a publication of the Rosemont College MFA in Creative Writing & MA in Publishing programs
vol. 1, issue 3 â€˘ fall 2013
rathalla review Vol. 1, Issue 3 Staff
Managing Editor Production Manager Fiction Editor Creative Nonfiction Editor Poetry Editor Social Media Manager Production Staff
John McGeary Feliza Casano Cheryl Dellasega Tracy Kauffman Wood Kara Cochran Christian Cornier Sarah Eldridge Monica Lopez-Nieto
Alan Beyersdorf Tori Bond Maria Ceferatti Kara Cochran Christian Cornier Christopher Davis Pietra Dunmore Carol Dwyer Michael Fisher Hannah Fogel Ayesha Hamid Kat Hayes Kim Hufford Cheryl “CJ” Jones Donna Keegan Saphiya Khan Abigail Lalonde
Joe Lerro Nichole Liccio Monica Lopez-Nieto Cynthia McGroarty Joseph Magee Meghan Mellinger Ian O’Neill Rae Pagliarulo Becky Plourde Samantha Plourd Jennifer Rieger Sharon Ritovoto Susan Ruhl Lisa Sheronas Tiffany Sumner Chelsea Terwilliger Hannah Walcher
Table of Contents Fiction A Plate for Elijah by River Adams (page 5) Into the Dark Soil by Robert Earle (page 20) Metallic Bones Corrode by William Wright (page 26) Compassionate Release by Michael Pikna (page 37)
Creative Nonfiction Spraycopter by Rich Tombeno (page 11) Three White Boys by C.B. Heinemann (page 16) Leavenworth by Robert F. Sommer (page 31)
Poetry without poetry by Megan Mealor (page 9) Chrysanthemums Tied Together by Darrell Dela Cruz (page 10) Compassion by Ruffa Romero (page 12) Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Bullet Wound by Cara Losier Chanoine (page 13) Lexicography by Rena Rossner (page 25) Trilateral by Rena Rossner (page 25) Legacy by Jeff Mumford (page 28) The Shortstop by Jacob Collins-Wilson (page 30) wetting the babyâ€™s head by Bruce McRae (page 36) Manhandled by Nazifa Islam (page 38) Jugular by Kari Wergeland (page 40)
Craft An Interview with Beth Kephart (page 41)
From the Editorâ€™s Desk (page 42)
All written work in Rathalla Review remains copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced in any form, printed or digital, without express permission of the author. All artwork in this issue of Rathalla Review coypright Ernest Williamson III and may not be reproduced in any form, print or digital.
Dr. Ernest Williamson III has published poetry and visual art in over 400 national and international online and print journals. Some of Dr. Williamson’s visual art and/or poetry has been published in journals representing nearly 50 colleges and universities around the world. Dr. Williamson is an Assistant Professor of English at Allen University, self-taught pianist, poet, singer, composer, social scientist, private tutor, and a self-taught painter. His poetry has been nominated three times for the Best of the Net Anthology (www.sundresspublications. com). The poems which were nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology were as follows: “The Jazz of Old Wine,” “The Symbol of Abiotic Needs,” & “The Misfortune of Shallow Sight.” He holds the B.A. and the M.A. in English/Creative Writing/Literature from the University of Memphis and the PhD in Higher Education Leadership from Seton Hall University. Prof. Williamson is also a chess master with a rating of 2223, and currently he is the Visual Arts Editor for VerseJunkies Magazine.
Lost in Japan
Even Though Your Shadow Remains
Between Jazz and the Blues
After the Ballet
The Missing Children
On the cover: “Artist Delving Into Her Craft,” 20 in. x 20 in. acrylic, oil, and ink on paper.
am not a multifarious artist by choice. I create because I have to. With reference to my visual artwork, my approach is a process of spontaneity and deep concentration imbued with a sort of loud silence that calms me. The works of Picasso and Dali humble me and they inspire me on a continual basis. Dali takes what he holds in imagination and puts it on canvas. I admire his ability to do just that. Picasso forces the viewer to accept and deny conventional perception. I began painting and composing piano music at the age of 19. My visual artwork is a reflection of what is contained in my unconscious mind. My poetry is also a reflection of what is observed via the senses. The artist soaks up what he or she observes and then he or she gives birth to what the reader or viewer of the artwork sees and perceives. We as lovers of humanity must find a way to decrease the violence there and around the world. My work, in part, is an advocation of world peace. Hopefully the actuality of love and peace will convict persons of influence and people in general to perpetuate peace forevermore.
A Plate for Elijah
River Adams got shell shocked by a collapsing civilization, learned itinerancy by falling out of an airplane, and was adopted by a language on the wrong side of the world. She is a writer, a teacher, a theologian, and runs the website OnMountHoreb.com (Mount Horeb, Third Door on the Right). Her fiction has appeared in publications like descant, The Long Story, Workers Write!, Phoebe (Oneonta), Quiddity Literary Journal, The Evansville Review, The MacGuffin, Out of Line, RiverSedge, Crosstimbers, and more.
“Mommy, I’m sorry! I broke Elijah’s plate…”
My four-year-old’s face is quivering and ready to explode with a hot fountain of tears and a siren, so I hurry into the dining room, kiss the crinkled nose, and rumple his still-baby-blond hair. “It’s okay, Mattie. I’ll get the pieces. You go get another plate. Run!” He dashes for the cupboard, not a trace of despair that flooded his world five seconds ago, all worry erased with one touch of my hand. I envy his short memory. Gathering shattered china off the carpet, I remember all too well why it is there. The year I turned 15 and the Passover that shattered my life. I remember Elijah’s face. Thank you for my son, Elijah. “Mommy, why do we put a plate for Elijah? He never comes to eat.” He is back, standing over me with another dish already. How does he know what I am thinking? “Remember, sweetie, I told you about the prophet Elijah? He was very brave and very just, he even stood up to a king. But he was kind to good people. Eloheinu Himself listened to his prayers and then took him up to Heaven. In a fiery chariot—” My voice falters. I stand up and busy myself, just for a moment, wrapping up the shards of the broken plate and throwing them into the trash. Matthew is already in his seat at the dining room table. He’s had a long day. “Mommy, tell me the rest.” “Elijah comes back to help us when we are in danger, you see?” I sit next to Matt at the table and pull his unruly head to my side. “And someday he will be back for good, before the Messiah comes, and then all the bad things will be over, and everything will be joy, forever. But we don’t know
when it’ll happen, so we wait for him, and we set a place for him at dinner just in case he comes tonight. Okay?” “Okay!” That’s not Mattie. “As long as hungry men get to have some dinner too!” My husband Jon has finally emerged from his after-work shower and is now lifting the lids from every dish on the table one by one, sniffing loudly and rolling up his eyes to demonstrate just how close to a hungry fainting spell he is. “Hands off!” I slap him on the wrist. “We’ve just been waiting for you.” I open the pots and dish out potatoes, chicken meatballs, and stewed cabbage, pour plum juice into glasses. Jon has turned Matthew upside down and is tickling him, roaring something about hidden treasures in little boys’ belly buttons. Piercing squeals are shaking the house. Thank you for my husband, Elijah. Every day there are four plates on my family’s dinner table. Four glasses. Four chairs. It’s not a Jewish tradition—the tradition demands that we leave a chair and a cup of wine for Elijah, nothing more, and only once a year, during a Passover Seder. After the wine is poured for the fourth time, children run to the door and open it to see if Elijah has stopped by. I found it funny when I was a child. Then I found it ridiculous. Then I learned what it’s like to wait for someone’s return—and not to know when he would return. Or if he ever would. My son is still too young to realize that something is unusual about his family dinners, though he will soon, and then I’ll have to explain it to him one way or another. My husband knows and bears with me. It’s my tradition. My life. Thank you for my life, Elijah. “Settle down, men. Jon, you’ll give him a headache. Okay, sit down. Ready?” I close my eyes and speak the words that open our every evening meal. “Baruch ata Adonai. Blessed art Thou, our Lord. We thank you for the good day that has passed and for the day to come. We thank you for the food we are about to share. Elijah, Angel of the Covenant, herald of salvation, calmer of Lord’s fury, restorer of families. Your place is prepared for you, the door is open for you. Come share our bread with us. Amen.” I walk to the door as my two most beloved people dig into the food I have prepared. Their forks are clinking against ceramic edges. I open the door and look outside. He is not there. He couldn’t possibly be there, but for a second I linger near the open door, waiting. Waiting for Elijah to return. ***
had just turned 15 that year, right before Passover. On Passover eve I was dragging my feet home from school and pouting. Not only did the 15th of Nissan railroad my birthday into near oblivion, but I was missing the basketball game of the year. All my friends—and the dreamy Steven Forman— would spend that evening on the court, sweating and screaming, slapping hands and bumping shoulders. And the victory party after… And I was on my way to scraping down the fridge with a Q-tip, so heaven forbid some
leavened crumbs wouldn’t stay stuck in the cracks. I knew exactly what was happening at home: Dad was getting on with the cleaning, barking at the girls when they happened in his way; Mom had dropped a dairy spoon into the ground chicken and was arguing with Grandma about how much of it she had to throw out; my sisters were putting finishing touches on the holiday table—a snow-white tablecloth, six place settings for us, and an antique-looking goblet for Elijah, Grandma and Grandpa’s inheritance. After the preparations got done, we’d dress up in the best clothes and gather in the dining room just in time for sunset, and then Passover would begin. It wasn’t all bad, actually. I used to like Passover quite a lot, the holiday commotion and all, the celebration. The house that smelled like all the best foods at once. At least there’d be no studying for two days, and I’d get to have wine. It’s just… I was too old for it all, and I was… embarrassed. Looking for hametz the parents themselves had hidden—knowing perfectly well it was behind the couch because it was always behind the couch—then faking the surprise of discovery and excitement over the reward. Asking the same four questions every year, knowing the answers by heart. Same bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Same salt water to remind us of the spilled tears. Same story. Passover. A celebration of regained freedom. A remembrance of the night when the angel of death passed over the Hebrew homes, sparing us the fury that swept away every firstborn of Egypt. It seemed so silly. Fifteen. I was fifteen. What did I know about death? I walked and anticipated the childishness of ritual. Toward the end of the story, everyone would pour some wine from their glasses into Elijah’s goblet. Perfectly good wine, wasted. Then all three of us children would have to march to the door and open it, like Elijah could really be standing there, hello! And what does Elijah have to do with it anyway? He’s been dead for, like, 3,000 years. Of course, I would just have to say that out loud and hear my sister screaming, “Elijah is not dead, Chava! He went up to heaven in a whirlwind! In a fiery chariot!” My little sister Ruth. Always gets so upset, it’s even fun to tease her. “Chava, stop bothering your sister! Are you done with the refrigerator?” In all that sulking I passed my turn and realized it only having gone three blocks in the wrong direction. Shoot. I switched my backpack over to the other shoulder and turned around to walk back when I heard a weak “meow” from an alley. It sounded like a kitten. I stood and listened. Another meow, this one pitiful and desperate, full of longing or pain. Or hunger. An abandoned kitten… I stepped into the alley slowly, bending over to start looking behind trash cans. Something grabbed me, twisted, hit, pulled me back by the jacket collar, and a hot rough hand pushed into my face, covering mouth and nose— pressed my head so far back that my neck was snapping, and there was no air and no room to fight. Another arm closed across my torso, holding both shoulders. Trying frantically to kick but hitting emptiness, I screamed, and my hushed moan slid down the alley walls. I couldn’t breathe. Two more sec-
onds, and the desperate need to inhale filled my consciousness, pushed out every other thought, the alley, the struggle, and tore at my lungs, squeezed my eyes out of orbit, and terror, terror was all that existed until there was nothing at all. ***
came to from the cold, it seemed, or from the slamming of car doors. Everything hurt. Something hard was pushing on my temple. I raised my eyelids just enough for a tiny slit of vision and tried to figure out where I was. Through the veil of eyelashes I could see a metal ceiling, a narrow window, hinges. I was lying on the floor in the back of a van, my wrists and ankles wrapped together with duct tape. The door opened, and I shut my eyes. A man’s voice said, “She’s still out.” And the door slammed again. The murmur of voices—I thought there were two, both male—kept getting louder and quieter, closer and farther. Sometimes it sounded like they were arguing, and soon one of them snapped very close, “Damn, what is it now?” Suddenly I realized that I was wasting time lying there in a daze. Lord knows where I was and what they planned to do with me. I sat up and stifled a wave of nausea. The voices receded. The tape was too tight around my wrists to wiggle them free. I tried pulling at the ankles, letting it cut into the skin. Soon it felt looser. I doubled my efforts and felt a trickle of blood on my heel. Lubrication, I thought, and tried to pull one foot from under the tape. It came out with surprising ease. A moment later I was peeking out the window—a wooded road shoulder and barely visible roof outlines beyond the trees. The men were talking on the other side of the van, and I tugged at the door handle as quietly as I could. It turned with a long, nasty groan. Oh, no. Please, Eloheinu. Hear me. I hit the ground awkwardly, with my fists and left shoulder, plopped on my side on top of something angular—a road jack. It was all so loud, I thought, so horribly loud—no way they hadn’t heard. My only chance now was speed, and I darted into the trees, no longer concerned with noise or stealth, just running, sprinting, no matter what direction, tripping on roots and jumping up and running again, branches into my face. I lost the sense of time. I wanted to pray but couldn’t remember the words. Please, Eloheinu. Help me. Instead of prayer, the words of Passover Haggadah streamed through my head. The story of Exodus I would’ve been hearing this very moment if I hadn’t been running through the darkening woods, gasping for breath, shielding my eyes with bound hands. The words floated up to the surface of my mind and filled the void the shock and terror had left in it. We were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. Please, Eloheinu. Stretch out your arm. Help me. The forest let out suddenly onto a road. Fields on the other side, several houses in a string to my left. A town. People. Salvation. I turned left and kept running, faster now, along the shoulder. The first house—I pounded on the door, and again, but it was dark and quiet. No one home. Second house, the
