The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Oklahoma City University July 2017
ÂŠ Red Earth Review 2017
All Rights Reserved
RED EARTH REVIEW
David Bublitz Matt Huigens John Maguire Devon Shannon
THE RED EARTH MFA
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Red Earth Review is published once a year in July. For submissions, consult our website for guidelines and deadlines. Please email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not accept print or email submissions; directions for using our submissions engine may be found on our website.: bit.ly/RedEarthRev. Submissions sent outside our open period or sent by mail or email will not be considered or returned. Red Earth Review is available in print and as a PDF document. Print copies are $12 each and the PDF may be downloaded for free at our web site bit.ly/RedEarthRev or viewed at Issuu: http://issuu.com/redearthreview. Contact us by email or by post to order print copies. Red Earth Review The Red Earth MFA @ OCU English Department, WC 248 2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493 Cover Art: Bridge Over Creek ÂŠ Matt Huigens, 2017 Note: All Red Earth MFA student submissions are referred to outside readers for blind review. After first publication in Red Earth Review, all rights revert to the author/ artist. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Red Earth Review staff, The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program, or of Oklahoma City University.
CONTENTS LOUISA HOWEROW Holding Back Another Pressing Phone Call Shortcut
1 2 3
JENNIFER LAGIER If the Shoe Fits Mangia Syndrome
JOTA BOOMBABA Round-Trip Ticket
AMARIS FELAND KETCHAM A Curled Foot on the Gas Pedal
ROBERT BISHOP After Rain
ROBERT BISHOP Different Doors
CHARLES KELL The Laundry Room
RITA CHAPMAN Dear Girl
TAYLOR FEDORCHAK To us, the broken window looked like a man Another Cake I Havenâ€™t Tasted Stage Right Concerning the Base of Your Spine
13 14 15 16
KIT ZAK Aubade of Regret
KIMBERLY L. BECKER Black Hawks
JILL HAWKINS cheaper than a bag of chicken necks
ANASTASIA STELSE Cleaning Lady at the Valley Inn
JOHN VANDERSLICE Find Out Moonshine
ACE BOGGESS Garbage Time
LEA PAGE Hailstorms vs. Blizzards
SCOTT WIGGERMAN Isle of the Blessed
SCOTT WIGGERMAN Calligraphy 101
ROBERT MANASTER Jerusalem's Brothers Sweeter Than Honey, Stronger Than a Lion Becoming Prayer The End of Being Holy
45 46 47 48
FAITH S. HOLSAERT Find a Home Place
MICHAEL G. SMITH Old Woods Stump
HILLARY MARTIN Roasted Reruns
ERIN SLAUGHTER Blue Hole #5 Society for the Preservation of Glorious Failure Ode to Subdivisions Girl the Shape of Smoke Rings, I Want to Warn Her . . . Syzygy
65 66 67 68 69
NICOLE BYRNE After Exiting the Sweat Lodge, I Hear My First Loon The Other Poet
DAVID ANTHONY SAM The Right Agony Surviving Nightfall
LOUIS E. BOURGEOIS A Day in the Life
JEFFREY ALFIER Penngrove in a Drought Year A Map of Vaughn, New Mexico At Edith’s Ranch Along Washoe Creek
77 78 79
JOSÉ ANGEL ARAGUZ Beginning Dust Dress Dust Work Dust Shadow Dust
80 81 82 83
DEVON BALWIT When You Stop Breathing Elgar, Listening
KEVIN FINNERTY Cycling
BETH KONKOSKI February Angels
BAILA ELLENBOGEN Stretch Out
ROBIN REYNOLDS Juicy
MARK ANTONY ROSSI Black Mayonnaise
MIRIAM SAGAN rhododendron Tremulous
HEATHER GEMMEN WILSON Out in the Cold
CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN Your Love is a Zig Zagging Canoe Defining the Tsunami at My High School Reunion The Gravedigger Packs His Bags for Vacation Her Body a Beauty at Eighty Five
117 118 119 120
AMORAK HUEY Cigarette vs. Cookie The Boy Who Believed in the Girl Who Did Not Believe in God
BRANDON MARLON Andersonville
JOHN FINDURA Magic Trick / Thumb
JENNIFER RUTH JACKSON The Pain of Starting
ADAM PENNA Another Untitled Love Story
CHRISTOPHER BROOKS On Motherâ€™s Day Road to Chimayo, New Mexico
TERIN WEINBERG Processes
REBECCA MACIJESKI Passing Migration Patterns When This Begins
142 143 144
STEVEN FROMM Gazala
LOUISA HOWEROW Holding Back praise the woman whose body knows to pant-pant-blow praise the man who's stopped explaining away her pain as rooted in gorging on unripe apples praise the woman who keeps pant-pant-blowing praise the rusty hatchback the full tank and non-bald tires the traffic lights turning green praise the couple who notice the full pink moon praise the woman who doesn't slug the admitting nurse and her insistence on false-typical-first-time-panic praise the man who finds the words to dislodge mountains praise the stretcher in an empty hallway praise the child who slips out like an eel to find his mother laughing holding back I told you so
LOUISA HOWEROW Another Pressing Phone Call Last week it was forked lightning and earthquakes, this time tornadoes. “Tornado alley, you're living on the edge,” my mother says, and before I protest I'm nowhere near, she rattles off dangers: doorways, windows. Openings, another name for traps." I imagine sending her a kit of homing pigeons, each bird carrying a promissory note: I'll be careful, cross my fingers, hope to die. Not enough I suspect to escape or calm her. For now we're on a merry-go-round, riding double. discordant carousel music on a loop. I wonder when she'll end the call with “Take care, love.” I'll hurriedly fill in the only way I can, “You, too.”
LOUISA HOWEROW Shortcut Rocks and tufts of sedge stud the bush path to the hospital; on either side of me buttercups. As a child I'd hold a yellow blossom under my father's chin, see a shadow and tell him what he already knewâ€” he liked butter, birds, four-legged creatures. I listen for rustling, but hear nothing, see nothing coming towards me. No black bears, the one animal I'm afraid to meet. A nurse saw a bear and cub from the window of my father's room. Another bear broke into her neighbour's house. There was talk of culls. I spoke into my father's good ear, describing the sightings, the talk in town. His voice hardly audible had enough force to swear at the stupidity of people. How quickly it turned to a plea to go home. I nodded, but didn't sign him out that day. Now I'll be packing away the pyjamas he came in, his dentures, his comb. I look toward the sagging power lines cutting the sky. I wish there were crows to carry the news.
JENNIFER LAGIER If the Shoe Fits These hands are direct descendants of my Italian Great Nonna who excelled in impatience, forever cutting and burning herself. I inherited my mother's teeth, sharp and strong from grinding all night on unpalatable words left politely unsaid. This heart wears its Catholic crown of thorns and the scarred ruins of too many wrong men. From my father comes the gift of laughter, a need to make the earth bloom, extra wide farmer's feet.
JENNIFER LAGIER Mangia Syndrome Every time I go there she feeds me until I feel Italian again. â€”Rose Romano in Vendetta In this family, women feel guilty and nervous if they aren't in the kitchen. They start planning the next meal before breakfast is finished. To us, treasure means a stuffed pantry, cupboards crammed with pasta and canned goods, a freshly stocked icebox filled from crisper to freezer. Even our religion revolves around feeding, reveres multiplication of fishes and loaves, celebrates communion, where we kneel, eat the body of Christ. Sensing hunger, a dying Italian woman, would immediately revive, imbued with a reason for living, rise up from her sickbed, set the table, toss a salad, resume compulsive cooking.
JOTA BOOMBABA Round-Trip Ticket 1980-2015
Back home, thirty-five summers since the evening ash of Mount St Helens marked my own eruption, my return Those rubber soles of sneakered feet walked the earth, swam a sea step by stroke by inch by week Thirty-five summers on a ticking train a marriage, classrooms full of freshmen my own son wrapped around my knees That spring across a continent now lonesome ghosts on narrow streets all I found were rocks along the way
AMARIS FELAND KETCHAM A Curled Foot on the Gas Pedal Iâ€™m scared of barnacles thanks to you. Crusting eyelets slugged up against the ketch. Stalactites flinging out questing penises several times their body size. The bay filled with fleshy ribbons waving in submarine winds. Gross. You pry off a barnacle I donâ€™t want for a road trip memento, but I keep it in the car ashtray. Something old, something fixed, something blue: the horizon pulls up the sun. You said we all turn into rocks after too long thinking ourselves solid at room temperature, watertight from our own sorrows. But Gusty Winds May Exist in New Mexico, the mountains rearrange every place uplifted in everlasting drought. And still the barnacle bounces in time with shifting gears, a Cambrian era holdout delivered to the next coast.
ROBERT BISHOP After Rain Drops of dandelion smatter the chorus of summer. The tire swing sways with the trees and the long grass. If I go out, can I still sail with pirates? I forgot the faces of my crewmen. Did I lose the right to scrape my knees & pick black berries darker than the swingâ€™s shadow, sweeter than the spoils of this lonely war?
ROBERT BISHOP Different Doors I remember them by their bells or alarms. In the puddle froth and window panes, I see what existed but a fraction before. Some testimony from the stars on the street and the face in the glass warns me to look while I can.
CHARLES KELL The Laundry Room I was standing in the laundry room at work on Friday wasting time and talking to Angie. Brian isn’t here today. We usually talk about football. He’s seventeen and a senior, getting ready to start two-a-day practices. Closely cropped blond hair, lean muscles under his shirt-sleeves. We talk about putting on football cleats, feeling the soft green grass under your feet. The pads on your body tight and comforting. The tightness that wells up in your stomach before a game making you want to cry but instead screaming out running and running and running onto the field. The crashing of the pads and the bright lights and people screaming your name. I want to tell him to enjoy every second, every breath taken on the field, because most people don’t play college ball. That it’s not about winning or losing or scoring touchdowns, but about spending time with your friends, most you’ll never see again. That it’s all over after this and it’s sad. Or that football really doesn’t matter at all, and everything I have said is a lie. It’s just a stupid game, that it’s all meaningless, everything. That either you or your friends leave, or that you will forget them, or hide in the smoky shadows of the bar when one walks through the door. That you break up with the girl—your high-school sweetheart—who thought you would marry her, stepping out of her car on State Route 88 and walking all the way home in late November. That the job in the sawmill you chose over college takes a little piece of your soul each day until you walk out. That your parents will soon die. I don’t. He will learn this on his own. But Brian’s not here so I talk to Angie. Angie’s brown hair covers one side of her face; toward the end of the work day she puts it in a ponytail, crinkling her small, cute nose as her hands wind the hair tie. When she laughs dreamy lines form around her eyes. We stand wasting time, moving towels around—I help her load the washer, unload the dryer—complaining about this lousy job. About how they don’t pay you enough to live on, about how they work you every weekend without giving you one off. Angie wants to be a hair stylist. That she wouldn’t mind working every weekend if it was a job she liked, like cutting hair. “The twists with fingers forming a new shape for somebody different,” she says, a slow-motion move with her two hands, then spinning quickly around. She talks in a low voice about how she would start at Raphael’s and hopefully, one day, open a shop of her own. She tells me I should do something, go somewhere after my class is over. “I don’t know,” I say. She talks about going places, about how she’s never been out of Northeast Ohio, and this strikes me at first. Angie has just turned twenty-nine. “A lonely birthday. A lonely age,” she says smiling faintly. She talks about how she wanted to go to Geneva but didn’t get a chance to, about how she would go there with her family 10
when she was little and how she went on her birthday two years ago. Her tiny brown eyes peering out with dream-like sadness over this longing to return once again to this faraway magical place—Geneva-on-the-Lake. For a moment I stand there, listening intently, giving Angie my undivided attention. Inside, though, I feel a smugness creep up for the fact she’s never left Ohio. Mahoning County, Trumbull County, Ashtabula. Then I sicken myself, thinking about my lone visit to Canada. Florida when I was little. I’ve never really gone anywhere either. Thinking for a moment that books count, that reading actually means something. That scanning poems is the same as traveling, when it’s not. I want to leave. Let’s leave, I don’t say. She tells me about her ex. About her brother and his girlfriend or girlfriends, and all of their kids. She says to me, looking into my eyes briefly, “If I knew three years ago what I know now I would have had an abortion.” Her voice soft, lips moving slowly, making a small, subtle frown. In the past I would have wrapped my arms around her, made a quick move to kiss her lips, place my left hand gently on her lower back before folding us together in a heap on the floor. There’s a blanket, a blue sheet. Thinking I was doing her a favor, when it was me, always me who wanted to be touched. I don’t tell her I just got out of jail a few months ago. That I lied about my drug arrest on the FAFSA. That I’m trying to go to college, while most people I know have long since graduated, have house payments, lives. I do nothing, say nothing. Glance down at my shoes, look away, before concentrating my eyes again on Angie. She stares at the wall. The cracked grey concrete covered in cobwebs and dust. A buzzer sounds and she walks slowly, with her head down, to see if the towels are dry.
RITA CHAPMAN Dear Girl Oh, my girl: Your body is truth. You are endless lines of ants climbing straight up the oak. You are the yellow pull of a late summer sunset spreading itself across the top of a forest of oaks. You are a mantle laid on bent water and the water bending. Go ahead and tell me Iâ€™m wrong. Many times others will have a right to your body. There is no one who will guard you from this. Be like the katydid, a green leaf that can only sing its own name. Absorb lies like a cave. I wonâ€™t be the one to forgive you.
TAYLOR FEDORCHAK To us, the broken window looked like a man wearing a backpack. He was where we learned to splinter, but not forget our shapes. I still remember the blood on your brother’s face. Skin on bark for that second. Me thinking, this is what relates you to him at five, swinging on a white net hammock under the mulberry tree. Maybe there was something historical about the unsound barn, the room full of tires we treated as chairs across the field from home. At seven, it didn’t matter our perspectives didn’t match. I’m still surprised no one fell through the decomposing wood, cut flesh throwing rocks at that fractured body.
TAYLOR FEDORCHAK Another Cake I Haven’t Tasted Bring home the robin’s egg blue candies. Or will they be Tiffany? These colors someone thought through. Wash and keep the jar they come in. The thank you’s I’ll miss. Tell me the excuses you’ll make, the songs you sit through. Blame my history, memories of melting dolphin ice sculptures, steel drums and drunk relatives behind the bar. The stiff dress that looked the way peach gummi rings taste. I would go if I wasn’t too old to sit under the table.
TAYLOR FEDORCHAK Stage Right I found your guitar pick mixed in with my jewelry. Orange like your amplifier, which carried you across the room. I reflected the same shade in eyes lined teal. Now, I have no interest in seeing your string quartet, smile lines & overlapping teeth. Your signatureâ€” only your first name in print. I used to write my aâ€™s that way, too.
TAYLOR FEDORCHAK Concerning the Base of Your Spine
Bury your feet in dirt (bloodstone in cedar). Cover them in brass sand. When moss is left on your soles, brush it off (I imagine every surface clings a bit like that). Test your nails against rock. Your roots baobab, show more than you want. You were stunted, porcelain legs that wouldnâ€™t even stand without the clasp around your waist. This stillness stores energy of ancestors, keeps them from sprinkler-soaked lawns, rain-drenched carpet. Sometimes resting is enough.
KIT ZAK Aubade of Regret Between diaphanous realms where dreams weave dawn’s orange/lilac/plum with unearthly screams a lone bird flies towards the sun. Thoughts of today’s tasks scrub/chop/braise onions and pumpkin stir me from down’s swaddle. I light the hearth against fall chill flames crackle as kindling sighs its yellowblue trance, a calming escape, its exchange of oxygen and carbon. A reporter deadpans: Aleppo’s looming doomsday.
KIMBERLY L. BECKER Black Hawks At dawn, hawks black against blue sky, not in strict formation but low boil over bare black trees Waking to thrum and thrash of blades cutting ribbons of sky that fall to drape another body Thrall of yet another manhunt Even now that sound fills you with dread, makes you search for cover, makes you brace for dead
JILL HAWKINS cheaper than a bag of chicken necks their Mad Dog 20/20 dangled on short ropes from bouncy branches of a stubby thick tree their faces varnished time shining in the ruts long sleeved in early June they sat on retired house chairs shaded, laughing between wisecracks to call out the code word â€œPigsâ€? escalating the hooch back up within the fullness of the leaves eight old men waved freely
ANASTASIA STELSE Cleaning Lady at the Valley Inn I. Six miles off Scotty’s Junction this tin bucket is home to runaways and wayward travelers. Day after dusty day I vacuum desert from the carpets. I sweep Death Valley dirt down the drains. Early morning and the guests are almost always gone running from the heat or to it, or sometimes just sitting on their cars watching the sun rise over the white haired mountains. II. The stray wander in in the night’s cool hand, lulled by whispers of coyotes and mountain fowl. They wake too far from the mountains to bask in the shade, bare feet scalded on sand hotter than blacktop, tormented by scorpions peeking from under rocks. I killed my baby. Came here to be a no one. Eighteen years pass, marked by the notches on a cactus, its body plump with trapped rainwater. III. Three sharp raps on a creaky door, and silence. I enter to the hush of running water. I call—no one answers. A duffel bag in the corner, grimy socks on the floor and jeans and shirt trailing to the shower where I pull the curtain back to shut off the steady stream and there, a boy, no a young man curled fetal around himself, Mohawk plastered to his forehead. What mother aborted him? But he has a pulse, a slow trudging beneath my fingers. What else is there but to call for help, to push the brown strands back from his face, and recognize him?
JOHN VANDERSLICE Find Out Moonshine “I thought you were going to help me run lines,” Jesse said. “I am,” her father said. “But you’re not. You’re skipping ahead.” They were at the tiny dinner table in Jesse’s actor’s-budget apartment in Adams Morgan. Her father, bored out of his skull in McLean on a Sunday morning had driven into the city to keep her company; in other words, he expected her to keep him company. Something she did not do well—if anyone could. It was his own damn fault that at fifty-eight he found himself both divorced and single. Jesse thought she might as well put him to use helping her nail down her lines—which her director had mandated she accomplish by tomorrow morning’s rehearsal. Ten-year pro that she was, learning lines was not usually an issue for Jesse. But then again, she’d never been this busy. She was gearing up to play Hermia in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream while at the same time winding down a stint as Varya in an extended run of The Cherry Orchard at Arena Stage and acting as assistant director for a new play a friend of hers would be staging at American University. She also had the occasional voiceover work she’d contracted to do for Citizens Bank and that commercial for Sheehy Ford in which she played the confused but finally joyful purchaser of a Sheehy Focus Hatchback. Thus the sacredness of this rare Sunday off—as well as, unfortunately, the need to put it to use. If her father could actually help her with the lines his intrusive stopover could prove to be a good thing. Except that so far it was not going well. Rather than use the script she’d handed to him, he insisted on reading from the massive Complete Pelican Shakespeare she’d bought in college—he said it “seemed more like real Shakespeare” to him—even worse, he seemed unable to resist the temptation of flipping around the book to see what other delights lay therein. “But it’s so good.” “What are you reading, anyway?” “The sonnets. They’re so good. Listen to this.” “Dad—” “Listen to this. ‘O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!’” “Dad—” “‘And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth, / When that shall vade, by verse distills your truth.’” “I can’t believe you won’t just stay on the page with me.” “Pure poetry.” “You do realize he wrote that to a guy?”
Her father stiffened. His long cheek grew calm but sharp; his retro sideburns, way too advanced for a man in his fifties—fat and tangled like an ancient rock star’s—winked silver at her. “I don’t believe that.” “Any of the ones that say ‘youth’ are always to a guy.” “How do you know that?” “Everyone knows it.” Her father didn’t answer, only stared over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen window. Then: “I just said I liked it; that’s all.” “Dad, you know Shakespeare was gay, right?” Another pause, an even more complicated one. “Gay?” “Yes. William Shakespeare. Bard of Avon. Gay man.” Her father blinked. “I don’t think so.” He picked up his glasses—unlike most men he had to take his off to read—and studied her appraisingly, as if sure that she, his gay daughter, was propagating blatantly dubious mythology. “Why did you think he wrote women characters so well?” “So what if he did? Any man could.” Her father, an almost retired lawyer, had received a decent literary education as an undergraduate thirty-five years earlier at Vanderbilt. Throughout Jesse’s childhood he’d had the habit of making grandiose allusions to this famous wordsmith or that one; always, it seemed, to reinforce the notion that the only one with any polish in the household was he. But the truth was that he read very little except for what he needed to for his cases—not much beyond the sports pages and the occasional Patterson novel. Certainly she had never seen him actually read Shakespeare, although he did attend summer stock productions and would always rush out to see the latest star-ruined Hollywood cover of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. It took her several years, even decades, to admit that her father, the emphatic quoter of great poets, was a superficial man with superficial tastes. Even so, he somehow clung to the notion of himself as the final arbiter of judgment toward the canon of English literature. Whatever were the classes he took all those years ago, they certainly gave him the confidence of his convictions, or, rather, the confidence in the conviction that whatever was not said or read in those classes did not matter. “When a man—a sixteenth century man, no less—gets into the soul of women better than anyone before or since, better even than some modern women, it can’t be a coincidence.” “You could have called him a seventeenth century man, you know. I notice that you deliberately chose the earlier date.” Lawyers. “Dad—” “I don’t accept the premise that a man has to be gay to understand women. Some straight men just are like that.” Jesse laughed. You certainly weren’t. Not according to Mom. 22
“Besides, Shakespeare loved women. What about ‘My Mistress’s Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun’?” “Oh, you mean the one where he says how ugly she is?” Her father reeled. “But he’s complimenting her! The whole poem compliments her.” “He admires her, yes. The poem is about his admiration. But he never says she’s pretty. In fact, he says the opposite. Which is kind of weird for a love poem.” “Maybe that’s why he’s a genius.” His bottom lip jutted out in a middleaged pout. “Of course he’s a genius, Dad—” As usual, her father had conveniently forgotten that she was no longer fourteen but thirty-one; also that instead of the smattering of literature survey classes he’d taken at Vanderbilt, she had earned a double major in English and Acting at Johns Hopkins. She’d written her Senior Essay on Shakespeare’s non-dramatic works. “In that poem,” her father interrupted, “he’s talking about a deep, real, spiritual bond. The kind a man feels for his One True Love.” Jesse sighed. No wonder her father was alone. Daniel Wilton was one of those men who while completely clueless about relationships with actual women was fixed to the point of idolatry on concepts like spiritual communion and one true love. Her mother had complained to Jesse about this several times. “The problem with believing in impossible ideals,” she would say, “is that they are impossible. Your father can rave with the best of them about the ideal of feminine beauty, ignoring the fact that 99% of women don’t meet that ideal. Especially women past the age of 21. Especially me. All that rhapsodic talk —which he thought of as high-minded—was an insult.” To be fair, her father had never pummeled Jesse herself with any particular body expectations, certainly not in the last fifteen years. She didn’t like to think that this might be because, knowing she was lesbian, he’d decided her body didn’t matter. Such thinking would not be beyond her father; but the truth was that for most of her life they had been close—and remained so after the divorce five years ago. When, during her freshman year of college, she’d finally revealed to her parents the basic fact about herself, it was her mother who had grown still and silent, who acted hurt, who couldn’t talk to her about it for weeks. It was her father who had stayed in the room and withheld criticism, who asked her about her future. “I guess I should have said that Shakespeare is bi, Dad. I think of him as gay, but let’s say bi. That’s what most people would say.” “But he loved her!” “Bi means you’re attracted to both genders.” Her father scoffed. “I know what bi means.” Then he jerked; he lifted his head. His voice rose with the confidence of a new idea. “I think I remember hearing back in college that during Shakespeare’s life the theaters were closed for a while. By the Puritans.” “No. That was later. They were closed in the 1590’s, but that was because of a plague.” 23
Her father waved a hand. “Immaterial. The point is they were closed. Mr. Will couldn’t make a living writing for the stage because there wasn’t one. I remember my old lit prof saying that he had to find a patron, someone who would put him on a retainer just to compose words for him. A nice retainer.” “Yes, that’s right. Some writers did have patrons. The lucky ones.” “Better than laying bricks.” She smirked. “So?” “Well, think about it, Jess. If you want to get a patron—if you want to keep a patron—what do you do? You praise the guy to the hilt! And of course they would be guys—mostly. Patrons, I mean. Guys would have the money to waste on poetry.” She decided to let the waste on poetry comment alone. “So you’re saying that the greatest writer of the English language wrote whatever lies he thought people wanted to hear?” Her father jerked. “No! God, that’s a harsh way to put it. If you have a patron, you’re going to be concerned with pleasing the patron, right? It’s only natural. And if that means calling him ‘the most beautiful youth’ or whatever, then that’s what you’re going to do.” “Okay, so what I think you’re telling me is that you’d rather believe Shakespeare was a whore than a gay man.” Of course that’s what he was saying, but her father, evidently hurt and maybe even embarrassed by the summation, proceeded to point and counterpoint with her. He actually stuck out his index finger and jabbed the air, like an actor in a courtroom drama. “It’s not whoring to be sensitive to what the reader needs. Ask any writer. Writers will tell you that the first quality a successful writer needs is to be sensitive to his audience’s needs.” To the best of her knowledge her father was on a first name basis with exactly zero writers. Where he had picked up that maxim she didn’t know. Maybe he heard a writer talk on the radio. Or maybe he just invented it out of thin air, out of some self-styled notion about how writers worked. Supported or unsupported by the facts, it had become a maxim to her father. And Daniel Wilton was one of those men—one?—given to speaking in maxims. “Dad, I can’t believe you’re actually contesting me on this one. And that you’re this much of a bigot.” “Bigot? How am I being a bigot?” She knew by now that no man liked to be called a bigot—especially if he was. “Are you kidding? Homosexuality is worse than being a whore?” “Who said ‘worse’? Who said ‘worse’? You’re saying that, not me. You’re the one putting all this judgmental language in place. I meant no judgment.” “You just don’t want to believe it. You’d rather believe anything else.” “I just don’t see it is all, Jessica.” Her father only called by her full first name when he was truly aroused. “He wrote all that heterosexual love poetry. He was married, for crissake!” 24
Jesse hooted. “You’re kidding, right?” “But he was married.” “Of course he was, dad.” No, she didn’t need to say the obvious. “But you have to admit his praise for the young man is pretty passionate.” “Everything he wrote was passionate!” “Okay, fair point. But speaking of which, are you going to run lines with me or not?” Her father paused; he looked away, chagrined. “Sorry,” he murmured. He flipped back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the director, Nicholas Haney, had asked her to try out for Hermia, Jesse had been not a little surprised. Her ingrained notion—from where, she wasn’t sure—of the play’s female leads was of willowy, graceful women: long arms; supple necks; artful fingers; voices like lutes. She was 5’2” and her hips looked like a bowler’s. Her hair—once red, but now a kind of burnished ginger, more brown than auburn—was cut short on purpose; the girlish freckles which had lingered into her twenties were all but gone, leaving behind an ordinary face covered by itchy skin. She’d hesitated after Haney suggested she audition, mentioning to him that her two experiences with Shakespeare’s iconic comedy were 1) playing Puck in a junior-high production (when she was forty pounds lighter), and 2) cross-dressing to play Peter Quince, Philostrate, and an anonymous male attendant in a summer festival production her first year after college. She had never considered, much less performed, either Hermia or Helena. Haney told her he was trying to do something different with the ladies. “I want,” he said, with his characteristically manic gestures, “to make them more aggressive, maybe even athletic.” You mean more like a dyke, she thought, but decided to keep her mouth shut. She really wanted the role. It could be a breakthrough for her, after a decade of playing tomboys, lewd women, nuns, comic sidekicks, and cleaning ladies. Best, she knew, not to call out the director for his stereotyped thinking. So she didn’t. Did that make her a whore too? She pushed the notion out of her head. No time for self-scrutiny. If she didn’t conquer this elementary business with the lines, Haney might dump her for the stand-in; who was, in fact, graceful and willowy. And 24 years old. “Okay,” her father said, “so where do I pick up?” “We were on Act 2, scene 1. I think it’s your line.” Her father perused the pages. “Ah, right. ‘Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair? Or rather do I not in plainest truth tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?’” She arched her head upward and tried to incorporate some of the pleading tone she would need to develop more fully, as soon as she had her part down. ‘“And even for that I do love you the more. I am your spaniel; and Demetrius, the more you beat me, the more I will fawn on you. Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me—” God, these were sickening lines. She didn’t know how other actors managed to say them. And Haney wanted to make this part more aggressive? 25
“When do you need to know these lines by?” her father said. “Dad.” “Just tell me.” “Tomorrow.” “Oh.” “Yes,” she said. “Okay.” “Why?” “Well, it’s just . . . I’m starting to feel a little hungry.” Jesse shook her head and groaned; but then she said, “You know what, so am I. Maybe because this passage makes me want to vomit.” Her father chuckled. “It’s comedy, remember?” “That’s what I keep telling myself. All right, so lunch. Except bring the script. I can’t stop practicing.” With the choices available in an area as glamorously diverse as Adams Morgan, Donovan Pogue felt guilty for so often returning to this restaurant: Cherry Tree, an American style grill and bar specializing in monster-sized burgers, baby-back ribs, ribeye steaks, and an old-school Sunday brunch buffet intended to kill you: creamed chip beef, biscuits and southern gravy, thick cut hash browns, potatoes au gratin, flapjacks, ham and onion quiche, pork sausage links, sugary bacon. A veritable river of mimosas, if you wanted them, along with the house specialty: the Cherry Bloody Mary, a double-strong and slightly sweet version of the morning favorite. He and his partner Gregory came to the restaurant almost every week. Except that whenever he was finished gorging on the Sabbath feast, Donovan sighed guiltily and swore that he would not be coming back to Cherry Tree any time soon. “An actor can’t afford these calories,” he would say, to which Gregory always responded, “That’s what you said last week.” Gregory, a financial planner for Reliant Assets Management, didn’t need to stay particularly thin for his job but tended to make do with half a plate of food and a cup of coffee. It was Donovan who felt compelled to try everything and who later regretted it. Donovan took a sip from his water glass. He sat still and felt the sweet pain of a loaded gut and the guilty aftertaste of egg and cheese and fried pork on his tongue. There were very few times in his life when he regretted quitting smoking, but those first minutes after a brunch buffet pig-out was one of them. Glancing across the dining room, however, he was immediately faced with another cause for regret: the sight of one of his costars settling in at a table on the far side of the room, accompanied by an older man. Jessica Wilton her name was, although she insisted everyone call her Jesse. He’d seen her act in a show or two, and he was friends with people who knew her friends, but he didn’t really know her. She was four years older than he. Not part of his rather small circle. And, despite the fact that they were both headquartered in DC, until they were cast as Hermia and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’d never worked with her. 26
