The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Oklahoma City University July 2020
© Red Earth Review 2020
First American Rights Reserved
RED EARTH REVIEW JULY 2020
2019-2020 Editors Melanie Brake David Thomas
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Cover Art: Hink’s Road © 2020 by Mike Hinkle 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 as a PDF document. The PDF may be downloaded for free at Issuu: http://issuu.com/redearthreview. Red Earth Review The Red Earth MFA @ OCU English Department, WC 248 2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493 email@example.com
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CONTENTS Joshua Allen The Partisan Bob Armstrong Whattaya Gonna Do?
M. P. Armstrong
after sonia sanchez
Devon Balwit Apology for Yet Another Sonnet Cleaning House Shoddy
26 27 29
Robert Beveridge Always Eat Your Acorns
The picture, the way I remember it
Peace Be With Us The Widow Shows Me Around the House
Sam Campbell Consequence
Marisa P. Clark In the Winter of Long Heartache I Dream Myself a River
Matt Dahl 1886 House
Mary Christine Delea Burial Poem
RC deWinter redriverrun the maybe comet
Margaret Dornaus Knife Skills Mise En Place
Brandon French A New Normal
F.I. Goldhaber Pink Snow Setting Sun
Jonathan Greenhause Why My Kid Sobs at the Ice Cream Parlor
John Grey Andy’s Done for the Night
Nicholas Higginson Snakebit
Brent House Pastoral Pastoral The Hovering Bioluminescence of Being in Love
78 79 80
Louisa Howerow As If On Pause What Comes After
Paul Juhasz Lift
Casey Knott On a Limb Whitewash
S. Frederic Liss Shakespeare in the Alley
Josh Mahler The Drifter The End of Reason
Lisa Masé Headlines from the Sioux City Journal High Desert New Mexico
Nolan Meditz Cover
One Day We Will Speak
Daniel Moore Hardcore Happiness Myths
Cameron Morse Food Stamps Interview Quiche On a Post from GBM SURVIVORS TO THRIVERS!
113 114 115
Kevin J.B. O’Connor
Buenos Aires II
Christian Rivera Nolan Nopalito Nopal
Lauro Palomba Carnevale
James Penha Night School
Harsh Ramchandani Will I be read
Carlos Ramet Trifecta
MW Rishell living in a 55+ community in Mesa, Arizona Tourist Ennui in Eastern France
David Salner The Motel
David Anthony Sam Nothing Like Peering through the Narrow End
M.C. Schmidt At Emily’s
Chad Szalkowski-Ference Breath
David Tromblay The Weight
Robin Turner Waylaid
Doug Van Hooser Disappointment
Ron Wallace Poets Playing Catch The End of Flowers What Moses Should Have Said
161 162 164
Scott Wiggerman Four Cotton Tales
Beth Oast Williams
Martin Willitts Jr
Billy Holiday, Until the Real Thing Comes Along
Alessio Zanelli Runâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s End Stellar Graffitist
The Partisan I. One bleak morning in late January, when rumors about something huge but undefined were being shared in the dark, smoky rooms of the capital, Anna received a terse call from her long-forgotten roommate from the summer of 1989, a woman named Gloria, now the Press Secretary at the White House, having ascended to the thin, airless heights of her career. She wanted to meet for lunch at Spinoza’s for reasons she dissembled and dodged. After Anna walked Boris to school, and he went inside, not looking at her, she drove into the city. The day was cold and stone-faced, revealing nothing. Their beloved family dog was dying. Late last night, Anna had come home and found the dog in the foyer catatonic in a half-digested slurry of feces. He was on his side and his eyes were open. He was drooling all over the floor. She nearly didn’t take him to the emergency clinic. The dog had heart problems and liver problems and urinary problems and lung problems, but Boris, poisoned by Richard’s ideology, had become singularly determined to prolong its life. Whenever she broached the possibility of euthanasia, Boris would look at her as Richard did during the cruelest moments of their partisan warfare, when he cordoned off his inner self from her and became the abstract authoritative voice that he was on his radio show, and say to her, in his distinct seven-year-old’s voice, “I believe in the sanctity of life.” Normally, she was unmoved by death. An hour before she was to go on stage at a fundraiser and plead for cash to save the sinking ship that was Representative Johnny “The Philanderer” Houston’s campaign, she had learned that her mother had succumbed after a brief, half-hearted battle with cancer. The news hit her like a newspaper caught on a stray wind slapping her face, but then it was gone, flying away. She was already toying with the symbols. Sleep. Darkness. Corruption. A festering growth. Their challenger was a holier-than-thou pastor shellacking Houston for his moral turpitude, but was six extramarital affairs the sign of a morally incontinent soul? Or was it an abjectly human cry? He sought to ease the great weight of his loneliness. Who was so inhuman, yes, inhuman, not to give in to a feeling so natural? 1
She had gone out on stage and looked out on the crowd of three hundred or so donors, and she had the sense that, if she didn’t live up to this moment, that would be the end for her, the end of her career, the end of her, and she couldn’t allow that. “Today, I represent a human,” she began. “Tomorrow, I will represent a human. Until the day I die, I will follow a rich tradition and represent humans. Lincoln doubted. Eisenhower fell in love. FDR lied to the nation. If our opponent thinks he’s better than those great men, let him come forward and say so. We will not hide behind our insinuations.” This speech was credited by many as the turning point that allowed Rep. Houston imploding campaign to overcome a thirteenplus point deficit in the polls. *** But the dog’s dying was different. She’d come home near midnight, and there he would be, shivering and urine-soaked in his cage. She’d have to gently pull him out and set his arthritic body in lukewarm water and wash him. Fluid from his heart would fill up his lungs and he’d turn bleary and listless, and she’d have to hold his head so that it didn’t slide underwater. The last thing she had held with such knowledge was Boris, and she had ruined him. Once, while she was washing him in the kitchen sink, her hands were slick with soap and he slipped. He just disappeared. When she pulled him out, his face was dark purple, and he was coughing up water through the screaming. His fists were clenched and held up. The first of countless, irrevocable mistakes. *** When she finally found a place to park a half-mile from Spinoza’s, snow was falling from the migraine gray sky. The trees along the sidewalk were thin and brown. She walked until she saw the red awning of Spinoza’s, which had a herring across the front. She went inside to a crush of hot, sweating people standing around waiting. When she gave her name to the maître d’, he told her to follow and they went into the main room. The din was extraordinary. The heads of lunch-goers were like a field of grain. Glasses were chiming brightly, and along the side, where the open kitchen was and iridescent flames flared up occasionally, were three metal spits on which turned three piglets with browned skin. She followed the thin shoulders of the maître d’ toward the back, passing two people noticeable because they 2
were speaking quietly. The woman said the revolution is an unerring arrow. The revolution is still strong. The man sitting across from her was smoking a cigarette. He blew out smoke. He said, How many more months do you need for this small thing? She followed the maître d’ down a hallway, which led to a large room filled with empty tables. Gloria was already there. She was tall, rather thin, with her hair in a tight bun. When Anna came in, she was leaning over the table and rubbing her forehead. Then, hearing them, she looked up and smiled. The maître d’ pulled out a chair, and Anna sat. “Could you have some water brought out, please?” Gloria asked the maître d’. “Of course,” he said. “Would you like something else?” she addressed Anna. “Hot water with lemon and honey, please.” “Is that good?” “Yes.” “I’ll take one, too,” Gloria said. She waited until the man left the room, and then she looked at Anna. “Thank you for agreeing to meet on such short notice.” “I’m taking some time off.” “It’s good to take time off. Good for the mind, good for the soul.” “My family is going through a trying time.” “What’s the story?” “The deterioration of a loved one.” “Death is a terrible thing.” “I’m thinking about writing a Russian novel.” “The Soviet repression produced great literature. Something about the enormity of suffering boiled down. Would America ever produce a Solzhenitsyn?” “America produces wheat, not writers.” “Wheat and critics of America. What are you?” “A concerned citizen.” “There’s a third. Critics, citizens, and wheat—none of which produces great literature. So there goes your Russian novel,” Gloria said. “To be frank, I’ve never read Solzhenitsyn. I can’t relate to the zeitgeist.” She straightened the silverware. She refolded the napkin into a triangle. “You read, I assume, the article in the Times?” “I did.” “What’s your opinion?” 3
“What is the nature of a private life when you’re the president? Perhaps it isn’t possible to resist such intense curiosity.” “Surely you can’t believe that?” Gloria asked. “You of all people.” A waiter came into the room with a tray. He set the mugs on the table and poured water from a large metal pot into the mugs. The water was steaming. He set a small plate with three thin slices of lemon on each side of the table, then he lowered his head and went away. Gloria said, “Do you remember those days in Arkansas? When we went to the Stone’s Throw Diner with him, and he bought us chocolate malts and treated us like people? Remember how he used to insist on driving us home because we lived in that neighborhood where a girl was found dead in the dumpster?” “I remember.” “When we won, the feeling was like the sun came out from behind the clouds. I got so drunk on champagne that I took the crab legs and stuck them on my fingers and pretended to be Edward Scissorhands.” “We were often drunk then.” “Maybe because it was the Cold War and the Evil Empire and the narrative simplicity of good and bad, Christian, un-Christian, and the difference between an image of an unimpeachable father figure and the knowledge that everybody has a secret interior life,” she said, “but I understood everything.” “And now?” “Now, the world is changed. The Berlin Wall has fallen and there are different concerns. Nuclear war was easy. Nuclear war, you could ride for an entire term. Extinction validated anything. But even JFK couldn’t survive the post-communist world order,” she said. “So what we have here is a dilemma.” She sat silently for a while, looking at Anna. Anna squeezed the lemon into the steaming water. She opened a packet of honey and, with a small spoon, scraped out the honey into her mug. “I can’t work with him.” The chair creaked as Gloria leaned forward. “You owe it to him,” she said. “Without him, what would you be? Who vouched for you? Who would Anna Mars be? Who, Anna?” Anna sipped her hot water. There was nothing to say. She thought about her dog. She thought of a woman in a summer dress reading Rousseau on the quad, with a young dog laying across her legs.