same. All of them. No cars in the driveways. No barking of dogs. Dark windows. It looked abandoned. And He said to Abraham, “You shall know that your seed will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and make them suffer…” I turned another corner and slowed to a walk, trying to control my breathing. In the thickening twilight it was becoming hard to see, but there, at the far end of the street, heavenly light was pouring onto the sidewalk, highlighting a sign, OMNEVA STREET LOCAL BANK. And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our labor and our oppression. ***
e was outside, packing something in a box, and I saw him only from a few yards away, when he heard my footsteps and stood up to look. He was young, I know now. Not over 30. The bank’s open door spilled light onto his raven-black hair, just a bit too long and disheveled for a respectable haircut, onto his face—the sharply angled jaw, thin lines of the nose and lips, an Asian cut of the eyes, onto his mud-spotted shirt with rolled-up sleeves, onto the hands he held away from him as if they were dirty or wet. I thought how quiet it was. Even the wind had died down. But the Lord was not in the wind. We stood facing each other, and the first few seconds brought only surprise to his face. Then he looked me up and down—his glance lingered on my scratches, bleeding knuckles and ankles, the duct tape still around my hands—and surprise left. “Please help me—” I tried to swallow but couldn’t, and coughed. “They’re after me. Please help me.” I think I was mumbling. I was starting to shake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. The Lord was not in the fire. He fished something out of the box with one hand, never letting his eyes off me—some scissors—then came over to me and knelt down. I realized then that I had been sitting on the ground. He took my hands and began to cut the tape, slowly, cocking his head to one side and trying to look into my face. “What’s your name, sweetie?” He had a low, soft voice. Calm. Like the Earth. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. Then the voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “Chava.” “It’s going to be all right, Chava. Let me just get your hands free, and we’re going to go inside and call the police. You’re safe now. Everything is going to be all right.” He kept talking like this, soothing, nonstop stream of words. A river of warm sound that carried me with it, away, somewhere. “It’s a good thing I am such a procrastinator. Almost everybody’s left already. You probably saw. This will all be a big lake some day soon, you know. And the bank’s re-
ally closed. I’m just packing up some things, getting the signs off and such. Here you go.” He peeled the last of the tape off my skin. “Do you think you can stand?” This is when I heard it, in the near-dead silence of an abandoned town— the roar of a speeding van tearing through the air. It was them. I didn’t need to see it. Their light beams angled around the corner and took dead aim at my chest. The engine revved up. “Chava!” He was pulling my hand. “It’s them…it’s them…” He was pulling me up, but I couldn’t. Staring into the growing headlights, I was done. Frozen. The end. I could feel him scooping me up in his arms and running up the steps, but my eyes were still fixed on the approaching, blinding death. May the Merciful One send us Elijah the Prophet, may he be remembered for good, and may he bring us good tidings, salvation and consolation. He carried me inside, past some desks and boxes, and in a corner of a tiny room put me on the floor. Screeching of brakes in the street, slamming of doors. A wall of thick bars rolled in and separated us. Punching of keys. From the other side he secured the door, waved me away. “Stay in the corner! You’ll be safe here.” Clicking of locks. Fast, heavy footsteps. A phone flew past the door and crashed into a wall outside the bars. Voices. I know that voice. Please, Eloheinu! Please. “Come out here, girl! We’re not gonna hurt you!” An arm reaches in through the bars and grabs at the air. I am too far. “Fuckin’…! Shit! Damn it.” They talk outside. Please, Adonai. I crawl along the wall to the bars and look out, barely one eye. They have him. One of the men is holding him up, elbows behind his back. His head barely reaches the man’s neck. And on his face… Pain. Oh, Lord, Eloheinu, why won’t you hear me? “Open up the damn door.” The other hits him, fist under the ribs. He falls, doubled over, gasping. They swing with their laced boots against the writhing body. They pull him up again. He can’t hold his head. In the light of the halogen office bulbs, the fluid pouring off his chin looks black. I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, “By your blood you shall live.” And I said to you, “By your blood you shall live!” “Open the fuckin’ door, or I will fuckin’ kill you, I swear to God!” The man swings, and again, then pulls out a knife. And we shall eat of the Passover-offerings and of the sacrifices whose blood shall be sprinkled on the wall of Your altar for acceptance… Red on a white wall, on the floor. They wrap duct tape around his wrists,
But the Lord was not in the earthquake. The Lord was not in the fire.
throw him on a desk. Facedown. It leaves black smudges on the grainy beige plastic. Clothes tear with an uneven whine. …but you were naked and bare… He turns his face to me and opens a slit of the eye, moves swelling lips. He says the last thing I will ever hear him say. “Chava… Don’t look.” He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity, and from deep darkness to great light, and from bondage to redemption. ***
hey told me I was found two days later, still locked in the anteroom of a bank vault in the middle of a condemned town. The men who had abducted me never managed to open that door. They didn’t kill me. They didn’t take me. But they took his body, and it was never found. A year later I was back home for a triple celebration: my sixteenth birthday, my return from the hospital, and Passover. Another Passover. When the Lord will return the exiles of Zion, we will have been like dreamers. Just a bad dream. He goes along weeping, carrying the bag of seed; he will surely come back with joyous song, carrying his sheaves. I listened to the commotion of Passover eve: Dad’s struggle with a vacuum cleaner, Ruth clanking the dishes, food hissing on the stove. The aromas I was meant to smell again. The words I was meant to hear. I stroked the fancy wine goblet set aside for Elijah. Come back, Elijah. I’ll be waiting for you. “Chava, honey… This is an extra plate.” Mom had learned to look at me the way sick children’s parents do—like they are trying to see into the center of you. She never used to be this gray. “We don’t need this plate, honey. I’ll put it away for you.” I took the plate from my mother’s hands and put it back on the table, next to the goblet. I looked her in the eye. I said, “It’s for Elijah.”
without poetry Megan Mealor is 28 years old, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, bipolar disorder survivor, and brandnew mommy. She graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 2003 after receiving the Emerging Artist Award, the National Penwomenâ€™s Association Literature Award and the National Arts Recognition Short Story Merit Award. She recently returned to college to pursue a Masters in English Education to teach creative writing to young children and has had work published in Digital Americana and 4 and 20 under Megan Hall, and she will be featured in an upcoming issue of Midnight Circus. She lives with her husband, baby son Jesse, and two tuxedo cats, JubJub and Trigger, in a townhouse thatâ€™s way too small but also just right.
we are delusions we are vipers we are menacing paupers crawling with shadows shameless with street our torches scream louder than our lungs everything but the world in our eyes we will eat our own hearts first toss the static in the gutters no perfume can calm our blood no song can make us remember
our skies are made of steel yet they hold nothing in without our rage we have no will to speak our deaths pass by like flickering gasps of night
and the flowers are always wilted
on our graves
Chrysanthemums Tied Together Darrell Dela Cruz graduated from San Jose State’s MFA Program for Poetry. His work has appeared in The Round, Two-Thirds North, Sheepshead Review and will appear forthcoming inEuphony, The Chaffin Journal, and The Dos Passos Review. He tries to analyze poems on his blog retailmfa.blogspot.com or rather he acknowledges his misinterpretations of poems.
I. To be arranged they have to be separated. Blooms and then petals taken off for the construction for a heart, perhaps, or maybe a wreath – shapes of condolences. Yet, in the mulch, the stems lay strewn together. They cross each other like waves of arrows shot at a single target. II. Saint Sebastian – tied down to an anonymous tree as arrows pierced through his sides like thorns. This is the Romantic depiction of his devotion. He suffered there until a person took him down from the display, tended his wounds on monochrome beddings where he dreamt of only words. The image gone. He was left to wander down any path, but all led to the same greeting: clubs and spit. His second death internal.
Spraycopter Our fat black lab, Shadow, is watching me from beside the deck.
He’s dumb enough to chew rocks but smart enough to serve as a babysitter sometimes. It is a beautiful summer day, and I am six or seven years old. I’m in the backyard playing in the big wooden sandbox made of thick, unpainted boards. The top layer of sand is warm and dry, but deep down where I have dug, it is much darker, cool and damp. It feels good in my hands. I am moving my toy dump trucks and excavators around the job site, transporting vast quantities of sand from one corner of the wooden structure to the other and back again. Behind me, my mother is folding clothes from the line and I can hear each garment wheeze as she drops it into the light blue basket, the one that’s broken in places so the little plastic latticework looks like a snarl of rectangular teeth. Shadow hears it first. He stands up and looks off over the cornfield, the neat rows of tall grassy leaves and tassled ears statuesque in the breezeless afternoon sun. And then it is all I can hear: the distant whump, whump, whump of the helicopter blades. My tongue suddenly feels huge in my mouth; I taste my own saliva and something metallic. Fear, probably. It is a speck in the cloudless sky, low on the horizon and growing quickly. I turn toward my mother and scream “SPRAY COPTER!” I run to her through the maze of hanging t-shirts and pants. Shadow begins to bark, and as I peer around the pale, squishy leg I’ve attached myself to I can already see the sinister bubble of its cockpit and the long black arms spread over the treetops. I am sure that it will kill us all. I try pulling my mother into the house, but she wants to get the last of the laundry. “Go ahead, I’ll be right there” she says. I am reluctant to leave her. I want to be brave enough to stand here with her, but I am not. So I run frantically up the splinter-giving steps of the deck and into the kitchen, barely pausing to open and shut the screen door, which is warm from the sun and slides easily in its track. My mother frowns as I slam it shut. The spraycopter is almost over us when she finally comes up the steps. She calls
Rich Tombeno is a high school English teacher in a distant suburb of Boston. He currently studies Creative Nonfiction in the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College, and his writing can be found online atsixsentences.blogspot.com. He is currently working on a memoir, Willing Sacrifice, about hunting with his father. to Shadow, who is barking now and leaping into the air at the thing that has upset me, but he refuses to leave the yard. She sets down the basket of laundry on the table and then I see it fly over the backyard, just tens of feet off the ground. The noise is deafening, and I can feel the thumping of the rotors in my chest. Tears burn on my face as I watch Shadow continue to bark and leap, bark and leap. The spraycopter takes a few more passes, each one more terrifying for me than the last. Finally, mercifully, it finishes its job and begins to get quieter and farther. Eventually it is silent again except for Shadow, who finally yields to our calls and comes slowly up the steps, his legs stiff and achy under his barrel-like body. When I think about the spraycopter now, I wonder why it produced such absolute panic in me. I’ve never felt anything like it since then. Not when my mother’s heart stopped one night after dinner, not when a grizzly bear walked past my unarmed friend and me in Alberta while we were camping, not when a steel treestand fell on my head from twenty feet up. Not even when my girlfriend has wanted to talk about marriage. I understand now that those afternoons of terror were scheduled, contracted visitations courtesy of the farmer who owned the cornfield, but they always felt random. It never occurred to me that there could be any useful purpose to something so awful. Now I wonder about the chemicals we no doubt ingested, inhaled, and got all over our skin from playing in the yard. My mother swears that Shadow, showered by toxins as he tried to protect us, got cancer from his refusal to come inside. I don’t know. Maybe it was the chemicals. Maybe it was just old age. Or maybe it was fear that turned his own cells against him, eating him from the inside out.
Ruffa Romero is a senior at the University of Guam, double majoring in English and Philosophy. She was an intern for the Pacific regionâ€™s Storyboard Journal.
Everything that is said is not always said with the tip, the most sensitive part of the tongue. We enter each other at our most vulnerable and spread open our arms to keep balance as we walk on palpitating threads. Where you dig doesnâ€™t matter, you always end up in China, one way or another, so always have your spoons ready to feed.
Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Bullet Wound After Wallace Stevens
Cara Losier Chanoine is a New Hampshire poet, fiction writer, and occasional playwright. She has performed as a featured reader at venues throughout New England, and competed in the National Poetry Slam in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. She was most recently published in Children, Churches, and Daddies, Eye on Life, and Ardent. Her extracurricular interests include Star Trek, David Bowie, and rollerskating. 1. the reflection of your own iris in a pool of someone else’s blood is more honest than a mirror 2. the exit wound marks the bullet’s struggle to gain freedom from the flesh 3. layers of clothing wick away the blood cut them free assess the damage at skin level 4. there is an absence 5. the borders are always messier than you’d expect 6. the beating of the heart churns the blood from the wound if you shoot something that is dead it won’t bleed the same way 7. your hands can only cover so many holes
8. the scar will be ugly and thick 9. you can never put it back 10. a dozen, careless perforations are less deadly than a single, well-placed shot 11. there are still broken things you cannot see inside, they burst easily as ornaments of blown glass 12. the mortician will stitch it closed and cover it with a slit-back shirt 13. it is a well too deep for dropping pennies, to murky for wishes of survival 14. it is a sculpture I have titled it animosity 15. it is a prayer; in the name of something please heal us we are asking to be saved
Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Bullet Wound
Three White Boys C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with rock and Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann has written three novels, and his short stories have appeared in Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, and Big World Travel. His short story, Freiburgitis, appeared in Outside In Literary Journal, and was included in an anthology of short stories, Whereabouts, published by 2Leaf Press.
he first time The Summits filed into our rehearsal room, early in the summer of 1970, I was too overawed to say a word. We were a pimply teenaged rock band that hadn’t yet played a gig, but they were the Real Thing. Tall, well-dressed, in their twenties, and black. They were professionals. They had a record out that was getting radio play. They had credibility. They even had James, an agent/manager, who came in wearing a scarlet shirt unbuttoned to his navel to expose a big chocolate chest liberally strung with gold chains. How Jimmy, our guitarist and leader, convinced them to audition us to be their new backup band was a mystery to me. James didn’t dawdle. “I want to thank y’all for taking the time to get together with us. We just moved here to D.C. and need a band. I’ve got gigs lined up, so we need to do a lot without much time. Jimmy tells me you boys don’t mind hard work, and that’s what it’s gonna take. This here is Reggie, Ralph, Al, and Ben.” We shook hands with The Summits, each of whom exuded a different cologne. Reggie was a short, husky guy with bright eyes; Ralph had a huge Afro and was tall and lanky; Al wore a black fedora and sunglasses; while I figured Ben was the star because of his baby-face and athletic build. Al picked up a case and pulled out a saxophone. “I’m gonna let The Summits here show you a little bit of what they do, and then maybe you can play something for us so we can get a chance to hear you.” The Summits lined up before us, snapped their fingers in rhythm, and began to sway as one. Ralph sang in a bass so low and rich I wondered how such
a lean body could produce it. While he laid out the bass line, the others slid in with perfect harmonies. They swung around to sway in the other direction, fingers still snapping. “Take a sad song, oh yeah, and make it better.” They moved and sang with exquisitely synchronized movements in their Motown style version of the Beatles song, and I felt thrilled and embarrassed at the same time. They were so good I would have paid money to get into the audition just to listen, but I also felt like a hopeless amateur. There was no hesitation in their movements, no second guessing, no quaver in those voices. They exhibited the kind of supreme confidence that I could only dream about. When Al began a solo on saxophone that oozed like molten bronze while the rest of the Summits hummed in harmony behind him, I almost cried. When they finished, Jimmy, Dave and I applauded, glancing at each other. “All right, how about if you boys play us a little something?” James rubbed his hands together and smiled. “Play anything you like.” The Summits sat down and helped themselves to the cokes and beers that Jimmy brought downstairs in a cooler. Dave and I were still in high school. Dave played bass and didn’t smoke, drink, or take drugs, and slaved away at learning to play the bass. Paul McCartney was his hero, and he was determined to make it as a musician. Jimmy was eighteen and lived with his dad in a brick colonial in the suburbs. His dad was always away in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, leaving Jimmy to be king of the house. Jimmy drove a ’55 Chevy and had been a classic greaser until the first time he heard Jimi Hendrix and underwent an epiphany. He grew his
hair long, smoked loads of pot, and practiced the guitar like a fiend. He bought all of Hendrix’s albums, a few by Johnny Winter, and spent his days and night forcing his fingers to play what his heroes played. That obsessive slog paid off, because in just a couple of years he became a monster lead guitarist. Being a legal adult, he drank Budweisers and smoked Marlboros. He always had some dopey but pretty girl in his bed, stoned out of her mind. Once, while talking about an upcoming party we were invited to, I asked if he was bringing his latest girlfriend. He looked at me as if I suggested he eat cat food. “Bring that heifer to a party? I wouldn’t take her out in public.” I never understood why girls would have anything to do with him, but he never had problems finding them. The Summits were waiting. Jimmy turned to Dave and me. “Changes, right? Two, three, four…” He closed his eyes, and I could have sworn that little mustache of his bristled as he roared into the opening riffs of the Hendrix song we practiced a thousand times. Dave and I came in together right on the beat, our eyes on Jimmy’s face, but Jimmy was already in another world, sending back barely intelligible messages from his guitar through the amp. His playing was as unflinching as the Summits’ performance. His guitar wailed, wah-wahed, moaned, and flashed into a flurry of notes so fast and complex that the Summits looked at each other and nodded. Jimmy’s head jerked back, his mouth opened slightly, and he really cut loose. His guitar wept, pleaded, and screamed while his mouth moved as if the sound was coming from deep inside him. My self-consciousness faded as Jimmy carried us. All worries about what the Summits or James might think of us fell away like nothing, and we lost ourselves in the music. Jimmy turned to us, raised the neck of his guitar, and the howling storm dropped to a whisper. All that was left was that pulsing, relentless riff on bass and guitar with my drums whacking out the beat without deviation. Jimmy sang, though he wasn’t much of a singer, and that riff slowly swelled. He kept singing, the riff kept building, until it reared itself up into an explosion that threatened to knock out the walls. All together we stopped, Jimmy played a short exit riff, and we came in again together for one last crashing chord. James ran over and shook our hands. “Oh man, you boys are good! So tight! And you never lost that beat, that’s the main thing. That beat was just right there, beginning to end, bass and drums together. Jimmy, you are incredible! Come on, do something all together—something you can all do.” At Reggie’s suggestion we jumped into a blues shuffle jam. Al played a solo, and then one by one, the Summits took turns on the verses and came together in harmony on the chorus. I had never heard the song before, and suspected it was improvised on the spot, but it fell together without mishap. After that we practiced every other night, and Jimmy, Dave, and I often got
together before the Summits arrived to go over difficult passages. It was tough work, but James was always there to keep us focused. The Summits didn’t merely work on their harmonies and arrangements, but synchronized those with their dance steps, hand movements, and even the way they turned their heads. They had to work a lot harder than we did, but they were tireless. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of my other friends, and had to give up playing baseball on weekends because those were long rehearsal days. Finally came the night of our first gig. James brought fake ID’s for Dave and me so we could get into the club, though neither of us drank anything stronger than orange juice. I told my mom we were playing for a teen club. James drove us all in his van down Georgia Avenue into Washington, DC. It was an all-black area, and some neighborhoods were still barely cooling off from the riots of the late sixties. Dave and I felt apprehensive, but didn’t want it to show. We pulled up to a nondescript joint called The Georgia Avenue Club. Clots of guys in big Afros and bell-bottoms were hanging around outside, and the interior was solid gray cigarette smoke. When the Summits sauntered in, they were greeted with complicated handshakes and slaps on the back. When we three white boys trailed in carrying drums and amplifiers, silence dropped like a rock. Dozens of pairs of eyes followed us through the smoke. I heard one guy at the bar mutter something about “those hippie crackers.” Ralph stopped in his six-foot-six tracks and looked around. “Hey man, these boys are with us and they’re our friends. They’re good dudes, all right? And damned good musicians. We ain’t gonna hear one more word about them, got that? When you hear these boys play, that’ll shut some of you brothers up.” He then let out a big bass laugh and snapped his fingers. At once, the mood lightened up, people resumed talking, and nobody paid any attention to the white teenagers with their long hair and wispy sideburns. We set up on a stage at one end of the club while a disco light rotated over our heads, shooting its glittery rays in all directions. The Summits got as much stage space as possible, which meant that Jimmy, Dave and I ended up squished against the back wall. I was so nervous that I didn’t know where to look, so after setting up the drums I sat and stared at Dave while he tuned. After a brief sound check, during which James tried out the mics while The Summits stood in their brown and black jumpsuits on the side of the stage, the club turned off its own eardrum-crushing sound system. James rambled for a moment into a mic before finally announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the Motor City, The Summits!” We started the riff to “Get Ready” while the Summits trotted onto the stage. As we repeated that riff over and over, they performed an elaborate dance-andtwirl routine that brought the crowd to the front of the stage. On cue, they slid to their mics and sang harmonies that soared over our gritty beat before twirling as one and returning to sing again without missing a millisecond. The
At once, the mood lightened up, people resumed talking, and nobody paid any attention to the white teenagers with their long hair and wispy sideburns.
crowd went crazy. We flew through our repertoire—which included some Temptations numbers, a few R & B standards, and several songs the Summits wrote themselves. All featured their intricate harmonies backed by our thumping beat. In the middle of each set the Summits took a short break so that Jimmy, Dave, and I could do some of our material, which were mostly Hendrix songs and blues numbers. The audience howled and clapped after our songs. We played a few more gigs in D.C. that were slight variations on the first. We got tighter and James grew more excited. As he drove us home, he talked about recording contracts, flying us out to Los Angeles, and getting into bigger venues. I was becoming further removed from my other friends, and found myself at age sixteen living and working in a world of adults. Late August was approaching, and with it the gig that James kept his eye on from the beginning—the Summer Celebration Concert at Rockville Mansion that was going to be televised all over the country. When at last the big day arrived, James brought The Summits up from D.C. in his van while Jimmy drove Dave and me in his Chevy. The day was blazing hot and so humid I was covered in perspiration that had no place to go. I felt terrified when we rolled up and saw the mansion grounds ram-packed with people, and a huge stage set up at the front of the mansion itself, filled with lights, sound equipment, metal scaffolding, and electronic gear. To one side of the stage, television vans sat jammed together with big black cords running everywhere over the rainstarved yellow grass. We followed signs to the performers’ parking area, in the back, and as soon as we got out of the car we were greeted by men who carried our equipment to the stage for us to set it up while other men in green City of Rockville blazers led us through a back door and into the mansion. One of the men, a big guy in a flattop who looked like an ex-Marine, showed us to our dressing rooms upstairs while explaining that The Summits were being interviewed in the kitchen. I deduced from his comments that nobody was interested in interviewing the three white boys, which came as a relief. My dressing room was the first I’d ever had. It was a large former bedroom with a sloping ceiling under the roof and a view of the crowded mansion grounds and cable-littered stage. I even had a dressing table with a mirror surrounded by big light bulbs. All I brought with me were the white short-sleeved shirt and gray slacks that James bought for the white boys to wear for the show. I put on my clothes and stared into the mirror, wondering what people did in dressing rooms. I didn’t have make-up, wigs, champagne, or groupies. Each of us had a separate dressing room, where each of us separately wondered what we supposed to do there. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, let it loose, then tied it back, unable to decide which look to go for. At last I decided to leave it loose, long and flowing, because after all, it was the perfect occasion to do so. After that fashion breakthrough, I sat on a wooden stool and watched the crowd while the sun lowered itself through cushions of red and orange. A girl was onstage playing an acoustic guitar nearly as big as she was and belting out country songs. She wore an aqua-blue, floaty mini-dress, and her dark hair
tumbled down her back to her waist. Big silver earrings sparkled through the strands that fluttered back in the breeze. The crowd was made up mostly of families sitting on blankets while groups of teenagers slouched on the sidelines. The show was free, summer was winding down, and it was a perfect excuse for locals to get out of the house and feel like they were doing something. I leaned out of my window and saw more people streaming in. An air of expectancy tightened the atmosphere. I was still soaked in sweat. Looking down, I noticed that my hands were trembling. Trying to shake off stage fright, I rolled up my jeans and t-shirt, stuffed them into a plastic bag, and walked down the hall to Jimmy’s dressing room. He was sitting in the window playing his unplugged guitar and gazing out, also wearing his white shirt and gray slacks. A cigarette dangled from his lips. “I wish I had some dope with me. And there are a lot of sweet heifers out there. We’ll have our choice of ‘em after we play. I wonder how long we get to use these dressing rooms?” He turned to me. “How would you like your first lay in a dressing room after a TV appearance? There’s something you won’t forget, sport. Why don’t you come pick one out right now? Hell, I’ll do the talking for you to get it started, if you want.” “No thanks. I’m just trying to get hold of my nerves.” I looked out the window and shied away with a wince. “Man, you see all those cameras and lights? It looks like the whole world is going to be staring at us.” Jimmy spat a stream of smoke around his cigarette, leaned back, and closed his eyes. “They’re not going to be looking at us. They’ll all be watching The Summits. Nobody cares about us--it’s all about those guys. Let’s just have a good time and snag a couple of heifers when we’re done.” Dave staggered in, his glasses askew and sweat forming big wet circles under the armpits of his white shirt. “We’re on, guys.” We hurried downstairs to the front doors, which led to the backstage area. The lights onstage were black, so nobody could see us, but the crowd was buzzing. A few whoops rang out. A gang of those ubiquitous City of Rockville jackets helped us onto the stage. I got behind the drums in the dark, adjusted all the stands, re-tightened every bolt, turned my snare around, tightened the high hat screws yet again, and checked my sticks for cracks. Jimmy and Dave took their places. Big lights glared over the audience, which had grown so much that I couldn’t see the end of it. I felt like we were at Woodstock. Taking one last, shaky breath, I tightened the snare drum again and watched the wings. Jimmy turned to me, eyes wide, and counted out the opening to “Get Ready.” Hoping I wasn’t seeing things, I whacked my snare once to open the song. My drum sound exploded into the crowd and lights gushed over the stage. The guitar and bass roared in with the familiar repeating riff, and a huge, roiling cheer filled the air. Over and over we played that riff, and the crowd started clapping along, creating an earsplitting din. The excitement flashed from smolder to flame. Fireworks shot into the sky on either side of the stage, which startled me so badly I almost stopped playing—and then out they came, dancing and spinning in gold and red jumpsuits with big flared bells and long sleeves that
