Real 39_1

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Regarding Arts & Letters

39.1 Winter 2015


{vol. 39, no. 1} Winter 2015

Editor in Chief Michael Sheehan Consulting Editors John A. McDermott Andrew Brininstool Editorial Assistant Karen Perkins Readers Mary Perkins, James Clark, Russell Allen, Teri Klauser, Erik Campos, Ryan Goodwin, Emma Pearl Ramsey, Lauren Reagan Intern Audrey Granger Views expressed in RE:AL do not neccessarily reflect those of the administration or the Board of Regents of Stephen F. Austin. In its history, RE:AL has received the generous support of:





Table of Contents



:Letters Jerry Whitus Stone Coffin ..... 13 Sean Dougherty Oh my my little country laugh ..... 29 ER ..... 30 Michael Salcman Charles Ives ..... 48 Lisa Pellegrini My Mother’s Hair ..... 49 Gary Hawkins Cyclist’s Eulogy ..... 65 Karina Borowicz To Metacomet, King of the Wampanoags ..... 66 The Wound ..... 67 Sierra Golden Untitled ..... 76 Donald Illich Road, Sky ..... 87 Alamgir Hashmi Africa Writing ..... 100 Christina Frei The Passing ..... 102 Elegy to a Chemist ..... 103 Songbirds of Senegal ..... 104 Simon Perchik Five Poems ..... 128 John Sibley Williams Echo Chamber ..... 150 Forbidden Travel ..... 151 Dream Fragment #182 ..... 152 Postscript ..... 153 K.V. Skene Dialectic for the Down and Deconstructed ..... 185 Matthew J. Spireng Mad Uncle ..... 186 Crescent Moon, Venus, Jupiter ..... 187 Susan Ayres Dinner ..... 188 The Fig ..... 189 John Perryman Betty Nguyen’s Knees ..... 75 Contributor’s Notes ..... 210


Fiction Nonfiction Interview

{ { {

Jeff Esterholm Shawn Rubenfeld Catherine Uroff James Kincaid Benjamin Warner Mika Taylor Dorene O’Brien Clark Knowles

Flaming Chevy Lodestar ..... The International Handball Incident ..... Returns ..... Keep Coming Back ..... The New River ..... ..... (Snow White)n Interior Designs ..... Purple Jesus .....


Matthew DeAngelis Tom Larsen PR Griffis

The Shift Score The Darkness that Surrounds the Light

..... .....

32 78



Audrey Granger talks to Amelia Gray


16 50 90 106 118 134 190





Caleb Perkins

Mika Taylor PR Griffis

Contributor’s Bios

Regarding Arts & Letters


front cover, back cover, 68-69, 88-89 ..... 120-127 ..... 158-183




Flaming Chevy Lodestar

Jeff Esterholm

Flaming Chevy Lodestar This negative self-talk of yours. Never bring this or that up again. You are resolute. Any of this, just don’t bring any of this up. And then you do. Again. You were driving south at night on the back roads of Minnesota because your speedometer was shot and you didn’t want to risk being pulled over on the interstate. The self-talk bubbling up over the poor AM/FM reception, and who needed the polka of Fat Bennie and His Bouncing Boys or New Country 24/7 anyway, while you drove at some indeterminate speed, on your way to a trade show related tangentially to the career you had rebounded back into. You despised the work, had quit it once but returned, abashed after a failed bid to become a private contractor. If you were going to be in graphic design, you wanted to be your own boss. Your true vocation? Painting, influenced, some would say too heavily, by Edward Hopper. You were driving alone through the night, headlights illumining the way, when you glanced in your rearview mirror: orange and yellow flames licking out from the rear of the car. You uttered an oath – remember these coming freer and freer from your lips, having grown up in your father’s house and nourished on the films of Martin Scorsese – and thought the gray Chevy travelling through the moonless Minnesota night must look like a wayward NASA creation, blindly streaking at ground level. Pulling to the side of the road, you briefly considered what to do, then, oh, yes, your laptop, the suitcase in the trunk with the materials for the vendor’s booth you were to man at the trade show. You got these out without blistering your hands too badly and then you stood a safe distance



from the Chevy. What to do? The firelight picked out a deer path up a hill and into the woods. Shit job, in the middle of nowhere, a burning car. You wanted to be a painter. You just wanted to disappear. Another Man’s Wife You slept with the wife of another man. Never bring that up again, you said, as if it were the biggest mistake of your life. With Jen, it was not just the one time and she wasn’t the only wife of another man. Since you were a boy you have had a weakness for people and things that were not yours: your father’s spare change, stolen from the ashtray on top of the dresser in his and your mother’s bedroom; your brother’s worn copies of men’s magazines hidden under his mattress which you sold out of your middle school locker; falling for girls in middle school and high school – for example, Jill and Darcy - who were already dating others, they already had boyfriends, which you merely took as a challenge, like you were some klepto of love. Jen waited on tables at a downtown restaurant. You also worked there, at a low point after graduating from college and moving into the bad economy of the late 1970s, trying to gain admittance to the art institute with too much on your mind. This was in Minneapolis, where the only other people you knew at the time were your two stoner friends, Johnson and Handy, who shared rent with you on an apartment across the street from the art institute. Don’t bring up the fact that she began your petite affaire, calling you at work on a day that she had off, asking you to meet her down the street at the Poodle Lounge, a doggery that hadn’t changed in nearly twenty years, with semicircular booths and red leather banquettes that were blistered and patched. Pop Art poodles were up on the Regarding Arts & Letters


Esterholm walls. Jen was direct. She had found her husband in bed with another woman and wanted payback, with you. Never bring up again that it took you three and a half weeks to consider whether any of this was questionable: you and a married woman, sexual congress that could pop the bark from an oak tree, and afterward, Jen, standing nude in the middle of your living room, singing along with the Stones on “Wild Horses”. She had country-western ambitions. Perhaps that led you to the consult with Handy over a doobie and the latest by The Clash. He was fairly succinct, after letting a sinsemilla fog bank swirl from between his lips. “Don’t fuck around with married women. Their husbands always have long, sharp knives.” As much as you don’t care to admit it, you are affected by your peer group. You told Jen that it was over the next afternoon as she backed you into the bedroom. “I can’t do this anymore. Are you listening to me?” She nodded in the affirmative, while keeping a steady gaze aimed just below your belt. “Jen?” “Yes, I’m listening. I understand. But do you want that to go to waste?” Months later you were driving with the woman who would be your future, though temporary wife. The old neighborhood. You were shocked to see a very pregnant Jen walking down the street. You hoped that the car made you invisible. Your future, though temporary wife said, “Look at that poor woman,” it was about ninety degrees outside with no shade, “She’s about ready to drop.”



flaming chevy lodestar The First in a Series of Misreads What did you say about negative self-talk? Never bring this up again. These women you used to know and what had gone wrong, what had simply gone. Two that you go back to, though you know that you shouldn’t, two that you thought you had loved when you were a young man. You don’t want to bring these women up. But you do. You should admit that the year with Valerie was a series of misreads from the very beginning. The very beginning: Valerie had invited you over to her apartment for dinner, a first date after stealing her away from her date, a drunken loser from Fridley, during a 4th of July party in Loring Park – remember that predisposition of yours. She invited you over for dinner. While the marinara sauce bubbled in the sauce pan on the stove and the Creamette spaghetti remained boxed, waiting for the water to boil, she took you into her bedroom where she kept her Raleigh ten-speed with its flat tire. Valerie wanted to show you the tire patch kit that she’d been having difficulty with. You – why are you bringing this up, you ask yourself – you took the walk into the bedroom as an invitation and pulled down her blue running shorts with the white trim and pushed her to her bed. She looked off impassively at a spot on the bedroom wall above the bicycle resting against her cluttered dresser. You were a twenty-three-year-old and coming, only realizing your mistake during the subsequent days and months that you spent with her, realizing only later that, viewed from Valerie’s side, the first time that the two of you had sex together could very well have been rape. You remember this as the very beginning of a series of misreads that you don’t need to bring up again.

Regarding Arts & Letters


Esterholm Nineteen You tell yourself to never bring this last one up again – this last that was first – but the demand is really not so harsh. You are near wistful, aren’t you? About Karen? She lived with her great-aunt in South End while going to school. You would drive her home from campus after the life drawing class. The two of you had circled and then gravitated toward each other. Simpatico, you were both nineteen and committed to pleasing one another on the front seat of a Buick LeSabre. You were so passionate at nineteen, weren’t you? Then again, you both made false moves, moves that threw the other off balance. You recall the crushingly mundane, the lines that led to this first love’s collapse. How could it have ended that way? At first, you both could have sworn that at nineteen no one else could have ever felt the same way. And then left it, just left it. Those lines. “Would you like to go out to my parents’ cabin this weekend?” she asked. “Have you ever slept with anyone before?” she asked. “Don’t worry. I always leave with who I came with,” she said. “We have to talk,” she said. “I think we should see other people,” she said. You said, “Okay, give this some time.” You said, “A few weeks.” You said, “Months.” You said, “Years.” She took you to see a Shawn Phillips concert for your twentieth birthday and that line came up about seeing other people. “You can drop me off here,” you said. “But your apartment’s five miles away.” “You can drop me off here.”



flaming chevy lodestar Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Neil Young’s Zuma. These record albums became your theme music. Until she transferred out of state, there were the awkward moments for you, parties where you would run into Karen who was beautiful and fine and could handle anything, and all you could see fit to do was get drunk and high. The pathetic painter. Graduating, you took a road trip with Handy and Johnson to the American Southwest, but Karen never vanished from your mind. Sleeping in the desert, saguaros like bogeymen, you woke yourself with a weary dream: Karen going up an escalator and you, watching her, going down. Flaming Chevy Lodestar Reprise You are hunkered down in a jog of the deer path. The smoke from the burning car stings, planting damaging seeds in your lungs, but you don’t move on. Where does the negative self-talk come from? You have always been too ready to disregard even the little that you might have found to be positive. Why? Due to its impermanence is your response. You never include anything in your self-talk about the woman who was your temporary wife, perhaps because that period of your life was for the most part good. No, don’t bring up the bad, because that was you, all you, and you admit that and let it go. Let it go. She is with your twenty-five-year-old daughter in Portland, Oregon, and your daughter is, of all the wonders, an artist, a lithographer. You also never include this. The uncle who was a master sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was in Europe during World War II and later in Korea. He saw things that would make others blanch. It wasn’t masculine posturing, you only heard one allusion to the stench of the battlefield, and that was thirdhand. Uncle Henry also had the misfortune to have his wife die during childbirth. When he retired at forty from Regarding Arts & Letters


the army, he tended bar and soaked up Black Velvet for forty more years before he died. Henry’s life was riven with pathos. You saw him a week before he died, and what did he tell you? That he didn’t think he’d ever be ready for the end. Life was too good. “It’s too good, isn’t it?” But he wasn’t really asking.



Stone Coffin

Jerry Whitus

I never met the old man but once. I was ten. He was in his coffin raised on sawhorses in the bare front room of an old farm house with creaky boards, dusty panes that turned the April sunlight, crawling the walls, into something like moonlight. The stench of a decay I’d never known in the air. A harshness I’d never seen on the moon-glow faces of the people there. Bury him in hard ground away from the shade, my daddy said. Better the coffin’s cut from stone and stone lid too heavy for anything but the devil bear, came from his brother, my uncle Tab. Pour in gravel Aunt Jewel said from a private corner across the room. In a long gown and ashen hair bunched in strings, her cheeks bunched like toadstools, two still girls with stone angel eyes, clinging to the hem by her gown. Later they all stood in the front yard. Wild blackberry and honeysuckle grew in a riot over rail fence and porch banister. They lulled about, the family and others who’d Regarding Arts & Letters


whitus come, two dozen in all, I guess, plus kids. The men, grinding butts into the ruined ground. Them and outspoken women, passing a bottle around. They drank whiskey from tin cups, argued about who would dig the hole, haul the coffin there. Heated it got till a fight broke out and Dad and Uncle Tab got the better of their cousins. Still nobody went for a pick or shovel. They smoked. They drank. They pulled at the ropes around their necks and glanced toward the grave gray house and the sky, avoiding one another’s eyes. The sun grew tight, gave up and started home, serenated by frogs from the bogs and thickets; a zephyr herded rain clouds into thorny treetops. In the falling light, as if it were a foregone conclusion, they stumbled into cars and trucks, some helping the drunks, some just plain disgusted. Kids ran from the pasture to catch up the procession, my brothers among them. From beneath the gallery roof I watched them depart, dust rising on the soft dirt road, blood rising to my face. Left there on my own, I pulled a slated porch chair through the front door, it scraped across the great empty floor as if on claws, like a great cat. I climbed onto its furry back to the wooden box. A long bristled face splotched with rosy scrapes, a black wart, or was it a burr, in the corner of one eye. Scooped cheeks and bones forged in his face as if by a careless blacksmith. He wore a blue suit coat,



stone coffin collarless shirt, slouch pants, no belt at all, scarred, rundown brogans. Two fingers gone on the hand that lay atop the other on his chest. I had never seen death before and this, this bog man, was my daddy’s daddy. I tried to pray something, it seemed an obligation, but soon was distracted by a child’s thought, a mystery—what were they afraid of ? Try as I might to avoid it, my eyes kept wandering to that wrinkled wart. I felt a great urge building, a compulsion, to pluck it from his tender eye, and perhaps provide some eternal peace.

Regarding Arts & Letters


The International Handball incident

Shawn Rubenfeld

It’s been three weeks since Jess told me to be patient, to give her space. But still I’m here again, outside her ground floor apartment on Waverly. It’s the last of a series of six brownstones, across from PS 11 and the square of handball and basketball courts called Greene Playground. Beyond the apartment the street is a series of long flat buildings separated by alleyways and metal fences. NO PARKING signs are posted on the front of everything—garages, trees, light poles. It’s Thursday so things are quiet. All I hear is the occasional car horn and the pop of a handball from the two Russians on the court. I reach my hand over the building’s metal gate and pull it open. I climb the steps and ring the doorbell. I’ve got the story down pretty good. I’m here to get the Season Three Seinfeld DVDs for my mother. That’s why I’m breaking our deal. Not that I need a story this time. I saw the Facebook posts—all that blatant back-and-forth about favorite colors and Earth Day, about missing trains and watching Tarantino movies. Jess. I know exactly where she is. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and turn to face the big, brick elementary school, where industrial-size metal fans and the occasional nine-year-old Rapunzel linger on the other side of window bars. There’s a security guard on a fold-out chair at the front steps, a regular sight for Clinton Hill, despite it being home to all the weird art kids from Pratt, which is where Jess studies interior design. All around are street murals the Pratt kids put up: Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, and a slew of upside-down rainbows, painted on almost every wall between here and Fort Greene. When she first moved to Waverly, Jess called it Mural Hill.



I knock again to make sure. Three o’clock on a Thursday. Three hours before she has to go to work. No discernible noise on the other side of the door except the hum of the window fan, speeding up and slowing down. She’s in Morningside Heights with Chase Atwood. For the third time in four days. And I knew it would turn out like this. As if their little friends-with-benefits arrangement wasn’t bad enough. I knew all that talk about it never turning into anything serious was just a lie—a form of appeasement, a distraction. All of it. All of those I don’t even really like him, Matthews; those you’re more important than he is, Matthews. But Jess is sneaky. Saying we need a break, a little time alone. Then taking the G into Manhattan to see Chase Fucking Atwood. Because that’s what people do when they need time alone. They take the G into Manhattan to watch Lost with YouTube-loving hipsters like Chase Atwood. The Great Chase Atwood, who posts on Facebook about his “mood induced” playlists and basketball-sized headphones, who carries a plaid bag over his shoulder like a Park Slope imitator, stitched with patches that say “Thinking Hurts” and “Popcorn Junkie.” Chase Atwood, the wannabe filmmaker from Columbia, whose directorial claim to fame is “A Prairie Dog Musical,” a pretentious spoof where prairie dogs pop out of the ground like whack-a-moles to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” It has 400,000 hits. Half a million fewer than “Hello Kitty in Space.” Chase Atwood, who’s even worse in person than he is on Facebook or YouTube. The one time I met him still makes me sick. I’d stick around in the off chance that Jess is hiding in the closet or sitting absolutely still on the bathroom floor, but I’m too close to the school—and the security guard, who may or may not be watching me through his dollar-store aviators—to risk looking suspicious. I go to the handball courts and stake my usual Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld spot on the hot concrete instead, only a few feet from the handball-playing Russians. I lean against the wobbly fence and burn my hands on the ground. One of the Russians spits. They’re wearing matching headbands and yellow gloves today, which makes it look like they’re expecting walkon competition or some kind of breaking news coverage. The older one’s ditched the shirt and is showing off a chest of black and gray hair and a back of sweaty sun-reflecting freckles. The younger one has a shirt, but he also has the signature Spandex, which has either shrunk two sizes since last time or is now holding a bigger, more pronounced dick. Two Russians playing handball in clothes tight enough to pop a blood vessel is something you usually only see in Brighton Beach or Coney Island. But these two are different. These two have claimed Greene. At first I figured it was strategic. Only two hours scratching their balls on the G train and bam—they’re far enough from Russian boardwalk moles trying to scout their game that they can practice as many secret moves from the Old Country as they want. I had high expectations: the behind-the-back, one-shoulder finger roll, the under-arm pig-in-the-sky water bottle, the teardrop raindrop waterfall, etc. But nope, none of it. They have all the Greene Playground chance they need to do something interesting, but instead they busy themselves day in and day out with hours and hours of tedious back-and-forth, one-on-one, bythe-book handball. Yet they still act like they’re hiding something. Only one rally after I’m seated and the younger one catches the ball and points at me. The older one waves his hand and wipes his face and spits out his native tongue again, stacking his hands in even squares and pushing invisible buttons. The younger one cups his crotch and laughs. He spreads his arms and wobbles like a



the international handball incident penguin. Obviously they’re talking about me, but hell if I care. I’m not here to decode the vulgar language of their homeland. I’m here, cross-legged on the handball courts of Greene Playground, so I can see Greene Avenue: the laundromat (where Jess washes her clothes), the Thai restaurant (which she refers to as “Tom Yum Heaven”), the bodega (where she buys her perishables), and Washington Avenue, which is where the G lets off from the city. A quick breeze picks up behind me and brings a whiff of sweaty dog and charred pretzels. I think ahead to dinner. Penne alla vodka. A pint of chocolate spumoni. It makes my mouth swell. I stand and take a quick drink from the stone water fountain. The water is warm and the stream is low. I splash some of it down the back of my shirt. Cars are passing like normal, but foot traffic is surprisingly light. Usually there are a few parents milling in groups outside the bodega until closer to three, when they head down Greene toward PS 11. A few people pass in and out of brownstones, but no one is bringing themselves much notice. That is except this black woman in Spandex who’s starting into these weird and evocative poses for the window of a parked car, checking herself out and flaunting her big ass. She has a skinny friend who’s walking a half-circle around her, sizing her up and saying things I’m glad I can’t hear. I sit back on the ground and watch. The water drips down my back and sizzles onto the concrete. It’s 3:15. Jess has work in two hours and forty-five minutes. And since it takes her an hour to get ready and another hour or so on the local, I expect to see her any minute now, hopefully alone, walking down Greene with groceries or laundry. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe the Facebook posts were his initiative, not hers. Maybe he’s getting pushy and she’s pulling away. I look back at the court and notice two guys standing Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld at the far gate, watching our faithful Russian handball champions. They’re Mexican, or I don’t know what. They have short, spiky hair and duffel bags—each has a bag over his shoulder, and the shorter has a bag at his feet. Already their whitish-gray t-shirts are sweaty. They stand against the gate whispering to each other. Then the taller one goes up to the Russians instigating a challenge. The Russians accept by throwing their arms into the air and waving them forward, saying, “Poydem, poydem.” Like an excited ten-year-old bat-boy, the shorter of the two Mexicans runs his bag to the fence and drops it next to me, passing over this weirdly competitive smirk like he thinks I’m part of the game. I shake my head to let him know that I’m not. He joins his tall friend at the bench, and together they take off their shirts. They look like clay busts. Their chests are well groomed. No hair. Slight six-packs. Most of the strength is up in the shoulders. The Russians are looking at them, too, taking long drinks from their water bottles. The Mexicans fold their shirts and pull sunscreen from the bigger bag. I watch them load up, their arms sweating. I put my hand on my neck to shade the sun. After stretching, the shorter one pulls a handball from his pocket and bounces it a few dozen times. He steps forward to shake hands with the Russians, but Spandex shakes his head and points at the ball instead. When he has it, he twirls it around his fingers and whispers something to No Shirt. With the Mexicans standing there, the Russians do a quick rally between themselves. Spandex catches the ball for a final inspection. He approves, and the four of them get into place. Then I hear Jess laughing. First things first: I lean my head down and keep cool. If she sees me I need to make it look like I’m with these four—the Mexicans, the Russians— for the battle of nations. Too bad the Mexicans run like



the international handball incident they’re on ice skates and don’t know how to hit the ball. They’re so bad, in fact, that before I know it, the ball cuts left and comes flying right at me. Somehow I catch it clean. I squeeze it and look right, and there she is: jaywalking at the pizzeria with Chase Atwood. He’s about a foot taller than she is, and he’s wearing some kind of stupid cowboy hat. I think they’re holding hands, but I can’t tell and I can’t risk looking any harder because they’re basically at the intersection now, which means they’ll be facing the playground soon and have a perfectly clear view of Spandex, who’s yelling in Russian, leading the way for one of them to point and say look at that idiot yelling in Russian and for the other to notice me and say wait, is that—? I realize that Spandex is yelling because I’m holding the handball. I can feel my pulse pounding through the rubber, like a bomb about to explode. And there it is again: that laughing. Jess. Laughing. Without hesitating I stand and toss the ball as hard as I can. It drops on the other side of the playground, bouncing quietly to PS 11. Spandex opens his mouth and gives a Russian look to his partner. Then he wobbles over, which is an extremely bad thing because Jess is in front of the bodega now and the last thing I need is more attention. And now Tweedle Dum in tights thinks it’s a good idea to scream in Russian at the top of his lungs, pointing at the ball, threatening to blow my cover. The older Russian tries to calm his friend, but it isn’t working. It only makes him yell more. He takes the duffel bag from the ground next to me and tosses it onto the court, spilling a variety of water bottles and tennis balls. Seeing the contents of his bag scattered on the court makes the short Mexican’s face red. He runs over and starts yelling in Spanish. But Russia isn’t having it. He’s yelling even louder in Russian and throwing his hands into the air. Just when I think Russia’s won, Mexico pushes him. I see it in slow-mo: Russia’s angry face, his waist hanging forward, his legs buckled back. He Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld falls against the fence like a dumbbell and for an instant everything is quiet. A wad of spit drops from Russia’s mouth, and the taller Mexican steps back. He’s coming up swinging. I know it. And there, crossing the street: Jess. I sprint to the other side of the white handball wall and slide to the ground, listening to the sound of shoes squeaking, knuckles popping, screaming and thudding. My heart racing, I clutch my hair and rock back and forth. There’s no way out. Soon a dozen moms appear out of nowhere and throw themselves against the fence cartoon-like, just in time for PS 11’s 3:30 pickup. They take out phones and jabber excitedly, saying “Oh my god” and “Can you believe this,” waving at friends from across the playground, covering mouths and pulling at hair. In the street a cab slows, its Indian driver watches from the window. I can’t see the fight, but I can hear it, and over it all— over the shrieking of moms, the roaring jumble of Russian and Spanish, the thud of flesh on flesh—I hear someone else jump in, yelling “Woah” and “Calm down” in this high, hippy-like voice. A voice I’ve heard over and over in the YouTube videos. “Shattering the Shatterproof.” “Squeaky Shoes in the Library.” “My Life as an Extra.” A voice I heard on the train, with Jess, that miserable time we met, when he was carrying business cards and Infinite Jest. Chase Fucking Atwood. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, but the moms love it. They’re saying: “Oh my god, look at him!” and “Oh my god, another one!” The whole thing is making me sick. Soon he’ll be addressing the crowd. Soon the moms will be talking about what a stud he is, calling him a hero, claiming that the entire fight serves a much larger more important metaphor for foreign policy. And then this stupid video of Chase Atwood saving the day will go viral. YouTube, Facebook.



the international handball incident Then what? Letterman? Good Morning America? SNL? All of them talking about Atwood the Hipster Hero. His channel getting thousands of new subscribers each time. Then the interviews and promotions and t-shirts and catch phrases, cover stories, billboards, school tours. And Jess, behind her mini-tablet, liking every link and sharing every video. I can see it now: the videos, the posts, Jess’s status updates. Thinking of them makes my head hurt. Brief: “with a hero,” “omg I love him,” “he’s amazing,” “wow,” “I’m a lucky girl,” “Chase <3” Long: “just witnessed a ridiculous fight by my house [and [my incredible man] Chase came to the rescue [ugh love him!][he makes me want to be so much more than I am]],” “crazy fight. who do you think saved the day ;-) [hint: it wasn’t Matthew][subscribe!]” No, I can’t let it happen like this. If anyone becomes a hero today, it’s gotta be me. Chest out, I emerge from behind the wall and march to the center of the court. As soon as I do, the moms get even more jumpy. A few of them turn their cameras my direction. No doubt they’re adding a bit of dramatic narration. Here he comes, the real hero, the Jew from Bay Ridge. Straight ahead I see Jess on the other side of the metal fence. Her eyes look extra-large— glittery and doll-like. She brushes the hair from her forehead and shakes her head in disbelief. And the fight—well, it’s more intense than I expected. No Shirt is trying to hold Spandex back. And Chase Atwood has his feet planted on the ground like he’s in a tug of war match with the short Mexican. Even after he sees me, Atwood is still talking. “Enough,” he says. “Let’s end this. Be cool.” He looks at me and waves me off. And that’s all I need to keep going. I march forward, holding my hand up like a traffic guard. “Nothing to see here,” I say. I reach for the open duffel bag, which gets the Mexican even angrier. He leaps in Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld front of me, smelling like dollar-store sunscreen. I say “Que?” and take a step back. “It’s okay.” “Dude, get out of here,” Chase Atwood says. Obviously he can’t handle me stealing the spotlight. All this promotion for his YouTube channel, Atwood’s Arsenal. Who could blame him? “What are you doing?” “No you get out of here,” I say. “I got this. It’s good.” “What are you, crazy?” he says. His voice comes out distorted, like a shouting under gunfire. “You’re gonna make things worse.” The Russians are yelling at each other. They’re sweating like they’re in Mexico. One of the moms lets out a cheer. Chase Atwood slides over to me, one hand on the sleeve of his second-hand plaid shirt and the other on the short Mexican, who’s standing behind him now, kicking the air in fury. His white cowboy hat is ripped, making it look even more ridiculous up close. I make a conscious effort to look him up and down. He’s wearing red and white hi-tops with black socks. His ankles are hairier than old Russia’s chest. “Get out of here,” he says. “I’m allowed to be here,” I say. “Now,” he says. “What, are you gonna hit me?” Almost on cue the idiot puts his hairy hand on my chest and pushes. It isn’t a hard push, but it’s enough to drive me forward. I push him back. Before I know it, he pushes me even harder and I fall to the ground. I watch from my knees as the short Mexican grabs the duffel bag and slings it over his shoulder. Chase turns the other way, kicking up a bit of dust. The tall Mexican grabs the other bags, pointing. In a flash, both of them run off the court and down Waverly, a stream of sweat glistening on their backs. The moms turn to watch. One of them yells



the international handball incident “He’s done it!” And there in the middle of the clearing dust, panting, waving at the cameras is Chase Atwood. The Russians are talking loudly in Russian, but everything else is calm. I look for Jess, but I can’t find her. I take a deep breath and stand. I limp to the wall. Most of the moms regroup at the intersection, heading in a big blob toward PS 11. Three gather around a cell phone, oohing and aahing at the footage. I’m sure others are regaling stunned parents with hyperbolic run-downs of the event: “And then this happened and then there was this big huge crash and next thing I know this guy was all over them. It all happened so fast!” Meanwhile Atwood the Hipster Hero has his arm around the shoulder of the older Russian. His head facing down, like he’s working some kind of sneaky business deal. He’s brushing the air over and over again with his free hand and pointing to the street. I walk to the other side of the wall and dust myself off. The pain jumps from my leg to my back. I roll up my shorts. There’s an ugly scrape above my knee. I spit on my hand and rub it. It isn’t bleeding, but it burns. Chocolate spumoni. Penne alla vodka. At least in a few hours I’ll have food. I turn to my right and see Jess. She folds her arms. “What the matter with you?” she says. She smells like coconut, like one of those beauty shops in the mall. Seeing her makes me choke on the air. “What are you doing here?” “What? I was helping. There was a fight.” “I can’t believe this,” she says. “You’re stalking me.” “I was playing handball,” I say. “Stop lying.” “I’m not lying.” “You don’t play handball.” “Obviously, I do. Because I was. Meanwhile your Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld boyfriend hit me. Did you happen to see that?” “You’ve gone crazy,” she says. Her voice quavers and she stops. “Honestly.” “I’ve gone crazy? He hit me, Jess. I should call the police.” “Okay,” she says. “Okay what?” “I’m not doing this again, Matthew. You’re really pissing me off.” I lower my voice, thinking she’ll lower hers. If she’s too loud, Chase Atwood will try to jump back into action. I don’t want to waste this chance. “We’ve got history, Jess,” I say. “Matthew, stop it.” “Remember how you said we were meant for each other? That you couldn’t see yourself with anyone else?” She shakes her head. “This isn’t normal. You’re being delusional again.” “No, you said it. In your room.” A horn sounds. I watch two yellow cabs race down the street. Jess draws in a big breath and lets it out. “Well, people change, Matthew.” “Don’t say that. Come on. It was only two weeks ago.” “No, Matthew. You’re starting to scare me.” I step forward. “Jess, come on. How can you be scared of me? You know I’d never hurt you. I couldn’t hurt a fly. A bug. We’ve been together for two years.” She puts her hands over her eyes and slides them to her cheek. “I just…I don’t know what to think. I told you I want to be left alone. And you’re here again.” “That’s because you’re not alone,” I say. I look down and wipe my eyes. Here comes Chase Atwood. He’s walking over fast. There’s a cut on his chin. A



the international handball incident scrape on his arm. “Okay, get away from her,” he says. “Don’t tell me what to do,” I say. “I said get away from her.” “Fuck you.” “You have ten seconds.” “Chase, stop,” Jess says. Obviously she’s on my side. We’ve got history, Jess and I. No way is she picking him. I straighten my back and look up at him. He thinks I’m easy because he’s twice my size. “Or what? You’re gonna hit me again? I’ll call the cops.” “Nine. Eight.” “Chase, he’s leaving. Let’s go. Chase—” “Don’t come back here,” he says. The hipster. “I mean it.” “Don’t wear that hat again,” I say. “You look like a gay cowboy.” Jess says “Let’s go,” and the two of them turn towards the school. He puts his arm around her, but she shakes him off, crying. “She doesn’t even like you, man,” I call out. “She’s only using you. Don’t fool yourself. You’re ugly.” “Fuck you,” Atwood says over his shoulder. “Yeah, fuck you,” I say. And that’s it. There goes Jess and Chase Fucking Atwood, walking off into the hot and humid summer afternoon, where she’ll take him into her ground floor apartment and give him ice, water, whatever he needs, where they’ll watch YouTube videos, Jess crying. And me? Nowhere to go but home, where at least I can extend my legs one at a time, rubbing slowly from calf to thigh, where I can take the pain I feel everywhere else and let it sit in my leg, where I can look at the pictures she sent me before Chase Atwood came along—her legs open, close ups of her nipples, body-shots in front of the mirror—and have my way. But first I watch them go, waiting to see if Jess turns Regarding Arts & Letters


rubenfeld to look at me again. They cross the street. They seem to sway. Two of the PS 11 mothers pass them on the other side. The school bell rings and the scream of hundreds of kids rises like a wave, like a wave about to sweep down Greene Avenue, Clinton Hill, like a wave set to devour May and every miserable thing in it. Then Jess turns and—for a fleeting, but remarkable moment—our eyes meet. It’s still there. All of it. This is what I have to remember, I think. This. Because there’s still two months until June, which is when our unofficial “no-contact” deal ends. Two months of using those pictures every night. Two months until she gets over this whole hipster thing and realizes, finally, what she really wants.



oh my my little country laugh

sean thomas dougherty

Won’t you shake me loose, as if it’s the last day of summer in these yellow fields. We’ve opened all the windows on a day clear as quartz. I’ll be your terrible tremble. With a hand in my hand, I have to speak: All afternoon we’ll be precise with oiled bearings, we’ll ride these rusted rails, spitting sparks. Come lay down with me, you said. I am honey stolen from the hive. We’ll trumpet loud and long. At the dark edge of the husks. I’ll brush your tangled hair. I’ll loosen all your knots. Such long hymns will swoop like hawks above the hills. I called your name last night a little sadness I forgot. Like the light, you opened every door. Gave me the combination to your locks. What was it the radio crooned: Your eyes the only thing I want wear.

