len’s occasional indulgence in a cold beer became habitual and then compulsive. When Missy finished high school, her concern and guiltiness about him, plus the slimness of the college fund, plus her lack of courage, plus her conviction that she no longer deserved to escape, led her to apply to only one institution, the local campus of the state university less than three miles away. For the first two years of college she stayed in the tiny room next to Len’s, doing most of the cooking for the household, monitoring his beers and prodding Teddy into exercise walks. Her brother told her “some people” thought it “kind of peculiar,” her living with Len in a little trailer, but she wouldn’t respond to the gossip. She did, after an introductory course, decide to major in psychology, thinking it might offer insights into her diseased self and family. In the summer before her junior year, she met a young man who attracted her—the first one, really, since a crush at age 13. The new guy, George, was a graduate student in economics. Practicalities demanded she have a place of her own, so she broke the news to Len, who said cheerfully, “It’s about time you got out on your own, girlie,” and she
found an apartment near the campus. The first time she called Len after the move, he was too drunk to talk. It turned out that George had firm ideas about commitment and fidelity. As long as she dated him, she shouldn’t glance at other guys. After seven months she discovered that the same rule did not apply to him when he wanted to screw a blonde sophomore. Classic, she told herself, just classic, but then, who was she to complain about betrayal? Missy was glad to be done with him, and also with virginity, which had seemed an ironic status for a person of her past. She spent the rest of her time in college alone, visiting Len at least once a week to cook a good meal for him, walk his dog and discard a heap of beer cans and pizza boxes. By then the trailer had begun its descent into squalor, but there was only so much he’d let her do. He’d started to resist her help. After graduation, her psychology major offered no leads for employment, nor any wisdom about her life for that matter, so Missy took the job at the insurance agency—dull but detailed work that kept her occupied. Instead of flying off, as she’d once planned, to Sydney or Casablanca, she bought a car and moved seven blocks to a garden apartment complex. She made sure Uncle Len had her new address. “OK, sweetie,” he said. “I hope you like the place. Teddy misses you.” Tired from work, with only the weekends for errands and laundry, she didn’t check on him as often as before—and now she was reaping the consequences. Bursts of yellow-green flashed through her windows. The glass shivered, the frames rattled. During the storm she tried calling Len twice—no answer—and kept her radio, TV and computer on weather news. To her bleary eyes, the multicolored map looked the same as the one nine years ago, but the lurid areas began to shrink and drift away from town. Though she kept waiting for a report that a trailer on the outskirts of Kearney had been wrenched into a pretzel and tossed in the river, the gel-haired TV news anchors didn’t mention that. Through the night she hurtled down an endless street of dark buildings, locked and deserted, with a giant wind of voices behind her. There was no way out unless she surrendered to the swirl of accusations that wanted to spin her up above the traffic lights and smack her around like a volleyball. When she woke, she thought for a moment she was paralyzed, her right hand wedged in the left sleeve of her nightie
and both feet tangled in the sheet she had kicked to the foot of the bed. She shook with a silent scream until one foot came loose. It was Friday. She was due at work at 9:00, but after gulping a cup of coffee she set out again for Len’s. The air was dry and magnificent, the sky clear, another joke from the elements. In its semirural setting, the trailer park looked idyllic, and she had a pang of nostalgia for the walks she used to take with Teddy. No response again at Len’s door. This time she used her key without hesitation and forced the latch open, marched through to the back bedroom, found him unconscious but breathing, in the same underwear as yesterday, stinking of cheap malt and urine and old sweat. She didn’t attempt to rouse him—he’d just fetch another beer. She opened all the windows in the trailer that weren’t stuck shut and pounded the thermostat in a vain effort to start the fan. As soon as she reached her office and apologized to the boss for being late, she phoned his wife, Amanda. “I’ve decided, I have to get my uncle some help,” she said, and Amanda volunteered to assist in having him committed. The rest of the day was spent on phone calls. Among others, she spoke with Mason, who was taking a summer class at Iowa State. He exuded sympathy for Uncle Len but refused to get involved. Missy didn’t bother to call Len’s parents, her grandparents, who were now in poor health; what could they do? Instead, she spoke to half a dozen official kinds of people, who made her explain the situation over and over again. The long day ended with a police officer entering the trailer and taking Len into emergency protective custody. Late that night, Len was admitted to a mental health facility for evaluation. On Saturday, when Missy reached him by phone at the hospital, Len screamed—the first time he’d ever raised his voice to her. He accused her of invading his house, violating his privacy, destroying his freedom, subjecting him to psychobabbling assholes, etc.—all true, she supposed. “What’s this protective custody shit? Who they protecting me from? Did Norma put you up to this?” When she tried to answer, he yelled louder. By the end of the short conversation she was crying.