hung to their knees. They danced, they snapped, they sweated, they sang with everything they had while we three white boys didn’t dare let up an inch. The crowd was on its feet, howling and screaming, while more fireworks shot into the sky behind the crowd. Television cameras rolled and turned, photographers ran and crouched all over the stage with cameras glued to their faces. The big lights were on us, and I could barely see what was happening. I focused on Jimmy and Al, because their winks, nods, and hand motions let me know what was coming. “Get Ready” went on longer than usual because Al took a long, growling sax solo while the rest of the Summits went through a series of moves that I’d never seen before. Jimmy took a solo, then turned and motioned to me to take a brief solo. While I rolled around the drums in a quick series of paradiddles, I clutched my sticks so hard I nearly broke my fingernails. When we ended, more fireworks blasted off on the sides and fountains of water shot into the sky while pink and blue lights whirled around them. The audience was going berserk and adrenalin spewed into my bloodstream so furiously that I could barely keep my head from flying off. Jimmy slashed into the opening chords of one of the Summits songs, and they stepped to the mics, swaying and snapping in those perfectly synchronized movements. I was able to take another breath and play without the desperation I felt at first. I even began to enjoy myself, and looked over at Dave, who turned to me with a goofy smile. The whole crowd was dancing, and at last it began to dawn on me that our big show--the show that James obsessed over for weeks--was turning into a success. When The Summits did their version of Hey Jude, the crowd was theirs for good. With another swirl of lights and more squirting from the fountains, we grooved into our last number, Ball of Confusion. The Summits did most of the work. Each of them took a turn, from bass Al to high tenor Ben, pouring their guts into it, then meshing together in exquisite harmonies. The dancing, the spins, even the way they each bobbed one leg, never faltered. Sweat was flowing from their pores while our beat pounded and throbbed. At last we hit the last note and held it out while fireworks exploded, water jetted into the sky, lights danced crazily over the crowd, and people screamed themselves into laryngitis. City of Rockville jackets hurried us off the stage and up to our dressing rooms. It was only when I closed the door behind me that I realized I was so sweaty I looked like I jumped into one of the fountains. I washed off in the sink and changed back into my jeans and t-shirt. A knock threatened to break the door. “Come on, man, come on down the hall to Ben’s dressing room. We’re having a party.” James’ voice verged on hysteria. When I got to Ben’s dressing room, the Summits sat slumped in chairs, relaxing and drinking beer. James was leaping around in ecstasy. “This is just the beginning, man, this is just the beginning!” I felt strangely detached from the experience. James called Jimmy into another room to have a private talk, so I decided to go outside and walk around. Most of the crowd was gone, and technicians were taking that monstrous
façade down and packing it away in big trucks. Some men even packed our equipment into Jimmy’s car. The night was breezy, with the first leafy scent of autumn barely sneaking into the mix. The pines and cypress trees that lined the swath of lawn in front of the mansion heaved and rattled. School would be starting soon—what would happen to my new career? Would I have to quit the band because I was still in high school, or would I drop out of school so I could keep going? I had a feeling that James and Jimmy were talking about that very question in the upstairs of the Rockville Mansion. A group of kids my age stood around smoking cigarettes and laughing under a big pine as I passed. One girl with long blond hair and glasses turned and looked at me. She wore a blue and white flannel shirt and jeans, and was very pretty. “Hey man, aren’t you the drummer with that soul band?” “Yeah. How’s it going?” “You guys were pretty good, though I’m not really into that kind of music. Are you from around here?” “I live in Kensington. How about you?” She gestured with one hand. “I live three houses down that way. I figured I might as well come down since I wouldn’t be able to escape the noise anyway. So, do you go to school at Einstein or Walter Johnson?” We continued talking under the pines while her friends wandered off. We talked about our schools, how much we hated going back in a few days, and music. She was funny, with a sarcastic sense of humor, and I felt more relaxed than I’d been in months. A familiar honk trumpeted behind us, and I looked over to see Jimmy’s car with the headlights on waiting in front of the mansion. “I’ve gotta go now. What’s your name? Hey, maybe I’ll come up again and we can talk and stuff.” “Sure, I’ll give you my number.” When I climbed into Jimmy’s car he made facetious apologies about interrupting me while I was “getting a piece of heifer.” He was tipsy, and rambled on all the way home about James’ big plans. A week later we rehearsed, this time at James’ basement apartment in D.C. I could tell that The Summits were growing fond of us, and Ben held up a Hendrix album. “I think we should start incorporating more of the stuff you do into our own sound. You know, that wild guitar sound, that psychedelic music thing.” “We could merge our kind of music and vocal arrangements and dance with what you’re into,” added Al. “It could be our thing, our unique sound.” James was still over the moon about the Rockville show. “Look guys, I’m working on setting up some recording dates. We need more material and need to tighten up the sound a little, but it’s time. I’m talking to some people I know in New York and LA. This thing is starting to take off. I’ve been getting non-stop calls since the last show.” He glanced at Dave and me with a forced smile. “Of course, we’ll have to arrange things around your school schedules. We’ll work out something.” On the ride home, Jimmy said that James was hinting to him that Dave and
I might want to think about leaving school and taking GED tests. The suggestion set off an internal alarm—James’ plan sounded like my mother’s worst nightmare. Although it was all very exciting, I felt nervous about the direction my life was headed and decided not to say anything to her until the band had more concrete offers. Two days later I got a call from a subdued Jimmy. James had been murdered in his apartment—the same apartment we practiced in two days earlier. The Summits were on hold indefinitely. Jimmy said Ralph was worried that they might be next. He didn’t say why. I couldn’t talk to anyone outside the band about it. My mom was glad I was safe and out of that kind of dangerous situation, and other friends didn’t get it. I think a few of them suspected that I was making up the entire Summits story. Jimmy bought an old school bus and took off one day, never to be seen again. Dave and I talked about starting another band. A few months later I got a call from Al. I was amazed to hear from him, and asked how they were doing. “It was pretty rough after James got shot. We were all in shock. We thought The Summits were all over. But I just wanted you to know we’re doing all right. A couple of us are getting together out here in California with another group. They’ve got this great singer named Lionel. Good songwriter, too. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, we just wanted to say hello, thank you guys, and wish you the best of luck. It’s better for you to stay in school, anyway.” He chuckled. “You know, we had some great times with you three white boys.” School was already underway and my time was filled with getting used to new teachers, making new friends, and re-connecting with old friends. I still had that Rockville girl’s number, and one day I finally decided to give her a call.
Into the Dark Soil
Robert Earle has published stories in more than fifty literary journals across the U.S. and Canada, including Mississippi Review, Quarterly West, 34th Parallel, The Common, Chamber 4, Toronto Review and many others. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, and two books of nonfiction, Nights in the Pink Motel and Identities in North America: Search for Community. He was a diplomat for twenty-five years and now writes full-time in Virginia. He has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins.
ngela didn’t know anyone was coming, only that Frank was in jail in Buenos Aires, pending extradition to Italy. She hadn’t known he would be in Buenos Aires, either. She read he was there on the Internet before anyone called her. Someone named Phil from the embassy in Rome told her, “Sit tight. We’re working this out.” She fixed fruit, bread and tea for breakfast and ignored the computer, not that difficult to do in the hills outside the medieval city of Viterbo. Living in her small stuccoed home with its large patios, swimming pool, guest cottage, and big garden gave her no small pleasure. She was a passionate classics major at Vassar. The opportunity for Frank to have his final tour in Milan and then settle in Viterbo pleasantly unnerved her. Everything old in her life was new, everything new was old. Her knowledge of Latin and the Romans was old, but coming into direct contact with all that now made it raw and vital. She was a silver-haired woman of sixty with a nose that bespoke her Italian heritage (her maiden name was Agnelli, like the famous industrialists) who had lived in eight Spanish-speaking countries and spoke fluent Spanish but poor Italian and could hardly read Latin or Greek anymore. She had two daughters in the States and three grandchildren and Frank in Buenos Aires and a sense that panic would be pointless, a judgment Frank reinforced in one short phone call. “I have this under control.” Not that she wasn’t panicked, but if she cut and buttered the bread cleanly, likewise the fruit, and let the tea steep and sat on the patio and looked over the flower beds and performed the mental exercises someone once told her about, she reclaimed some of her natural, calm, poised self. The mental exercises entailed one of two things. First, you could half
shut your eyes and let the blurriness draw out the colors and shapes of what you were looking at in semi-abstract patterns that generated emotional effects you could name. These effects might be jarring, consoling, intriguing, sumptuous... many things. Angela did this on the patio for a while. They had found the place, which extended beyond the garden to a little stream and then a hillside they didn’t cultivate but might at some time. They said yes right away; that was how they beat the Roman money that probably would have outbid them. It still was expensive, but they sold off their house in McClean, Virginia and rummaged an investment account, and bought the place outright, maybe sixty kilometers from Rome and an equal distance from their favorite beaches and harbor towns on the Tyrrhenian. But she wasn’t good with distances. She judged things by the time it took to get from A to B, and in Italy, that was impossible, so she began doing these exercises again, settling into the moment: the scarf of flowers along the patio wall, the bright slash of lawn interrupted by the turquoise summons of the pool’s water and then the garden’s rows of Vergilian wisdom--the Georgics. This last image led to the second mental exercise, which led to Frank, who was the gardener, and had been when she met him. The exercise was to go back in time and find some way to remember the specifics of the past. You could pick an event, buying vegetables from Frank at a roadside stand in South Jersey, for instance, and then you could recall the date by the model year of the car you were driving and you could recall he had the same wide, greedy grin then that he had now, and you were wearing a skirt and a swimsuit under it because you and your friends--there were two of them, Toni and Mary--would want to go straight to the beach when you got there, just whip off your skirts, grab the towels and trek through the hot grassy dunes that led to the flat plane of the beach and the white froth and green sea water and hazy horizon... and he said, “When you head home, stop again. We sell fresh all summer. You cook?” “Yes, I cook,” she said. “Not bad for a girl your age.” “My age? I’m eighteen. How old are you?” The sly greedy grin: “Nineteen. Gotcha there.” That kind of exchange... fragments, but real...the coconut scent of the suntan lotion because you all wanted deep tans...the scent of the corn and squash and tomatoes and carrots he’d sold them... looking hard at every clumsy, flirty boy but wanting to be with your girlfriends and even as as teenagers basing your conversations on memories. So much happened before you were seventeen, eighteen. Unimportant but intimate things, tender things, frightening things, all worth sharing in a kind of rattle of words between dips in the suspect waters of the Atlantic full of seaweed, seepages from the East Coast and who knew where else? They did stop again to see this cute, cheery guy and buy vegetables from him, and he asked for her phone number, and she said, quite practically, “Look, I live in Morristown. It’s a long way from here.” “What, you don’t think I have a car?” Actually, he didn’t. He had a 1957 Chevy pick-up truck, or his family did. From the patio she could see the cars on the road and if one turned onto their drive, as now, it came straight at her for twenty seconds, purling plumes of dust. The man parked his Fiat with a crunch. Then there was a spot of silence while he seemed to be consulting something in his lap. Then he got out and introduced himself, Tim Garner, Frank’s lawyer. He wore loose, pleated slacks, huraches and a guayabera. He was pleasant, self-confident, and focused on
her, not Frank. Are you okay? Do you have access to your funds? Has anyone explained the nature of this case to you? How did you manage to make this property so beautiful, so natural? You’re from Jersey, too? Which was you favorite post as you and Frank moved around? Casual, natural, friendly, Angela-centered questions, verging on but not quite patronizing. He was being sensitive, she could see that, demonstrating his calm by not rushing. “It’s better I don’t go into the details with you,” he said, “but I should say that the policia di stato will be here shortly. They haven’t so far, right?” “I’ve only heard from Phil at the embassy. He said everything would be fine.” “You’re okay with that?” “No, I’m not okay with any of this, whatever it is.” “Good, totally understandable. Look, basically they’re going to ask you one question, but before that they’re going to threaten you with seizing your property and evicting you pending the trial because you’re either lying or not cooperating.” “What trial? You’re getting him out of Buenos Aires, aren’t you?” “That’s underway. Not going to be a trial. He’s just a retired agricultural attaché and whatever happened in Milan had the highest level approval from the previous Italian government.” Two Alfa Romeos turned into Angela’s driveway. Four officers of the policia di stato got out and introduced themselves. Two seemed fluent in English, two didn’t. Tim had given her a look of “Here we go” before those introductions and then settled back down and chatted with the English-speakers as she watched them all from the kitchen, where she prepared tea. There always had been two Franks. When he majored in agronomy at Rutgers (they called it plant science), she accepted the fact that he would think differently and impenetrably about almost everything. He’d take the material world as the foundation of all things and even go deeper, into the dark soil beneath, and she’d see mankind as life’s foundation. So he was obscure to her but she didn’t mind that, even after he went into the government and became more obscure. That didn’t matter because for many years he maintained those greedy, flattering feelings toward her, and these she understood, because she had the same feelings toward him: lust, being turned on, wanting more touching, dancing, fucking, drinking, seeing one at a distance, seeing one another face to face, smelling each other, enjoying their escape from their families. Her father was in the markets, meaning he was an executive at a stock brokerage, and he thought farming, which was how he categorized the current and future Frank, was not smart. Frank was strong enough to let him have his fun. And Angela was strong enough to sit with his parents--Alberto and Letitia Locheri--in their Sears house in South Jersey and insist that nothing had no point, including her obsession with Vergil and Catullus and Hesiod. She had begun studying Latin in tenth grade, Greek freshman year in college. The classes were tiny; the instructors were sweet zealots. Some sang poems, some chanted. No one else knew what they did in those classrooms,
but they knew they were keeping endangered humanity alive, cherishing the same desires and passions and conflicts that had eternally sprung up, season after season, from the times of the gods themselves. As the decades passed, Frank and Angela’s bond drifted from the erotic into the familial--not entirely but substantially. Their parents died, one, two, three, four. Their two girls left home, married, and had children. This was where the place outside Viterbo came in and likewise the exercises, and Angela had found peace there. Massive peace. She lived by living and by weaving the past and present together. Initially, while he was establishing the garden (and she was redoing the house and furnishing it) Frank seemed as peaceful as she was, but then he said there were some lucrative things he could do back in Latin America where he had the best connections. The word was “consult.” She gave him leave. She’d given him leave the whole time. He did something throughout his career as an agricultural attaché and during their tours in Washington, and she knew generally what it was but not specifically and didn’t want to know. Not all the spouses were the same way; many resented Angela’s distance, her stand-offishness, beginning with keeping her maiden name, extending through the money she spent on having her clothing made by the most talented seamstresses she could find and the exclusive schooling she managed for her girls and her apparent indifference to Frank often being away somewhere, unaffected by the loneliness that bedeviled other spouses. Plus, cliques formed in every embassy, and she managed to be part of all of them and none of them at the same time, self-reliant, comfortable at the ambassador’s residence or staying home. Who was she to demand constant attention? Frank was just an agricultural attaché; that’s what she said no matter who asked. So of course he had agricultural projects in the turbulent regions of country after country, connections with legitimate farmers and agribusiness types, and deep insight into the drug and political culture where embassy officers seldom dared to travel. But Frank did, and she knew, because he was so smart, that whatever he was doing, he was doing it expertly. Which was why, no doubt, he found that having retired and established the garden, he had to go back and do some more of it. Which led to this. The lead Italian was a captain named Franco Di Blasio. He spoke at length, indictment-style. “Mrs. Agnelli, you are married to Mr. Frank Locheri. On April 13 last year, Mr. Locheri and five other men kidnapped a Muslim imam named Alim Sa’id from a street in Milan, where he was a legal resident. They flew him to Cairo, Egypt. He is Egyptian, true, but I emphasize he had legal residence in Milan. In Cairo he was tortured to reveal information about Islamic extremists with whom he allegedly had associations. I do not know what he revealed, but when he returned to Milan last month he brought suit against your husband. He is blind in one eye; he suffers constant pain in his ribs and shoulders; and he is undergoing hip and knee replacements. Your husband participated in this criminal affair because he worked for the United States government as
This was where the place outside Viterbo came in and likewise the exercises, and Angela had found peace there. Massive peace.