So far the working together had not gone terribly well. Something about Jesse Wilton—something privileged and veteran and know-it-all— rubbed Donovan the wrong way. Something that demanded obeisance to her hectic schedule and at the same time dismissed yours. Nick Haney was constantly yelling at her to learn her lines—it was really shameless how slow she’d been—and then, just Thursday, Heather Mosby, who played Helena and was no barrel of laughs herself, loudly suggested they cancel rehearsals until Jesse decided to actually join the play. It took a good half-hour for everyone to calm down from that fight. Donovan had been looking forward to a Sunday free from the whole sordid lot of them. “What’s wrong?” Gregory said. The dark eyes behind his glasses scrutinized Donovan with their familiar scalpel-sharp look. “Why do you ask?” “You were sitting there all fat and happy, and then a shadow came over your face. It was like a curtain coming down.” Donovan blanched. The skin around his eyes tightened. He made a quick motion with his head. “Over there. Against the wall. Hermia.” Gregory looked casually over his shoulder—an adept show of indifference for someone who’d never acted in his life. “Which one?” “Short brunette, sitting with the old guy.” The man with her—he had to be at least 55; maybe even 60—wasn’t who Donovan would have expected to see brunching with a fireplug like Jesse Wilton. He was tall, first of all. More to the point, there was about him the relaxed vagueness of a long-tenured professor, and the sloppy sheen of a former model gone to pot. His hair was noticeably long for a man of his age; his sideburns were actively disgusting; and his aviator glasses looked like—at least Donovan hoped they were—a pair of back-ups that had been kept in a sock drawer for years. It was impossible to believe someone would intentionally head out in a pair of glasses as out of style as that. Then again, the man’s wrinkled Oxford sat clumsily on his shoulders, and he badly needed a shave. Donovan wondered if he might be some street dweller Jesse decided to treat to breakfast. Gregory seemed more interested in Donovan’s co-star. “Don’t stare,” Donovan said. “She’ll look over.” Gregory faced Donovan again, a wry smile slicing his face in two. “She looks like a little ball of fire.” “That she is.” “You say it like you don’t like it.” “I wouldn’t say that exactly.” Gregory smirked. “No, not exactly. But it’s what you mean. Is she a diva?” “Not so loud. If she hears you, she’ll see me and want to come over.” “That doesn’t sound very diva-ish.” “Did I say she was a diva?” “Sounds more like a fan girl. Who is the old guy? Her sugar daddy?” “Hah. She’s not on that team.” 27
“Her beard?” “Her beard? Good lord, Greg, it’s the twenty-first century. And we’re actors.” “So, who is he? Her actual daddy?” “Never seen him before.” “I think you and she should become friends.” Gregory smiled. Teasing is something Gregory liked to do. Way too much, in fact. “Look, I want to spend one day not thinking about the theatre business. I want to spend a day with you.” “Ah, how nice. Too bad you’re lying. You just don’t want to see her.” Donovan smiled, caught. “No, I don’t.” “She’s that much trouble?” “She’s busy. She has like two other shows she’s involved in.” “Is somebody jealous?” Was he? Donovan didn’t think so. Periods of overwork happened in the acting business; they happened to everybody. You rode them out, thanked your lucky stars, and tried not to complain about how exhausted you felt. Because sooner or later the busy period ended and you would face the humiliation of the unemployment line, wondering what the hell you had been complaining about. Donovan had been the beneficiary of exactly one such busy period in his life. It happened within the nine months of leaving drama school and lasted a full year. He’d imagined then that he was headed for stardom, but then the dry spells started: four weeks here, five there. His last dry spell had been the longest: a full six months between gigs. For the first time in his professional life he had wondered if he’d chosen the wrong career. Then Nick Haney had called, and life was good again. “No, not jealous. Annoyed. Because she’s so busy she’s pushy. We all have to work around her schedule.” “Sounds like a diva to me.” “No, she’s not.” He sighed. “To tell the truth, once she learns her lines I think she’ll relax and we can get along.” Gregory glanced again over his shoulder. Then he grinned: the Cheshire cat with a fifty-dollar haircut and designer eyewear. “I think we should invite them over.” Donovan sighed. Gregory could be such an asshole. “I think we shouldn’t.” “Could be fun.” “A test you mean.” “For whom?” “For them—with you as the tester.” “Me?” Gregory offered an expression that was both delighted and evil. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. Besides, it would be a test for me too.” If he didn’t feel so bloated by his meal, and if it didn’t mean crossing near Jesse’s table, Donovan would use this occasion to escape to the restroom. Or if he got a call on his cell, he could excuse himself to take it. But no one ever called Donovan’s cell. He was one of those actors who 28
when off stage, turned ludicrously shy. He had only a few close friends. Probably this contributed to his dry spells. “I wouldn’t do that to the poor girl,” Gregory said. “Not with her dad in tow.” “We don’t know if that’s her dad.” “Oh, it’s her dad. You can tell. Same nose.” Donovan didn’t care to check that claim. He just wanted the other pair to disappear. “So,” Gregory started, “I promise I’m not going to hector or mock her.” “Right.” “I won’t if you tell me not to.” “I am telling you not to.” Gregory wagged his head. “So why not instead you tell me more about the play?” Donovan signaled for Gregory to lower his voice. Jesse had not noticed him yet, and with care—and possibly strategic chair realignment—he could keep it that way. And perhaps if the gods were kind Jesse would get up to use the bathroom. Then he and Gregory could saunter out of the restaurant with no damage done, their secret safe. But Donovan felt bad for conspiring to avoid sight of the person who, as a character, was his beloved. “It’s better,” Donovan said. “A little.” Gregory winced. “That bad, huh?” Donovan shrugged. “Nick just needs to give her an ultimatum.” “What are these other shows she’s doing?” “One is at the Arena, but it’s wrapping up. It was supposed to be over in April, but they extended it two weeks.” “What about the other?” “It’s an American U. thing. She’s not acting, just helping out.” “That’s a lot to do.” “You know how many actors would die to have three shows at once?” “I know one actor who would.” Donovan flushed, first with embarrassment and then with anger. He didn’t appreciate such a tactless reminder of his recent joblessness. Especially not from the man he was supposed to marry as soon as A Midsummer Night’s Dream was done. He wondered if Gregory’s jab signaled a private, unexpressed lack of belief in him. “It’s the nature of the beast,” Donovan said. “What do you want me to do, move to LA?” “I’d love to live in LA.” “No, you wouldn’t. LA is gross. And do you know how many actors there are in LA fighting for roles? Do you know how many more actors arrive there everyday to join the fight? You think Washington is bad, multiply that by 600,000 or so. Six hundred million.” “Never having lived there,” Gregory said, “I wouldn’t know.” 29
“Having lived there, I can sum it up: crazy competitive.” During an earlier dry spell in his career Donovan had moved from Chicago—where he’d been raised—to LA, hoping the change of location would give him a jump-start. But it only gave him eight months of broke and miserable, followed by a bedraggled return east. He’d never set foot in LA since. “They’re all talented and ambitious. And beautiful. True beauty is supposed to be rare. But in an audition line in LA you see a thousand beautiful people in a row.” Gregory chuckled. “A thousand beautiful people in a row.” “If you don’t believe me, go there.” “I didn’t say I didn’t believe you. But aren’t there auditions in Washington too?” “Yes, but in Washington—” “Donovan! Hey, what a coincidence.” Donovan startled and turned to his right, where he saw, not a yard from his elbow, a small woman with broad hips, short stringy hair, and a pale face. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen her coming over, hadn’t felt her unwanted presence crackling in the closed air of the restaurant. It just showed how expert Gregory was in getting him to spar. He’d been so involved with their argument he hadn’t even noticed that the woman he was spying on had gotten up from her table. “Jesse,” Donovan intoned as warmly as he could. “What are you doing here?” Friendly smile from his co-star. “Same thing you are, I think.” She glanced with obvious curiosity at Gregory. “This is Gregory Auster.” Donovan was going to add “my fiancé”— which is how he introduced Gregory to everyone now—but he hesitated. He didn’t quite want to give away that information to Jesse. Not that she wouldn’t accept it, of course. Not that. He just . . . didn’t want to give it away to her. “Gregory works for Reliant,” Donovan said instead. “What’s Reliant?” Gregory made a noise. “Financial company,” Donovan said. “Oh,” Jesse nodded and her face closed down. Then she added: “Smart thing: not being an actor.” Gregory smiled. “Someone has to bring home the bacon.” Here it was again: the same little skit: Gregory as the man of the house while Donovan played the fuzzy, impractical artist. Last time Donovan checked they both went to work every day. “We were just finishing, actually,” Donovan said. “That’s too bad. We just got here.” “We?” Donovan said cagily. He wasn’t an actor for nothing. “I’m here with my dad,” she said. Then she gave a quick, secondary smile that carried a measure of pain in it. “I actually brought my script. Hoped he could run lines with me.” “While you eat?” 30
“While something. I’ve got to learn them, right? Any extra practice is a step forward.” Donovan grimaced and glanced toward a maliciously grinning Gregory. Donovan would have kicked Gregory under the table, except no one ever did that in the real world. Only in plays. “I guess you’re right,” Donovan said. “That’s a good idea.” “But since you’re here, I don’t suppose you’d want to do it with me? I mean if you’re finished eating?” Her smile was still pained, but at the same time sly now; the expression of a supple combatant who, with one easy move, has put you in an impossible position. No, I don’t suppose I do, Donovan thought. I don’t think I should have to. Gregory, meanwhile, was about to lose it. “Sure,” Donovan said. “I’d love to.” “‘How now my love,’” her co-star said thirty minutes later, “‘why is your cheek so pale? How chance the roses there do fade so fast?’” “‘Belike for want of rain,’” Jesse said, “‘which I could well beteem them from the tempest of my eyes.’” Her father looked on, bored and antsy, as if any second he might start quoting the sonnets. Good thing they left the Pelican Shakespeare behind. Meanwhile, Donovan’s boyfriend—she had to assume that’s what he was— aimed a gaze at them that was either amused or skeptical. She couldn’t tell which. She’d decided on the spot she did not like him. His studious eyeglasses lent him a professorial haute; his soft, straight brown hair fell too easily into a relaxed form on his head; his ears were too perfectly shaped. He made condescending noises. He did not strike Jesse as a poser exactly— sounds like he had a responsible job—but as a man who knew what idea of himself he liked to project; an idea that might have coordinated with who he really was, but just not an idea Jesse cared for: the silent expert; the driest wit; the scrutinizing observer. In her life, she noticed that “experts” judged any action mercilessly while at the same time they took no open action themselves. They were malicious cowards, to say nothing of gossips. She had no idea what this man might say about her when he and Donovan were alone again, but she had no doubt it would be unflattering. But she was old enough not to care what people said about her; if she had cared very much in the first place she would never have become an actor. “Jesse told me something interesting this morning,” her father boomed, at the first pause in their lines. The whole table looked at him, surprised. “She said Shakespeare was gay. What do you people think about that?” “We people?” Donovan said. “Yes,” her father said. “You guys.” “I think what Dad means,” Jesse hurried to explain, “is the group of us, the present party at the table . . . because we know Shakespeare.” Donovan glared at her wide-eyed, as if it was impossible she could be such an imbecile. “Right, Dad?” she said, sending him a begging look. 31
“Of course,” her father said. “Who else could I mean? The waitress?” After a pause and a stutter, Donovan tried first. “Well, we people take some pride in that fact, if it is true. It’s a common speculation about him.” “It is?” Gregory said, surprised, the first genuine sound he’d made. “Pride,” her father repeated, turning the word over on his tongue. “If it’s true.” Her father lurched forward. “Yes, that’s my point. Where’s the evidence? What do you have to go on to charge him like that?” “Charge?” Donovan said. Her father glanced between the two guests, apparently expecting help. “I mean, before you go accusing someone of something like that.” “Accuse?” Donovan said. “Yes, why accuse him?” “Like a crime, you mean?” Gregory looked like he might just break out into a guffaw. The jerk was enjoying this way too much. “Dad’s referring to the social mores of the time.” Gregory covered his mouth; like he was stuffing laughter back inside the hole. “No, he’s not,” Donovan said. “I don’t mean like a crime,” her father clarified. “Because it’s not.” “Some places it is,” Donovan responded. Jesse hoped he meant some faraway, barbarous place. Papua New Guinea. Indonesia. Iran. But she feared, she knew, that’s not what he meant at all. “I don’t mean like a crime,” her father repeated. “I just mean it’s an accusation.” “That word again,” Donovan said. “Especially toward a dead man. Who can’t defend himself. It doesn’t seem right, does it?” “So in your mind,” Donovan continued, “calling someone gay is like the worst possible thing you can say about them.” “Hey,” her father said, spreading his hands as if in a gesture of magnanimity, “understand me here—don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a gay daughter. I know what she was called. I heard some of it. Bad enough to say stuff like that when it’s true. But how would you guys enjoy ridicule about being gay when you’re not?” Gregory’s leg jerked. If that idiot wasn’t careful, Jesse was going to clap him on the ear. “Actually—” Donovan began. “Dad reads the sonnets differently,” Jesse interrupted. “He thinks he has them all figured out.” “Is that right?” Gregory breathed. “You mean,” Donovan said, “that he’s realized the sonnets prove that Shakespeare was homosexual?” Her father sighed, sat back, hands flat now on his knees. A look of defeat. “Does everybody know about this?” 32
“Only the people who have actually read him,” Donovan said. Her father seemed to have missed that little knife thrust altogether. Jesse hadn’t. Jesse wasn’t sure she could work with Donovan anymore. She wondered if she should say something to Nicolas Haney. Then again, Donovan was a friend of Haney’s. “No, I don’t think that’s it,” her father said. “It’s not just that. I mean, I didn’t know about it.” Another titter from Gregory. The waitress appeared—a spiny, squirrely girl in a distressed white shirt, with a clutter of overworked brown hair. Her eyes looked tired and her tiny nose was rent in an expression of agitation. “Is there anything else you guys need?” “So what is your explanation then?” Donovan asked. “Coffee? Champagne? Bloody Mary?” Jesse saw her father relax as he had not yet throughout the whole brunch. The man loved being asked his opinion. He pushed a plate away and subtly shifted in his seat, positioning himself like a sprinter adjusting into the starting block; eager to pounce on the question. “I don’t think so,” Jesse said quickly to the waitress. “Does anyone?” Gregory shook his head. Donovan and her father did not seem to hear her. Jesse turned back. From her drawn face, it was easy enough to read the girl’s intention. “Don’t worry,” Jesse said. “We’ll be leaving soon.” “What you have to understand,” her father began, “is that in Shakespeare’s time it was considered normal to talk about another guy’s beauty.” “Maybe some water,” Jesse said to waitress, just as she was about to leave. The girl stopped, glanced around the table, nodded grimly. “So he was employing a normal frame of reference between gentlemen then. I mean straight gentlemen. I’m not sure there even were gay people in the Renaissance.” Gregory smiled as if someone had just given him a free ticket to a smash Broadway show. A front row ticket. “You know that after two o’clock we have to charge you for the water,” the waitress said. “You do? Why?” “I saw a program about this. Fascinating stuff. You guys would like it.” “What channel was this program on, Mr. Wilton?” Gregory asked. “Because brunch ends at two. Anyone here after two is on overtime.” “Oh, I don’t know,” her father said. “AMC. TNN. HSN. One of those alphabet channels. Call me Daniel, by the way.” “Overtime?” Jesse said. “What is this a basketball game?” “HSN,” Gregory murmured. “Very interesting.” “Policy,” the waitress said, biting off the word. “You know. One of those alphabet things.” Donovan scowled at her father. He scowled at Gregory. He shook his head. “Just bring the damn water then. I’ll pay whatever.” 33
“Fine,” the waitress said. She spun on her heel, her impatience so sharp she could have used it to slice off all four of their heads. “In Shakespeare’s time, guys liked to talk about this guy’s hands or this guy’s wrists or this guy’s eyes. It wasn’t gay; it was just being honest.” “How about another guy’s butt?” Gregory said. Donovan put his hand to his head. Her father paused, considered. “That’s a good question. I don’t think so. Guy’s butts were kind of out of bounds.” Gregory laughed. “I’m serious,” her father said. “Dad, maybe we should go.” He looked at her as if she had just suggested they step aboard an interstellar spacecraft. “I haven’t made my point yet. Gregory wants me to make my point.” “Yes,” Gregory said. “I do.” “Gregory wants some pretty stupid things sometimes,” Donovan said. Gregory’s head snapped to attention. “What did you say?” Donovan put on an innocent face that was, at the same time, not without malice. “You have to admit, Greg.” Out of the corner of her eye, Jesse saw the waitress approaching, a glass of water in one hand, her bony body bent with fury. “Hey,” her father said, “hey, boys. Listen up.” “Take it back,” Gregory said. “Don’t tell me I’m not right,” Donovan said. “Listen, guys . . .” The waitress was only a couple yards off, her barbed glance focused squarely on Jesse. Gregory stood up. “It’s called having a sense of humor, you tight ass.” “Tight ass? I’m the tight ass? Who studies numbers for a living?” “Hey fellas,” Jesse announced, “my dad is about to tell you why William Shakespeare is a whore.” The two of them went silent, identical looks of astonishment coating their faces. Donovan looked at her father, then at Gregory. Gregory looked at Jesse, then at her father. The waitress reached the table. She set down the glass of water. Donovan sighed loudly and reached across. “Thanks,” he said. “I could really use that.” The waitress picked up the glass. “It’s for her,” she said. “You didn’t say you wanted some.” “You didn’t ask,” Donovan said. “What are you, deaf ?” the waitress said. Gregory, who’d remained standing the entire time, moved to leave the room, except his left arm hit the waitress’s right, sending the glass of water to the floor. The waitress flared: “What are you, a moron?” “Fantastic word!” Donovan shouted. “I wish I’d said that.” “Oh shut up,” Gregory said. 34
“Ma’am,” Jesse said. “If you just bring us the check, we’ll go. I promise.” The girl studied Jesse silently. Then: “Deal.” She stalked off again toward the kitchen. Despite herself and her distaste for this blunt and sour young woman, Jesse could not help but notice the waitress’s muscular rump, completely out of proportion and mildly spectacular for such a skinny, osseous person. Was this girl in her real life an athlete? An all-star volleyball player? An MMA fighter? The girl seemed both more dangerous and more interesting than she had a few moments before, when she was just a rude service industry employee. “Okay, okay, guys,” her father said. “Settle down. I don’t think Shakespeare was actually a whore. That’s my daughter’s word.” Everyone— even Gregory—looked at him. “Really he was just a politician.” Gregory laughed. “You’re beautiful, you know that.” Now it was her father’s turn to look confused. “I don’t understand.” “Would you like to grab a drink, Mr. Wilton?” Gregory said. “I know it’s Sunday, but this is Adams Morgan; something will be open.” “But I haven’t told everyone why Shakespeare is a politician.” The man was genuinely flustered. “You’ve told us enough,” Gregory said. “Yeah, Dad. We kind of need to shove off anyway.” “We do?” he said. “This waitress is going to kick my ass if we don’t.” “She is?” He looked around wildly for the girl. “I know what you’re doing,” Donovan said to Gregory. Gregory shook his head. “Lovely,” he muttered. “Oh, shut up,” Donovan said. Her father looked at Jesse, at Donovan, at Gregory. He threw up his arms. “What the heck. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s get a drink, Gregory. I’ll tell you about Shakespeare the politician.” Gregory nodded. “I’ll look forward to it.” Jesse saw the waitress returning now. In one hand she held the bill, in the other a new glass of water. “You’re not serious,” Donovan said. “I’m totally serious,” Gregory said. “No irony whatsoever.” It was hard for Jesse to believe this, but Gregory’s face was indeed perfectly flat, absent of either sarcasm or malice. The waitress, who seemed in a far better mood now that Jesse had told her they were leaving, deposited the glass of water in front of Donovan. “Here. Since you need it so bad.” “Oh my god,” Donovan said. “Thank you. Really.” He lifted the small glass and downed it in a few gulps. “That’s the best glass of tap water I’ve ever tasted, I think.” He smiled eagerly at the girl, who did not know how to react. Jesse thought she saw Gregory roll his eyes. “We have a filter,” the girl said. 35
“I’m sure you do, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the water, just the company.” He smiled at her even more warmly than before. The waitress studied him uncertainly for a moment; then a half-approving smile tentatively crossed her face. My, Jesse thought, she’s a lot prettier when she’s not bitchy. “I know what you’re doing,” Gregory said. “Shut up,” Donovan said out of the side of his mouth. “Okay, Mr. Wilton, up and at ‘em,” Gregory said. “If we’re going to have time to talk about Shakespeare.” “You got it,” Jesse’s father said, and stood. “And it’s Daniel, like I said.” He turned to Jesse. “That all right with you?” “Of course, yeah. Can you get him back to my place, Gregory? It’s not far. He can tell you where it is.” Gregory nodded once. “Happy to,” he sang. The two men walked off while Donovan pretended not to notice. “So the water is on my bill?” Jesse said to the waitress. The girl blushed, another new expression for her. “Actually there isn’t a charge. I lied. It’s just that I’m getting off in five minutes, and I was hoping you guys would leave.” Another blush. “Sorry.” For a second Jesse had every intention of reading this girl the riot act, nice ass or not. Then she decided to let it go. “Okay,” Jesse said. “No water charge. That’s good, I guess.” She fished through her purse for her credit card. “You’re off in five minutes?” Donovan asked. The waitress checked the clock on the wall behind Jesse’s head. “Three minutes, actually.” She smiled like a kid admitting she stole a lollipop. “You want to cruise the sidewalk for a few?” Donovan said. “It looks like it’s going to be a hell of a day.” Jesse couldn’t help but notice how Donovan’s intonation changed when he addressed the girl. His words were more clipped, more forceful than usual. More like a man. The waitress sized up Donovan for a last time. Then she shrugged. “Why don’t you wait by the door? I’ve just got to cash out and grab my stuff.” Donovan was up in an instant. He offered her a slight bow. Then: “I will do so presently. Right after I use the men’s room.” The girl grinned, impressed with the ridiculous bow. She ran a hand through her hair. “I’ll show you where it is. C’mon.” They started. Donovan turned back. “See you tomorrow, Jesse,” he said and raised a hand. By the time Jesse raised her own hand the pair was several steps off. She watched as the two fit globes of the girl’s bottom proceeded across the carpeted floor, past a half-dozen, mostly empty tables, Donovan Pogue—of all people—at her side. The arguments were over, thank heaven, but something felt wrong now. She lowered her eyes and saw the lingering 36
plates and forks and dirty napkins from her own finished meal. Something felt wrong. Then she realized what it was. She still didnâ€™t know her lines.
ACE BOGGESS Garbage Time I didnâ€™t come to be mesmerized by the blooming morning poppy I intended disposal but acquired different emptying while below the buildings burned from murk as factories opposite sucked steam back down their chimneys in deference I carry bags of trash up a dull flight of stairs to the road toss them in their cans turn & what I find is full wide east across the city like a portrait of a bomb blast post-atomic Iâ€™m a grateful man this morning I have lost so much I have slept on steel & stone but sometimes a reminder comes in the form of an eagle or death throes of night to urge me Stay as though I ever left
LEA PAGE Hailstorms vs. Blizzards It was ninety-two degrees that day, about as hot as it ever got at our elevation, 5000 feet above sea level, tucked in just under the shoulders of the Rockies. The sun shimmered in the blazingly blue Montana sky while my two children and I unfurled our beach towels in the middle of an open stretch of concrete at our town pool. We had looked around when we walked out of the pool house to see if anyone we knew was there—we knew everyone in our tiny mountain town, so why did we do it? No one had called out or waved us over. We were used to it. It was the summer between my daughter Nina’s fifth and sixth grades. We had pulled Nina out to homeschool after she had suffered a particularly vicious attack on the school playground in fourth grade, but the bullying had gone on for years. The playground incident was the talk of the town for weeks. But that was just the last straw! I wanted to scream. No one who had grown up in Montana, no one who was sure of their own belonging, could—or would—acknowledge that a little girl who was not from around there, who wore a riot of clashing prints to her first day of kindergarten, could become the target of an informal yet highly effective campaign of exclusion and humiliation. I wanted them all to understand that it was the relentlessness of the exclusion, not the severity of the attacks that made the bullying so toxic, that drove the infection below the surface where the damage would be more threatening and more lasting. But that talk? It was just good gossip. There was no real conversation. By then, my rage made any sort of meaningful engagement impossible. My anger, flimsy cover for my own helplessness and guilt, provided ample excuse for anyone wishing to deny what had happened to my daughter. Whenever the inevitable question arose—What did Nina do to bring this on?— I lashed out, teeth and claws bared. I didn’t trust anyone anymore. A lifeguard blew long on her whistle. It was the top of the hour: time for the ten-minute adult swim. Two dozen wet heads emerged from the pool. Some took their small change to the snack machines. Others, goosefleshed even in the heat, wrapped up in their towels and leaned their heads and shoulders into each other. They were all conspicuously with friends. Nina and Thomas, stretched out on their towels, were conspicuously not. Thomas, six years old, turned his head to watch the other children. Nina, eleven, rested her head on her hands and stared fixedly at the pool, where two older women swam laps, slowly, without getting their hair wet. One conscientious mother pulled her daughter alongside her folding chair, whispered into the girl’s ear and gestured toward Nina. The girl whined loudly, “No, Mom!” But the mother was firm, so the girl obeyed her mother’s directive and approached us. Her steps slowed as she neared Nina, 39
and she looked over her shoulder miserably at her mother— Yes, her mother’s eyes said, you have to do this. Clearly, the girl was hoping for some sort of deliverance from her cruel fate. Nina graciously provided it by declining the girl’s reluctant invitation. By then, Nina knew better than to hope for the best. The girl managed to walk the first five yards away from us before she broke into a desperate run and crashed with relief into the crush of her friends, who covered their gaping mouths with their hands and pressed their heads together to debrief that latest close call. I opened our bag and passed snacks and water bottles to Nina and Thomas. When the lifeguard blew the whistle again, Nina and Thomas were dry and hot and ready to get in the water. I didn’t even pretend to read a book or a magazine. I might go in for a dip to cool myself off, but mostly I sat like an eagle, observing the world from my crag, lonely and sharp-eyed. In every direction, the Montana sky dwarfed the fields and mountains. The southern sky was the broadest stage, but it put on a fairly benign show: blue most of the time, with a few harmless cumulus clouds bumping softly along the mountain peaks. Our resident clouds, the ones we always looked for from our house, were a particular formation that broke from the main body, torn off by an updraft at the eastern edge of the mountains. We learned during our physics lessons that this cloud formation was called “lenticular,” but we preferred the name we gave it, “stack-o-pancakes,” considering that to be, frankly, the more obvious choice. Occasionally the southern sky worked up enough energy to produce a thunderhead, but the west was the source of the real action. We had learned to recognize the signs for the fast moving storms, the hailstorms and blizzards. The key to predicting hail was color: the clouds were a bilious yellow-green. They looked like their guts were churning violently, like they were ready to spew, which they did, eventually. I looked up from my pool towel—I had dozed off—just as the threatening underbelly of a dark cloud came lurching around Grizzly Peak and spread over the pool house and then the pool itself. It must have been the sudden shade that woke me. Hailstorms travel at about twenty miles per hour (by our calculations), which gave us time to react, if we moved fast. I hustled Nina and Thomas, dripping, into the truck, and we roared out of town. I gunned it on the dirt road to our house, skidding the washboarded turns as if I’d been born and raised on the set of Dukes of Hazzard. I kept my eyes ahead while Nina and Thomas watched out the back window and shouted updates as the curtain of precipitation gained on our tailgate. Thinking of the innocent vegetables that I had nursed along so tenderly, I peeled into our driveway, and we abandoned our wet pool towels on the seats of the truck. Everyone knew the drill and raced to the garden. If we were lucky, we’d have about three minutes to flip all of the row 40
covers over the beds—that is, if I hadn’t been too conservative rounding the bends in the road. I had to make the awful choice to save the strawberries and the tomatoes—that was easy—at the expense of some others: the cabbages, the broccoli and heads of lettuce. But what about the beans, the cucumbers, the green chiles my husband was so fond of ? It was an agony to decide, literally an agony, as the hailstones grew from quarter-inch peas to half-inch marbles. At that point, we had to run for cover. We stood inside and watched as the summer world turned white. Blizzards, also born out of the west, were harder to outrun. They were, as you might expect, a moving great wall of white. But it was easier than you might think to be caught by one. Most of them came at you across an already white landscape, moving against a uniformly white sky. Living in an all-white world, where you have to use your more light-sensitive peripheral vision to detect the line where the snowdrifts stop and the sky begins, was just something you got used to. The trick was to notice when that whiteness was moving, and since it was hard to distinguish one white mass from another, particularly at a distance, you had to rely on senses other than sight, perhaps the same vestigial awareness that clears animals from the coast before a tidal wave comes ashore. That, or keep tabs on the weather report and the ravens. The random and narrowly defined destruction of hailstorms didn’t faze me. In the aftermath of the hail that summer day, I stood in the garden, my cabbages little mounds of green froth and my corn sliced as if beset by a hairdresser gone mad with the shears, and I put my hand to my mouth to hold in a little cry for the waste of it all, but I didn’t take it personally. We could replant, and there was always next year. We could recover from a hailstorm, just as we could soothe the wounds, both physical and emotional, that the bullies inflicted on my daughter. But the denial was the true danger. It crept up on us—on me—in a way that I was unprepared for. Inundated by repeated insinuations—or flat out statements—that the bullying hadn’t happened, or, more often, that there was something about my daughter that caused it, I began to question what I knew and what we had experienced. I lost my inner compass. A blizzard makes you doubt your very existence. It doesn’t destroy, but it renders you invisible. All points of reference are erased, engulfed in a white, one-dimensional world, with no light and no shadow, no near, no far, no left, no right. Were it not for gravity, you would lose track of your sense of up and down, and you still might be uncertain about that. Even on the road by my own home—the one that I walked every day— everything that was familiar to me, that I took for granted, that I thought was permanently sunk into the ground, that I, myself, with my own hands, had planted and nurtured and watched develop, could be obliterated by such a storm. I could know exactly where I was and still be utterly lost. 41
It has taken me over a decade to dig myself out, to understand what happened to my daughter, to us. With the clarity of the midday sun, I am finding my bearings once again. I can see what has been buried, what was lost, and what can be salvaged. We can begin again.