Regarding Arts & Letters



sean thomas dougherty

there was a music more lonely than doom I drank my cup of ask (more ash for my forehead) & then I repented of any sin on a knee right there by the water cooler this language like learning a new alphabet of reprieve the old woman slumped into her snoring the child who will not stop screaming the nurses no longer wear hats every day we have nowhere to go so we ended up west of the projects (I paid the cab fare) I stopped weeping

to swatch the janitor sweep the fat cop bending over a form. that smell of grief like wet dogs I was fully aware of my skin was little more than a bobbing bag of blood all of us so fragile and broken even the boy pushing the vending machine buttons & screaming someone may have just died we all wore winter coats even the woman who they tore from the room into a straight jacket she was bleeding from her chin. the Spanish woman was inconsolable the black daggers of her mascara cut her face



~ They hit her with a needle in a different vein (this was years ago) you drew a sunflower on the back of every menu when we huddled this went on for a long time you pulled the tail of evening into dark you said you’ve never been afraid when you didn’t know what to do the building we lived in had no elevator to carry us back to the sorrow of the broken faucet & the windows painted shut all that winter the only music was the radiator’s hiss & the three flights of stairs we stumbled down stoned on oxycoton at the first snow covering the lawn you flopped down to flap your hands when you stood up I reached out I am still reaching for days after there was only an outline of where you were—

Regarding Arts & Letters


The Shift

matthew deangelis

When Steph Love picked me up from Starbucks, she didn’t have time to get herself a coffee or pastry. She was running late and her combination of nursing scrubs and flip flops said so. “Painted my nails yesterday,” she said. “I didn’t even realize I left the house without my work shoes. I think I have some Toms in my car.” We climbed into her navy blue SUV. She explained how in-home Hospice care was reserved for the people with terminal illnesses or those who lacked the ability to take care of themselves during recovery. The car’s interior seemed to be brand new, not a speck of dirt anywhere. Hospice care didn’t only involve the dying, but those who struggled to adjust after a serious illness had gone into remission. Steph adjusted the knob on the radio, stopping on a country station. She did most of the talking, chit chat accompanied by personal asides. She spoke buoyantly, rarely keeping her hands on the wheel. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses too big for her face. “I’m Wichita born and raised,” she said. “Twentyseven. My whole family is here and they’re all in the medical field. Mom was a nurse. Dad was a pharmacist. And so on. I started in delivery and decided after five years I wanted to do something different. Been working Hospice for two years. Guess I’ve seen them coming and going.” She pulled into the parking lot of an apartment complex. “Hand me those Toms on the floor behind you.” The shoes were the only item in an otherwise barren and spotless back seat. She said, “I don’t think George would care if I wore sandals, but I should change. Had three drinks last night. That’s a lot for me. Tough to move this morning.” She tugged on her shoes and swung her legs out of the car. Steph walked with confident



loping strides. * George Goldschmidt bent over his walker when we entered his apartment. The seniors-only building had ten floors; his home was at the top level. He looked at us sideways: the nurse and her observer. One of his eyes was halfway shut. “How we doing today, George?” Steph bounded into the room. She pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail and set her bag on the couch. George sat gingerly in a reclining chair and said, “I’m doing just fine.” He put one foot up on a leather ottoman. A massive flat screen television rested against the wall, the channel set to CNN. News anchors offered opinions about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Two columns of DVDs rose next to the speakers beside the screen. George switched the television off. Steph placed the oximeter over the tip of George’s finger. His skin looked patchy, full of moles and growths and the spaces left behind by those that had already been removed. George had survived skin cancer, but he was a candidate for Hospice care because of his current diagnosis: Failure to Thrive. George’s body could subtract, but had forgotten how to add. “What have you been up to, George?” Steph asked. “Staying busy?” She secured the sphygmomanometer to check blood pressure. She pumped her fist until the cuff tightened around his arm. Then she stopped, letting the cuff loosen once more. George started, “I went to lunch yesterday with some friends. Just old friends I keep in touch with.” On the table next to him, a John Grisham novel was open and face down. Steph scribbled down the blood pressure reading and said, “Aw that’s nice. Where’d you go?” “Down to Famous Dave’s,” he said. “We like their brisket.” Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis “I’ll have to try it.” Steph turned to her bag for a new pen. “Ran six miles yesterday. Gotta reward myself somehow.” She grinned. “Where’s your son?” “Kevin?” George asked. “Oh he was here, but you know his brother said he could go and live with him which I don’t get. He can live here with me for free, but he don’t want that. He wants to have fun. His brother charges him rent. I say, ‘I’m fun aren’t I?’” Steph laughed warmly. “I’d be fine with the free apartment.” “That’s what I said. But you know Kevin, gotta be drinking. I don’t let him do that around here.” He cast an arm over his living room: a few stacks of newspapers, tiny biblical sculptures, glass tables and picture frames. Numerous bibles lay scattered throughout the room. Two bookshelves, filled to the brim with a number of thick bindings, faced each other from opposite walls. Many of the books were encyclopedias, others simple historical texts. Not one computer could be seen in the apartment. Plastic leaves emerged from pots on the windowsill. The kitchen appeared ordered yet cluttered. Appliances lined the countertop like they were doing a roll call. A small balcony overlooked the parking lot. From the window, a cutout of Wu Wheatshocker waved vacantly. Steph continued writing and said, “Seems silly to me.” She took off her glasses and the blueness of her eyes seemed to lift her patient. She asked about his weight, his headaches, any problems he might be having. Eventually, she asked, “How’s your skin this week?” He peeled back the leg of his pants, revealing pale red scabs. “I put that cream on it, seems to be working.” Scratch marks extended from the raw cluster up towards his unmarked calf. The patchwork skin featured globs of white mixed with scaly red. In some places, flakes of dead skin clung desperately to open sores. Steph held her fingertips above the afflicted skin,



the shift careful not to touch. She said, “Seems like it. Might have to ask your doctor about an oral med to help clear that up.” She looked up briefly and her head fell to one side. “Gotta do your part too, George. You can’t be scratching.’” He let his chin sag to his chest like a scolded child. “I know,” he said. Steph asked, “Do you need any prescription refills?” “No,” George said. Steph made a note on her chart and George added, “You know, Kevin wants me to only be taking my thyroid meds. Says the other stuff isn’t necessary. I said, ‘Boy, you ain’t a doctor. I’m gonna listen to what the doctors tell me.’” “That’s right,” Steph said. “Don’t listen to those sons of yours. Just the doctors.” George nodded. He flipped the television back on and said, “What do you make of this flight gone missing?” Steph kept writing. She said, “I guess I haven’t really been following the news, George.” She handed over the clipboard. “Could you sign this one please?” George took the pen and signed. “It just disappeared and no one knows where it is. Louise was saying just yesterday she thinks it got hijacked.” He turned his head hopefully towards his nurse. “I really need to catch up on my current events,” Steph exclaimed. She bit her upper lip. George handed the paperwork back to Steph and as she rose, he placed his hand on Steph’s forearm. He asked, “You can stay for a little while. Right?” The touch lingered and George craned his head up towards her, a subtle desperation in his half-open eye. Steph moved her forearm to break free. She placed her pen in her front chest pocket. “I have a schedule to keep,” her voice was steady. “But I’ll be back in two days.” George’s hand hung in the air before sagging back to Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis the armrest. * Steph turned the steering wheel and the car veered. She said, “You know George bought that whole floor? Made three apartments into one and that kid of his won’t even stay with him because he’s too much of an alcoholic. They’re just waiting for him to die. You get that a lot with family members.” Steph’s expression remained neutral, her mouth partially open. “Kevin was there just last week when I visited. I just think of George up there all by himself and it sucks.” She pressed her foot hard on the gas to pass a minivan. At a stoplight, she moved her head from left to right and said to herself, “Is this the way I’m supposed to go?” She always emphasized the first word, as though talking to her hard of hearing patients had reformed her everyday speech. “Always start with the good ones. He’s got some screwy kids, but George is a good man. The good ones make the day go by quick. It would have been real easy to stay there with George and just shoot the breeze.” A ringing phone surged through the car’s speakers. Steph pressed the screen on her dashboard to answer. A woman’s voice, Nancy by the on-screen display, said sternly, “I need you to bring the DNR paperwork over to Mary Maxwell at some point today.” Steph replied, “Got it. I’m gonna swing by there in a few hours. I’ll drop it off then.” And Nancy was gone. “Do not resuscitate,” Steph said. “You get a lot of those requests in Hospice.” A moment later, she pulled into a gas station and declared, “Pit stop.” She disappeared inside and returned five minutes later with two cans of Red Bull and a banana. She popped one can open and started drinking. “Mid-morning push,” she said before she took another swig. Steph accidentally dripped some of her drink on the interior of her car. She tucked her thumb inside her sleeve, and



the shift rubbed the leather interior free of moisture. * The next patient was Dante, a lung cancer patient who lived with his mother. A lime green Cadillac was parked out front of Dante’s house. Steph said, “I’m pretty sure he used to be a pimp.” Steph took her usual long strides to the front door. When she rang the doorbell, Dante’s mother answered. She hunched over with one hand on her hip and said nothing. The front hallway opened into a living room that looked like a museum basement. A U-shaped couch with faded pink roses printed over the cushions partitioned the room from the dining room. Columns of magazines multiplied over the glass tables. A large television occupied a wooden entertainment center on the near wall. A stack of VHS tapes held up the dusty VCR. Potted plants had grown so they blocked paintings. Two loveseats faced each other covered by white sheets. Steph asked, “Is he back in his bedroom?” Dante’s mother didn’t say anything, and Steph motioned towards me to follow. The air conditioning vent blew the blinds back and forth. Dante laid in his bed, a light-skinned black man with stringy black hair and sharp eyes. His frail frame rattled with each exhale; his lips were dry and cracked. A breathing tube extended from his nostrils, snaking the length of his bed before attaching to an apparatus by his window. Steph nearly tripped over the ironing board set up at the foot of Dante’s bed; he was using it as a television stand. She stepped carefully over strewn papers and clothes on the floor, wedging herself between the bed and the bedside table. She nudged the table by accident which sent a mess of instruction booklets and batteries tumbling to the floor. Dante didn’t seem to notice. He said to Steph, “Bout time you got here. I need some refills.” He raised a steady hand and pointed to his Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis television tray, barely visible underneath the scattered prescription bottles. Steph worked in short, hesitant movements. She glanced side to side, smiling curtly as the room’s contents rose up around her. A box for a car battery, an ironing board, an open closet door revealing enough clothes for four people, three separate fans—all combining to make the room much smaller. On the opposite side, there were several board games, two lamps, a humidifier, and gallon jugs of motor oil. Dante gestured towards the television, airing an episode of NCIS. He said, “You think she’d go with me?” A brunette woman on the screen put a pair of handcuffs on a man pinned to the ground. Steph said, “Maybe.” She made some notes on her clipboard. “Do you always watch this stuff ?” Dante shook his head. “I’d watch the news, but it’s just that plane over and over again. Still missing. No news there.” He flipped the channel to QVC. Steph asked her slate of questions. A rustling noise startled her. Dante’s mother shuffled aimlessly in the hallway, peeking in briefly before disappearing. “And how’s your appetite today? Steph asked. “You were complaining just last week.” Steph handed the clipboard to Dante. “Be a lot better if she wasn’t always cooking for me.” He nodded towards the hallway. Steph made a hollow sound. * “You know,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have anyone taking care of them. Dante should be grateful. His mother should be on Hospice herself. I worry about her too. One of these days, she’s just gonna get lost in there, die, and I’m gonna find her.” She placed her hand over her chest, patting gently. The car bounced over a pothole. Steph took another sip of her Red Bull. Steph talked about one patient, Rick, who’s got



the shift terminal cancer and moved into his mother’s house after she passed. His daughter had an estate sale and sold all of his stuff. He told Steph, ‘Everything I had is gone, now I’m just waiting to go.’ We drove in silence for about ten minutes, the soft twang of country music the only sound. “This next patient is Paula,” she said. “This is one I won’t have you go in for. I don’t really know her and we don’t talk much.” We pulled onto a street tucked away behind a row of trees. The leaves overhead provided shade. “Paula there is only forty-seven years old,” she said as she parked the car on the side of the road. A cat scampered towards the nearest tree and poked its head around the trunk. “She’s led a hard life, a fast life. This is self-inflicted. She always calls and whines and her kids are all moved away. The daughter told me to only call if Mom is close to dying. She’s forty-seven years old with small-cell lung cancer.” The way Steph saw it, Paula had reaped what she’d sown. Her current situation was the product of her own destructive decisions. Steph took another swig of her energy drink, clapped her hands in front of her, and got out of the car. The neighborhood looked beat up, like whatever fight it’d been in was lost. Shingles missing from roofs, cracked windows, lawns with brown patches of dead grass, paneling spattered with dirt—houses barely stood. After fifteen minutes, Steph returned. “Sorry about that,” she said. She shrugged her shoulders. “She’s a real peach. That one should be in a nursing home with all the problems she has.” Steph slammed on her brakes, nearly hitting a slowing van in front of us. “Good one, good one, good one,” she repeated. “This next guy,” Stephanie interrupted my thoughts, “is one of my favorites. Just a stern and straight-laced guy. He’s a ‘Failure to Thrive’ after his Lymphoma went to remission.” * Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis Jim’s home had hardwood floors and particles of dust visibly floating through the beams of sunlight passing through the window panes. His television reported on the missing Malaysian Flight 370. Jim sat in his reclining chair, skeleton-like. He wore nothing but a bathrobe, and he pulled a checkered throw blanket over his brittle legs. A musty smell spread throughout the room. Steph asked routinely, “How you feeling today, Jim?” Set in front of him was a television tray with a Styrofoam to-go box still half full, a smatter of refried beans and sour cream. Two prescription bottles rested on either side of the remote control. He said, “I feel fine. Bit of a fog. Think it’s the new medicine they put me on.” Steph said quickly, “I’ll make a note of that.” “Daughter took me to Felipe’s for lunch yesterday.” He gestured towards the half-eaten burrito and then gripped at his robe. “Is it cold in here? I feel cold.” Steph checked the thermostat. “It says eighty degrees in here. You want me to turn it up?” “Aw hell,” he said. “No, it’s just me then. You can leave it.” Steph returned to his side and clutched below his wrist to take his pulse. “You just need to eat some more food. That’s what you need.” She shook his forearm and said, “Skin and bones.” A piano stood underneath a shelf which supported several houseplants and a few pictures. A military medal was draped over an old black and white. In the photo, Jim couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. Present day Jim featured the same soft eyes, the same potato shaped head, and a similar lankiness. Jim asked, “Could you get me some ice water? You can just use this glass here.” Steph took the glass of tepid water; no condensation fell from the glass. She passed into the kitchen towards the sink. Photographs decorated the



the shift walls. Friends, his wife, his kids and grandchildren—all of them hung there suspended in time. Steph called out, “Do you want me to just use the tap?” Jim cleared his throat. “No. There’s a pitcher in the fridge.” Steph opened the refrigerator and filled the glass. She passed it back to him. “What are you going to do today?” Steph started taking notes. She shook the pen in her hand after the first attempt to write yielded nothing. “I’ll probably just climb back in bed. I like that bed. Have you seen it?” Steph smiled thoughtfully. “Yeah,” she said. “And I’m jealous. That thing is huge.” The musty smell grew more pungent towards Jim’s bedroom. Piles of laundry overlaid the floor and heavy blinds kept out the sunlight. The bed was set on lifts. Its canopy curtains hung from above the mattress, a thin veil between the bed and the rest of the house. Jim said, “I can’t wait to get back in bed.” Steph handed him the paperwork to sign. “When was the last time you took a bath, Jim?” “Oh,” Jim said. “Maybe three days ago. I don’t want my daughter doing it.” He signed the paperwork and Steph snatched it away. She put the lid on the pen and placed it in her medical bag. “Jim,” she said. “You have to keep taking baths and eating your food. And you can’t bathe yourself, so if your daughter offers you have to let her.” Jim’s eyes fell on the television set. He said nothing, his eyes cloudy. “What if I send someone over from our company?” she asked. “You know Maria. She’s bathed you before.” “Huh?” “Maria,” Steph said. “You’ve met her. She looks like Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis me but with short brown hair.” Steph tended to repeat her questions. Jim didn’t speak for a few minutes, his eyes taking in the reports of the missing flight. Steph stood up and lifted her medical bag over her shoulder. As we left, Jim muttered, “If she comes… I won’t turn her away.” * Steph dialed Maria to tell her about the bath scheduled for tomorrow with Jim. “Only two more patients today,” Steph said. The on-board phone rang again, this time the name Dante appeared on the screen. The voice was muffled and indecipherable. Steph asked loudly, “Dante, what are you trying to say?” A pause, and then, “That thing where people come by and exercise.” “One more time.” Steph leaned towards the speakers, extending her neck so that her chin nearly touched the steering wheel. An exhale blared through the speakers before the voice. “When people come and help me do exercise.” Steph said in a recognizing tone, “Physical therapy.” She leaned back. “We can’t offer you physical therapy on Hospice.” Dante said nothing. “But I can get some exercises for you to do at home. How does that sound?” The silence grew, and Steph repeated herself. Dante said, “Yeah, okay.” When the line went dead, Steph said, “Technically, we’re not allowed to do physical therapy with Hospice patients because it’s deemed aggressive. But I feel for some of them. I’m sure physical therapy would do them good, but it’s technically comfort care so the company doesn’t provide it. They figure ‘what’s the point?’ Sounds harsh, but



the shift all I can technically do for him is suggest home independent exercises.” The next patient was Melinda, and Steph explained how she was tired of being old. Steph explained how she had heart disease, but was still very independent. She had a daughter who moved far away. The two didn’t speak. According to Steph, Melinda’s depressed, but she’s got twenty-four hour care and a live in nurse. Holly, her nurse, did everything for her. She was like a babysitter. Steph reasons that Melinda just wants things her way, and the overdone healthcare is a symptom of her loneliness. * We reached Melinda’s house around one thirty. The neighborhood appeared much more open and spacious. The houses were bigger and the driveways wider. Trimmed lawns spread before each house. No one here had any kooky lawn decorations. Stephanie popped the trunk to grab a case of Ensure. We walked to the front door and Steph stood on one leg, then the other. The front door had a glass oval set in the middle. Holly, an older woman herself, opened the door. “Oh is that the Ensure?” Holly asked. “Thank you.” Steph surged forward with her checklist in hand. “I’m just gonna mark the date down,” she said. “Remember that’s enough for three weeks. Hospice won’t pay for any more, so you’ll have to get it if you run out.” The restrictions on Ensure, according to Steph, set a one per day limit, a protection against people besides the patients drinking the cans. Holly put the cans away in the kitchen. A big screen television hung above the fireplace in the living room. The furniture was all white, along with the carpet, which both appeared brighter in the plentiful sunlight coming from the unobstructed windows. Melinda lay on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, her feet tucked behind her bottom. She looked Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis more like a swaddled infant then an independent senior. Her plume of chestnut hair frizzed in different directions. The room itself was devoid of photographs, save for one: an older photo depicting what I imagined to be her former husband and her estranged daughter. Prescription bottles scattered over a glass table in front of the couch. A mock fire danced in the fireplace. Steph asked Melinda how she was feeling; Melinda didn’t answer. Instead, she asked who I was and Steph lied, saying I was a prospective nursing student trying to figure out if I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Melinda replied, “Well he’s got a good example. There are some bad nurses out there.” Holly returned with an open can of Ensure. “How’s your appetite?” Steph took notes whenever Melinda spoke. “Huh?” “Your appetite,” Steph repeated, raising her voice. “Oh it’s doing all right. I’m glad to have the Ensure. We were just about out of it.” Steph continued with her usual gamut of questions. On the television, Fox News debated the missing Malaysian flight. Holly asked, “Remember your hair appointment is this week.” Melinda didn’t look up. “I think I might have cancelled it.” “Prescription refills?” Steph asked. Holly scoffed, “You know she’s tough to see. It could take you weeks to get another appointment.” The live-in nurse rose from her chair and lifted the can of Ensure to Melinda’s lips. The patient tilted her head back, taking a small sip. “Beauty…eh,” Melinda said. “I’ll call them back at some point.” Melinda changed the channel to People’s Court



the shift and Holly picked up a magazine from the coffee table. She didn’t appear to actually be reading. Steph stood up and handed her paperwork to Holly. She said, “Which salon do you go to?” Melinda blinked a few times before rubbing an eye. “It’s called Chez Belle,” Holly answered. “On North Rock.” “Whoa.” Steph said. “Big time. I bet they do a really nice job up there, get you lookin’ so nice.” Melinda kept her eyes on the television. Steph jerked her head towards the front door. As we walked out, Melinda reached out and touched Steph’s hand before saying, “Thank you.” * “She sucks down that Ensure,” Steph said. “I think Holly drinks some too.” She adjusted her sunglasses. “We’ve only got one more now, but I don’t think I’m gonna have you go in with me.” Steph’s phone rang, Nancy again. She sounded hectic and overwhelmed. “Did you bring the DNR paperwork to Mary Maxwell yet?” “On my way now.” “Okay.” Nancy’s breathing was short. “They’ve been calling me all day and I just…I told them you were on call. I’ve just had enough of that man. I’ve been in this business for twenty years and I don’t have to put up with it.” Steph straightened up in her driver’s seat. “Nancy, just calm down. I’m heading there now. It’s just paperwork.” “Thank you, Stephanie. Some days I just…” “I know.” When the call ended, Steph gripped the steering wheel tighter. Agitated, she said, “Some people just shouldn’t be doing this work. Nancy calls me once a week because she doesn’t want to leave the office. I have to make her stops for her. Two weeks ago, our boss just told her to take the day off because she was overwhelmed and hysterical.” Regarding Arts & Letters


deangelis We approached an intersection and Steph waited until the last second to slow down. “The only time this job is overwhelming is when people don’t pull their weight. Nancy always tries to pull rank with that twenty years of experience crap. Just do your job. It makes it all a lot easier.” Outside, houses replicated each other. We pulled to the side of the road and before getting out of the car, Steph paused. “There’s a lot more cars out front than I remember.” Two cars were parked in the driveway and another two in the street. She opened the door and she walked more reserved than usual. Twenty more minutes passed and still no Steph. She appeared after another five minutes, accompanied by two family members. They talked for another ten minutes. Steph crossed her arms, not doing any of the talking. When she got to the car, she flung her clipboard in the backseat and started the engine. * She spoke fervently, saying “Those people in there, they think they can do the job better than me. Jesus. That’s the problem with family involvement. Sometimes, they all gang up on you. That was like a battering. It’s like ‘shut up and let me do my job.’ Their mother has cancer. She has swelling in her legs and uses a Lasix—” She caught herself. “an implant that removes fluid from the legs and lets her pee it out. Anyways, she’s paranoid. She’s not gonna die but she won’t leave us alone. Her family just circles. They want the DNR because she’s convinced she’s gonna die when her blood work is actually improving. And the family, my lord, they just want to make sure they’ll get something. Everything they say to me is just to stand out for dear mom. Whoprotected-me sort of shit.” * We were heading back to my car around three in the afternoon. I asked her if she’d attended the funerals of her “good ones.”



the shift She looked out the driver’s side window. She took a deep breath and said softly, “Used to. It goes case by case. With some patients, I get very close. Usually to the point that family members will text me when patients pass away and tell me about funeral arrangements.” Her voice rose. “Then there are some people who I make go through the answering service. Yes, I’ve been to funerals for my patients, but a lot of these patients don’t have funerals. They don’t have anyone. They’re just disposed of. I just try to rationalize it. When the elderly patients go, I just tell myself ‘they led a life and it’s natural.’ You can let go because it’s natural. Live a life and then it’s gone. But if I went to every funeral, I don’t think I could do this job.” She rubbed at her eyes and tapped her chin. Steph continued, “The only funeral I ever refused to go to that I probably should have was for Brandon. His family was Nigerian and his aunt invited me, but it was gonna be this big cultural funeral and I just didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t know if I could keep it together. He had cancer. He was only six years old.” Steph adjusted in her seat. She lifted her red bull and put it back into the cup holder without taking a sip. She removed her sunglasses and used her fingers to stretch her eyelids sideways. She blinked repeatedly. An SUV passed us on the right. Steph pointed towards a sticker on the car’s rear window; she nodded in acknowledgment. The sticker was yellow and read ‘PFP.’ She said, “It stands for ‘Prayers for Patrick.’ His parents tried for years to have a child and when they did he got cancer. Patrick passed away as an infant and the city really rallied around it. You’ll see those stickers all around town. Their church was really supportive. Three years ago they had a little girl. They named her Patricia. She’s healthy and they’re happy. And it’s like a give and take. It’s all a give and take. That’s what I tell myself.” Regarding Arts & Letters


Charles Ives

michael Salcman

The Universe Symphony exists undiscovered, the boson particle of music, an unknown known, its rhythmic ratios in prime-number patterns, a palindrome of ones and twos and threes, of fives and sevens and elevens in twenty separate musical lines, its polyrhythmic clicks and whistles meant to be played from four mountaintops like Emerson’s American imago. Pity the poor drummer trying to keep up if he steps out too soon from the ranks of flutes and trumpets, a blood spot on his brow bandaged with paint; he doesn’t mean to bang on your ears but they’ve given the computer a baton. 4,500 musicians all over New England is what Ives wanted, singing together like mad birds and crickets set free, although his friend Henry Cowell said he never meant to finish such an impossibility and wrote his symphony for the drawer, leaving it for others to solve like a mathematical puzzle, for a half-singing country, an embryo still or a torso buried in the desert. Now they’re trying to play with his bones and even the praised madness that troubles the air will not withstand the sound of Ives imagining us still free a century later.



my mother’s hair

lisa pellegrini

One day I will steal the hair from my mother’s comb. I will tuck it inside one of my Limoges boxes, the one with the calico cat, since she doesn’t see many calicos around anymore. I will save the hair for that time when I can console myself to say, I have a piece of her that is apart from me, a snippet of her that is hers alone. If she is lucky to grow old, then I will swipe another wisp to compare the past to the present. Did her hair turn silver or white? Was she blessed to retain her natural brunette color? Did her hair’s fullness weather life’s trials, or did widowhood and empty nest syndrome strip it down to whisker fineness? Will my hair become victimized by the same abusers as I age, or will it be tiaraed with the same graces?