an intelligence agent. The United States government says it had the Italian government’s agreement. The newly elected Italian government points out the fundamental incapacity of any government to agree to such actions.” Di Blasio paused, but only briefly. “For all these reasons, we have asked Interpol to detain your husband, and this has been done. He is in Buenos Aires, destined to return to Italy for trial. I come to see you to ask only one question. The truthful answer to that question and your cooperativeness will weigh in the Italian government’s decision as to whether this property should be seized pending resolution of Mr. Locheri’s trial. If it is seized, you will be expelled from Italy.” The precision with which Di Blasio spoke revealed nothing about his investment in this case, i.e., whether he was simply carrying out orders or disliked American foreign policy or saw a good chance to advance his career. In a sense he was simply a round-faced fellow with a mole on his left nostril and short arms and short legs who was making a circuit around the perimeter of whatever was going on. He was not a decision maker. Didn’t pretend to be. Ignored the tea Angela made him until he finished speaking and then drank it in one long swallow, so perhaps he was more nervous than he let on, or perhaps not. For her part, Angela realized she had attitudes of indifference toward the officials of other countries that might once have been justified--they were under diplomatic immunity, they lived in official housing, they could always leave a country in twenty-four hours or less (and had, twice) but she didn’t have immunity anymore and didn’t know who Tim was. He just sat there, hadn’t coached her...didn’t want to go into details? Weren’t details everything? “We own this house, my husband and I both,” she said. “Whatever you allege has nothing to do with me.” Di Blasio said softly, “Under these extraordinary circumstances, you might find that is not true.” She looked to Tim, who had made no effort to intervene, and realized that he was the United States government’s lawyer, not Frank’s and certainly not hers. But at last he said, “The question?” Di Blasio asked, “Where was Frank Locheri on April 13 of last year? Do you know, Mrs. Agnelli?” Angela said, “What is the law in Italy about the privacy privileges of husbands and wives?” Di Blasio said, “We are not in a court of law. We are conducting an investigation prior to entering a court of law. If you do not know where Frank Locheri was on April 13 of last year, or if you do, this is a matter of fact, not privacy.” “Can wives be compelled to testify against their husbands in Italy?” “I am not taking formal testimony.” “Frank didn’t work for the United States government on April 13 of last year.” “Are you certain of that?” Angela realized she couldn’t be. She only knew this: “His official retirement and pension came into force in June of the previous year.” “But he could have been reemployed, could he not?” “I thought you said you had one question.” “You did say that,” Tim now said helpfully.
Di Blasio swallowed. Was that emotion, drawing excess saliva down one’s throat? Angela looked at the colleague immediately to his left; this man, with a blade of an aquiline nose, was taking notes. The other two men, she now realized, were drivers or bodyguards or flunkies of some other kind. Why two cars? She squinted at the foursome and explored their dark effect; they were like the extended wings of a bat or a dead limb that hadn’t yet fallen. Nothing good. In any case they obstructed her view of the flowers, lawn, pool, garden and hillside where she thought they ought to let a local farmer graze his sheep. They’d been asked about that once but declined because Frank had grapes in mind for that hillside, part of his rationale for going after the consulting money. Indeed, her impression was that they weren’t popular in the neighborhood because Frank did his own gardening and she didn’t have a full-time maid. Maybe someone who didn’t like them already had said something about April 13, and they were trying to catch her in a lie. Also, they did all their shopping in Viterbo proper, not stores speckling the countryside. She treated Viterbo proper as her little Rome. It was a fort to begin with, Castrum Viterbii. Pope Eugene III lived there in 1145. She loved the blue gray Palace of the Popes and the bell tower of St. Lawrence cathedral and the little Gothic church of Santa Maria della Saluta. “What day of the month was April 13 last year?” “A Saturday. Does this help you recall your husband’s whereabouts?” Tim leaned forward to whisper in her ear: “Do you have any monthly receipts, phone records, photographs, or checks that might link Frank to being here on April 13?” Angela didn’t answer. She thought, first, that no one knew what had happened on a normal day a year ago unless it was a birthday or holiday or anniversary. Then she began to do the second exercise as a remedy. April... April...what was the difference between one day in April and the next? Who cared? Was Frank in the country then? Was there an airplane stub somewhere? No, that work in Latin America had begun in the summer. She swam alone all summer; she remembered that. Or most of it. Normally she didn’t do her second exercise with audiences watching. They steeped, like tea, the water of time darkening with currents of intertwining events. Di Blasio said, “Of course, if you do not know, you do not know.” She asked if she could have a moment alone. Di Blasio said that if she meant to go into the house, he would like to accompany her. She had meant to go into the house, but she didn’t want him there, so she said, spontaneously, no, she only meant that she wanted to step out by the pool to think
Indeed, her impression was that they weren’t popular in the neighborhood because Frank did his own gardening and she didn’t have a full-time maid.
a moment alone. “It would help.” “How would it help?” Di Blasio asked. Tim said again, “Isn’t Mrs. Agnelli’s request reasonable? One question, remember?” Di Blasio wasn’t going to be toyed with. “Yes, but the question hasn’t been answered.” He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “What out there will provide an answer? Isn’t the answer more likely in the house, to be preserved or destroyed?” Angela got up anyway and took the path through the flower beds to the pool. Frank had suggested replacing it; it was an old pool with lots of patching and irregularities and an antiquated filtration system. Angela had said in response, just the way she would say something, “Now, really, Frank, why would you do that?” She meant change the patina of the entire property. The old house, old walls, old patios and so forth required a complementary old pool with a yellow-tiled Neptune on one side wall eyeing green and blue-tiled mermaids on the other side wall. “Go do your gardening, leave everything else to me.” She realized the five men had trailed her, so she walked further, toward the garden: long rows of tomato plants, the green tops of carrots, spindly pepper plants with tiny peppers forming, spreading eggplant and squash vines and cucumber vines... She turned to Di Blasio. “He always worked on the garden on Saturdays. That’s what he was doing here on April 13 last year.” DiBlasio didn’t like this. He said, “No, he drove up to Milan, donned a balaclava, and joined his old comrades in this illegal activity.” “He was an agricultural attaché, don’t be ridiculous.” “Madam, excuse me, we know for a fact what he was. We have in our possession a message with his name on it, an advisory to the U.S. intelligence station’s counterparts.” “You mean to the Italian intelligence agencies? And they said okay?” “They had no authority to say okay.” “Maybe not, maybe they wouldn’t dare, so you must mean higher, someone in Rome. Who? The minister of interior? The minister of justice? The prime minister?” Di Blasio said sharply, “I am not here to debate. I have asked you a ques-
tion. You have answered it. Now, is there any way you can prove what you say? This is a part of my question, perhaps the decisive part. A person can say anything, but what is the proof? If there is no proof, I regret to inform you that it is very unlikely that you will retain possession of this house, these grounds, and that garden.” At the moment Angela assumed Frank was heading to the U.S., and she realized no matter what she said, he would never come back here again, but she didn’t want to go live in a rented apartment in D.C. with all their money tied up in Italy. It wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t what they had fallen in love with. Frank had established the garden and wanted to terrace the hillside and grow grapes there. That was the truth of it. Would they eat the grapes? Some, yes. Preserve the grapes, turn them into jelly? Some, yes. But sell them and perhaps eventually figure out how to transform them into wine? No doubt. If they lived long enough, that would be the “final miracle,” Frank’s transition from truck gardener to vintner. He’d get wine out of the dirt. Neat trick for a South Jersey boy. She walked into the garden between the tomato plants to get further away from the men trailing her. It was like a chase, but a very little chase. She was prey, they were predators, each a stand-in for something else: she for brutal U.S. government counter-terrorism tactics, they for offended Italian sovereignty. That was it. The new Italian government despised and tried to undo everything the old government had done because the old government was headed by a despicable boob, slime in a suit. She said April to herself and thought of the weather and continued on thinking in the second way. He liked to work in the gar den on weekends because throughout their peregrinations it had been the only time he’d been able to do so. He’d done it in suburban backyards, on apartment balconies and rooftops, and in communal gardens fringing Bogota and Mexico City. And in April here the highs and lows would have been receptive to his rake and trowel and hand cultivator and old leather apron festooned with seed pockets. One morning very, very early, she recalled, she awakened and he wasn’t in bed. Where was he? She looked toward the bathroom, no light on there. She went into the sitting room. No lights there. She looked out the back window and there in the distance was a bright LED headlamp moving along in the garden. Frank was planting seeds in
the pitch dark. Why? Who knew? She went back to bed. When she awoke, he was gone. The note said, “Probably back tonight.” That night he returned past her bedtime, but she heard him, got up and walked out into the house, wrapped in her robe. Once again, exactly as in the morning, the light on Frank’s head shone down on the ground where he slipped his trowel into the dark soil and slipped in tomato seeds... tomatoes because he was where the tomatoes grew, lots of them, which Angela turned into sauces and soups and juice and canned for the winter and Frank liked to eat fresh off the vine. He’d go out in the garden in August with a salt shaker, pluck a few, bite in, salt and bite in again. When he was sated he might kneel and press his face into the tomato plants because he loved their smell in the hot sun so much. So he may or may not have done what they said, and if he did, how could he be so stupid when he was supposed to be out of that? But either way, he wasn’t coming back to Viterbo. And the imam, if that’s what he really was, what could she do for him? What did he deserve? Angela had no idea. She saw no justice in any of this--these men, this question, the destruction of her life. When Frank began consulting, she had taken over the gardening. At first she resented it. She preferred cooking and reading and writing letters and swimming and playing with Latin and Greek vocabulary cards and doing all the little things necessary to making the beautiful little household go. It was her home and felt like it always had been. But eventually she came to enjoy the smells of the plants and the earth and the feel of the tools in her hands and the scraping crunch of digging and the magic of the teeny, tiny seeds and the heft of the baskets of weeds she removed and the way the plants perked up when she watered them, their leaves fattening with life. She turned to Di Blasio and walked past him. She didn’t have to say it, but she wanted to. “Follow me.” She led the five men to the patio and told them, “Sit down, gentlemen. I’ll only be a minute getting you proof.” She returned with Frank’s worn green legal ledger and paged back through it, certain of what she’d find, none of it involving spying or counter-terrorism. All the entries were dated. Some had to do with too much or too little rain, or pests, or soil conditions, or the growth rates of various vegetables, one kind of squash versus another. He’d measure their length and girth and used his tarnished old scale to weigh them. And every time he planted seeds, he made notes. What could be more important than when you planted your seeds? On April 13 of the previous year the notes read: “Got all the tomato seeds in. Big, big job. Exhausted. Knees ache. 125 plants. Will have to buy more stakes but first want to know how many will have to be thinned so we don’t crowd out the brussels sprouts.” Di Blasio asked if he could take the book. Angela pulled it away. This book was the most important document in Frank’s life, more important than birth, marriage, or death certificates. Whatever he did elsewhere, he did not record or discuss. But he’d pore over this book, writing the main observations in his neat tiny lettering on the right hand page and additional notes on the left hand page. “Thomas Jefferson used to keep a book like this,” he
once told her. “It’s my traveling garden. Some day I’ll have a permanent one, and this will tell me what to do with it.” Di Blasio pressed her. “We will give you a receipt and possibly return it to you, although I frankly doubt it. Now we have evidence, and evidence is permanent.” Di Blasio’s English speaking lieutenant volunteered to photograph it. “The whole thing?” Angela asked. “I can do that, too,” Tim said, “and I’ll definitely get you a copy.” The two men then used small digital cameras to take pictures of the 137 pages that had been used in the 160 page ledger. When they were finished, Di Blasio apologized for taking up so much of her time. Angela snapped, “You should apologize. And you should apologize for threatening to seize my home. You’re no better than the last government no matter what you may think.” Di Blasio accepted this verbal slap with no comment. He led his men to their cars. They raised a trail of dust on the way out. Angela said to Tim, “Where is he now?” Tim looked at his watch. “Miami? Probably spend the night. Then D.C. I can get you a ticket, no problem.” With Di Blasio gone, Angela let herself go, too. She had a sickening, powerful intuition that if she left this little place outside Viterbo, she’d never see it again. She knew Frank would promise her something else. Maybe in Colombia, maybe in Guatemala. She could hear him swear he’d find a way to make that happen, but she didn’t want it. She wanted to stay here in her new old past. It felt right. It felt like her. Just this, always this to the end. “No. All you have to do is tell him I’m here, or I’ll tell him myself if he calls before you see him.” “I think you should leave, Angela,” Tim said. “I really do. Today we won but tomorrow...?” She didn’t have a “tomorrow” exercise, but if she had enough time and peace she would invent one. “No thanks. I’m staying.” She watched another plume of dust rise behind Tim’s departing car. Then she went to the tool shed and got her sun hat, long gloves, and hand cultivator. She’d weed and redirect some rambunctious eggplant and squash vines. You had to watch those guys; they’d go anywhere if you let them. As she worked, the sun would warm her like a hand spread across her back, pressing her down face-to-face with the rich dark soil, making her perspire, but that was okay. After she was finished, she’d swim.