SCOTT WIGGERMAN Isle of the Blessed starting with a Dickinson line (#1760)
Elysium is as far as to the very nearest room. A curtain is used to create a wall, the sheerest room. Years of drugs, although prescription, stickied his synapses. He cannot remember when his mind was the clearest room. Ask any two people—you won’t get a match on paradise. Could be a chamber in heaven, or could be the queerest room. An old man wears a bib, drinks coffee from a sippy cup. It’s true that the final one is always the austerest room. The relief of checking a watch: visiting hours are over. Stifled and restrained. Who is alive in the merest room? Can’t take it with you—what’s left can fit in a cardboard box. Petal by petal, roses fall in the insincerest room. When I have crossed the fields, traversed the quiet waters, should I feel blessed to lie inside this severest room?
SCOTT WIGGERMAN Calligraphy 101 After a lifetime of bad habits, I’m relearning my letters, one pain-staking stroke after another. I’m appalled at the curves of my g, the malformed y, the misshapen humps of my n and u. My q is unrecognizable. More than the shapes, it’s the unnatural means of so many letters— two strokes for a c, three for an s; the cautious starts at 45-degree angles and stops, tiptoeing, not squatting on the tightropes of lines. I hold the italic marker tighter than I ever hold a pen or pencil, as if I am not sure I have it in the right hand. I have to concentrate, no flow, I realize, less like a child and more like someone my age who’s had a stroke but who’s determined to make his s sing.
ROBERT MANASTER Jerusalem's Brothers The Esau not far from home After sweltering through his father's fields. The Jacob whose sullen mind envisions What a nation is made of. The brutally loving one who cries out Bless me too, father! after torn bread Has sopped up the last of prepared stew. The intentional, loving one Who despises a brother's Red-earthen skill. The one who spears And disembowels a wild cry. The one not far from A mother's biblical gift and curse, Not far from her God. The one who hastily vows the other should die. The one who looks down And away in shame, sweltering over An uncle's field as he labors forEver, labors for love, for the sake Of loving within another limit; The one who gains other lands As well, who waits and withholds, Who looks to his future dwelling, Broods for love and mulls over A missing embrace.
ROBERT MANASTER Sweeter Than Honey, Stronger Than a Lion As the pressure of his head, The heavy squeeze, was pushing forward, I thought I felt how women contained Love, but I knew—thank God—I was a man And it was Tuesday morning before work. I waited by our screen door for her As he stood leaning between my legs, His arms wrapped snuggly around These pillars, crying—a load of crying. What's wrong? What's wrong? I, his father, wanted to know, Maternal soothings blindly Buckling through me like a fault.
ROBERT MANASTER Becoming Prayer Radio off, windows down, blocks of blank thought Along Cherry Hills Drive, he stops at Crescent. No longer busy in the bustle of city blocks, He notices the sway from a neighborhood sprinkler. As he pulls away, he breathes in a damp green. There is none else. He turns at Duncan. Evening's not quite dark. The homes loom like caverns. Trees are silhouettes. The skyâ€™s a pose Of opaque blue, the peel of slate. He turns into Sinai Temple's lot And into a space to park. Engine off, Out of car, a bag with challah And grapes, barely a wind Through the late summer air, A mild splosh of laughter Across the street at the outdoor cafĂŠ, The slight sway-swoosh Of oak, a few cheery peeps within, He, at the front door he opens, walks in: Out of that homeless Aramaean our populous nation, Out of an unleavened history Your bread of freedom, Out of this savory landscape my present of first fruits: Here.
ROBERT MANASTER The End of Being Holy I No one was out. Across the street, a wobbly wire fence Separated the ranch-home lot from the faceless Foreign apartments—my parents had called them the Greens. Along Church Street were the same prefigured town homes — I was told Hispanics and Indians moved in. There were blocks Of blanched sidewalks and squared-off lawns. A stump Where our stupendous oak once stood. II What of desire to pass on one’s own bloodline? I'm reminded of the outsider Shechem forcing Dinah for his own Then her brothers slaying and plundering his town. What of this rape then gust of vengeance? Later, they're told, Purify yourselves and change your clothes. Thank God—no, thank the Jewish sages— We leave this vile account alone, and move on. III Estonian House—its yard, a fragrant Green lawn that lay beneath the towering trees. In slight winds, the chuppah leaned and fell. When the Priest-uncle and Rabbi performed Their script, the microphone failed. Our wedding became a home movie, The muted, modern act of body language and feeling. IV A silver cross caught my eye as a glimmer Of defiance as you walked down the aisle. Caught in all eyes, I thought, against your chest— There to see and know. It had, It had a fluorescent fragrance, Which somehow the evening outlasted. The stars In the clearest dark were dancing with us past one a.m.
FAITH S. HOLSAERT Find a Home Place Once upon a time, my children and I lived up Middle White Oak Holler in coal country in Boone County, West Virginia. Driving my VW squareback south from the Post Office, gas station, and IGA that constituted the town of Racine, we followed route 119 above the Coal River, houses reached by steep dirt drives perched high above the road looking like they might pitch forward over the road cut, a few houses down drives below the road in the bottom before the bridge. The road my children and I drove every day: a place of steepness and aboveness and belowness, treacherous when the surface was ice, threatened when the river rose. Across the bridge, just past Peytona Elementary, but before Drawdy Falls (where miners gathered for rallies during strikes), a tight right turn onto Middle White Oak, a dirt road passing the coal tipple before launching itself up waterfall hill. At the top, opening into a small valley or holler, we passed a few houses before reaching our drive on the left. Perched on a point of land above the dirt road, the house was small, hand built by working people, sided in gray, green and red asphalt “brick.” The interior walls were rough-cut oak, possibly taken off the land, a deep coffee brown and hardened so by age that when a friend tried to cut a hole in my bedroom wall, to put in a window, he burned up the motor of his power saw. We sheltered in this house, with its tarpaper roof, the wild hill of woods behind us. Up in the woods was a poorly concealed and abandoned mine. The changing colors and moods of the seasons made their way across the hill we faced, where the Hagers lived. We lived with change; we lived with barely concealed chasms which everybody knew about; we lived with neighbors. My daughter had not begun kindergarten, and my son was in first grade. We were a unit of three, living with our dogs and cats. I with two young, brimming people, one learning to read at school and one who would soon teach herself to read, reading not only words on a page, but reading themselves and the world, coding so that they spoke an English my parents would have recognized, broadening their English into mountain speech with play mates. I see them running in the grass in their bright hippie clothes. An early lover of mine lived with us, but she was often gone emotionally and physically, though her presence in her absence was pervasive—I was in love with her. Evenings my children and I came home from school. They played in the fallen autumn leaves with our dogs, painted at the dining room table in the winter. In a heavy summer rain, sending brown water boiling through the creek, the two might shout and dance under the downspout, their bodies brown and their underpants incandescent white in the storm light. In warm weather, my daughter sat on our high front porch, her hair wisping in the breeze and sang with Buffy St. 49
Marie, “I’m gonna be a country girl again, with an old brown dog and a big front porch and rabbits in the pen.” She could be in our little house and abroad in the world with Buffy St. Marie and those rabbits we’d never own; she did absorb the mourning and anger, the righteousness of Buffy St. Marie; you could see this in the rose flush of Carmela’s face. After baths in the rudimentary bathroom, an add-on to the original unplumbed house, after their damp bodies wrapped in towels in front of the Early Morning heater while they put on flannel night clothes, bed. We were people who drove route119 below houses that might topple down upon us, drove above the Coal River which could rise like a mother fucker. Home. Near Homeless: the bureaucratic label for Carmela today. Housing. San Francisco. For a year in 2009, Carmela lived in the studio apartment which her brother and I paid for, but he and I couldn’t sustain the cost. Her only choice was to move into a homeless shelter. Her brother brought his family’s vacuum cleaner into San Francisco and the two of them finished cleaning and emptied the apartment. They propped her almost new mattress against a wall in the street. I think they ate an early supper. She couldn’t check into the shelter until a prescribed time. Her brother kissed her good-bye and she walked off around the corner. At the shelter, sixty women slept on the floor in an open space: one, an elder with an ostomy bag. The toilet for the sixty women was up a flight of stairs. In the morning, I don’t think there were prepared meals, but random food from Food Banks and the like and then, outdoors during daylight hours whether it was hot or cold or wet. She said, “Mom, I’m slipping through the cracks.” She had been entirely absent from my life for seventeen years. I hadn’t known if she were living or dead. Slipping through the cracks: No. A city where affordable rentals are a chimera, San Francisco has a large stock of old hotels, some of them wood structures, which offer housing to the near-destitute and the destitute. In 2009, the wait list for subsidized housing was eight years, in her fragility eight years was an unimaginable investment in the future for Carmela. To ease the need for housing, the city, and various agencies, had bought some of these old hotels and turned them into housing for homeless persons. After six months on the floor of the shelter, Carmela was offered space in The Seneca, a huge “hotel” for homeless persons with mental illness. It was located on Sixth just off Market Street where homeless persons and cyber hipsters and tourists and school-skipping teenagers brushed shoulders. Hundreds of people lived at the Seneca. To visit her, I 50
had to be buzzed in and out and relinquish my ID to the desk staff. Staff was overworked. Violence in the corridors, the stairwells. Shared toilets where at least once Carmela found feces in the bath tub. She could open the medicine cabinet above her small sink, and reach into the room of her neighbor on the other side of the wall. His smoke came into her room by the same route. She was an oddity, white and relatively young, relatively healthy. Her approach to being different was to be friendly. Walking down Market Street with her, she invariably greeted, and was greeted by, people from The Seneca, people who’d known her at the women’s shelter and before, when she and her children had lived in the domestic violence system. What stands between Carmela and homelessness is the money I send her monthly. She could not live at the SRO without it. The margin between Carmela near homeless and Carmela homeless is $1,000/month. She and I are both on my mobile phone plan. I mail her items, especially over the counter drug store items and clothes. And I pay in never-ending fear for her safety. I don’t say, “in Carmela’s experience,” or, “Carmela feels that….” Readers will have to figure it out. I won’t be helping you out. Home was bathing my children at night. Home was second gearing the VW up waterfall hill. Home was a child figuring out vowels and for the first time recognizing the words in Dr. Seuss, a child inventing reading for herself. Home was Carmela singing her heart out from the porch above our holler: “I’m gonna be a country girl again with an old brown dog and a big front porch and rabbits in the pen.” Home was taking a sick child to Cabin Creek Clinic, stopping in Marmet to fill the prescription, and back home hovering over his or her restless sleep, sure that we had things under control. Home was his guitar, her dance. Home was talking about everything, at least what I thought was everything. The term single room occupancy denotes that a person’s entire domestic life takes place in one room. The demarcator: SRO or not SRO. In 2012 Carmela left the Seneca and moved into an SRO in the Mission. She has lived at this SRO for more than four years. She has an 8*12 room with bath in a building rife with violence, prostitution, drug partying, and exhaustion. An enormous proportion of her co-tenants are military vets, including at least one man who served in Vietnam. The Medical Examiner’s van has been there twice when I was with her. The spring of 2014, she phoned to say a woman had been found dead in the garbage chute (later I saw it reported in the news). This is where she lived in 51
2014 when for weeks she lay on her bed and didn’t go out and didn’t answer her phone and didn’t eat. Dictated by chronology, I would have built a framework with clean uprights and planed beams, taken us down corridors and up skeletal stairs from Carmela’s and my reuniting in 2009 to the crisis of 2014. Except. But. What does temporal movement have to do with the blood muddy odor of unsafe housing, the unreliable ground of psych-world, the clamor of physical pain embedded in time? A structure has an inherent sense, because it couldn’t stand up otherwise. What if there is no sense? How does a chronology in a chaotic, uncaring, and perhaps malign system make sense of itself ? In 2009 when we reunited in that noisy, under-construction corridor at St. Francis Hospital. That summer when we shared a studio apartment, she spent most of her time day and night in the only bedroom, on the Ikea mattress, door closed. At night, I heard her TV through the wall. I heard her laughter over and over again. And then I realized, it wasn’t laughter. She was crying. Night after night. Hour after hour. Thirty-eight years old, but baby wailing cries like no hope remaining. St. Francis did not touch the weeping. She was in an outpatient program for people with dual diagnoses (bipolar disorder and substance abuse). Although she may have been bipolar (or maybe not), she did not have a substance abuse problem. I confided in a San Francisco friend who is a health policy professional that the program was unsatisfactory. She told me, Contact the hospital’s patient ombudsman. She said, Every hospital is required to have an ombudsman and I understood, this is a fight my friend and her peers had won. I tried to find the ombudsman at St. Francis. I believed things could be made right. When I asked the affable but harried social work dude, he couldn’t tell me. Going to the St. Francis website in 2016, I search for “patient ombudsman.” Result? “No results found for patient ombudsman.” In addition, I find that the St. Francis website now appears under the url dignityhealth.org, which is such a crock of branding and history-erasing bullshit. In the normal course of events Carmela was discharged from St. Francis, She and I searched for a therapist, trying her old contacts and some of mine. It took long distance help from my best childhood friend to find a therapist with knowledge of multiple personalities to work with Carmela. Carmela and I walked from the apartment on O’Farrell in a neighborhood called Polk Gulch to the therapist’s Financial District office in a complex set in a private park, which also seemed to be the therapist’s home. Private pay. Four times a week. Paid for with thirty years of accumulated dividends on my Life Insurance, a policy bought at the time I had bought the $19,000 house up Middle White Oak. During their first week of working together, the therapist told Carmela the emotional 52
structure within which Carmela lived was “not real.” Carmela came out of the session, color drained from her face. Before she entered the revolving door to get out of the building, Carmela said, “She says it isn’t real.” She whispered it so quietly I didn’t understand it the first time. In a counter move which made sense to her, Carmela bought herself an engagement ring in a pawn shop: a defiant act: We are real. We are pledged. Carmela had been on a mixture of meds at St. Francis, but without a supervising doctor, the prescriptions lapsed. The therapist arranged a private-pay prescribing psychiatrist. Almost immediately, Carmela complained of severe stomach pains and other symptoms. We visited UCSF looking for help. One doctor said in the hall outside the examining room, audible to Carmela and me: “How do you expect me to treat her? She’s psychotic.” The husband canceled Carmela’s health insurance, although they were still married. I couldn’t private-pay what she needed. I had asked the therapist for a sliding scale, but she had denied me. Carmela’s physical and psych pain were overbearing. I felt so stuck. I asked her what the therapist would say. Carmela said acidly, “She’s a therapist, Mom. She’s not God.” That summer in the barely furnished apartment, scarcely having learned how to speak across the years of absence, we were trying to invent how to read where we were and how to get somewhere else. And I believed there was a somewhere else. At that point, I thought we would find the right doctor, the right therapist, that someone who could make things right would take an interest in Carmela. Try: God. All that summer, I hoped for a save. I would walk by myself, Carmela closed in her room back at the apartment, scaling the heights so I could look out over the bay and beyond the dread that inhabited me, finding the Whole Foods where I could buy the illusion of comfort by food, buying a French Press and some coffee beans, grocery shopping, second guessing what she might like to eat, she whom I had not known for so long, and all that time, I was hoping that therapy would make it better, that medications would make it better, that she would no longer need to weep, that the soft tissue masses and internal obstructions would go away. We needed to get back to the other side of an invisible fence, back where things were normal. How beyond normalcy our reality was: One day after one of my dread-filled walks, I turned onto our street, O’Farrell, from Van Ness. Police cars and officers in protective gear clustered downhill, between me and the apartment building. Dead center between Polk and O’Farrell, in the middle of the street, an area had been cordoned off. Was it when I turned the corner onto O’Farrell or later that flames and smoke burst out of the ground? People around me in the street said, Pacific Gas and Electric. A worker told me I couldn’t walk down the block, but I kept walking as if I hadn’t heard him. Past the power erupting from below the pavement. Toward Carmela. As long as I was alive, I would reach her. Smoke billowed. In the building, emergency doors blocked the 53
elevators. I don’t remember how this worked, or how I got through. Perhaps I walked up the echoing stairwell. We were ordered to shelter in place. That evening, I watched the glass fronted building across from me, watched reflected smoke billowing in perfect clarity on the surface of the glass, behind which I could see people in their apartments. The shelter in place lasted for days. A day or two in, I went to Berkeley to visit my son’s family. When I returned, Carmela had eaten the cabinets bare. We existed in a place of thrall and flames shooting from below the street, where there should not be flames, where there should not be an opening between walking-around air and the air below the paved crust. And people had ideas about how Carmela and I could do things better. Ideas they thought were The Idea. A friend of my son’s family was sure the clinic where this woman interned as a social work student would be the thing. She had glowing things to say about it and was adamant in her belief they could turn things around. Carmela had heard about the clinic; the crowds, which she couldn’t tolerate; the waits, the overworked staff and ineffective services; but she agreed to try it. She sat in line for services. The staff person she spoke to was so overwhelmed by her story, he sent her home in a cab and I don’t know that he offered any services at all. With a city as over-stretched as San Francisco in 2009, many programs which look great on paper have wait lists which render them inaccessible or are so under-funded that they are ineffective to nonexistent. People said, “Carmela should be on medication,” but half the time she was, on a cocktail which might change from month to month, from doctor to doctor. Then the insurance was canceled, and we couldn’t pay for meds. And, the stomach cramping and pains with the meds were awful. It took me a long time and the help of a therapist to learn to say to those who asked about meds as if meds were God, “You know, if she were in an ideal situation in which she was monitored, in which she saw the same doctor month after month, in which she was housing-secure and well fed, maybe they would find the right meds.” Some implied Carmela should suck it up, live with the vomiting and headaches, that somehow her behavior was the failure. I learned to say, “She has given it a good faith effort.” It was a relief to learn to say this, but it also cost me in the disbelief, the impatience, the tuning-out from those I loved who could not hear me. If Carmela would try hard enough. If I would make her. Recalcitrant: the two of us. Within the year, the social work intern who had urged us to try the clinic left it for a private practice, disgusted with the inadequate quality of the clinic’s services. Since then a friend has said, “To say, If she were in an ideal situation in which she was monitored. That’s horrible. In which she was monitored? How about, an ideal situation in which she was cared for?”
Early summer, the therapist in the office in a private park in the Financial District insisted I move back to North Carolina, which I reluctantly did. In 20/20 retrospective vision, I see how the therapist preyed upon Carmela’s isolation. At the end of the summer, the therapist underwent shoulder surgery. While taking pain medications, she attended sessions with Carmela and revealed info about another client. After that session, Carmela never went back. The therapist stuffed Carmela’s phone inbox with messages and showed up uninvited at Carmela’s apartment. I told the therapist to stop. I should have filed an ethics complaint, but we were facing too much else that was difficult. And, I was afraid if Carmela applied for Social Security Disability, she would need the therapist to support her claim. I was back home in North Carolina. We slipped into therapy and medication limbo. Always there was the little one singing on our porch overlooking Middle White Oak holler, she who had become a dancer, she who had first turned to psychotherapy on her own in her twenties, she who knew her body, her mind, her heart as best she could decipher, she who had become a mother to two. Always, she was looking for a way to feel better. She took pilates and tried acupuncture. She spoke once a week with the hot-line counselor she had spoken to since she left her home in Brisbane. The gutsy child found therapy for free at a women’s program, but they offered a limited number of sessions. They extended her time with them at least once and helped her negotiate her move into the homeless system. Living at the Seneca, she was assigned a therapist through the public health system, but she rarely saw the same therapist twice and the therapists contradicted one another. The therapists often canceled, due to government furloughs dictated by the financial crisis. Her weekly therapy was more like once or twice a month. The standard for multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, is four or five sessions a week. Carmela told them when she stopped going to sessions, with such a sketchy schedule she couldn’t establish the trust necessary for therapy. Probably she’s recorded as having rejected services. That summer of our re-joined life, she and I went to an ob-gyn appointment at an outlying clinic of a big medical center. She was ushered into the examining room area, but was brought back. Her heart rate was so high they wanted to send her across the street for an EKG. We gathered up our things and went across the street, and up in the elevator, into a warren of rooms and corridors. They verified, her heart rate, I think, was around 150. She put her clothes back on, we went down in the elevator, across the street and up in the other elevator and I wanted to scream, Make her safe. I wanted to beg, Please. Wanted a miracle save from her frightened heart rampaging in her chest. And yet, being who she inalienably is, when she stopped to use the bathroom on the way back to the ob-gyn suite, she took a long time in the single user bathroom, because she was cleaning it with paper towels and dispenser soap. Because that’s who she is. 55
If your autonomy is broken. If you are harmed continuously. Is there a possibility of home? Late summer 2009, Carmela arranged an internship for herself at a dance studio where she had worked as a teenager. In DC. Around the birthday of our daughter Erin, Carmela, Vicki, Erin, and I met in the restaurant America at DC’s Union Station. Vicki had not seen Carmela in seventeen plus years. Erin and Carmela hugged, Erin in her easy, sister’s way with Carmela, though they had never actually lived together. We were winding up the stairs, coming out upon the restaurant’s airy second floor. We were given cloth napkins and had pulled in our chairs with a metal screech. We were handed menus as big as a three year old, though we would revert to the easy orders: mac and cheese, hamburger, grilled chicken. The conceit of the restaurant was that they served the specialty of an outrageous number of regions served by Amtrak. There we were on Planet Food Homogenized, sitting on an interpersonal powder keg that could have blown like a Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline. “The West” being to some the quintessential America, the walls were covered in larger than life cowboys astride rearing and snorting horses, enormous splashes of pinto and roan horseflesh. There were ropes and neckerchiefs, dust and swirling sunset. Stampede and bronco and cattle drive. I guess it wouldn’t have done to have slave ships, or lynchings, or No Irish Need Apply, iconic as those American images would also have been. The images of cowboys and horses mocked the heavy napkined gentility of the place. After the waiter had brought us a basket of very white bread, I said, “It’s wonderful to be here. Vicki and me, and two of our daughters.” I was aiming for amiable, celebratory, embracing. “There are many more daughters than that,” Carmela said. “You’re right,” I said. “One hundred fifty eight of us.” At my side, I felt Vicki tense at this flamboyance, but was it flaunting on Carmela’s part or was it devotion to who she was? Carmela: Brand Never Homogenized. Even I had trouble with that number of alters, so enormous, so many parts to Carmela, but I had watched some of the parts emerge and be named on a piece of paper, handwriting for the names often different one from the other. Carmela had always been not just a high achiever, but an over-achiever. After we had finished eating, Carmela, perhaps ready to shed us, the family she hadn’t had for so many years, agreed to hasty photos. I have one from that evening of Erin in red print rayon dress, Carmela in a similar black and blue rayon, their dark-haired heads close, Carmela pressing into the side of Erin’s head, their slim arms wrapped around one another. Sisters. And in the background the swirl of horses’ haunches, and whips. 56
For a long time, PTSD was her psych diagnosis, along with possible bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. To get a diagnosis, a name for why she hurt. And, possible relief. To be with her is to experience the extremity of the world: We were walking on Mission, in a block of locked and gated doors to small businesses and warehouses, windowless facades. We had decided to walk, rather than take a cab. Though my leg pain was fierce, I knew how much she liked to be outdoors and to walk. She had walked less and less, because of the threats to her safety. “I’ve lost my safety,” she has said. I was more aware of the pain in my knee and hip than I was aware of her, more focused on how many more blocks we had to go. She was irritable. I was walking too close to her; I was walking on the wrong side of her. The sunlight was bright and wind swirled trash against the buildings. She doubled over and cried out. Something had flown into her eye. Within seconds, she was howling with pain, yes, but with terror, too. And it didn’t stop. I don’t know if the cinder, let’s call it a cinder, was still in her eye. I wanted to fold her into my arms, stroke her hair, stroke her cheek down which tears were streaming, but I was also afraid of triggering the woman who had said I was walking too close to her, was doing everything wrong. I offered to find a place where we could rinse out the eye, and she kept howling and the city people who went by gave us hardly a glance. She was in lock down. A long time later, the pain and fear subsided and we began to walk, but she still shuddered with after-pain. Since 2012, her bed and floor have shaken, often violently. She is sleep deprived and describes her life with the word “torture.” She is stabbed by pain. She has blockages in her digestive system, and terrible headaches. She has had visible and palpable soft swellings on her limbs and in her vaginal canal. She is near-blind and her hearing is fading—she is losing touch with the world. She had remained active, having an exercise bike in her room, doing floor exercises on a mat, joining a fitness club on Market Street, swimming at a gym, and walking long distances, from the Mission to the Ferry building on the bay and back. Since 2013 or so she has spent more and more time in her room, afraid of assaultive strangers, herself exhausted or ill. Not out in the streets where the woman in the newspaper kiosk speaks to her in rapid Spanish. Not waving to the Filipino man in his ironed shirt sitting in the plate glass window of his SRO. Not waving to the owner of Al Hamra as she walks past. In 2011, the first morning of one of my California trips, Carmela and I were seated with my suitcase and other paraphernalia in a coffee shop, the crowd pressing in upon us. I heard the words Ehlers Danlos Syndrome for the first time. She said with excitement, “Look it up on your computer,” so there in the coffee shop, I did. A connective tissue disorder in which the 57
body can not support itself and the organs may not support their functions. The tissues become so elastic that the resulting hyper mobility is life threatening. Ehlers Danlos causes pain, daily and always. “I’ve always been double jointed,” she said, and bent her elbow backwards in a way that turned my stomach. She has said, Notice his golf tan. She has said, I like this doctor. He wheels in the machine. She tells him, My bio mom, by way of introduction. She says, Ehlers Danlos. He says, We’ll see. He has her lie on the table in her lime jockeys. Her no-color brassiere bands her meager back. Her legs nothing but long bones. He presses lubricated disks onto the skin of her leg, her thigh, the bottom of her foot. Leads feed the machine. She blurts she is wearing a pad. She has found recently that she is leaking. He turns on the juice. She gasps. He increases the jolt. She jerks. Her pain inscribes a roller coaster on the screen. The lines unfold a fan of pain. She says: what if ? and next week? and tomorrow? She says, wheelchair? He says, Don’t jump the gun. He places each needle precise embroidery in her skin. She says, It will be good to know. He taps her leg—the one with the swelling. Move your leg. Right here. She can not. With his hand, he moves the leg. On the screen’s glass the pain scatters and darts. We will “hear” your muscles, he says—a metaphor, I suppose. A sound surfaces, the creak of a mast, or, I think, the bedrock shifting. He exposes her spine, above the lime green, her shoulder blades thin knives. When she was born I would touch the buttons of spine below the downy sheath of hair. Her hands flutter and she chatters. He says, I want to see you next week. She says, they will give me one months from now. If you, but he interrupts, I want to see you next week. You can get dressed. San Francisco General was uphill from the Seneca. We started out passing three or four smoking and joking Seneca residents in front of the building. Down Sixth we passed the mobile police van, the Bayanihan House, up to Potrero, where the hospital’s Building 5 looms in my memory as dark and ancient. I remember a Jane Eyre sorrow in its facade, though 58
the 2016 pictures I pull up on google are of new buildings, glass and gleaming metal and the hospital has a new name: Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. The money that will one day push Carmela out of her neighborhood muddies her medical waters and renames my memories. Inside, the corridors were dark and noisy. There were many very sick people, many very old people, crowded, waiting in line to reach the small reception windows that looked like the betting windows at a race track. Waiting for appointments. Waiting for the pharmacy to open. People betting medical care could help them, could ease their pain, or others so deeply entrenched, they couldn’t get out. Each visit, at the window Carmela was issued a ticket and then we went upstairs. By the time we came back downstairs, she would be so tired she could barely walk. We would take a cab back to the Seneca. After several more appointments, the doctor said he was quite sure Carmela had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, but there was no point in pursuing the matter because public health would never pay for treatment. Ehlers Danlos is part of how Carmela understands herself in the world of gravity and connective tissue. Going to a dark place. I want to see into the future, to be reassured that there is a future. The first floor interior of SF General, a dim and dulling light, more neon and interrogatory in the clinics on the upper floors. A dimming and dulling of expectations. I am consumed with worry as an unconscious person on a gurney is wheeled past, at the same time proud that Carmela will locate the correct elevator, will manage this place which has taken us in. The place so enormous and we people so small, but our sorrows and terrors big inside the cavern. We huddle down as small as we’d like our sorrow to be, close out the enormity of all the others, huddle down inside resisting the power which has engulfed us, which has control of us. We need control inside this catchment of the destitute. We need not to be business as usual. We need to know. We need to know why we hurt. What is the name for this hurt. Does it have a name. Are we the only ones who have it? We are on an island whose name we haven’t been told. Have the doctors seen this? Can the doctors speak to us, do they know how? Will the nurses remember to call our name? Will we miss our turn? And what if the worst. What if they do not allow us a name, what then? What can we touch so the dark doesn’t kill us? What can we hear? What can we see? Sit in the plastic chair in the waiting area and remember: I’m gonna be a country girl again. Middle White Oak holler. Daylight Savings Time has begun. Light washes bed time and spills over the quilt. The windows open to new leaves and the birds sing as if it were not eight o’clock at night. “It’s still light out,” my son protests. “Okay,” I tell them, “read until you fall asleep.” 59
Carmela was volunteering at the dance studio where she had worked in her early twenties. She was taking classes in the Feldenkrais Method, a somatic system which communicates with the unconscious through movement. She had begun to take a ballet class and in the spring of 2013, was to perform with her class. In preparation, we went to a downtown store. We had bought her an emergency preparedness kit that morning, her life always alarming. On the walk, pedestrians’ sweatshirts blasted messages at her and people blew smoke in her face. Inside the store we fingered the soft skirts, the leotards, finding ourselves back when she had been a high school dancer, the fabrics so new, so soft, so expensive. The clerk talked with Carmela for a little while and measured her feet, those bunioned feet I had recognized in the first photos of baby Richard. The clerk brought a bulging plastic bag of toe shoes, made by a company whose individual shoes are never identical, the shoes pristine pink. Carmela tried on shoes, finding one for the first foot and then the second. The clerk instructed Carmela to stand en pointe. Careful, she warned, Don’t arch enough to break the shank. And Carmela, despite the sweatshirts with hostile messages and the street’s bedeviling cigarette smoke, Carmela in her early forties, Carmela who had slept on the floor with sixty women, Carmela who had two children, Carmela whose pain was ever present, she rose like a miracle onto her toes. Carmela’s breasts began to make milk. She told the SFGH endocrinologist that she was lactating. The endocrinologist thought: pituitary tumor. On my visit to San Francisco when Carmela rose onto her toes, we went to the Jane Eyre heap of hospital for an MRI. Carmela was emotionally prepared for brain surgery within the week. An answer. My child was put in a room that warned, DANGER: STRONG MAGNETIC FIELDS. She was laid out on a surface that was reminiscent of baking sheets or serving platters, and the platform with her on it slid out of sight into a tube. I have since had 20 minute MRI’s in connection with breast cancer; the claustrophobia was almost unbearable and the noise, like a metal barrel of nuts and bolts and plumbing ells being shaken—annihilating. Carmela was in the MRI for an hour. I can not imagine what she felt, already hurting and fearful, but remarkably tough. I think she dissociated and removed herself. The endocrinologist told us there was no evidence of a tumor. She said, Carmela should find an internist to oversee her care, that Carmela’s being sent to one specialist after another would not address Carmela and her health as a whole. Carmela had believed there would be surgery, there would be a solution. Carmela said, she was done with SFGH. She did not think finding an internist would help, and besides: how would we do that? We took our taxi back to the Seneca. Probably recorded as having rejected services.