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Catherine Uroff

Yesterday, a guy who’d just bought a curio cabinet from me came back to the house for a refund. He said the cabinet was badly scratched and that I must’ve known about it because the scratch was filled in with what looked like shoe polish and that was cheating and that was wrong and I was a horrible woman, the worst person he’d ever met, to be able to take his money from him, knowing full well what I was giving him. “You’re running a scam, lady,” he shouted at me. I tried to give him my usual rules and regulations about returns – how was I supposed to know he hadn’t made those scratches himself ? From my recollection, the cabinet had been in perfectly fine condition when it left my home – but he wouldn’t listen. After a while, I went back inside, locked all the doors, told my twins -- Emily and Hannah -- to go into their bedroom and turn on Radio Disney, and then waited until the guy went away. Which he did, but not before cursing some more and stomping his feet and picking up some pine cones in the yard and throwing them at the front windows. Then he was gone. I’m not too concerned about it. The most he can do is sue me in Small Claims court and most people don’t want to take the time to bother with that. But today a cop comes by and tells me that he’s following up on a complaint. Apparently, my neighbors are saying I’m running a business out of my home and since the neighborhood is zoned for residential only, I’m in violation of town bylaws. I sell stuff on Craigslist, mostly things I buy for my girls. When they’re sick of playing with something, I sell it. Like the Slip and Slide. It cost me seventy-five dollars at Toys R Us and I was able to sell it to this couple from Enfield with three little ones for ninety-five. It was in the middle of July. All the stores had run out. They were desperate. But it’s not



a business. There’s no corporation here. I take a photo and upload it to the Internet. I write up a pretty description. That’s the extent of my working day. It’s got to be Paul Davies who called the police. He lives right next door and he’s always been a problem. Whenever my kids are playing outside on a Sunday afternoon, he yells at them from his second floor window to pipe down until he’s done with his nap. If my kids accidentally kick a ball over the fence into his back yard, he says “Finders, Keepers,” instead of throwing it back to them. After the cop leaves, I meet Paul outside. He’s standing on the tree belt, pulling out bills from his mailbox. I try to be reasonable, friendly even. “Paul, why’d you have to call the police? You know I’m not running any business.” He rubs his hands over his big belly. He’s got a fringe of white hair around his head and a bushy white beard. Every year, he dresses up like Santa Claus for the neighborhood holiday party. Last Christmas, Hannah burst into tears at the thought that he was the real thing and I had to spend hours reassuring her that Santa would never live in Connecticut. “Now I’m sorry, dear,” he says, “But someone had to do something about it. You’ve got to stop this. Cars coming and going. And it’s not just the traffic. It’s the people too. We can’t have every type of person coming in here, looking around. They may get the wrong idea. This is a good neighborhood, after all.” “Are you suggesting that I’m not good enough for this neighborhood?” “I’m suggesting that you’ve got to stop selling all of your things. It’s just not right. I mean, what does David think about all of this?” David is my husband, and he’s actually the reason I started this Craigslist thing. I needed a way to make my own money instead of always having to ask him for it. I didn’t tell him what I was doing at first and it worked out OK because

Regarding Arts & Letters


uroff all my transactions were done in the day, while he was at work. Then someone called up at dinnertime asking about a pair of boots that Emily had outgrown and David got upset because he didn’t know what was going on, what I was up to. To calm him down, I took out all my proceeds, spread the money across the dining room table. Everyone thinks so highly of David because he works for Liberty Mutual and coaches soccer for the youth team in town. They don’t really know him. They don’t know how hard he had to work to buy us this house, the debt he’s piled up on our credit cards. And most of them don’t even know that he hasn’t been home in a month. But Paul – he may suspect something. “That’s none of your business,” I say to him, “And don’t change the subject. You had no right to call the cops on me. I’m not doing anything wrong. How dare you?” My voice is getting a little too loud and that’s when Lauren steps outside. She’s my brother’s step-daughter. She’s sixteen years old but looks almost as skinny as my eightyear-old girls. She always wears mini-skirts that show off her knobby knees and scrawny legs. She’s over at my house a lot these days because her mother, Julie, is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. When she’s not at the doctor’s office, hooked up to a chemo drip, Julie’s in bed, watching those daytime TV game shows: The Price is Right, Family Feud. “What’s going on?” Lauren asks. She’s got these poleskinny arms that she likes to twist together like a pretzel. She’s doing that twisty thing with her arms now and that’s how I know that she’s agitated. “Nothing,” I say, “Just go back inside. I can handle this.” “Is this guy giving you a hard time, Auntie Kim?” “Listen to your aunt. This is adult business, sweetheart,” Paul says. That’s when Lauren goes off. She’s prone to do things like this. Just the other day, my brother got a call from



returns the high school guidance counselor, wanting to talk to him about Lauren’s behavior because another student knocked Lauren’s books out of her hands – an accident, really, the guidance counselor said – and Lauren just went off on the kid. Shouting. Jabbing her bony fingers in the air. Now she’s screaming at Paul. “Who do you think you’re talking to, you big fatso? You leave my aunt alone. You ugly piece of –” She dances around us on her tiptoes. “Kim, you’d better get control of this girl,” Paul says. “My Auntie Kim is a good person. I don’t care what you have to say. Just leave her alone.” “OK, OK now,” I say. I have to pull her away from Paul. She’s stretching out her arms, trying to touch him, and I have no idea what she has in mind but it looks as if she wants to tip him over to see what will happen and there is something about the way he looks that reminds me of those roly poly Weebles toys that I used to play with when I was a kid. Back in the house, I get Lauren a glass of soda with lots of ice because she likes to chew on ice cubes. It’s this weird habit of hers. I hear her all the time, crunching away, her teeth cracking into the ice. It sounds like it hurts but she claims that she doesn’t feel a thing. I don’t even bother to ask why she yelled at Paul. What’s the point? Every time I ask her about school or her mother, she pretends like she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. The last time I saw Julie, she didn’t have her wig on and she looked like an alien with her smooth head and big ears. Still, Lauren just doesn’t want to open up. I don’t know what to do to help. The problem is, I’ve never really been close to Julie. My brother married her about five years ago. When he first told me what he was going to do, I tried to talk him out of it. Julie was kind of known around town for having her nose up in the air, all because her first

Regarding Arts & Letters


uroff husband -- Lauren’s dad -- had a summer home in Maine, owned a speedboat, bought into a lifetime membership at the Grassmere Country Club. She was all set until they got divorced at which point he took off for Florida and she was left to take care of Lauren by herself. “Can’t you just find somebody else?” I asked my brother, and I think it got back to her. Julie would only come over to my house on holidays and then she’d stand by herself in the corner of the room, refusing to talk to anyone, ducking outside to smoke a cigarette, call someone on her cell phone. But Lauren, I’ve always liked Lauren for some reason. “What are you going to do?” She asks me now. “I don’t know. Paul will probably go to the next town meeting, make a big issue of it. He’s the type. Probably didn’t help, you calling him names and everything.” “Well, I’m sorry but it needed to be said. He can’t do this to you, you know. He’s taking away your rights as an American citizen. “What rights?” “To make a living.” I smile at her for a second because I like the way that sounds. That night, after the kids have gone to bed, David calls. “Kim,” he says. I sit down on a couch in the living room and put my feet up on the coffee table. If he was home right now, a pile of Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stones magazines would be scattered all over the table, and the TV would be flashing one of those cop shows: men with guns, standing against the wall in some dark hallway, peeking around the corner. When he first left, I threw away all his magazines and I hid the remote. “How was your day, Kim?” “It was OK, I guess.” “And the girls? How are they?”



returns “They seem happy enough.” “That’s good, Kim. That’s really good. I’m glad to hear that,” he says right before he starts to cry. I kicked him out because one Sunday afternoon, I picked up his phone that was left on the top of our bed and I saw all these text messages from someone named Cathy apologizing for something and I didn’t think we knew anyone named Cathy and I couldn’t imagine what she could be apologizing for. David came into our bedroom to change his shoes because he was going to mow the back yard, and I was still standing in the middle of the room, staring at the phone. I asked him what was going on but he couldn’t give me a straight answer. He kept gulping and his face got really pale and his eyes were bigger than normal and, honestly, he looked just like our girls do when they get caught doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing, like fishing for an extra cookie from the cookie jar or cutting their dolls’ hair. Cathy, apparently, is some woman he knew in high school, and she recently got back in touch with him to ask him out for a drink. His story didn’t make much sense to me. What exactly was she apologizing for? I asked him a whole lot of questions but he insisted that there was nothing else to it. That was the worst part. “I’m your wife,” I cried out to him at one point, “You’re not supposed to do this to me.” The problem being, just last year, there was a Lisa who kept calling the house, wanting to speak to him. One time, she called right after dinner and I answered the phone – my hands still soapy from doing the dishes – and I said that I didn’t care who she was or why she was calling but it had to stop now. He didn’t have a clear explanation for that either. The twins cried for a day straight after he left. They threw themselves on their beds, buried their heads face-down in their pillows. It was Lauren who was able to make them feel better. She got out a whole bunch of old-fashioned board games – Candy Land, Sorry, and Parcheesi – and played with them for hours.

Regarding Arts & Letters


uroff David’s staying at his father’s house now, across the river in Massachusetts. He makes breakfast for his father every morning and then heads off to work. He says he feels like he’s gone back in time. “Kim,” he says to me now, through the tears, “What are we going to do? I mean, we can’t be in this limbo forever. We’ve got to figure this out. And I want you to know that nothing happened, Kim. Nothing of any significance. Which I know is hard to believe. I understand that you don’t believe me. But if every other word that comes out of my mouth is a lie, this isn’t. I want to come back home.” I put him on speaker and his words fill up the living room and it’s almost as if I can see them, just hanging in the air, crowding each other, dripping wet with his tears. I like hearing him talk this way because sometimes he’ll go for days without calling. A few days later, I find this round kitchen table at the tail end of a tag sale when the home owner’s already counting her money and wanting to shut down for the day. She feels generous enough to give it to me for half off, which comes to a whopping twenty dollars. I fill in the patches of chipped paint and rub out the slices and wet stains on the surface and now I’m going to sell it for $95.99. People like that .99 stuck on the price; it makes it sound more official. I take a photo of it and write an inspired description, all about it being a perfect fit for any kitchen nook, with its distressed finish and solid wood base. I refer to it as Shabby Chic, which is really in style these days considering how much I see it all over Target. I get absolutely no inquiries. No phone calls. No emails. No one wants it. I suggest to Lauren that we’re going to have to reduce the price but she waves away my concerns. “Stick to your guns. That’s what you need to do,” she says. I wait another three days, almost a full working week,



returns and then I bring it up to her again. “Maybe this should be it anyway. My swan song. On account of Paul and everything.” “Don’t give up so easy. I’ve got the perfect person who’ll want to buy this.” “Who do you know who’d want a kitchen table?” She’s just come from school. She sits down on the floor of my foyer, kicks off her flats, points her toes and then flexes her foot – over and over again. Hannah and Emily are in the back yard. I can hear them calling to each other as they swing side by side on the play set. “This guy I work with,” Lauren says. She has a weekend job at the iParty in East Longmeadow where she stocks fright masks, curly haired wigs with horns, and pinwheels. “He’s got a house, a place of his own?” I ask her. She shrugs. She’s still doing that thing with her feet and I have to admire her concentration, how she cares for her body. She’s going to be quite stunning someday, that’s what I overheard Julie once say about her, and I have to agree. Lauren’s thick, blond hair is perfectly straight, no frizz to it. Her complexion is always clear. And she’s already got these fantastic cheekbones. “I don’t know.” “Well, then, why are you so sure he’s going to want it?” “I just do. Trust me on this one.” But I don’t stop staring at her, waiting for a full explanation. She finally tells me that she knows this guy will buy it, she’s positive in fact, because he’s crazy in love with her. He stares at her all the time and watches everything she does. When he’s supposed to be on the floor, helping customers, he finds every excuse in the book to come back to the storage room to talk to her. There’s not a single day that goes by when he doesn’t get yelled at by their manager for not being where he’s supposed to be. “He’d do anything for me. Anything I ask,” she assures

Regarding Arts & Letters


uroff me. She wants to help me so badly that I can’t discourage her even though I know I shouldn’t get her involved. He comes over the next day, parking a green Subaru Forester in the driveway. The doors of his car are laced with rust and both side mirrors are duct-taped on. He gets out of the car and hitches up his jeans and looks up at the gray sky for a moment and then he comes to my door. I’ve sent Hannah and Emily to their room. I never allow them to be visible during these transactions. In fact, I usually bring whatever I’m selling outside to the front lawn or open garage, but this time – because Lauren knows him – I let him inside. His name is Bobby. He’s got shaggy dark hair, a broad nose, a wide mouth with tomato-red lips and very small eyes. He’s skinny like Lauren but his posture is all bent over, like he’s trying to carry something very heavy on his shoulders. We go downstairs to the basement to see the table. I lead the way. “Where you from, Bobby?” I ask. “West Springfield.” “And you work with Lauren?” “Yep.” “You living on your own, Bobby?” “Not yet. But soon.” “You’re still with your parents, then?” He shakes his head. “Just my Mom.” “Is your Mom looking for a table? Is that it?” I typically don’t have this much contact with my customers. I just show them the merchandise, tell them how wonderful it is, and collect their money. It’s better that way. But Bobby is young. He can’t be more than a few years older than Lauren. If he’s out of school, it hasn’t been for more than a year. And that fact – his age – is unsettling me. “Uh, maybe. I’m not sure.” “Auntie Kim,” Lauren says, “Don’t worry about it. OK?”



returns In the bare bulb light of the basement, the table looks wretched, sitting tilted a little on the concrete flooring. “What do you think?” Lauren says. “Isn’t it the best thing you’ve ever seen? Come on, Bobby. You know you want this. Why just think of yourself, sitting around this table, eating your breakfast, lunch, and dinner off of it. Someday, when you move out on your own, you’re going to need something like this. And it’s always better to think ahead, to be prepared.” She’s doing my job for me. Her voice has a certain lift and fall to it that’s pretty to listen to. “How much?” Lauren and I tell him the price at the same time. He doesn’t react at first. “It’s a deal, isn’t it, Bobby? You have to just snatch it up. You don’t know when it’s going to come again,” Lauren says. I wait for Bobby to reach out and touch the table, to feel around for its scars, or maybe crouch down and look up at its insides, check the bolts that are keeping it all together. But Lauren’s still talking and he can’t do anything but look at her. “We used to have a round table like this in our kitchen,” Lauren says, “My mom and I used to eat dinner there every night. This was after my dad left. It was just the two of us but my mom said that someday soon, our lives would be different. She said that we were going to get a new family and a new life. And she was right.” Lauren’s got a dreamy look on her face, like her eyes aren’t really focused. It reminds me of the other day. She’d spent the night over at my house because Julie was having a particular bad stretch of it, having to go into the hospital for a transfusion. My brother asked me to take a turn sitting with Julie because he had to go to work. “If there was anyone else to ask,” he said, “I would.” I left Lauren to watch the girls and I went to the hospital. I was next to Julie’s bed, reading a magazine, and it appeared to me like she was dozing off but then she opened her eyes and said, “It’s only the good who

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uroff die young, Kim. So I’ll be OK.” And I thought for a while and then I said, “Well, me too then. If that’s true, I’ll live forever.” And we both laughed even though it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what she was talking about. What’s been Julie’s biggest sin anyway? When I came back from the hospital, I caught Lauren staring out the front window of my living room. There’s not much of a view out of that window, just the neighbor’s house across the street, their champagnecolored Toyota minivan parked in the driveway. But she was standing very still, facing that window, and it was like she was seeing something that wasn’t there. “That’s nice. That’s a real nice memory,” Bobby says to her now, “Sounds like you have a wonderful family. I wouldn’t mind meeting them someday.” I interrupt him before he can continue. It’s a hard thing to witness -- how eagerly he looks at her, holds on to her every word. “Look, are you going to buy it or not?” Bobby reaches for his back pocket and pulls out a wallet. He takes out crisp bills. Then he digs in his front pocket for some change. “Just got paid today,” he says as he hands me the money, “Can’t you tell?” Bobby is careful with the table as he brings it upstairs and then outside. He has to dismantle it to get it into his car. I have Lauren run back down to the basement to get David’s tool box. Bobby uses a wrench and a screwdriver to detach the legs. Even then, the hatchback won’t properly latch with all that is stuffed inside. I get some twine from the garage and hand it to him and he fixes it closed that way. As he’s about finished, Paul comes outside and just stands in his driveway with his arms crossed. “At it again, aren’t you?” He says to me. I try to ignore him and concentrate instead on what I’m going to do with Bobby’s money. I should save it, use it for



returns groceries or something useful like that. But I’m thinking I want to take everyone out to dinner. We could go to the Longhorn Steakhouse down on Riverdale Street where there are endless refills of soda and huge cuts of steak and baked potatoes with sour cream and fake chive sprinkles. It takes Bobby a while to drive away. Something’s wrong with his car. The engine keeps catching and then stalling. When he finally does sputter away, he makes it as far as the end of the street. At the Stop sign, his brake lights flicker on and off but his car doesn’t move. “OK, let’s go back inside,” Lauren says. I watch Bobby get out of his car, go around to the front, open up the hood. “We can’t just leave him like that, can we?” “Auntie Kim, I think we can just go inside. He’ll figure it out.” I start walking and by the time I get to the Stop sign, Bobby’s unlatched the hood and it falls shut. “What’s going on?” “Aw, it’s temperamental. That’s all.” I usually try not to think about what David was like when I first met him, back when he was always excited about something and full of nervous energy. He had all these big dreams of what our lives were going to be like. But now I’m remembering that he used to have a car like Bobby’s and I end up telling Bobby all about it, how it finally died on some back road and David just pulled it over and left it there, taking off the license plates first. The next day we drove around, looking for it, but it was gone. We never figured out what had happened to it -- who took it and why. David didn’t mind giving it away like that. He said it was his gift to the world. When I finish my story, Bobby frowns. “Well, see, I need this car to get me to work so I can’t do that,” he says. “You could take it to a garage and have them look at it.”

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uroff “Yeah, sure, but, you know – “ I wait for him to tell me that he doesn’t have any money for car repairs now, that the little he had he spent on a kitchen table that he doesn’t really need. But he doesn’t say a word. And this – his stubbornness, his refusal to see what’s really going on – makes me mad in ways I don’t quite understand. “Lauren’s mother is sick right now. She’s sick with cancer. I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” I say to him. “It’s bad. It’s not good at all.” “Yeah? That’s tough. My mother’s cousin? He had colon cancer about five years ago.” “What I’m saying to you is we can’t be held responsible for anything that we do right now. But, still, you don’t have to be a fool about it. What are you going to do with this table anyway?” He turns to look at his car and for a second his mouth drops open, like he has no idea what’s he’s seeing, like he has no idea how that table got shoved into his car. “I’m not sure.” “You don’t need it. Why’d you buy it?” “Oh, don’t ask me that.” He grins at me and his smile makes him look even uglier. I turn back to check on Lauren. She’s sitting on the front steps of my house with her elbows on her knees. Paul’s still outside too, busy wrapping up a garden hose. “It’s not going to work, what you’re doing. You should know.” “What? What am I doing?” I start talking about Julie, how sick she really is this time, how this is the second go-around on this cancer thing, how the first diagnosis happened two years ago and everyone stayed brave and jolly about it even when Julie had to go through the double mastectomy and lost all her hair – even her eyebrows. My brother threw her a party after her treatment was over. A lot of people came to celebrate. It was a good



returns night. I felt that we’d gotten away with something – all of us, not just Julie. Towards the end of the party, I found David in the kitchen by himself, grabbing a beer out of the fridge. I wrapped my arms around his waist and I told him how happy I was, happier than I’d been in a long time. David was confused. He tilted his head to the side first and then took a long swallow of beer. He said, “OK. But I didn’t think you even liked Julie that much.” Then, six months ago, she went in for just a routine check-up, and the next thing I know my brother is calling me, saying “It’s back,” and Lauren starts hanging around my house all the time. And no one talks about having a party after treatment is over this time. I tell Bobby all this and he just stares at me. “I’m sorry,” he says after a while, “but I don’t see what that has to do with me.” “I’m going to give you back your money.” “Why? I don’t want it.” I step closer to him. I wish I could grab this boy by the shoulders and shake him. “You hope things are going to change just because you bought this thing but they won’t. Nothing like this really matters. It’d be great if it did, if things like this made a difference – turned a cold heart the other way – but it doesn’t.” “Lady, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “Do I have to spell it out for you? You think Lauren’s going to fall for you because of this stupid table. But she won’t. She won’t even consider it.” He’s still staring at me, a dumb, dull look in his eyes, and I think of David, using the phone to beg to come home. “It’s random. That’s all. Love. You never see it coming – not when you first fall into it and not when you’re betrayed by it. It’s all one big ambush. Take your money back. Here.” I’m almost yelling now, my words coming so fast that spit flies out of my mouth. I’ve still got his money in my hand and I try to give it back to him but he keeps his arms to his

Regarding Arts & Letters


uroff sides and his mouth closed and his head is shaking and he looks like my girls when they’re offered some awful-tasting medicine that they need to take. I crumple up the bills and throw them at him. He doesn’t even try to catch them, and they scatter on the ground. I wrench the hatchback up, that old twine snapping off in an instant, and start grabbing the table parts, pulling things out, tossing them aside. Bobby shouts out “No!” and I hear Lauren calling out my name too but I don’t stop. In my hurry, I’m too rough and the table starts to fall apart, the spoiled, dry wood splintering in my hands. The legs break, the oak ply apron cracks, the top splits. I step away from the car. By this time Lauren is next to Bobby, and Paul is huffing his way toward us too. I want to tell them that I had no idea how rotten everything was. Instead, I keep quiet and we just stand together in silence, looking down at the ruined table in the ditch by the side of the road.



cyclist’s eulogy

gary Hawkins

for Q. They say the climber of the road becomes the road, he sets off without a map, aiming for the horizon, his silhouette rising across the sun until it’s gone. We squint across the valley, tracking him. Now he’s gone down the backside of the mountain, whistling to the horizons. They say back to the climber: the road becomes the road and does not end. You know the poem: two roads diverged in a wood, and he, he split out for the horizon, silhouette rising in slow transit across the disc of the sun. Gone are the gears of our timepieces, we’ve stopped counting. Gone is the line of the firmaments, we’ve erased the horizon. We say of the climber: oh, the road becomes the road, but he, a dark dot, has crossed the sun. He is gone.

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to metacomet, king of the wampanoags

karina borowicz

You loved this place You grew up playing in its haunted swamps there were forests then trails made by generations of human feet back when feet had a memory there was body knowledge of the boulder-strewn land the scrubby pines silk dunes the tides of sugar maples how I love this place I too have crawled on my belly here can you forgive me and rolled laughing down the low hill at my grandmother’s grasshoppers leaping out around me Ten inches of snow have fallen, Metacomet even the crows have hidden away a heavy silence has come I know you’d let settle on your shoulders, and you’d move easily through this blue night



the wound

karina borowicz

The human noise of morning penetrates the wilderness the violence of far-off trucks rattles the brown world dappled with shy sunlight a small frog the color of flesh crouches motionless at the base of a great tree that was wounded once by lighting long ago in a stormy season that had no name

Regarding Arts & Letters


an interview: amelia


audrey granger

In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that when you get an idea for a story it digs at your brain until you get it out on paper. Is this indicative of your writing process? It’s more indicative of my thinking process really, which seems pretty standard to how everyone thinks. There are some ideas rattling around in there, mixing with what I’ve already considered or written along with pieces of my day to day life, my freelance work, conversations I’ve had with friends, things I’ve seen on the internet, previous failed projects, what I had for breakfast, overheard conversations and similar. Eventually the idea either dies back there or becomes linked to something else, or it comes out as its own piece. I just turned in a novel that got a lot of those smaller ideas attached to it, because I was going into a few different characters which each became their own collectors. I lost a lot of stories to the novel, I’m sure. Once you “get it out,” is the story fairly complete, born whole from your head like Athena, or At what point do you consider a story done, ready for publication? Very mythical! I like it more as ripped from my thigh. And really that is only true sometimes, mostly for the shorter stuff. Longer work like House Heart takes months, big changes, shifts in direction. I rarely feel like work is completely done. Usually it’s more of a sense that the changes are getting smaller and smaller and I need to walk away. It’s an unsettling feeling, like I’m leaving part of the body buried.



“House Heart” is one of my favorite stories—not just of yours. Ever. The intense metaphors woven with the reality of relationships are so amazing; it really starts Gutshot off with a bang. I noticed the version published in Tin House had a different ending: the story as it appears in Gutshot seems to end on a more hopeful, though desperate, note. Original: Later, after my partner and I made love, we lay in bed and I sang a song about loving the world you know. The song encouraged all of us to live within the boundaries that were created for us by the people who love us and care for our safety. I had learned the song long ago and remembered it well. The girl was quiet at first but then we heard her sweet voice rise with the harmony. Book: In the back of the cabinet, over the plates, there was a portal through which I viewed the windless void of a new ecosystem. I could almost hear it breathing. Can you describe your decision to alter the ending? The first version of this feels so much more like I’m seeking out the ending, turning over the idea of what it means to love the world you know. The story is partly about the problem of living within the world you’ve created for yourself. It evolved into an ending which needs the context of the rest of the story; throughout, the woman is opening pantry doors and cabinets and similar and imagining the outdoors, and here at the end she sees this dark world that is like a shadow image of what she remembers of the world. It’s an extrapolation of that idea of the problem of loving the world you hold most dear: you lose the rest of the world when you wrap part of it around your eyes. Regarding Arts & Letters


interview You’ve said that you offer an arm’s-length view of your personal life to readers through your blog, website, and other forms of social media, but is there any autobiographical influence in your writing? I mean, it’s all at arm’s length but it’s all there. Writers all seem a little bit desperate to be known and unknowable simultaneously, don’t you think? Which writers or books have had the greatest influence on you? It’s my New Year’s resolution along with not looking at my phone first thing in the morning to get more real about my influences. I have that standard list of the writers I read when I was growing up and when I was first interested in writing but lately I’m more interested in writers I’m reading right now and influences beyond. For example I look at the Daily Mail every day, all day. The tone is fascinating, the voice, the way a single word or phrase can drive opinion. I read all the comments. I’m also reading Lucia Berlin and Marlon James right now. Gutshot takes heavy influence from Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie, Don Barthleme, Russell Edson. You tread the line between grotesque and gratuitous in most of your work, but it is especially effective in “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover.” Lines like, “When he asks you to marry him, panfry his foreskin,” are perfect and disgusting, but also completely vital to this vile yet beautiful piece. How do you determine that line in your work, or how do you think about the intersection of the emotional and the violent elements of a story?



amelia gray That story to me reads like the most sincere and straight love story I’ve ever written, and so to me it needs this counterpoint. But really, I don’t read the counterpoints in that story as gratuitous violence, particularly; it’s more of a nod to that idea of loving someone so much that you want to consume them. There is violence in emotion. For me it is impossible to pull one from the other. Mixing the weird with the mundane is a talent of yours. Have you always been able to conjure whale hearts into houses, or was that a skill you developed over time? What developed was the desire to go beyond the straight metaphor and explore it a little more. If I wrote the whale heart story ten years ago it would have only been this heart in a family’s living room, the father chipping away at it and thinking of his dead wife. Writing it when I did, it made more sense to me to have one of the characters state the metaphor: this heart has something to do with the dead woman, okay, now what. It seems less of an aloof sense, which makes the story less about the metaphor and more about the idea. I learned that from a few different people, by the way, that direct sensibility: Aimee Bender, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link. Your stories are powerful and concise. Are you drawn to write flash fiction naturally, because of this concision, or do your stories start long and then get whittled down? So I’ve started hundreds of stories by now, and I do feel like I’m starting to know how long something will be as I get started. I don’t think I’ve ever started a story that felt like a 500 word story and had it be longer. On the other hand I’ve often had high hopes that a concept had stronger legs than it ended up having. Good flash fiction in general tends to feel like it has some concise intention behind it. Regarding Arts & Letters


interview: amelia gray I love Gutshot, and am struck by the way it reads, not just as a collection of short stories, but as a unified body. Can you describe the process of building the collection and how you decided which pieces would be included? Once I had an idea of the better stories I’ve written in the last five years and I had spent some time editing everything once more, I printed everything out and spread it around my bedroom and started grouping things together; fables here, viscera there. Then once I had the general groupings, I started considering within each group, where I found a beginning and end. There’s such a power to the bound pages; even in those last stages I felt there would be no cohesion. But it does seem to have found its own rhythm, if only by virtue of being placed in one.



betty nguyen’s knee

john perryman

Each night on the news, the knee… It peeps above the desk, crossed atop a leg below; overshadows sights and sounds, this vanishing point of the show. The clothes are crisp, professional. The voice is perky, sure. And though the news confuses me, knees soften things obscure. How can I understand that guy in North Korea, the oil from Venezuela, those crimes in Bosnia, the claims of the Hezbollah, in the presence of the knee? Yet this tan and tiny swatch— this knee will make me watch. The gods in suits at CNN— they know me well. Such joy, at being known! For the news is scary, so complex, with satellites and Doppler maps and stimulants I can’t process. But the knee is simple—speaks to me. The knee, I understand. Regarding Arts & Letters



Sierra golden

Tenakee Springs, AK

In the red rust of morning, a salmon fisherman, swollen hands wrinkled with water, mends his seine. In the galley, the cook scrambles eggs and tosses the shells to the rising tide. A hummingbird circles the trash, hovers over it. The skipper’s kids hide-and-seek behind a stack of crab pots,



and the shipwright urges boat-work, new caulking with pine-soaked oakum. A wet mop slops across the sky, and the rain begins again. At dinner time, the harbormaster meets a boat by the crooked pier, she and the evergreen trees dripping in the gathering dark. While her family says grace around a yellow cedar table with their eyes closed, she walks the long way home.