Lexicography A mineral-starved woman eats clay, they call it pica or Geophagia. I eat words.
They say it could be biblical, an affliction of the soul, in verse. Jeremiah 16:15: “Thy words were found and I did eat them.” But I don’t tear out each page of scripture, ruminating chapters like cud. I’m not Ezekiel, who ate a scroll, as God commanded the words like honey on his tongue. It’s a disease there is no term for. Not quite semantics, or etymology, contextual illnesses. Lexicography comes close, but I don’t eat dictionaries or dream in definition.
My children speak in tri-fecta: English, Hebrew, French. Linear and planar, forthright and reversed. Their language is mysterious, multiresonant, star-strung, composed of syllables both guttural and winged, their accents creatures of air and earth, defiant. What have we done? Whispered phonemes like conjurers, the paraphernalia of the cultureless, history projects, dense and past-laden, borderless in a place thus defined. What is the language of their dreams, they play in one, read in another, pilgrims at a feast of choice, where identity is blue documented, hard-sought, defined. I lament the syllable that isn’t mine to give.
Word-starved. I lap at language, a hummingbird of lexes. Cramming snippets of sound, binging on books. It’s furtive.
Rena Rossner is a graduate of the Writing Seminars program at The Johns Hopkins University, Trinity College Dublin and McGill University. She has written extensively for The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post. Her poetry and short fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Poetica Magazine, MiPoesias, Ascent Aspirations, The 22 Magazine, Fade Poetry Journal, Exterminating Angel Press, Full of Crow and The Prague Revue, among others. Her cookbook Eating the Bible was recently published by Skyhorse Publishing. Her first novel is out on submission.
Metallic Bones Corrode
William Wright was born in Leeds, England, and moved to the Chicago, IL in 2011. His work has previously appeared in Palimpsest Literary Journal.
Amber took the train to the city centre, but when she got there, she didn’t leave the station.
She sat on a bench on the platform and watched, sitting completely still amidst a sprawling mass of movement. Trains pulled into the station, emptied their loads, and filled up again before ploughing back out into the air, travelling over the same, wheel-worn, shining tracks they had travelled yesterday, and would travel again tomorrow. In the years to come the paint coating the trains’ cold metallic bones would corrode under the summer sun and the winter snow, and they would be re-painted, re-skinned, their life elongated, their torment prolonged, before they encounter the finality of time and are left to rot a hundred years from now, torn limb-from-limb, and scattered around a junk yard, their ghastly agedness hidden from the view of the general public. Tomorrow Amber will be in this very train station at seven o’clock in the morning, and around three hours after that, her mother will greet her with a hug, her father will kiss her on the cheek, and put her bags into the back of the car, and another half an hour after that, she will be back “home”. Her mother will chatter nervously in the car, as Amber and her father sit silently. He will look out at the road ahead of him; she will stare emptily at the countryside passing by her window. They will arrive at the house Amber grew up in, around midday tomorrow, and she will go straight into the living room, and sit down with a sigh on the sofa, while her Father takes her luggage up to her bedroom. The living room had once been fashionable and modern, but now it sits like a dusty sepia photograph, growing yellower and yellower with age. Her mother will fuss, and bring her a cup of tea, and a sandwich, and she will talk about everything that has changed since Amber left. “Your favourite television channel has now moved to number 128”, she will say. “The Johnsons from next door have moved out, and their son got married. Your Dad and I weren’t invited to the ceremony, but the reception was lovely, although the music a little too frantic for my tastes”. “Oh, and that horrible kid from
a few houses down has gone and got himself arrested, just like I always said he would.” Her father will already be in his office, spreadsheets open, discussing health and safety with the HR Manager on the phone. Eventually, Amber will grow bored, and go upstairs to see her room and start to unpack her suitcases that are laid in the middle of her perfectly-made bed. Her room stands almost exactly as it had the day she left it. The posters of bands and films she had grown out of years ago still hang diligently on her pale-pink walls, and upon her small wooden desk, between a picture of herself and her friends on their final day of high school, and another from a family holiday she had gone on with her parents to Florida before she left for University, is a picture of her brother. He is fourteen, and he is standing alone at a family party. The people in the photos will all seem to her to be standing on some sort of precipice, preparing for an event that looms over them, their smiles tinted with a sadness that is waiting just outside the frame. Amber will turn them all facing downwards one by one; the leap and fall were over, and now they had all hit the ground. Her fingertips will linger, and she will stare at the picture of her brother for a few minutes, and then walk across the hall into his room. Repulsively re-painted in beige, the vibrantly colored green and blue bed sheets have been swapped out for new, plain, white ones with an elderly lace pattern around the edges. The carpet in areas is still compressed by the weight of his desk where it used to stand by the wall, his computer atop it, always turned on, a screensaver simulating a flight through space looping, endless and dim. On the wall, the last trace of him remains; a 3x5 school photo. He’s sixteen, and wearing a navy blue blazer, part of the uniform. It hangs loosely from his shoulders, looking like a hand-medown that he still hasn’t grown into. But it wasn’t; it had fit him when it had been bought a few years before the photo had been taken. He is smiling, and the strain of sustaining the look of happiness is causing his eyes to squint. His skin is pale, and his head is bald. His eyebrows, once thick, dark and expressive, are non-existent, and the echo of alien-ness in his face still brings a lump to her throat. She will leave the room, feeling overcome by its oppressive emptiness, and the artificial newness that tried to cover up the past, but the house outside feels just the same - empty and cold. The only solace she can find is in her
room that stands exactly the same as it always had. ***
mber had been sitting in the station for around half an hour. And some people saw her as they walked past, and maybe wondered why she was sitting alone, and then they thought she must just be waiting for someone. She took out her phone, and dialled her friend Penny’s number. They had been roommates since their first day at university, and Amber had latched on to her and not let go. She had felt in Penny a sense of home; in her she had found another only child from a middle-class family in a small town. This was probably going to be the last day they would spend as housemates, but Amber didn’t make the call. She had wanted to ask where Penny was, what they were going to do that night, whether she had managed to pack up all her stuff yet, but instead she just stared at her phone, before putting it back into her pocket, and looking around again at all the people in the station, arriving and leaving without a second thought, each moment of their lives a progression, moving from one room to the next, with a few corridors in between. Amber was about to get up to walk to the newsstand across the platform when an elderly woman came straight over from the main entrance to the station, and sat next to her on the bench. She aimlessly and silently stared for a while, as Amber was, at the movement around them. Then, after a while, she started glancing at Amber questioningly, and began following her eye-line, as though trying to help her in the search for whatever she was looking for. Then the old woman turned to talk to her, wrinkles covering her face like roads on a map, carved by time into her skin, to serve as reminders of everywhere she had been. Her head was encased in a bowler hat, which she, from time to time, raised her hand to re-adjust, nodding contentedly as she did so. “You waiting for somebody dear?” the old woman said. “No,” Amber said, “You?” “Oh, no. I just like to ride out every now and again. I don’t like to just sit at home. I like to come and see the city.” “Oh.” “Yes, it was nothing like this before. Always busy now. I come out and even at night, there are always people who need to be somewhere.” “Yeah”, Amber said, welcoming the distraction. “It changes too quickly this city, you know. I like to come out and see how it has changed.” “I didn’t think it changes that much. But I haven’t been here that long.” “Oh, yes. I saw the other day a group of people protesting something or other. Right in the middle of the street, and everyone around them just walked on by, like they were just part of the architecture. A year ago you wouldn’t have seen that.”
“I’m sure you would.” “Yes, people are always angry, but now they just come out and say it, right in the middle of all the tourists.” “Yeah, I suppose. I don’t think protesting is a new thing though.” “They don’t worry about giving the city a bad name or anything like that. They don’t worry that all these tourists will get back on their airplanes and say to their families, “Oh, it was nice, but there was all these angry people”, no! It’s great, you know, that they can just be angry and it’s so normal.” The woman had a slight Caribbean accent that crept into her voice every so often, and a slight raspy cooing tone to her speech. “I don’t think they are always angry about something real. Some are just protesting for the sake of it”, Amber said, disagreeing simply to further the conversation. “Of course they are, people are always protesting; I sometimes think people protest just for the fun of it too, whether they have a cause or not. People like to just be angry sometimes. But that’s the wonderful thing about it; people want so much for something to care about, something to get worked up over, and we need that from time to time. Are you sure you’re not waiting for anyone dear?” “No. I’m not. I like to ride out sometimes too, I guess; just to look around.” Amber looked at the old lady’s hands, and saw a gold wedding ring on her finger, locked in place by the flesh that had swollen around it after decades of wear. “I sometimes think I would like to join those people protesting, but I don’t have enough left in me to work up the anger. It used to be a lot easier to get angry with the world; for a woman like myself I mean. It’s so much better now than it was. People always complain about the youth of today. Well, let me tell you one thing, they said the same about us when we were kids.” she patted a hand over her heart as she said this, and leaned in towards Amber, as though about to give up a secret. “No, not so bad anymore, not like it used to be. Of course, there’s still ignorance, I still get funny looks sometimes, people shuffling when I sit next to them in a waiting room; people thinking I am poor, or that I should always be wearing colourful clothes because I still sound a little Jamaican. I forget I am sometimes, I don’t really see the difference. But it’s not like the old days; I can live where I want now, no landlord or waiter will turn me away. Of course, I’m sure some want to, but not enough to risk a law suit. Your hands are shaking dear…” Amber looked at her hands, and they were trembling in her lap. She curled them into fists to smother the quiver in her fingers. She was about to walk away, to deal with the problem in isolation, but something about the old woman kept her sitting there. As much as she wanted to be alone, she felt herself getting lost in this stranger, who was talking to her simply to talk. Her own memories, even if only for a few moments, ceased to matter. “You’re sure you’re not waiting for somebody, you said?” said the old wom-
The only solace she can find is in her room that stands exactly the same as it always had.
an, with a slight, disbelieving furrow of her eyebrows. “Yes, I’m sure. I’m not sure who I would be meeting, even.” “Well, a boyfriend, or your brother or sister, or a friend… you could be waiting for anyone. It’s not good to always be waiting around for others though, eventually they won’t bother turning up. Are you at University?” “Yes. Well… no… I just graduated.” “You will miss it. I did. I was quite a feminist. I wasn’t going to let no man run my life. Then what do you know, I ended up a house wife. But the difference was, I chose to be one. My husband wanted me to work – Imagine! – but I said no. He was furious really. He liked not bearing the load of providing for us – not having to break his back just to afford the weekly shop like his Father. Well, his father hated me. His son and a Negro?! Well, we caused quite the commotion in the community. The nice ones said we should think twice, we were just so different, and they couldn’t see how it would work out. The nasty ones told us we were just wrong. Well, my husband and his parents, they stopped talking. His father was especially unkind, disowned him and that sort of thing – “I don’t have a son anymore”. We didn’t see them for the longest time, about four years it was. Well, until one day, we turned up on his doorstep, and my husband had a little baby in his arms, little black curls on his head, and the darkest brown eyes. Well, you should have seen that man’s face, I have never seen anyone’s expression go as soft as his did so quickly. He didn’t say a word, just took his grandson in his arms and cradled him, looking down into his little face. We went around every week after that, and we would have Sunday dinner, we even all went to church together a few times, and my father in law strolled straight in there, holding the baby up high for everyone to see. He turned up at our house sometimes too, midweek, when my husband wasn’t home. He would have some silly excuse, like he had come to check the water pressure, like some kind of plumber; he had never touched a water pipe in his life, he had been a construction worker. And he would play for hours with that little boy. It was a relief for me, toddlers run you into the ground. You understand, don’t you dear?” “I think so.” “They all come around in the end, all it takes is a little baby’s eyes.” The old lady was smiling, as though waiting for Amber to say something, but she didn’t want to reply, she liked to hear the old lady talk. She liked to know that her life was just as obscure to this woman as the woman’s was to her. By chance they had crossed in this busy train station that was revolving around them, a cacophony of echoing footsteps and screeching train brakes, and soon they would part again, and their lives would be just as inconsequential to one another as they had been before they met. “Is there a man in your life, dear?” the old woman finally said. “No, there isn’t,” Amber said. She felt for some reason as though she was telling a lie. There was a hint of disingenuousness in her voice, and she knew that the old woman would pick up on it. “A pretty girl like you? You should have two or three!” “I don’t want one, I don’t think.”