In the autumn of 2012, Carmela was hospitalized briefly for not eating. There were panicky phone calls. She cleaned out her room at the Seneca, and one night at 11PM checked out. Another rejected services probably. She checked herself into the psych ward, believing she was a psychopath. She felt her physical condition had deteriorated and that she was dying. She said, “My children will understand.” She was moved from SFGH to a community-based facility. Friends, including my elementary school best friend, checked out the program and it looked good on paper. It was a program, again, primarily for people with dual diagnoses. Much if not all of the therapy consisted of daily AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Residents cooked their meals in a grease-spattered and filthy kitchen. Kitchen and staff space and a living room were on the second floor. Below, down a poorly lit corridor, the cubicle bedrooms were unlocked: suicide risks. At least once, Carmela, a survivor of sexual violence, was the only woman in the facility both downstairs (in an unlocked bedroom) and upstairs where the staff was. The diagnosis somatic disorder was suggested. According to NIH: Somatic symptom disorder occurs when a person feels extreme anxiety about physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue. The person has intense thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the symptoms that interfere with daily life. A person with somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is not faking their symptoms. The pain and other problems are real. They may be caused by a medical problem. Often, no physical cause can be found. But it's the extreme reaction and behaviors about the symptoms that are the main problem. At the facility, a social worker, another one of those affable but distracted (exuding sacrifice) social service dudes, told us somatic disorder is associated with methamphetamine use. I found his attitude accusatory: like he was challenging Carmela, so what do you say to that? Carmela was spitting mad is how she felt. Half an hour later, she had signed out of the facility. They gave Carmela her meds in a plastic bag and we caught a cab. She had already scoped out an SRO in the Mission. She can work google on her phone like the over achiever she is. Once she had been shown her room, she threw her meds down the garbage chute and has only used over the counter products in the years since. And undoubtedly has been recorded once again as rejecting services. Potential and actual diagnoses which had appeared in and sometimes disappeared from Carmela’s chart when she moved to the SRO: severe PTSD, bi-polar disorder, multiple personality disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder, ehlers danlos syndrome, pituitary tumor, fibromyalgia, somatic disorder. Can a person be a disorder? Can a disorder be a person? If you can not be at home in your body, can you come home? 61
If not be at home in your body, how do you insist upon a home place for yourself ? She knows how to navigate danger falling in upon her, she knows how to navigate flood waters rising; she knows what home wasâ€”her threecolored short-haired dog, her orange cat. Dance class.
MICHAEL G. SMITH Old Woods Stump at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest
I am a stump of the old woods, my ballads sung by bleached rings and the spikes of a splintered kerf. You cannot see me, but here I am: I am the myths bonding books, the subdivisionâ€™s frame houses framing hollow rooms, sixty-five generations of goshawks fledged in the space my body left behind. I am a stump of the old woods: conks flesh from my girth, feather moss blanket catching bits of sun. I am chill. Lay across me. Measure your breadth against mine.
HILLARY MARTIN Roasted Reruns My devotion to coffee is pragmatic. Contaminated containers clutter counters. Grandma says there's no room for the weak. No cream or sugar, no room for feeble hands. Detox. The house still smells like you, and my tongue finds remnants in my favorite mug. I tried drinking decaf, but my lips knew I was lying. pressure in my head erupts And fingers disembowel cluttered cabinets. Broken teacups and a heavy heartbeat. Ruptured coffee pot sits next to the microwave. Relapse. My veins missed you most when the windows frosted over.
ERIN SLAUGHTER Blue Hole #5 You saw me splash whiskey into my morning coffee and whisper Shhh across the doorway. Eyebrows in flight told me what I needed to know: That none of this matters. That children on swing sets wring themselves dry with dreaming. Some stranger’s strangled sobbing through the wall. Here, absence is a swell of baseless grief that propels me across state lines. Baseless, like, get the fuck over it. Baseless like the bottom dropped out. I regret nothing and if you say it it will be made true, though conjuring your fingers didn’t plant them inside me, didn’t even till the earth. Missed springtime altogether, dew gathered at your hairline. I want you to be happy, and I mean it. I meant it. I open the door and remove the loveless sweater. Remove the petals from my eyelids. Remove the parade from your name, the bracelet from the gravel road. Maybe I’m, again, only starving for the hunger—
ERIN SLAUGHTER Society for the Preservation of Glorious Failure Do you ever get sad thinking about all the dogs in old paintings are dead or the slope of a beautiful womanâ€™s back Ritual is a weepy business First: you must establish if you are the spores or the pillars Next: entertain thoughts of traveling to Iceland and getting finally sober At some point in the near future: wish harm on anyone who makes an analogy about heartbreak and bodies of water Maybe start small, if you get around to it Maybe the size of a thumb-print smudged in plaster There is no place for guilt here We welcome barbed-wire bicep tattoos or flames crawling up a thigh We can even accommodate some styles of 18th birthday butterfly Slaughter your harps and your darlings Wherever, we all come bearing homelands haunted by myth
ERIN SLAUGHTER Ode to Subdivisions There are castles but there are also doorways There are furry haystacks in the yard breeding Dawn dragging its fingernails across the walls looking for the exit On weekdays, blue paint flakes off a long hallway named esophagus rings shedding rings When you say requiem I hear reclaimed O labyrinth of streets named for trees, all over the neighborhood branches grow white and get cut to clothe paper dolls The community pool dried up and hitchhiked west By dinner our snickerdoodle Alamo has fallen so we watch an hour of TV and have defeat for dessert When I look at freckles, I see dust bowls When I look at crowâ€™s feet, I see wings
ERIN SLAUGHTER Girl the Shape of Smoke Rings, I Want to Warn Her the Fish Hook in the Yard Took a lantern from the farmhouse half-sunk slumping against wheatfield like Van Gogh’s parallel vision of the last gasp of fire that softens the road A thousand moss-green bathtubs bloom one after the other in unexpected yards and take Hail Marys or MasterCard only as the faucets fill clogged with scarlet daffodils Pickled skeleton in dirty martini, oh you never know where you’ll find your light or exactly what to fear until a storm of brown eyes rise from the dust of summer and fling open freckled badlands long as neck skin leave you quivering in iron and lace you forget a peeled ankle isn’t an invitation Interesting—how we blame freedom like a nine-year-old who broke a lamp and won’t admit it A pair of panties collapsed on floral bedspread blood, yes, but more than just the inhale of fingered nickel you half-face her and overhead a galaxy curdles
ERIN SLAUGHTER Syzygy Before you wake, I halve the garden and arrange it stillborn on the plate While you were gone I called to say look out the window, another limp dusk another mournful moon-crooning night The emptiness, I called to say while you were away at work. The unanswered corpse of it. The finch in the frying pan I tell you I am flawed and you answer with a river of fingers I tell you I am no galaxy and you embroider me with stars You want to believe in the world with a light dusting of residual magic You want to touch me and see what kind of noises fall out Little white gasps, like footprints in the snow Neither you nor I know if theyâ€™re fires created by frictions of hunger and heat or released captives sticking like dew to the skin of their rescuer after salvage, their first friendly face love, with its crooked teeth
NICOLE BYRNE After Exiting the Sweat Lodge, I Hear My First Loon Nobleboro, Maine, May 2015 Tonight, I am one link in a ring of half-bare bodies slick with blessed sweat, pores gaping and gorging on smoke rich with cedar and sage. My friend has salvaged sorrel from the crabgrass. A gift from the Earth, she says. I am shocked by its delicate sour juice, as sharp as the dark summer air on my skin. As I try to dry myself by the fire, the night releases the sound of a wolf with feathers for teeth giving birth to a wailing child. The loons, says the Elder, they cry to reawaken dreams and hopes we have forgotten. There is no lake in sight, but I trust that it is there. The trees shake in song, and I do not know if it is grief or joy or some rhythm of the heart our language lost words to explain that blooms in my lungs, but I too, open myself and howl.
NICOLE BYRNE The Other Poet after Jane Hirshfield's â€œThe Poetâ€?
She is working even when she is not working: feeding geese at the pond, grocery shopping, sleeping. Her table is bare and her poems are scattered throughout her refrigerator and across the sidewalk, collecting in the mud of gutter deltas, sometimes picked up by the soles of shoes and carried elsewhere. The light (untempered by a shade) is off and the bulb broken. In the darkness she dissolves, tilts her head to the left to release (her harshness) a crick and realizes: The axis
of the earth is a poem.
The foundation of our existence is written slant (in an alphabet she will never decipher).
She opens her door, her windows, and is swallowed in noise.
Time slips through the floorboards. The world is made of small mistakes and she can hear each one turning.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM The Right Agony If it takes agony to break a rock into fissures where moss can grow green sucking its mineral knowledge— if it takes agony for ice to free itself from the fir limb, falling to crystal shatter across the blacktop driveway— if it takes agony for the sky to split, and in the wound between clouds bleed bronze as sunlight fractures— then I am without the right agony, because I have no more than images to hold against my chest tonight.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM Surviving Nightfall My memories bring vacant ghosts much as stars, whose light has traveled beyond their own existence, resolve from that twilight that ascends with dark horizon. The image melts as the afterglow of lost sun jewels to mirrors of fog. Ghosts of roses bare thorns as evanescent as wind or breath. The altar of the diurnal awaits another sacrifice. Breath and wind dissolve fog and afterimage. What must soon sleep is what transcends rest.
LOUIS E. BOURGEOIS A Day in the Life You are old enough to speak and feel but you have no real thoughts and you can’t believe how annoyed you become when your stepfather watches The Lone Ranger and The Three Stooges with the television at top volume at 5:30 in the morning before he goes to work where he welds all day long on black-hulled ships from around the world. Your mother goes to work too, she does something at the State Department and you’re an only child and school is out for the summer and you have to spend your days alone and your nights hidden because your mother and stepfather are doing the unspeakable in the dark and when the lights come back on all they do is watch television; Quincy, Bonanza, and Charlie’s Angels, mostly—or, it’s Sunday again, and no one but you attends mass even though the St. Genevieve’s is only at the end of the road, and when you walk back home all they do is watch the Saints lose another game once again in the Superdome. But it’s mostly the weekdays that are torturous. You’re not quite old enough to be truly turned on by your stepfather’s Playboy collection but you thumb through them anyway because you know it’s something you’re not suppose to be doing. Even at the age of eight, you are genuinely startled that the pages of Playboy actually smell like the nude women on the page. You also notice how your step-father’s sacks of gunpowder which he uses to reload his shotgun shells are as intoxicating as the scent of the slick pages of Playboy. Then you rush from the room because you feel like someone is watching you, even though you know that no one could be watching you, but already Catholicism has damaged you forever. You are a strange child of course, but what child growing up in the 1970s in a working class household is not strange? But you especially; for the school’s test reveals that you are somewhere right in the middle of precocity and stupidity—you read on a high school level but your analytical skills border on retardation. Life 2 You find strange ways to destroy the time between the moments of solitude and the visits by your parents—you kill honeybees with your feet; you smash them until they can’t so much as flicker a single dying wing. You gather a handful of them, and crawl under the enormous white wooden house that your mother rented ever since she left your father two years ago because Father was a wife beater, although not a child beater, and you are conflicted, somehow arrogant, because he never beat you, only mother. You are under the house and the cool mud-packed earth feels good on your 75
skin. You bury the bees with all the rest of the bees you’ve killed during the summer—you’ve pushed a twig in the dirt for each bee grave you’ve dug. Perhaps this is the world’s only Bee Cemetery, since you’ve made sure the graves are neatly arranged in rows of six under the wonderfully spacious house, just down the street from Bayou St. Genevieve. You tell no one about the Bee Cemetery, because you somehow know this is a ludicrous thing to do even for a child, but you keep killing them just the same. You spend hours on the bayou watching many things that eventually bore you and so you turn and go home but before you get to the gate of the huge chain-linked yard, you walk to where there’s thick brush and tall pines, where there is a pit of trash; some of the trash is very old, going back to the 1940s. At the pit, you break ancient bottles of Dixie Beer, Nehi root beer, and Milk of Magnesia bottles by the dozen. You feel guilty about what you are doing, but you do it just the same because you love the sound of busted glass, there is nothing better than breaking old bottles, even if the bottles are so old that they’re sacred; a car pulls up the shell laden drive near the dump, you think of the naked women and of the smells of the pages of Playboy and of gunpowder and you’ll think about it later on tonight when they’ll go to bed and the strange sounds will come from the walls again, like they do almost every night, and then the long silence before the sounds start up again; you think how magnificent it’s going to be when you climb out of your window and escape into the grassy yard where you’ll jump ten feet in the air and run faster than any animal on earth under the heavy moonlight. 1978
JEFFREY ALFIER Penngrove in a Drought Year With the late sun low, the shadow of Mack’s bar deepens over the rail stop platform. This bar’s a place that incites me to play Grand Funk a dozen times on the juke, get the barmaid to sing along — save for the fact I’m forever shy to ask. She’s part time here, a nursing student at Sonoma State. Draws blood for therapy, she tells me. Another woman, with strange sleepy eyes asks me to play Liar’s Dice. She’s with a biker from Rip City Riders. He’s downed a third blended whiskey and isn’t happy. I pretend my hearing’s shot, can barely hear her, and don’t understand the game. Behind me through the window, a passenger steps off the outbound train. She wishes upon a blue flower growing between the tracks, lifting itself from the stone.
JEFFREY ALFIER A Map of Vaughn, New Mexico Te vas? No. Alas rotas. â€”Frieda Kahlo
Clues puzzle out of broomweed and windbreaks. A fourth of the town lives south of the poverty line. The high school fields a six-man football team. I jaywalk streets barely paved, short-cut someone's weak attempt at a lawn. Hit Phillips 66 mart for booze, then east to the Santa Fe station, its freight of moths and starling nests. Seated on the platform, I face the tracks. Malt liquor sails my mind out of idle. Now I'm back at Bel-Air Motel. The clerk said the "No" in front of "Vacancy" has never been lit. Cigarette stains on ageless Formica. Furtive occupants. I sprawl on the bed and share the vacancy. The headboard in the next room thumps the wall behind me. I hear a car pull up. Doors open and slam. A child's voice asks if this is where they live now.
JEFFREY ALFIER At Edith’s Ranch Along Washoe Creek One again, autumn stands by my door. It kills time at a half-open window— curtains rippling, the wind checking in. Edith, who’s hired me on for the harvest, phones late in the day. Says come over for what she calls her office hours. She’s a half-hour down the road by foot. I amble up her drive. On the porch, she points to a wicker chair beside her. Sundown. Bourbon in our fists. We talk feed grinders, bale trailers, hayracks, the rain that refuses us like bad love. We stare out over her fields. Blackberries crawl through the vanished windows of her dad’s ’60 Studebaker. Hatred for this drought surges from our mouths the way dust devils rise over roads, like an ambush of grit. Falling dampness soddens the porch rail. Night swells in the muted wind. In a poplar, the moon’s caught like Absalom on the run.
JOSĂ‰ ANGEL ARAGUZ Beginning Dust When the music stops, voices around the fire can be heard. Family mixes with leaves and the last sparks snapped from the wood. Where there were guitars, and a man claiming pero sigo siendo el rey, bottle-clink and coughs. Honesty becomes the sound of breaking, and the smell of ash, earth spent, reduced. Dust continues to be king.
JOSĂ‰ ANGEL ARAGUZ Dress Dust In my motherâ€™s closet, a flower dress she used to wear to work, small patches of it gone to moths. Dust on wings, you take away the mother I reached for as a child. A woman who at times felt like light.
JOSĂ‰ ANGEL ARAGUZ Work Dust At noon, the stars are elsewhere being made much of. I work. Outside, a woman slams her car door. A little boy at the corner, his hands over his eyes, is either lost or looking for someone. The register opens again, the change I keep track of leaves, dust on my hands. Elsewhere, there are shapes to be seen in the stars.
JOSĂ‰ ANGEL ARAGUZ Shadow Dust There is a wind that picks up these days, the dust so my ears are words written in chalk my hands have tried to erase. Each day my fingers find more to clear away. Wind comes and goes: a flame on an altar intruded on snuffs to the smell of soot. I am no witness, only a sign: a shadow falling against walls.
JOSĂ‰ ANGEL ARAGUZ Family Dust The men in my family who are lost. One day gone, spoken about in worry. Then whisper. Facts for faces, recounted. Words repeated, until not. Until not heard. Until they become long looks out of a window at night, deserts in the mouths of those still here, dust cleared out of the corner of the eyes of those who know dust returns, like the stars, into the silence with them.
DEVON BALWIT When You Stop Breathing “I want to go on where I’m going,” the blind man said. “You got to pay your rent first,” the policeman said. “Ever’ bit of it!” The other, perceiving that he was conscious, hit him over the head with his new billy… He died in the squad car but they didn’t notice and took him on to his landlady’s. —Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
You can’t even die without paying up. They rifle your pockets, yank fillings, take your shoes. You won’t need cash where you’re going, they laugh. Hellfire would smelt a puddle from your small change. The crack on your head is for the trouble of having to hunt you down, po’ boys cooling in the squad car. No one notices when you stop breathing. No one’s listened to you for years. Your soul waits out the song playing on the radio before wafting into drizzle. Your landlady, left with your scraps, jumbles them to the curb by nightfall.
DEVON BALWIT Elgar, Listening In 1923, at the age of sixty-six, Pomp & Circumstance composer Edward Elgar, took a voyage to Brazil, journeying up the Amazon to Manaus. Almost nothing is known of his trip.
He leans over the steamship stern, captivated by passing trogons, howler monkeys, butterflies waving like ladies’ scarves. Behind him, his work dissipates in the boat’s wake, swirling into eddies. Heedless of any baton, fish plash the river’s surface, a seedpod plunges like a struck drum, insects hum, sailors curse and call, basso profondo, while a woman laughs in the upper registers. He does not know what to make of it, how to carry it back. For sixty-six years, he moved in one direction, towards acclaim, security, only to open its door on an empty room. There, he strained for a theme. Here, he finds too many—the tangle of lianas, humidity, rot, rain pelting the river in sheets. Does he have the courage to return and do nothing, see what germinates, brave his wife’s anxious ghost as he sits before silent staves, ears cocked to the not yet? Fingers tapping the splintered rail, he hears in his pulse the laboring of great paddles, feels himself driven, born inexorably away.