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tom larsen

Snow rumbles against the floorboards pushing me sideways. Flakes as big as doilies swirl into my headlights as the wipers do the best they can. They’re calling for a foot in the outlying areas and an outlying area is right where I’m headed, to my own dismay and Andree’s disbelief. Tyrone’s call came shortly before midnight. I rolled out of bed and summoned my strength. “You’re out of your friggin’ mind,” was how Andree put it. “Come on, it’s not that bad out,” I struggled into my pants. “The weather guys always overdo it.” “Fine. I’m unplugging the phone.” “You should be glad he called. You know how I get.” How I get is unbearable. Instead of the usual mood swings I bottom out completely. Without weed all the wheels stop turning and I mope around heaving sighs of despair. Any task seems beyond me. I can’t sleep and I have nothing to say. It’s not like I take it out on Andree, but hey, she’s there. The snow’s not so bad under the el if I keep to the inside lane. If I were stoned I’d be thinking how unworldly this looks, the weird light, the iron canopy, the deserted streets and sidewalks. Crossing 41st Street, I steal a glance at the walled compound that was once the Tyler estate is currently the Pennsylvania Institute and will soon be something else, tucked away under snow-draped sycamores, a rich man’s dream gone horribly wrong. If I were stoned it would strike me as funny. The world would look strange and magical and the rattle in the heater wouldn’t worry me a bit. I’d see the gas tank as one quarter full instead of threequarters empty



But I’m not stoned. Six days now without a buzz and the world is cold and ugly. Pretty much a new low here, the notion that midnight was actually a good time to go to Tyrone’s, beat the traffic and snow removal crews etc. turned delusional here in the thin vapor light. Laughable, even if I’m not laughing. What you lose sight of when you’re fooling yourself is the odds against the street you need being cleared. I’ve passed one other plow parked in a Wendy’s lot, snow up to the fucking gun whales. The el ends at 59th Street and I’m on my own, fishtailing along Cobb’s Creek, then a wide left onto Haverford, plumes of snow in my wake as I pace myself. Traffic lights keep time in the absence of traffic. My nose is running and there’s a knot of tension in my shoulder. The gas gauge, now halfway between the quarter mark and the big, red E, where just blocks ago it was dead on a quarter. How is that possible? Andree thinks I have a problem. She doesn’t say anything, but it’s in the air. She sees the weed as an extravagance and she knows I’ll never pass a drug test if I don’t give it up. As if it was that easy. I tell her the test is unreliable, that employers use it as a ruse to filter out the faint of heart. Flunking three took the wind out of those sails, but it’s not like you can skip a few joints and pee Perrier. It takes months without to clean the system and months is not an option. OK, I’m an addict, but it’s not like I’m shooting smack and robbing people. Just reefer, no harm no foul. I still eat right. I still bathe everyday. The way Andree says nothing says it all, if you listen. What it says is, is this the best I can do? Silent disapproval is not what I need right now. Christ you’d think I was pawning the silver. Pothead. A failing, sure, but it’s not like there’s no upside. I’m a scream when I’m stoned. Ask anybody. Ask Tyrone. My impression of a cat coughing up fur balls always brings down the house. I’m not nearly as contrary when I’m Regarding Arts & Letters


larsen high and I’m much smoother with the women. Plus, I can watch almost anything on television. Kicking pot might not kill me. I’d just wish I were dead. Tyrone’s snores carry through the storm windows and I see him sprawled on the couch with the TV going. I tap on the glass but that’ll never to do it. Tyrone’s a world–class snoozer and nothing short of a referee’s whistle is going to reach him. I could call from the phone booth but then I’d wake Sharon, and the baby. That leaves me … I tap again and the cat jumps up to sniff at my fingers. I rap harder with my knuckles and she does the shadowboxing thing. I can hear the snow falling behind me, a light hiss that deepens the silence. I picture it piling up on my lamppost at home, filling the lone set of tire tracks on Haverford. On the off chance I roll back the mat and what do you know? Now all I have to do is unlock the door and walk in. … Except when I picture it all kinds of things go wrong. You don’t just walk into a guy’s house in West Philly at one in the morning, even if he is expecting you, especially a black guy with a kilo of weed and paranoid tendencies. Just the kind of bonehead move you read about in the papers, under the photo with the crime scene tape. But if I don’t do it I’m back to square one. I fit the key in the lock and push the door open. Tyrone’s sitting up, looking right at me. “Dude,” he flashes a sleepy smile. “Hey,” I walk in and toss him the key. ”You might want to find a better hiding place.” “Duuuude, where you beeeen?” “Sorry. The weather outside is frightful.” “I’m thinking my boy slipped up, wrapped his sorry ass around a pole. What’s your old lady think about you dogsleddin’ cross town to cop a bag?” “She thinks I have a problem. What do you think?”



score “I think even pipers stay home on a night like this! Sit down, Slim. You’re looking peaky” “Peaky?” “Peaky.” “I can’t stay long,” I sink into the recliner. Jesus … “Why? What YOU gotta do, slacker?” “I’ve got to maintain a semblance of routine. Daytime is for business, night time is for TV and sleeping. This was all wrong, Tyrone. This …” “ … Smacks of desperation?” “Yeah …yeah, I guess so. Maybe desperation is a little strong.” “Now Tyrone?” he aims a finger at himself. “Tyrone don’t go out that door until springtime. Not for nothing or nobody. I’ve made all the arrangements.” “What kind of arrangements?” “Sharon goes to school and does the shopping. I watch the kids.” “What if something happens? The kids get sick, there’s a gas leak.” “If the kids gotta go somewhere I call Aunt Serena. She owes me big time.” “ … Gas leak?” “Dude, something like that and I’m outa here. OK? I’m not looking to go up in flames. I’m just … uh, uh, uh, … setting a goal for myself.” “Of sorts.” “And, you know, I’m a goal oriented motherfucker. I can do this. April.” “And I can say I knew the man. Knew him personally.” We smoke a bowl out of one of Tyrone’s contraptions, a long, gunky tube with foul liquid bubbling at the bottom and a finger hole on the side for those real bell ringers. The way that works, you toke a good three hits into Regarding Arts & Letters


larsen the tube then take your finger from the hole and whammo! Out of body experience. “Between you and me, I’d go nuts staying inside all the time,” I tell him. “With kids? I give you a month.” “Been TWO months already. First frost Tyrone was on it. Anyway, Angie’s at St. Matthews and Jeanette just started preschool. Alarm goes off, they eat their Cheerios and book.” “What do you do all day?” “Watch TV.” “How can you do that?” He looks at me. “You mean how can I actively avoid doing something productive with my life? How can I fritter away the best years watching Yosemite Sam blow his own goddamn brains out?” “In good conscience, I mean.” “You think Mr. White Man is gonna hire me? Get real, my brother.” “The race card.” “I heard that!” Tyrone grew up in a white neighborhood so he does his best to look the crackhead, glassy eyed, hair sticking up in clumps, big butt hanging out of his pants and complicated sneakers right out of the box. His wife Sharon is a white girl, from Ireland, if you can believe it. Red hair, freckles, about as far from the ’hood as you can get. Their two girls are angels and every time I see them I want to go home and have me some. “I was tripping man,” he is telling me about a frat party he went to. Tyrone’s less than half my age. “The bitch is heaving her guts out and this other bitch is screaming about the rugs. Puking man, and it’s got chunks and shit. And my boy’s got his hands out and he’s trying to catch it, you know?” now he’s laughing, a deep, phlegmy wheeze that’s pure Tyrone. “But it’s splashing down his arms and between



score his fingers and the look on his face? Buckwheat, yo!” he gives me the wide eyes. “You call women bitches?” “Say what?“ “I don’t know, man. It’s unbecoming.” “Naah, it’s a black thing. What we call uh, uh, uh, term of endearment.” “Bitches.” “And hoes.” We met when I was running presses at U of P. He was just out of high school, working in the bindery. It wasn’t long before we were getting loaded at lunch and shit-canning the afternoon. Seems like a million years ago now. On TV the Keystone Cops are chasing crooks, legs going a mile a minute. They shake their fists and make angry faces and when they fall they land on their keesters. “Now this, …” Tyrone shoots a finger at the screen. “This shit is funny.” “ … Your best years …” “Look at those little white motherfuckers go!” “Your momma’s gonna chew your butt, Tyrone.” “Shiiiii-it,” with a hint of uncertainty. Momma Henrietta - the butt chewingest woman in West Philly, I happen to know. Another movie begins, the Keystone Cops in Dangerous Desperados. Somewhere along the line I lose contact with my legs. “Got some Molson’s on ice, Slim.” “No thanks, I gotta go.” We hear something in another room, a baby’s whine stretching to a wail. Tyrone scrambles from the couch and darts down the hallway returning moments later with Jeanette over his shoulder. “S’OK baby, it’s only the white man,” he sidesteps past me. “Don’t worry, Daddy won’t let him oppress you.” She gives me a sleepy smile and wave. Regarding Arts & Letters


larsen “Hey kitten, you come to see me?” She nods shyly then busies herself with Tyrone’s buttons. “Watch this, honey. Check it out,” he points her at the TV. “This is important.” She stares at the men racing around in circles. “See baby? Can you say Cau-casian?” “Caw Cayjn,” she giggles. “I love my kids, man,” Tyrone shoots me a wink. “Girl babies, ain’t nothing bad about them.” “Caw Cayjin,” she looks to me and points a dinky finger. “That’s my girl. Ain’t you a trip? We have fun don’t we baby,” he turns her to him then lifts her over his head and spins her like a propeller. Jeanette shrieks with laughter and he does it again. I’m no dad but I can see problems with this. “Come on, sugar,” he sets her down. “Show Slim what you can do. This is killer, man. I take her down to Barney’s and drink all night for free.” “I thought you didn’t go out.” “Daytime, dude. Tyrone’s gotta have his social life. Come on, baby. Show the white man what you do.” She clasps her hands from behind. “I can say my ABCs.” “You can? Gee, that’s -” “In two seconds,” Tyrone leans in. Jeanette nods eagerly. “Do the whole bit for him baby. Like we do it at Barney’s.” She toddles over and pokes me on the knee. ”’Scuse me mister. Could I interest you in a little wager?” “Sure sweetheart.” She takes a pretend something from her pocket and puts it on the arm of the recliner. “A dollar says I can say my ABCs in two, count’ em,”



score she flashes fingers, “two seconds.” I place my own pretend dollar next to hers but she shakes her head from side to side. “That’s not a dollar.” “What do you mean? That’s a ten.” “ … Oh.” “That’s OK, baby,” Tyrone nuzzles her ear. “Slim here is chiseler. You remember what I told you?” She bobs her head. “Chiselers burn in hell.” “Thaaat’s right. Go on now. Show him.” Jeanette steps back, takes a deep breath and fixes her eyes on the wall behind me. “ABCDelamentoZEE.” “HO now! Record time, baby, record time,” Tyrone give her a squeeze. “Show him what else I taught you.” She reaches a hand under her top and makes little fart noises with her armpit. Tyrone beams at me. “Hey, I’m speechless!” “She really picks things up quick. Don’t you sweetie,” more nuzzles and kisses. Aw Jeez. Halfway through The Keystone Cops in Moonshine Mayhem the two of them are snoring away. I cover them up, show myself out and slip the key back under the mat. It’s not so bad going home. Still snowing but the plows have been out, at least on the main streets. I punch up the radio and fall into some Milt Jackson, just the thing for a stoned drive home, Philly Joe tapping rim shots, ba didlee dink a-dink a-deedee. Yeah, I know my jazz guys, Bags, Bird, Monk, Trane. I’m hip. City slick. Baggledee Beebop, got my dope, dope, dope. … So it went OK. Tyrone hooked me up now I’m set for the month. Maybe a red flag or two in there, but nothing to beat myself up over, yo? Regarding Arts & Letters


larsen … But that’s just what I do. Forty two years old and I’m dashing through the snow to feed a twenty-year habit. Hair going, teeth going, eyes going. Whoa boy, easy. Definitely not the buzz I need right now. I pull into Wendy’s for coffee to go. A Penndot crew takes up half the counter, big guys with beards. I give one a nod but it sails right past him. Fuck you plowboy. Back in the car I fish a roach from the ashtray and let ‘er rip. Big hit, the usual hacking and histrionics, then another, then one more. I sit for a moment as the elements recombine, Sonny Rollins blowing, the wipers not quite hitting the beat. The rattle from the heater has stopped for the moment and the cold air feels good through the open windows. I drink coffee until the reefer dissipates. Not even moving when I run out of gas.



road, sky

donald illich

You, the road, bend through the forest, stab into the black hills, meet the sky. The sky falls from outer space, leaves the moon, the sun, drops to the road. When sky meets road, you’re worn, you’re half-broken, half-delighted, traveled upon, asphalt in your lungs, traffic lights studding your bones. The sky washes each room of your house, scrubbing toilets with clouds, peeling away the green gunk inside your heart. You want to keep moving forward, for the stars to create a radiant trail you can follow into their beauty. The sky remains opposed to you, forms a barrier you can’t penetrate. A wall that’s nothing but red lights. You must never change your life.

Regarding Arts & Letters


keep coming back

james kincaid

“Dear, may I ask you something?” We have been together, if that’s the word I want, for several months. June and I met at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. My name is Harry and I am an alcoholic. You probably wouldn’t regard that as a pick-up line, but it is in fact so powerful AA finds it necessary to warn against developing relationships between two recovering addicts. That makes no sense to me, since it’s also central to AA views, to which I subscribe 100%, that one is always recovering (if you work the program) but is never cured. So, what does nagging about dating say? So long as you’re recovering, you can’t connect, and you’re always recovering? Where’s that lead us? A lifetime of lonely selfcongratulations, as one day at a time I avoid drinking? That’s what I’d call living negatively, not that I am one of those reluctant AA members looking for reasons to be critical, which is the same as looking for reasons to start right up drinking again. I’m good at catching myself as I drift toward self-deception and denial; but any non-stupid person has to wonder if AA has really thought this through. Still, I’m willing to acknowledge that there are traps aplenty lying in wait for those going down this road. June helps too, though she’s anxious to work her program on her own terms, which is only right. I think she could be a little more open with me, not that I’m being judgmental. I’m not one who is anxious to put myself between another person and her or his pursuit of sobriety. My views of AA are orthodox entirely. I’d be a fool to imagine that I could out-think the Big Book and those millions who have proven this system. It works! June says we need to put our developing sobriety first.



I try hard to smile when she says automatic things that. AA can be irritating from time to time, as people with no lives APART FROM it chirp away with these half-dozen phrases, as if they constituted the beginning and end of human wisdom. Even if they do, they don’t make for graceful and sophisticated conversation. My sponsor, devoted and well meaning, though one of the chirpers, says that the first year or two of sobriety is no time to be making big life decisions. He says people are vulnerable and can easily be sucked into mistakes, deceiving themselves into mistaking temporary exhilarations for deep commitments. June likes my sponsor more than I do. For one thing, he has about four teeth. I’m not a person who goes by appearances, but come on! I’m supposed to be taking life lessons from an unemployed garage mechanic? How could a mechanic not get work? June refuses to go on dates. She’ll take walks, go to movies, watch television, eat. But not dates. I don’t see much difference. Yes I do. The difference is sex. Not to be gross, but I can’t see why June makes a big deal about sex. I tell her she’s has an unhealthy fixation on sex, not wanting to do it. That’s not what AA had in mind discouraging relationships, I’m sure. June made me ask my sponsor. I told her I had and he said AA didn’t disapprove of consensual sex between adults; it was live-ins they forbade. I didn’t ask my sponsor. That was a little white lie. I didn’t ask him, because who’d go to Gomer Pyle with this? My lie didn’t help my cause. June said sex wasn’t right for her, would get in the way of her developing sobriety. Snore! “You have a more modern attitude toward sex than I, Harry.” “It’s pure AA.” “I wish you could just accept my position, Harry.” “You’re obsessed with sex, June.” Regarding Arts & Letters


kincaid “OK, so let’s not bring it up again.” “That’s exactly what I mean.” Sometimes I think June is obtuse. I wouldn’t say that, though. June has a fine spirit and an amazing body. I won’t give up trying to liberate her. She means a lot to me. “You mean a lot to me, June.” “Thanks, Harry. Your friendship has been important to me.” “Good.” “Are you working your fourth step still? Can I help?” “My sponsor told me to try and find healthy substitutes for all those hours I was accustomed to spending in bars.” “Uh huh.” “Dating isn’t against AA, June.” “Harry, please. It seems as if every conversation winds down the same trail. And I think you twist some of the things your sponsor says. Not that you mean to.” “Judgmental! That’s not AA!” “I guess you’re right, Harry.” June might appear flexible. But she isn’t. “Yes, Harry. What is it?” It wasn’t perfect between June and me. No relationship ever is, and if you think it’s going to be, then you’re in for a rude awakening. June and I recognize that we really can’t help the other; that’s a fundamental mistake. You start thinking you can help somebody else and you’re back on a bar stool, downing boilermakers, waking up in Galveston three days later, no idea how you got there, lying in your own puke. Still, without putting it into words, we are helping one another. June thought we should keep our focus on that part of our lives dealing with sobriety. I told her that was bad AA: drinking hadn’t been “a part” of our lives but everything,



keep coming back top to bottom and morning to night, often through the night. Who among us hasn’t awakened at 3 a.m., no booze in the house, reduced to mouthwash, rising in the morning wanting to die? Since drinking had been everything, so was our need for help and for one another. That’s where June didn’t understand AA. We didn’t have anything BUT our sobriety, which was like saying we didn’t have anything but one another, so where do you draw the line? June was afraid of commitment. It didn’t take any wizard to see that. Ironic, as it’s supposed to be the man afraid of commitment. I just didn’t see why we couldn’t be friends and have sex. It wasn’t like I was asking for a lifetime of mowing grass and changing diapers. One step at a time, was how I put it. June could be annoying in her failure to grasp this. I didn’t know how much of June’s problem was timidity, how much was being screwed up by too much alcohol in the recent past, how much was having a lousy childhood, how much was being a prude, and how much was not understanding what I was saying. That part about her lousy childhood was partly a guess and partly connecting a few things she had let fall. But we could work through all that together, if she would only allow it. June’s legs were not her best feature, not that I ever got to see much. She wouldn’t go swimming, but in slacks and jeans it seemed like they might be a bit thick. “Let’s go swimming.” “Thanks, Harry. I think I’ll pass.” “You’d look terrific in a bathing suit.” “Thank you, but no.” “Nobody’ll care.” “Harry, what are you talking about?” She never was quick on the uptake. You’d think she’d be a little insulted. She never got mad. That’d shown a spark of feeling. Regarding Arts & Letters


kincaid Not that she couldn’t display temper. She could be a fireball when she got worked up. Over Christianity, for instance. I’m no religious fanatic, but I think that AA without Jesus is like orange juice without vodka---ha ha. June didn’t see it that way, just because she hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t say that to her; I have more tact than that. But it’s the truth: she absorbed the shallow agnosticism around her the way some people absorb viruses. “Just try church, June. It’s not going to hurt to try. You might be surprised.” “We’ve been over this, Harry. Leave it alone.” “Higher Power.” “Don’t lecture me. Attend to your own sobriety.” “There’s a cliché for you.” Silence. “Sorry, June. Just give it a try – for me.” “Harry, I’ll do a triathlon with you, but no church.” “Lots of intelligent people have no trouble going to church, June.” “I’m sure that’s true.” “Intelligenter than you.” “Harry!” “I’m just saying.” “And I’m saying drop it.” “I’d think you should see what you’re rejecting.” “I know what it is, Harry. If you want it, fine. I don’t.” “How can you be so sure? God works in mysterious ways.” “You can be an irritating asshole sometimes, Harry.” “What did you say?” “What did I say? I said shut up about religious shit.” She walked out of the room then, like a child throwing a tantrum. I don’t know what it is. If our situations were reversed, I’d go to church, give it a try. But will she?



keep coming back Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying she’s irrational, like ALL women. I realize that’s sexist, and God knows I’ve known plenty of irrational men, starting with my father, who probably had good points, only seeing the rational side of things wasn’t one of them. June seemed a little cooler after the flare-up over church. I’m sure she felt guilty about being so childish. Some people are like that, express their shame by being cold. But I knew it was temporary and that June and I were close. This was only a blip in our relationship, and I knew that once she thought about it, she’d come around and go to the church of her choice and worship according to the dictates of her conscience. “Will you marry me?” Funny thing is, I’ve been in this situation before, proposing marriage. Not to June, not to a woman of June’s quality, even remotely. I’m not ashamed of what happened, exactly. Like AA says, it’s one thing to make amends, and it’s another to wallow in unproductive guilt. God help me to change the things I can AND ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE. Real wisdom. It’s also a cliché, as it really boils down to “no use crying over spilt milk.” I’m not being critical. I wonder how June gets through the serenity prayer, what with the talk of God. I wouldn’t have thought you could work your program AT ALL without the serenity prayer, which closes every AA meeting, as it should. God wasn’t what came between me and my first girlfriend, and God won’t come between me and June. I’m a big enough man to change, and I have faith that God will work His magic with June. If that doesn’t happen, then that’s OK too. June’s a whole lot more important to me than the First Methodist Church. I told her that, but I didn’t tell her Regarding Arts & Letters


kincaid she was more important to me than my sobriety. Is she? Well, of course! But she wouldn’t approve of me saying that. What happened the first time I proposed was that we were sort of tipsy, me and this other girl. New Year’s Eve, and how predictable is that? I’d been going with this girl about a month. At first, I was dating her roommate, but I started talking a lot not to the other one, but the one I later on proposed to. I am getting confused. First I was dating Barbara and then her roommate Marjorie, and it was Marjorie I proposed to. Marjorie and I were out on New Year’s Eve, throwing them back and having a good enough time. Actually, we weren’t “out,” but in her apartment, the one she shared with Barbara. Marjorie worked in an office. She had one terrific ass, not that her ass played a central role in our relationship. Her ass was fuller than June’s. We were on the couch talking and doing what kids of my parents’ generation called “necking.” My mother actually gave me a lecture once on necking. Talk about embarrassing. My dad had been assigned the job of talking about sex, baby making and the crabs and contraceptives, which he called “rubbers” and told me how to put on. That was bad enough, but Mom cornered me on the couch, said I should know about “necking” and proceeded to talk about gentleness, which was not so bad, and also about unhooking bras and clitorises, which was so awful I thought I’d die. Not like it was useful either, as I was too embarrassed to pay attention. My mother was a very attractive woman, making allowances. So, Marjorie and I were half-reclined on the couch, with my hand inside her shirt but only on her stomach. Pretty tame. We were having a nice time, though, drinking sevenand-sevens and laughing. All of a sudden, she pulled her hands out from around the back of my body, put one hand on my chin, in order to kiss me, and with the other hand, unzipped my fly and groped around inside.



keep coming back It was a very nice thing for her to do, so I said, “Marjorie, would you marry me?” She didn’t stop what she was doing; but she did raise her head and look at me when I said that. I couldn’t decipher her expression, don’t know if she had an expression; it was more as if she were trying to focus. She kept studying my face, maybe wondering if I were serious. She was quiet so long, I repeated it: “Marjorie, would you marry me? Really.” “Jesus Christ!” “Does that mean no?” “Do you customarily ask girls on the verge of giving you hand jobs if they’ll walk down the bumpy road of life with you?” Marjorie was always saying things like that. They seemed to me witty usually, though not on this particular occasion. She wasn’t witty, just a smart-ass, but I was young then, young and a drinker, on the verge of being an alcoholic. What I mean is that I WAS an alcoholic all along but hadn’t realized it yet, since it hadn’t taken over everything, the way it is sure to do. That’s AA: being an alcoholic isn’t acting a certain way; it’s what you ARE, from the inside reaching out. So when Marjorie said what she said, I felt foolish, like she’d sawed off the limb I was sitting on. So I repeated myself. Maybe having a buzz on made me a little dim, unable to think of anything else to say: “Yeah, walk together down the road of life, Marjorie. I’m asking you to marry me, yes I am.” I won’t repeat what she said, as it’s painful. Yes, I will: making a complete inventory of your past means being honest and not ducking those times when you made a fool of yourself or hurt others. At least I didn’t hurt others on this occasion, though I can’t make that claim generally. I’ve hurt many people, some of whom deserved it but most of them not. Marjorie deserved it, and I kind of wish I would have Regarding Arts & Letters


kincaid done something to her, nothing horrible, maybe broken a finger, bent it backwards hard. In the interests of honesty, I’ll report what she said: “Judging from what I have my hand on now, we’d have a sorry sex life; and I can’t imagine casting my lot in with a nice enough guy who is, through no fault of his own, cursed with a limited intelligence and a deficient. . . .” Marjorie either couldn’t think of the right insult or got to laughing so hard she couldn’t get the word out. I chalk it all up to a learning experience. We are the sum of our experiences, and that’s the way it is, God’s mysterious plan. I can’t blame Marjorie, even for the heavy drinking I started to indulge in right after she was so cruel and threw me out of her life. It’s not Marjorie living my life but me. We all run into heartless assholes, but we have to take responsibility for our own lives. That’s not to say we can do it on our own. None of us can, and certainly not drunks like me. First step in AA: we are powerless against the cruel and wily agent of alcohol. Powerless. Which is why we need that Higher Power. I have no doubt my Higher Power threw Marjorie in my path for a reason. I certainly can’t see any good reason, but it’s not my place to question. I have faith in God and I know things happen for a reason. My faith is strong and I feel sure June will come to rest in the lap of God too. “No.”



africa writing

alamgir hashmi

She is sitting cross-legged in the grasses at the banks of the Great River and writing again, pulling Mister Johnson out of the depths perhaps no one has fathomed before. She knows the name is not Niger. The blue ink pen glad in running hand across the page is used to her hold, manner of thought, left-to-right, the indigo alphabet of his and her will. She has heard that somewhere a sea-stretch away they call it black. Pekuah passes by, barefoot in her pantaloons and shama. She is already speaking to the stars that will come on tonight; all about Nekayah and perhaps a meeting if not happiness of sorts. An angler nearby hasn’t said a word since morning; no catch. All he says now is I have this dress for you to conceal nothing, though it’s not foreign. He thinks she is hard of hearing and goes away muttering ‘Mistah Kurtz—he not fully dead.’ It’s fun people she is writing about, regardless; they are who they are. She knows the moment, the lie of the land, the name of each blood drop coursing through its veins.



Her writing is the color of water all earth takes. Underbrush or plenitude, she is finishing this full chapter and will soon break for lunch. Suddenly, a large trunkfish jumps out of water and lands on the last paragraph, slippery wet, not blinking an eye, word shapes heaving under shifting weights of the piscary. It’s this that matters now pulling at the line, strung up inside the turning seas, and an egg sinker in the river mouth that can not hold water.

Regarding Arts & Letters


the passing

christina frei

He pushes the crumpled linens away to ease a straining heart foundering under its waxen ribs. Helpless to comfort or distract, the family fold in and wait. A sonata plays, whose phrases linger in the high dust-motes, each chord a fragment of memory. Death’s struggle is now over, leaving a discarded shell: a mere focal point now, a human horizon line. An agony of regret and relief fogs the room. Curtains open on an apple tree’s strangled bare branches like souls in purgatory. The white clinical walls recede into the deepening winter twilight, gradually dimming the closet of redundant shirts. They can do nothing but attend in vain for their wearer, these unwitting markers to the limits of existence, awaiting exile.



elegy to a chemist

christina frei

When he traveled to such obscure conferences as the effects of phytotoxins on biomolecular systems, he stayed in the seamiest hotels, was chummy with the downtrodden, masquerading as a jovial none-too-clever Papageno, downed beers, did his best to make the queen of the night laugh, explained to his daughter, this was living as opposed to merely existing, and surely she would grasp the difference with time, but that it involved cooking with lots of wine from Chile, and doing the occasional stunt on a sailboat, and after the divorce, he moved to a walk-up in the center of Amsterdam, overlooking greening willows by canals in Vondelpark, and hobbling marble-feathered pigeons in front of the Concertgebouw, amused her with letters about the locals, and about string quartets from Budapest performing Schoenberg wearing only underpants, and she would try to picture him sitting in a red plush seat near the back, hands folded, bald head and trim goatee lifted slightly, eyes closed in solemn reverie. For it is not only the elderly bourgeois who suddenly take to meandering in parks and frequenting concert venues, and not only they who are diagnosed unexpectedly with a rare form of bone cancer and move to a clinic, where the daughter might insert a cassette of Karajan conducting the Magic Flute, thereby conferring on Mozart’s last most exuberant opera the dubious distinction of being the soundtrack to her first great heartbreak.

Regarding Arts & Letters


songbirds of senegal

christina frei

To arrive there, think of crossing the Sahara in a sand-rusted land rover, think of driving south from Mauritania through harmattan winds, juddering over pot-holes listening to Youssou N’Dour on cassette, singing Wolof to the jittery rhythms of mbalax, past destitute villages patch-worked with mud and thatch, thorny acacia and gnarled baobabs resembling trees in a child’s painting, set against a slate grey sky that promises just enough rain to float a horse carcass on a sewage canal and allow a parched chameleon to catch a single drop on its unfurled blue tongue that lashes from the green fruit of the papaya tree, scaled by knobby-kneed boys in torn t-shirts who will eat them no matter how unripe, continue past the rushing ocean’s far-off pink salt mist where the fishermen haul their mended nets from bobbing pirogues gouged by sailfish swords, past bleating flocks of hobbled rams awaiting slaughter, mini-busses dangling gri-gri charms from their bumpers and rearview mirrors because here luck is all that matters, young ticket-takers hanging one-armed from the back where the black exhaust belches forth, shouting down the wide Boulevard de la Republique and the winding Corniche road with its canopy of flame trees. When I step out from the chill of our air-conditioned car into the soupy atmosphere of Dakar to buy bottled water from a stand, a man walks by swinging a cage crammed with half-dead songbirds. For 500 francs, you can set one free: small-scale extortion, but worth it to see the tiny bird first incline its head, then take off in a joyous blur of yellow and red



before perching up in the filtered light of a pomegranate tree, like Youssou N’Dour way out on stage in his kaftan at the Daniel Sorano theater, lifting his arms high to roaring applause, and singing his heart out.