II. The veterinarian was a jovial middle-aged Berliner whose unnatural external pleasantness had cracked only once before: when his wife, driven mad like a caged animal, was shot thirteen times while trying to scale the Wall. But, when he met Anna in his office, he was deathly grave. “Where do I begin? The heart? The liver? The kidney that’s bad but the only one left?” he said. “If a student brought this to me and said, ‘Here’s this dog that I found in the garbage,’ I’d say, ‘You idiot. This is a shoe, not a dog. Why are you bringing me shoes?’ Yes, this dog is not even close to being a dog,” he said. “How old did you say he is now?” “Sixteen.” “He’s four years at least past his expiration date. He’s like a can of old soup, you know what I mean? He’s got one foot in the grave, one foot in the air, and just nothing in his old head,” he said. “What I’m trying to tell you is that the right thing to do is make a decision. Because keeping this dog alive is selfish.” The fluorescent lights were bright and humming. “Can I see him?” she asked. “Yes. He’s awake.” He opened the door. “Bring Ms. Mars’ dog.” After a moment, a young man dressed in a teal green smock came in carrying a cage. He set the cage on the veterinarian’s desk and she could see inside. The dog was laying on a faded pink bed. He seemed to have lost several pounds overnight; his body was like a deflated blimp sagging against its internal ribs, and there were patches of pale pink skin where hair was missing. She said his name, but he didn’t raise his head. She looked at the veterinarian. “How long does he have?” “It’s a hard thing to say. Sometimes they fade away, like a small fire. You let it burn, you walk away, and in the morning, it’s cold,” he said. “Or they could live for years, just like this.” “If you had to give me the odds,” she said. “Look, I understand attachment. Once I had a lady with a parrot that was seventy-one years old, and the lady was seventy-six, see? And when the parrot died, the lady just didn’t know how to be anymore. Suddenly she was a lady without a parrot when all she had been was a lady with a parrot. See? Like a wife. She dies, and a part of you goes with her. Then you change because she’s no longer. But the change is coming, it will come, and you can’t think of yourself here,” he said. “I tell you this as a friend. Over a sight like this, one can’t help but become friends. That is my professional opinion.” 5
*** As she drove home, she tried to forget herself. Spread around her was the restless delirium of the city. Huddled forms ducked into doorways, and American flags snapped in the chill wind at half-staff. This was where you could sink under the crisis of the moment and not drown, no, but become inseparable from the crisis, as though the woman drowning suddenly becomes the water she’s drowning in. Where the basic unit of life is not a body or a cell but a peculiar motion whose direction is called history. Years ago, she had fled this city and the bad memories that hung around it like a smog. She had loved a man, but the man she knew had died under the public eye, and the hollowed-out form that was left was a crude caricature, merely the shape of the man. She had fled to the wasteland of Montana, pregnant, with the dog sticking his head out the window of the moving truck, and she had made a name for herself, and she had done it on her own. But she was no longer young, and she had decades of her life left. From the radio came the voice of her ex-husband: “Anybody who’s anyone has by now heard the rumor. It’s been passed around in a game of Chinese telephone. Earlier, a caller asked me, ‘Richard, did you hear that our president strangled a puppy and then did a number of unspeakable things to it?’ I mean, come on. The guy I hate, but because I’m a lover of truth, I’m being forced to be decent here. As Socrates said . . ..” She shut off the radio. She blamed him for turning her son into a politician; occasionally, she heard his voice coming through the closed door of Boris’s room. But it wasn’t his fault, and, if she admitted it, she still loved him because he was the only one who understood how far she would go to be a person who people spoke about when she wasn’t in the room. He loved her for the willpower that she had to exert every waking moment (for the lucid desire corrupted even her dreams) to deny herself satisfaction. But even he couldn’t bring himself to love her after everything became clear. Before her stretched lines and lines of unmoving cars, and way ahead, the schizophrenic flashing lights of emergency vehicles, a horrific accident, surely. Over them, the gray sky loomed like a threat, and snow was falling upon them in tornados. Her pager buzzed. She didn’t have to look to know who it was. In the backseat, the dog whined. *** 6
When she got home, she carried the dog from the car—there was a rapid tremulous thudding against her shoulder, and his breath was hot on her cheek—and set him on the snowy lawn. His contorted body was balled up, tight, and, suddenly, with high yelping barks, out came sporadic bursts of piss that quickly slackened to foamy drizzle. Snow was coming down thickly. She went to the mailbox by the road and pulled out the magazines and stood there looking at the covers until the dog was finished. Then she took him inside and set him on his bed by the stone fireplace. Almost immediately, he fell asleep. She had a notion of herself of watching him. But she couldn’t. The sight was too painful. She went into her office and dialed the number, and as soon as she heard the phone picked up, she began speaking: “If you want me to help, you’ll tell me everything, every detail, every meeting, and every thought that has ever gone through your steaming, testosterone-soaked brain. Over this affair, I’ll get total latitude—dictatorial control over the flow of information, of media appearances, of what you say, how you say it, who you say it with. There will be no equivocation, no second-guessing, because to doubt me is to betray me. If you betray me, I’ll go public, and nothing can save you. No booming economy. No charming drawl. Because goddammit, I know what you’ve been hiding, and the political bounty that I’ll collect will be rightfully mine. Is this clear? Do you understand?” There was silence. Snowflakes tapped crazily against the window, and she could see the demented old woman in her yard next door. She was shirtless, braless, and her great sagging breasts swung as she moved between dead, frozen bushes holding a hose over them. No water was coming out. Finally, on the other end, the voice quietly answered in the affirmative. An hour later, she came out of her office. She was moving, yet she couldn’t feel herself moving. She saw the familiar surroundings go by, like a film reel, but she stayed put. Not an out-of-body experience, but a profoundly in-her-body experience, as though she had become unmoored and was traversing a profoundly altered reality, very much herself, and there stretched before her, like a desolate tundra, a great looming question, and she was to struggle across the uninhabited terrain, knowing nothing about where or why she was going, only that she was going. She went to the pantry and found, in a dusty jar, tiny chocolate eggs from a long-ago Easter and peeled off the foil until she had five 7
withered grayish deformities. She went out into the living room and looked at the dog. The dog was sleeping. She set them by the dog’s shiny black nose. A minute passed. A long flat pink tongue snaked out. Then the dog turned its head and the eggs were gone. She didn’t know how long it would take. She didn’t know how much time was passing. She watched the dog. The dog was asleep again. Soon, the feeling of being herself, of being Anna Mars, swept over her. It was unbearable. She turned on the television. The station was on C-SPAN, which was airing a White House press briefing. The president himself was behind the podium, pointing a finger. “But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again,” he said. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” She stumbled into the bathroom and retched over the gray water of the toilet. But there was nothing in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten all day. By the time she came out, the dog was dead. That quickly? Perhaps it died on its own. After a while, she heard the school bus wheeze outside. She heard her son insert his key in the door and turn the lock. III. “Today we’re here to honor a man who has given so much, so much,” the emcee said, smiling coyly, “to preserve the sanctity of the unborn life, at only thirty-three, so young—and unattached, the rumor is. And yet, despite his youth, without him, we’d still be in the Dark Ages. To receive the Susan B. Good Award for his unceasing efforts to enfranchise the unborn—Boris Mars, everyone.” From the cool, shadowed wings, Boris emerged into the hot, lightflooded stage, smiling as though the award paled next to the cause. The emcee handed him a plastic statuette in the shape of a svelte baby. Half of the people in the audience were holding up signs with his name on them. He said a few words. Later, at the bar, a woman joined him. He recognized her as the assistant director of some-or-other group that had given him a million and a half over three years. Her throat was long, soft, and very white. “Inspiring. What you said. I felt, here is a leader for our times,” she said. “Everyone greatly admires you. Thanks you. We’re looking at thirty years with these demographics.” 8
“I’d give it no more than six,” he said. “Probably four, to tell you frankly.” “Even so,” she said, after a moment. “It’s a major moral triumph. A victory of historical import.” He stirred his drink with the thin red straw and watched the ice spin in circles. “We needed the voting bloc. So did they. Who was going to get it first?” He raised his drink mockingly. “Victory.” “Are you a cynical drunk?” she asked, her voice betraying a certain attraction. “Or a drunk cynic?” “I’m just drunk,” he said, “and still not drunk enough.” “What’s your opinion on the looming debt crisis?” He leaned toward her and managed not to fall forward. “There are many other things I’d rather do right now than talk fiscal policy.” A few hours later, she emerged from his hotel room, unnoticed and stumbling. Bands of raw redness encircled her wrists and ankles, and bruises purpled her throat. In the morning, he ordered room service, a large breakfast spread —poached eggs, lox, bagels, foamed milk, three slices of raisin toast, and clean, ripe fruit. As he ate, he watched the morning news. He hadn’t opened the curtains, and the room was still dark. The garish blue light of the television was reflected in his eyes. It was from the morning news he learned that his mother, the American mystic, the woman with the golden tongue, whisperer of dreams and paranoias, had been hospitalized again after suffering her second stroke. He hadn’t spoken to his mother for years. Even if she were certain to die, he wouldn’t speak to her. But, as it was, she would never pass on. Myth had it that she was unkillable. She had survived a nationalist’s bullet that passed inches from her heart and collapsed her right lung. She had her first stroke while filibustering on the Senate floor, and, for ten minutes afterward, she continued speaking. Nothing would change. The three things were certain in this life: death, taxes, and Anna Mars’ ability to cheat these unfailingly. The news changed to a story about a serial strangler terrorizing the city. He turned up the volume and ate the rest of his breakfast. *** By the end of the week, it had become clear that this stroke was to be decisive. She had been reduced to a vegetable. A decision had to be made. Roth, her lawyer, met him coolly in the lobby of the hospital. “The prodigal son returns,” Roth said, showing his teeth. 9
“I’ve heard you’ve been in Iowa,” Boris said. “Only two years before the caucuses.” More teeth showed. “I have family living there.” “How much did you pay for them?” But Roth was already walking toward the elevators, and after a moment, Boris followed. As they went up to the fifth floor, Roth turned to him and said, with great weariness, “You’ll want to prepare yourself.” Boris said nothing. The room was small, brightly lit, and had been transformed into a private arboretum by the mass of flowers sent by foreign leaders, former presidents, the gray eminences of the Democratic Party, everyone you’d expect to pay their respects to a fallen titan, but also a few unexpected names: prominent Republicans, and America’s last Communist, now in exile in Cuba, whose return his mother had tirelessly and to her own detriment advocated for. And then also the names of strangers, anonymous middle-America names like John Culver and Edna Barnes, who perhaps had heard her once speak and had, in that nebulous unconquered territory for which people like him fought, felt perceptibly a comfortable weight settle and, like the trees she had spent sun-scorched weekends planting on that vanity farm, take root and begin to grow. Around him, the flowers, unwatered, were brown and wilted, and the brittle fallen petals crunched dryly under his feet as he approached the bed. Sterile, beeping machines and their tubes and wires had already buried his mother. A machine breathed for her. A machine emptied her of her waste. Once, a nurse came in and changed out the bag—the profanest fluids in a flaccid plastic skin. Boris waited to feel something, but the woman herself was a stranger. Very early on, her legacy had become her child. This was how she had wanted to die—adulated, mythologized like Washington when he set aside his sword, her life’s artificial narrative beating on in obituaries, in biographies, in screenplays, as the reference for all who come after. What she longed for, he was certain, in her final moments, was for him to collapse weeping over her wrecked body and say, No more. No more with our differences. I forgive. Everything I can forgive. But there would be no reconciliation. Because he knew. He knew what she had tried to keep hidden from him. He had figured out her dread secret, the original sin. Over the mountain of tubes and wires, he told her what he knew about his father. 10
Roth was dozing in a chair outside the room. He heard a door close and opened his eyes to find Boris heading toward the elevators. Hurriedly, he gathered his papers and caught up to him. “Well?” he asked, breathing heavily. Boris looked at him with unexpected fondness and patted his shoulder. “I believe in the sanctity of life,” he said. “God willing, there’s a chance.” The elevator door opened, he got in, and then he was gone. Roth stood unmoving in the long white hallway. Muzak was playing from unseen speakers. Somewhere, a woman was moaning. He pulled out his phone and called Joyce, his as-yet unannounced campaign manager. She answered with a bleary, “Hello.” The sound of kids screaming and glass crashing was in the background. “Hey, good news,” he said. “Have you ever seen Weekend at Bernie’s?”