KEVIN FINNERTY Cycling I arrive first at the trailhead in Wayzata, a town the locals pronounce as if it were spelled WHY-ZETTA. The trail begins only a couple of blocks from downtown, where there a number of upscale stores, most independently owned, for residents with plenty of disposable income. One reaches the trailhead from a parking lot adjacent to the city beach. Because it’s early May and this is Minnesota, there isn’t any activity in the water. We’re lucky not to still have ice on Lake Minnetonka. By the end of next month, the area will be filled with inebriated boaters and splashing kids. If we were riding then, we’d have planned to head out earlier than eleven to avoid the heat and the throng of casual riders who use the trail during the summer season. There’s no need to worry today; the high won’t even reach 60. Abby parks her car about a football field’s distance from the trailhead. I watch her emerge and remove her bike from the back of her 1980s hatchback. She re-assembles it by restoring the front tire to its proper position, having removed it to make the bike fit in her car. She fills both tires with air from a portable pump, places her water bottles in their holders, and puts on her helmet and biking gloves. I watch the entire process without moving to aid or speak with her. I’m not sure why. I probably get along best with her among the members of our team, though that’s not saying much. Only when she exchanges her sandals for cycling shoes with pedal clips do I think about riding over to her, saying hello and providing some assistance. As the thought finally occurs to me, I observe two riders in the distance. Even before they are close enough for me to see their faces, I know it’s Brett and Chris because no one besides my teammates would think about racing through the lot. They do so recklessly, unconcerned about cars or pedestrians because of a stronger desire to assert dominance over the other. Abby acts oblivious to the action around her. She lifts her hand to me in recognition after she locks her car and mounts her bike. She eases her way gently into the lot, having failed to look to her left. Racing Brett and Chris yell at Abby as they swerve past seconds later. One of them (I can’t tell which) calls her a “stupid bitch.” I don’t think either realizes it’s their fellow team member. Or care. Brett and Chris arrive nearly simultaneously. I purposefully look away from their finish line—the start of our trail—so I can avoid being drawn into an argument about who reached it first. I focus on Abby and her slow progression towards us. She appears unfazed by what’s transpired, but I can’t tell if that’s because she didn’t notice or if she merely expects such incidents to happen. 87
Abby’s real name is Gabriella. Her parents began calling her Gabby at an early age, but her younger brother couldn’t hear or pronounce the “G” and the variant on the nickname took hold. She’s in her late thirties. She must have been extraordinarily attractive at a younger age. Now she sports more than a few lines on her face and a number of spots on her arms due to sun exposure. She fights the aging process by keeping her hair so long it covers the entire length of her back and wearing makeup even when she will be riding a few hours. I don’t blame her. Most of us hold onto the parts of our pasts that we enjoyed longer than we should. We seek to solidify what we consider our strengths when our weaknesses become more prevalent. But Abby’s like a lot of us, and her clinging may do more harm than good. I think she’d look more appealing today if she showed up without makeup and wore a jersey and bike shorts one size larger than the ones she chose. Not that she’s still not attractive. When cyclists ride as a group, they take turns at the lead because that individual makes the ride easier for everyone else. The person at the forefront tackles the headwind while those behind benefit from the leader’s draft. Those who follow should keep the pace set by the rider in first position and take their turn at the lead at some point so no one bears the entire burden. I’m the newest member of the cycling group that we affectionately call Team Trouble. Our current group consists of four people. At times both before and after I joined there have been additional members, but they ultimately failed to succeed as cyclists in a group consisting of those who had previously failed to succeed. Besides being members of the same cycling team, the four of us share at least one other thing in common. Actually, it’s a requirement to become a team member. Each of us flunked out of a 12-step program prior to joining Team Trouble. “Do we have to go through this each and every time?” Brett asks at the start of the trailhead. “Until you let someone else start in the lead once in a while.” “I don’t see Abby or Doug clamoring for the job. Or complaining that I take it.” Chris frowns. He looks to Abby and me for support, but we aren’t picking sides in this battle. “It shouldn’t always be that way.” “I founded the team.” “With me.” “It was my idea. You joined with Gary the Gambler when I asked you guys.” “But it’s not fair.” “I know you’re still in your twenties, but that’s long past the age in which anyone should stop thinking anything and everything needs to be fair.” Brett snatches a piece of paper from the pouch in the back of his 88
biker’s jersey and flashes it open. “Look, I’ve planned our whole route. It’s an 80-mile trip. We get off the trail in Mayer and hit the road. We’ll stop once about halfway through. If we maintain an 18 mile per hour pace . . .” “Why not 20?” Chris asks just to be difficult. Neither he nor anyone else in our group could maintain that pace for 80 miles. Nor 18. “I don’t think I can do 80 miles today,” Abby says. “It’s too early in the season.” “Yes, you can. You just have to want it.” “Brett.” Our self-elected leader pauses and stares at me with clenched teeth that only relax after I hold his gaze for a few seconds. “It’s too much. We ride as a group.” Brett frowns. I know he’s taken considerable time planning today’s ride and believes his proposal is in everyone’s best interest. But he’s also learned the lessons of Team Trouble: when to relent, when to accept. “Okay,” he says, “tell me what you guys want to do.” The four of us discuss the route. We rattle off a number of ideas but eventually agree to ride the trail out and back. 27 miles each way. We’ll commence with a pace of 16 miles per hour and see how it goes. In honor of tradition, Brett will start in the lead. I will bring up the rear. No rider gets everything he or she wants, but it’s something everyone in the group accepts. That’s the way we ride. The early part of the Dakota Trail runs parallel to a couple of small ponds where ducks float happily and show their butts when they dive for food. It’s usually a scenic and quiet way to begin the ride, but today a rather large goose surprises everyone by bolting out of the tall grass to honk at, and chase, Brett. It then stands in the middle of the trail, seemingly with hands on hips, and honks at the large animals that it observes: humans on bicycles. When I finally reach the boisterous goose, I see what’s prompted its action. A female shuffles four gray-feathered newborns out of harm’s way into the marsh area beside the pond. I recognize the male’s acts as a show of protection. Unless he’s just saying we don’t belong on the trail so early in the season. It’s not long before Brett’s the one who’s grousing. Even though I can’t hear his words with two bikers and a few feet between us, I know he’s upset with all the stop signs we encounter during a two-mile stretch through Wayzata and Minnetonka Beach. Each time we approach a driveway, there’s a little red sign telling cyclists traveling 12-20 miles per hour to stop in favor of homeowners going 5 mph in reverse. Brett slows his bike at each but doesn’t come to a complete halt. As I get closer now that we’re slowing frequently, I hear him offer a unique explicative at each succeeding stop. “Shit. Bastards. Fuckers. A-holes.” The signs ordering cyclists to stop in favor of motor vehicles run contrary to physics and logic as well as math since it’s much harder for a rider to brake, come to a complete stop and start again, than it is for a driver to slide her foot a couple of inches and switch it from the gas pedal 89
to the brake and back again. They’re also impractical when 90% of the drivers stop anyway. Seems like it should be easy to flip the burden, but even in a democracy you find instances where a tiny minority imposes its will on a super-majority, common thinking and common sense be dammed. Chris responds to Brett’s decelerations by racing into the lead. Brett flails his arms in the air a couple of times in protest, but Chris only accelerates. That Chris is the team member the least concerned about our team surprises no one. He flunked out of Competitor’s Anonymous prior to becoming an original member of Team Trouble. Chris advanced pretty far in that 12-step program, but failed to make amends as step 9 requires. “I could have done it,” he told me back in the day when there were six of us, before Alan and Victor left the group. When we used to ride in the street in pairs as opposed to the single file approach we’ve adopted since we became a foursome. “But it only seemed fair that those who wronged me— and believe me that is a much larger group than the one consisting of people I’ve wronged—ought to make amends too. It shouldn’t be onesided.” Alan, who’d been in the twosome with Victor behind us, pulled closer to Chris and me as we rode. “You always got to keep fucking score, don’t you, dipshit? They weren’t in a fucking addiction program.” “I wasn’t talking to you, Asshole. And what the fuck do you know anyway? You’re the only person I’ve ever known to go to a 12-step program and not even make it through step 1.” Alan squeezed his way between Chris and me, an act that would have sent one or both of us to the ground had I not anticipated the move and slid to the left just in time. “I was brought under false pretenses. I never would have gone otherwise.” “Then why are you on our team?” Alan didn’t respond and didn’t remain our teammate much longer. He’d joined after he failed out of Assholes Anonymous. We’d treated him as we did each other—non-judgmentally and with a certain measure of tolerance for his addiction—until we realized it’s hard to accept even a little of a habitual asshole’s behavior. You can deal with a certain measure of overly competitive behavior, of a fondness for being abused, even bullying, but the direct acts of an asshole? That’s a real challenge. Still, we tried to look the other way when it was simply sophomoric behavior. Like when Alan purposefully gave a group of riders the wrong direction to a trailhead. Or when he dashed from a post-ride visit to a local establishment for some refreshments without paying for his two drinks. We couldn’t ignore his behavior any longer when we found him letting air out of the tires and loosening the brakes of bikes belonging to fellow cyclists we encountered at a rest stop. Placing the safety of others in 90
jeopardy was too much even for the excessively tolerant members of Team Trouble to accept. Alan responded as only he could. The week after we told him he was no longer welcome to ride with us we found piles of broken glass on the trail he knew we planned to ride the next week. We stopped just in time, aided a couple of cyclists with flats who hadn’t, and helped clear the path from the reminder of our former teammate. Now in second position, Abby needs to close ranks but can’t. Chris continues his assault at the speed of his, rather than the team’s, choice. I watch him pass the few other riders on this part of the trail and imagine him yelling “on your left” or just “left” as he races around them. I increase my speed to adjust to the pace Chris has established until I realize in doing so I’m about to pass Abby. My front wheel is now even with her rear. Without turning, I know Brett is positioning himself between the two of us while maintaining a distance of less than a foot. “Get a move on you guys,” he says as we approach Mound. “Look how far he’s ahead.” “He’ll have to stop at Shoreline,” I say. “Not Chris. He’ll see it as his chance to create even greater separation and race through.” Fortunately, the traffic is so severe at the most significant road crossing on the trail that it requires even Chris to halt. We reunite at the curb. The first stirrings of the weekly Saturday farmer’s market appear. A local musical group featuring a singer, guitarist and a synthesizer play some sort of electronic folk music. A few growers have set up blue tents to sell their produce, but I doubt if anything being sold has been locally grown at this point of the season. “Why don’t we let Abby have a turn at the lead?” I suggest. “I’ve only had it a couple of miles.” Brett holds out his glove-covered hand palm up and shows Chris his index finger. “First, you’ve had it longer than a couple of miles.” Then he adds the middle one before recalling his other digit. “Second, you proved once again you can’t lead.” “You guys just don’t want to compete.” I wait a few seconds. I’ve found it’s generally a good practice to stop and think before you speak. For both the benefit of both speaker and listener. “You’re right, we don’t. We want to ride.” Chris looks embarrassed and stares at his shoes. “Anyway, it’s good to get your heart pumping.” Abby taps the shoulder of the youngest member of Team Trouble. “It’s okay. Just don’t overdo it.” She assumes first position with me right behind her. I appreciate our relatively slow pace as we pass an educational farm after a couple of miles. 91
A number of adults wearing plaid jackets guide a group of children through a rather large collection of sheep on a hill off to our right. The event looks like fun, and I wish I could join them, but we are past the spot in a matter of seconds. Cycling is a thinking man’s sport. Not so much for strategy, though I suppose that’s there too if you’re riding competitively in the Tour de France. But I mean the sport provides riders with a lot of opportunity for thought, because it’s hard to have a conversation unless you ride side-byside with someone. And to get in a good ride takes up hours of your day. I enjoy the silence until we reach an unoccupied baseball diamond eight minutes later, according to my bike computer. “How about it?” I hear Brett close behind me. “We’re supposed to be getting a workout.” Chris yells from further away. I move closer to Abby as a sign I’m ready to take the lead if she wants to drop back. “Come on already!” the male Team Trouble members scream in unison. “That’s enough.” I turn in my saddle to direct my comment to Brett and Chris, but Abby may misinterpret it. By the time I look back, she’s pedaling faster to get away from all of us. She rides at a nineteen miles per hour clip until we reach a bistro with an outdoor patio in St. Bonafacius near the first of two elevated bridges that allow riders to avoid a couple of highways the trail would otherwise encounter. Abby stops abruptly and proceeds to sip some water. “You could have drank back in Mound.” Brett is yelling even before his bike has come to a complete stop and he has dismounted. Abby ignores him. “We’re really not making good time today.” Chris arrives seconds later but stays on his bike. He keeps edging it forward. I open my mouth to tell the two of them I’ve had enough, but the act alone is sufficient for them to get the message. I look to Abby and am surprised—just for a second—to see she’s smiling. To herself, I think. I wonder how one becomes addicted to abuse. I can’t think of any upside but then think of my own addiction and realize people can take pleasure in the strangest things and that it doesn’t matter if the downside is greater once the addiction takes hold. I assume the leadership position and exert my authority by riding at a comfortable pace. I don’t want the group to abandon Abby who now occupies the last position. I also wish to control Brett and Chris and their desire to push. I brake on the downside of the hill created by the smaller of the two bridges then maintain a leisurely clip as we pass a tiny farm. I see a kid atop a small, red animal barn. A three-foot high, four-legged kid. As I listen to the young goat bray, I wonder if it’s to brag about its accomplishment or to cry for assistance now that it finds itself in trouble. 92
Beside the barn are wooden staircases leading to a tree house, whose floor stands a couple of feet from the barn roof. I imagine the kid began climbing towards the tree house but decided to step left onto the roof for some reason. Were I alone I imagine I might stop and investigate, perhaps develop alternative theories to explain the incredible sight but now I’m already past the spot. I ride on, thinking about the choices we make in life. What we experience, what we miss. What we think will be fun, but which turns out to be problematic. I pedal faster, believing this act will speed my mind as well, help me answer questions that continuously cycle through my mind. After a mile, I recall I’m not alone and glance behind me. I see Brett and Chris close, either with smiles on their faces or gritting their teeth. After confirming no danger lies ahead, I turn over the opposite shoulder and look for Abby. I see her but note the dramatic separation I’ve unintentionally created. I ease up and drop from 20 to 15 when we reach Goose Lake and a rural business with an auto parts sign hanging on a chain. The collection of old vehicles of varying condition parked on a grassy area just off the trail is the most out of place sight along the entire route, but I know aside from the newer businesses like the bistro in St. Boni and the pop-up ice cream shop in Mound, most of the sights we pass pre-exist the trail. We riders have come to them. We approach an unpaved, earthen road I know few cars use. I’m sure I could fly through because I would certainly hear any vehicle approaching along the dirt and rocks but decide to stop. I want Abby to catch up and want Brett to take the lead for the next part of the trip. Most of the Dakota Trail is semi-protected from the elements. Trees or homes line a good portion of the route, but shortly after passing Goose Lake we enter an open expanse of land. During the latter half of summer corn stalks rise out of the earth and cover much of it. Corn or not, riders face the greatest headwind along this part of the trail. Usually on the ride out. I happily relinquish the lead position to Brett and return to the rear, hoping to ride in the draft of three riders in front of me. I’m sure Brett wants to tackle the headwind, which is considerable but not overwhelming today. He loves to play the role of leader and pretend he’s a category 4 rider, whereas I’ve come to believe the hard way it’s not healthy to have delusions of grandeur. I know a lot of non-riders think we overdo it with our clips and shoes, bike jerseys and cycling shorts. I’ve heard all the comments about weekend riders thinking they need to dress up like professionals. Most of the apparel actually serves a purpose. Those of us who ride road bikes use shoes that have clips that slide into our pedals. These allow riders to pull the pedals up in addition to pushing them down. Their use has sides effects that include the potential for significant calf development and 93
a sound akin to taps when walking on pavement. But the real reason for the shoes is greater efficiency and balance, in addition to speed. Cycling shorts are also a necessity. Their chamois provides some comfort when cyclists ride atop hard saddles for 50 miles or more. Even with their use, one’s bottom will inevitably be sore to the touch for days following a long ride, but things would be so much worse without the additional padding cycling shorts provide. I agree jerseys are a bit of overkill, especially when weekend riders sport one with the name of an actual Tour de France sponsor. But is this much different than a sports fanatic wearing a team jersey to a football or hockey game? Sure, they don’t go out onto the field of play the way we do, but bike jerseys also have one practical advantage: they contain a pouch in the back that can be used to hold small items of nourishment. Bikers have few places to store items they may need during a ride, and the pouch can be accessed by a rider who doesn’t want to stop. Becoming lightheaded and in need of sustenance is always a possibility during a long ride, especially on a hot, summer day, so it makes some sense for riders to wear and utilize cycling jerseys. That said, I never store food there and wear mine with the name of a local craft brewery just because I like the logo. After I return to the last position, I observe Abby remove an energy bar from her jersey’s pouch and think it’s a little silly that none of us wore jackets over our jerseys given the temperature today. I guess no one wanted to seem weak. Abby nibbles on her snack as we pass the field that appears naked without corn growing. I understand she may need something now that we’ve ridden twenty miles but think she picked the worst time to eat. With only one hand to steer, Abby cannot maintain the line, and as a result, she fails to use Brett and Chris most effectively in combatting the headwind. Her failure, in turn, makes my ride more difficult. I wait for her to finish, but Abby doesn’t appear to be in any rush. After a half-mile, I slide closer to her. I try not to shout, though given the conditions with us riding into the wind, it’s hard not to, if I want to be heard. “Abby, hold the line. Stay close to them.” She doesn’t demonstrate any sign of hearing or following my advice. We fall further behind Brett and Chris and no longer receive any benefit from the team leaders. I mentally curse Abby’s behavior, though I know it won’t be long until we approach downtown Mayer and escape the brunt of the headwind. In the distance, I see Brett and Chris alternating looks behind them. I’m sure their cursing isn’t silent. Abby returns the empty wrapper to her jersey pocket and resumes peddling at a faster clip just as we emerge from the exposed terrain. The team races through downtown Mayer, then rides the newest section of the trail. We traverse a couple of wooden bridges and pass quiet countryside until we arrive in the small town of New Germany. 94
More than any other place along the trail, New Germany always appears quiet, almost deserted. A basketball court and playground sit to our left, but I’ve never seen anyone using either of them. To the right is a church, the Village Hall and two bars/restaurants that promote beer from Milwaukee and St. Louis rather than the local, craft style beers in vogue in the Twin Cities today. It’s as if we’ve ridden back to the 1970s. I wonder if the trail will carry New Germany forward or if its residents want to remain in the past. Failing to progress usually leads to an inevitable decline and ultimately death, but change for change’s sake often results in a superficial existence. Perhaps as a result of this tension—and my own inability to function well any other way—I prefer to focus on the present moment and whatever that entails as much as possible. Past the town sit a couple of bodies of water much smaller than the large recreational ones near the start of the trail. I don’t know their names and wonder if they even qualify as lakes. They might only be large ponds and not count towards the tally of 10,000 lakes in the State. A single egret appears to have chosen each body of water as its own. The sleek, white birds stand in the most distant corner of their respective ponds, as far from the trail as possible. A wooden bench has been placed before the second. I want to stop, rest and gaze, but Brett pushes forward, no doubt with a desire to complete the route in first position. I know there’s nothing more ahead of us. A quarter of a mile further, the trail ends abruptly. A sign tells us this. It says, simply enough: “Trail ends here.” At that point, the paved road stops and only the possibility of additional trail exists. Gravel and rock continue into the foreseeable distance. The sort of material that could be conquered by a mountain bike or even feet, but which presents too great of a danger to the thin, delicate wheels of our road bikes. Brett and Chris brake hard having ridden at a good clip until the very end, but Abby and I coast in behind them. There are no words to be said, and unlike so much of the trail, there are no sights upon which to gaze. Just the small sign stating the obvious. We’ve ridden to the end and there is little to do other than turn around and return. Each of us shuffles our way to the sign that marks the end of the trail and touches it the way college football players may tap some symbol of school spirit on the way to the field before a game. Without a word, the four of us nod that we’re ready to return. Chris bolts to the lead and Abby, I and Brett follow in turn. Lately, I’ve come to appreciate the ride back. I used to be like everyone else and figured the real point of the journey had been accomplished by reaching some destination and one just fulfilled a duty by returning to the starting point. I understand it’s not as exciting and it lacks newness when one merely passes places and objects one has already seen, but that’s what’s become 95
appealing. Seeing something for the second time. From a new viewpoint. Or realizing you missed something on the way out. “Come on already, ladies. I can barely see him.” I look at my computer for the first time on the way back and see our pace isn’t bad. Only down a single mile per hour. I’m not sure why Chris is racing and Brett is complaining, except it’s what they do. They’re like father and son. They even look alike, only twenty years apart. One already bald, the other balding. Of course, the two men would both reject the comparison and claim they’re nothing like one another, but I can envision them doing so in a nearly identical way that would only confirm their close relation. Chris stops when he hits downtown Mayer and we all gather. He and Brett simultaneously begin to yell, and Abby surprises everyone by darting out into the street just ahead of oncoming traffic. I smile at my male teammates, then follow Abby. It doesn’t take long to catch up. She used surprise to her advantage, not speed. Abby drops back after only holding the lead for three miles. She glances at me as I pass her as if she’s including me in some plan I don’t yet comprehend. I decide to follow her method and also drop back after only a couple of miles in front. We let Brett and Chris ride ahead. What the hell?” I imagine our bully yelling after a mile and a half. He glances over his left shoulder, then his right, before practically turning all the way around in his seat so he can see Abby and me. I wave in a sarcastic manner if such an act is possible. That’s my intent anyway. I pull alongside Abby. I ride with her like a good teammate, showing her she’s not alone, she can do it. But she doesn’t appear concerned. She places her hand on mine for a second or two while we ride at 15 mph. I’m now sure she has a plan. We maintain our pace but keep our distance. A bunch of teenagers and their coaches congregate on the baseball diamond that had been empty on the way out. They stare at and stomp their feet in the outfield. Looks like they are trying to determine if the field is playable. Baseball should be a Fall sport in Minnesota. It might not be any warmer than it is in Spring, but at least the ground isn’t frozen or a pile of mush emerging from a thaw. I don’t know how high schoolers get any games in. Abby cocks her head slightly in my direction and we accelerate simultaneously. We gain on Brett and Chris, who now also ride side-by-side. I’m sure they’ve reluctantly slowed and may have forgotten about us while conversing, but I like attacking them anyway. Chris must eventually hear us coming because just before we reach them he starts pedaling faster. Abby and I push for the first time today. Brett slides out, and Abby and I move forward in unison. Chris refuses to yield. He probably thinks he hasn’t had his turn, but he should slide into our slipstream. We still have ten miles to go. He’l have another chance. 96
“Christ,” I hear Brett yell, “fall back already!” Chris refuses, perhaps thinking we—Abby, in particular—will relent, but she nods when we approach a long straightaway with clear sight lines. I see no one is coming in the opposite direction. Both of us move out—me into the oncoming lane, she to the edge of ours. We simultaneously pass Chris and take what he would not give us. We then move back closer together. “Fantastic . . . turd!” I hear Brett yell from far away, leaving me to wonder what words I missed. Abby and I race ahead for another mile, unsure how much distance we are creating, before slowing from the pace we wouldn’t have been able to sustain much longer anyway. As soon as my computer indicates we’ve ridden for 50 miles, Abby and I slink to the rear as we do for the last leg of all our trips, content to watch the other two fight until the end. We are now essentially riding as a couple of pairs with Abby and my lag increasing. Clouds obscure what little sun we had enjoyed, and no one approaches us in the opposite direction any longer. We all race to the finish and complete it by descending a small hill into the parking lot. Surprisingly, Brett and Chris have stopped and wait for us there. Brett offers us high fives; Chris, his fist. “The Muni.” Brett makes the statement but in a softer tone than usual. His way of pretending to ask when he’s made a decision for all of us. The rest of us nod and we’re back in the saddle, peddling at the most leisurely pace of the entire ride. It’s easier to have a conversation. “So what steps did you guys fail at?” Chris asks. “3.” I could have guessed Brett’s. “Turn my life over? C’mon.” “4 got me,” Abby says. “I couldn’t bear the thought of taking an inventory of my life.” After we pass through the parking lot, it is only a few blocks and a couple of minutes before we arrive at the restaurant and bar officially named The Wayzata Bar & Grill, but which is almost universally referred to as The Muni. “What about you?” Chris asks as we lock up our bikes. “Why do you want to talk about the past?” “It’s a condition.” Brett uses a volume more appropriate for communicating when riding. “What’s it matter?” I leave them and walk inside. The Muni sees its fair share of post-ride patrons during the summer, but we’re the only ones in bike clothes today. We sit and order a round of suds and appetizers. We toast one another when our beers arrive. “To Team Trouble,” Brett says. “To Trouble,” the rest of us respond before taking our first sips. “So how was it?” Chris asks Abby. “I can handle anything you guys bring on.” 97
The three of them continue with their banter, but I’m too preoccupied to pay attention. I sip, sip, sip with barely any brakes in between. I order my second by the time the wings and cheese curds arrive. No one else has finished half of theirs. I watch my companions share a glance right before our waitress walks away. “Give me your keys.” Brett throws his arm around my shoulder as if he’s my older brother showing both love and dominance. “You’re coming home with me tonight.” “No, I’m not.” I finish off my IPA. They’re all staring at me. “What?” They don’t say anything. I have to get it on my own just as they had to throughout our ride. They can make me aware of when I’m in danger of falling, but I’m the one who has to maintain my balance, keep going in the right direction, and avoid any obstacles in my path. “All right,” I say when our waitress arrives with my second beer. “I failed Step 12.” “12!” they all exclaim. “What’s that?” Abby asks. “Practicing the steps in your life,” Chris says. “And carrying the message to others.” They all look at me like I’m crazy. They must think I’d made it but turned back. I know otherwise. “I figured: who am I to tell anyone else how to succeed? Or avoid failure.” Chris reaches for the newly arrived pint. “Here’s to Doug.” He raises the glass and takes the first sip. He passes it to Abby who takes a large mouthful before moving the beer along to Brett. When Brett returns it to me, I take a smaller sip than everyone else. Just a taste. I push the glass to the middle of the table.
BETH KONKOSKI February Angels Before I knew it was going to happen, I had opened my mouth and screamed at my two-year old son “Enough! Just find something to do,” then I stormed off to the bathroom and slammed the door. In my defense, it was not a common thing for me to scream at my toddler, at least, not that common. While Sam cried outside the door, I held onto the edge of the sink and stared at myself in the mirror, breathing and wondering what I had ever imagined I was doing when I became a parent. Within seconds the pounding began; I wasn’t sure if it was his head or his fist, but I stayed where I was. “You ok?” That was my husband Jim’s voice, and I heard him scoop Sam up. Not really sure which of us he was speaking to, I mumbled back,“Yup.” The tears began then and continued as I ran the injustices of weather, timing, February, motherhood on an endless loop of self-pity. Sam had stopped crying at least, and Jim sounded like he was looking for food in the kitchen as one of the cupboards banged shut. “Do we have any goldfish?” All I wanted was to get away from everybody needing everything and anybody needing anything. I snuck out of the bathroom on tiptoes and edged along the bookshelf in the dining room, hoping they wouldn’t look through the door to the kitchen and spot me. In seconds I was up the stairs, still moving quietly. I grabbed the quilt off the couch in Jim’s office, wrapped myself up, and went to our bedroom where I curled up on the rug in the space between the wall and the far side of the bed. Invisible and quiet, I hid and cried. Jim and Sam found me fifteen minutes later, snot running down my face, my eyes puffy as bread dough. I hadn’t answered any of their calls, but Sam thought it was a great game of hide and seek when he finally stepped around the end of the bed. “Mama.” “What the hell are you doing on the floor?” Since I had no real answer, I shrugged, sniffled, tried to look pathetic, which is not something I am very good at doing, and waited, needing a variety of things I couldn’t begin to articulate. “You need to get out of here,” Jim said. “Just go for a while.” He shook his head just a little as he said it, only slightly annoyed with my hysteria, and in that very instant, as soon as he acknowledged that something was actually going on with me, I wanted to take it back. “No. I’ll be fine.” “Seriously? After all this, now you’re fine? Get out of the house.” He leaned over and started to unwind me from my quilt cocoon. “No really. It’s ok.” 99
I see now how loaded that statement was, how much I really wanted him to suddenly gather me in his arms and tell me he had secretly booked us a trip to Hawaii, we were leaving in an hour, and I only needed to pack a bikini and some sunscreen. None of those things happened, and I moved into full martyr mode. “Would you just get out of here? Now.” “But Sam needs his lunch, his nap.” Sam had actually left the room by this point, and I looked across the hall where I could hear books being pulled off the shelf. “Read this,” he said, running back in with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie in hand. It is one of my less likable traits that I refuse help the second it is offered, but for some reason, knowing how right Jim was only made me more desperate to confirm that I was ok. “Where would I go? It’s a mess outside." I opened the shade to look. The light nearly blinded me with its snow sparkling and crystal shine. The morning had begun with six inches of new snow on top of the banks already two feet high. I was on my winter break from school, something the schools in the area do to save on heating costs and let people get out of town in the dead heart of winter. We were not going anywhere that year so we could go away for Spring Break, two months away. I was not happy with the prospect of a week at home in horrible winter weather. However, roads do not in fact remain a mess in St. Lawrence County; plows had been through, and life had resumed. “Go anywhere. The bagel place, your mom’s.” I continued to pout and felt the tears rise again, such a helpless shift in me. Sam hit the book against my leg, still waiting. “I don’t want…” Then I was crying too hard to speak. I sat on the bed and put my face between my hands, wondering if this was what it felt like to have a true nervous breakdown. Should I be scared? In truth, I found myself considering how late a person could sleep in an asylum. It was time to listen to him. “I’ll find something to do.” “Finally.” He marched out of the room with Sam by the hand. I couldn’t help thinking he could be a tiny bit nicer to me given that I was thinking of checking myself into a “facility.” But I let that go and instead, changed out of my food-stained sweats. When Jim got out of the Navy, we had moved back to St. Lawrence County, where we had both grown up. He was able to finish his degree for a reasonable cost in a reasonable amount of time; we both got jobs, me in education, Jim in IT. We bought a house, had Sam. However, we had never really discussed winter or, in particular, February, as it descends on this part of the world with weeks of below zero temperatures and snowbanks high enough to tunnel through. February is also when small bits of light sneak back into the sky in the afternoon, and the illusion emerges that winter is gathering its drudgery together and packing its suitcase. This is not in fact the case, and it certainly was not the case on this particular February day. 100
By the time I brushed my teeth and ran a comb through my hair, I was feeling a little better. Now I needed to refuse help one more time, so I stood in the kitchen and explained that I really would be ok. Jim was sitting near Sam’s high chair, both of them laughing as they traded pieces of hot dog and chunks of cheese. Each time Jim opened his mouth, Sam moved a piece of food in his father’s direction, then swooped around and put it between his own lips. Jim ignored me the first time I spoke, then turned and said, “We don’t want you here.” I felt the tears instantly. “Come on,” his voice softened. “You know what I mean. Just go do something, relax. You’ll be with him all week.” He stood up and put his arms around me. “We’ll be ok.” I hugged him back and sighed. It wasn’t pleasant feeling kicked out of my own house, but I put my coat on. “I don’t even know what I want to do.” It was too cold to walk, and I couldn’t stand the thought of facing myself on the pages of my journal. “Why don’t you go to that used bookstore you like?” Jim suggested. St. Lawrence County is not a place to live if shopping is a favorite pastime. When we lived there, Massena had a Wal-Mart and a mall that had steadily been losing stores and customers until most days, a bowling ball could roll from one end to the other and not hit anyone. But Birchbark Books was a small paradise and probably open. I had discovered this spot when we first moved back by following a series of handmade signs hung on trees and fence posts, with arrows and the hand-painted word “books.” The treasure hunt took me miles outside of Potsdam, along empty roads I didn’t recognize, until deep in the township of Parishville, I came upon a small farmhouse with several outbuildings and an arrow pointing down the driveway. It was an amazing collection of used books, housed in a remade barn that had gravel floors, unfinished bookshelves made from actual birch with the bark still on, and limbs attached and arching like decorated frames along the top edge. It smelled like woodstove and old paper. The owner, Tim, had an MFA in Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton, and we struck up a friendship from my first visit when I walked out with a bag of classic novels and poetry. “You have to be an English major,” he told me that first afternoon. We talked about books and writing for over an hour. Jim was right; it would make me happy to wander his shelves for a time. The woodstove threw fabulous heat, and I was the only one in the place as I sat down in a rocking chair and paged through a stack of literary paperbacks I was assessing for purchase. Nothing was more than $4.00, but I wanted to choose carefully. “Getting any writing done?” Tim asked. He stepped across the gravel floor and joined me by the fire. “Not much with a two -year-old.” I grimaced rather than smiled. He and his wife did not have kids. “Lots of distractions everywhere.” He looked around at the walls and pointed down the narrow aisle to a new room added on at the back of the store. 101
“Built all that since December.” “Wow.” I let my eyes shift back to Mill on the Floss, and Tim wandered away. A piece of wood thudded inside the stove, and I settled more deeply into the chair. An hour later, I was back in my car, a grocery bag of books beside me and a sense inside that I had just taken a long and much needed nap. Wandering in the books and letting the heat wash over me had been a perfect antidote. But on the drive home, I felt the anxiety begin again as I considered the week stretching out before me in a series of toddler meals and toddler messes it would be my unique responsibility to clean up. At a stop sign only a few miles from the bookstore, I put my head on the steering wheel and let the tears fall, again. It was hard to admit how much there was to hate about being a mom. This had nothing to do with Sam, of course, but school vacations had begun to feel like prison sentences, a series of days in a cage that I longed to escape, only to return to my classroom and begin the early mornings, lessons, and paper grading. I was startled out of these tears by the blare of a horn. In my misery, I had forgotten that my car was in the middle of the road, standing still at a stop sign. I jumped and moved ahead, pulling off on the shoulder where the plow had been through, taking a moment to dry my eyes and clear my head. The driver of the car behind me stayed on his horn as he moved by, and I looked to my left to see his fist shaking at me, his mouth forming words I did not need to hear to understand. The banks here were low, somewhat melted in spite of the new snow and dark with a mixture of sand and exhaust layered like dust on a table surface. I let myself sit in the silence of the car and take a deep, shuddering breath. The wind picked up as I sat there, and across the pure white field to my right, swirls of snow twisted and spun to the pulse of the breeze. I watched these snow devils, the curl and circle of them, while the stress moved through me. The horn had unsettled me, but even more than that, I was unsettled by the thought that I didn’t want to go home. And I hated to admit it to myself. The field was a virgin stretch of white, not a weed sticking through the snow to mar its purity, not even an animal print I could see anywhere. A line of trees marked the back boundary, the branches swaying, but nothing else moved. I was silently, utterly alone, and I suddenly had to be out in the emptiness of it. Turning off the car, I listened to the howl of the wind that kept stirring up the columns of twining snow particles. The engine ticked now and then with its cooling. I stepped into the cold and climbed over the low two-foot bank along the shoulder. Once I reached the flat expanse of snow, it was deeper than it appeared, above my knees as I traipsed, each foot breaking through the surface. Snow settled down inside my boots, reaching my ankles and making them burn with cold. My coat went halfway down my thighs, but still the wind knifed through my layers to the skin. I made slow progress but kept my eyes on the center of the field, refusing to look behind me at the trail I made. I wanted only empty and white. I didn’t really 102
know what I would do once I reached the spot I was aiming for, but I could see my destination. The snow and wind pushed me along, swirling around and including me in their dance. My breathing was heavy; my body was warmer now from the inside. When I reached what felt like the center, I turned a few circles, my arms spread wide, my heart pounding in my ears as I recovered. Still nothing moved but wind and snow, combining now with the puffs of breath I exhaled. Without realizing I was about to do it, I screamed into the wind. I felt the noise leave my throat and it surprised me how quickly it moved away, how quiet I sounded even at full volume. There was a roar of sound, then the emptying swoosh of the wind, like the moment after an ocean wave. I screamed again, and the landscape remained-- white and black silhouettes of the tree line, unfazed by my ranting. I could throw any words out into this wind, this place, and nobody would hear me; nobody would react to me. It wouldn’t hurt anyone. “I HATE BEING A MOM.” I yelled, and the voice fell into a silence without echo. “I sometimes hate being a mom,” I amended, realizing how much closer to truth this was. “I mostly love being a mom.” And the power of these words reverberated in exactly the same way. This field did not care in the least. And then a swirl of snow spun itself to life where I stood, and I felt it twist around me, over me. I held out my hands and dropped backwards into a snow angel position. It had been years since I had made a snow angel, but my arms and legs knew the move as I lay on the cold ground and felt myself carve out the shape. I stood without using my hands, careful to avoid ruining it. The wings were enormous, looked ready to send this angel straight off the snow and into the air. For the next thirty minutes, I made dozens of them around the field, a battalion of angels, each perfect and glinting in the sun that had come out as I worked. The movement of my arms and legs made a precise swishing in the snow, a rhythm I counted out: up, down, up, down, up down, stand. Sweat was gathered on my back by the time I stood and stared at my creations. I wanted them to rise off the ground and surround me, to carry me up into the sky and envelop me with their magic wings, a feathery, cold embrace as they showed me how to fly. Instead, I caught my breath in the cold, my hands on my hips, and realized how good it felt to move like this. As my body slowed, and my breathing calmed, the cold wandered back, touching and lingering on my cheeks. Along my neck, the wind played with my hair, lifting and finding my curls like Sam’s fingers when I held him against my chest and rocked him to sleep. It was time to go home. I wanted to pick my way out of the sprawling field of angels I had created without stepping directly inside one, so I surveyed carefully. They surrounded me in all directions. During my play (for it struck me just that way, the realization that I had been playing in the snow) I had not paid attention to how many times I had 103
fallen, swished my body and moved back onto my feet. And it wasnâ€™t possible to count accurately from where I stood because I couldnâ€™t get high enough above them to see them all individually; I had moved that much around the field, been that engrossed in the task. I counted just the figures I could see and reached twenty two. Carefully forging a path that wove its way out of the chaos of angels, I counted eleven more, and then I was back to white space and my own tracks from the trip in. At the bank of the road, I turned to see them one last time; they looked only like trodden snow from a distance. But I knew they were there, and I lifted my arms to the sky with gratitude, felt the slight kick of a wind at my back, and watched a run of loose white swirl its way toward the center of the field. Spring would arrive in a few months, and I would move through the days mostly in love with being a mom. Many springs would come and go, always with me longing for them and being grateful for the movement we all make toward the outdoors when sunshine and tree buds beckon. But the snow angels and their freedom, the playful hour I spent in their company on that snowy February day when the cage of my life felt small and too close, have guided me as much as any spring joy. Such February days happen to all of us, any month of the year. I have been lucky to have people who recognize my February days and throw me out into them, no matter the season.