Regarding Arts & Letters


the new river

benjamin warner

At dinner, the young men traded stories about Camp White Mountain, a summer camp in West Virginia which five of the nine of them had attended at some time in their otherwise unconnected pasts. That they were all sitting there, around a table in a university town miles removed from Camp White Mountain, was a coincidence too wonderful to sidestep for the benefit of those few among them who had not been a part of the experience. They circled their chairs—picking at a poorly made risotto, their plates balanced on their laps—to allow the conversation a natural clockwise flow. When the laughter died out over one person’s story, a comfortable silence allowed the next in line to gather his thoughts. If the person had not been to Camp White Mountain, then a summer camp related activity such as backpacking, fishing, or Indian beadwork would suffice. Josef was not interested in stories about summer camp, and he refused to participate in their conversation. His refusal involved looking over into the yellow light of the kitchen, or down at the tops of his boots. He made a point of not laughing when everyone laughed in unison. He, himself, had worked in a boatyard during his time off from school, and when it was his turn to talk, he spoke loudly and uninterruptedly about the movie “Train Games,” which he had seen earlier that week on TV. “What’s great about it,” he said, looking directly across the circle at Caitlin, who, though painfully attractive, had chosen to lay her head on the shoulder of her lumpish boyfriend Carl, “is that it’s not really an action movie. It’s an accidental allegory. Have you seen it? Have you seen it?” When excited, Josef developed an oral tic of repetition. “Both Bradleys are in it. They’re traveling by train to D.C. They’re congressmen, back from a fact finding mission about



poverty in Africa. But they’ve doctored the findings for the sake of corporate interests. Just like real life, right? And the highjackers, they end up with access to the documents, and they’re the ones who feel obligated to argue for truth. You see? You see? They’re the ones who end up reporting to Congress. It’s not the gunplay or the explosions that matter for the viewing experience. That shit doesn’t matter at all, and I think the filmmakers only realize it on a subconscious level. But somehow they realize it. What matters is that to engage—not in your rights, mind you, this has nothing to do with rights—but to engage in your civic duty—to engage in that duty is to be portrayed as criminal! To be seen as violent! That’s the soul-crushing reality of the movie!” Josef panted, and the rest of the circle—in particular Carl, who was becoming increasingly agitated at the direct attention Josef was paying his girlfriend’s legs—looked back and forth between Josef and Ben, who had invited Josef to the party. “I haven’t seen it,” someone said. “But don’t you see!” “Yeah, but I haven’t seen it.” “That’s not the point.” Josef was taking out the petition that he carried in his back pocket at all times. He had already taken it out once, earlier in the evening, and collected all of their signatures. In his excitement, he often forgot if he had or had not solicited signatures for his petition “Anyway,” he said. “It’s not criminal. That’s the irony. I’ve got this petition to sign and I only need three hundred and twenty more signatures before I send it off to Washington.” “We’ve already signed it,” Ben said, feeling the weight of embarrassment at having invited Josef in the first place. “It’s like the first thing we did when we got here.” “Okay,” Josef said, folding it back up into a pocketsized square. “So what? It’s not a big deal. You signed it Regarding Arts & Letters


warner already. So what? You’re not doing me any favors.” Joanna, their host, returned with a bowl of vanilla ice-cream—a pleasant accompaniment to the pot brownies Claire had baked—and a sudden wave of gratitude passed over everyone but Josef. Josef had abandoned temptations of the body, and felt a peculiar, but harsh resentment at the sight of their dessert. He was a tall man, well over six and a half feet. He wore cowboy boots and a black cowboy hat even indoors. With the boots and hat, he was a giant, and as he stood now, he towered above the circle. That the people at this dinner party were going to eat their ice cream—and in all possibilities continue to trade stories about Camp White Mountain—made his face turn a sudden shade of crimson. He could feel himself sweat, the moisture collecting in his eyebrows. “Well, it’s not like you’ve done me any favors tonight,” he said, a little too loudly, looking again vaguely into the kitchen. “Sit down and eat your ice cream,” Ben said. “Ice cream,” Josef said, now addressing the circle from on high. “That’s just typical. That’s just too fucking typical.” He walked with an enormous stride to the door. “I’m going to the bar,” he said. “Would anyone like to join me at the bar?” “We’re all just fine right here,” Caitlin said, the left side of her face showing imprints from Carl’s shoulder. “Too fucking typical,” Josef said again, and slammed the door behind him. Outside, he walked through the cool, wet evening. Spring had finally warmed the street long enough to melt the drifts of snow, and shadows flickered across the sidewalk’s newly acquired flatness. Josef was not afraid of crime, though recently, crime had been reported. His body had nothing to



the new river offer. He no longer carried any money. He walked until the street lightened with the bars and restaurants of the downtown strip. At the corner was an adult toy shop, papered over in pink, and behind that was the bar where Josef could drink on credit. They knew him there and had signed his petition, though on a Friday night like this there would be a fresh wave of faces who had certainly not taken the time to research the issue on their own, let alone been compelled to action. Josef hung his coat on a peg near the pool table. It was early, and the pegs were not yet full. He played three games of pool and had four beers with a man named Johnson who wore an antique pair of aviator sunglasses and had once been on the professional circuit. Josef lost swiftly, and then talked to Johnson about “Train Games.” He knew Johnson from many prior losses on nights just like this. “What they’re doing is criminalizing your civic duty, which is worse than criminalizing your rights,” Josef said. He had another beer and then a whiskey. “Anyone can stand up and fight for their rights. So what? It’s as clear as day. It’s what they teach you in grade school. But when a government criminalizes your civic duty, they’re building an army of apathetic soldiers. Don’t you see? You’re an apathetic soldier!” He shook Johnson by the collar, which was a mistake. Johnson did not like to be shaken by his clothing, and particularly not by his collar. Had Josef been a smaller man, Johnson would have punched him in the mouth. Instead, he took his twenties off the counter, from which Josef had be drinking. “You’re not doing me any favors,” Josef said to him across the room. Johnson racked the pool balls again without looking up. A group of college students banged through the door, and Josef recognized a girl from a date he’d gone out Regarding Arts & Letters


warner on a year ago, when he’d still gone out on dates. He also recognized the situation as being ripe with the possibility of new signatures, and he unfolded the petition from his pocket. “Hello,” he said, walking up to girl, “I don’t want you to feel awkward, but we went to dinner together once. We had a lovely time. I paid, if that helps you remember.” The girl turned, her face still holding the smile of the conversation Josef had interrupted. “Um,” she said, squinting. Josef remembered her expectant smile—its steely permanence. Optimism, he thought. “These are my friends,” she said. “I have a petition here,” Josef said, “and I’ll ask you to sign it, but I’ll only ask you once. I’m not going to beg. If you have any dignity at all, you’ll sign and then we can move on and continue our pleasant conversations. But even if you don’t sign, I won’t hate you. I don’t believe in hate.” “Um,” the girl said. “Um.” A boy in a tank top leaned across the table, his eyes catching the violent blue light of the beer signs on the wall—a friend of hers, maybe something more. “Are you joking?” he said, planting an elbow on the table and letting his wrist go limp, as if beckoning Josef to arm wrestle. Josef saw the veins running over his muscles but did not care. He, himself, was well muscled. Not that it mattered. His own strength came from somewhere else. “I’m not joking,” he said. “Jokes are the tools of small men.” The girl stood up from the bench and brushed past him, walking haltingly to the bathroom. Josef leaned against the table, his cowboy hat perfectly still, the group of college students staring up at him. The boy sat back and guzzled his beer. Josef held out his petition, but did not look down at them. Instead, he looked through the window above their heads. As his stillness continued, uncomfortably now, the timbre of their conversation reengaged, slowly at first, then



the new river with the full force of fresh gossip. Josef cringed. Then he felt a hand on his arm. “Amanda,” the girl said, having returned from the bathroom, her face looking damp. She stared at him expectantly, the smile finding her lips, having, Josef realized, never really disappeared. “That’s my name. Amanda.” “Of course,” Josef said, not returning her smile. “I knew your name.” They went to the bar and Josef had another whiskey and then another and then one more beer. He was feeling quite high. “Do you believe in the virtues of the body?” he said. “Of course,” Amanda said, purring up against him. She had mistaken his meaning. Josef did not like this purring. “It was a trick question!” he said, “The body has no virtue. The body is deceitful. If we could separate ourselves from our physical desires we would not be so easily controlled. I, myself, have not eaten in three days.” This was a lie. Only hours before he had eaten three helpings of the poorly made risotto. “Our senses are a trap,” he said. “Beautiful,” Amanda said, still purring, “beautiful.” Josef thought back to their date a year ago, remembering how she had made him put his arms around her waist, and—though there was no dance floor, and only a smattering of closely laid tables—sway to the overhead music. He looked back toward the door, and saw that her friends had gone. Their table was empty. A tide of anger rose in his chest. “Your friends,” he said, “have pulled some kind of trick.” “No tricks here,” Amanda said, opening and closing her hands. “No wires, look.” She did a clumsy pirouette and curtsied. In his fervor Josef had been buying her drinks. “Okay,” he said, “this is all very hilarious.” Regarding Arts & Letters


warner Amanda purred and touched his arm. “Very hilarious, indeed.” Josef felt his rage reconstitute itself. What should have been a pure, base anger became acidic as it mixed with this looming responsibility. He had recently made a pact with himself to articulate his emotions honestly, and as he yanked his arm back from Amanda’s grip, he said, “I’m feeling betrayed right now. On the one hand I know that I will take you home. I have to. You’re in no condition to get back on your own. On the other hand,” he paused, squeezing his hands into fists, “I have been placed in this position against my will, through invidious means.” “No,” Amanda said. “I’m fine. I’m good.” She pouted a little, but only playfully. Josef could see the infrastructure of her smile just beneath the surface, and wondered at how much of this had been hers to plan. His own emotional honesty, he was finding, was not always reciprocated. “I’m fine, really,” she said, turning with a jerk. At its entrance, the bar featured two doric columns, and even with the flow of patrons giving them wide berth, they lent a detentional atmosphere to time spent inside. Amanda, staggering toward the door, and walked fully into the left column. “Okay!” Josef yelled coming up behind her, feeling the speed and power of his legs, “Let’s go.” Her van was parked halfway in the street and halfway up on the sidewalk. The rear windows were done up in plastic sheeting, and inside, the consoles had been hammered together from plywood, circles cut out with a jigsaw. The back was carpeted and seatless—the back of a carpenter’s van, not this girl’s. “Whose van is this?” Josef said, leery of further deception. “It’s my van,” Amanda said, her eyes closed, swaying.



the new river “Whose van!” Josef squeezed his fists again, and ground his teeth. He got into the driver’s seat and pounded the steering wheel. Amanda slid next to him. “I am not angry with you,” he said. “I am angry at myself for allowing this to happen. Now. Please. Whose van is this I’m about to drive.” “It’s my brother’s. Okay? It’s my brother’s van.” “Okay.” Josef felt his rage deflate. “I can drive you home and then I can walk home myself. I’m not afraid of walking at night, certainly. Fear does not even enter the equation.” “That’s great,” Amanda said. “This is all just fantastic.” Josef took three deep breaths—full in, full out. “Where do you live?” he said. “By the high school.” She smiled again in a way the made Josef push the pedal too hard and knock against the parking meter. “The high school. Fine. That I can do.” The roads were empty and Josef swerved around in them. He was not the type of driver to stop for a red light at three in the morning. He liked this late-night world, and the autonomous logic of its rules. He felt safe within his body, controlling the van. They passed the high school—the high school Josef, himself, had attended—and followed the railroad tracks along the lake. The lake was a dull smudge beyond the trees. It had been years since Josef had thought about the lake, but he found himself thinking about it now. Once, he’d saved a boy from drowning by using a stick to reach out over the ice. “It’s further,” Amanda said. “Up ahead.” “How much further?” They were driving beyond where Josef could walk back to his apartment. “A little,” she said. Her smile was thicker now, more relaxed, and Josef saw he had been wrong about the Regarding Arts & Letters


warner permanent set of bones around her mouth, the hopefulness he had thought to be genetic. There was something murky about it now, and he squeezed the wheel tightly. As he followed the tracks, the lake widened like a snowfield, a dull light coming from somewhere beneath. “Pull off here,” she said. He took a gravel path through the woods. Soon, he saw other cars, and a house slouching into the darkness, its rear outlines disappeared in the shadows altogether. “Home sweet home,” Amanda said, then seemed to fall asleep, her head leaned against the window. Josef imagined Claire, her head leaning on Carl’s shoulder, the clear outline of her calf as she crossed her legs, her pants stretched tight. He imagined that calf, tracing it with his mind’s touch, his groin burning sickly. “Home sweet home,” she said again, this time leaning in to kiss his neck. Josef yanked the steering wheel from side to side as if to separate it from the panel. His shoulders ached. His teeth ached. He was groaning and making high whinnying noises in the back of his throat. He unhooked his seatbelt, and stepped into the cold black air. The gravel crunched beneath his boots. A tang of wind buzzed his skin. The house had the cluttered dimness of a collector’s attic, the bottoms of the walls lined with mounds of heaving blankets. Skeletal plants clogged the windowsills. “Welcome to the party,” Amanda said. Josef tripped over a dog. It snorted but did not move. “What is this?” he said. “Rest for the weary. Keep to the middle, you’ll be fine.” Josef stepped over sleepers on the floor, his eyes adjusting with only inches to spare before making contact with their bodies. “Weariness is a mental state,” he said,



the new river though he felt weary himself as they approached the kitchen. “A controlled state.” Snores and coughs traveled through the rooms as if on wires. He heard panting, then a shout in the darkness. “This way,” Amanda said, opening a door to a room lit greenly with a baseboard nightlight. “In here.” The room smelled of moss, of earth, and Josef felt a vein of fear pierce his body like a root through rock—an anguished release, an unflexed desire. He followed Amanda, her face strangely proud in the greenness. “Here,” she said. “This way.” Josef ’s body was hard and senseless. He felt ashamed of his sudden intimacy, his petty need for it—hammering her body in search of escape; joining her body if only to release himself from its confines again and again. He thought how his own body had warmed the piece of paper in his back pocket, how his own body generated a powerful heat. In the end, he paced across the room, not allowing himself the vanity of sleep. The walls were clammy with sweat. “We’re machines, right? We’ve been programmed to think like machines.” He was talking to himself now, completely. “And so I won’t lay in bed with you. Can you understand that? It’s simple, and I think you should be able to understand. It’s now or never for me. You see? I’ve broken out. I’ve broken free.” “Hey,” she said, her face gone smooth. “Hey, hey.” She ironed the sheets next to her with the palm of her hand. She looked at the wall. It was not an invitation to any further discussion. She was a nice girl, Josef saw. A pale light came through the window, washing the green from her face. She sat up, her breasts swinging, and looked abruptly stark and sober. “You’ve taken advantage of me,” she said. “What?” Josef moved toward the door, picking up Regarding Arts & Letters


warner his pants and his hat from a chair. “I’ve been nothing but honest. I’ve been fully honest with you.” His boots were on his feet, and he backed into a wall. Bodies stirred in the other room. Josef heard a cough, a moan. He heard whispers, then full-bodied debate, an alarm whistle. He turned and strode through the door, through the kitchen, high-stepping lumps of blankets on the floor. Outside, he looked back and saw nothing but the crumbling house, the dawn breaking shapes into color. The air was fresh and his eyes burned with it. He tensed his body, ready to bolt, ready for the stream of sleepers to charge. He would stand his ground. The whistle blew again. The train. It was moving through the woods. Josef ran across the gravel, then across the main road. In the yellow light the train looked sleek, almost oily. It clattered and groaned, approaching as if wounded. He stood in the thick ballast beside the tracks and felt the light mechanical wind. He read the company names on the cars, so close he could have dragged his fingers through their grime. The train moved almost painfully slowly, no faster than a tram up the side of a mountain. He waited for it to stop, but it didn’t. It rolled forward, car after car. He waited for the next car to pass, deciding it was his car. He ran alongside, then reached out and grabbed the metal side-ladder, his feet dangling before finding the bottom rung. The metal was cold in his hands, but he felt warmed and buoyant above the ground, almost light enough to sing. The train rolled away and he could no longer see the break in the trees, the gravel road. Instead, he saw into the backyards of houses along the slope, the sun rising over the lake just enough to mirror the windows. Broken rubber toys and scraps of plastic littered a ditch beneath him. He saw metallic balloons caught in tree branches, bobbing as if under water; he saw tool sheds and gardens, the exhaust of warming cars, an old man, naked, practicing Tai Chi by a



the new river swing set. Josef had stripped his apartment of furniture, and destroyed the shades on his lamps. This had given him a few months of clarity. But now he felt lofted higher still, sailing over the earth’s detritus. He closed his eyes and vowed to sleep on his wooden floor, to drink only water, to let light enter through his windows unperverted by plastic shades. He would give away his money, bake bread with his hands. He would share, and help. He would be kind. “Deliverance!” he yelled, his head thrown back, his body pulling against metal rungs. The train passed over a river, and Josef looked down through the bridge ties to see its milky rush beneath him. The stacks of town rose up ahead, but this river was new to him. The landmarks were unfamiliar, and the strange houses on the bank half disappeared into thick woods. The train thunked across the bridge—a frantic, hollow beat—and Josef let himself go, falling onto a hill of scree, spraying the gravel dust with his heels. The cars passed overhead, still moving slowly, still barely moving at all. Beneath, the river was fat with rain, pounding the cement underwalls. Riprap hedged the muddy bank. Crouching, he could see beyond the bend in the trees, where the water fed the lake. He had lived in this town all his life and never seen this tributary. How had he missed it? The current made ridges in the water pregnant with runoff, ready to burst with the garbage of higher elevations. Josef felt full, himself, the airy feeling gone from his lungs. He knelt in the mud and unfolded the piece of paper from his back pocket. He had been delivered here, it was true. He counted the names, once, twice, three times. He saw his life, his loyalties, and steadied his mind. He stood, looking past the bend, decided. He would stay the course. He was right.

Regarding Arts & Letters


(snow white)n

mika taylor

In some Snows White, it’s a comma, missing or misplaced, a period, a line break, a misprint. Some versions vary only in serif or the wide foot of the font. Some use contractions, others spell colour in the British style. There are sloppy drafts, unedited, handwritten, smeared with ink, wine, bodily fluid. She is Schneewittchen, Snežana, Udea, Padmavati, Bidasari. She is Nourie Hadag, Margaretha von Waldeck, her name spoken, scrawled, printed on parchment, vellum or skins, infinite adaptations, editions bound and un-, scrolled, folded, folio’d, each story equally true. Many tell it as a girl cast by a jealous mother into the unknown. Countless variations do little to alter outcomes— six dwarves, eight giants, a talking candle flame instead of a mirror. Snow White still bites the apple, falls enchanted asleep. In some, it’s a stepmother, in others a father or brother or rapacious uncle. Once in a while, a pair of kindly parents both live to nurture their daughter with no conflict or story to speak of. There are many in which she doesn’t exist at all, not as a character or even an idea. In many more she is a living breathing person faced with the pain of loss and the trials of witchly persecution. In those, she eats the apple or she doesn’t. As often as not, the apple is a quince, a mutton chop, a child. And when she bites, teeth piercing flesh, she doesn’t always sleep. She dies, she soars, she seizes up in a foaming frenzy and the dwarves have to sedate her until some antidote arrives. Sometimes the words are the same but mean different things. Snow is the sun is an asp is an alley cat. Her blood red lips can be as cruel as they are kind. She may remain the fairest, but “fair” can mean dark or wild or righteously angry. The huntsman is a farmer is an artisan is a crone. The



charming prince is as likely an alchemist as a pack of wolves. Snow White eats her mother’s liver and heart, sautéed in a pan with butter and salt, sliced fine and served to seven hungry dwarves. Or, instead of dwarves there are divorces, or seven miscarriages lined up single file, each with a name of its own. All of the ways she is or is not repeat and mutate and multiply and diverge. Metaphor ripens and words, when they exist at all, are myriad. To catalog the infinite is a Sisyphean task. Even half of infinity is unending. So all there is is this: She is lovely. She’s asleep. She lives. She dies. It matters, or doesn’t. It’s all just story, plotted and plodding. And so she is kissed, and so she awakens, and so it all ends. Or begins. Or not.

Regarding Arts & Letters


five poems

simon perchik

* You point as if your shadow dug its way out, cools surfacing at last in a darkness once melted down for rain and one last time though it’s your finger splitting open the Earth lifting it from the bottom that’s no longer a morning covered with mud and distances, has your legs your arms, your eyes.



* What you still carry to bed is this water coming from a well icing over, masks your cheeks and though there’s no pillow it’s your mouth that’s melting filling the hole where she used to sleep –in such a darkness say what you want this sheet took the white from your eyes that look at nothing but walls –you are washing your face with a room emptied out to freeze her half where there are no mornings left.

Regarding Arts & Letters



* Only slower, that same song, word by word lowered into your coffin each evening forwards at first, then backward for some off-center memory kept smoldering but why the blanket –face to face you can hardly tell it’s a lullaby, a voice still warm, tucked into your crib from a tree that’s lifted from the bottom, covered with doves stuffed with darkness –try listen the way you once did though this fairy-like hush finds you again on your back, jumping and running and under the soft mud some vague happiness is coming to an end –try! at least remember the mouth that opened over the wood and ate.



five poems

* Four hundred miles, four hundred broken apart for the road inside though this box-like hole in your chest salted over –every winter now you wear two shirts, white, torn so you don’t surround the cold with sandwiches when soup is needed –you bring along a bowl that lets itself be carried off, empty, cared for something to count that’s more than two yet one finger loosens, its light spills out as moons, single file and in the open circles the snow fallen through bolted to the ground –someone feeding someone so many times.

Regarding Arts & Letters



* The doctor had a name for it, your palm wets itself, folding her favorite dress with a vague sound from the ceiling though she will get used to a rain that belongs somewhere else that doesn’t care you’re undressed have something to do with the cold and the smoke-blackened sheets pouring over her shoulders and legs –you have become a place close by stand here naked in front a mirror with nothing more to take away.




interior designs

dorene o’brien

Sure I took the assignment. Did I have a choice? I’d just started with Dyer & Bramble, the largest design firm east of the Mississippi, and I would have viewed any task as laudable. I was by far the youngest decorator they’d ever hired and had adopted a stray dog mentality toward my superiors: You can abuse me as long as you keep me. Vicki Gunsky and Rebecca DeNikers had already refused the assignment, but that didn’t necessarily mean the assignment was bad. After all, they’re famous—they even have their own cable show—each with a flock of clients that keeps them hopping between all-expense paid sushi lunches and crab salad dinners. Klauss Wilms had also refused the assignment, but who knew about him? Klauss walked around the office in straw hats, Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. He seldom spoke, and I don’t remember ever seeing him with a client, although he had no compunction about using the glass-walled client conference room to eat his whole wheat bagels. He was an icon, pure and simple, someone who had arrived. Klauss dressed ridiculously, ignored most of us and refused assignments with impunity. And we all wanted to be him. I cannot imagine the amount of confidence it must take to wear those shirts around a group of people who are in the business of making fashion judgments. So I jumped at the chance to take an assignment that had been refused by the best; I figured they would recall their refusals with regret when they read the reviews in Interiors Today: “Jenna Matthews, young upstart with mature skills, forges futuristic work space,” “Child decorator captures the attention of big design hot shots,” “Modest decorator credits company veterans who mentored her.” Maybe they’d even get a quote from Klauss who, of course, would have to make something up.



The noble assignment: revamping several roadside ice cream parlors owned by a wealthy eccentric named J.M. Krommer. Mr. Dyer took the client not only because he was rich, but because his grandson and Krommer’s nephew were best friends who were at the time utterly enamored of the Krommer Bomber, an F-35 shaped ice cream packaged in collectible wrappers. I doubted that these boys were studying market trends during ice cream binges and felt Mr. Dyer’s trust in their product instinct was ill-conceived, but who was I to question him? “Throw a package together, Matthews,” he said. “He wants Air Force, we’ll give him Air Force. Bombers, airplanes. No more clowns and balloons. We’re appealing to the sophisticated child.” “Mr. Dyer—” and I should say here that this was the extent of my vocalized concern about the design. “This could lead to big things, Matthews. He’s got stores all over. This could really take off. Get it? Take off ?” “That’s very funny, sir,” I yipped. I was, as I suggested, somewhat uneasy about the assignment—weren’t today’s kids more interested in video game stars, Pixar characters, LEGOs?—but I located some fighter jet wallpaper, posters depicting flying aces from classic movies and framed pictures of Sikorsky H-19s and B-52 scramble take-offs. I designed an ice cream dispenser overlay shaped like an F-35 instrument panel, the dispensing arm replaced by a throttle, and during the presentation I’d prepared for Krommer I recommended the company rename the desserts to reflect the new theme: Tailspins, Kamikazes, Flight Zone Cones. Mr. Dyer frowned, but I buzzed along, suggesting that hostesses wear lightweight helmets and that the company consider biplane rides for begoggled kids as a promotional event. Mr. Dyer’s eyes widened as I held forth on jet-shaped ice cream containers, seat-belted picnic tables with overhead umbrellas replaced by billowing parachutes, Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien ideas flying from my mouth before having made a full revolution through my head. Finally Mr. Krommer held his right hand up in the STOP position. I sank onto my chair, Klauss’s chair, conscious of the bagel crumbs burrowing into the nap of my wool skirt, and watched Krommer’s eyes search the ceiling, his thumb circling his temple in the headache relief gesture. “I can see it,” he said. “I can see it.” Mr. Dyer wrinkled his forehead and the downward arc of his eyebrows told me that he, too, was working feverishly to interpret Krommer’s statement. “I love it,” said Krommer, looking at me. “I think we have a deal, Major. But I must first consult Sedgewick.” “Fine,” I said. “Of course.” Dyer was all smiles when Krommer left, but I was worried. “Who’s Sedgewick?” I asked, unnerved by the prospect of a sane man reviewing my proposal. Dyer snapped his briefcase shut and said, “His nephew.” Sedgewick’s blessings were promptly attained and we began work immediately on the three largest stores. “They are the jewels in my crown,” said Krommer. “The changes will be most noticed there. How’s that sound, Major?” “Great,” I said, pooling the spit I had gathered on my tongue to pop several Tylenol when he turned his back. Krommer showed up each day to supervise, strewing forth military titles with abandon. “Watch the tiles there, Private, those are five bucks apiece” or “Good morning, Captain, how about a Bomb Pop, compliments of the old commander?” or “These fellas are the Green Berets of plaster, don’t you think, Major?” “Yes,” I said. “They’re trying to be.” I also noted with a combination of annoyance and resignation Krommer’s constant use of the word we as if he



interior designs had, by his unrelenting presence, become part of Dyer & Bramble. We worked for several weeks on the three stores simultaneously and were making such rapid progress that Krommer announced he would be bringing his wife, Eunice, to see the Laurel Street store, his favorite. “I’d like you to be there,” he said, “in case she has any questions.” “Of course.” “It’s a surprise,” he said, index finger poised vertically over his lips. “I’ve had to keep quiet for weeks. Can you imagine?” “No.” “Her father was a pilot in WW two. She’ll be tickled. But not to mention ice cream,” he warned. “Excuse me?” “She hates the stuff. And if you don’t mind too much,” he added, “I’d like to tell her the ideas were mine.” He kicked at a loose floor tile. “Okay, General?” “Certainly,” I said. I arrived early the day Eunice Krommer was to visit, too agitated to eat breakfast and, although my excitement was tempered by her husband’s appropriation of my ideas, I was eager for her reaction, hungry for applause from someone other than my loopy client. Mr. Dyer arrived as I was unwrapping a Fudgsicle. “Good morning,” he said, staring at the ice cream as if I were unveiling a severed finger. “I didn’t have breakfast, and Mr. Krommer said it was okay,” I said, covering all possible grounds for his disapproval. He waved my words away and looked around. “Looks good, kid. Eunice will love it. Don’t worry,” he added as if reading my mind, “she’s not nearly as wacky as her old man.” Krommer’s New Yorker pulled up moments later, and Mr. Dyer turned to me and smiled. “Good luck,” he said. Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien “Thanks.” “Better not let Eunice see that,” he added, nodding at my half-eaten Fudgsicle. Through the plate-glass window I watched Krommer help his wife out of the car and across the parking lot, maneuvering her past paint cans and cement barrels with great speed and dexterity. It wasn’t until she tripped over a small pile of lumber and hit the pavement with both knees that I realized she was blindfolded. Krommer helped her up and he and Mr. Dyer escorted her into the building, each grasping an arm of what was to all appearances a befuddled rag doll, knees bloody and blindfold askew. She perched on a small wooden stool and I asked if I could get her a glass of water. She pulled off the blindfold and squinted at me. “Have you been eating ice cream?” she asked. Krommer shot Mr. Dyer an angry look, surely blaming him for my indiscretion much the same way a parent chastises a negligent baby-sitter. “Of course not,” I said. “What’s that on your mouth?” “Danish,” I said. “Chocolate danish.” She turned to Krommer. “Well, it’s about time you started serving something other than that awful ice cream in here. Is that the surprise?” Krommer laughed. “Look around, Eunice. See the wallpaper?” He pointed to the ice cream dispenser. “Wanna play with the throttle?” Eunice Krommer stood slowly and surveyed her husband’s favorite ice cream shop. “Oh, my,” she said, a bloodied napkin pressed to her chest. “What have you done?” “We’ve fixed ‘er up,” said Krommer. “This here’s the new Krommer theme. Bombers, parachutes, flying aces.” He waved his arm in a semicircle and said, “It was my idea.”