Whattaya Gonna Do? A journalism student doing an internship in our communications department asked me once if my job made me appreciate how precious life is. I said something that implied a tendency toward rose-smelling and day-seizing, ended the interview, then stopped at Sobey’s on the way home for a pre-made salad and a microwave meal and a couple of instant-win lottery tickets and spent the evening binge-watching eighties sitcoms. I’d like to say that it was an unusual evening. Like everybody in my job, I grumble about my caseload and curse the traffic, especially when it snows, and I’m driving halfway across town to see my fourth client of the day. I might spend half an hour with each one, but it varies because sometimes they just need their meds checked, and sometimes they need somebody to talk to, and even though I’m not a pastoral care provider, I’m the one they turn to. The easy clients have enough social interactions of their own that they let me go about my business with a minimum of interruptions. It’s worse when a son or daughter, usually a daughter, hovers around, especially if the family’s not on board with the whole palliative care concept. Dad’s got end-stage cancer, and the kids are handing me copies of articles on gene therapy they’ve printed off the internet. Yvonne, our team manager, says we need to practise a technique called “friendly non-encouragement” when relatives try to stretch out visits. That’s consultant-talk for smiling and ignoring. This is distinct from the technique called “sympathetic refocusing,” which we use on the clients themselves when they get talking too long. We’re supposed to remain sympathetic and supportive while using any of a series of tested and approved conversational segues to get the visit back on track. Management gave us the new techniques a couple of years ago, around the time we all had our caseloads increased. We went to our union rep about it but it turned out there was nothing we could do. The health authority had won a certain amount of caseload flexibility in the previous contract because the union wanted some new pension protection. Something had to give, and that something was called NCI–non-clinical interaction. No time for small-talk with dying people. “It is what it is,” Yvonne said. Managers say that a lot. 12
George said something like that during my first visit after I gave him a test called the Chicago Emotional/Philosophical Assessment. We do the CEPA on all new clients. It’s a series of questions that measure their attitudes by placing them along x and y axes of denial to acceptance and stoicism to emotionality. I told him he landed solidly in the Stoic Acceptance box. He shrugged and said “Whattaya gonna do?” He was in home-based palliative care because his prostate cancer had metastasized. He’d been through chemotherapy and radiation and at best, he’d been given an extra year to, as they say, put his things in order. His wife, Estelle, was healthy and capable, and George was fully alert, so with regular visits for pain management, he was a good candidate to remain in his home to the end, or close to it. George and Estelle had good social supports. They didn’t have kids, but George was a Shriner and Estelle was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, so there was a parade of casserole-bearing women and portly old men with comb-overs up and down their front walk. I said that was a good thing for them, but they needed to make sure they weren’t overwhelmed by visitors. “It would be a shame to tell them to go away,” Estelle said. “It seems to make them feel better.” “They’re very delicate,” George explained. “When the cancer metastasized, I had to break it to them gently.” Estelle played the straight woman. “How did you do that, George?” “I said, ‘you know how everyone wants to reduce their carbon footprint?’” “Oh, George.” George went on, riffing: “They’re very encouraging. They look me in the eye and say, ‘You’re strong. You’ll fight this. You’ll win this battle.’ Frankly, I’d be fine with a negotiated non-aggression pact.” George was prone to opportunistic infections because of the chemo, so a few weeks later, he was on intravenous antibiotics for a particularly tenacious UTI. I arrived for a visit and found him jotting notes down on a pad. I broke an important time management rule: never initiate a nonclinical interaction. “What are you doing, George?” “Making up a bucket list. I know it’s a bit late, but everybody says it’s what you do in my situation.” I couldn’t see George bungee jumping, so I asked what was on it. “So far, just one thing. One more time, I want to pee standing up.” 13
I laughed, and I asked him how he was feeling that day, and I guess he must have heard something in my voice because he asked how I was feeling. I’d already broken one rule of client interaction that day, so I broke another. I told him I was worried about my son. He’d become increasingly withdrawn since transferring from his K-4 early years school to the Grade 5-8 middle years school. Starting Grade 6, he was spending all his time staring at a computer screen, either going on Warcraft quests or building Minecraft cities. He never went out to play with his old friends, and they never came to our house. He clammed up whenever I tried to talk to him. Estelle bustled in bearing coffee and homemade muffins. She’d overheard me from the kitchen. “How about his father?” “Out of the picture. He left a long time ago. Said it would be better to break it off early while Aaron was young enough not to be traumatized.” “That was big of him,” George said. Estelle frowned at her husband. “Shush, George, she doesn’t need a joke.” How are palliative care nurses like the bitchiest contestants on The Bachelor? We’re not here to make friends. Seriously, though, it’s not our job to get attached. We’re going to see a client for six months or maybe a year and then they’ll be gone and we’ll add a new client and we’re not going to do the new one any good if we’re mourning the one we’ve just lost. And the last thing we should do with somebody dying of cancer is dump our own emotional shit on him. “Sorry,” George said. “Have you tried Scouts?” “What?” “Scouts. Youth organization? Good deeds and woodcraft?” I thought of the blue glow of the computer monitor shining off Aaron’s face. “I don’t think Aaron’s the type.” “Every boy is the type if you give him the chance. You think Baden Powell created Scouting for boys who were already blazing trails in the wilderness? He was thinking of city boys hanging around street corners in London.” “George was a Scout leader for thirty years,” Estelle explained. “I was a Girl Guide leader. Believe me, we both saw hundreds of children come out of their shells.” I tried sympathetic refocusing to get back to George’s treatment; spending time talking about Aaron and Scouting wasn’t going to get 14
me through my caseload. They let me get back to work and connect the IV to the cannula in his arm and start infusing the antibiotics. Once the medication was dripping, they started up again. Estelle stood and opened the drawers of a dark-stained, potpourri-smelling oak dresser. She pulled out a stack of photo albums and books and presented me with the Scouting Handbook. “It’s an older edition. Not so much of the global warming and multiculturalism as the new one.” “More axe-sharpening, less axe-grinding,” said George. He flipped through sections on self-discipline, public service, camping, first aid. She opened the photo albums, pointed to whitebordered snapshots, colours turning to sepia, arrayed in groups of four. Boys pulling the guy-wires taut on canvas trapper tents, shooting up frosty rooster tails in a snowshoe race, lifting dented aluminum canoes overhead. Yellowed newspaper clippings about Scouts cleaning up parks or raising funds to go to a World Jamboree in Finland. “Maybe it works for your boy, maybe it doesn’t. But you owe it to him to give it a try.” So I tried. I called the local Scouts Canada office and got contact numbers for a nearby troop. I bought a copy of the new edition of the Scouting Handbook, which, sure enough, is a little more in tune with the times than the old hand-illustrated edition Estelle showed me, with its all-white troops of axe-wielding boys bent on recreational deforestation. I also stopped by a game store and asked if there were any highly anticipated new releases coming out in the next few months that might appeal to an 11-year-old boy. Aaron was less than thrilled. “Scouts?” “It might be a lot of fun. You never know until you try.” I looked carefully at my son. He was wearing a Minecraft t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants with greasy stains from wiping his fingers after eating all-dressed potato chips that I realized I shouldn’t have been buying. I took in his pale complexion and doughy body and noticed the beginning of a hunchback from leaning over the computer. I mentally aged him 15 years and saw him with a beard running down his chins and halfway down his neck, surrounded by pizza boxes and living in my basement. I told him I’d buy him the next edition of Halo if he joined and stuck with it for three weeks. Two nights later, I drove Aaron to a boxy, stuccoed United Church and followed behind him as he walked, hands in his hoodie pockets, eyes on the ground, to the basement door. He let the door swing closed 15
before I could reach it, so I opened it myself and was greeted by the memorable mix of stale coffee, mildew, and youth sweat that brought back old memories of Sunday school. A tuneless choir of voices drifted up the stairs, some high and childish, some croaking and adolescent, and one or two others deep and masculine. “Troop 125. Uniform inspection.” I turned the corner and nearly bumped into Aaron, who watched as eight or nine boys formed a ragged line. A man stood at each end of the line: one middle-aged, with greying hair about the temples and a pot belly under his green Scout uniform shirt, the other younger, tall and thin and with a cascade of unruly curls partially obscuring an acne-scarred forehead. One of the Scouts walked along the line and examined the other boys’ uniforms, offering a piece of advice here on the arrangement of the red neck scarf and there on a raggedly rolled sleeve. “All good?” the younger adult asked, and the boy conducting the inspection nodded. “Great. Tonight we’ve got a full agenda. Scouter Dave is going to lead us all in some CPR practice, which should come in handy for those of you taking the official CPR class next month. I’ve brought materials for making firestarters, and if we can get to work fairly quickly, we can go out to the picnic area and test a few of them later. We’ll break into groups and draw up plans and packing lists for the fall camping trip. And, hopefully, we’ll have time for a short game of ultimate with my glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.” “But first,” and here he made eye contact with Aaron and gestured for him to approach, “I’d like to introduce a visitor who’s interested in learning a little bit about Scouting.” As Aaron stepped forward and was introduced to the group, I backed up toward the stairs. I turned and made my way to the car and spent an hour trying on clothes at Winners before returning to the church in time to see Aaron chase the glowing Frisbee in the park next door. The next week, we did it again, but this time I let Aaron out in the parking lot and raced to the community centre for a drop-in yoga class. The three-week trial period ended with Aaron declaring that Scouts was okay, and he’d stick with it for the year and reassess in the spring. I wouldn’t say he was an instant convert because he also asked about the promised game of Halo. “Good for him,” Estelle said. She’d been asking for progress reports about Aaron for three weeks. “A boy needs something that can 16
give him a sense of accomplishment. And a connection to his community. He might end up a lifelong volunteer like George.” George now had a lung infection and was on a new medication to ease his breathing, but it made him drowsy and he missed a lot. “How’s your boy?” he asked. “Getting better, I hope,” I said. Life started to change at home. I no longer felt as if I were living alone. Once I was cooking dinner and reached for my carving knife and found the knife block empty. I followed a scraping noise to the back porch, where Aaron was methodically passing a blade along a flat rock. A week later, I lugged a load of laundry down to the basement and found Aaron on the floor of the laundry room taking apart an old floor lamp that had stopped working. Another night, in the midst of Downton Abbey, I detected a burning smell from the kitchen and discovered wax melting in one of my pots while Aaron filled an empty egg carton with dryer lint. “I’m making firestarters, Mom. You pour the wax over the lint and then cut the egg carton up and you have 12 slow-burning firestarters you can use under any conditions.” He wasn’t staring at the computer, so I bit my tongue and took the pot off the heat. Then I showed him a safer way to melt wax and watched as he tested his finished product in our backyard fire pit. He still liked to build things on his computer with his Minecraft games, but more as a short-term time-killer. His passion for the computer game began to cool after he came home from Scouts one night with sawdust in his hair. “We went to Scouter Jason’s shop and did woodworking. He has a table saw, a mitre saw, a router, and a full set of hand tools. We’re learning how to build a set of stairs. It’s a lot tougher than you’d think.” I have to admit, the idea of Aaron in a garage surrounded by preadolescent boys wielding power tools raised my blood pressure. But hearing his delight as he told me the importance of eye protection and the “measure twice, cut once” rule calmed my maternal anxieties. Another week he came home smelling of smoke and told me Scouter Jason had been showing the boys how to weld and grind metal. I told George’s doctor about the grogginess, and the doctor and pharmacist recalibrated the dosage of the medication for his breathing. The infection eventually cleared up, but, by then, his lung function had been damaged enough that he went on bottled oxygen. His delivery of 17
wisecracks was slowed by the need to lift his breathing mask or take in a shot of oxygen, but he was still alert enough to try. “Must be tough keeping up with the language these days,” he said, while I was inspecting the skin around his IV catheter for bruising and infection. “Pardon?” “Language. You can’t call anybody a ‘cancer patient’ anymore.” “Well, we try to use more sensitive language now.” “Yeah. I’m a ‘person living with cancer.’ World’s worst roommate.” I checked him for bed sores and we did a pain assessment and I looked at his inventory of pain meds. I asked Estelle to show me that she still knew how to connect the meds to the infuser and she passed the test with ease. There was nothing more to do that day. “You ever think what you’d like people to say at your funeral, Erica?” I shook my head. “I’m leaning toward ‘Hey look, he’s moving’.” I laughed as I packed up my bag. I looked around the house at the photos and awards and plaques George and Estelle displayed. There was a framed photo of the two of them in costume as Groucho and Harpo Marx from some long-ago Shriners’ skit night and another of George, shirtless, in a grass skirt and a long black wig at a Scouts jamboree. “You like to perform, don’t you, George?” “What can I say? I’m a ham.” “Always comedy?” “You can make ‘em laugh or make ‘em cry,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “But they’re going to cry anyway someday.” Estelle handed me an album and flipped to a photo of George made up like Dracula, standing behind a podium and arguing with another man made-up like Frankenstein’s monster. “This was his friend Carl from high school. They did skits at school dances when the band would take a break. They did this one about an election debate between Dracula and Frankenstein.” George’s thick hair was slicked into a widow’s peak, his eyes lined with kohl and flashing with intensity, his powdered skin as smooth as a vampire’s. “Carl wanted to go to Toronto and get on TV.” He paused to suck in air. “In a few years, we’d be on Ed Sullivan.” Estelle closed the album and reached an arm around George’s shoulders. 18