BAILA ELLENBOGEN Stretch Out I have locked the front door and I have locked the back door but still you slip through, remind me that you used to be the one to lock up. To stay up late, to stay away. Don’t think I don’t miss you. But that doesn’t mean we know what that means. I stretch out, fill the sheets you used to fill, but the dreams come so thin no hefty arguments to pin them down no hunger, anger, wish.
ROBIN REYNOLDS Juicy If he comes to you, arms laden with wildflowers and babyâ€™s breath pulsing on stalks like beating hearts, if he holds out his fingers dripping with silver and diamonds, pulls you close then nods with his chin toward the Chapel of Love on the Vegas strip, recall the first time you saw him. Before he knew that you saw him. Consider first his hands and understand that this is the way he will enter your life. Do they rest loose and patient at his sides, fat rabbits sleeping on a hillside of green grass? Could they slide over your skin in the worldâ€™s slowest salsa dance, like sweet electric honey? Or do they crouch, fisted and tight, rocks wrapped in stones hoping to be hurled again and again? Because this is also the way he will enter your life, with deep shuddering spasms which will leave you empty, quaking, and as dry as a pile of bones in the noonday sun. You will be reduced to chalk and dust, dried winged things with husks and shells the color of kindergarten glue. Parched. You know the way your mouth feels the morning after too much tequila? Pretending to sleep as a naked stranger gathers his socks into a ball and tiptoes shoeless across your crooked floor? Dry. Creaking your way through each day like a common thief, the rub and friction of it wearing you so thin in those precious places that should be thick, luscious with longing and love. 106
This is not for you and nowhere at all that you want to be. Your body is not an apology. Your name is not shame, and love is nothing like a ball in your mouth and a knotted rope around your wrists. I wonder if you know what juicy feels like. The full roundness of it. The heavy holding and lush syrup of it. The sticky licking your fingers of it. The swirl and suck of it. You want to slip and slosh your way through this life, dripping with the force of it. Throw yourself into a fucking river if thatâ€™s what it takes to get wet. Slide in and conjure yourself a man who runs his tongue slowly around your lips, whispering the world through you. Find yourself a man who takes your arm and holds you up. Who plunges his hands inside your chest and holds your beating heart as if the entire world depended upon it. Immerse yourself and find out exactly how long you can hold your breath. Today, there is not a vessel large enough to hold you, today you will turn your back on anything that isnâ€™t slushy with absolute possibility and light. Toss those flowers in the trash. Shake his trembling hand and tell him goodbye because today you are beautiful and today you will not settle for less than juicy.
MARK ANTONY ROSSI Black Mayonnaise Below the grey tinted waters of my beloved Hudson River is a mother lode of obsidian sludge. It inhales auto tires and amateur divers in a single soulless breath. Bottom feeders and drug dealers are dumped here routinely their putrid bloated bellies slap against harbor buoys marking nautical miles. But now my childhood river is a horizontal horror bulging with body parts of the unlucky, the unworthy and the unwanted. Below the grey tinted waters is a battlefield borne of robber barons comfortable with defecating on our future. Out their industrial anus barrels of black mayonnaise cover the river bed and put to sleep any notion we are one nation.
MIRIAM SAGAN rhododendron pink blossom hung against dark woods, the photograph by the kitchen sink of the daughter who will never be 21 clutching a cat, mountain laurel, and the song it evokes sad ballad about distance note held in the throat, where are you going? come with me or donâ€™t, I opened the window expecting nightbirds and ghosts and for the third time in my life heard a forest play a melody as if it were a crystal gamelon
MIRIAM SAGAN Tremulous From a distance, the mountain calls to mind a jigsaw puzzle with so many yellow pieces that are aspen— up close, once in the groves I see them, gangly girls tossing their tousled selves to dance before winter. Slim, silver grey, leaves falling like golden coins out of a fairy tale imagination. Closer on the floor of the forest another wood grows moss making a tiny diploid forest of its own, feminine and masculine segments like some woodland hold. Clonal colony of aspen sisters must fear fire, yet will die without it— I, with you, am tempted to carve initials in the inviting blank bark but am too well behaved a steward. Driving back down from the ski basin we pass that sad descansos of the bus crash where school children died while behind us the slopes glow with the season’s lovely imperative. Just for a moment I wish upon a falling leaf to live in the space between this and that. 110
HEATHER GEMMEN WILSON Out in the Cold I open the door and my brown mackerel tabby sniffs the air, then lifts one paw. He is eleven pounds of muscle and attentiveness. Like all selfrespecting cats, Twitch kills birds and mice, but in his younger days he brought home squirrels and rabbits and gophers. “He once dragged a fullgrown coyote to the back door,” my teenaged daughter jokes to a friend. Twitch takes one step outside, but the snow is cold and he holds his foot up high. “Prissy cat,” I murmur, letting the cold air into the house as the sleek tom lingers halfway through the door. I never push him out, even when my husband is nearby bellyaching about the cost of natural gas. As Terry Pratchett says, “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” I make sure Twitch remembers. He looks up at me, blinks both eyes, then slinks onto the porch, pretty as a ballerina. I shut the door and watch him, but he’s forgotten me. His tail twitches. His nose. His ears. Then all four legs are in motion and he is a snow leopard, wild and restless. I watch him run toward the wooded area about two hundred feet away, hind legs meeting front legs in a motion as smooth as water, and think I’m about to lose sight of him, but he stops midstride and freezes in place. He sits. He sits as if he is in the living room, upright and bored as life moves around him. He looks at the sky. He looks at the ground. He scratches himself. Slowly he lowers his body, and he is a predator again. When my daughter leaves the house, she doesn’t sniff the air, making sure it’s safe to venture out. She’s eighteen and fearless, unaware or unbelieving that anything can hurt her. She doesn’t stop. She doesn’t sit. She doesn’t look at the sky. She rushes forward without a second thought. When Rachael was a toddler, and we spent summers at the lake with her cousins and brothers, I’d glimpse her little brown bikini-clad body, toasted by the sun, trotting toward the beach and jumping off the dock into the water before we knew she up from her nap. “Run!” the cry would ring out, but I’d already be flying, then slicing through the water as if through the wall of fire that haunted my dreams, grasping in the darkness until I could feel her soft flesh. Only a moment would pass in this eternal span of time until we’d break the surface of the water. “Never—!” I’d sputter, beginning the refrain of precaution as she, laughing, would scream, “Again!” A month has passed since Twitch left the house. Normally he stays out just long enough to make a catch—or, these days, to find a place to pee. I don’t know where he is, and I’m concerned. I know where Rachael is going, but I still feel concern. She leaves a little slower than usual, but she’s definitely bolting. She had texted me an hour earlier, while I was at work, saying that she was moving out. “I just don’t want you to be surprised when you come home and see my bags by the 111
door.” She’s eighteen now and can do what she wants, as she constantly reminds me. I can’t make her stay in our warm, clean, safe home where she has access to a full pantry and unconditional love. I don’t try this time, though I do come straight home. It’s hard not to be angry. Lecturing her is no better than yelling at the cat for puking on the carpet; neither one of them care what you say. Still, someone still has to clean up the mess. Rachael is moving to the home of a girl she met the day before, who lives just a mile up the road. “I’m doing it right this time,” Rachael tells me when I get home. This time. When she was a minor, she would disappear without a trace until she was ready to come back, or until the police hunted her down. Once they found her three states away, in Georgia, in a cockroach-infested trailer with no power or running water, inhabited by four adults and two children. The police discovered her only because of a domestic disturbance call from neighbors. On a whim, Rachael had hopped in the car with migrant workers she met at Walmart, and this was where she landed. But she’s doing it right this time. “I’m saying good bye to you, and I’m staying in school. I’ve really thought this through, I promise.” When Rachael was two, I put her in a playpen when I couldn’t keep both eyes on her. That’s how I prevented her from plunging into danger. More often, though, I was in the water with her. She was precocious, and I admired her courage and beauty. Plus, she had—and still has—a laugh that makes everyone want to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to her. She’s fun. Nothing gave me more pleasure that swishing her through the waves as she screamed with joy. Rachael has golden brown skin, soft curls, and round lips. She gleaned the best of both her ethnic backgrounds. In many ways, Rachael takes what she wants. I realize that a fetus is incapable of selecting the DNA that forms it, but it seems somehow true that Rachael’s force of personality was at work even then. The girl Rachael is moving in with won’t look at me as they pick up suitcases by the door. The girl’s mother is waiting in the car. I wonder what stories Rachael has told this girl to make her dread me so, to make the mother willing to help a high school student move out of the family home without even so much as greeting the parents. I try not to think about it. As Rachael hugs me goodbye, hardly able to contain her excitement, I try to resist self-pity. But I see my dreams for my only daughter crashing around me. It’s not what I worked for all these years. She’s supposed to graduate from high school. I’m supposed to throw an open house in her honor, move her into a dorm room that she’ll accessorize with items we picked out together, maybe even a favorite stuffed animal to remember days gone by. Instead, she’s going to live in a house with a boarded up window (yes, I drove by it) sharing a bedroom with a self-described stoner (yes, I Facebook stalked) under the supervision of a parent who won’t even speak 112
to me. She dances down the front steps and I swallow the lump in my throat. The car pulls away, but I stay in front of the window, staring at a bit of snow swirling in the empty driveway. We’re facing record-breaking cold this winter in Indiana and record snowfall. I think of Twitch. Despite all our talk of his predatory skills, Twitch is a bit of baby. He likes to curl up on a square of light in the living room to be warmed by the sun. His biggest concern is having to shift positions when the sun moves. He sleeps with belly exposed and, without even opening his eyes, purrs when I scratch him under the chin. He would stay away from this house only if he couldn’t find a way back. As Rachael is or maybe isn’t getting high at the boarded up house a mile away, not thinking of what she left behind, I’m overthinking everything. Have I been too strict? Have I not been strict enough? Is she safe? Are there any men in that house who will hurt her? Will she really go to school tomorrow, as she promised? If she misses even one more class she will be suspended, so should I call her in the morning to make sure she wakes up? Should I put money in her lunch account or let her take responsibility? Should I act like this is no big deal, or should I tell her how much it hurts me? Perhaps I should be celebrating her independence. I should be glad Twitch is gone too. No paws press into my face in the wee hours of the night. No cat puke on the carpet. No kitty litter to clean up. No grocery money blown on cat food. No warm body sprawled over my keyboard while I’m trying to work. With Rachael gone, I’ll be able to sleep an hour longer because I won’t have to bring her to school. I won’t have to drive her to work. Pick her up in the middle of the night when her friends strand her. Help her to do her homework. Nag her to take her medicine and do her chores. I won’t have to manage her emotional swings. I won’t have to worry about whether she is asleep in her bed or crawling out her window. Whether she’s lying to me. Talking to strange men. Hurting herself in secrecy of her bathroom. I wasn’t sure if I could have gone on one more day, actually. With a child like Rachael you learn not to lose your cool, not to give in to emotion, not to have unrealistic expectations. You learn not to care what others think of you, or even what she thinks of you. But that morning, before she told me she was moving out and after she lied to me one more time as easily as she buttered her toast, I didn’t know how to do it anymore. “I’m a real person,” I told her. “I have feelings.” I said it gently, but the sense of betrayal that washed over me was too much to contain. And the moment she left for school, I had a meltdown. I had lost my confidence. For all my patience and prayers, kindness and courage, I wasn’t succeeding. I was failing miserably. I couldn’t protect her. I couldn’t jump in the lake after her anymore—or maybe I just couldn’t find her sitting patiently at the bottom anymore, waiting for me to save her. I was reaching around in the dark, 113
murky water, and coming up with nothing. The one job that mattered was impossible to do. “If you really want me to keep hoping, God,” I whisper, looking at the empty driveway, the empty yard, “give me a sign. Send Twitch home.” It’s an impossible request. Twitch couldn’t have survived the cold for these four weeks. We had given him up for dead. I stop myself from taking my deal with God to its logical conclusion, that if Twitch doesn’t return I will give up on my daughter, my little girl, a person I love more than my own life. In this moment, I don’t know what seems harder—hoping or giving up hope. And I don’t know whether I want God to answer my prayer. I was never a cat person. I grew up on a hobby farm where kittens were born between hay bales and littered the barn like confetti. They were cute, but a nuisance, especially when I milked the cow. They rubbed up against the bucket and knocked it over. I would pet them once in awhile, but I never named them. I once watched my brothers drop a cat out of the second story barn window to see if it would land on its feet (it did), fully aware that my curiosity made me complicit in the whole affair. I didn’t feel bad though. I was a dog person. So it’s hard now to admit that I miss this feline roaming my house as he pleases, sleeping at the foot of my bed every night, and even jumping on the counter when we’re not looking, and sometimes when we are. I’m entirely smitten. Watching Twitch bask in the sunshine gives me pleasure akin to swishing my daughter in the waves. Actually, I wish everyone could bask in the sunshine in my living room, which is why I frequently open my home to those in need. The space I’ve created here with my husband is cozy and welcoming. I recognize we’re part of a tiny minority in this world that has the luxury of debating whether to paint the accent wall in our living room Pumpkin Toast or Fall Leaves, and I occasionally feel confusion about why or how I was born into such privilege. I understand, even in the moment, that I’m being elitist if I feel upset when my Internet service goes out for an hour or two. I can’t even imagine life in a cockroach-infested trailer, or worse. I tell myself that I shouldn’t feel guilty about my good life; I should just try to help others have the same. Still, I can see that my small offering of hospitality is a drop in the bucket. What’s starting to dawn on me, though, as I worry about Rachael and Twitch out in the cold, is that not everyone wants what I have to offer. Rachael’s priority is not graduating from high school so that she can follow a safe career path so that she can remain a part of the elite world she was born into. She’s not looking for a good husband to settle down with. She wants to feel the wind in her hair. She wants an adrenaline rush. She wants to laugh. Try new things. Fail. Without judgment. She’s less afraid of cockroaches in her shower than of being stifled. She’d rather have independence than security. Is this okay? I have guilt about being born into abundance when so many others are born into deprivation; but is it wrong to walk away from 114
privilege? Others risk their lives to achieve what Rachael’s been freely given. I can’t tell if she’s ungrateful, unwise, or just uninterested. I drop the curtain and turn away. She goes to school on Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. She calls me every night and says she’s doing great. She gets a ride to work, refusing my offer. Perhaps this will work. Friday morning I get an automated call from school, informing me that my child is absent. I text Rachael to see if she’s okay. “I’m puking,” she replies in a text message. “I’ll go to the doctor tomorrow.” I begin to explain how it works to get an appointment with the doctor, that she’s better off going on a Friday than a Saturday, and that I’d gladly bring her if she needs a ride. Getting a doctor’s note might keep her from getting suspended. But she wants to do this on her own. She says she’s fine, and I back off. I’m standing on the dock with the buoy in my hand, but she doesn’t want it. I have no idea whether I’m letting her drown or watching her swim. Friday night she sends me a text to say she’s in St. Louis, five hours away, and that she has moved in with her new boyfriend, a thirty-one-yearold man she met playing X-Box online. And not to worry. She thought this through. When Rachael leaves the house, she doesn’t sniff the air, making sure it’s safe to venture out. She’s eighteen and fearless, unaware or unbelieving that anything can hurt her. She doesn’t stop. She doesn’t sit. She doesn’t look at the sky. She rushes forward without a second thought. When my kids were little, I used to have dreams about fire. I would be on one side of the wall of flames, my kids on the other, screaming out for me. I would see the fire, a hungry beast, licking up everything it touched, but I’d push my way through. In real life, my kids are not crying out and there is no obstacle to push through. I make myself a cup of tea, and stand by the window. It’s dark and cold out there. Two months from now, Rachael will ask to come home. I’ll pick her up in St. Louis and she’ll manage to graduate from high school. But I don’t know that. Two years from now, I’ll help her select a little house a couple miles away. She’ll have an infant daughter of her own, named after me, and my heart will discover a new color on the spectrum of love. But in this moment, I have no hope. My husband invites me to sit by the fireplace, and we watch the flames creep up between the fake logs burning at the intensity we control with the turn of a knob. It doesn’t seem right. I wonder if I’ll sleep that night. As we sit in silence, waiting for something without knowing what—the mood to pass, the burden to lift, a phone call from Rachael?—I hear someone cry out from the darkness. “What’s that?” I say. “Listen.” My imagination is playing tricks on me. But we hear it again. I run to the front door, and Twitch limps in, a skeleton in a bag of fur. He cries again as I scoop him up, kissing his little face. He 115
cries again after heâ€™s eaten some food. He cries all night long, pressing us for attention, for food, for love.
CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN Your Love is a Zig Zagging Canoe Mesmerized by a new man, who is the old man with a different haircut, a word like embezzlement on his tongue as if he’s just slit a kitten’s throat. The daunting task of denying desire—the bulldozer beckons, architecture utters like a fossil which has made a miscalculation. Sheets around our ankles, maybe the fan is on, maybe it's not. I pour cookie dough into bullet molds. I want to throw you out the window and be the one to catch you, yawning, slurring, seething, seeing you as I never have before. Scorched voices strain to say: We saw this coming. We didn’t warn you. I swallow the campfire whole—lighter fluid, logs, even the surrounding circle of stones. Strum strum strum—I measure my threshold of suffering. You have been too long rotting in my body like something mistaken as sacred. When I go out dancing, I wear the ring you gave me. When I sing, I take it off.
CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN Defining the Tsunami at My High School Reunion There are three thousand panting horses behind my collar bone. There are fifty-seven beavers building a lodge between my ribs. There are one thousand and twenty-two tigers smearing their stripes on my thighs. I'm nauseous with flashbacks, hung over with humidity, here I don't have to prove what kind of wife I wasâ€” or spend my life in search of the epicenter. Butterflies? You want to know about butterflies? Make your own contract with rhythm. Build your own mausoleum, your own grove of Eucalyptus to entice a hoard of butterflies to quench your snitching itches.
CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN The Gravedigger Packs His Bags for Vacation Last night I dreamt of maps with no landmasses, only perfect unmarred blue, no dirt to gather under finger nails, no harsh lines to honor conquerors, no pastel hues to shade strangely named shapes and label whose rock is whose.
CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN Her Body a Beauty at Eighty Five Even when I knew nothing of the mystery of syncopation every hymn could blossom into a rag time heart-raging roar. Thin skin thinning with age, blue veins strange to me, youth returned like eagles when she sang, body cresting, resting, alive at that piano she was so proud to have bought for fifty dollars during the Depression, fifty dollars that she saved from a man who saved nothing for her.
AMORAK HUEY Cigarette vs. Cookie After Karen Skolfield
My mother is leaving. My father is leaving. We are all leaving, that’s the only truth. Someone rhymes their fists against the hood of a rusted white pickup: knuckle-bruise & raised-voice—am I in the truck? Am I on the porch, watching the tires crescendo gravel as what’s left of the morning fishtails out of our driveway? I will remember it both ways—as the one leaving, as the one left behind, as if there’s a difference. As if I’m not already inventing the details: so many roles, more than enough for each of us. My mother smokes. My father smokes. We are a family of tiny fires & empty bottles. We are a study in the high cost of being in a hurry, lessons we learn & relearn. The horse trailer loose & rattling behind. The horse trailer wrenching free at the end of the drive, tilting into our tallest oak tree with a noise like a stepped-on beer can, sometimes we have no choice but to stop & start over. We are in awe of this tree, its testament to standing still, to time & the luck that carries lightning somewhere else. I’m listening to “Harper Valley PTA” or “Ode to Billie Joe” & imagining another kind of life. I’m eating the last of the Tagalongs & watching my parents reattach the trailer. So much swearing. So many smoke breaks. It’s my pony we have to pick up from the vet. There is no work without blame. We have each other’s full attention now. I’m asking who would win if cigarette fought cookie. Why would they fight? To see how sugar tastes when it burns.
AMORAK HUEY The Boy Who Believed in the Girl Who Did Not Believe in God They’re supposed to be learning something about Emily Dickinson and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” but no one’s sure why it matters. The girl is drawing a butterfly on the soft skin of the inside of the boy’s forearm with a blue ballpoint Bic. His mistake is thinking skin is the word that matters. His mistake is thinking ink, thinking heartbeat and fingertip. The average lifespan for most species of butterfly is a month, and the girl knows better than to ask for an exception, she knows the season will outlast this restlessness she feels. She knows the boy’s desire should not be confused with her own. The lesson is about rhythm—is about faith.
BRANDON MARLON Andersonville The nauseous stench assailed from Sumter's bivouac whose timber stockade cooped up captives gradating into inmates unexchanged, lacking barracks and hope, limping else squatting in a squalid morass of despair and languor. Afore long, gaunt figures with protruding rib cages resembled underfed fowl stumbling into and over each other night and day amid cramped confines in these parts thitherto unknown. Wights turned wraiths in the miasma of overcrowding, starvation, contaminated water, and rampant disease, eliminative conditions condemning doughty soldiers to wither into listless wretches staggering round damnation's station under blistering confederate sun and chilled by wintry rains compounding misery. In eras to come the site of infamy would shudder spines of hushed visitors aghast at atrocity, in the grip of disbelief at the thought of forebears reduced to cemetery fodder, grist for a graveyard solemnly attesting to liberty's atrophy.