But it also felt, oddly, like a veil around her life had been broken. Whether she was right or not, she had committed herself to action, and the dangling shreds of regret couldn’t stop her. That afternoon she drove to the trailer with a carload of buckets, mops, cleansers and brushes. If Len started fresh, in a clean space with the right medication, he might do better—she’d give him the chance. By the end of the day, sweaty and exhausted, she’d scrubbed half the trailer, floor to ceiling, and it felt like her mind had been scoured as well. On Sunday she tackled the back half of the place, including Len’s bedroom, where she discovered, jammed in a broken dresser, a small batch of snapshots. Flipping through, she saw one of her family. It was her mother, Megan, Mason, herself—four smiling faces in front of a roller coaster. Bright t-shirts. A blue-white sky. Megan tilted to the side and laughing. Mom looking young, plump, tan—when had Mom ever tanned? Remembering the occasion, a trip to an amusement park for her brother’s seventh birthday, Missy stared at the two lost ones: The way the sun shadowed their eyes. The way they blended into the family group, so together and so separate. The anguish she expected to feel wasn’t there. Sadness, yes, but not the shame that had made her abandon all belongings from their home. As she gripped the picture, taking care not to drip sweat on it, it seemed a kind of reward for her strenuous cleaning. She slipped it into her bag. She’d have a duplicate made for herself, she decided, and bring the original back to Len’s. When he’d be allowed to return, she hadn’t been told. Already, though, she was calculating that she’d stay in the area long enough to help him stabilize, and then she could move on—not to the Firth of Forth, she supposed, but as far as Austin, maybe, or Denver. She might go back to school for social work. It would be a start.
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and several honors from magazines. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog.
Rebecca Thieman I tried to snatch time by the string. The ends of memories hugged between my fingers and my palm. They floated away like balloons. * Sixteen years I went to school. I ate, I slept, I learned. Then I woke up and saw that I was married with children playing at my feet. * â€œSomeday, I willâ€? used to follow me like a shadow until one day I caught it and erased the words from the floorboards. Still, sometimes it tickles at my throat. * I woke today to the sound of a train whistling a warning to no one. We work too hard for silence.
Rebecca Thieman At seventeen you start drinking and never stop. By the time I meet you the summer of my freshman year in college you are rarely sober. Know that this is not okay. Know that when we are in Interlaken and you slip drunk into my room at four a.m. I will not be angry with you. Your favorite – rum and coke – will stick to your tongue and as you breathe I will smell the alcohol and the hint of vanilla. The sweat on your face will be dry but its salty scent will stream into my nose. Your hair will always be thick – a bright blonde that curls in ringlets like those of a small child. And your eyes. They are the blue of frozen water and chlorinated swimming pools. Cracked white and deep cobalt. Your skin is pale but your cheeks are a constant red rash as if you’d spent too much time playing in snow. When you slip into my room that night it will be dark but a small slit in the curtain will leak dull light onto the bed. You’ll drape your arm across my stomach; it will feel like dead weight on my abdomen. You’ll hold my hand; it will feel clammy cold against my palm. The side of your face will rest on my shoulder and you will breathe into my neck. Hot. Heavy. Stale. You will try to kiss me – your lips crawling up my cheek like an insect on my skin and I want to brush you away. I will think your face is a cherub’s. You will whisper, Please. This night will be the first time you call me “Sugar” and the name will stick to us like sap. When we say it, it will be both endearing and cautionary. It will be a preface to a “but.” It will mean that what follows is how we hurt and how we break. I call you “Sugar” when I want to be honest. When I want you to know that I still love you – even as I move away. I will tell you, No. I will try and make my voice firm. I will shake my shoulder loose of you, watch your head fall to the mattress. I will
look you in the eye and watch you cry and wonder if I can turn back. But you are drunk. And your voice will break. And you will whisper, Can you just hold my hand? Please? And I’ll give in to you. I’ll entwine my fingers with yours and wait for you to fall asleep. When your breath slows and your body slacks I will untangle my hand. I will move a foot or two down the bed.
Sugar, I will try to let you go.