“George was tempted, but he met me the summer after high school.” George looked down at the floor, and, for a moment, he seemed to imagine himself in grainy black and white on an old, round-cornered RCA. “I had a girlfriend. I had a job. I was building a life here.” Aaron was spending more and more time building things. He and a couple of the other boys from his troop took to dropping by Jason’s house on non-meeting nights to use the tools in his garage. Aaron cut and measured the pieces for a treasure chest at Jason’s and, using wood glue and little nails that he called brads and a tiny hammer he bought with his own money, he assembled it one night at the kitchen table. As he worked, I noticed that a few months of activity had already made a difference. He seemed to stretch out the shoulders of his tshirts. He was more likely to wear blue jeans than sweatpants, and the jeans seemed baggy on him now. An extra inch of ankle poked out below the cuff of his pants. Christmas was coming. Aaron wrote out an electronics-free wish list. He wanted a Dremel hand tool for woodworking, a hammer and chisels and a soldering iron, plus a set of polypropylene long underwear for winter camping. He and his troop went caroling downtown to raise money for the food bank and visited a seniors’ home to play cribbage with the residents. He’d never been so busy. It’s often said that people with terminal conditions will find an extra burst of energy to survive the holiday season. That was the case with my clients. They all lived through December. When I went to see George and Estelle the week before Christmas, they were still decorating. Well, Estelle was. George wasn’t mobile anymore, so she had assembled and trimmed the tree, placed red and green placemats on the coffee tables, baked cakes and squares, and unwrapped all the pieces of her Dickens Christmas Village set and arranged them on a card table. As I looked George over, carolers sang and pedlars cried out their wares along a High Street covered in cotton-ball snow while Frank Sinatra pa rum pum pum-pummed on the CD player. George needed a home care attendant to help him out of bed in the morning and wheel him out to the front room, where he liked to greet well-wishers. I checked him for bed sores and applied some medicated cream to a couple of hotspots. “Your son looking forward to Christmas?” 19
I told him about all the tools on Aaron’s list, and he gave a thumbsup, coughed, and pointed to a framed photograph leaning against the living room wall. It was George in a suit with his Shriner fez on, leaning over two smiling children, one white, one aboriginal, in wheelchairs, with a backdrop of occupational therapy bars. “That was taken the year they opened up a big new rehab centre at the Children’s Hospital,” Estelle said. “George chaired the fund-raising committee that got it built.” George cleared his throat. “The frame.” I looked at the frame. What I thought from a distance was just a simple square of wood was an intricately carved collection of different woods, each with its own grain and variations in colour from almond to hay to black coffee. It must have taken weeks. “One of George’s friends is a retired surgeon and a master woodworker. He and the others came over last night to present this to him.” George put his hands up and tried one more joke: “Honest officer, I been framed.” After Christmas was the usual time of darkness, literal and sometimes metaphorical. Dark when you go to work, dark when you get off work. And clients responding to the cold and darkness by drifting away in an opioid haze. I focused on getting my work done, keeping the car running during the coldest weeks of the year, and making sure Aaron didn’t lose any digits with his Christmas presents. Aaron focused on his winter camping trip. He’d just missed the fall trip when he started in Scouts, so this would be his first overnight, his first chance to experience the full Scouting culture of campfires and singalongs, chores and games of capture the flag, and surreptitious sessions of dirty jokes. They were to leave on a Friday after school and drive to the camp, a cluster of cabins along the shore of Lake Winnipeg, in time to light a cooking fire and prepare a late dinner. On Saturday, they’d build quinzhees and, if the building went well, sleep protected by insulated walls of snow. Aaron and I made up a checklist of things to buy and pack and planned to have his bags ready to go Thursday night. That morning, my phone buzzed while I was with a client and, when I checked, I found a message from the police. Aaron had no clue when I picked him up at school. A pair of detectives met us at home and launched right in with questions about Aaron’s interests, computer games and eventually his Scout troop. I felt a punch in the guts when the cops asked him about Scouter Dave and Scouter Jason. I felt a kick when they zeroed in on Jason. Do 20
some of the boys go to Jason’s house to work with his tools? Do you go there? How many boys are there at any given time? Is it ever just Jason and one boy? Where does he stand when he’s teaching you how to do something in the shop? Does he ever invite you into the rest of the house? You must get sawdust all over your body; does he ever ask if you’d like to take a shower? Aaron stood and shouted at the cops. “Jason’s not a pedophile!” “Sh, Aaron, the police must have a reason to ask these questions. Right?” The lead detective said they couldn’t go into details, and asked if they could look at Aaron’s phone and computer. Aaron gave me an imploring look. “That’s private, Mom!” “We all say things in private that might be embarrassing, Aaron, but the police aren’t interested in what you’ve said. They want to see what other people have said to you.” Aaron handed over his phone to one cop and we led the other into his room to look at his computer. I told Aaron I’d make him a snack if he’d like to watch television while the police did their work, but he insisted on remaining with them. So did I. As it turned out, they didn’t stay long. They copied the computer’s hard drive and the SIM card from his phone and said they’d have their technicians go over everything. When they left, I asked Aaron if there was anything he would like to tell me and he said no and went to his room to play Minecraft. The camping trip was cancelled. No reason was given. Two days later an item on the CBC announced that a Scout leader had been arrested on charges of sexual assault. We were asked to come to the police station for further questioning, mostly focusing on the afterschool visits to Jason’s woodworking shop. The cops had one of their staff psychologists there to make sure Aaron could handle the questions and to put my mind at ease. We all sat down in a special room they use for questioning victims and witnesses in sensitive cases: comfortable couches, carpeting, earth-tone paint on the walls, subdued lighting, none of that harsh fluorescent light on a white formica table stuff you see in police reality television. We got Aaron warmed up and he admitted that Jason had picked wood shavings out of his hair and brushed against him while he was leaning over the table saw. He looked down at his shoes as he told the police that Jason had invited him to shower-off and borrow clean clothes while his own were being washed, but insisted that he’d turned down the offer. I searched my 21
memory for occasions when Aaron came home from Jason’s house with freshly washed clothes or damp hair. Aaron gave the police the name of a boy who spent more time in Jason’s garage. I saw the hint of a nod pass between the investigating officers. The detective who’d copied Aaron’s hard drive and phone card showed us a print-out of exchanges between Jason and Aaron. Most were routine. He pointed to a couple that had been underlined. Aaron had been having trouble with a woodworking project, and Jason gave him advice on how to use his Dremel tool to smooth the wood. Aaron: Dremels working better now thx Jason: See? Listen to me. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. ; ) I shivered as I imagined Jason’s great ideas. In another exchange, Aaron complained to Jason about kids at school who made fun of him for being in Scouts. Aaron: Dont want mom 2 no. She worries alot. Jason: Don’t worry. You can tell me anything. “That’s it?” “All we’ve seen. But who knows what was posted and eliminated on Snapchat.” Aaron’s face turned red at this but he didn’t offer any more information. The interview came to an end and we returned home and Aaron ran to his room. Word about Jason passed around school and Aaron was convinced that everybody would conclude he’d been molested. He refused to go back to class the next week and the longer he was away the more obvious it would be when he returned. He stopped going outside, stopped using the tools he’d got for Christmas. I’d wake in the night and step out of my room and see a faint glow from under his door and find out he was playing Minecraft or Halo, so I moved the computer out of his room and changed the password so he couldn’t use it without my knowledge. He was gaining back the weight he’d lost and I saw in him, again, the 25-year-old basement-dweller with pizza stains on his sweatpants. After a couple of weeks of this, I made an appointment with his principal and guidance counsellor and came home with a stack of lesson plans and books so that I could put him to work at home. Then, I made arrangements for him to switch schools, effective after spring break. Looking after Aaron became a full-time job, so I had to use up my sick leave and then take an extended family leave. I went back with a reduced workload after spring break when Aaron returned to school. On my first day back, I looked over my 22
cases for familiar names. All of my former clients had either died or been transferred to other nurses in the meantime. I asked the nurse who took over most of my clients how George was doing. “You didn’t hear?” she asked. “He passed away at the beginning of March.” She put a hand on my forearm. “Estelle wanted to invite you to the funeral, but I knew you had your own issues, so . . ..” Did Estelle know? Did George find out before he died? I drove by their house once between clients. It was late April. Somebody had aerated and power-raked the dead grass and piled up the bags on the front yard for the city to haul away. I wondered if Estelle was getting ready to sell and move to an assisted-living place. A few weeks later the trees were turning green, the birds were building nests, and everybody who owned a trailer or a boat was getting ready for the May long weekend. The paper had stories about seasonal openings of campgrounds and the beginning of fishing season and I thought about Aaron’s cancelled camping trip. My phone rang at work and I picked it up and heard Estelle’s voice. She wanted to see me. I stopped by her house after work. She sat in a Muskoka chair with a glass of ice tea on a side table and watched me get out of my car. The grass was freshly cut with an even diagonal pattern. Petunias were newly planted in the flower beds and piles of branches attested to recent trimming of the bushes along the side of the house. At her side on the porch was a small bucket and a collection of gardening tools and a pair of work gloves. “You’ve been hard at work.” “Do you have a trailer hitch?” “A what?” She pointed to a pop-top tent trailer attached to the big old Buick. “When I turned fifty, I told George I was done with sleeping on the ground, so we got this. I just got it back from the shop. They’ve put on new tires and checked out the lighting and springs.” “I don’t need a tent trailer.” “I think you do. Aaron didn’t get to go on his winter camping trip, did he?” She and George had figured it out when Jason’s arrest made the news at the same time as I suddenly disappeared from their lives. I turned away, but she had already seen the confirmation. “I don’t know what’s happened, Estelle, but it wasn’t like that in our day.” 23
“Maybe it was and you just didn’t want to see.” “Maybe. Maybe something made this pervert what he is, but staying inside and looking at a computer wouldn’t have cured him.” I missed the May long weekend, but I took my car to a shop to have a trailer hitch installed and then I picked up Estelle’s trailer and practised driving on some quiet streets. When I was convinced I could make it to the lake and back without killing anybody, I brought the trailer home and called Aaron to come out and have a look. “You can build a fire and catch fish and do whatever other woodsy things you were going to do.” He said nothing. He stepped toward the trailer and ran a hand over the fibreglass top. I wanted to tell him that I knew he’d been betrayed and hurt, that I understood he’d lost his ability to trust. I wanted to say I should have paid more attention because I knew he was more vulnerable from the start, as a withdrawn, fatherless boy with a shaky sense of himself and a need for an older, male protector. I wanted to hold him and apologize and promise that he’d never be hurt again but I knew I couldn’t do that because of course he’ll be hurt again. So I told him about George and Estelle and described how George would take a breath from his oxygen bottle so he could tell one more joke. “Why did he do that?” “Whattaya gonna do?”
M. P. ARMSTRONG
after sonia sanchez kent state university, september 2019 a slip of paper flutters to the ground, a question: “how did may 4 change the content and attitude of your writing?” the slip of paper stammers. an answer sits in a mouth that never heard the question. it ghosts its tongue over the shriveled surface anyway. the answer swells. it echoes. how did may 4 change you? did may 4 shove you on a plane to sleep on rooftops in greece, removed from gunshots and grief, or did may 4 push you back into the parking lot, to scribble in chalk on the crumbling pavement, “your friends came to see you last night”? has may 4 abandoned you? or has it never left?
Apology for Yet Another Sonnet I know life doesn’t march in iambics; that it does for me suggests an imposition, a forcing as with bonsais, a parlor trick to make mess artful. I question my addiction, but as with drink feel compelled as the afternoon wanes to swirl a thought around my glass, neat. Of course, there’s more to tell than can be held in fourteen lines, but so much can be—that’s the thing— like the perfect whorl of a garden snail, eternal yet complete, small as a thumb-nail. Paring the day pleases. I add it to the drawer-full. Tomorrow, I promise. Tomorrow I’ll expand. (I know I won’t, but it can’t hurt to pretend.)
Cleaning House Two-hundred slats on our Levolor blinds, or roughly, which is the way I handled them, extirpating mold and marital discord, hunched over the side of the tub, worried it was too late, but hoping industrious close enough to ardent, and that any forgotten spores would take time to fruit, and fretting I resembled Zilla in Babbitt, the nagging and aggrieved wife who drives her stymied husband to attempted murder. I take comfort in the fact that after he shoots her, he regrets it and is surprised when the police thwart his efforts to help her into the ambulance. The rehung blinds flap in the coming stormâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;one not of my making.
DEVON BALWIT Metta for Babbitt “What a fatuous hypocrite,” I first think of Babbitt, outwardly pious while shady as any. But chapter by chapter, he grows on me. Chinks appear in his armor, the suspicion that money isn’t everything. His midlife crisis sucks me in and makes me an average white-guy booster. Bust loose! Stir up a ruckus! I urge, suspecting he’ll end up stymied in the end. Even though I’m all things Babbitt and his lodge brothers work to thwart, I recognize myself in him and have inklings that the same might be true were I to start a conversation with my red-state neighbor. With each page, my boundaries quiver.
Shoddy Distance yourself by a hair and it rings false: true son of God, water become wine, threats and promises like some bald-faced charlatanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s brochure. The awe is gone. Just months ago, the same words wrung you out. Youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;re a weather-vane, blowing earnest, then unmoved, then round again. At least, now, you blame yourself rather than the minister or those in the pews. Last night, it took seven matches to kindle a candle. You cursed each scratch, piled the sloughed and broken heads, refused to quit until one lit, then shut your eyes against the light. Why was that?
Always Eat Your Acorns Someone told me the Tree of Life was a great oak tree and now I don’t eat acorns anymore and she left last night the scent of my shampoo still in her hair she was a vegetarian she said but she liked her cheesesteaks rare with lots of onions she’s gone and that blue ’74 Gran Torino is with her in La Jolla or San Bernadino or some other godawful Pacific Ocean suburb that’s the way these things happen, you know
The picture, the way I remember it
Episodic Memory: Subset Autobiographical, Colorado, early 1970s
The picture, the way I remember it, is instant toned which in 1974 wasn’t a filter. We’re huddled roadside, me squatted in a basket my father’s made of his hands. He’s smiling, grinning. I lean back against his chest, his black, bug-eyed sunglasses swallowing my face. There’s a sign beckoning tourists, or I’m guessing that part, because isn’t that why you take roadside pictures. We’re surrounded by green, instant green, spruces and pines in relief behind us, my father, in dark plaid and pearl snaps, and in the place he longed to call home. I remember it, almost, that moment, as unlikely a possibility it is my six-year-old self collected more than flashes of sensation: cold in the summertime the fleece of my sister’s sweatshirt blanketing my skin the clattering of cottonwood leaves being lifted and held.