JOHN FINDURA Magic Trick / Thumb I pretend to pull off my thumb, but when I look down I find that I actually have There is no blood no torn ligaments or white jutting bone just a smoothness that begins to frighten me but I stay calm and attempt to finish the illusion by reattaching the thumb to my hand I snap it back into place and it stays I touch it to the other four fingers and all seems to be working fine I am stunned but reassured of my abilities and I ask my daughter if she and her friends enjoyed the trick when she looks me in the eyes and says Daddy, that was no trick
JENNIFER RUTH JACKSON The Pain of Starting The hill is a cockeyed breast Worn smooth by God & other travelers Traversed by bicycle with bald tires And half a deck of spoke-tickled cards "Head straight for home," momma said But that's a thousand miles plus The sky bleeds past indigo, moonless Feet slip sloppily from the pedals "You don't need to fit in here," momma said Palm faster than a dodge Pointless ruminations of a youth No concern in a rundown laundromat Three miles away, the house waits Clogged with tan cubes like a choked throat Even the stars are refugees here
ADAM PENNA Another Untitled Love Story The old man dreamed of his first wife. Sometimes she was young, pregnant with one of the boys. She might be standing before a window, or at the sink, wearing yellow rubber gloves to the elbows. One tendril of hair falling from the clip, touching her cheek perhaps. And sometimes she was old, terrifically old, older than she ever grew in life. And she would point at him from a dark corner of the room. Or he would approach her and see her hair was made of spiderwebs. Or she would whisper something in his ear, a name, a date, an address, and when he woke he would try to remember what she had said, but he couldn’t. His second wife was dead, too, but he never dreamt of her. When he was awake he still talked to her from time to time. Quiet things. Things that might have remained unsaid. So when she stopped answering, he didn’t notice. He kept on talking. Or he might go long stretches without talking aloud. And then he’d only know how silent he had been when the aide would ask him a question, and he thought he had answered, but no. I David and Lilly’s house was always noisy with the sounds of dogs and children. But Reggie felt more at home there than at any other place on earth, except perhaps for the woods behind his house, where even in winter he might take long walks. Once he had come upon a doe sleeping in the tamped down grass. He came close enough that one more step and he might have touched her. That had been the best day of his adult life. He had never mentioned it to anyone. It wasn’t that he was keeping it a secret. It was just that no one had asked. “Why don’t you marry again?” Lilly said. “Stop it, Lil,” David said. He excused himself from the table. “Take these with you,” Lilly said to David, and handed him a stack of dirty dishes. “Do you want coffee, Reg?” David said. “No. I’m fine.” “I’m making some anyway. For princess here.” “Okay,” Reggie said. “I’ll have some, too.” “Well?” Lilly said, when they were finally alone. “I don’t think so. I mean, why would I do that now? I’m almost forty. It seems too late for all this.” He gestured. “Besides, I tried being a husband. I wasn’t good at it.” Soon David returned with the coffee, three mismatched mugs balanced on an oblong tray. A ceramic sugar bowl. A creamer shaped like a cow. He placed a steaming mug before his wife and one before Reggie. “He’s scared,” David said. “I’m not scared.” “He’s not scared, David.” 126
“It’s just.” “What?” But he couldn’t say. And so he didn’t, but smiled instead and sipped the coffee. “It’s good,” he said. * It was his father’s birthday. He picked the old man up at noon and, though it was October, took him to the beach. It was a crisp afternoon. The sky clear and the water glistening far out at the vanishing. They walked up the empty beach. The waves tumbled and the foam crept nearly to their feet. “Do you see it?” his father said. “No.” His father gestured with his head. But he didn’t point. “There. A tanker or something. It’s very dark.” “Oh,” he said. “Now I see.” “It might fall over the edge.” “Maybe,” the son said. “Don’t indulge me just because I’m your father, Reginald.” “I’m not. I wouldn’t dare. If I’m indulging you, it’s because you’re old, old man. Not because you’re my father.” They picnicked in the cool sand, under a bright sun. “I’m not hungry,” the old man said. “Did you make this?” “No.” After an hour they began to talk, mostly about the old days, times they both might remember with Mom and Bobby. Childhood vacations. An old dog he named Ferris. The cabin, where his father taught him to fish. Where he learned he didn’t like fishing much, because of the way it felt to kill a thing and feel it die in his hand. “You always were like your mother,” his father said. “I loved her.” “I know, Dad.” Then, “Happy Birthday.” The bag which had formerly contained their lunch lifted and flew away. Reggie rose to chase it down. “There’s nothing happy about it.” “I’m here.” “Yes. You are.” He drove his father home and offered to cook him dinner. But he wasn’t hungry. It had been a long day anyway. He was tired. What about cake? “Next year,” his father said, and he kissed his boy on the forehead and closed the door. “Goodnight, Dad,” he said, and then he drove to the supermarket, where he strolled up and down the quiet aisles. The cat needed food. He was out of salt. Meat, too, he needed. But under the strange light of the butcher’s case, he couldn’t decide which to buy. First, whether chicken or beef. Then which cut. So he bought the cat food, and went home and ate cold cereal and milk before going to sleep. 127
* He tried calling his ex-wife the next morning. He got the machine and hung up. At work that day he thought he saw her coming up the stairs, as he walked down, but he had been mistaken. When he got home, he tortured himself further, looking through a box of keepsakes from those days. The phone rang a little after eight, and he jumped. He let it ring three or four times before answering. It was Lilly. She had called for a reason. She had met a woman, a single woman, and she was smart, attractive, successful, perfect. “For what?” “For you.” “I told you. I don’t want to.” “You don’t have to marry her. It’s just a date.” He could hear David yelling something from the other room—surely an echo of what his wife was saying. “What’s her name?” Reggie said. “Calixta.” “Calixta?” “Yes. What’s wrong?” Just then the dog began to bark. A child, her youngest, began to scream. “Nothing. It’s just.” “What?” He could tell she had her hands full, and David was no help. “When?” he said. “Does this mean you will?” “I will. But I’m not promising anything.” “You won’t be sorry, Reg. Even if this turns out to be nothing. You’ll see.” After hanging up, he felt good. He went out for a walk. A clear, cold night. His breath-smoke rose over his head and disappeared into the dark sky. The trees had all lost their leaves. When did that happen? It was useless to ask these kinds of questions. One night you go to sleep and it’s fall, and when you wake up the next morning it’s winter. That was how it happened. That was how it always happened for him, unless he was writing a poem. Then he might capture the moment one season surrendered to the next, but otherwise, like everyone else, the seasons slipped by almost entirely unnoticed, until winter like summer and spring and fall was long gone, too. II They agreed to meet at the Indian place David had recommended. He arrived early, parked and waited. Before going in, he checked his face in the rearview. He had shaved but he missed a spot. A small rectangle of hair near his throat. Luckily, there was a pharmacy across the way. He bought a disposable and, back in the car, ran the head dry over the spot. He didn’t feel the blade cut, but it did and the blood welled and ran down his neck. 128
Calixta noticed right away. She didn’t saying anything but reached instead into her purse and withdrew a clean tissue. He was embarrassed. He thought he had ruined everything and, where before he had believed he was doing her a favor, now he wished for nothing more than to amend the situation and impress her. He was charming enough, when he wanted to be. She ordered first, and he after. The waiter brought the wine. “This is good,” she said. “It’s a little more expensive but it’s local,” he said. “I don’t know much about wine, but this is a good find.” “Did you read that somewhere?” “No. But it sounds like something you might. But no.” The food came. He got the delicious goat curry. She a dish with chickpeas. “Are you vegetarian?” “No. No. I used to be. When I was younger. I used to be a lot of things I’m not anymore.” “Like?” “Really?” she said. “You want to know?” “I do,” he said. She was a good-looking woman. Over forty but not in a bad way. Her hair was long and dark and streaked here and there with touches of gray, which caused her to seem more exotic than old. He imagined she had had those same highlights of grey in her twenties, and so when she laughed or smirked—she was a great smirker—he saw that younger woman surface, and he liked her right away. He felt as if he might have known her once, from afar perhaps, and had been too timid to approach because of how alive she seemed. Now he might approach. Now he would. “An actress, for one,” she said. “What else?” “A custodian, a politician—I served on the town board for a term. I was a truck driver for eighteen months.” “A regular Jill-of-all-trades,” he said. “Yes. I’m a certified dog trainer, too, but I’ve never done it except as a favor for friends.” The restaurant was busy. A typical Friday night. The waiters rushed between the white tables, bringing brass-crocks of curried food and fragrant rice, replenishing water, sitting other couples, some with children, some on dates, some obviously angry or tired or bored. “I was a lesbian,” she said. He lay down his knife and fork. “Really?” They ordered dessert, and it was sweet and good. Then they lingered over coffee, more or less silently but happily so. When the check came, she attempted to grab it, but he was faster than she, so he paid and she left the tip. Before parting, they took a turn around the shopping center along the 129
walk. It was a cool but pleasant evening. Some boys skateboarding eyed them as they passed. “What about you?” she said. “What’s your story?” “No story,” he said. “My life’s fairly ordinary.” “Compared to mine, you mean?” “Well, I’ve never been a lesbian.” “I bet you wanted to be,” she said. “Still do.” “Maybe we can do something about that.” “Maybe.” They met again, for lunch, a week later and the day following their lunch date, they met again for dinner. This time it was a seaside place with open air dining, though it was rather cold outside, and the wind pressed against the glass doors, and they could hear the waves crashing against the rocks. So he asked the waiter if they could be reseated closer to the fire. The waiter obliged, and it was between courses that he reached over the table and touched her hand. She smiled. “What?” he said. “You remind me of someone,” she said. “Who?” But she didn’t or wouldn’t say, and though he wanted to know, he didn’t want to ask again and seem desperate or mistrustful, so he didn’t. Later, in bed, she lay beside him, sleeping. Soon, he thought, she will wake, dress, put on her earrings and go. And still he would be thinking, Who? a very long time. As long as they were with each other, he thought. He even wondered if he might be asking this same question as long as he lived. This was the earliest inkling that his feelings were serious. There would be greater hints but this was the first. He knew how to read such signs. Love had happened to him before. Finally, he slipped out of the bed, leaving her there and padded his way down the steps and, as he was, he walked out the front door. The neighborhood was cold and quiet. The houses dark. He walked to the dead end. He entered the woods and took the trail. Eventually, he heard the surf, smelled the sea-salt, and felt the hard-packed earth give way to sand. The wind had died down. The stars shone brilliantly above him. He whispered, “Who? Who?” He waded into the shallows and listened for an answer, until his lower extremities grew numb. Then he returned home and crawled back into the bed. “You’re cold,” she said. “You’re shivering.” “Stay,” he said. “Please. Stay.” “Okay,” she said. “I will.” * The produce seemed oddly bright, fresh, shiny compared to the bleak weather. The tomatoes neatly arranged. Stacks of green bananas. Bins of potatoes and apples and peppers—red, yellow, orange and green. Then the young mothers pushing around the carts. Their children circling close or 130
sitting in the basket. His father preferred shopping at the smaller supermarket, where the aisles seemed more manageable, human-size. But this store was closer and had other advantages. “I met someone,” Reggie said. “A woman?” the old man said. “Yes. Her name is Calixta.” “Don’t marry her.” “We just met.” “I need socks.” “We can get them here.” “I don’t understand. A grocery store should sell groceries. How can I trust socks from a grocery store?” “Things have changed, Dad.” “Not for me.” “Yes. Even for you.” They walked past the packages of meat: pork, beef, chicken, lamb. “Ground beef,” the old man said, squinting at a single-serving package. “That’s ground turkey.” The old man made a face. The package, shrink-wrapped, went into the basket. They checked out and the total came to less than sixty dollars. The old man paid by check, which slowed things down considerably. An impatient mother clucked and huffed, but that was understandable. Her cart was full, and her children restless. Luckily, the checkout person was an older woman. Not as old as Reggie’s father, but older. She might have been rather pretty once. Still one could see her younger self, as if the older stood beside the younger, coaching her gently, approving and disapproving of all she did and didn’t do. When they got home, he stowed his father’s groceries, wherever they went. The old man was tired and nodded off in his chair, watching a game show on the television. The volume so loud. Reggie lowered the volume just as a young Japanese man won a big prize. He jumped silently and celebrated the victory on the tiny screen. Then Reggie made his father a meatloaf. As it cooled, he helped the old man to bed. It shocked him always to see how time had shrunken this once fit man. He recalled how he had built the deck in the backyard, when he was twelve. How torn he felt, and humiliated, when his father said, “Go with your friends. I’ll finish this myself.” He closed the door to the bedroom quietly behind him. Then, just as quietly, he shut the front door behind him, too, though the deference was unnecessary. The old man was asleep. III They went to the harbor to watch for seals. At first, they saw nothing. Only the sun bright on the surface of the sea. Then, look. One, two, three. Another and another. A crowd gathered on the wharf. A man with a beard like Walt Whitman pointed to one sunning himself on the rocks. His 131
daughter, at first confused, hopped up and down, until her mother gently turned her head to face the right direction. When she saw, finally, she clapped and squealed. Her parents smiled as if to congratulate each other. “Do you want children?” Calixta said. “You mean of my own?” he said. “Of course.” “I don’t know. My first wife and I tried.” “And?” “I don’t know. It never happened. And then we divorced. You?” “I’d love to be a mother, but I can’t.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I’m not.” He drove, and she reclined as far back in the passenger seat as it would go. The sun shone magnificently everywhere. Terrific late winter sun. No leaves, no shade, no shadow, just sun. “When I could,” she said, “I didn’t want to, and now I can’t, but I would.” “I guess we have a lot in common that way,” he said. “Yes,” she said. “Quite a bit.” When they got home, they made a simple lunch—sandwiches and tea. He built a fire in the stove, and the house warmed up nicely before too long. They made love on the floor. After that, they watched the flames gesture behind the sooty glass. Then she said, “Are you happy, Reg?” “Yes.” “I mean really?” “With you?” “Yes. But more than that. I mean happy happy. I mean do you catch yourself singing in the shower when no one’s around? Or, I don’t know, are you content to be alone in a silent house? That kind of happy.” “That kind of happy?” “Don’t answer too quickly.” “Okay,” he said. And he didn’t. In fact, he didn’t answer at all. A week later, during the last snowstorm of the season, he called her. She said, “Well?” “Mostly,” he said. “That’s not good enough,” she said. “It’ll have to do,” he said. “For now,” she said. “For now,” he said. Then he suited up in his warmest clothes and cleared the driveway. The snow fell another three inches before she pulled up. “Were the roads bad?” he said. “Not too bad.” “Are you cold?” “Not too cold.” 132
That night they lay awake in the dark, holding hands. “Are you crying?” he said. “I want to get married,” she said. He turned on the bedside lamp. “To me?” She rolled to face the wall. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. He curled up behind her, and they slept that way, with the light on. In the morning, he whispered something into her ear. They hadn’t moved. It must have been what she wanted to hear because she kissed the palm of his hand and then fell back to sleep. * “I think it’s good,” David said. They were observing their weekly run. Six miles every Saturday, except in the months when it was too cold. “Me, too,” Reggie said. They made the final turn. David’s house came into view. Lilly was in the yard preparing the beds. Several tubs waited to be planted. “What does Lilly think?” “She loves Callie.” That night the two couples met for dinner. They toasted the good news and there was some talk about David and Lilly bearing some of the responsibility for all this, so didn’t it make sense then that they stand with them, when they exchanged their vows? Another toast followed. It seemed like Lilly was going to cry, but then she began laughing. David seemed embarrassed. “What?” he said, “Nothing,” Lilly said. “I knew it. I just knew it.” “Knew what?” Reggie said. “Nothing. I just knew it. I’m so happy for you two.” Soon David and Lilly had to go. David had been watching the time for an hour. His parents were babysitting. “They can’t stay up as late as they used to,” he said. “Neither can we,” Lilly said. Callie looked at her watch. “It is late,” Reggie said. On the way home, Callie was particularly silent. “Are you tired?” “No,” she said. “Then why so quiet? Didn’t you have a good time?” “Yes. It was nice.” “Then what?” They pulled into his driveway. “Would you mind,” she said, “but I want to go home tonight.” “Have I done something?” “No. I’m just. I just want to go home.” “Let me get a change of clothes, and then we’ll go wherever you want.” 133
“No,” she said. “I want to be alone tonight.” “Oh,” he said. He drove her home. The twenty-minute trip took almost double the time. He missed the turn to her road. He took the long way. The length of the trip, she said nothing. He said nothing. She kissed him goodnight, and got out of the car. She leaned back in and said, “Call me in the morning. Please?” “Okay,” he said. Then, “Callie?” “Yes?” “I love you.” “Call me tomorrow.” She blew him a kiss. When he got home, he noticed she had called. He played the message. It said, “I love you, too.” He was tempted to return the call, but didn’t and slept uneasily instead, waking before dawn. He sat in the dark kitchen drinking coffee until sunup. The phone rang a little after seven. “Are you awake?” she said. “Come over, please.” He drove as fast as he could to her house. The whole way running over in his head what she might say to him, and he to her. Just what had been troubling her, he didn’t know. Yet dimly he sensed, whatever it was, after today nothing would be the same. He feared himself to be on the edge of tears, until he saw the flashing lights behind him and his heart, which had been aching, leapt into his throat. He pulled over, slowed down, and the cruiser sped past him to who knows where. When he pulled into her driveway, he noticed the porchlight was still on. He knocked once, and then felt foolish and entered. The house smelled sweet, as if someone had been baking. He called to her and she answered. She was in the kitchen. Sunlight filled the kitchen, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. She embraced him. Then he saw. She must have been up all night, because the countertops were lined with pies, and the kitchen everywhere dusted with flour. She, too, was dusted. Her hair and eyebrows and all her clothes were white. She seemed infinitely old to him, as if she were the old woman in a fairytale. “Are you okay?” he said. “I’ve been baking.” “I see.” They sat and she served him pie. It was very good. “It’s good,” he said. “Callie,” he said, “what’s the matter?” “I don’t know. It’s just.” “What?” “Sometimes I feel like my life is over. The best parts are over. I gave them away, and then I think of you. Us. And it seems like there might be more.” “There is. There can be. Much more.” “No.” 134
“No?” “I don’t mean it that way.” “How do you mean it, then?” “I’m fifty-two years old.” “So.” “I can’t give you a family.” “I know. I don’t want a family. I want you.” “You say that now. But.” “This isn’t about a family, is it? Have I done something? Have I said something? I’ll take it back, whatever it is. I will. People can do that, can’t they?” “Do you want another piece of pie?” she said. He looked at his plate. He had barely touched the piece before him. “Is there something wrong with it?” she said. “No,” he said. “It’s delicious. I love it.” She made them some tea, and they each finished the pie and drank the tea. After, he helped her clean the kitchen. He washed, she dried. Before long, the kitchen was tidy. “What do you want to do with all these pies?” he said. “I don’t know,” she said. “Do Dave and Lilly like pie? Would their children like some?” “I think so. I’m sure they do. But what about the rest?” “We could give them away to the neighbors. Who doesn’t like pie?” “Everyone likes pie.” “Yes. Everyone.” They began to wrap the pies in foil, and some were still too hot to touch, so she instructed him to let them cool. So he let them alone but worked carefully on the ones cool enough to handle, stacking them on the countertop neatly. “Reg,” she said, “I don’t want to get married.” “Okay,” he said. “Do you want me to go?” “No, please stay.” “Okay. But eventually, I’ll have to go.” “Why?” “I have a class at noon.” “Can you stay until then?” “Yes. Of course.” They spent the rest of the morning together. She brought him the newspaper, and smiled a lot. It was the first day of spring. The days were growing longer. The birds gathering at the feeder. Soon the first leaves would begin to bud. The grass grow green and lush. Everyone would be happy then for a little while. Everyone would say how fine the weather is becoming. Everyone would throw off the heavy winter coats and again feel the glorious warmth of sun on bare skin. It would all seem miraculous. It would seem as if so much new life were impossible. How could Mother Nature keep on giving and giving and never exhaust her stores? This was a 135
wonderful world and who but the greediest or the most self-pitying could fail to see it and be grateful? Who but the heart-sore and soul-weary could feel otherwise? * He did see her again, but it wasn’t for almost two years. It had been a hard winter: three nor’easters and a dozen less significant though nevertheless violent storms. The paint on the house siding had peeled quite a bit. Reggie busied himself scraping and sanding the first chance he got in early April. Normally work like this he liked to hire out. But money was tight. He’d have to do the job himself. He tried to find a professional painter to do the work, but the quotes he received, even for his modest home, he couldn’t afford. He ran into her one afternoon at the hardware store. “Can I help you with something?” she said. He looked up from the can of paint he had been reading. At first, he didn’t recognize her. She was thinner than he remembered, and her hair was almost entirely gray. Plus, she wore a red smock and store-bought readers. “Calixta?” “It’s me.” She had been working there a few months. It was her brother’s place. He had married into the responsibility and ran the business now for his father-in-law, who had retired reluctantly almost a year ago. “He hired me out of pity,” she said. “He’s my little brother.” She didn’t charge him for the three-pack of rollers, but the brushes cost him and so did the paint. They met for coffee later that afternoon. She got off at three. She was late. When she arrived, he had been sitting in the booth for almost thirty minutes. “I almost left,” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t.” She ordered a turkey club—she hadn’t eaten all day, she said—and talked for forty-five minutes straight about plumbing. She seemed to know a lot. “It just makes sense to me,” she said. Then, “How’s your dad?” “He died last spring,” he said. The waitress brought the check. They both reached for it at the same time. Their hands touched. She held his hand between hers. It was speckled with white paint. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been rotten.” “Yes,” he said. “You have.” They talked a few more times after that and then they lost touch. He spent his sabbatical in London that fall, working on a book. When he returned David and Lilly threw him a welcome home party. Two or three people from the department came and asked scads of questions about London and his work. Reggie was happy because it seemed as if they were really interested. He answered liberally and worried not at all if they were 136
keeping up. After the party, when he was home and drifting off to sleep, he thought that this had been an important threshold for him to cross. His attitudes were changing. Now when he taught the difficult material, maybe he wouldn’t worry so much about who was following and who wasn’t. The questions, for those who cared, would come. If they didn’t come, who suffered? Not he. He wouldn’t be left in the dark.
CHRISTOPHER BROOKS On Mother’s Day I saw a woman standing on a busy street corner holding a sign that said I’ll bet you can’t hit me with a quarter. Passersby were throwing spare change inside the cut-out hole at her broad intoxicating smile. It seemed out of place as if she’d just won the lottery. I noticed she was holding the sign with two stubby fingerless hands.
CHRISTOPHER BROOKS Road to Chimayo, New Mexico There are no straight lines here No human lines To diminish Earth’s curves of sandstone sculpted And the spindly skeletons of dead cholla More beautiful than driftwood There are no straight lines here Save the occasional barbed wire fence And the black on white geometry On broken bits of pottery Lying next to rusty beer cans As if they were discarded at the same time There is no clock time here No human time Only Earth’s time of the slow march of a river Reducing the Sangre de Cristo’s a grain of sand at a time Into cataract water Carving new cut banks when the snows melt Receding into dusty beds To sleep again until spring
TERIN WEINBERG Processes Wash me with stone⎯ sand my edges. Guide waves over my spine. Coax herring to taste my toes. Trickle salted waters on my fresh tongue. + Barnacles will attach my flesh. I’ll exchange my breath for gills. Send me down to feed⎯ I will delve with my panic. Force my water flow east to west, where catfish trail your trap. Match or degrade my slick design as currents carry to sea. Caress my
hollows scoured one hundred deep. Build me in sections. Protect me⎯ your thalweg nature pierces my rose quartz organs clean. Breathe me⎯ water my losing gills as I’m drawn to surface. Trading my fins to snap. When headwaters seiche, tap my shell twice let me kiss blade before I slip.
REBECCA MACIJESKI Passing at Pioneers Park Nature Center
My mind fills the field with the millions of bison that used to make their way on this land. The afternoon fills with the memory of their shapes, the way the great furry backs of them would rub along the boundary of earth and air into the wild movie of the sky â€”the ground under their hooves humming a kind of applause. Who or what has passed into these bison? House cats lounging, oblivious, their limbs still tucked beneath them? The spirits of lizards feeling their new stride? Fish learning the steadiness in a river of grass? Moths stunned by their own noises and heft? A New England boy pulling ferns from his yard, now a mighty animal, grunting and curious? I like to think the calm one is my brother, nuzzling a bit of hay in the distance and remembering his way back to the small Vermont town where his eyes held secrets, when the moon gleamed in them, of finding a way home in passing forms.
REBECCA MACIJESKI Migration Patterns Dawn at Rowe Audubon Sanctuary: Gibbon, NE March 2014
Out here there is no we or me. Only birds. Only birds and the river and the chill in the air that reminds me back into my bones. Out here is the squawking of a young crane searching for a family, the sound of her cry passing in front of me like a boat or an airship or a broken radio, something I can never know. The thousands of sand hill cranes are echoes first and birds second, the hazed silhouettes of their bodies just dawning with the sun. Out here an eagle passes overhead and the cranes gather for the sky, lifting like a storm, each one sending up a question. How do they know the way? What binds them? How are they sure? And their dark bodies against the sun inscribe a language of feathers along the morning, a language of home, of movement, of a primal knowing. Out here the birds become each other, become more than birds. I watch their shapes gather above me into whorls of knowing—each one keeping in its bird heart the sound and smell of home, even the young ones who haven’t yet felt the long flight in their wings. Out here I watch them. And out here they’re gone. On the drive back to the city, I see groups of them in fields, clues gathering what the earth knows before writing it, hymn-like, onto the sky.
REBECCA MACIJESKI When This Begins Deck lights on the apartments pool their glowing on the dog walkers still wearing sleep things. Hounds stagger yawns out their beastly mouths. Commuters wear cars like exoskeletons, dozens of beetles climbing a length of highway, red and green streaking along their metal backs. My mug holds its pond surface of coffee, these calm waters I drink down to their source each morning. Too soon, before I’m through, the day has lit itself and birds have chattered into their bodies. What I long for is the place of silence cats tilt their heads toward, the quiet that grows in them from the small animals they’ve hunted. The questions we ask ourselves are furiously cluttered with words, vast ribbons of thought tumbling out of us like so much fourth of july bunting trailing out of its own universe toward a perfection in details. Like the laddered palette of my housecat when he yawns and I see down past his tongue’s tight curl into the same darkness that stays in all of us.