interior designs Eunice Krommer leaned wearily against the faux F-35 overlay. “Well,” she said, “I’m not surprised.” Eunice Krommer’s disapproval translated into several things: a new design featuring—oh, the irony—clowns and balloons, the histrionics of Mr. Sedgewick Krommer, and my first lesson in bending the capriciousness of human nature to my advantage. I was more surprised than unsettled by the shock on Mr. Dyer’s face when Eunice Krommer insisted that a war zone was no place for a child to eat ice cream and that her father, a decorated military veteran, would spin in his grave if he knew her own husband was luring children into his twisted web of violence with confections. When it became clear that Eunice Krommer would win, I said, “We can have this replaced by next month.” “Finally,” she said, “a voice of reason.” She then turned to her husband, who looked both bewildered and devastated, and said, “I do like the danish idea, though.” When the Krommers left, Mr. Dyer turned to me and said, “I told you she was a nutcase, didn’t I?” “Yes, sir, you did.” “An ice cream magnate that hates the very thing that keeps her in T-bone steaks and Crown Vics.” “That is a riddle,” I said. “Throw something together, Matthews. Clowns, balloons, the whole freaking big top. I don’t care. Suggest elephant rides, monkeys serving banana splits. They’re crazy enough to go for it. Just finish the job and get them out of my hair.” “Yes, sir,” I said. “I can do that.” Mr. Dyer stormed out and I opened the cooler to retrieve my Fudgsicle. “Hey, Ensign,” I called to the electrician, “how ‘bout a Nutty Buddy?” “No, thanks,” he muttered without turning from his work. Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien “Suit yourself,” I said, taking both the Fudgsicle and the Nutty Buddy. They may not have been the five-star meals or designer dresses Lansky and DeNikers received, but they were perks just the same. And so the Krommer assignment began my career as a weathervane, blowing easily in the direction I figured would most reward me. I didn’t make a decorating move without first consulting Eunice Krommer, and I listened calmly as she berated Mr. Dyer for not returning her calls. I won her trust and respect simply by entertaining her decorating notions, by nodding innocently as she made it clear she did not comprehend the convoluted mechanism of the corporate infrastructure. “You should be running that company,” she said. “You’re talented, cooperative and wise beyond your years. Why, you should be the CEO.” Throughout the assignment, all Mr. Dyer ever said to me was, “Get them out of my hair,” after which Klauss would wink at me while shooting his finger. I don’t know if he was reiterating Mr. Dyer’s command or suggesting I kill the Krommers, but either way he’d finally acknowledged my existence. I’d smile, but I could never bring myself to shoot back. I did a remarkable job with the Krommer account, considering that I was taking orders from two lunatics who knew nothing about interior design. Sometimes I ignored their ideas, sometimes I kneaded them into the theme, and sometimes I implemented my own ideas disguised as theirs; they were always happy to take credit when the results looked good. I learned that humility is an important attribute in the design business. Still, I was as eager to get them out of my life as Mr. Dyer had been, so I worked tirelessly to finish the job. One day when I was finishing up the final store, Klauss walked in and stalked the counter in his safari outfit,



interior designs pith helmet and all. “Tornado. Large. Heath bar.” He shot his finger at me as I fixed a rubber elephant trunk to the cash register’s change dispenser. “Klauss,” I said. “It’s me.” He stared at me over the top of his Raybans. “You work here?” “No,” I sighed. “I’m on assignment,” I said with the drama of a Russian spy. He winked and said, “I’m in a bit of a rush. How about that Tornado?” There were no five-page photo stories or glossy spreads of my work in Interiors Today, but the Krommers were pleased and Mr. Dyer, apparently thankful that I’d been able to keep them out of his life without killing them, invited me to one of the company dinners at La Chasse. Since these dinners were typically attended only by veteran employees, I saw this as my chance to network, to lick the hand of anyone I thought might throw me a bone. I bought a new dress and paid my stylist to coif my hair in a way that looked sexy but not slutty, unique but not professionally done. I passed through the leather-padded front doors of La Chasse a few minutes late—I didn’t want to appear eager—and saw Klauss and Mr. Dyer standing just inside at the bar. Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t have noticed them, but Klauss was wearing an Indiana Jones hat with a large quail feather jutting across the side, and when he turned his head the feather brushed the bartender’s face. Before I could lift my freshly manicured nails to wave, Mr. Dyer plucked the feather from the hat and cracked it over his knee with gratuitous force. He then threw the pieces to the floor and stepped on them as Klauss laughed darkly. I slipped past the bar and squirmed between the wall and a potted ficus near the bar entrance, and I missed most of Mr. Dyer’s Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien tirade because I was worried about being seen. If caught I could say I’d lost a contact lens while squinting to read the signature on the painting near the tree, or I could say I was near-sighted and lost my way into the bar, or I could simply say I was an interior decorator admiring the richly glossed paneling. As I slid my back against the slick wall, I heard Mr. Dyer demand that Wilms take off what was left of the hat. “You look like a moron,” he said. “I’m so sick of you and those get-ups—the turbans, the capes, the glasses—why don’t you grow up?” “Every day is Halloween,” said Klauss. “Not anymore,” yelled Mr. Dyer, “your gravy train’s just derailed. Does my daughter know that you dress like the Jack of Spades? That on Fridays you pretend you’re Zorro? What do you think she’ll do when I tell her?” “She already knows.” “Does she know how disgusted I am that she married you?” “We talk about it daily,” said Klauss, “and it makes her love me even more.” Mr. Dyer stormed from the bar then, barreled across the lobby and disappeared through the leather-padded front doors. Indiana Jones, after studying the broken feather in his left hand for several seconds, stumbled toward the restaurant entrance. I kept my position for a few minutes, mulling over the ramifications of this newfound information. Nobody at the firm knew Klauss was Mr. Dyer’s son-in-law—he never wore a wedding band—and I wondered why it was kept secret. Shame, most likely. Mr. Dyer was embarrassed about his daughter’s marriage and Klauss was willing to keep it under wraps in exchange for a free ride. Of course there was always the danger of mutiny if the senior decorators learned of Mr. Dyer’s callous disregard of the company’s nepotism policy, so the secret served them both.



interior designs As I squirmed from between the wall and the plant, my dress strap suddenly caught on a piece of molding and as I tugged free I lost my balance and fell forward into the tree, hugging it tightly as we crashed to the floor. I straddled the plant for what felt like minutes while trying desperately to regain my footing, and it was Lansky and DeNikers who first saw me. “Hey, Ethel,” Lansky nudged DeNikers while pointing at me, “Lucy’s here.” I pulled myself up, brushed the wilted coif from my eyes and pushed through the great padded doors, not unlike Mr. Dyer had only moments before. Klauss’s behavior toward me remained unchanged after the La Chasse incident, and I wondered if the evil twins had told him of my ill-fated dance with the ficus. Surely he would realize I was spying on him, that it was possible I now carried a dangerous secret, the implications of which were still uncertain. But he continued to shoot at me in his offhand way, to demand I make him copies of articles from the lobby issues of Rolling Stone, or to ignore me altogether. When I became curious, even obsessive about his arrangement with Mr. Dyer and started spying on him at work, I learned how simple it is to watch someone who holds you in utter disregard. I was like a tolerated fly in the room; as long as I didn’t land in anyone’s yogurt I would not be dispatched. Before meetings I noticed that Klauss was vocal, throwing suggestions out to the senior decorators and commenting rancorously on their work. But his demeanor changed when Mr. Dyer swung open the large glass doors to the conference room and plopped into the black swivel chair at the head of the long mahogany table. He became quiet, watchful. If his colleagues regarded Klauss a little skeptically, I think they swept the notion away like so many bagel crumbs; why shouldn’t they believe he had been a successful decorator Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien on the west coast and now assumed a consulting position here? He acted the part well. He was eccentric, trendy and confident to a fault. During meetings and work hours I watched Klauss traipse around the office in toreador pants and a matador hat, a flight jacket and goggles, Birkenstocks and knickers, and I noticed his easy friendliness with the evil twins, Lansky and DeNikers. He never worked overtime—he never worked a full week, for that matter—so when he stayed late one night this behavior blipped on my radar screen like an epileptic UFO. Of course I stayed, huddled in the corner of the small office I shared with three interns and two other “understudies,” as we came to be known. When I finally stood the pain in my cramped legs was nearly unbearable, but I remembered the ficus incident and made no sudden moves. I allowed the blood to seep back into my aching calves as my eyes adjusted to the dark. I was not worried in the least about being discovered; if anything, this type of erratic and inexplicable behavior seemed to endear designers to their superiors, provided they weren’t married to the senior partner’s daughter. Stepping easily into the hallway, my footsteps muffled by the tightly woven Berber carpet, I saw a wall of light emanating from the glass-walled conference room. The thought of Klauss simply gnawing on a bagel disappointed me greatly, but I moved forward in the dark, imagining myself a frightening specter, a vengeful goddess. If nothing else, this presented the opportunity to scare the toreador pants off him. As I neared the room I saw shadows darting off desks, walls and cabinets in the offices parallel to the conference room, and I thought he may have been exercising in there. But when I turned the corner into the hallway alongside the room and peered through the thick green glass, I saw Klauss sitting in Mr. Dyer’s leather chair at the head of the mahogany table, his face buried deeply into the huge



interior designs breasts of the woman who straddled him. She had dark hair, and for a moment I imagined she was Klauss’s wife, that they were fulfilling some rebellious desire to fornicate in her father’s power symbol. But when she threw back her head and lay it on the glossy table, her hair spread like a thick fan around her, I realized that those huge white breasts were attached to Vicky Lansky. Frozen, I watched as Klauss licked her stomach, and when she turned suddenly her right breast knocked off his matador hat. She was facing me then, and it wasn’t until she opened her eyes, smiled wickedly and yelled, “Hey, it’s Lucy,” that I realized I was standing too close to the glass. Lansky laughed, but the bullfighter turned white, and at that moment I did something that changed the course of my life: I stepped confidently into the conference room. “Does Mr. Dyer know about this?” I asked. Klauss looked stricken. “He has no problem with round-the-clock use of the conference room,” Lansky grinned slyly as she drew her red silk shirt over her breasts. “No, I mean about you two?” “What are you talking about?” Klauss asked weakly. “What does he care?” said Lansky, walking her toes along Klauss’s bare chest until he pulled away from her and fumbled for his hat under the table. He had unwittingly handed over the power then; when he looked up at me his eyes were two white flags. I slipped through the glass doors, down the hall and into the night like a bad dream. The next morning Klauss called me into his office. He was wearing a T-shirt with a tuxedo painted on the front and a top hat. “Please,” he said, “sit down. Would you like a bagel?” I shook my head. “What are you going to do?” he asked, and I was surprised by his candor. “The questions is,” I said, “what are you going to Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien do?” “What do you want?” he asked as if this was a familiar drill. “I want you to quit treating me like your personal secretary. I want you to push for better assignments for me during meetings. I want you to get me on Lansky’s cable show.” “You conniving little bitch,” he said. “I won’t do it, and you wanna know why? ‘Cause you’ll never go to Dyer. What does he care if his employees date? He’ll throw you to the dogs for starting trouble, you little shit. Get the hell out.” Certainly he’d caught me off guard, and I realized instantly why Mr. Dyer hated him. I had no immediate response to his refusal, but I smirked confidently and sauntered out of his penthouse office and back to my cubbyhole. I still held the trump card: Klauss wasn’t aware that I knew he was married to Dyer’s daughter. A week went by, during which Klauss appeared to be avoiding me. There were no requests for copies of articles about Fleetwood Mac’s triumphant return or the sighting of Elvis Presley at a New York Wendy’s. Klauss appeared, coincidentally, the same day I received a call from Eunice Krommer concerning an overhaul of her 34-room mansion in Bristol. She was so pleased with the work I’d done on her husband’s business that she wanted to give the account to Dyer & Bramble with the provision that I be promoted to consultant on the project. “I already called Mr. Dyer and insisted,” she said. “He said you were only a junior partner or some such poppycock, but I stood firm. I told him he could take a lesson or two from you on customer relations. I told him I would call Mr. Bramble if I had to.” Sure enough, Dyer called me into a meeting after lunch, and the interns and understudies gave me two thumbs up as I grabbed a notebook and exited my cubicle to follow



interior designs him out of our tiny office and through the heavy glass doors of the conference room. Everyone was already seated, and Klauss seemed particularly contemptuous in his Dallas Cowboys football jersey as he tapped his cleats on the white marble floor. “First order of business is a high profile residential redesign,” said Mr. Dyer. We’re looking at six figures here, and plenty of time and patience.” He rubbed his temples. “DeNikers?” “Who is it?” “Krommer.” “The ice cream nuts?” she said, dismissing them with a wave of her hand. “God knows they’ll want avocado kitchen appliances and shag carpeting. They’ll make us look bad.” “We give every customer what they want,” said Mr. Dyer, “especially those who want to redecorate to the tune of six figures.” He then turned to me. “Mrs. Krommer has asked that you be, um, involved in the project?” he asked, perhaps pitying me. I realized then that Mr. Dyer didn’t want to risk Eunice Krommer’s call to Mr. Bramble, that I wouldn’t have been there had he not planned to follow her directive. He was probably throwing bait to the other decorators before telling them they would be reporting to me, perhaps even deceiving them into believing I was already on board as a gopher, a secretary, a whipping boy. It was then that my plan came to me in its entirety. “Mrs. Krommer already called me,” I said, “and I thought Klauss, with his unique stylistic insight and understanding of the unusual, would be the perfect designer for the job.” Klauss just laughed until I said, “Maybe he could get Vicky to help him. I know they work well together.” Mr. Dyer narrowed his eyes as Klauss stared holes through me. Regarding Arts & Letters


o’brien “What do you think, Klauss?” I said. “There might be some late night conferences, but I think you can handle that.” I smiled and turned to Mr. Dyer, who must have sensed I was wielding some sort of power over his opportunistic son-in-law. “Well?” I said to Klauss. “Your call.” He stared a while longer before shrugging. “I guess,” he said. Mr. Dyer, whose eyes widened, was apparently shocked that Klauss had actually accepted an assignment, and a loathsome one at that. Certainly he suspected foul play then, but didn’t let on. “All right,” said Mr. Dyer as he scribbled across the dry erase board on the table before him, “Poole and Wilms on the Krommer account with Matthews as consultant.” A small gasp worked its way through the room. “She’s worked with them before,” said Mr. Dyer, whose tone suggested his decision was not negotiable. Octavio Poole, a talented but passive senior decorator, let out a small groan at the news of being saddled with the Krommers, but Klauss tilted his chair back and stared at the ceiling, perhaps wondering if Mr. Dyer and I were in league against him. Already I had visions of the entire Krommer overhaul being featured on Lansky’s cable show. We met with the Krommers the following morning, and as Klauss entered the conference room with a tray of whole-wheat bagels, Eunice Krommer let out a pained cry. “Young man,” she said, “we do not eat ice cream, and we do not eat bagels.” “Of course,” said Klauss, backing slowly from the room. When he returned she seemed to have forgotten he’d been there earlier. “Young man,” she said, “that is a fetching sombrero.” Klauss nodded, and Mr. Krommer promptly spread



interior designs a blueprint of his four-story, 38,000-square foot mansion across the table. “We’re gonna tear her down, and we’re gonna build ‘er back up,” he said, bouncing his index finger on the paper. “Ah,” said Klauss. “But don’t worry,” added Mrs. Krommer, who mistook his dread for anxiety, “Ms. Matthews will answer all of your questions. She knows our style. She’ll tell you exactly what to do.” She winked at me, and I turned to Klauss. “I’ll need several copies of that blueprint,” I said offhandedly, and the disgruntled gringo smiled as he shot his finger at me, blew on the tip and shoved it into the pocket of his faded poncho.

Regarding Arts & Letters


echo chamber

john sibley williams —for my mother

My back against the flat field. All the arms I have ever known constellate around me, countable and temporary stars that only shine when staring into the darkness around them. There is a reason I am here waiting for the grass to consume me, cradled by your hands your light yet even this intimacy is called remoteness. * No conversation between planets, just a silent pull a silent push which mean the same thing when orbiting a body that is not there. * And heaven were it any different than waiting in a field for the absent to return and hell were it any different; there is a reason you are here cradled by my hands my light— the dead still have too much to lose. 150


forbidden travel

john sibley williams

The lawn is the same but has forgotten my toes, my nakedness, a dog for the chain still wound around our maple. Bowed roof and black creases of wall and a missing word for home that once lightened even nightmared corners. I have lost maturity’s detachment. I fear the distances I’ve traveled, what has changed and could be gained from return. And I want again for all impossible things, like the lessons of stars, the immediacy of embrace, the simplest words embedded in gesture. I want again for all impossible unsullied things, like a fistful of stars, a fistful of meaningful stars, an impossible destination to warm their bodies. A reliable compass made of broken arms. Regarding Arts & Letters


dream fragment #182

john sibley williams

Morning birds flatten into morning glass like planes run flush with buildings. They must see some sun reflected in it, some map that ends beyond the page. * Light breaks into song against the unparted curtains, crusting the smears on the window brown. There’s the sound of gurneys wheeling skyward, a view being cleansed. The world is perfect * by the time I wake from a dream I journal in lieu of having to remember. Something to do with knocking, I think. All I have written is someone outside implores me to enter.




john sibley williams

Deer have begun to chew up wildflowers again in the bombed out field crusted in mountains where we prepare the story that will be told from now on. As I am still here I must be the hero. And that old woman who’s made shrine of a buckled church wall and hangs gold lockets around each candle and won’t allow the fires dim. And the deer. The flowers. Their wildness. Everything that still grows toward the sun. We are the hinge of the door presented mid-story the reader must pass through to know the end. We are not the end. We are still learning tomorrow, still composing the past. Where rain bloats the unburied bodies of children and soldiers, we say cairn. When the snow comes, as it must, we’ll say something else. This morning the fields are burning poppies and hibiscus and it doesn’t matter how the story began. Bashō wrote, The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers. But, sir, these are our flowers, our corruptible temple. We can only try our best to contain the echo.

Regarding Arts & Letters


the darkness that surrounds the light

pr Griffis

Two days before his death—liver failing, skin the color of a basketball—on his literal deathbed, my father asked me if there was anything of his I wanted. I wanted to be a photographer. I also wanted for him not to die, but there didn’t seem to be much helping that. “Your camera,” I said. “I’d like that, and your lenses.” “What about your grandfather’s Purple Heart?” My grandfather fought in World War II, a private in an artillery unit in the Army’s 36th Division, making their way from North Africa up through Italy, and he was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries resulting from driving his jeep down a road into a ravine where a bridge was supposed to be, but wasn’t anymore, maybe courtesy of bomber planes, or maybe courtesy of his own unit’s artillery. I knew he’d been awarded a Purple Heart for this, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the actual thing, the medal that came along with the commendation for injury in the line of duty in a combat theater during wartime, the physical manifestation of the commendation, itself a signifier for an injured back that didn’t heal, might still be extant, locatable. “Of course,” I said. “Yes.” “What about his shotgun?” My grandfather died when I was young, and I didn’t meet my father until a few years after that, when I was twelve. My father didn’t talk much about his father, and I didn’t think to ask, and there were thus gaps you could drive a truck through in my patrilineal knowledge. I hadn’t known there was a shotgun, although it stood to reason there would be. We are from Texas, me and my father and his father and his father before, a land taken at gunpoint (Remember the Alamo), land of the Texas Rangers of Lonesome Dove fame (One riot, one Ranger), land described more recently, more



apocalyptically (more truthfully, probably) in Blood Meridian. A land, that is to say, where a kind of afterimage pervades, one of vastly outnumbered white men and their guns. This is the land where in 1966, lone ex-Marine Charles Whitman climbed the UT clocktower and began raining down death on the noontime crowds at the UT campus and surrounds, the treelined paths that radiate outward from the clocktower acting as sniper alleys. This is the land where some people in that noontime throng (one imagines they were men) went to their vehicles (one imagines they were trucks) and came back with rifles and returned fire, pocking the underside of the tower’s observation deck. Arguments have been made as to whether this saved lives or furthered the confusion. This is the land where a couple of civilians joined the police in their ascent up the stairs. The ultimate right-tocarry fantasy, one where the potentiality of the just-in-case firearm’s raison d’être is actualized. This is the land where some of my most enlightened, intelligent friends hunt deer and dove, speak of deer leases, blinds and buckshot, rifles and shotguns no more or less indispensable tools than are the snow shovel and ice scraper I keep in the garage at my home in Northeastern Connecticut, unconsidered until it is time to use them, until their season comes to pass. This is the land, that is to say, where there exists a kind of irreconcilable schism that goes through my very middle, one where guns are simultaneously tools and deadly weapons, where guns are the problem and not the problem. I am from a land where I both understand and am comfortable with and around guns and understand the alarming statistics concerning guns and violence and the way they’re intertwined. I cannot, have not been able, to reconcile this. I hadn’t wanted my grandfather’s Purple Heart because I Regarding Arts & Letters


griffis hadn’t known there was a Purple Heart to want. I hadn’t wanted my grandfather’s shotgun for this same reason. But unlike with the Purple Heart, there was pause, hesitation. Once I learned of the shotgun’s existence, I had questions: How old was it, this shotgun? Could it fire? Would I want it to? Part of this uncertainty came from the fact that despite being from Texas, despite growing up around guns and men with guns, despite spending four years in the Army, handling, firing, disassembling and reassembling automatic rifles, I had somehow made it to thirty-eight years old without ever owning a firearm. Not one, ever. BB guns, yes, but never per se firearms. Which is curious, when I started thinking about it, to have spent so much of my life around guns and never actually owning one. An odd piece of happenstance, and maybe fortunate. There were years where had I a gun, I might have pawned it; there were years where had I a gun I might have done worse things with it. The question too, then, was one of utility. Of what use might this shotgun be to me? For my father, who had probably ceased tramping into the untamed places in the predawn dark to shoot things in his teens, my grandfather’s shotgun was the shotgun he might first have fired—the concussive punch in the shoulder that jolts one into manhood—possibly the first one with which he took aim, heart in throat, and fired into a rising arc or spray of duck or dove. This shotgun, even if never again fired, was his father’s shotgun, and thus as with the Purple Heart—a burnished gold color, heavier than I’d imagined it would be—there was sentiment attached to it, utility outside of practical function. But a Purple Heart is small, can be filed away. A Purple Heart is inert, harmless unless swallowed. A shotgun may be an heirloom, as my father’s camera was an heirloom—imbued with meaning past its utility—but it



the darkness that surrounds the light is more, as a camera is more. A shotgun is built to serve a utilitarian function, as is a camera, both of them different in this way from the Purple Heart, which is a kind of abstraction, a signifier of an event. Part of this pause, this question, had to do with that utilitarian function, the implications thereof. Guns, as my wife notes, are only built to kill. Which, yes. Five hundred years of technological advance have been put towards the manufacture of personal firearms to be more accurate at greater range, more dependable in their firing, more reliable in their lethality. Part of this pause came from the long-ago words of a musician friend of mine, who told me, “people like us, you and me, we shouldn’t keep guns around.” And yes, statistically, a gun in the house is more likely to injure oneself or a loved one than anything you might be protecting yourself against. Something, maybe, like not wearing a seatbelt as insurance against being trapped in a burning car, leaving yourself prey to the far more likely collision that smashes you against the wheel or flings you through the windshield. And of course, of the thirty-some thousand deaths by firearm every year in the US, the vast majority are suicides. I didn’t grow up with my father, but I grew up where he grew up, in Small Town Texas; I grew up around people who had guns, who hunted and fished and trapped and skinned and sold and ate what they killed. I grew up around people who hunted feral hogs from the backs of trucks, people who came to school with a shotgun behind the seat of their truck in the parking lot, for the drug dog to sniff out, to bark on. “Why did you have a shotgun and shells in your truck?” the K-9 officer would ask The Suspect, the officer down from Dallas, maybe, and used to gang shootings, pistols and ounces of weed, half ki’s of coke in students’ lockers. Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis Mind, late ’80’s Small Town Texas was a place where, in the fall, the Future Farmers of America would sell orders for boxes of citrus fruit, jars of honey, bags of pecans. For really outstanding salesman, the top prize was one’s choice of a .22 rifle or twelve gauge shotgun. In late ’80’s Small Town Texas, nobody gave the negative implications thereof much thought. “Dove season,” the suspect would say, baffled, gone hunting before school that morning, and running short on time to make it back to the house. Shrugging to say, I had a shotgun and a box of shells behind the bench seat in my unlocked truck. What’s the big deal? My stepfather’s gun cabinet, with his twelve gauge and .30-06 and WWII-era M1 Carbine rifle complete with bayonet, was always locked, but my brother and I knew where he kept the key. I first shot that twelve gauge when I was eight or nine years old, an impromptu skeet shoot in some farmer’s field, my stepfather presenting the shotgun to me, showing me how to hold it, how to seat it in the crease between chest and arm, the shotgun longer than I was tall, a case of clay pigeons there in the fresh-tilled soil, the gray sky and a stand of scraggly Hackberries clawing the horizon. I remember the punch of the poorly-seated shotgun into my shoulder, the whiteout noise of the shotgun’s firing, as if all the world had been sucked up into a single point and exploded, the sensation of my feet leaving the ground, the soft thud of my back against the moist soil, holding the shotgun still, not letting it hit the ground, somehow understanding without being told that as with an American flag, there was nothing was worse than letting a gun come into contact with the ground. I remember the smell of gunpowder, that stink of smoke and sulfur, the buzz that went throughout my body. Almost everyone I know back in Texas is no more than a degree of remove, generationally or relationally, from



the darkness that surrounds the light photos of men and yes, women, at a deer lease, people standing around in their camouflage coveralls, cans of Pearl and Lone Star beer in hand, rifles slung over shoulders, semicircled ‘round a buck or doe hung by his or her heels, suspended from a tree branch. The guest of honor, in a way, the raison d’etre. I wanted to be in those photos when I was a kid, or imagined that I some day would be, that it would somehow come to pass, but it never did. I had no one to take me hunting at the age when one is taken hunting, inducted into the cult of manhood thereby, and it no longer occurred to me to do so at the age when one goes hunting of one’s own accord. I came of age in the late eighties, the early nineties, in a world populated with people going postal, a world haunted by the specters of crack and AIDS, a world where the demonic influence of rock music was eclipsed by the looming menace of gangster rap, a hyperrealized, hyperbolized aural world suffused with Trey-Eights, Tec-9’s, Mac-10’s, AK’s, and Uzi’s firing every which way, with brothers pulling off hoo-rides and drive-bys, with the LAPD and various other police departments slowly changing from the sartorial protect and serve light blue shirt and dark blue trousers, their only physical protection the emblem of office upon their chest, a revolver and Maglite, to the current iteration, whatever we call this, the menace of the blacked-out or killer whalepattered squad car, the thirty pounds of gear, SWAT fatigues, a bullet-proof vest on at all times. This sea change is not wholly abstraction, fortification in response to nothing, but I often wonder to what degree it reflects and to what degree it brings into being the violence it’s meant to protect its wearer against. Going Postal has fallen into disuse, and we haven’t found an acceptable euphemism for loading up with Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis semiautomatics and taking out a half dozen people. We’re still convinced, probably, that these are aberrations. We have to, probably. No matter how many times it happens, no matter what pattern might emerge, we will—we must—continue to see this as abnormal, isolated. Maybe this is how we maintain the unimaginable in its unimaginability. And granted, statistically, you’re more likely to be killed when your plane falls from the sky into the ocean where you’re eaten by a shark than you are to be the victim of a mass shooting. If you’re going to be shot, statistically, it’s far more likely that you or someone you know will be the shooter. I had a BB gun by the time I was in first grade. About the same time I got my first recurve bow. It seems incredible to me now that I could go to Kmart and buy target arrows at five, six years of age. But back then, I could also walk into a convenience store and buy a pack of Merits for my mom and/or stepdad if they didn’t feel like getting out of the car or leaving the house. We played army. We played with army men, and we played with GI Joes, and we had BB gun wars, where the rule was you could only pump your air rifle once and not shoot in the face. But one pump, depending on the distance, was generally insufficient. And if the face was all that a person provided you to shoot at, then what was one to do? We dressed in fatigues and hiked along creekbeds with BB guns and machetes and imagined ourselves as some kind of crack commando team on a long-range infiltration in enemy territory. The farmers and ranchers whose land we tramped through, we heard, had shot at people before, their shotguns loaded with rock salt. Nobody we knew had been shot at, much less shot, but it added a level of tension. I wanted a pistol I thought my father had, but I didn’t want



the darkness that surrounds the light to seem grabby or greedy or overly specific, as if I had been cataloguing his worldly goods before his departure. This pistol was one he’d told me about, one that he’d accidentally fired in his garage while drunk, marveling at the size of the hole it made in the garage door. I wanted it. My wife didn’t want guns in the house. And her argument—guns are only good for killing, and killing is bad, and thus guns are only good at bad—was pretty airtight. Why did I want guns in the house? The shotgun, which was an antique, and which I would be afraid to fire, and which I didn’t want but felt I had to take, I could pass off as a family heirloom. The pistol, though, which my father had picked up in the last few years before his death, had no familial-emotional attachment I could claim. What then? Maybe it was as simple as this: it is small, it is compact, it is death, and I want that. I couldn’t buy a gun, couldn’t bring one into my house in that way, but if it was a bequeathment from my father, then I could hardly refuse it, could I? My brother’s kids have pictures up on Facebook of themselves engaged in the life that missed me, that I somehow slipped out of when my stepfather left and took my brother before I turned twelve, as if when my stepfather left, he took with him the possibility of one kind of life with guns. There are photos of them, my nephews, posing with dead animals that they have brought death upon, fish mostly, some deer, ducks. My brother, his father’s son, is an avid collector of all sorts of firearms, mostly of the large caliber and high rate-offire variety, and there are photos of my nephews posing with assault rifles and shotguns, shit-eating grins on their faces of the sort I would have had at their age were I so fortunate as to get to run clips of 7.62mm through an AK-47 just like Rambo used in First Blood: Part II when he fought the entire Vietnamese Army and the Russian Special Forces. Regarding Arts & Letters