The warped, weather-beaten boards of the porch darkened the face of the small home as dusk drew shade down over the windows and door; the only thing that caught the light of hushed day was a boy sitting on the front step. A long silence was stretched across the scene like the fading horizon. The boy kept still as shadows shifted: his grandpa leaned towards him. The porch groaned as the chair rocked forward, and the old man's feeble voice cracked when he started to speak. He would have said: 'Follow your dreams, don't give up, don't be led astray;' but he'd never followed his own advice, and knew the boy would know his life and words were lies.
Jeff Mumford is currently a project manager at an engineering organization in Las Vegas, NV. He studied creative writing at Florida State University before taking a laborer position with a contracting firm in order to travel and live overseas. After a five year hiatus, Jeff returned Stateside and finished his degree at UNLV. He has contributed to various sports websites and has been part of an internet radio sports talk show. He has never won any prizes for writing; however, he is not fundamentally opposed to it and would accept one should it be offered. This is his first published piece of poetry.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” “No! No… No.” “Well, you know, it wouldn’t matter if you did. Not these days. Why is it you don’t want a boyfriend?” “I don’t know. The idea isn’t appealing.” “Well, you know, what could be more appealing than having someone you can share yourself with?” “I don’t know.” “You have the saddest eyes my dear, do you know that? They are so big – remind me of my son’s. You know, when my husband died, I felt like I had lost a whole part of me, like the world was going to end any second, and I was helpless. I was there, in the hospital, and I watched him go, and you could never explain it; this person who you love with your whole heart is leaving, and you know you will never hear them laugh again. For so long I just cried and cried. And I was so angry for the longest time, so angry at everything and I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I just had this festering pain in my stomach that was eating me from the inside. Do you understand, dear?” “Yes. I know.” “Then one day I just looked at his picture, and it left, the festering feeling. And I was fine then. I still miss him every day.” Amber’s hands were still trembling, and she looked down at them again, willing them into stillness; and then the old lady placed her hand on top of her clenched fists. “It just went, dear.” Amber sighed, and the lady took her hand away, leaving Amber’s clenched fists completely still. “Are you sure you’re not waiting for anybody dear?” she said. “Yes. I’m not waiting for anybody.” “Are you seeing someone off, then?” “No, I’m not saying goodbye to anyone until tomorrow.” “What happens tomorrow?” “I’m going back home.” “Oh yes. By the way, congratulations dear. What is your degree in?” “Mathematics. It was my brother’s favourite subject.” “Well, wonderful.” “Thanks.” “What is your favourite subject?” “Pardon?” “You said it was your brother’s favourite subject. Well, what is yours?” “Oh, I don’t really have one. History, I suppose. That used to be my favorite.” “Well, congratulations dear. Maybe now you can read some History books or something, now that you have finished with your degree.” “Maybe.” They both sat together in contented silence for what could have been five minutes, or maybe an hour. They didn’t look at each other, and neither of them was really looking around anymore. Their eyes were glazed and they both looked straight in front of them, like an audience wait-
ing for a show to begin. Above them, mounted upon the sandstone wall of the old Station was a departure board. The names of destinations, followed by the times of the leaving trains scrolled across the huge black surface in digital green digits. “Anyway, I think I had better be going, Dear. It was really lovely to meet you,” The old woman said, and she stood up, and turned towards the main entrance to the train station, “I think there should be my bus coming along any minute now.” “Why don’t you just take a train? You’re already here…” “I like train stations, but I hate trains. I much prefer buses; I like roads much better than tracks.” Amber watched the old woman walk out into the street, and she continued to sit. She wasn’t at a destination, but she wasn’t at home either. Instead she was trapped in between, in a cathedral built to honour those who needed to be somewhere - steel and stone and glass towering to the sky, reaching upwards, but faltering half way, because this is where people come to begin their search for beauty and joy and happiness. She boarded the next train out of the city, and as it pulled out of the station, there was that almost unnoticed hope inside her that the engine fails, and the vehicle whose life has been unnaturally prolonged will sputter to a halt, and she will be forced to park her life eternally in the glorious station, in which she can foster hope, without leaving her love behind.
Jacob Collins-Wilson, a high school English teacher, has had poetry published in Crack The Spine, Barely South Review, The Finger Literary Magazine and Burningword Literary Journal. He will be or has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net series. He can be reached by everyone at firstname.lastname@example.org. Between pitches the shortstop kicks his initials or some other design into the dirt. It’s ritual. All baseball is ritual. Each out he kicks another pattern, another letter. He times his spit so it hardly touches Earth before he sweeps it into dust with his cleat. The shortstop is patient. Watchful. He’s the man tracking not only the ball but the play too—the cutoff man— listening to cleats sprinting the bases, watching the play from the back of his head. He plugs holes in the infield. A back-hand play sliding away from first in a fury of dirt is as second-nature as lacing up his spikes. When mud clots on the pitcher’s spikes it’s the shortstop who calls time to clean them. When the pitcher suffers late in the seventh it’s the shortstop who calls time, tells a joke to calm the nerves. The shortstop has the best glove, eye, arm, sense. When pitchers are peppered and forked, the shortstop carries the team rubber-armed and melting but never sweating from the heat he creates. He finds his glove on the bench just by smell always remembers how whenever they end up winning the sun comes out in the fourth, sifting through the clouds like a seeing-eye grounder. He remembers to grind a pinch of dirt into his palms before every pitch always runs his hand through the grass so he can know how grounders feel and when it’s a pop-fly, a shortstop never worries because he knows the clouds will always bring the ball to his glove because god too was a shortstop.
Leavenworth “Leavenworth” is adapted from a workin-progress entitled Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War. Excerpts from this memoir have also appeared in Prick of the Spindle, The Kansas City Star, and The Whirlybird Anthology of Kansas City Writers. Robert F. Sommer has published two novels, Where the Wind Blew (Wessex 2008) and A Great Fullness (Aqueous Books, forthcoming 2014). His scholarly articles, essays, and stories have appeared in Centennial Review, Studies in American Fiction, New England Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, American Book Review, Chronogram, Rain Taxi, Counterpunch, Hudson Valley Magazine, We Need Not Walk Alone, and other print and online publications. 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. Bob and his wife Heather make their home in Overland Park, Kansas. His blog is Uncommon Hours. To learn more about Francis, visit www.francisfund.org.
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-andwhite 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 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 na-
tional 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 blankfaced 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 seem 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. ***
e 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 ar ranged his medals and awards on a bookshelf
in his room that remained undisturbed and uncluttered even as fishing tackle and biking gear piled up around the room, the bed went unmade, laundry accumulated, 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 there, as if they seemed trite now, as if they were honoring events and actions that were too ugly to honor. His meticulous arrangement of the medals, which only Heather and I and his brother and sister ever saw, seemed utterly lonely. 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 these honors. He was surely proud of them— 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 too, 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 it), 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. He was a sniper in Afghanistan. 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 he 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 tee-shirt, with an I-phone 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. ***
he 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 moment 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 tes-
sellation 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 commitment 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 curves 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. Flycatchers 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.
If you want to baptize a child, for God’s sake, wouldn’t milk be best instead of water? Or wine? You may bless either and call it ‘holy’. These self-evident rites, could the party not be held outdoors? Say, by a river, the question of a river rolling toward the answer of the sea. There’s your water. Why not baptize the child in a garden; it’s little pate wetted by a spigot or a lawn sprinkler? I guess you guess the blessed medium is liquid; but couldn’t the sun be poured over the dear? Couldn’t the air serve? The wind? Or hope that it rains, if you need water. And, poor thing, whether male or female, you’ve togged them out in some cumbersome dress; to be worn once and then enshrined, at best handed down, yellowing, through the generations. Better to baptize the child naked. Naked as the day it’s born. In all your good God’s glory. And why a priest or some same difference? Let the oldest and the youngest one attending share out such sacramental duties. Hell’s bells, if you’ll pardon the language, why baptize a child at all? He or she was born blessed in the light of all of this. A god knows what he’s doing.
wetting the baby’s head
Pushcart-nominee Bruce McRae is a Canadian musician with over 700 publications, including Poetry.com and The North American Review. His first book, The So-Called Sonnets, is available from the Silenced Press website or via Amazon books. To hear his music and view more poems visit his website: www.bpmcrae.com, or ‘TheBruceMcRaeChannel’ on YouTube.
Compassionate Release I’m escorted to my father’s room by a well-dressed young woman. A social worker, is my guess. The sort I’d become familiar with long ago as a newly orphaned eleven-yearold girl. Kind, yet fenced off. Always in a hurry. The social worker—I’ve forgotten her name already— walks me at a brisk pace down the hall. I try to keep up, but I’ve worn the wrong shoes for marching. Besides, I’m distracted by the slideshow of open doorways. Glimpses into lives of people whose final exit from the nursing home will be unheralded by siren. Waxen figures in varying states of undress. Slack skinned and speckled. Some still tucked in bed, arms folded and hands laced. As if rehearsing for their last big day above ground. “We can accommodate ninety altogether, forty on this wing alone,” the social worker chirps over her shoulder. The opportunity to recite these facts seems to put even more bounce in her step. But it saddens me to imagine all these people crammed together in such a dismal place. “Oh,” is all I can muster. “Here we are. Go on in and make yourself comfortable. We’ll bring him by as soon as he’s done with lunch, okay?” She flashes me a cheerful look before she leaves, the smile a checkmark next to her completed task. I fight the urge to run after her, doubting my decision to visit my father for the umpteenth time. Even the word father flits about in my head like a bird that has managed to get inside a house and is now desperately seeking a way out. I knock and enter an accommodation (I can’t really call it a room) that is
Michael Pikna grew up in northern New Jersey and moved to Colorado when he was twenty-one. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Colorado and began working in the mental health field in 1982. He currently works at a mental health center where he helps people who are struggling with severe mental illness. He has published short stories in various literary magazines over the years, such as the Bryant Literary Review and the Puckerbrush Review. Some of the writers who inspire him are Junot Diaz, Andre Dubus, Colum McCann, and T.C. Boyle. He lives in Aurora, Colorado, with his wife Gayle and their schnauzer, Fritz. equal parts cheap motel and county hospital. In the living space closest to the door is an old man lying on a bed. His milky grey cataracts match his stubble. Except for the yellow on his chin, which could be remnants of breakfast. “Is it time?” he says. “It’s past time, isn’t it?” His unseeing eyes train uncannily on me. “Um, I’m not...I don’t...” I give up and walk all the way in and sit in a chair on the far side of the other bed. A dull grey curtain separates the living area, cutting the already small room in half. A person could suffocate in here. I hyperventilate as I look around. A cheap plastic wall clock keeps the time. Or tries to. It has stopped a few minutes after noon, the battery supplying just enough juice to cause the secondhand to flop listlessly against the same hash mark over and over. A tick without a tock. A small window looks out onto an empty field, already greening with the weeds that will make my spring a sinus hell. Not much to look at, but probably better than the view from the prison cell he occupied for forty years. It’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for what he endured there. Maybe I could if I were that social worker. Or anyone else. Maybe in another universe there is a version of me living a normal life. A compassionate me. With a decent job, a workable marriage, kids. Without the secret roadmap of scars on her inner thighs. Filled with something alive and hopeful instead of sawdust. I get up and open the closet door. I press my face into one of his flannel shirts and smell him. He used to tuck me in at night. I would kiss his sandpapery cheek and then he would fluff my pillow. Every night. And as he was bent over me I would breathe him in. The smell of unbaked bread. All I smell now is dust. “Is it time, yet,” the blind man whines. “It’s been so long.”