Peace Be With Us Things from your little town of no use in the world: the shortcut through the pecan groves to the river, knowledge of Stephens County roads, the radio soundtrack fit tight for driving, skills at wayfinding (that don’t apply anywhere but here), remembering to stick you hand out the window and feel undulations of summer push against your palm. You have forfeited being prepared. If we look now, there is no flashlight rolling around your floorboards. No loop of baling wire, pliers, green Halliburton tape. No peanuts nor five dollar bill in the glove compartment. You don’t ever think yourself lost, and in this world, the way it is now, we can see why you would think that way. Among things gained you might list these: redefinition of the crash margin, a healthy fear of lightning, stillness borne of letting someone quit you, understanding of the “Peace Be With Us” graffiti on the water tower by the school, the one they painted over, that bled through, clear as day, the entire time between fourth grade and senior year, the one no one said they got— and you asked—But now? But now. 32
The Widow Shows Me Around the House Spring 1991: the widow calls me. Not quite two weeks since her husband’s funeral. Will I take her to the movies. She is not particular what we see or where we go. Just needs out of that house. Up the country road pitted with mudholes, up to the derelict artifact of a rich territory farmer’s life. Glass panes rattle in the front door that drags as she opens it. Eight years left on a fifteen-year mortgage, she tells me right away. Had he divorced her instead, she would kill him just for that. Rooms open onto rooms, each crammed with garage sale furniture curated in attempt at the period. Dust, chintz, threadbare rugs in the parlor, an honest to god parlor. People will bring you too much ham when your husband dies, she says. And the freezer on the fritz. She shrugs. On the rolled arm of the velvet sofa lies a packet just back from Kodak. Of the funeral. Doc, she calls him, in his casket. If I want to see. It’s okay that I don’t, she says. Most people don’t. We parade through each room in turn. Do I see. Isn’t it something. She narrates their histories of meals prepared and eaten, sleeping rituals of the moved-away children, how it came about she has lived in the big bedroom 33
alone for some months now. Grime, floorboards missing, pre-war plumbing fixtures in a mold-smelling bathroom, peeling wallpaper behind a bunk bed, unmade. Something over the garage she wants to show me. Opens the door onto a little apartment fitting neither now nor then. Nubby blue couch, 7-11 cups and mail collected on a kidney-shaped coffee table. Brand new elliptical just inside the door, the mass of cardboard once encasing it leaned on a wall. He had lived up here a while, she says. And, of course, this is where he died. Does not point. But I think I see the shape amid the coupons and circulars from the paper of two Sundays ago lying on the floor. He never did do anything to help himself, she says. The door clicks, she turns the key, and by testing the lock is locked, ends our tour of the house. We head for town, no idea the time of the matinee. She wears page seventeen of the Spiegel spring catalog. Haircut since the funeral. Another husband will materialize at some point, she says. Lays fingertips to the flying-by landscape beyond her window. You just have to be willing to take things as-is. Do I want to know how sheâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll kill the albatross. A for sale sign at the end of the road. She will paint it herself. Highest bidder takes all. Land, furniture, linens, every dented fork in the stormy, junk-drunk house.
Consequence I rest on the ledge a glass of winterâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s stillness swipe & shatter spills soak the rag I wipe walk outside lie down place the damp cloth over my face a hole in the earth opens through my chest
MARISA P. CLARK
In the Winter of Long Heartache I Dream Myself a River See this river: a silver gleam, stilled by a season of such unrelenting cold it appears a spine of ice, a dip between two snow-packed shoulders of land. Too cold, this terrain, to support the kind of life that sinks roots down and farther down, believing there is something good for the taking, some place worth anchoring beneath the region of freeze; yet so solidified that cars cross over— and should they skid, they do not scar the ice that is this river, this mere bridge for travelers’ comings and goings. See the river, but do not mistake its stillness for repose. Imagine how violent a will it conceals, how fiery the pulse that pushes up from somewhere deep one thin strand of water that splits its center, a hairline fracture, a neat part in the ice. Some stronger surge breaks it from below, thrusts its molten mass up both banks where ice melts into high white waves that turn tumbling back toward the shining strand of water, churning river into braid. Then the river is a woman’s braid of long brown hair streaming down a warm broad back. They coalesce—water into woman into water, braid into braid—
and my eyes open to another sunless morning. Wednesday, January eighth: winter still, the season young. But I have seen my passion run beneath a glacial guise, inexorable as springâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s return. I push aside my blankets and rise: now a brook, soon a river casting off this crushing ice.
1886 House 1886 was a big year. X-ray technology was developed, primitive radio invented, and the Canadian Pacific Railway completed its line connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. Many of the artists we now hold in high esteem—Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Munch—were active then. And in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty was erected. Built in the likeness of the Roman goddess of freedom, she holds a torch in one hand, and the plaque inside says she’s the Mother of Exiles. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” It was a search for a new home that brought most people to the United States, but their fight for a roof over their heads didn’t end when the tempest dropped them on our shores. Across the American landscape, clashes erupted where one people tried to start homes in places that millions already called home. Such is the story of the house my wife and I bought our first year of marriage, a house built in 1886 by Lake Como, back when some could probably remember the area as it once was: home to the Dakota. They lived in villages on the Mississippi, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Como. The neighboring Ojibwe also considered the area theirs and, for generations, the two tribes struggled with each other for possession. Then came the wasi’chu, a Lakota and Dakota word for a non-indigenous person, and similar to a word which means “taking the fat.” With the Whites came treaties, then broken treaties, and finally expulsion to reservations. The first white settler on Lake Como raised cattle and potatoes. The next, Henry “Broad Acres” McKenty, bought up most of the land around the lake for development. Using $6000 of his personal money, he built a road to the lake from St. Paul12, wanting to put up a hotel overlooking the lake. Hard economic times took their toll, however, and unable to recoup his losses, he committed suicide. After that the lake road fell into what the Chamber of Commerce referred to as the “Swamp Route.” Eventually, more people were attracted to Como’s beauty, building hotels along its shore in the area where the pavilion
Como was outside the city limits then.
Roughly the same stretch of land as today’s Como Avenue. 38
now stands. One hotel, the Aldrich, had a lookout tower, bowling alley, and merry-go-round. There is a merry-go-round—Cafesjian’s Carousel3—today in Como Park, complete with 68 hand-carved horses. Merry-go-round can also be a figure of speech meaning actions that continue on in a cycle. One of the unfortunate cycles in the American West was the pushing of Native Americans further and further away from what the wasi’chu labeled civilization. While one might assume that I, a white man who now lives in this land, would side with the pioneers, my heart sides with the natives, who fought bravely for decades to hold onto their homeland. Some consider that fight to have officially ended when in 1886 Geronimo and his renegade Indians finally surrendered. At one point, it was believed they had escaped to safety in Mexico, so the army went to bring Geronimo back to the U.S. dead or alive. When he was caught, his capture signaled the end of an era; from then on, Native Americans would be prohibited from pursing the lifestyle they had known for millennia. Their sense of home would never be the same. A Georgia soldier later commented about the forced removal of Native Americans from their homes in the American Deep South, a genocidal march later dubbed the Trail of Tears. “I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”4 During the 1000-mile march, men, women and children were forced to walk shoeless using smallpox infected blankets for warmth. Nearly 4000 died en route due to exposure, disease, and starvation.5 Their absence would make it easier for others to populate and exploit the country, such as the speculators flocking to Cherokee lands in Georgia in our country’s first gold rush. A bigger rush was soon underway in California, but many stayed in Georgia trying to make gold in other ways. When their way of life was threatened, a Confederacy was formed to protect it. One of its soldiers, John Pemberton, was
Cafesjian’s Carousel was not the same carousel found at the Aldrich Hotel. It dates back to 1914 when it used to be at the State Fairgrounds. 4 Remini, Robert. "Invasion". The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. Grove Press. 3
Nancy C., Curtis. Black Heritage Sites 39
wounded during the Civil War and became addicted to morphine. As a druggist, he experimented after the war to find a cure for his addiction, and his first formula was called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.6 Prohibition reached Atlanta, Georgia in 1886 and inspired him to alter the formula to be alcohol-free; with a bit of trial and error he came up with Coca-Cola, cola for the kola nuts which give it its flavor, and coca for its estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. While it no longer contains cocaine, coca leaf is still an ingredient to this day. A New Jersey plant is authorized to import and process the coca plant, the spent leaves going into Coke and the cocaine sold to a pharmaceutical company for medicinal use.7 With its products in 200 countries, Coca-Cola is probably the most recognizable soft drink—if not product—in the world. At one time, Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on earth.8 In 1886 his Wild West show moved indoors to New York’s Madison Square Garden. The majority of his shows ended by recreating an Indian attack on a settler’s cabin, saved just in time by Cody and his entourage of hero cowboys on horseback.9 Were the crowds simply impressed with his storytelling, his marksmanship, the way he could put on a show like no other? Or did they need a heroic symbol to show them it was okay to assume Indian lands as their own? In 1886, Cody bought a 4,000-acre ranch in Nebraska, complete with an 18-room mansion. The mansion is now part of the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, and according to the park’s website, it is possible to tour the mansion and camp out on the neighboring Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area. What is not clear from the website is who owned these lands before Cody, whose homes were disrupted by western expansion, or which treaties were ultimately broken.
Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, Macmillan 7 Liebowitz, Michael, R. (1983). The Chemistry of Love. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 8 Wilson, R.L. (1998). Buffalo Bill's Wild West: An American Legend. Random House 9 Louis S. Warren, "Cody's Last Stand: Masculine Anxiety, the Custer Myth, and the Frontier of Domesticity in Buffalo Bill's Wild West", The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 34. No. 1 (Spring 2003) 40 6
A popular scam during this time worked like this: a wholesaler would send merchandise to a retailer who had not placed an order. The retailer would refuse, but then the wholesaler—alleviating the expense of shipping the goods back—would offer the merchandise at an even lower price. Thus the retailer would purchase the items and attempt to sell them to the public at a price high enough to make a profit. One day in 1886, this very scam was in progress when a savvy merchant refused to bite. A young Richard Sears stepped in, took a gamble, and purchased the unwanted shipment—gold-filled pocket watches—and started selling them to other railway employees at a small profit. Eventually, Sears would offer his products in catalogs, only watches at first, and then more and more items. Originally from a small town in southeastern Minnesota’s Fillmore County—where most of my ancestors would eventually call home—Sears knew how to get his products to remote areas. In 1886 many of my ancestors were still living in Europe or the Middle East.1011 My Dahl ancestors were on a remote scenic spot on the Trondheim fjord, on a little farm called Tømmerdalen. Other ancestors were in other parts of Norway, England, Duma (Damascus), and Beirut. My maternal great-grandparents came from Duma and Beirut, and the story goes that my great-grandfather Amen Soffa and his sister Anna were orphaned, living on dusty streets without food or shelter. In 1886 he would have been only nine, a tender age to fend for one’s self. Yet somehow they survived, and somehow he managed to attain a five-acre vineyard12, leaving it in his sister’s care before coming to America where, hopefully, life would be a little easier. What do you call it? It’s Lake Como now, but before McHenty changed the name, it was known as Sandy Lake. According to legend, Native Americans
Unless otherwise indicated, all genealogy information comes from my father Barry Dahl’s research 10
Some ancestors had already come across from Ireland and Norway, and were already in Fillmore County, a county where Preston, Harmony, Lanesboro, and other small towns exist. 11
Some versions of the story say “orchard.” 41
before him knew the place as Me-de-wa-ka, or Lake Mysterious.13 Because the area on the west side of the lake was developed by a man named Cary Warren, this area began to be known as Warrendale. Sections were divided and named, and Ramsey County Lot 6, Block 6, Warrendale, was eventually purchased by S. J. Rice. In 1886 he built a modest colonial-style house that 125 years later would be purchased by my wife Brigid and me. Situated at the southwest corner of the lake, you can see the Como Park woods and Lake Como from nearly every room in the house. For those who made the long trek across the ocean by boat, as my ancestors would have, it had to feel great to finally see land, to finally see that colossus of freedom standing in New York Harbor. You might know it as the Statue of Liberty, Lady Liberty, or simply the Statue. Its full name is French—La Liberté éclairant le monde—which translated means “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Geronimo’s Chiricahua name is spelled something like Goyahkla. Translated, it means “one who yawns.”14 Had he been tired, and had he needed a pick-me-up, and had he had he not been a prisoner of war, it would have been possible for Geronimo to travel to Atlanta and enjoy a Coke—which during his lifetime would have still contained coke. We refer to it now as Coke as much as we do Coca-Cola. When its ownership was less certain as it is today, it was marketed as Yum Yum and alternatively Koke.15 Their predecessor was a coca wine, a beverage containing wine and cocaine. It may sound strange today that a century ago, people—not addicts, not druggies, but everyday people —were consuming cocaine on a regular basis, but they were following doctors’ orders. Leading thinkers of the time looked to the coca plant to solve everything from morphine addiction to sexual problems. Freud —yes, that Freud—experimented with it personally and wrote to his fiancée, “Woe to you, my princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red . . . and if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl . . . or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”
From information found on Comowoodland.org, as researched by Sharon Shinomiya 14 “Geronimo."National Geographic Magazine 182: 52. October 1992. 13
Mark Pendergrast (2000). For God, Country and Coca-Cola. Basic Books. 42