griffis The last time I was back in Texas visiting, one of my nephews asked me, “What was it like the first time you killed a deer?” I told my nephew, my brother’s son, that I had never killed a deer, and he goggled at me in disbelief. “What about other large game? What about waterfowl? Dove?” Each time I shook my head, he grew more incredulous. He just couldn’t believe it. And the more incredulous he became, the stranger it seemed, his reality overshadowing mine. How had I managed never to kill a deer, a duck, a dove, a rabbit, even? When I was ten, I aimed my BB gun at a nondescript bird on a power line and pulled the trigger. When it fell, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t. As with so many times before and after that moment, I hadn’t considered what the consequences of my action might be. It felt like a betrayal on the bird’s part. I have seen a man pretty gone on methamphetamine and Budweiser point a .357 magnum at his teenage brother’s head, tell him to put the barrel in his mouth, tell him he was going to pull the trigger. The man called his .357 “Maggie,” as in, “put your mouth on Maggie.” I have been in the truck with another man, also far gone on methamphetamine, who responded to a near-miss traffic accident in the early dawn hours, a near-accident that was the result of his graying out and running a stop sign, by pulling a rusty pistol from a paper bag and walking out towards the other person’s car, pointing it at the other driver and screaming incoherently. I hadn’t known that there was a rusty pistol in the paper bag there on the seat next to him until it was in his hand and he was out the door. I know people who have shot up other people’s cars. I have fired a friend’s handgun out the window of a



the darkness that surrounds the light moving car on a highway on the way home from a bar, not particularly concerned with where the bullets might hit. I have had a man point a pistol at me—a .22, to be fair—and tell me he was going to pull the trigger. I have woken up mornings or afternoons sick with regret, with terror, with the crawling nausea of what might have happened. It all, most of it, seemed very normal in the moment. A girlfriend and I stayed with a friend of hers at a cabin near the Canadian border, fairly remote and deeply wooded. The friend’s brother came along, and brought his AR-15 and twelve gauge. The friend was afraid of her brother’s rifle. “He gets drunk and he wants to shoot it, and he isn’t safe with it and it scares me,” she said. Saying, in essence, I am afraid he is going to hurt himself or someone else. Being deeply versed in the workings of the AR-15, apropos of my time in the Army (the AR-15 only a semiautomatic version of the M-16 that was then the standard issue rifle for the US Army), I removed the firing pin, fairly certain that the brother wouldn’t know how to take apart the bolt assembly to discover its absence. I handed the firing pin to the friend. Here, I said. He won’t be firing that rifle unless you want him to. I felt very gallant in doing so, knowledgeable and gallant. Later that night, into the morning after, having stayed up drinking alone until dawn, I wandered out into the deeply underbrushed woods with the twelve gauge. It had been some time since I’d fired a shotgun, felt that kick in my shoulder, had my eardrums punched in by the shotgun’s percussion. Too long, I think I thought. I thought there might be something to kill. I would have had difficulty navigating a paved road at that point in the fuzzy morning, and yet I tramped off into the thick underbrush with a loaded shotgun. When I fell, first dropping the shotgun and then tangling myself up with Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis it, I felt a searing sense of clarity, a scald of adrenaline that sobered me right up. Had the shotgun fired, and had the barrel’s discharge hit me—was it loaded with buckshot? Slugs? I didn’t know—I almost certainly would have bled out before I could get help. Another morning, another afternoon, filled with sick revulsion, with apocalyptic visions of what might have been. Another time where I was lucky, stupid and lucky. Part of it, my desire to have a handgun, my desire to have a handgun and a shotgun and a clip-fed assault rifle and enough ammunition to stand me good for some time, is fear. Not fear of people, or of governments, but fear of the unknown, the knowledge that when you need a gun and do not have one, the probability of getting one is fairly low. The crumbling of the social fabric, say. Zombies. An electromagnetic pulse. Peak oil. Drought. Any of the other apocalyptic horsemen that might come galloping down upon us at any time. Nothing begets fear, of course, like fear. I’ve taken many pictures with my father’s Nikon F2, a manual film camera that was top-of-the-line in the early to mid-eighties. It is clean and cold and metal and inert, and responds with precision. You load the magazine, film instead of bullets, frames instead of rounds, you advance the film as you would lever a round into place, you sight in, through the lens as with a scope, breathing slowly, index finger pressing until the point is reached where pressure enacts the firing mechanism—an aperture opening, letting light in, and closing—the time it takes measured in hundredths of seconds, a chemical reaction taking place, light hitting film, as when firing pin strikes primer, igniting the powder. It is a beautiful thing, my father’s camera, which is now my camera. Weighty, purposeful, made only to do the



the darkness that surrounds the light thing that it is meant to do, and to do that thing exactly, reliably, precisely. It is an inverse to the firearm, letting in light instead of sending it out, chemical reaction taking place as result of instead of preparatory to. And far fewer people, of course, die from having their picture taken. The act itself, at least, takes nothing away that isn’t irreparable, generally speaking, in its capturing of light reflected off of some or several objects. But yet, we take pictures. We try to get the shot. We shoot rolls of film. We aim our cameras. We, some of us, go on photo safari. We, many of us, feel that a vacation where we do not return with indelible proof of our having been there is a vacation that didn’t happen, a photograph maybe more like a Purple Heart in terms of proof than is a cape buffalo’s hide, a ram’s head, a grizzly bear’s pelt, a hundred pounds of venison or boar, if not the injury from which the Purple Heart results. There is something unequivocal about a gun. Maybe that’s what it is. It isn’t this thing or that thing, it is only itself, and that self is the efficient and blunt administration of death. It isn’t as with a knife, where you might stab someone with it or shave kindling for a fire or slice a rope or gently dismember yourself when pinioned under a rock in the Utah desert. It seems unlikely that one could shoot one’s limb off and make it to safety. In graduate school, I wrote bullshit stories that took place in Small Town Texas, and I peopled these stories with hardbitten fuck-ups who talked the way I thought people believed Texans talked, and they acted largely the way I thought people might believe Small Town Texans acted. They were all reluctantly bad people with guns, whom selfknowledge availed nothing, and many of these stories ended badly. My wife suggested that it was too easy to kill off Regarding Arts & Letters


griffis one’s characters. Having to live with the consequences of your actions, she suggested, was much more profound. Killing a character off is an easy way to end a story, much simpler and neater than showing someone living with the consequences of their actions. That takes skill, and imagination, and nuance, none of which I had any too great reserves of back when I was writing stories about Small Town Texas fuck-ups with guns killing one another, or otherwise solving their problems with firearms. My grandmother’s grandfather killed himself after Sunday dinner one afternoon in 1929, one of those few non-apocryphal tales of losing everything in the depression, including one’s life. In my grandmother’s telling—she would have been three years old—he used a shotgun. A kid I knew briefly and not well, a high school transfer to Small Town Texas from some other town, a kid who probably had problems, took his own head off, or most of it, also with a shotgun. My friend’s mother, who’d grown up with the kid’s mom in that same Small Texas Town, went to clean the place up, after. I’m guessing that she was the source of what quickly became widespread causal lore, about how the tape in the VHS player was either Ozzy Osbourne or Mötley Crüe, or maybe Judas Priest. I disremember which, now. It wasn’t until years later that I thought about what that might have been like, cleaning the remains of a human head off of the walls of a living room, thinking further that this was probably more important than what the kid might have been watching on the TV before he ended his life. I was two months sober when a dude I never met took his own face off with a shotgun, a dude who had tried for years and failed to get sober and stay that way. Some of my sober friends suggested that I go to the funeral, that that was what we did. After the funeral, some people suggested that The Guy had done the rest of us a real solid, a service,



the darkness that surrounds the light by showing us what happens if you don’t stay sober. One of the hardbitten old timers of the group cut this line off, saying, he wasn’t thinking about any of you motherfuckers, and he wasn’t thinking about being of service to anybody, but I can more or less guarantee that he wasn’t sober when he pulled the trigger, for what that’s worth. That last part has stayed with me. The 36th Division, in which my grandfather served, is the unit where Audie Murphy, war hero cum movie star, served. Audie Murphy, of the many medals for valor. My grandfather received his Purple Heart for driving his jeep over a bridge that was no longer there. On the maps, it still existed. In blackout driving, he couldn’t tell the difference. The map said there was a bridge, but there wasn’t a bridge. He tried and failed for years to receive some compensation for the back that didn’t heal right, but there was insufficient evidence of injury. Except, of course, for the Purple Heart, which my father bequeathed me on his deathbed, along with his camera and his father’s shotgun. We had a semi-clandestine clubhouse in a stand of trees when we were in junior high, for which we pilfered supplies from neighboring barns. In one of them, we found barbed wire, and so—being adherents of BB guns, camouflage fatigues, and war movies, we strung it loose like concertina along the ground around it, our clubhouse become a fortification, from which we get fort. In the dark, at night, was the reasoning, no one will be able to sneak up on us. I don’t know who we thought would. These are the precautions we take against the things that mostly exist in our imagination. It wasn’t more than a few months before we started using our clandestine fort as a clandestine drinking spot. The barbed wire was removed fairly shortly thereafter. Untangling Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis a twelve-year-old from barbed wire in the dark while intoxicated—all of us—is no fun. We didn’t have firearms then, which is probably good. Years back, when I was still living dirty, I went with some friends to a shooting range. It was one of the friends’ birthdays. The shooting range rented guns, and this is what the friend whose birthday it was wanted to do, shoot rented guns at paper targets. Everyone, by the time we got there, was a little buzzed, a little stoned. Birthday Boy, let’s call him, having grown up in a world of guns based on TV and film, wanted to shoot a Glock nine and an AR-15. I tried to steer him towards the shorter-barreled, higher-caliber items. The Glock and AR, I assured him, would be about as much fun to shoot as hammering nails in wood. The .357 snub, the .38, these would kick and make noise, the visceral shit that I, at least, have always found most compelling about target shooting. The difference between, maybe, riding a carousel horse and a bucking bull. Birthday Boy, flush with cash, decided on both the Glock nine and a short-barreled semi-auto of respectable caliber. We put down our ID’s and bought the rounds and took them and the handguns—there were no assault rifles for rent that day—to the subterranean concrete range, where we clipped paper targets to overhead wires and sent them out with a switch’s flip. There were five of us, I think, and it became evident that no one, none of the mid-to-late twenties white males there, all of whom except me were the product of relatively tony suburban upbringings, private school or just far enough out from city center to obviate the need for it, none of these young white males had ever fired a handgun before. They didn’t know where to point and where not to point the barrel’s end. They didn’t know where the safety lever was. They couldn’t load a magazine. “Here,” I said. “Safety is on. Always pointed



the darkness that surrounds the light downrange or at the ground. Never at anything you don’t plan to shoot. Never at people, for instance.” I showed them how to load a magazine. “You press the rounds into the magazine like so. You don’t force it.” I took the handgun in my left hand, finger alongside rather than in the trigger guard. Not touching the trigger until I was ready to fire. Old habits die hard, the failsafes on top of failsafes. I pulled the slide to the rear, let it lock open, slapped the magazine into the handle, which actuated the slide forward, chambering a round. There is something about that sound, like the sound of a pump shotgun’s levering of a shell into the chamber. It draws the attention, and it drew the attention of the somewhat-stoned, slightly-buzzed suburban kids. Their eyes went wide, their mouths slack. “Now,” I said, holding the loaded pistol in my hand, feeling its heft, “what you’ve got is a loaded pistol, ready to fire.” This is death, I wanted to impress upon them, and maybe upon myself. One of the other suburban kids there, whom I’d known longer and better than the others, I was eventually taken in by his family, adopted, a surrogate son. We children of fractured families have a certain essence about us that intact families can sense, some vacuum in us that draws them right in. This friend of mine’s father, my surrogate father, started collecting firearms for protection a few years back, a magazine-fed twelve gauge with an LED strobe light attached to the muzzle among them. The strobe was meant to temporarily blind and/or disorient intruders as you prepared to shoot them, a tactical advantage called, I believe, a stunner. When I was a kid, NRA meant gun hunter’s safety. Learning how firearms worked—rifles and shotguns, muzzleloaders and bolt-action, how to safely traverse a fence with Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis a loaded rifle, how to clean a rifle or shotgun. It was a prerequisite, then, of getting a hunting license in Texas, a preparatory act for enacting manhood. This friend of mine’s dad, my surrogate dad, goes to NRA conventions and gun shows now, and poses with .50 caliber sniper rifles, his NRA cap turned backwards, sighting through the scope, some Fox News-inspired boogeyman in the crosshairs of his mind’s eye. The last time my wife and I were down there, she whispered to me, “I think he’s packing. Like, I think he has a gun in his front pocket.” “No,” I said, less to allay her fear than to negate my own. “I don’t think he’d do that, carry a pistol around loose in his front pocket.” But I was wrong. He was carrying a pistol around, loose, in his front pocket. Not holstered, and not in his belt, but loose in his pocket. When not in the pocket of his pressed khakis, he kept it on the kitchen counter, next to his wallet. The reason, in part, why he started tooling up was because someone had walked into the house one day and taken his wallet off the counter, removing the cash and dropping the wallet with everything else still in it in the front yard. So he got an alarm system, and he started locking the doors, then he bought a shotgun, and a handgun, which he kept right there next to that same wallet that had been stolen off that same counter, alongside his loose change and car keys. He’s a large man, my friend’s father, my surrogate father, a physically imposing presence who hasn’t seen to his health, and after burying almost all my birth family, I’ve developed a sense for these things. At least, when my friend texts to ask if I’m free to talk for a couple of minutes, I figure that I am about to book a flight to attend a funeral. Can you talk. One minute. Oh shit.



the darkness that surrounds the light “He shot himself,” my friend said when I called. Gun in pocket, loose, I was thinking. Femoral artery, bleed out. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but he’s in surgery, and they don’t know if they’re going to be able to save his finger.” The drum-fed semi-automatic shotgun with the stunner light on the front, the hand cannon in his pocket, these were means to defend him and his against Them. And in so doing, he became a statistic. They were unable to save his finger. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why this wasn’t me, a dozen times over, why a bullet found him instead of me, except for stupid luck and the probability formula of proximity over frequency. A few months after my stepfather left, when I was twelve, my mother left. I moved in with my father’s mother, my grandmother. I saw Red Dawn around this time, and the idea that an invasion was something important to prepare for took hold. The Russians might come at any time. I began leaving my backpack in the carport, in the rear of the house, ready to go. Two or three days worth of food—Spaghetti-O’s and Dinty Moore Beef Stew—a P-38 folding can opener of the sort that used to come with C Rations, a tube of BB’s for my BB gun, my survival knife with the compass in the handle along with fishing line and fishing hooks and fishing weights and a foldable wire saw, my fatigues and my boots, a two liter bottle of water, some waterproof matches, beef jerky, a dozen yards of paracord, a guitar string (piano wire was good, as I understood it from army movies, for garroting sentries, and I figured that if one didn’t have access to a piano wire, a guitar string would do), and other items since lost to time and damaged memory. I kept this backpack out in the carport at my Regarding Arts & Letters





griffis grandmother’s house, there next to my three-wheeler, and kept the front door locked, always. My thought was that I could make it out the back door and be gone before anyone could catch me. I thought I was trying to save myself from Russians, but it became apparent later that I was protecting myself, staying vigilant against, the return of my mother, that that was who I kept the door locked against, who I kept the backpack ready to go for. This was the thing for which I had prepared, for which I maintained a sense of preparedness. It took years for me to understand this, and to understand further that she was never going to return, and whatever mental energy I’d spent dreading and preparing for this ever-unrealized eventuality was maybe not wholly ridiculous, but at least wasted. If we’re lucky, maybe, the things we prepare for that never come do us no more harm than wasted effort. If we’re lucky, the preparations we make, the things with which we prepare, do not turn in our hands, do not turn against us. Or others. I could not have prepared for my father’s death, as much as I tried to do so in the years leading up to it. I could not have prepared for the legacy bequeathed me. A dislocated proof of injuries suffered. A means for injuring self or others, inflicting death. A way to record it all, the brutal and the beautiful, the connections made and the way everything breaks apart, finally. The Purple Heart forgotten in a dresser drawer, the camera with me now always, the shotgun in its case, in a closet, at a friend’s house far away, in a town I haven’t been back to in years.



dialectic for the down and deconstructed

k.v. skene

So you navigate that syllogistic side street through the unspeakable hours, idealize its syntaxsplitting fecklessness that may/ may not, initiate a grammatology of addiction, of legally and/or illegally acquired indulgences and the fragmentation of logic where all is lost as is the audience and a cold moon rolls over a jet, high on its own thunder, tracking a semiotic sun, compromising the opacous air of a nihilistic night. This disjunction of dialogue, trivialization of taxonomies, of tautology in our zeitgeist of sound bites is synchronous with an a priori December overdose of stars and promises.

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mad uncle

matthew j. spireng

It wasn’t the rumors of what he’d done or had been done to him—disappear for days and then return, a mink or ring Aunt Lou’s reward for never asking where or why; time locked up, shock treatments bringing him back to our ways—that made him mad in my mind. Nor was it the hundred games in a row he bowled for no good reason other than that he started and couldn’t stop that caused me at ten to think him mad. Nor did his swimming beyond the breakwater for hours even in the rain bring his madness home. It was instead that wild look in his eyes, as if focused always slightly beyond where I was, somewhere even he should doubt.



crescent moon, venus, jupiter

matthew j. spireng

Last night a crescent moon on its back and the two bright planets aligned such that the moon appeared as if a flag flown on a staff lit at the top and bottom. I could draw it for you easily: planets vertically stacked as if Jupiter were the base, Venus high above and the crescent moon on its back just below and to the left of Venus as if a sickle flag blown out in the wind. It was cold and clear and dark, though the moon and two planets seemed the only lights in the sky. I could draw it for you: black ink on white paper a negative image of what I saw. Two bright swollen planets there in the sky flying the crescent moon.

Regarding Arts & Letters



susan ayres

Her teeth bleached white as the crisp linen table cloth, bite into the Alaskan sushi roll flecked with sesame. Outside, it threatens to rain. Clouds fly, as brown pelicans torpedo the water. Fishermen catch nothing in their nets. The tips of coconuts, hairy brown, look white swaying against the sky. Cicadas drone a white noise, she smiles her linen white pretties. We eat, oblivious to the odds that in less than a decade, our unrelated daughters will crack that luminous shell of sanity.



the fig

susan ayres

Suckled under a fig tree, the first child, cheeks glowing with honey-sweet meat brow smooth against purple lashes fluttering suckled under a fig tree. Milky ripeness under tough green leaves, bursting with honey-sweet meat. Her body unmoored from time or season, enslaved to the child who greedy suckled under a fig tree. Her heavy breasts vein-crossed like figs sap-leaking with honey-sweet meat. It could be a drawing by DaVinci St. Anne smiles, as the Virgin suckles under a fig tree honey-sweet meat.

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purple jesus

Clark knowles

Once, just after I turned eleven, my brother Randy led me to the train tracks behind the old mattress factory, where he was meeting his friends. Most kids just drink beer, he told me as we cut across Park Street and down the path into the woods. Or, he said, if they’re ambitious, they mix together some crap from their parent’s liquor cabinets and call it Jungle Juice or Mexican Champagne. His tone indicated that this unseemly alcohol consumption was suitable only for children. His mature concoction, mixed in our basement under a shroud of secrecy and poured into an empty twoliter soda bottle, was of a higher caliber. The bottle sloshed in his bag. The path emptied into the parking lot of the abandoned factory. The windows were sealed with graffiti covered plywood. Just opposite was the city yard where men in yellow trucks sat smoking cigarettes. Randy took us around the building and through a hole in the fence. We pushed our way through the weeds and up the embankment to the tracks. While we waited, Randy let me try his drink, which he called Purple Jesus. It burned from my lips to my stomach. Smooth, right? Randy said.I nodded. Go ahead, he said, have a little more. I took three big swallows before he stopped me. Don’t be greedy, he said. He kicked a pile of gravel and the rocks pinged against the railroad ties. He swirled the drink inside the container and tolerated my presence until his friends arrived. They walked away from the mattress factory and toward the malls, a clump of ratty black concert t-shirts and stringy hair. What about me, I said. Get lost, Randy said. He left me stranded in the weeds, abandoned, betrayed even, but my initial resentment was replaced by an electric readiness and a sense that all the disconnected pieces of the world were suddenly aligning. How long did I stand



alone? Long enough to perceive patterns in the flight of the insects,to notice the geometric swirl of the tall grasses and the rigid scaffolding of ragweed and the cautionary thorns of the beach rose. How had I missed such succinct beauty for so long? My skin registered even the slightest shifting breezes, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck acting as antenna that captured the thrumming aliveness of my surroundings. The afternoon freight arrived in a heady, swirling rumble, its vibrations rising up through my Chucks, a blast of noise and wind and steel and diesel, each car brightly painted, the lettering precise, a marvel of mechanics, and roared down the tracks in the same direction my brother had gone. I stared at the caboose until it vanished beyond a bend. Never had I been so sure of the perfection of the universe. The insects were enlivened by the silence and filled the air: bees and flies and gnats and ladybugs. A school of purple and blue dragonflies, bathed by a pure afternoon sunlight, streamed along the rails as if chasing the train: a clear, bright moment. I set off after those dragonflies, my feet floating over the ties, unhinged from gravity. Twenty-four years later, in the J.R. Lasman Middle School parking lot, that freedom was long gone. My elevenyear-old daughter, Jenny, was inside with her mother, my exwife Marilyn. They wouldn’t have expected, nor wanted my attendance at the sixth grade orientation. Nothing stopped me from attending; no restraining orders or injunctions had been issued. I’d driven back and forth in front of the school as the rest of the parents streamed inside with their kids. My hands were cramped from gripping the steering wheel. When the crowds had mostly subsided and the only parents left scurrying for the front doors were the ones coming from work, ties loosened around their necks, legs still encased in hosiery, I found a spot at the far edge of the lot, tucked between two recycling dumpsters. I watched the stragglers until the parking lot was free and clear and then I walked Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles around the back. I kept my hands in my pockets because of the shaking. As a student in this school, I’d always loved the loading dock and the rubber bumpers along its front. I volunteered to wheel the trash barrels through the halls for the janitors just so I could enjoy its arid and lonesome plain of concrete. It was always cool under the overhang and the rest of the school seemed miles away. I stepped onto the dock and knelt down and steadied my palms against the cement. A janitor came outside and walked to the edge. He was young, twenty or so, with homemade tattoos running up both forearms, words that I couldn’t read, blurred into splotches. Hey, I said. He nodded. My kid’s inside with her mother, I said, I was just checking out the old stomping grounds. Sure, he said. You work here long? First week. He put his hands in his pockets and stared out beyond the school fence like he had friends waiting for him in the ragweed and trash trees. Good job? I said. A job, he said. They say it’ll be busy as a motherfucker in a few weeks. I wasn’t sure how to respond. The loading dock smelled of produce and cleaning supplies. Mop buckets lined the back wall. Two posted signs warned workers to keep clear of incoming trucks and not to smoke. Only later did I realize that he’d come out to sneak a cigarette, but I spoiled the opportunity. Do you mind if I go through this door instead of walking all the way back around to the front? The janitor shrugged, hands still in his pockets. I went through the door and down the long service corridor toward the auditorium, where several hundred parents and children and administrators and teachers had gathered. Just beyond the double doors, dozens of greeters stood ready to welcome me to the J.R. Lasman Middle School family, but I



purple jesus was shaking too badly to greet anyone. I’d sweat through my shirt. I was grateful for the solitude of the service corridor. The exit signs cast their blush over the doorjambs. I pressed my body against the steel doors and put my eye up to the gap between them. Inside, rows and rows of chairs filled with bright, attentive parents and children. The backboards and hoops were raised to the rafters, haloed by florescent light. The principle stood at the podium just as he had when I was in the audience with my own mother twenty-four years ago. Then, he was young, energetic, and beaming with enthusiasm. He was gray now, and a bit paunchy, but still a dedicated administrator. His voice reached me as an indecipherable haze of instructions and admonitions and jokes and preparatory pep talk. For a moment, the crowd parted just so and I saw Jenny sitting in the front row, absorbing every word, waves of dark hair tumbling between her shoulders, but then she was lost to me as the crowd began to stretch and disperse for tours of the building. I fought for one last glimpse, but didn’t stay. I’d seen enough. Plus, I had to see my mother. Thursday night was “our” night. We were on minimal speaking terms, but a ritual is a ritual; I’d knock, she’d sniff the air. If I smelled sober and if the weather was nice, she’d step onto the front walk. We mostly spoke through the screen door. But tonight when I pulled to the curb, she was perched on the stoop, round body tight as a fist. You need to eat, she said as I approached, but I don’t want to sit out here. What could I say? It’d been over a year since I’d been invited into the sanctity of the screened porch. We sat on white wicker chairs. The table between us held a plate of sandwiches; I clutched one with both hands. I made myself eat slowly and my mother told me that she’d taken Jenny shopping for school clothes. She stood abruptly, nearly in mid-sentence, unlocked the front door, went inside, and Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles engaged the deadbolt. While alone, I stuffed my mouth full of sandwich and put another in my sweatshirt pocket. A few moments later, a man came alone through the door. I’d seen his type before: clean and shiny, shirt tucked, bit of a belly from too many donuts, but otherwise in good shape. So, I said, my mouth full, you’re going to tell me to lay off the sauce. I don’t care about your sauce, he said. He looked right at me, the way sober people will. I studied my sandwich. He said, How about we start the conversation with an introduction. His hand hovered in the space between us for a moment before I accepted it. He introduced himself as Paul Rivers, a recovered alcoholic. He said, Your mother asked if I wouldn’t mind speaking to her son about some trouble he’s having. Let me stop you right there, Paul, I said, because you aren’t the first reform-ee that my mother’s had over. The sandwiches are a dead giveaway. You’re wasting your time. It’s the only thing I got enough of to waste, Paul said, and as long as I’m not drinking and still aboveground, my time is a bonus and I don’t mind sharing it. He kept his hand vertical between us, palm flat, fingers steady, like he wanted to physically cut the conversation in half. For starters, he continued, I can’t offer you any advice. I don’t care who you think I am. You never met me and don’t know me, but I told your mother that I’d make the effort. You don’t want to talk, that’s fine by me. I got nothing invested in us, nothing at all. But I come from the land of plug-in-jug and I know how tough it is to stop. I was trapped under the bottle for twentyfive years. I lost my wife and my daughters. I never got the wife back, but I got the daughters and now I’ve got three grandkids I see every day. You don’t have to feel like this anymore. Like what? I said. He pursed his lips and said, Like a drunk.