A year later we’ll have dinner at a refined restaurant in Bowling Green. It will be your choice and your treat because you have graduated and landed a job as a Biology high school teacher in the next town over. I will touch your shoulder and say this job is perfect for you. But you’ve been told your entire life that you were born with purpose. When you went to college you were instructed to follow science and you did, obtaining a degree in chemistry and biology in three years. But, Sugar, when you took the ACT you were drunk. You fell off your chair and don’t remember the math section. You still scored a 33. This will make you feel both ashamed and invincible. Maybe this is why when we sit and talk for three hours on the restaurant patio you will order red wine and tell me how you are tired. How every day you leave classrooms with mixed emotions, you say it’s tough to stay connected – it is so much easier to be captured by apathy. You have begun to show up drunk at work, the students smell it on your breath. Another teacher guzzles pots of coffee with you in the faculty lounge. When you tell me this, you laugh and describe how she arrives every morning with dark circles, smeared mascara and disheveled hair. You found a kindred alcoholic on staff and both of you are earning a reputation. The principal will know about your problems – everyone will – but you are charismatic and warm and intelligent. They will not want to lose you. Even drunk you have more promise than most people have sober. But you are tired of it all. You will tell me cognition is a burden. That life in general is such a hard thing to discern. I won’t know what to say. You wanted to teach English. You believe in 20th century American writers the way some believe in a Christian god. You found salvation and comfort in Hemingway. Faulkner taught you how to grieve and Fitzgerald made you think your own green light was something worth dying for. You once told me that you were born to die young with a dry martini in one hand. I laughed it off. I used to joke that you were a sixty-year-old man trapped in a twenty-something’s body. Then I
realized Hemingway’s favorite drink was a dry martini and he shot himself in the head when he was sixty-two. I no longer joke that your mind is too old. Six months after this dinner you will visit my parents’ home in Louisville and we will go to a concert on the waterfront. When this happens, please don’t drink those eight beers. We will have fun at first. You will meet two of my close friends and at midnight we will dance barefoot in front of the stage while a man finger picks a banjo. There will be a moment when I look at your face and find you with your eyes closed, pale face turned upwards and red rash cheeks marked with two dimples as you smile, body swaying to the bluegrass. In this moment I will stop and stare and think there will be time to heal you. There’s a story underneath this one that no one will tell me, though. There’s a story and the plot is that you cannot make another person sober. You cannot heal someone who is only capable of dancing loosely to a banjo barefoot when eight beers are in his blood and breath. This story is the one I won’t realize until later that night on my parents’ back porch. After my friends have left, you will go to your car and emerge with a bottle of Jack cradled in a brown paper bag. You will go into the kitchen and rummage through my mother’s dishes before finding the clear glass cups you want. I will be disturbed by this invasion, by your fingerprints on her dishes. You will fill these two cups with ice and pour us both a glass. I will not touch mine. I will not touch mine because the smell of Jack has made me sick by now. I’ll have known you for over a year and a half. You will be twenty-two and I will have just turned twenty-one and our friendship will consist of sporadic dinners, late night phone calls and the times you cry drunkenly into my neck, your voice catching as you whisper your mantra. I am bad. I am bad. I am bad. As you make your way through the bottle – ice melting in the glass until gone, then Jack straight and warm – you will tell me about your recently deceased grandmother. That she was the best friend you ever had and the one stitch keeping you from busting. After she dies, when drinking and living become synonymous, your daily five to ten hour stints of sobriety will become nonexistent. She will be your reason for finishing the entire bottle. Don’t do this, Sugar. Don’t start rocking your wasted body on my back porch. Don’t make me want to put your head against my chest and stroke your blonde ringlets straight. Don’t take my hand and ask me to hold you that night because you’re scared of yourself. I’m scared of you,
too. You want to feel connected but you’re already gone, Sugar, gone. I can’t be the one to reel you back. Your heart is breaking and it’s not a crack but a storm and already you’re too late to save your ocean heart. The next morning you will wake after my parents leave for work. It will feel awkward between us and you will be embarrassed. Not because you remember what you did or what I said but because it’s all black in your mind. I won’t tell you about how you cried over your grandmother or how you kept drinking – even after I asked you to stop. I won’t tell you how you asked me to stay with you in the guest bedroom – and how I said no. I won’t tell you how you’re hurting me too. But I will hug you and I will ask you to drag yourself out of the shit hole you’re in. You will call me the next day. I poured all the liquor down the sink, Sugar. I’m quitting. Three weeks later you will send me a video of yourself dancing to Neil Young. A bottle of rum is in your hand. I will move that summer into a house my friends and I rent for the next two years of college. While packing my books, I will come across the letters you wrote me when I was abroad. On the inside of one of the envelope flaps you wrote: “Courage is not a loud roar. Courage is the quiet voice of the day saying I will try again tomorrow.” I will read this and cry. Next time we speak you are in Chicago. We have known each other for two and a half years. You promise to take me to the Museum of Contemporary Art so we can sip wine and stare at paintings with our heads cocked to the side, nodding slightly. You say you’ve joined AA. That’s right, you say, I’ve given up the sauce. One week and counting. Sugar, if I could bottle your promises I’d have enough drinks to last a lifetime.
Rebecca Thieman is an emerging writer from Louisville, Kentucky with B.A.s in Creative Writing and Psychology from Western Kentucky University. Her nonfiction has been published in The Susquehanna Review and The Ashen Eggand her poetry in The Zephyrus. She was an honorable mention for Sarabande Books’ 2014 Flo Gault Poetry Prize. She plans to earn her Master’s degree in Social Work, specializing in crisis intervention and trauma.