Praise for this miracle drug came from doctors and journals and pharmacists16 who put the substance in tablets, ointments, wines, liqueurs, soft drinks, powders, and cigarettes. Advertisements abounded, with pro-cocaine testimonies from President McKinley, Thomas Edison, Sarah Bernhardt, three popes, and Buffalo Bill Cody.17 Before he was Buffalo Bill, he was Private Cody, and before that, he was William Frederick Cody. It wasn’t until after he killed 4280 bison in eight months that he would earn the right to be called Buffalo Bill.18 Some say he started his Wild West show in Nebraska, others say Lanesboro19 in southeastern Minnesota. Wherever it started, he created a brand that would soon be known the world over. Sears, Roebuck and Co. is its official name, but most of us know the brand for its founder, Sears. Richard Warren Sears grew up in Spring Valley, Minnesota, where as a boy, he palled around with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder. It is unknown whether Almanzo referred to his friend as Richard, or Dick, or simply Sears. I suppose, in retrospect, the most appropriate nickname would have been Rich. I owe my last name to Bertin Simonsen Dahl, born in 1888 in Leksvik, Norway as Bertin Simonsen Tømmerdal. He changed his name to Dahl after sailing past the Statue of Liberty in 1915. In 1886 his father would have been alive, Simon Svendsen Tømmerdal. At that Remember, Coke’s inventor was a pharmacist 17 Mark Pendergrast. For God, Country and Coca-Cola. Basic Books, 2000. 18 Cody, Col. William F: "The Adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody", 1st ed. page viii. New York and London: Harper & Brother, 1904 19 There is actually evidence that Buffalo Bill did start his show, or at least an early version of it, while in Lanesboro. A Daily Globe dated September 12, 1881 has the following account: There are fools, male and female, in Lanesboro, as witness: Buffalo Bill, (Wm. F. Dody,) the great scout astonished citizens of Lanesboro the other day by performing some really wonderful feats of marksmanship. A lady placed a potato on her head, which he severed in twain at ten paces with his trusty rifle. Dr. Powell held a silver half dollar between his thumb and finger and permitted Cody to drive a bullet through it at the distance of ten paces. Mr. Geo. E. Powell allowed him to shoot the ashes from his cigar, while smoking it, at ten paces. 43 16
time in Norway, a person’s last name was taken from the farm one lived on. The Norwegian book of farm names lists our original last name—and hence the farm name—as Tømmerdalen, and throughout history variably spelled Tymberdal, Tømirdall, Thimmerdal, Thømrdall, Thommerdal, and Tømmer Dahl. Literally translated, they all mean “timbered valley.” Railroaded It took a lot of timber to create the country’s expanding network of railroads. In 1886 railway depots were built in the mostly undeveloped Como area making the lake and park accessible to the masses, including Warrendale, where our 1886 House was one of the first homes built. A few years later, a short line was built between the lake and downtown St. Paul, making Como a leisurely half-hour ride for crowds of up to 20,000. When the street cars came, the line went right in front of our house, making it theoretically possible—making God knows how many transfers—to catch a street car in front of our home and ride the rails all the way to New York City. The man responsible for designing the Statue of Liberty is Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. While we now cannot imagine a New York or an America without the statue, before Bartholdi went public with his idea, he first sought out key people who would be supportive. His journey took him across the United States twice by rail. After Geronimo finally surrendered, America promised a reservation for him and the Chiricahua. That was a lie. Instead, all 500 of them were packed into sealed railroad cars and sent to an army prison in Florida. Their trip was without any ventilation or sanitation facilities.20 Florida is home to C & C Bulk Liquid Transfer—“the premier food grade transfer facility”—which uses sea, truck, and rail to move key ingredients found in rum and soft drinks. The Midwest grows the corn, which then becomes heavy corn syrup, which makes its way into 2700 rail cars a year ending up at C & C. Coca-Cola is one of the companies that utilize their services.21 Hine, Robert V and Faragher, John Mack. The American West: a new interpretive history. 21 ccbulkliquid.com/index_files/CCaboutus.htm 44 20
The reason Buffalo Bill killed so many bison was because he had undertaken a contract to supply railroad workers with buffalo meat. Sears worked on the railroad and sold his initial inventory to other agents on his line, partially because watches were a sign of urban sophistication22 and partly because with the recent advent of railways expanding the country, people needed to be on time or otherwise miss their connections. Sears first catalog only sold watches, but he quickly added other household items so that by 1895 its 532-page catalog would be referred to as the “Consumers’ Bible.” Eventually, Sears would sell even houses themselves, and 70,000 ready-to-assemble Sears Catalog Homes were sold as complete kits, shipped all across America via railroad boxcars. Ellis Island—now part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument—processed millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Bertin Simonsen Tømmerdal was one of them. After successfully passing inspection, he most likely boarded a train for the last leg of his journey. The old shall pass away The first owner of our 1886 House was Soren Rice23, who emigrated in 1881 from Denmark. According to the 1910 Census, he was married to Johanna, and their children were Frederick, Harry, and Lillian. Their ages in 1886 would have been approximately 23 (Soren), 20 (Johanna), and 2 (Frederick). Harry and Lillian would not have been born yet. On June 7, 1904, The Saint Paul Globe reported the death of William Rice, age 18, resident of our 1886 House. Assuming this to be another child of the Rice’s, his approximate age would have made him the second-born child. So far, no records have been found to shed light on this death, nor have any records been found to indicate any other deaths at this address. There is one suicide on record related to the Statue of Liberty. In 1929 a man jumped through the crown’s windows, bouncing off the statue’s breast before ending up crumpled by her feet. 22
I’m borrowing heavily from Wikipedia here—deal with it.
Unfortunately, not the same Rice that Rice Street and Rice Park are named after. 45 23
It is unknown how many Indians, Mexicans, Whites, and cougars24 Geronimo killed during his lifetime. We do know that what killed him was pneumonia. In 1894 Geronimo and 341 other Chiricahua Apache were prisoners of war living in villages scattered around Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Geronimo was given enough freedom that he could travel to several World Exhibitions and Indian Exhibitions and with Pawnee Bill—who, for a brief time, partnered with Buffalo Bill—and his Historic Wild West Show Extravaganza.25 Despite this relative freedom, however, Geronimo was denied permission to return to his homeland in Arizona, and in February 1909, he tried escaping on horseback, fell off, and spent a chilly night outdoors before a friend found him quite ill. He died sorry that he had ever surrendered.26 There used to be a rumor that Coca-Cola could stop an unwanted pregnancy. While I’ve never had the opportunity to see that tested, I have seen my father, Barry Dahl—for three decades an auto mechanic —use the drink to clean off a car’s battery post when it was so corroded the car would no longer start. It is unknown whether anyone has ever over-dosed on Coca-Cola per se, but there seems to be plenty of evidence that the soft drink and the organization that manufacture it both have some serious carnage on their hands. In Colombia, Guatemala, Turkey, China, Mexico, El Salvador and India, Coke’s list of alleged human rights abuses is nearly as long as the variety of products it has sold over the years. Coke is accused of the systematic intimidation, kidnapping, torture, and murder of union leaders; strikebreaking that resulted in injuries to workers and their families; violation of labor laws including working 12-hour days for an entire month with not one day off; illegal monopolistic marketing practices; exploitation of children by using them to work in hazardous sugar cane fields; the free use of water in a country where 12 million of its own citizens don’t have access to clean water; and rape, murder, and attempted murder against trade unionists and their families.27
Como High School’s mascot is the cougar. 25 Carbine & Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill 26 The American Experience, We Shall Remain: Geronimo. PBS. 24
Buffalo Bill didn’t just kill buffaloes, of course. He started his career as an Indian fighter. The story goes that he was so proud of scalping his first Indian that he sent the bonnet, shield, bridle, whip, arms, and scalp of the fallen chief home to his young bride, Louisa. He wrote her a letter describing the package, but the parcel reached her first, and upon its arrival, she assumed it was a gift and opened it. When she saw what was inside—namely a rancid scalp—she fainted.28 She would later make Cody promise to never scalp again. While his actions may seem crass and inhumane by our century’s standards, Cody and others like him must have felt like they were making the world a safer place. Sears homes offered the latest technology to early twentiethcentury home buyers, like indoor plumbing, electricity, and central heating. The latter would have made homes safer by reducing fire risk, so it might even be argued that the world—at least those living in homes sold by Sears—was a safer place. It is unknown how many people have died constructing or living in Sears homes, but assuming all other factors to be equal, one would assume that there have been at least as many births as a result of copulation within said homes. On a return trip to his homeland, Bert Dahl connected with Caroline Arntsdatter Stenkjaer and they were soon wed. She followed him to America, but never forgot her memories of the old country. As one of the founders of the “Leksvik Lag”—an annual reunion of immigrants from that most beautiful district in Norway—she attended the meeting each year until her death. Eventually, all those who could still remember the old country would pass away, and during my lifetime, the Leksvik Lag discontinued its annual reunions. And time rolls on With the rise of streetcars—first horse-drawn and later electric— Como’s remaining vacant lots filled with houses, and the area soon became a part of Saint Paul proper. Our 1886 House changed ownership several times over the years. One of the more colorful owners was Rose Ledegar29, who maintained a store on East Seventh According to Michael E. Goodman’s Buffalo Bill, this story’s authenticity is disputed. 28
Rose Ledegar’s name is found spelled both Ledegar and Ledeger depending on the source. 47 29
Street30 in St. Paul, which sold confectionary and cigars. An incident happened on the afternoon of March 17, 1898 involving a peddler named Ole Framstad31 and a dispute over some tobacco. Into the fray bolted Rose’s bull dog, leaving Framstad badly bitten by the savage canine—the city hospital reported lacerations in several places, particularly severe to his calf and thigh—as well as a torn wrist and an eye swollen shut from a pummeling given to him by Rose. Rose, her husband Charles32, and the dog were arrested and locked up, the bulldog kept in a separate cell and held as evidence. The Saint Paul Globe reports the dog incident occurred after a “dispute over the payment for a piece of tobacco,” but the following September 9, 1900 news article may cause one to imagine an entirely different story: More than a candy store. Rose Ledegar Fined for Maintaining a Disorderly Resort Judge Hine, of the police court, yesterday found Rose Ledegar, who conducts a candy store at 352 East Seventh Street, guilty of keeping a resort, and sentenced her to pay a fine of $100. Ada Gray, arrested for visiting the place, was fined $50. This was not a solitary nor first incident. At other times Ledegar was accused of conducting a “house of ill fame,” and in 1898, three policemen in citizens’ clothes were sent to the store, where Rose and another woman—Mable Warner—made “improper proposals” to them. Even this had not been Rose and Mabel’s first arrest. The month before, Rose was charged with “keeping a disorderly house” and Mabel for visiting the place.33
Newspaper stories—and they abound—constantly change the address of their store including 352, 351, and 851 E. 7th 31 In various reports on the incident, the man’s name is spelled Farmstad, Farmstat, and Framstad 32 Charles was later acquitted when it was found he wasn’t in the store at the time of the assault. 33 The last line of the news story tells us, “The Ledegar woman is a familiar figure on the streets of St. Paul, riding a beautiful bay horse.” In doing research for this essay I found the original building permit for our 1886 House, which includes a permit for a stable (which has sinse been replaced with a garage). 48 30
Early on, the Statue of Liberty’s patina was tarnished, changing from its original copper color to the green hue we see today. Experts found that the green discoloration was doing the monument no harm, but over the years, several renovations were done to preserve the structural integrity of the monument. In preparation for the statue’s 100th birthday, engineers found that the arm had originally been improperly attached and that the head had been attached two feet offcenter, a significant enough misalignment to cause one of the rays to wear a hole in the statue’s arm whenever the wind blew hard enough. Geronimo wasn’t his given name. It was actually the name given him by his enemies during a battle in which he struck revenge after some Mexicans had killed his wife, children, and mother. Legend has it that he was so quick with his knife that his victims only had a moment to call out to their saint—Jerome, or Jeronimo—before passing on to the next world.34 His name has taken on a positive connotation in modern times, and can be heard by paratroopers jumping out of planes —and occasionally from children’s mouths—as an expression of great bravery. Coca-Cola lost its cocaine in 190335, and starting in 1983, a caffeine-free version has been available. The company is still in the process of phasing out E211—sodium benzoate—which is linked to DNA damage in yeast cells and hyperactivity in children.36 Once, Buffalo Bill admitted that “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”37 Sears offered 447 home designs, Honor Bilt homes being the highest priced and quality. The Goldenrod had three rooms and no bath, designed as a simple summer cottage—outhouse sold separately. Consumers could realize their dreams with a house to fit their taste and their budget. “Geronimo.” National Geographic Magazine 182: 52. October 1992. 35 Liebowitz, Michael R. The Chemistry of Love. Little, Brown & Co., 1983. 36 The Daily Mail, DNA Damage Fear, May 24, 2008. 34
Wilson, R.L. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: An American Legend. Random House, 1998. 49 37
My maternal and paternal ancestors all found their way to southeastern Minnesota, living in modest homes without running water or extravagance. They milked cows, tended chickens, and grew popcorn to make ends meet. They made their own soap and did without, many times not even realizing they were poor because everyone else was the same. When Amen immigrated to America, he started out as a peddler walking between Lacrosse, Wisconsin and Greenleafton, Minnesota—a 70-mile stretch. When he could save up enough money, he would eventually buy himself a 10-acre farm, later expanding it to 120 acres. House or home? My parents were both initially raised on dairy farms, and both moved off those farms to live in little towns in southeast Minnesota— Fillmore County—when they were young. They met in a town called Harmony on the Fourth of July, when they both decided to go roller skating. After they married, I was conceived in a mobile home, but before I was born, they bought their first house together, a one-and-aquarter-story whose simplicity and modest appearance makes me wonder if it could have been a Sears home. Later we moved to a larger and nicer one—it had four levels—but it did not make us happier. My parents would divorce within five years of the move. They put on a good show, leaving those of us surprised by their divorce wondering if we had missed the signs. Do you have a Sears kit home? There are a number of things you can look for, ranging from stamped lumber on exposed beams to plumbing marked with an “R” or “SR.” Of course, if your home wasn’t built between 1908 and 1940, there is no way it could be a Sears home.38 Naturally, our 1886 House isn’t a Sears kit, though Brigid was adamant about using Sears to replace some of our original—yet ailing —windows. She had used Sears before and found them to be trustworthy. Cody wanted the public to see Indians as families—not just fierce warriors—so he had the wives and children of his Native American performers set up camp as part of his show.