purple jesus I picked up another sandwich and stood. Who said I was a drunk? I said. Fair enough, he said. But let me give you my number, just in case. He handed me his card and I thanked him for his time. I sensed my mother listening, ear pressed to the door. She was beyond crying. The downstairs lights burned hotly, everything glimmering in its place, every knick-knack, every framed photo, even the one of me in my scout uniform, hair neat and feathered and parted in the middle—same as it ever was. On the way down the steps, I flicked Paul’s card into the hydrangeas. It’d been three days since I’d had a drink. Marilyn would’ve been perfectly happy to let me see Jenny. She told me herself in the Rite-Aid, where I’d gone to buy a bottle of cheap wine they had on sale. I’d spied her coming in the front door and I ducked down the Health and Beauty aisle and stuffed my bottle into a bin of travel-sized shampoo. I stood near the pharmacy and pretended to study a display of weight gain supplements. When she found me, she said, There you are. You weren’t trying to sneak away, were you? Of course not, I said. My collar was damp with sour sweat. Marilyn cocked her head the way a dog might when confused, or betrayed, a gesture that had haunted our marriage. She was dressed in loose clothes and had a postyoga glow. Jenny has a cell phone, she said, I can give you the number. You can call in the evenings before she goes to bed. Sixth grade hasn’t started yet and she already has a cell phone? Mostly for security, Marilyn said. I saw a kid in the park holding a piece of bark and tapping it with his thumbs, texting away, I said. It’s all too much. I’m not texting anyone. Who said you had to text? Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles Marilyn straightened herself and waited for an answer. I kept my hands in my pockets and rocked on my heels. After a moment, I picked up a jar of Opti-Pump Protein Supplement and studied the label. Marilyn slumped her shoulders. You always surprise me, she said. I’ve never heard of a father so completely reluctant to even have his daughter’s phone number. You truly are a piece of work. While she was talking, I worried that someone would find and purchase the bottle I’d cast adrift, a silly fear to have considering the size of the mountainous stockpile a few aisles over, but after Marilyn walked toward the greeting cards, I couldn’t bring myself to rummage around in the bin and dislodge the miniature shampoo bottles and carry the wine all the way to checkout and stand in line behind a couple of moms pushing strollers. I could only picture how shitty I’d feel with Marilyn standing behind me, pretending she didn’t see the bottle, pretending that she didn’t know why I was in the drug store in the first place, and me pretending like I didn’t see her or that I was really interested in the cover story of People. I walked past the travel-size racks. At the front counter, the pimply cashier swiped one item after another over the scanner. A small child stood at his mother’s side and said over and over, in tune with the scanner’s electronic chirping: I want a candy, I want a candy. Just begging and begging and begging. After I left my mother’s, I drove around for a few hours and wound up on Madison, at the house Marilyn and I bought. At this time of night, it was a lonely structure, a fiefdom surrounded by hedges. Through the downstairs window, I could just see the fichus plant and the secretary next to the stairs. I was parked behind the hedge, out of the way, nearly in front of McDaniel’s house. Two sets of legs came down the stairs and turned to go into the kitchen. It burned me, not knowing who she was with. I got the idea



purple jesus that I could sneak through the hedge for a better look. Marilyn would never know. The hedge served as a boundary between our house and McDaniel’s and for years, I stashed bottles in the thickets and spent hours pawing through them in search of my supply. I growled and swore and jabbed a flashlight into the caves and leafy cubbyholes, whimpering when the bottles eluded me, pleading: please let me find you, please stop hiding. Surely, one or two of those bottles was still hidden? Surely I hadn’t found them all? I crabbed through the lone break in the hedge large enough for my body. A tricky interior branch snagged my glasses and flung them to the ground. For the life of me, I could not find them. They vanished into the gnarled maze of the hedge, a vortex of lost things. A square of light fell from the kitchen window onto the lawn. Marilyn and her guest stood at the window and faced the yard. Marilyn’s arm rose and arced from one side of the window to the other and the stranger mirrored her movements in some lurid and opaque semaphore. Eventually, Marilyn retreated and the figure continued posing. Without a partner, his erratic gyrations were just plain stupid, the jerk. While he stood alone, Marilyn switched off the light, leaving his silhouette burned into my optics. He never quite dissipated, but dissolved into a dark outline against a darker background. Upstairs, Marilyn switched on the bedroom light. Her voice drifted from the window. There was a long silence, a murmured conversation, and the frantic aura of their communion, a soundless but obvious feasting, the opening of legs, the thrusting of pelvises. None of this disturbed me, by the way. I’d understood for a long time what had been lost. Marilyn was no longer mine, if she ever was. She deserved a healthy lover—or ten, or twenty. I understood the mantle of exile. I begrudged her nothing. I pushed my way back through the hedge and patted the dirt in wide circles hoping to find my glasses. They Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles eluded me, but I found something better. I couldn’t read the label but I knew immediately what I held, a half-gallon of Popov’s, lost since the night Marilyn searched and destroyed my hidden hooch during a furious sweep of the compound. She dislodged it from the toilet tank and the dropped ceiling above the washing machine and from its tomb of cushions on the recliner and from a dozen other places. She was done, she’d said, fed up, sick and tired of living with a lush—and I understood, as always, because she was justified. I admitted my awful drunkenness and my agreement infuriated her. She intensified her looting in the basement and I made a beeline for the bedroom. If she emptied the house completely, I was doomed. From a box in our closet, I removed the Popov and took a few gulps from the squishy plastic bottle, my savior. Hearing her stomping up the stairs, I opened the window and tossed the bottle underhand into the hedge—a once in a lifetime throw, a perfect ten. On the other side of the hedge, I saw McDaniels raking—or pretending to rake—the first leaves of autumn in his stupid wide-brimmed hat. I knew damn well that he’d watched my furtive toss and would report it, that fink. Yet the bottle had remained concealed in the hedge for three years, still and patient as a Buddha. I drove around for several more hours thinking about the hallways in J.R. Lasman Middle School, empty and smelling of pine disinfectant. I finally parked at the Public Library and cut along the back of the building. The police blotter the next day would carry a report that several residents on Hall Street, which borders the library and school property, had called to report a man skulking behind their homes, mumbling to himself. The path along the fence was dark and the bushes bristled with nocturnal bodies, glowing eyes, and once, a feral snarl that sent me scampering. Between the buildings, I crossed the athletic fields. Jenny had played soccer as a first grader here; all the kids grouped around



purple jesus the ball like an amoeba, legs flailing, shin guards clicking and clacking with each tiny planted toe. She played soft ball now and I cut across the diamond, the infield smooth and dusty. Through binoculars, I’d once seen her smack a two RBI double to right field. Surprised, she’d studied the ball’s trajectory into the outfield. The girls on base were running hard but it took the excited crowd shouting before Jenny could shake herself loose from the batter’s box. I passed the dugouts, skirted the faculty lot, and made my way back to the loading docks, the rubber bumpers, the cool, oil-spotted concrete, the corners aflutter with scraps of paper and leaves. I hadn’t left the building feeling deprived nor had I been driven out, but the desire to be back there was overwhelming, as if I’d forgot something important. The squishy bottle was in my car, untouched. Whatever magic it held remained untapped. Whatever clarifying agent present in my brother’s Purple Jesus had long vanished; I’d chased its elusive charm since my brother and his friends took the bottle. I’d eventually followed them to the outskirts of the park, where the trail broke from the tracks and dipped into a washout that flowed to a drainage tunnel. There, I saw my brother tip the bottle to his lips and drain the remainder of his elixir. He was leaning against a rusty fifty-gallon drum, his feet awash in wrappers and bottles and newspapers. Two of his buddies peed into the drainage ditch and together, the group had a loud discussion of the general quality of the boobs on their female classmates before disappearing into the tunnel where I dared not go. Instead, I retrieved the bottle. My brother had tossed it into a briar of beach roses. The thorns bit and snared my forearms and wrists. I didn’t care. Not then, not ever. I spent the ensuing years, decades even, trying to recapture the taste of that drink. I never once came close, even with my brother’s help. He confided his recipe: vodka, grape Nehi, lemon juice, ice. The hardest part, he’d said, was jamming the ice down into the Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles soda container. We tried those ingredients in every possible combination, temperature, and container, but the electric openness and novelty had vanished, evaporated like ether. After a time, I could barely recall its flavor and chased not the actual memory, but the loss of memory. After that, I stopped caring. Perhaps the only distinct memory of middle school I retained was of Home Economics class in seventh grade. Boys hated Home Ec as a rule, but our teacher was Ms. Reece, a former cheerleader for the Buffalo Bills, and she brought her pep-rally attitude and bouncy ringlets of red hair and broad, billboard-worthy smile into the classroom and even the most obstinate boy was beguiled into attempting sewing and cooking. For our exam, we invented a recipe and described in detail what we imagined it would taste like. Ms. Reece would pick one winner who would prepare their dish for the class. Although I didn’t win—Ashley Finley took top honors for her peanut butter waffle batter and fudge sauce— Ms. Reece asked me to present my recipe as well, because it was the only beverage. I wasn’t a dull student—I knew vodka would only bring trouble and using Jesus’ name in reference to a beverage would invite unwanted commentary from the Teens-for-Christ crowd. All of this would end up becoming a chore for my mother, so I exchanged the vodka and Jesus for pineapple juice and Jerome. To me, it tasted like the photography chemicals from Industrial Arts might taste, corrosive. The exit sign at the far end of the service hall flickered, the ‘E’ and ‘X’ growing dim and then blanking out altogether. I pulled the handle and the door opened. It hadn’t been latched. Perhaps the new guy was careless, or perhaps I was lucky, or stupid, but once I set foot inside, I knew I couldn’t leave until I’d seen Ms. Reece’s room. I slipped off my shoes and moved through the hallways, all of them the same, the black and beige tiles, the cinderblock walls thick



purple jesus with fifty years of paint that peeled like skin flaking off a sunburn. In a matter of weeks, the walls would be covered in artwork, bulletins, and posters for dances and school plays and afterschool support groups. The school was astoundingly quiet, but just barely, as if the walls could but briefly restrain the approaching storm; soon it would swarm the rooms, the halls, the alcoves, and the library stacks. Lost in my reverie, I failed to notice a well-lit room and was surprised to see a man emerge and turn toward the stairwell, his back to me. He took the stairs two at a time and disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared. I slid in my stocking feet over to look into his room. A canvas sat on an easel. A mug of tea steamed on the table next to a palette laid flat and covered in blobs of bright paste. On a flat, speckled table lay the artists tools: putty knives, brushes, acetates and tubes of oil, mixing bowls and glass jars full of darkened thinner. I maneuvered myself in front of the canvas and was surprised yet again when a young woman’s voice disturbed the still life. Who the hell are you? She said. And then she started screaming. She was naked, both on the canvas and in life. She scrambled off her platform, knocking over several chairs and easels before finding her robe. She was familiar, too—not her body which was unblemished and pale, thin at the waist, but with powerful, athletic thighs, and quickly covered—but in her face and voice. As soon as she robed, she backed away, screaming the whole time. I held my hands up in the internationally accepted gesture of conciliation and would have run out of the room myself if she’d not blocked the door. I set my shoes on the table with the paints. Look, I started to say, but could get no further. All I wanted to do was leave, go home, maybe cuddle with the squishy bottle, reacquaint myself with my long denied friend. No one knew about my three dry days, so my resumption of a normal Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles routine would disappoint no one, but I was saddened to realize that my dryness was fleeting, that I’d be nursing a hangover in the morning, longing for another bottle from the hedge, or slinking to the7-11 for the early morning Mad-Dog tonic. Who would I have told about being dry, anyway? Whose hopes would I want to elevate and dash? Still, if not drinking meant I’d end up sneaking through my old middle school at night frightening naked young women, perhaps I was better off soused. If any night deserved a few pops to help bolt shut the doors, it was this one. Before I could explain, the artist was back in the room, panting, having apparently run from the car with his cooler, which he dropped, spilling the contents onto the floor. Sandwiches and grapes fanned across the paint-spattered tile. He armed himself with a stool and held it between us. He thrust at me and told me to get back because he didn’t want to hurt me. He wore a tattered black t-shirt and his hair was pulled into a ponytail, feathery strands falling from the elastic and framing his cheeks, a grown echo of the boys for whom my brother ditched me. The artist didn’t respond to my outstretched hands or my exhortations of peace; he simply charged a head, pushing me deeper into the room, away from the door. Please, I said, but he must have heard something different, something that injected adrenalin through his nervous system, because he jabbed forward one last time. The leg of the stool nearly connected with my cheek. I lost my balance and fell, slamming my head into a shelving unit. Once I was down, he stopped his pursuit and watched as a series of paint cans fell from the shelves and landed on my head and shoulders. You asshole, I said. He backed away clutching his weapon. The back of my head had caught a metal clasp and I could tell without looking that I was bleeding. I was trying to tell you that I didn’t mean to frighten anyone. I was as surprised as you were. No one is supposed to be here, the artist said. No



purple jesus one but us. I have permission. I didn’t get the memo, I said. I put my hand on the back of my head and my fingers came away yellow. On the floor next to me lay an open can of paint. A yellow bloom spread over the tiles. Paint dripped down my head onto my sleeves. I stood up. Who are you, the artist said. Does it matter? You don’t know me. I thought the school was empty. I didn’t notice the light until you came out and I came in to look at your painting and she freaked out. Why are you walking around the school? The model had her cell phone in her hand, but she wasn’t dialing. I found a box of rags and was sopping up the worst of the paint. Each pass pressed the yellow more firmly into my scalp. I ran a series of rags over my head until my hair was an ochre helmet. My daughter is starting here, I said. I missed the orientation. The back door was unlocked. That’s our fault, the model said, we should have checked the latch. She cupped her chin and studied me. The back of my head hurt. Without my glasses, all was a yellow fog. Mr. Denning? she said, it’s me, Mary Nelson. I used to babysit for your daughter when I was in high school. There were a lot of babysitters, I said. I was at your house every day the summer after I graduated, she said. That was forever ago, seven years. I went to college and then spent two years living in San Fran—that’s how she said it, San Fran—before coming back here. This is Tim, my boyfriend. He’s been teaching here for like two years now. He’s brilliant. Pleased to meet you, I said. Our principal lets me use the space, Tim said, but this is the first time with a model. And this is the first time I’ve ever modeled, Mary said. Isn’t it all too weird? Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles Most certainly, I said. But what seemed really strange was that in about a month, this young teacher would see my Jenny in class, would teach her the basics of color, light, tint, image. Jenny spent hours filling notebooks with drawings. She’d immortalized me in crayon, a portrait of me ‘asleep’ on the couch, beer cans on the floor next to me. Marilyn saved the drawing, pressed it into an album along with our wedding photos and the novelty shot: the three of us standing behind a cardboard muscleman cutout at the beach. This is a nice thing you’ve got going, I said, but I’ve wasted enough of your time. I’d wiped off the best I could and while I talked, I set aright the stools and easels. The one easel that hadn’t been knocked over held Tim’s painting. On the canvas, Mary Nelson floated on a violet sea. She sat primly, knees together, breasts tucked between two crossed arms, body slightly turned from the observer, hands nested on her thighs. The strokes of the painted body were delicate, but the surrounding landscape was broad and chaotic. The effect, however, was not of a young woman threatened, as it easily could have been if the artist had been careless, but of a young woman radiating calmness. She was not under attack; the swirls seemed to retreat in the face of her indefatigable serenity, as if she were carving a path with her simple, profound posture. Her bearing made one forget that she was naked, young, beautiful, a former babysitter. I’m sorry to have barged in on you both, I said. Can we please keep this between us? I’d hate for my daughter to feel strange about meeting you Tim. No problem, Tim said. I’m sorry about the paint. Don’t be, I said, it’s entirely my fault. Tell Jenny I said hello, Mary said. Ask her if she… But I was gone, past the lockers, down through the blank hallways and the closed doors in front of the auditorium, little specks of yellow dripping from the cuffs



purple jesus of my pants. I was all the way to the loading dock when I realized I’d never found Ms.Reece’s room. Plus, I’d forgotten my shoes. I would’ve drank that squishy bottle, too. I would have stood right next to my car and guzzled the Popov’s even though it would wreck my stomach. The last drink I’d wanted was left in the travel-sized shampoo bin three days earlier and the last drink I’d had was a gin and tonic that tasted like kerosene. Now I was glassless, shoeless, covered in yellow paint, and that bottle still reeled me in. I’d grown calm, like Mary Nelson in the painting, the turbulent cosmos tamed. Serenity was fleeting. There, in the parking lot, a police cruiser blocked my car. An officer peered through my windows, tapping them with the butt of his flashlight. I hid behind the recycling dumpsters. I wasn’t afraid of the cop. He’d probably put me into protective custody before, or had seen me sleeping on the concrete benches in the drunk tank. I was more afraid of the Popov, though I wouldn’t have said that then: afraid to drink it and afraid that if I did, there’d be no relief. If I went to the car, it was over. I’d never stop. So, I hopped the fence and ran. Long before my brother shared his Purple Jesus, I’d gone into the woods with a few older boys who tried to make me believe we were lost. We followed a creek that ran parallel to our neighborhood. The strip of land was our wilderness, a quarter mile patch of trees between my street and Interstate 95, a barrier against the blur of cars and trash collecting along the shoulders and against the guardrails. They goaded me, trying to pry forth tears, telling me how saddened my mother would be when she found out I was lost forever. Suddenly fed up with their taunting, I broke off the trail and marched toward the street, a few hundred feet distant. Before long, I reached a chain link fence and cut through a shaded backyard, lawn dotted with crabgrass and patches of Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles dirt. Perhaps a few months earlier, I might’ve played along, drummed up the requisite knee-knocking terror, and allowed the boys to feel a sense of spurious, but earned, heroism. Now, burning with a raw blankness, I cut across another lawn and ran to the same place I’d returned when I’d left the boys by the creek: my mother’s house. Her street was stilled by night. How many times had I stolen into her house at this hour only to pass out in the hallway or in the bathtub? How many times had I carried on conversations or arguments with my mother and then awoke with no memory of such. How many times before he went away to college and then to start his own family did my brother watch from the bathroom doorway as I puked away a night’s worth of booze? How often had I cursed the bedroom at the top of the stairs and my tiny twin bed and its meager mattress? I desperately wanted to lie there again, to beg my mother for entry, for a one-night-only reprieve from banishment. Pledges of sobriety had opened doors in the past, but such trickery was unlikely to prevail any longer. I only had myself to blame, of course. My mother was perfectly calm and sensible when she at last barred my entry after I’d stolen her inherited collection of silver dollars. This was as an adult, I’m ashamed to admit, not as some irresponsible teenager. During a visit, she’d left me alone and went to get snacks from the kitchen. I opened the roll-top on the desk in the corner and dropped the sack of coins into my backpack without batting an eye. The coins clanked and clattered with each step. For years, I convinced myself that she simply let me steal them, perhaps out of guilt or remorse over not providing something essential in my childhood, the lack of which caused my weak character. I believed my crime justified. Didn’t my brother have his bounty? A young and perky wife, active energetic boys, two Irish Setters, a hybrid sedan? That wasn’t my only rationalization, nor my only theft; the pilfering of wallets and jewelry boxes and glove



purple jesus boxes and medicine cabinets and piggy banks seemed natural, necessary even. It would wreck her heart if I asked to sleep in my old bed. Breaking in, navigating the squeaking and groaning stairs on my way to the twin-sized sanctuary of my old room would result in another night in jail and continued bafflement from all concerned. Where was a man like me to turn? I could stagger back to my apartment, but there was nothing there worth wanting. I could walk away from its two shabby rooms and not recall a single specific detail aside from its graying walls and second-hand futon. No photos, no television, not even any booze. The thought of the Popov’s made my fingernails throb. I wandered around to the front of the house in time to see mother’s neighbor Mr. Ellard, the poor schmuck, stooped and shuffling to the curb with his small dog, Fizzle, who hobbled too, both of them barely alive. Fizzle pissed against a fence post. They paused and looked at each other: a crooked, palsied old man and a half-blind, gimpy companion—just a pitiful sight. Of course, I was barefoot. Ellard at least had slippers. As he turned, I waved. He quickened his step and Fizzle struggled to keep up, his I.D. tags rattling. It irked me that Ellard wouldn’t return my greeting, but if I were in his shoes, I’d have moved quickly too. Paul River’s card fluttered in the hydrangea blossom. I had no intention of calling, but I stuck it into my pocket anyway. I had a vague notion that if I arrived at the Madison Street house early enough, I might find my glasses before anyone was awake. It was along walk and when I got there, the neighborhood houses were still buttoned down, cars silent, no dogs, no early morning joggers, no suits to give me the hairy eyeball, just a thin glow accosting the edges of things. I stood at the hedge for a moment but decided to simply walk through the yard. I just didn’t have the energy Regarding Arts & Letters


knowles to sneak. All pretense was lifted. Everything was gone, even the squishy bottle. My glasses hadn’t fallen to the ground. They were caught on a branch at waist level. Lord, I was tired. My feet ached. Bare for hours, my heels pulsed a dull, broad pain. I held my glasses and looked back at the house. There, framed in her bedroom window, stood my daughter, blurry and formless, half-shadowed and half-aglow with fresh sunlight filtering through the trees. Light gathered along the periphery of her face and pooled in her damp eyes. Even in her sleep-mussed state, she cast over me a warmth long absent. I know how crazy it must seem to suggest that my neglected daughter might extend even the slightest benevolence toward me, a trespassing, paint--‐spattered wreck, but what would I gain from lying? I wanted so badly to tell her that I was not drunk and that I had been at the school when she was in orientation and that I had felt the vibration of the softball’s connection with her bat and cheered her footsteps as she charged first base. I wanted to tell her about the phone number in my pocket and how the man who belonged to the number had something he said I could have, too. She didn’t move, my Jenny, though she did raise her hand a bit, maybe to wave or to wipe sleep or tears from her eyes. She waited for me. The whole house now rippled with light, the hedge alive with colonies of birds and insects, bees unleashed into the gardens by the squadron. The spaces surrounding me thrummed with electric motion, everything spinning. However, my body—Mine!—remained firmly rooted, my feet cooled by dewy carpet. I held my glasses. Jenny leaned out her window, still unclear, hazy, but radiant, closer than ever before, closer even than she was shortly after birth, wrapped snugly and offered to me by a nurse in green scrubs, when I was too afraid to take her weight or to look too long at her scrunched and red face. From her window, Jenny spoke, a single syllable collapsing the distance between us: Dad? And though I was



afraid, though my hands shook and my body rattled fiercely, I raised my glasses and set them upon my nose. Yes, Jenny, I said, yes.

Regarding Arts & Letters


contributor’s notes

john perryman

The lines I’ve dropped in Contributors’ Notes no singles bar could match, no fishing tale, no mountebank. No lies, of course, ambiguities. I’ve learned how to say what I don’t say. Why bother when you will say it for me? For where I vanish, you begin: the author as magician. Still, I muse, could they be more dignified, these Notes? A resume writ small, corseted into fifty words tighter than a sonnet, subtler than haiku? For I have tried them all—tried them all and lost. The thing itself escapes the word transforms and shifts and slips away, until the word no longer fits. Trust me on this: no joke could ever get much drier than signified turned signifier.



So hear me, Muse. Help me strike the balance, a measured, modest mix: a quirky review, a sober press or two. For once, let me respond with confidence: “Recent publications? I guess these would be they, but who keeps track….” Such flippancy is what I lack. If only I were asked. What’s needed is another mask… Another mask, more artifice. Because the thing itself can not be got. Because all poems are Notes’ notes: all notes, leading nowhere, revealing nothing.

Regarding Arts & Letters







Contributors Susan Ayres was born in El Paso, Texas, and now lives in Fort Worth with her three children and husband. She teaches at Texas A&M University Law School and writes both scholarly articles and poetry. Her poems have been published in descant, Kalliope, Texas Review, Borderlands, and other journals. Karina Borowicz is the author of two poetry collections, Proof (Codhill Press, 2014) and The Bees Are Waiting (Marick Press, 2012), which won the Eric Hoffer Award for Poetry and was named a Must-Read by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Her poems have appeared widely in journals, and have been featured in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry series and on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. She makes her home in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. Matthew DeAngelis is a third year MFA- Fiction candidate at Wichita State University. He is the former editor of Mikrokosmos/mojo, and his work has appeared in the Flagler Review and the Marathon Literary Review.

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of thirteen books including All You Ask for Is Longing: Poems 1994- 2014 (2014 BOA Editions). Recent poems in North American Review, and Best American Poetry 2014. His website is He works in a pool hall in Erie, PA.



Jeff Esterholm’s fiction has appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder flash fiction series, Midwestern Gothic, Flash Fiction Italia, Shotgun Honey, Cheap Pop, and The J.J. Outré Review, among others. In 2016, he will have work in Crime Factory and Yellow Mama. Christina Frei grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada and has been living as an ex-pat with her family since 2001, both in Senegal, and the Netherlands. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals including Red River Review, Apple Valley Review, Kansas City Voices, Sterling Magazine, Illya’s Honey, Emerge Literary Journal, The MacGuffin, Freshwater, New Millenium Writings as well as upcoming issues of The Hollins Critic and Third Wednesday. She has been nominated for Best of the Net 2013, two Pushcart prizes, and a Best New Poets award. Sierra Golden received her MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University. Winner of the program’s 2012 Academy of American Poets Prize, Golden’s work appears or is forthcoming in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Permafrost, and Ploughshares. She has also been awarded residencies by Hedgebrook, the Island Institute, and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Although she calls Washington State home, Golden has spent many summers in Alaska, working as a commercial fisherman. She now works in communications and is a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House Fellow.

Regarding Arts & Letters


PR Griffis lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently at work on a book of essays regarding gun culture and a novel about punk rock and Texas High School Football. His work has previously appeared in Devil’s Lake, Diagram, and The Dictionary Project. Alamgir Hashmi has published numerous books of poetry and literary criticism, and has taught as a university professor in Europe, the U.S., and other places, including a faculty appointment at Makerere University in Uganda. Recent work appears in Poetry Review, New Letters, Natural Bridge, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, Contemporary Review, Paris Voices, and Connecticut Review. A Pushcart nominee and a Rockefeller Fellow, he has won many honors and awards for his work, some of which has been translated into African, European, and Asian languages. He is Founding President of The Literature Podium, An Independent Society for Literature and the Arts. Gary Hawkins’ debut collection of poetry, Worker, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag in 2016. His poetry, pedagogy, and criticism have appeared in Forklift: Ohio, Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art, Emily Dickinson Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. With his wife, the poet Landon Godfrey, he edits and produces Croquet, an occasional letterpress postcard broadside.



Donald Illich has published work in The Iowa Review, Sixth Finch, Rattle, and other journals. He lives in Maryland. James R. Kincaid is an English Professor masquerading as an author (or the other way around). He’s published two novels (Lost and A History of the African-American People by Strom Thurmond—with Percival Everett). He is also the author of a couple dozen short stories, and ever so many nonfiction articles, reviews, and books, including long studies of Dickens, Trollope, and Tennyson, along with two books on Victorian and modern eroticizing of children: Child-Loving and Erotic Innocence. Kincaid has taught at Ohio State, Colorado, Berkeley, USC, and is now at Pitt. Clark Knowles has taught writing at the University of New Hampshire for seventeen years. He received his M.A. in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire, and his MFA in Writing from Bennington College. The Arts Council of the State of New Hampshire awarded him an Individual Fellowship for the year 2009. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in recent issues of: The New Guard, Outlook Springs, The Collagist, Northern New England Review, Harpur Palate, Conjunctions, Limestone, Nimrod, Eclipse, and Glimmer Train Stories. If you can’t find him, he’s probably at yoga. Tom Larsen has been writing fiction for twenty years and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Newsday, Philadelphia Stories Magazine, and the LA Review. His novels Flawed and Into the Fire are available through Amazon.

Regarding Arts & Letters


Dorene O’Brien is an award-winning fiction writer from Detroit. She has won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award and the Wind Fiction Prize. She also won the international Bridport Prize and is the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories have appeared in the Connecticut Review, Madison Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Montreal Review, Cimarron Review, Detroit Noir and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first full-length short fiction collection, won the USA Best Books Award in Fiction. She is currently writing a novel featuring fossil hunters in Ethiopia. Visit her at Lisa Pellegrini is a freelance writer who resides in Warrington, PA. Her poetry has appeared in Dark Matter Journal, Poetry Pacific, The Milo Review, The Lascaux Review, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and other publications. She was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and she was a finalist in The Lascaux Review 2014 Flash Fiction Contest.

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities,” please visit his website at



John Perryman was a Runner Up for the 2007-8 Dobie Paisano Fellowship, awarded each year by the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. He has published fiction, poetry, criticism, and reviews in a wide range of journals, including REAL, descant, Concho River Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Southern Humanities Review. He is a fifth generation Texan who received his BA from Williams College and his PhD from UT Dallas. Shawn Rubenfeld is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where he teaches courses in composition, creative writing, and literature. His fiction has appeared in such journals as Columbia: a journal of literature and art, Portland Review, Pine Hills Review, and Thin Air Magazine. His collection of short stories, We All Become Something, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in 2016. He is at work on a novel, and, as ever, stories.

Michael Salcman, neurosurgeon, poet and art historian, has had or will have poems in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, The Hopkins Review, New Letters, Ontario Review, and New York Quarterly. As an art critic he lectures widely on art and the brain. His poems have received six Pushcart nominations and were recently set to music by Lorraine Whittlesey. His collections include The Clock Made of Confetti, nominated for The Poets’ Prize in 2009 and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011). Poetry in Medicine, his anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors and diseases was recently published by Persea Books (New York, 2015).

Regarding Arts & Letters


K.V. Skene’s publications include Love in the (Irrational) Imperfect, Hidden Brook Press, (Canada) 2006 and You Can Almost Hear Their Voices, Indigo Dreams Publishing, (UK) 2010. “The Whitening of the Ox,” a poem cycle originally published in descant in 1996, was set to music by Jeffrey Ryan, and presented January 2012 at Toronto’s Harbourfront and in August 2012 at Vancouver’s MusicFest. Recently Skene placed third in the 2014 Cardiff International Poetry Competition. After living for over eighteen years in the UK and Ireland, Skene currently lives in Toronto, Canada. Matthew J. Spireng’s book What Focus Is was published by Word Press in 2011. His book Out of Body won the 2004 Bluestem Poetry Award. His chapbooks are Clear Cut, Young Farmer, Encounters, Just This, and Inspiration Point. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins College. Mika Taylor is the 2015-2016 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin and an MFA graduate from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review and online at Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and Ninth Letter.



Catherine Uroff’s fiction has appeared in New Madrid, The Roanoke Review, Floodwall, Prime Number, The Bellevue Literary Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Worcester Review, Carve Magazine, and other literary journals. She was nominated for the Million Writers Award and the 2013 UCLA James Kirkwood Literary Award and was a finalist for the American Short Fiction Short Story Contest and the Snake Nation Press Serena McDonald Kennedy Award.

Benjamin Warner lives in Baltimore, MD and teaches at Towson University. His novel, Thirst, comes out this spring.

Jerry Whitus’ stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Chicago Quarterly Review, Manoa (a “distinguished story” in Best American Short Stories), The Literary Review, Nimrod, Potomac Review, and Potomac Review online, Jabberwock, Solstice Literary Magazine, and other journals. He studied fiction writing in the graduate program at the University of Texas and for a number of years made a living as a freelance writer specializing in film and TV for education, industry, and entertainment, with a large number of national awards. He has also been an administrator, teacher, and teacher-trainer in universities in the USA, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam (on a USAID grant), and Colombia.

regarding arts & letters


John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Controlled Hallucinations (2013) and Disinheritance (forthcoming 2016). A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the American Literary Review Poetry Contest and Vallum Award for Poetry, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: American Literary Review, december, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod International Journal, Hotel Amerika, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.



Thank you so much, Reader. We hope to see you again.

Regarding Arts & Letters



{vol. 39, no. 1} Winter 2015


Susan Ayres Karina Borowicz Matthew DiAngelis Sean Thomas Dougherty Jeff Esterholm Christina Frei Sierra Golden PR Griffis Alamgir Hashmi Gary Hawkins Donald Illich James R. Kincaid Clark Knowles Tom Larsen

Dorene O’Brien Lisa Pellegrini Simon Perchik John Perryman Shawn Rubenfeld Michael Salcman K.V. Skene Matthew J. Spireng Mika Taylor Catherine Uroff Benjamin Warner Jerry Whitus John Sibley Williams and art by Caleb Perkins

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