“No!” I yell, and I feel bad right away. I can be such a bitch. “I don’t know,” I say in a kinder tone. I’m wondering just what he thinks it’s time for when an aide wheels my father in. The aide is a small dark man, Dominican or Haitian. He lifts my father easily from the wheelchair to the bed. As easily as my father used to lift me when I was young and not yet weighed down by his sins. Could anyone lift me like that now? Even as skinny as I am? I doubt it. The aide hovers around my father, elevating the bed so he can sit upright, covering his legs with a blanket, gently fastening an oxygen cannula under his nose and regulating the flow on the tank. Finally, he adjusts the pillow and turns to me. “He don’t talk,” the aide says. He points to his throat. “The cancer, it take his voice.” On cue, my father holds up a small whiteboard and a dry-erase pen. I nod my head. The cancer, that I knew about. The woman who called me from the prison told me as much. Told me it had spread. Everywhere. Explained about compassionate release in a tone that assumed I might care. I didn’t. It was all just information to me. About an old man dying of cancer in prison. Being released because the state felt sorry for him. But his voice. I didn’t know about that, and for some reason it jars me. Much more than the news of the cancer had. And then I remember how deep and plush his voice was. How it would wrap his words like a present. But what gift was I expecting from him today? An explanation? As if he would talk and then I’d say, Oh, that’s why you killed mom. It all makes sense now. I know better than that. I beam my most reassuring smile at the aide, but he gives me a look, his eyes skeptical, head tilted back. Putting someone at ease is not my strong suite. He leaves anyway, though. And not a peep from the blind man, whose complaints about timeliness apparently have nothing to do with what the aide can offer. My father writes on the whiteboard, in faltering red letters, I’m so glad you came. “I’m not sure why I did.” I stare at the frail man lying there. I have a memory of loving him, but I don’t feel it anymore. As if it was something I read about in a book once. I have knowledge of it, but the experience itself belongs to someone else. His eyes are the same luminous spheres around which I orbited as a young girl. Two bolts of blue that now anchor his decrepit body to the world of the living. His hands are the same, too. Big. Meant for cradling faces. Kneading dough. Holding a gun. You never came to see me. He erases this and writes, I can’t blame you. I look down at my lap. I squeeze my thighs above my knees as hard as I can. The pressure calms me. “I was too scared...dad.” The last word falls out of my mouth with the weight of something dead. “Then I was too angry. And after that I was just too messed up.” I think of all those years in therapy trying to gently coax that eleven-yearold girl inside me to move on. And just as many years of trying to push her out with the chemicals, prescribed and otherwise, I put into my body. Every day, I push. One way or another. I force myself to look up, to meet his gaze. “For a long time I just wanted you dead. But that just made me feel worse. So then I thought maybe I should die. At least that way I could be with mom.” My father nods. I wanted to die too. He erases this and writes, Still do, a sad smile on his face. It makes me feel better, closer to him. To know that he wants to die. You don’t still want to, he writes, do you?
Manhandled You broke my heart. Do you remember? You grasped it tightly in your meaty hands— too large to be kind, the fingers much too short for beauty—and snapped it right in two before pushing the pieces clumsily back together with a sealant of glue and hoping to make the same shape.
Nazifa Islam grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, splinterswerve, The Fat City Review, and Flashquake among many others, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She sometimes updates her blog Thoughts Interjected and can be found on Twitter at @nafoopal. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at Oregon State University.
I shrug. It wasn’t your fault, he writes. You know that right? I stare at the whiteboard. People have tossed those words out before, but they’re too insubstantial to stick. Short bursts of air that drift right over me. Or, like now, they can be wiped away with my father’s sleeve. But what I feel at any given moment has the weight of truth to it. So when I’m angry, I think of reasons my father should die. And when I feel guilty, I think of ways to kill myself. I smile at my father and say, “And you look like death warmed over, you know that, right?” He nods. The fact is, I don’t have long to live. I remember the way he used to preface all his announcements with those words. The fact is, the bakery’ll survive a day without me. The fact is, honey, you can’t have cake for breakfast. The fact is, sweetheart, you mom and I are splitting up. “If you’re looking for sympathy...” I shake my head. No, not sympathy. That’s not it. “What, then?” He hesitates and then erases the whiteboard. I want to know that you’re OK, he writes. I squint at the words to make sure I read them right. “Are you for real?” I say. I tick off on my fingers. “No family to take me in. Foster homes until I was eighteen. The beatings. The times I was molested. The times I tried to...” I get up and turn my back. I don’t like thinking about my life without something sharp in my hand. So I bite down on the inside of my cheek until I taste blood. I sit down and hug my knees. “Sure. I’m OK, dad,” I say into my lap. “Just peachy.” But I don’t even know what OK is anymore. To me, OK is just a story. Once upon a time there was a little girl who was happy. And then one day... I hear the squeaky sliding of the marker and I look up to see what he wrote. I’m sorry. For everything. “You’re sorry.” I nod my head. “Well, that makes it OK then,” I say, my voice flat. “We’re all squared away here. You kill my mother...in front of me. You abandon me, ruin my life. But as long as you’re sorry. And then I guess I’m supposed to...” I lean back in my chair. “That’s it, isn’t it? You want me to forgive you.” He nods. It’s what we both need. I laugh. “How would you know what I need? What, you had a few sessions with a prison shrink and you think you know me?” I grab the whiteboard and fling it across the room. It bounces off the closet and clatters to the floor. “You don’t know anything!” I look around the room and I feel lost. My eyes light on the clock and its ineffectual secondhand. With each half- assed tick it mocks me: stuck, stuck, stuck... I put my head in my hands. Hot tears spill through my fingers. “I should go before I...” “Is it time, yet?” the blind man asks again. “Is it?” “Will you shut the... Will you just be quiet?” And just like that, it is. Quiet. Not just on the outside, where the only sound I can here is the distant murmuring of old people playing bingo while they wait to die. But quiet on the inside, too. The quiet of being finished. Done.
I retrieve the whiteboard and give it back to my father. “Why should I?” I ask. He stares at the whiteboard for a moment and then writes, I want to be at peace with myself. He erases this and writes, And with you. Before I die. “Wonderful. You get peace. How nice for you. Well, what do I get, dad? After forty years of feeling dead inside. What do I get?” A second chance, he writes. I want to hit him. To take the little board and beat him with it. A second chance? Even if I could forgive him, what would I do with a second chance? Fuck it up, probably. Besides, my life has a momentum to it now I’m not sure I can stop. Any more than my mother could have stopped the bullet once my father pulled the trigger. Somewhere along the way I became that bullet, puncturing my own dreams, killing any chance I had to be happy. And deep down I know it will all be over soon. My life. Just a few more pushes. Why stop now? But forgive him? He might as well be asking me to rip out my liver. Then, the way I’ve treated it, my liver probably won’t be of much more use to me anyway. I chuckle at this, causing my father to frown. I recognize that furrowed brow. It had authority over me once. Over my mother... “Why’d you do it, dad?” I say. “Because she left you? So what. You still could’ve been my father. I needed you.” My father looks down, his marker poised over the whiteboard. His hand and sleeve are stained red. He stays like that for a while and shakes his head. Then he writes, I never stopped loving you. I nod my head because I don’t doubt what he says. It’s just that love can’t be trusted. What good did it do me as a child? Loving my father just made me feel like an accessory to murder. And what was the point of loving each other if things were going to play out the way they did? The quiet washes over me again. I sit down and I listen. I can hear the soft hiss of the oxygen through the cannula. I’m not sure how long I sit like that, just listening. Finally, I get up and I take his hand. I let it cradle my face for a moment and then I bend down and kiss his stubbly cheek. “I forgive you,” I say, but as the words form and leave my lips I wonder what they mean. As if they are foreign words that need interpretation. Or an act to define them. He smiles and his eyes well up. He tries to adjust his pillow, which has slipped down to his shoulders. “Here, let me help you with that,” I say. I slide the pillow out and fluff it up. I hold it out in front of me with both hands and look down at my father. “Is it time now?” the blind man asks. “Is it?” My father looks at me with unquestioning eyes. He slips the cannula from around his ears and lets the tubing snake to the floor. I glance at the wall clock. The secondhand has started moving again. “Yes,” I say. “I suppose it is.” My father nods his head once and then closes his eyes.
Kari Wergeland, who hails from Davis, California, is a librarian and writer. She moved to Oregon at the age of 14 and eventually attended the University of Oregon, where she earned a B.A. in English. She also holds an M.L.S. in Librarianship from the University of Washington and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry from Pacific University. Wergeland has received recent acceptances from The Chaffin Journal, Homestead Review, and Prick of the Spindle. She is the author of Voice Break, as well as The Ballad of the New Carissa and Other Poems. In addition, she once wrote a children’s book review column for The Seattle Times. She currently works as a librarian for Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California, and lives part-time on the Oregon Coast.
“Go for the jugular!” the writing teacher advises. That was mental illness once. Before Phil before Oprah dissected that vein again and again, until everybody yawned. Now druggists lay down meds like Lemonheads, M & Ms, Good n’ Plenty when we bought candy at the Pill Time Pharmacy after collecting bottles in hedges and parks after rummaging through the coin returns of phone booths, vending machines, and daily newspaper stands. Just 5 cents for the hard stuff— 10 cents for chocolate.
An Interview with Beth Kephart B
eth Kephart is the award-winning author of sixteen books, a teacher of memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, the strategic writing partner of Fusion Communications, and a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and other publications. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham, August 2013) was featured in O Magazine, named a Top Ten September Book by BookPage, and was recently named a finalist in the 18th Annual Books for a Better Life awards program. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent (New City Community Press/Temple University Press), published earlier this year, was named a Best Children’s Book of the 2013 by Kirkus. Going Over, a Berlin novel (Chronicle Books), is set for release in April. Rathalla Review: Why memoir? When in your life did you realize that you wanted to really invest exploring memoir? I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision. I simply began to read memoir, to expand and elongate the autobiographical poems I’d always written, and to wonder what would be possible in a story built solely of the truth. I learned memoir by reading memoir. I learned to write it by living. I wrote many, many essays before I attempted to write a memoir proper. It just sort of happened to me.
ently. The real memoirist tries to place the events within context and to see, within them, something bold, something relevant, something that will matter not just to the writer but to the reader.
myself as having accomplished the big things, with the great exception of being a mom and a wife and a friend. I do, however, always take pride in the achievements of my students. And it was fun to have Handling the Truth: On the RR: Memoir writing still has narrative structure, Writing of Memoir (my new book on the form) be but life doesn’t (or does it?). Does adding narra- named a finalist in the 18th Annual Books for a tive structure to “historical” events mean rein- Better Life Awards program. That was recent, so terpreting events? it stands out for me. This is a great question, and I could go on and on in response. But let me answer simply RR: Who are your favorite writers (of any here: Structure is often the story, in a memoir. genre) that you recommend for anyone and The order in which a story is revealed, the juxta- everyone? What is is about these writers positions, the white space, the decision to include that you think is important/distinct/timemaps or poems or photographs—choices are made less/evocative/anything? all along the way. I am not a woman inclined to pronounce But, again, I would avoid the word “interpre- about favorites, for my shelves are full and tation” here. Memoirists (real memoirists) seek my heart is even more full with all that I have authentic answers to real, and important, ques- learned and loved along the way. But I do adore tions. They evoke the past, suggest possibilities. Michael Ondaatje (every book, including the poInterpretation is an act of explanation, and that is ems) and Colum McCann and Alice McDermott a separate thing. and Patricia McCormick and Terence Des Pres and Alyson Hagy and so many others. I adore RR: What does your basic “preparation” for sit- them because they are authentic writers—careting down and writing? What’s your preferred ful, never arrogant, always humble and precise environment, snack, music, lighting? before the page. Oh, good goodness. I wish I had the time to prepare. I run a boutique marketing communiInterview by Carol Dwyer and John McGeary. cations business that keeps me very busy. And I teach and review and write essays for various publications. I don’t prepare so much as force myself up out of bed at a very dark hour, on occasional days. Most of the time, believe it or not, I simply am not writing. With the exception of my blog (beth-kephart.blogpost.com), which I write every day.
RR: How is memoir more than just remembering what happened? How much interpretation is in your process? I don’t think it’s about interpretation so much as it is about asking questions, identifying themes, and exploring connections. If the only thing a book contains is a memory of “what happened,” it’s probably not deliberately artful and not sear- RR: What is your proudest writing accomingly universal and not essentially transcendent. plishment? Everyone is going to see “what happened” differI don’t actually ever feel great pride or see
From the Editor’s Desk Rathalla had another great semester with new growing pains in our second full year. We had record breaking submissions, which brought due panic and excitement. We have withstood the maelstrom of electronic falling paper and successfully found amidst it our new issue! With the new year came new faces. In no particular order (but alphabetical by last name if you’re paying attention): Kara Cochran took over as our new Poetry Editor. Christian Cornier operated our Twitter account @rathallareview. Cheryl Dellasega became our Fiction Editor. And Carol Dwyer took the class for credit has been a large part of our reading teams and setup our Craft interview with Beth Kephart. Monica Lopez-Nieto became our Assistant Production Editor. Tracy Kauffman-Wood remained our Nonfiction Editor and continued Rathalla’s presence at Firinji’s restaurant hosting Open Mic Nights. We had great success with events this semester. Rathalla had its own table at the Collingswood Book Festival this fall where we gave away 375 magazines. Cheryl and Kara created, managed, and produced our second—which allows us to call it annual—NanoWriMo Write-A-Thon fundraiser.
Thanks to our generous classmates, faculty and staff, and good friends, our Write-A-Thon raised over $1,500 in one night! Again, nothing would get done without the love, care, dedication, and sheer-will-power-borderingon-paranoia of our Production Manager, Feliza Casano the Mighty (copyright pending). Her efforts are always superior. Thanks especially and always to our two Program Directors, Carla Spataro (MFA) and Anne Willkomm (Publishing). Despite all boasts, we have discovered that they are both warm and human while still possessing Program Director Powers. And this is me, saying thanks for reading this to the end. The pleasure is all mine. Pick up a free copy of our magazine at Firinji’s Restaurant and Main Point Books. Never give up. Never surrender. And always order French fries.
John McGeary Managing Editor
The Fall 2013 issue of Rathalla Review features poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and an interview with Beth Kephart.
Published on Jan 6, 2014
The Fall 2013 issue of Rathalla Review features poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and an interview with Beth Kephart.