Thornton, Rosemary. Searshomes.org, 2007. 50
It is difficult to know how many families have been ruined by cocaine and its related drugs like crack. There are, however, about 2000 Cocaine Anonymous groups meeting weekly across the United States and Canada.39 Coca-Cola, though now cocaine-free, is still not completely innocent. How much has the drink contributed to obesity? To diabetes? The year I was born, Coke released an ad so infectious that people can still sing the song today. Performed by a multi-cultural crowd on a hilltop—some in native dress—their song begins, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.” None of them appear to be overweight or obese. Geronimo died wanting to return to his homeland, a fight some say is not yet over. Geronimo’s descendants are suing40 over the theft of his remains—allegedly currently in possession of Yale’s Skull and Crossbones society—so they can go back to his original home, near New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. When terrorists attacked on September 11, we were denied access to Lady Liberty. It took years for the terrorists to plan their deadly attacks, but our government took less than two months to come up with “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” commonly referred to as the Patriot Act, a set of laws which give the government easier access to, among other things, entering your home. In the war on terror, our government used the code name Geronimo for the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks. My first job after college was as an English teacher on a Native American Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Although it was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs—an agency notorious at one time for forcing White culture, language and history onto Native American children41—the school actually served a nobler purpose, helping students retain some of their culture that had, due to the BIA’s previous history, almost been forgotten. When I taught there, students took regular high school classes in addition to Ojibwe language and culture. It wasn’t uncommon for students to be pulled out of my ca.org 40 The Huffington Post, February 18, 2009. 39
Banks, Dennis. “Ojibwa Warrior,” 2004: 29-28. 51
literature classes for the purpose of deer hunting or gathering wild rice or making maple syrup at an encampment they called “Sugar Bush.” When that year was over, I moved back to Minnesota and found employment opportunities in the Twin Cities, where I met the woman who would become my wife. One day I brought her to Lake Como on the premise of taking a walk. I told her how important the lake was to me. When I was single, during my most content times, I would walk around the lake; subsequently, as a couple, we had many happy memories walking around the lake too. In our future, I told her, I could see us continuing to use the lake as our happy place. I dropped to one knee and proposed. The next summer—after posing first for pictures on the carousel—we were married in Como Park under the pergola outside the Conservatory. At first, we lived in Brigid’s house, about six blocks east of the lake, but I longed to be closer. When it came up for sale, and we toured the 1886 House, we fell in love with it immediately. I can see us having a family here, I told her. I can imagine picnics in the woods, walks around the lake with our future children, filling this house with love and laughter. I can see us being happy here. Before us, the 1886 House belonged to a married couple, he a college professor and she an alternative healer. She left for us in the basement three boxes of record albums with surprises such as Southern Prison Blues: All Titles Recorded at Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Recorded in 1959 at our nation’s largest maximum-security prison, the title and cover imagery—men working on a railroad—caught my attention, and I put the album on our turntable out of curiosity. Having never liked the Blues, I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy the record, be moved by it, have the desire to play it again and again. The songs are sung with little accompaniment—sometimes just a 12-string guitar—with voices hoarse and raw. Although the music makes me conjure up images of strong, calloused men, paradoxically, they also seem emotionally vulnerable. The sound is organic, their tales riveting, but it is their voices that pull me in and keep me listening. It’s almost as if everything else I’ve heard before has just existed as merely a translation of real music. It’s as if I am able to see something that is normally un-seeable. Instead of hearing a word that corresponds with someone’s emotions, I am able to feel their exact emotion. What does it mean that I can listen to this recording in the comfortable living room of my 1886 House? That I can view the beautiful lake as I listen to it, contemplate going for a walk, or not, 52
depending on the weather or my mood? What does it mean that I can take out the disc and put it back in its sleeve, shove it onto a shelf, and if I so choose, never listen to it ever again? This essay could be about the role of commercialism in the domination of the Native American culture. It could be about injustices like the plight of indigenous people. Or it could be about America’s failing health. But it’s really about me. While my ancestors weren’t here fighting Indians and stealing the Native’s lands, and while they certainly had their own troubles to overcome, the fact is that I am a white man living in a nice home on land that used to be home to others. I lift the record player’s arm, flip over Southern Prison Blues and play side two. The album ends with Cyprien Huston and the Cool Cats performing “Goin’ Back to My Old Used to Be.” I so glad that I’m back home once more. I so glad that I’m back home once more. Outside, the sun is shining, slightly too chilly and breezy to be considered good walking weather, but I put on my shoes anyway, and head out through the door toward the lake.
MARY CHRISTINE DELEA
Burial Poem Lost in the sound of birds squawking overhead, I stare too long. Almost go blind as if the heat were inside my eyes, shooting out, rather than invading. Someone was speaking. A few were crying, sniffling, throat-clearing. What is this tradition of putting our loved ones into the ground, as if earth will never run out, eternally able to inter more bodies? Eventually, dirt will disappear and there will be no more space. Or time. I look at my watch, tired of the triad of standing. sitting, kneeling. It is not the hour I want it to be. The church, then the cemeteryâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;up and down all day. One space moves into another. The sun becomes my watch, birds speak in heat, we force more of our own sorrows into our only planet.
MARY CHRISTINE DELEA
a Golden Shovel using Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother”
What never happened is what I cannot forget the night we didn’t get the smell of your hair smokey air from cigarettes and pot the LIRR wheels beat like a sweet song four fingers and a thumb the fist of time would come for us your sigh as you walked out the door eyes downward your voice sad like children being yelled at nothing eased that pain that suck of guilt so we seized each little moment luck gave us privacy I’d reach for you we’d moan our names lying games to others to cover our little deaths poisoning relationships our breaths in unison deliberate our tumultuous secret I never wanted to whine your sins were mine I understood darkness follows the dead and instead of gratitude for what we had I made sorry sounds promises too afraid to be alone I said many things yet you died you still managed to die and I cried by myself all alone the way I had loved you secretly faintly
redriverrun pounding, smashing, crashing mightily on its thrillride journey looping the loops round the circumscribed route of narrow thinwalled tunnels leading nowhere but back to the beginning the acrid liquid courses, circulating relentlessly, snagging spent molecules, simultaneously unshackling and abandoning to the various hungry exhibit halls those necessary to maintain this bloody amusement park. nothing but catastrophe will stop this viscid river. it expects no rest, nor does it waver with the pull of the moontide. it simply isâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; pulsing, moving, vital but powerless, slave to the neverending electrical energy of its master, that tough, unbreakable, ironclad, finally fragile heart.
the maybe comet passport lost in a tornado of revenge the gossip of uninterpretable crickets the only lullaby breaking the quiet of sundown what can be bribed to surrender the code of living? i scan the sky an implacable sphinx giving nothing away not a a star a planet moon vacationing in some warmer place dark now not a single cloud breaks the hard slate of heaven even the crickets have stopped their conversation
as i sit crowned with thistles of ignorance divorced from all wisdom a sudden flash of something breaks the ungiving night iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m not sure what maybe a rogue comet eyes following that bright streak hope for direction
Knife Skills First you must take hold of it. Gently. Wrapping your hand around the handle— the tang—the way you might caress a loved one. Letting go of your fears. Letting the blade work for you, not worrying about sharp edges. When you feel comfortable, move on to the next step: engage the blade’s point, making contact with a clean, well-used cutting board. Practice pivoting the tip, resting your left hand on top of the knife as you swivel your wrist up and down until you get the hang of things. Find your own rhythm, my husband would say. Remember that it’s all about the timing. Forget those last words. Unless you can’t. Unless, like me, they haunt you all these years later as you search for answers to the meaning of love and life after life, without the person you might have imagined you could grow old with. Even if that life wasn’t always the stuff of happily-ever-afters. Even if that person sometimes got on your last nerve. Or worse, that he knew all your dark secrets, knew exactly where to center the knife in order to inflict the most damage, circling your head, your heart, with a flourish that left you breathless and weak, unable to speak or think or cry until one day you fall back on your skills, wrapping your hand—gently, gently—around the tang and let the blade work for you again. Taking hold before letting go of the fear. Not worrying about all the sharp edges.
Mise En Place We met on a layover. The first year of the millennium. The first week of September. We were in limbo. I was coming home from Pennsylvania. You were returning to college. I forget where you were from. Someplace Middle Eastern. Someplace exotic. Someplace soft-spoken. You wanted to talk. The way strangers do when they’re stranded, to pass the time, straddling yesterday and tomorrow. I told you about the river I’d rafted. The Susquehanna. You told me about your mother and father and sisters. I might have told you the Susquehanna is one of the world’s oldest rivers. One of the longest. You told me how much you missed your family. I might have mentioned the Alleghenies formed during the Mesozoic era, when Africa collided with North America and Europe, millions of years since. You told me you were here to study, to make your future brighter for the woman you would someday marry. I might have told you how I dove into the river, swam toward a sheltered cove in order to capture the Susquehanna’s essence. I might have, but I didn’t. Didn’t tell you about the undertow, either. How it grabbed hold of me and pulled me down beneath the surface. How I gasped for air, struggling, not knowing if I’d live to tell the story.
Or how the next day I visited the site of that flood in Johnstown, heard a park ranger recount how all the poor people drowned while the wealthy slept in summer mansions. How I witnessed the reenactment: lightning, thunder, the muffled cries played out in miniature, interactive dioramas. When our flight arrived, I smiled and wished you well. You told me to go home, to put my house in order. It was the year we met. The first year of the millennium. The year I almost drowned. The first week of September. Before all those planes rained down from autumn skies. Before that, the two of us, tête-à-tête in an airport, passing time with small talk. Fresh-faced, and so sure of our place in the world.