Riding the Escalator at 30th Street Station Anne Kaier
Every time I tap my right foot onto the rungs of the ascending escalator, I know my father will be waiting in the great hall when I get to the top. He will be there with his arms flung wide to welcome his daughter. I know it because he always is. He’s there every time I come home from college, as if this were his only joy, although it certainly isn’t. As if he’s surprised that I’ve come back, although there’s no reason for that. Of course I’ve come back. I always do. On every return, my suitcase bumps against the rising stair and I steady it with my shin, shift my feet on the metal rungs, clutch the rubber handrail, knowing at every click of the chain that he will be up there, that he will lean his silver head forward when he sees me, stoop a little as if I were still about seven, clap his hands and sing out “Annie.” Always. When I’m eighteen, nineteen, twenty-two. Every time he sees me, he sees the same child. I’m always on the serried steps of the escalator, riding up. I can’t return to the train that clangs along the gray platform, heading south to Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington. I cling with my soles to the escalator; I arch my toes on the combs of its steps. Gripping the handrail as I rise through narrow walls, I can’t see him yet but I know he’s standing in the middle of the station he loves, where Art Deco chandeliers hang from ninety-foot ceilings and afternoon light slants from a clerestory. Perhaps the stationmaster has stopped to talk with him, joking with Mr. K. from the Legal Department who’s worked for the railroad for thirty-five years. Perhaps, while he waits, my father turns to admire the massive bronze angel who arches his serried wings and cradles a fallen soldier—forever a memorial to the men of the railroad who died in the Second World War.
I know he is up there. He always is. Year after year, he waits in
the center of the station, his arms spread wide to welcome his daughter and I rise on the escalator as other travelers grow taller and melt away and my feet skid onto the floor and he opens his arms wide for his daughter and he claps his hands and sings out: “Annie.” As I tap my foot on the rungs of the escalator and I brace my bag against my shin, I know my father waits at the top. I know he’s there because he always is. As I slide my foot onto the first step and brace my bag against my shin, I know he will be there waiting because he always is, waiting near the angel with the fallen warrior, the warrior who has fallen sideways, his head on his chest, his lifeless head held upright by the relentless angel who will not let him go.
Anne Kaier’s essay “Maple Lane” was mentioned in 2014 Best American Essays. Her workappeared in Beauty is a Verb, an ALA notable book for 2012. Her new memoir, Home with Henry, was published by PS Books. Another memoir, Malade, is out from Shebooks. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. With a Ph.D. from Harvard, she teaches at Rosemont College and Arcadia University.
A Conversation with Anne Kaier
Interview by Megan Hovermann Nonfiction writing requires one to use a combination of honesty and dynamic details to develop a story worth reading. Anne Kaier, a professor who teaches at Rosemont College, is a writer who understands this well. Very well. This is getting her noticed, leading her to being known as “A Best American Essays ‘Notable’ Author.” Her works have appeared in publications such as The Gettysburg Review, Referential, Beauty is a Verb: An Anthology of Poetry, Poetics, and Disability, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon Review. One of her newest pieces, Malade, a literary memoir about disability, sexuality, and the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, can be found at Shebooks.net. Her latest memoir, Home with Henry, was recently published by PS Books.
RR: Congratulations on your latest work! Your book, Home with Henry, is structured like a journal. Why write this memoir in that style? AK: While the events chronicled in Home with Henry were happening, I kept a journal, writing at home or in my office. So when I worked on the book it seemed natural to keep this format. Also, the diary style, hopefully, allows the reader to have the same thrills and anxieties when he or she is reading the book as I did while I was living through the events. RR: I remember when you discussed the idea of writing in journals when I was in your nonfiction workshop. I thought that made so much sense because the words of journal often feel express the truth. What was harder to capture: the details of past memories or incorporating the themes of this story about Henry? AK: The themes. Only after several rewrites of the material did I really
discover what those themes were. I naturally have a close eye, details of places, in particular, seem to stay with me. It’s harder to figure out what it all means. RR: Do your ideas tend to formulate all at once or do they come to you in small doses? AK: Ideas come to me after I’ve brooded on events and people for a while. Bigger ideas come to me while I’m doing something else— walking down the city street trying to avoid loose bricks, driving the car, filling the clothes drier. I think many writers work this way. RR: Is reading your work aloud just as important as reading it to yourself ? AK: I hope that my sentences have a rhythm. I work on them and rewrite them in order to get rhythmic effects. For example, there’s a scene in Home with Henry when I finally find the Schuylkill River, after going down a flights of steps to the river’s bank. I wanted that moment to stand out, so I worked on the prose to include a string of iambic hexameter beats, (six units of strong stress following weak stress): “I watched the current flow relentlessly downstream.” Hopefully, readers will feel these effects without noticing them. Perhaps those rhythms come out more if the book is read aloud— either by the reader or by me.