STEVEN FROMM Gazala Walden. Jason typed the one word in an email and sent it to her. When he walked behind her on the way out, he saw her looking at it on her screen. He didn’t stop. They made it a point to keep their conversations to a minimum in the office. Especially now. On his way to the back exit, he passed Harley’s desk. They’d impounded his computer, locked the drawers and instructed the employees not to go near it. “It’s a crime scene,” Darcey, the receptionist, had intoned. That was her thing. Intoning. As Jason approached the conference room he noticed the door was open, but forced himself not to look inside as he passed. Simon and Garfunkel were most likely in there along with Weston, his boss, reeking of coffee breath and bent over reams of data from Harley’s accounts. This would not be a good time to be noticed. Jason walked by silently and then through the back exit. He passed the dumpster, made his way to the little clearing with the picnic table in the center and sat on its top with his feet on the seat, his back to the building. It was quiet back here, the woods looming about 30 feet from where he sat, thick stands of red oak, sugar maples and yellow birch. He wouldn’t have known about the types were it not for Darcey and another of her intonations: “They’re coming. It’s just a matter of time.” He peered up at the canopy as he dug his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. He was pretty sure there were patches of sky where two weeks ago he’d seen only the arching green of the upper branches, muting the sun. He heard the back door open as he was lighting up. He looked over his shoulder. Jazz walked toward him, head down as she adjusted the barrette to hold her hair back into a short ponytail, something she did when it got warmer or just before she hopped into the shower. He took a deep drag and watched her approach in a tailored-looking white blouse and dark blue pencil skirt. She was dressing better. Before it was sturdy Anne Taylor. Now it was Escada and Von Furstenberg. She’d even confessed to buying a pricey black Bryon Lars something-or-other dress that she was saving for a special occasion. Either that or, given current events, hiding it because it was incriminating evidence. When she reached the table he held out the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. Jazz never had cigarettes. She was an ex-smoker who’d pretended to quit years ago, which meant she was a smoker who nicked cigarettes off other smokers who weren’t pretending to quit. She lit up and slid the pack and lighter into his shirt pocket. As she inhaled she looked out at the woods. “Anything?” “Maybe.” 145
“Where?” He pointed up to the bare spots. “You’re right,” she said after a few moments. “So they’re here.” “Looks like it.” “Then Walden’s done for.” That’s what they called the little clearing and the woods. Walden, after Walden Pond, a peaceful oasis for the smokers to escape the ceaseless thrum of cash burn and pension liquidity for a few moments of communing with red oaks and the adrenal bliss of nicotine. “Darcey says it’s in the paper,” Jazz said. “It’s just a matter of time,” Jason intoned, Darcey style. They both smiled, but the moment faded quickly. Jason took a look back over his shoulder. The door was shut. He knew Jazz had passed the conference room on her way out to him. “You see them?” he asked, referring to Simon and Garfunkel. “Took a quick peak. They’re in there.” She climbed on the table next to him, absently placing her hand on his knee. They didn’t have to worry about anyone else coming out. There had been four Walden smokers to start: Jason, Davis, Harley and Jazz. Just four in a company of 47, a testament to all those grisly public service commercials depicting charred lungs and voice boxes. Davis was the first to exit the clique shortly after he started smoking something decidedly more dicey than tobacco, his burgeoning habit manifesting itself in spotty attendance and an erratic performance helpfully ignored by Weston, who had a taste for biscuit himself. It was part of the office lore. They’d drift out to Weston’s black BMW M5 just before the market opened, crank Black Sabbath and corrupt their synaptic clefts. It was a beautiful world until Davis capped off his declining margins with a disastrous bet on oil futures just as the market was inundated with a tidal wave of the stuff. Clients wanted a scalp. Even Weston couldn’t save him. “Rehab,” Darcey had intoned, “in Arizona.” The remaining Walden clique held steady for another year until Harley —asphyxiating under the compound interest of delinquent student debt-made more than a few elicit dips into a residual trust he’d been shepherding for three years. He camouflaged his withdrawals under the hazy rubric of administrative costs. It looked like a safe bet going in. The trustee, a 13year-old, was safely tucked away in some Massachusetts boarding school. While his parents had conveniently departed for the next world via a Turnpike pileup, his remaining family tree included a second cousin with a law practice in, you guessed it, trusts and estates. He dug past the surface on the quarterlies, smelled the compost and made a phone call, activating the judicial apparatus that leads to the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Probate Part. After a charge of breach of fiduciary duty was filed, Harley followed the Completely Fucked Investment Advisor’s Playbook to the letter: he hired an attorney and steadfastly denied all allegations. This would buy him 146
enough time to negotiate a plea deal, agree to restitution and surrender his registered representative license. That’s where the numbers come in. One number in particular. If the filch totaled more than $75K, restitution and a shredded license were incidentals. Harley was facing one to five in medium stir. He was good enough with numbers to understand the implications. When his attorney advised they work toward a plea deal, Harley insisted to anyone who’d listen that the skimming stopped dead at 50K. Prosecutors, a suspicious type by nature, expressed skepticism. The judge shared their cynical world view and appointed forensic accountants to go over Harley’s books. That’s where Simon and Garfunkel came in. They showed up in the office two weeks earlier, marching into Weston’s office with the all the right subpoenas and setting up shop in the conference room. One had receding dark brown hair and needed lifts to crack five feet. His partner was at least 6-3, capped by frizzy reddish brown hair. The names stuck to them like pine tar before they ogled their first list of cash equivalents. “What’d you see?” Jason asked. “Only had two seconds.” “More than me,” Jason said. “Simon was standing, holding a file and talking to Weston,” Jazz said. “Garfunkel was seated, like usual, staring into his screen.” “Catch any words?” She gave him a look. “Like I said. Two seconds.” They both took drags. He exhaled first. “Saw you in Weston’s office yesterday, post-market,” he said. It sounded like a statement, but it’s the way he asked questions. Jazz tilted her head up and let out a long bluish-grey stream of smoke. She watched as a small brown bird flitted from one branch to another on a nearby beech. There had been a time when she would have asked him what kind it was, and they might kick it around for the life of at least a half cigarette. The bird darted straight up and out of sight. “Straight business on one of my trusts,” she said. Jason waited. He wanted more. She shrugged. “Wanted to know the mix on Federated Ultra and Vanguard.” “Nothing else?” “Nope. Nothing.” They sat in silence with their cigarettes, looking out at the woods. Jason didn’t press it, but they both knew Weston couldn’t give a shit about residual trusts. He’d taken them on when he launched the business for the steady income and as a way to grease up clients on their way to more lucrative investment strategies, like bio pharma and precious metals. Jason was grateful for the sour aftertaste of suspicion. It gave him a good excuse not to tell Jazz that Weston had sent him an email asking him to pop into his office later that morning. “You pick up anything?” Jazz asked. “Maybe from Darcey?” 147
“All she talks about is them,” he said, nodding out at the trees. “Where they’re at, how close they are, that kind of shit.” They batted around the names of the best office gossips, but came up empty. It was almost time to go back inside. “You hear from Harley?” she asked. “Not for a while. Lawyers shut him down.” “Wonder what he’s doing.” “Binging on jalapeno cheddar Dorritos and Better Call Saul.” “Think he’ll do time?” “We got other worries.” She didn’t answer, which was fine by him. There was no use getting into it any further until they had some idea of how it would play out. “You hear that?” Jazz asked. “What?” “That. Listen.” He picked up on it after about 90 seconds. “Sounds like, what? Rain?” he asked. He looked through the bare spots to the sky. Not a cloud. The word cerulean popped into his head. Perfect blue. But he didn’t say it. “Nothing’s stopping them. Nothing.” Darcey acted like she was saying it to herself, but she’d waited until Jason was within earshot. Pre-Harley he would have given her a vague nod and gone on his way. Now he felt obliged to stop and listen to her prattle on about where they were headed. She might let something drop about Weston or the Delphic comings and goings of Simon and Garfunkel. “Whatcha got?” he asked. Darcey nodded at her screen. She’d called up one of the local newspapers that was covering their advance with a running graphic. Jason bent down for a closer look. They were represented by a pulsing brown blot on a map of central Jersey. “Lymantria dispar,” she said. “Pardon?” “Gypsy moths. It’s their classification. Lymantria dispar.” “That’s a mouthful.” “They’re getting a mouthful,” she said. “Little buggers are working their way south. Last year they were in Bradley Gardens and Manville. Earlier this spring they were in Millstone and Blackwell. Now look.” She scrolled down on the map, moving it further south, closer to them. “They’ve made the leap all the way to Montgomery,” she said. “Interstates, county roads, lakes, rivers, canals. Nothing stops them.” She looked up at him. “Rocky Hill,” she intoned. “That’s all that stands between them and us.” He looked into her screen at the swelling brown blot, trying to look interested and at the same time scanning her desk to see if there were any 148
tell-tale folders or messages headed to Weston. There wasn’t. He looked back at the screen. “Mobile little buggers, aren’t they?” “Air currents.” “What?” “Currents. The smaller larvae can ride on them for miles,” Darcey said. “That’s how they spread.” “Impressive,” he said. But what he was thinking was: This poor, poor woman. He had to ask a few more questions before moving on. Anything else would seem rude. “There any way to stop them?” “Entomophaga maimega,” Darcey said. “Another bug?” “Nope. Fungus. Seems to cut their numbers, but it needs more time to work. That and insecticides.” “Saw some bald spots in the woods,” he said. “That’s the vanguard,” she said. “What?” “Vanguard. The first before the onslaught.” She zoomed back on the graphic, making the map small enough so that they could see most of central Jersey and a few Pennsylvania counties across the Delaware. Brown blots peppered the entire region like a shattered Rorschach. He kept gazing at the screen, trying to look interested. Bugs. Bugs forming vanguards and onslaughts. Weston walked out of the conference room and looked at Jason as he headed into his office. He left the door open. Time for the meeting. “See you later.” “I’ll let you know,” Darcey said. “About what?” “Them,” she said. Weston’s office always smelled of mint mouthwash, cologne and a hint of sweat. It reminded Jason of men’s locker rooms in high-end athletic clubs, the kind with dark wood lockers and geometrically-folded white towels. Weston was sitting behind his desk, peering into his silver laptop, two steel ying-yang balls quietly click-clacking in his left palm. “You can close the door.” “Going to be one of those meetings?” Jason asked. “I never have one of those meetings,” Weston said. Jason pushed the door shut and sat down. Weston kept looking at his laptop. The only other items on his desk were his office phone, his cell phone and a silver high intensity lamp he used when the florescent lights triggered his migraines. He looked up from the screen. “So. How are things?” “Good enough,” Jason said. He decided to keep it to business. “Putting a bit more into Acadian Emerging and Eaton. Looking to shift a bit more 149
into T. Rowe now that real estate looks to be dodging the Second Apocalypse.” He stopped there. Weston never wanted much detail. He looked back down at his screen, made a few taps on his keyboard, flipped it shut and put down the little balls. “You like residuals?” No, Jason thought. I like money. “Seemed like a good place to start,” Jason offered. “It’s a good place to die,” Weston said. Jason smiled, but didn’t say anything. “I was thinking maybe you’d like a crack at one of the equity funds,” Weston said, straightening in his chair and pushing his laptop to the side. “Bio pharma’s getting hot, and I want to push more into info-tech and telecom.” “Sounds good.” “Ain’t hedges, but fuckin’ Indiana Jones compared to trusts.” “I’m interested,” Jason said. He wasn’t. He couldn’t leave trusts, not now. “Good to hear,” Weston said. “Have to wait, though.” “Wait?” “Until the junior G-men get done with their little adventure,” he said, nodding toward the conference room. Jason didn’t answer. Weston picked up the little balls and started up with a rhythmic click-clacking. They sounded louder than before. “Just one thing,” Weston said. He waited a beat, the balls going silent. “Got something to tell me?” Jason kept his face blank by thinking of something else. Bugs. Bugs eating Walden. Weston kept looking at him. “You asking everyone?” Jason asked. “Everyone who might have an answer. That means everyone in trusts.” Weston’s cell started pinging. He ignored it, his eyes not breaking from Jason. The cell went silent. “No,” Jason finally said. “Nothing to tell you.” Weston started up with the balls again. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. “Ok,” he said. “Good.” “Got a question for you,” Jason said. “Yeah?” “Think they’ll go wide?” he asked, throwing his own vague nod Simon and Garfunkel’s way. “If Harley’s shit goes north of the 50K he’s claiming, yeah. They’ll go wide.” Jason wanted to ask a few more questions. He felt them swelling at the back of his tongue, but he kept them there. Questions trigger more questions to the point where it flips and you’re not the one asking them. Weston opened his laptop, looked at the screen, then over at Jason. “I guess this is the time for me to ask about your wife, kids.” 150
“Kid.” “What?” “Kid. Singular.” “Right. Singular. So how are Jennifer and Amelia?” “Emily,” Jason said, referring to his daughter. “So how are Jennifer and Emily?” “Doing well.” “Nice to hear.” Weston tilted his head. “Didn’t Emily just get braces?” Weston’s cell pinged again. He looked down, but didn’t pick it up. Jason didn’t remember telling Weston about braces. “Yes,” Jason said. “Invisalign.” “What’s that?” “Braces,” Jason said. “Very expensive braces.” “I’ll bet,” Weston said. They looked at each other for a moment, over Weston’s immaculate desk. The office phone started burbling. “Well,” Weston said, picking up the phone, “we’ll talk.” Jason shut the door softly and walked toward his desk. Darcey was looking over the top of her screen, murmuring an intonation he was just able to catch. They . . .just . . . don’t . . . stop. He opened his eyes and stretched until his fingertips touched the headboard. The drapes were shut, the muted afternoon light abetted by flashes from the TV, its volume set to a low murmur. She was laying on her back beside him, watching the screen and sipping scotch from a plastic cup. “Welcome to Econo Lodge heaven,” she said. “Want a drink?” She’d taken to saying that the last few weeks. He propped himself up with a pillow and waited patiently as she dug noisily into the ice bucket on the bed table and then poured him a healthy dollop of Ledaig’s. They tapped cups. “You dream?” “Yeah.” “About what?” “Can’t remember.” “Then how do you know you dreamed?” “Flashes of something. They disappear when I wake up.” “Maybe that’s better,” she said. He didn’t have an answer for that. “What’s on?” he asked, looking at the TV. “Drought in the west, floods in the south, terrorists all over and, of course, our baby.” She meant the market. “Sounds good,” he said. “Does it?” “Hey. At least there’s nothing on our shop.” 151
“Sure,” she said. “Yet.” She handed him the remote and got up, walking toward the bathroom. He watched as she walked away, taking in her smooth back and the gentle bounce of her ass. She closed the bathroom door. He tried watching TV, but couldn’t focus. His mind was drifting to earlier in the day, to the mysterious sounds of rain, to Simon and Garfunkel huddled in the conference room, to Weston sitting behind his desk. Got something to tell me? And finally back to Jazz, Jazz walking away from him with that flawless skin. He remembered the precise moment when they made the decision. They were in the same Econo Lodge room two months after Jazz’s live-in boyfriend, Bob, oblivious Bob, let her in on a secret of his own. Her name was Denise, a co-worker in his real estate office. He moved out the next day, crippling the delicate equilibrium of their existence. Bob was gone. Jason had a family. Jazz was alone, a brand-new solo act in a Princeton home leased in her name. She didn’t ask Jason for help. She knew he had problems of his own: an extortionate mortgage, private school tuition and the Invisalign braces as an $8,000 kicker. They didn’t talk about it for weeks, passing the time by tilling the fields of residual trusts, fucking and retreating to their respective lives at the end of the day. It was an oddly peaceful lull borne from the knowledge that every other option led to a world of shit. It could wait another day. It could wait another week. Until it couldn’t. Jason got his first semi-civilized warning from Amex, Jazz her second less-than-polite notice from the leasor. The solution was simple in its way, just a matter of math and systematic elimination among the accounts that he and Jazz worked together. Some of the trusts were too small. Others were the right size, but the remaindermen were too close to the age of majority, and would be cashing in soon. He narrowed it down to three, noting the conveniently low volume of contact from fussy relatives, guardians and attorneys. He went through the numbers and then made his choice. He was waiting for the right time to broach it to Jazz. It came when she got her second registered threat via the U.S. mail, this time from an attorney. They were laying on their backs, staring at the ceiling and listening to odd, rhythmic slapping sounds from the next room when Jason offered it up. “What do you think of the Reyerson trust?” He didn’t turn toward her, but kept looking at the ceiling. She stayed silent for a full minute, which meant she already knew where he was going. “Why that one?” she finally asked. “Healthy seven figures,” he said. “Remaindermen are 9 and 11. Gives us plenty of time.” “Chaperones?” “Quarterlies go out to a guardian,” he said. “No record of any blowback.” 152
“How would we play it?” “The Gazala.” “Heard the term. Remind me.” “It’s an elegant name for a running churn,” Jason said. It was called the Gazala after a World War II battle in northern Africa. Rommel faked troop movements by raising dust with heavy vehicles to cause a distraction. In the world of trusts it meant making a heavy number of trades, then skimming off some of them. It was tough to spot, and wouldn’t be unless someone was looking for it. That was the thing about residual trusts. Most of the time, no one was looking. “What about Weston?” “What about him?” “He’s got eyes.” “Not for this. Doesn’t give a shit about trusts.” “I know. Still.” “We’ll do the kind of trades he has a rod-on for. Tech, bio geneticstartups. That’s all he’ll see—if he bothers to look.” “Think he’d read the skim?” He looked at her for the first time. “You’re kidding, right?” “What if the trades go south?” she asked. “Even better. We get a rip for bad bets, but it’s even easier to hide the skim if the paper tanks.” Jazz went silent for a moment. She was still looking up at the ceiling. She wouldn’t look at him. Not yet. “What about later?” “What later?” “As in eventually. We’ll have to put it back.” “Like I said. The remaindermen are kids. We’ve got time.” If she asked any more questions, he’d drop it. This kind of discussion didn’t allow for later. Later was gone. They both laid there in silence until the slapping sounds started up from next door. They heard a moan and then laughing. Jazz turned her head to look at Jason. Their eyes met and Jason felt an umbilical connection of dread meeting necessity. That was six months ago. The Gazala had been humming along. Jason calculated everything down to the last decimal. Everything except Harley. Harley and his crippling student debt. Harley and his clumsy pilfering of available cash in a residual trust watched like a hawk by one of the few lawyers in the world who wasn’t a moron. Jason sat up in bed and reached for the remote and pointed it at the TV, but didn’t change the channel. CNN was showing something on the melting Arctic cap. Huge sheaths of glacier crumbling into sultry oceans. He sat back, listening to the sounds from the bathroom. The toilet flushed, followed by the hiss of the shower. He tried to find a ball game but couldn’t, so he settled on the local news. A cell phone pinged. It came from Jazz’s purse, on the bed table next to the sweating bucket of ice. Jason 153
threw a reflexive glance at the bathroom door, then moved over to her side of the bed. He fished into her purse, located the cell and pulled it out. The text icon showed two new messages. He tapped the screen and they came up. They were from BW. Ben Weston. The hiss from the shower stopped. He scrolled with his thumb. Jasmine, where u at Weston was the only one in the office who called her Jasmine. He liked the name. Jason scrolled down to the second text. have to talk. you need to The bathroom door opened. Jason dropped the phone quickly into her purse and made like he was digging for ice. “What you doing?” she asked. “Fixing you a fresh take on life,” he said, pouring more scotch into her cup with new ice. He handed it to her. She was wrapped in a mint-green towel that barely covered her. It was almost enough to distract him. She took the drink and went over to his shirt. It was draped over the back of the chair in the corner. “Smokes?” He didn’t answer. She located the pack and pulled out a cigarette and his lighter, then went to the window. She parted the drapes a few inches, nudged open the hinged window and lit up. She leaned forward. He heard her exhale. The smoke went out, but the room filled with that sweet burning tobacco smell. He looked back at the TV. Something about municipal officials taking bribes. Jazz turned and held out the cigarette. He shook his head. She took another hit, dunked it in the cup of scotch and then blew out a last thin stream of smoke outside. She left the window open a crack, but pulled the drapes closed. “Better get going,” she said. “We got time,” he said. “Well, I do,” she said, putting the cup down on the bed table. He’d been getting that from her lately. She was in no hurry. Jazz started getting dressed. He laid still, his eyes moving from the TV to her. He wanted to pull a Weston. Got something to tell me? But he couldn’t figure a smooth way to segue into it, and hotel rooms were the last place you’d want to start something ugly. “I better take a shower,” he said, getting out of bed. He was halfway to the bathroom when Jazz grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. “Hole-eee shit,” she said. “What?” “Darcey’s bugs,” she said, nodding at the TV. Jason walked back to get a clear view of the screen. They were showing the advance of the gypsy moths, illustrated by the same brown cloud over a map of the state that he’d first seen on Darcy’s computer, except bigger. “It really is true,” Jazz said. “They just keep coming.” Jason didn’t answer. He stood there, naked, watching the cloud swell. 154
One look at Garfunkel and Jason knew. He was making his way out to Walden and passed the conference room. The door was open. Garfunkel was at his usual place at the head of the table, peering into his laptop. As Jason walked by Garfunkel looked up and their eyes locked. It lasted just few seconds, but it was enough. Harley’s take had gone north of 50K, and most likely above the statutory 75K. Simon and Garfunkel would be in for the long haul, looking at all of the trusts. Maybe they’d already started. Jason resisted the impulse to make a U-turn and head over to Jazz’s desk. This was not the time to break routine. He walked through the back entrance and to the picnic table, taking his customary spot on the top, facing the woods. The damage was clearly visible now, with several spots in the canopy opening to the sky. Enough of the foliage had been eaten away so he could see bits and pieces of the apartment complex on the other side of the woods. He took out his cigarettes and lit up, listening to the sound of hissing rain. He looked up again. It was a sunny, late-morning day. Jason took a deep pull from his cigarette and thought about his next move. There wasn’t much of a choice. They’d have to sit tight and wait it out, hoping Simon and Garfunkel weren’t the sharpest sheriffs on the range. It didn’t take much skill beyond simple math to follow Harley’s trail, but the Gazala was a different animal. They’d have to deconstruct the trades. It’d take time, and if there was enough dust from the volume and volatility, they might give it a shrug and move on. This was what he’d tell Jazz to sooth her panic. If she was in a panic. Maybe she’d done some thinking of her own. He heard the door open and shut, but didn’t turn. He kept looking out at the dissolving, hissing woods. When he sensed whoever it was standing to his left he turned. It was Simon. “Heard there was a quiet place to get away from the numbers,” he said. “Heard right.” They went silent, both looking out at Walden. “You mind?” Simon asked. He was looking at Jason’s shirt pocket. Jason reached in for the pack, tapped it and held it out. “Quit three years ago,” Simon said, flashing him a shy smile and plucking one out of the pack. Great, Jason thought. Another ex-smoker-smoker. “Got a light?” Simon asked. Jason handed over the lighter. Simon took it but didn’t light up, holding the lighter in one hand, the cigarette in the other. They went quiet again. The hissing sound filled the space. “Hear that?” Simon asked. “Yeah,” Jason said. “Been hearing it for days. Sounds like rain.” “Not rain,” Simon said. “It’s them.” “Them?” “Bugs. Gypsy moths. It’s the sound of them shitting.” “No,” Jason said, almost smiling. 155
“Really,” Simon said. “They’re constantly eating and shitting, like some kind of machine.” Jason looked back out at the trees. The hissing seemed louder. “These woods,” Simon said. “They’ll be bare by mid-August.” Jason didn’t say anything. He could make out one of the second-floor balconies at the apartment complex. Aqua blue beach towels were hung over the rails to dry in the sun. “And when it’s all gone, they just move on,” Simon said. He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit up. “Only thing that stops them is the cold.” “The cold,” Jason said. “Then they start up again the next spring,” Simon said, little bursts of smoke coming out of his mouth with each word. “Maybe not these same bugs, but their offspring or whatever. They just take up where the others left off.” “Maybe they’ll find something,” Jason offered. “To stop them? Sure. Some kind of insecticide. Or maybe another bug to eat this bug. A bigger bug.” “That’s all we need,” Jason said. “Bigger bugs.” “Have to try something,” Simon said. “Have to wipe ‘em out where you can, right?” Jason waited a beat. He looked down at the cigarette in his hand. It was almost gone. “Right,” he said. “Exactly,” Simon said. He ground out his barely burned cigarette on the table top and reached out to hand back the lighter. Jason took it, but Simon didn’t let go. Their eyes met. “The greedy little bastards,” Simon said. Then he let go. Jason put the lighter back in his shirt pocket. “Got to get back in,” Simon said. “Nice meeting you, Jason.” He watched Simon walk back into the building. Jason hadn’t told Simon his name, but he knew that Simon hadn’t let anything slip. He lit up another cigarette, never taking his eyes from the woods. He heard the back door of the building open and close, then footsteps coming his way. Jason didn’t turn. He sat still, perfectly still and closed his eyes so he could listen to the sounds of rain.
CONTRIBUTOR’S BIOS Jeffrey Alfier’s latest works are Anthem for Pacific Avenue: California Poems, Bleak Music—a photo and poetry collaboration with Larry D. Thomas, Southbound Express to Bay Head: New Jersey Poems, and The Red Stag at Carrbridge: Scotland Poems. He is founder and co-editor of Blue Horse Press and San Pedro River Review. José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collection Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and The Volta Blog. A current PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. A second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press. Devon Balwit is a poet and educator working in Portland, Oregon. Her recent poetry has found many homes, among them, Emerge Literary Journal, Free State Review, Journal of Applied Poetics, Lalitamba, Red Paint Hill Publishing, The Cape Rock, The Prick of the Spindle, The Sow's Ear Poetry Review, Third Wednesday, and Timberline Review. Kimberly L. Becker is author of Words Facing East and The Dividings (WordTech Editions) as well as numerous journal and anthology publications such as Drunken Boat, Indigenous Message on Water, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, and Tending the Fire: Native Voices and Portraits. She has served as a mentor for PEN America's Prison Writing Program and AWP's Writer to Writer program. www.kimberlylbecker.com Robert Bishop is a senior English and philosophy double major at CarsonNewman University. He enjoys walking his dog, reading, and writing. He plans on attending graduate school next year. Ace Boggess is the author of two books of poetry, The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). Forthcoming are his novel, A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing), and a third poetry collection, Ultra-Deep Field (Brick Road). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. Jota Boombaba, when not on the road, writes in and around San Francisco, where he lives and kicks back with his son. Catch him most days at www.jotaboombaba.com. Louis E. Bourgeois (Executive Director) is co-founder and editor of VOX PRESS. He has facilitated many VOX events over the past 5 years 158
and is the The first graduate of the University of Mississippi’s prestigious MFA Creative Writing program, he is also the author of 6 books of poetry and in 2008, his memoir, The Gar Diaries, was nominated for the National Book Award. Christopher Brooks Christopher Brooks lives in Shawnee, Oklahoma with his wife Jennifer, daughter Tansy and dog Georgia. His poetry has appeared in Flint Hills Review, Dragon Poet Review, Blue Collar Review, The Furious Gazelle, and SLANT: A Journal of Poetry. He maintains the poetry and photography website Jasper's Satellite, which can be viewed at: http:// jaspersatellite.blogspot.com/ Nicole Byrne suffers from a crippling addiction to poetry. She selfmedicates with copious amounts of black coffee, avocados, hot sauce, and rock ‘n’ roll. The treatment does not appear to be working and she hopes it never does. She is currently based in Kansas where she is an MFA candidate at Wichita State University, but her heart remains in Maine. Her work has previously been published in Words Dance, Emrys Journal, and Sunset Liminal, among others. Find her online at nicolebyrnepoetry.tumblr.com and on Twitter @nicolebyrnepoet. Rita Rouvalis Chapman’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Magnolia Review, Fourth & Sycamore, and Bellingham Review. She is a student in the MFA program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and teaches high school English. Crystal Ellefsen has one business, two children, and three tattoos. She grew up in Austin, TX and holds degrees from USCB and SDSU. Baila Bev Ellenbogen is a poet who resides in Toronto. Her first book of poetry, Footsteps on the Ceiling was published with Guernica Press in October 2010. She has recently contributed to Modern Morsels: A Selection of Short Canadian Fiction and Poetry published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson, and has had poetry published in the Saranac Review. Taylor Fedorchak is from Annapolis, Maryland. She recently graduated from Salisbury University with a BA in English. Her work has appeared in journals including Pittsburgh Poetry Review, The Quaker, decomP, and Polaris. John Findura is the author of the poetry collection Submerged (Five Oaks Press, 2017). He holds an MFA from The New School as well as a degree in psychotherapy. His poetry and criticism appear in numerous journals including Verse; Fourteen Hills; Copper Nickel; Pleiades; Forklift, Ohio; Sixth Finch; Prelude; and Rain Taxi. A guest blogger for The Best American Poetry, he lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife and daughters. 159
Kevin Finnerty's stories have appeared in Chicago Literati, Portage Magazine, The Quotable, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, VLP Journal, and other publications.Â He received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Steven Fromm is a writer and journalist currently living in Robbinsville, New Jersey. His work has appeared in several publications, including Inkwell and Salamander. He recently completed his first novel.Â Jill Hawkins is a recent graduate student of the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University. Jill has published poems in the following journals and magazines: Oklahoma Today, The Endeavor, The Poeming Pigeon, Southwestern American Literature, Mizna, Pink.Girl.Ink. Press, Blacktop Passages and The Journal the American Medical Association. Faith S. Holsaert has published fiction in journals since the 1980s and has begun to also publish poetry. She co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois). She received her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. After many years in West Virginia, she lives in Durham, NC with her partner Vicki Smith, with whom she shares ten grandchildren. Louisa Howerow's latest poems appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Antigonish Review, and Queen's Quarterly. They have also been included in the following anthologies: Imaginarium 3 & 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications), River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century (Blue Light Press) and Full, an Anthology of Moon Poems (Two of Cups Press). Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the chapbooks The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl, 2014) and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly, 2016). He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, The Collagist, Ninth Letter, Oxford American, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer Ruth Jackson reads too much and travels too little. Her work has appeared in The Binnacle, Verse Wisconsin, Kaleidoscope Magazine, and more. She lives in a small Wisconsin city with her husband. Visit her on Twitter: @jenruthjackson. Amaris Feland Ketcham is a regular contributor to the arts and culture website Bark, which is affiliated with Willow Springs magazine. I have recently been published in Eleven Eleven, the Los Angeles Review, the Rumpus, and the Utne Reader. 160
Charles Kell is a PhD student at The University of Rhode Island and editor of The Ocean State Review. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Orleans Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, floor_plan_journal, The Manhattanville Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Beth Konkoski’s fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of literary journals, including Story, Mid-American Review, RiverSedge, and The Baltimore Review. I am a high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with my husband and two children. Jennifer Lagier has published thirteen books, taught with California Poets in the Schools, co-edits the Homestead Review, and helps coordinate Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium Second Sunday readings. She maintains literary web sites for the Monterey Poetry Review, Ping Pong Free Press and Misfit Magazine. Her work has appeared in national and international print and online journals. Her newest books include Scene of the Crime (Evening Street Press, 2016, Helen Kay Chapbook prize winner), Harbingers (Blue Light Press, 2016), and Camille Abroad (FutureCycle Press, 2016). Forthcoming book: Like a B Movie (FutureCycle Press, 2018). Visit her website: http://jlagier.net Rebecca Macijeski Rebecca Macijeski holds a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been awarded artist residencies at The Ragdale Foundation, Art Farm Nebraska, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Nimrod, The Missouri Review, The Journal, Sycamore Review, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, and many other places. This fall she will join the creative writing faculty at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Visit her online at www.rebeccamacijeski.com. Robert Manaster’s poetry and co-translations have appeared in numerous journals including Rosebud, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Image, The Literary Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Spillway. His co-translation of Ronny Someck's The Milk Underground (White Pine Press, 2015) was awarded the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. Hillary Martin is a poet from Cookeville, Tennessee. She will receive her BA in English this Spring, and will be attending California College of the Arts in the Fall to pursue her MFA in Poetry. Her poetry has been published in West Trade Review, The Clarion, and Homespun. She is very new to the world of poetry, and cannot wait to see what all it has to offer. Brandon Marlon is a writer from Ottawa, Canada. He received his B.A. in Drama & English from the University of Toronto and his M.A. in English from the University of Victoria. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt 161
Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and his writing has been published in 175+ publications in 24 countries. Robin Reynolds lives in Albuquerque, NM; she is a writer, a visual artist, and a chemist. She writes and performs spoken word and comedy on a regular basis. Mark Antony Rossi's poetry, criticism, fiction, creative nonfiction and photography have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Anak Sastra, Bareback Magazine, Black Heart Review, Brain of Forgetting, Deep Water Literary Journal, Dirty Chai, Enclave, Expound, Farther Stars Than, Flash Fiction, Gravel, Indian Periodical, Japanophile, Journal of Microliterature, Kulchur Creative Journal, Mad Swirl, On The Rusk, Purple Patch, Scrivener Creative Review, Sentiment Literary Journal, Snapdragon, Syzygy Poetry Journal, The Sacrificial, Toad Suck Review, Transnational, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Wild Quarterly and Yellow Chair Review. http://ethical-stranger.webnode.com/ Miriam Sagan is the author of 30 published books, including the novel Black Rainbow (Sherman Asher, 2015) and Geographic: A Memoir of Time and Space (Casa de Snapdragon, 2016). She founded and heads the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College. Her blog Miriam’s Well (http://miriamswell.wordpress.com) has a thousand daily readers. She has been a writer in residence in two national parks, at Yaddo, MacDowell, Colorado Art Ranch, Andrew’s Experimental Forest, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Iceland’s Gullkistan Residency for creative people, and another dozen or so remote and unique places. Her awards include the Santa Fe Mayor’s award for Excellence in the Arts, the Poetry Gratitude Award from New Mexico Literary Arts, and A Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa. Born in Pennsylvania, David Anthony Sam has written poetry for over 40 years. He now lives in Virginia with his wife and life partner, Linda, and serves as president of Germanna Community College. Sam has three collections and was the featured poet in the Spring 2016 issue of The Hurricane Review. His chapbook Finite to Fail: Poems after Dickinson was the 2016 Grand Prize winner of GFT Press Chapbook Contest and his collection All Night over Bones received an Honorable Mention for the 2016 Homebound Poetry Prize. Erin Slaughter holds BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches undergraduate writing classes. Erin was the winner of the Heartland Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction contest, and a finalist for Rabbit Catastrophe Press’ Real Good Poem Prize. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in the Indianola Review, River Teeth, Boxcar Poetry Review, GRAVEL, and Harpoon Review, among others. 162
Michael G. Smith is a semi-retired chemist whose poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, Nimrod, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, Superstition Review and other journals and anthologies. The Dark is Different in Reverse, a chapbook, was published by Bitterzoet Press in 2013. No Small Things, a full-length book of poetry was published by Tres Chicas Books in 2014. The Dippers Do Their Part, a collaboration with visual artist Laura Young of haibun and katagami based on our joint Shotpouch Cabin artist residency, was published by Miriam’s Well in July 2015. Anastasia Stelse is a native of southeastern Wisconsin, the former assistant editor for The Intentional, and a graduate from the MFA program at American University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, New South, Sou’wester, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics, among others. Scott Wiggerman is the author of three books, Presence, Leaf and Beak: Sonnets, and Vegetables and Other Relationships; and editor of Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Bearing the Mask. Recent poems have appeared in A Quiet Courage, Naugatuck River Review, bosque, Sin Fronteras, Illya’s Honey, and Yellow Chair Review. He lives in Albuquerque, NM. John Vanderslice is a native of the Washington DC metropolitan area who now lives and works in Conway, Arkansas. His stories have been published in several literary journals, including Laurel Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Crazyhorse, The Pinch, Radvocate, Exquisite Corpse, and many more. His historical novel, The Last Days of Oscar Wilde, is forthcoming in 2017 from Burlesque Press. Terin Weinberg is an Environmental Studies and English student at Salisbury University in Maryland. Heather Gemmen Wilson has earned an MFA and an MA in Creative Writing. Her MA thesis was selected for the Outstanding Creative Project Award. Her memoir, Startling Beauty, sold over 20,000 copies in the first year in print, and has been translated into 9 languages. She has published more than 20 children’s and youth books including one bestseller. Heather is a regular contributor for various blogs, commentaries, and she enjoyed a 20year career in publishing as a book editor before teaching writing courses to undergrads. After a teaching career Kit Zak and her husband moved to Lewes, DE. Recently Kit was published in five anthologies as well as The Lyric, California Quarterly, Portage, Newversenews, Your Daily Poem, Albatross and Earth’s 163
Daughters. She has been selected to work with Delawareâ€™s poet laureate three times. Her book Once Honeysuckle was published in March this year.
Red Earth Review is the literary magazine produced and edited by The Red Earth Low-Residency Creative Writing MFA at Oklahoma City Universit...
Published on Jul 15, 2017
Red Earth Review is the literary magazine produced and edited by The Red Earth Low-Residency Creative Writing MFA at Oklahoma City Universit...