A New Normal The police found Ollie sitting in the unlit bathroom next to the toilet when they came through the open front door with their guns drawn, clomping around and shouting NYPD until they found him. He had blood on his hands and on the cuffs of his white shirt. His twoyear-old daughter looked like she was asleep in his lap except that her eyes were wide open, as wide as the doll’s Ollie had found next to her, which he’d scooped up along with the little girl’s body from the kitchen floor. He was staring fixedly at the black and white bathroom tiles as if they were a chess board and he couldn’t decide on his next move. His wife lay face down on the living room rug, her bloody shorts around her ankles with what was left of a ripped white thong. The cops wanted to pin the murders on Ollie because he was the husband and the husband usually does it. But he’d been in an all-day training seminar in Soho, and was eating a peanut butter and marmalade sandwich with the rest of the software designers at the time that the coroner determined the murders had occurred. The detective who called to tell him he was off the hook sounded disappointed, as if Ollie should have had the decency to be guilty. He fingered the phrase ‘off the hook’ after he hung up, wondering if he was expected to resume his normal life now that they knew he hadn’t slaughtered his family. He had an irrational impulse to laugh until his mirth collided with his grief and shut him down like a power failure. *** It did not take long for the police to locate the killer, a twenty-twoyear-old internet animator who lived next door to the victims. They’d initially questioned him as a matter of routine–did he see or hear anything unusual?–but the boy seemed so strung out that he aroused their suspicions and they secured a search warrant for his apartment. The wife’s little gold cross was rolled up in a pair of his white athletic socks next to some soiled jockeys in his bedroom closet. And he’d left his fingerprints on the phone in her kitchen. Then there was his DNA from the rape, which the ME discovered during the wife’s autopsy. It was fish in a barrel. *** “Such a nice boy, the boy who moved in next door,” Theresa had told Ollie the evening before the murders. She had slipped into a tank 62
top, hoping to stay as cool as possible in the hot, motionless air of the bedroom. “The boy next door?” Ollie asked, barely paying attention. It was as if there was a secret circus inside his head, with clowns and thrilling acts of daring that the boy in him stole away to, a survival mechanism left over from a difficult childhood with two violent parents. “Yes,” Theresa said, “Tommy.” “His name is Tommy?” Ollie repeated, pulling the bedspread down and slipping under the clean cool sheets with a girlish sigh. “Yes,” Theresa said with an edge of impatience because Ollie, once again, was only half-listening. She had noticed long before they married how much time he spent everywhere but where he actually was. Occasionally it made her laugh, like the time he walked out of the apartment without her and little Beth and didn’t realize they weren’t with him until he reached the lobby. But most of the time, it made her feel lonely. *** It had been a lovely, late summer afternoon, the day before the murders, cloudless with enough breeze to send a paper bag or an empty Coke can rattling across the asphalt. Theresa came off the bus at Third Avenue and Ninth, guiding her two-year-old daughter down the steps with one hand and grasping a sack of groceries from Pegnataro’s with the other, all the while balancing her heavy pocketbook on her shoulder so it wouldn’t slip off and crash onto the pavement. Tommy, who had moved into the apartment next door a month earlier, was coming out of her building, on his way to the kosher hot dog vendor on Eighth Street for his favorite late lunch. He spotted the young woman and came over to her, taking the Pegnataro’s bag out of her hand and turning back to the building through the door he had just exited. What a sweet boy, she thought as he carried the bag into the elevator and all the way back up to the ninth floor. He even waited while she opened the door and brought the grocery bag into the apartment, looking around for the kitchen, which was in a different, sunnier location from the kitchen in his apartment. What an angelic face the boy has, she thought as they exchanged pleasantries, so gentle and shy. Her grateful thank-yous caused him to blush like a bride. *** The next morning, Tommy sat in front of his Mac working on an animation sequence for a haircare company to illustrate the correct 63
way to wash with a sudsless shampoo. He usually sketched with his ear buds blasting classic iTunes like Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” and Sting’s “I’ll Be Watching You,” but this morning he was working in silence, listening for the sounds of the woman next door as she moved around the apartment, washing dishes, vacuuming, singing duets with Elmo and Cookie Monster on a Sesame Street DVD while the little girl chirped along. He had seen the woman’s husband, a plain-looking man in his thirties who wore glasses and had already begun to lose his hair on top. Why did he have a woman like that, the boy wondered. She had such a pretty face, milky skin, and a long, slender neck with a little gold cross on a chain, and soft, fluffy hair, strawberry blond, which he was sure was her real color because she had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose like most natural redheads. His mother was also a redhead but hers came from a L’Oreal bottle. Tommy said the girl’s name out loud, tasting it like a piece of candy. Theresa. He pictured the pale soft skin of her thighs and imagined them falling open for him in slow motion like the halves of a melon, surrendering to his fingers, her strawberry triangle glistening. Aroused and trembling, he abandoned the haircare graphic and navigated to the stash of pornography he had downloaded. *** Theresa was on the way out to the park with Beth when Tommy knocked on her door. “Can I use your phone? All of my services have crashed and I need to call Time Warner.” He smiled apologetically and rubbed his sweaty hands on the sides of his Levis. He had gone without sleep all night long and was still methed up and ragged. “Are you okay?” Theresa asked, noticing that his eyes were bloodshot and overactive, as if he had jumping beans inside his pupils. “Yeah, yeah. I just have to meet a work deadline.” He tried not to stare at her white shorts and the tiny heather gray tee shirt that cut off just above her navel, because he already had an erection. “Come with me,” she said, putting Beth down and leading Tommy into the kitchen. “Are you hungry? We just finished lunch but I’ve got some leftover tunafish.” The little girl, dressed in a light green gingham sundress, white sandals, and heart-shaped sunglasses, followed behind them, dragging her baby doll by the arm, its head bouncing helplessly along the floor with a bop-bop-bop. *** 64
The trial began six months later, after the judge ruled Tommy competent, although he’d tried to hang himself in his cell a week earlier. The prosecutor, an energetic young attorney with a yarmulke and a Brooklyn accent, told the jury in his opening statement that the accused had been “a ticking time bomb” whose lust had cost two innocent lives. The public defender, a pear-shaped woman with bushy brown hair and a raspy voice, argued that her client was “a nice boy with a promising career,” a sensitive, troubled, fatherless boy who had “slipped through the cracks of the overburdened, underfunded mental health system.” They sounded like characters on Law and Order. Despite objections, the prosecutor showed pictures of the dead mother and child, close-ups of the bruises and blood spills and the victims’ lifeless eyes. The psychiatrist for the defense said that Tommy had Asperger’s, a form of autism which caused social impairment and made it difficult to form relationships or experience empathy. The murderer’s mother, a small, anxious woman with flaming red dyed hair, testified that her son had been bullied in high school and that his only friend was his Mac. She said that she’d discovered Tommy looking at pornography on the web when he was only fifteen and insisted it was the porn that had turned him into a sex maniac. Ollie was present in the courtroom every day of the five-day trial. His sister-in-law came with him, and several times during the proceedings, she cried. But Ollie sat like a sphinx, expressionless and silent throughout the testimony, as if he were watching a movie. It was not even clear if he was listening. The only time he looked over at Tommy was when the boy, on the advice of his lawyer, declined to testify on his own behalf. *** The jury, consisting of seven women and five men, took two days to reach a verdict. They convicted Thomas Raymond Prassus of forcible rape and two counts of first degree murder. Speaking to TV news reporters afterward, they wondered how anyone could feel safe in a city where innocent-looking neighbors turned out to be killers, and they vowed to watch over their loved ones with greater vigilance when they returned home. *** Tommy Prassus, age 23 at the time of his conviction, received a life sentence, and was transported to the Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. With good behavior, he would have been eligible for parole in forty years, but he was 65
stabbed to death with a makeshift knife by Mark David Chapman during an argument over which Beatles song was John’s greatest, “Imagine” or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” *** Ollie suffered from a debilitating depression for the next year-anda-half, for which he was prescribed Prozac, Abilify, and several rounds of ECT at the Payne Whitney Weill Cornell’s Department of Psychiatry. His psychiatrist, Dr. Stanislaus, said Ollie was stuck in the bargaining stage of grief, playing “if only” with the facts—if only they had lived on the tenth or the eighth floor instead of the ninth, if only they had taken the more expensive apartment on Third Avenue and Twelfth Street instead of the cheaper one on Third and Ninth. If only he had worked at home that day. If only he had paid attention when his wife mentioned the next door neighbor. Whenever he tried to stop bargaining, misery overtook him and swallowed him up like a sink hole. *** After Ollie had recovered enough to move out of his brother and sister-in-law’s house in the Bronx, he returned to the city and found a studio apartment in the East Village on Avenue B, near Tompkins Square Park. As a freelance marketer for Groupon, he could have worked from home but, needing an incentive to come out of hiding each day, he rented a little office in an old friend’s advertising agency on Third Avenue, furnishing it with a desk and chair, his laptop, a telephone and a small framed photo of his family. With its bare walls, empty shelves and half-closed blinds, it looked as austere as an eleventh century Carthusian monk’s cell. Because the office was directly across from the ladies room, the women at the agency inevitably grew curious about the quiet man with haunted eyes. Their own cubicles overflowed with stuffed animals, deflated birthday balloons, and plants that trailed down from filing cabinets like girls’ braids. Even the walls were adorned, displaying movie posters, cheap impressionist reproductions, and snapshots of their pets, boyfriends, vacations in the Bahamas, and children. By ones and twos, they descended on the widower with generous hearts and boundless curiosity. Ollie couldn’t think of much to say to them but he was always friendly and smiled when they noticed how sweet his wife and baby daughter looked in the little silver picture frame. One of the women, an art director named Daisy, took a special interest in Ollie, buying him a ficus plant and lending him her movie 66
poster of Casablanca to enliven his bare walls. She also brought him cups of coffee from the Keurig in the kitchen, and sandwich halves when she couldn’t finish what she’d selected from the lunch cart at noon. Daisy could even make him smile when she recounted some of her dating experiences on Match.com–the trader who bragged about his acumen but whose card was declined after they finished an expensive dinner, and the accountant who brought his eight-year-old son along on their first date. Occasionally Daisy spoke about her personal life, causing Ollie to tear up when she mentioned her younger sister Ellie’s death from leukemia the year before. But Ollie said nothing about himself unless she asked him a direct question. He had discovered in the aftermath of the tragedy that people were afraid of being contaminated by his bad luck; they preferred to keep their distance from someone who had lost so much. And what could they say about it, anyway? Ollie loathed sympathy, it felt like someone was drowning him in hot, sticky syrup. Daisy never prodded Ollie about the woman and child in the little picture frame, sensing that something unfortunate must have happened. She and the other women had speculated for months about his marital status, although he still wore his wedding ring on his left hand. They decided that his wife must have left him, running off with another man (or even a woman) and taking the baby with her. Perhaps, they theorized, he was refusing to admit that the marriage was over. *** Dr. Stanislaus, whom Ollie had continued to see once a week, said it was time for him to create a new normal, and encouraged him to ask Daisy out on a date. “I don’t want to get involved with anyone ever again,” Ollie said, his voice uncharacteristically loud and agitated. Stanislaus considered this outburst a good sign after so many months of numbness. Ollie was putting the universe on notice that it would not get another opportunity to break his heart, and this signalled, however unconsciously, that he was preparing to return to the fray. *** “Are you divorced, Ollie?” Daisy inquired while they were seated at the bar of a midtown restaurant, waiting for their table. 67
“I’m a widower,” he said simply, sipping the Bloody Mary that Daisy had ordered for him, the first alcohol he’d tasted since his hospitalization. He felt its effect immediately, coursing through his body like a flash flood. It graciously allowed him to take a few deep breaths. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Daisy said, her heart-shaped face drawn tight with compassion. She wondered if the daughter might also be deceased. Ollie shrugged, anesthetized by the vodka. What had happened to his family was old news in a city like New York, where you could count on a fresh crop of murders every month to grab the headlines. His hadn’t been bizarre or bookworthy enough to be memorable to the young woman sitting next to him in her pretty rose-colored dress. No Son of Sam or Theodore Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown. By the time Ollie heard his name called over the loudspeaker, it startled him. Lost in thought, he had forgotten where he was. It was so easy, he mused, to fall back into the quagmire, its familiar anguish almost comforting with its promise that nothing worse could happen to him. But Daisy knew exactly where she was and slipped off the stool, taking hold of Ollie’s arm and guiding him quickly through the dark crowded bar like a Himalayan sherpa. “Would you care for another drink?” the waiter asked them after they were seated. “Yes, let’s have lots of drinks,” Ollie said, sounding celebratory in his tipsiness. Daisy reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “With dinner,” she said to the waiter, “we’ll have a nice bottle of wine with dinner.” Ollie immediately surrendered to the shelter of Daisy’s prudence. “Yes, we’ll have wine with dinner,” he said, as if it had been his idea all along. Daisy picked up the thick menu and began to peruse the offerings. Ollie gazed at her with wonder, as though she had just materialized from the chandeliers suspended above them, their tiny lightbulbs mimicking white and yellow explosions of popping corn. Even from across the little table, he could smell her scent—baby powder, lavender soap and the slight astringency of freshly laundered towels. “Daisy,” he said aloud and then, with nothing in particular to say to her, reddened with embarrassment. 68
She looked up at him expectantly and smiled. Ollie felt a pain in his chest, like tiny claws were squeezing an artery. In a sudden rush of images, he saw his wife and baby daughter receding from him like specters on a departing train. In desperation, he stretched out to reach them, shoulder to elbow, wrist and palm to hyperextended fingertips, racing breathlessly down a telescoping platform as they evaporated into clouds of dust. His eyes filled with tears. “I was just wondering if—” His question trailed off and dissolved into the chatter and hum of the room. “Yes,” Daisy said, although she did not know what Ollie was wondering. But she could see, as she had for months, that he had come loose from his life like a climber whose safety line had snapped, and she believed that she was strong enough to catch him before he plunged to his death. And so she said yes, simply yes, without pausing to question or parse his words, as if her whole life had been a preparation for this moment. “Yes,” she said again, her face radiant. Yes, of course. .
Pink Snow Cherry trees always seem to bloom just before a spring storm. Seasonal showers and squalls strip blooms from branches.
Setting Sun Stray sunbeam pierces fierce black rain clouds, painting dead grasses golden, for just a moment, in the fading light.
Why My Kid Sobs at the Ice Cream Parlor Because what he ordered isn’t the flavor he secretly wanted but neglected to tell us. Because it’s messy like the sweetest massacre, dripping down the cone, sticking up his fingers, staining the sidewalk with splotches, spotting his sneakers with liquid pox. Because it lessens like a snowman in the sun, is almost done, then he craves more. Because we’re all going to die someday, & all the ice cream in the world will in no way prevent this. Because his jumbo-sized serving of chocolate chocolate-chip should have more chips, more chocolate. Because his lips are Arctic numb. Because his role in this indulgence wholly depends upon our generosity & regrettably little upon his Lilliputian agency. Because ice cream’s sold primarily in summer, & summer’s knocking on winter’s freezer doors. Because the ice cream calendar resets, meaning we won’t go out for any tomorrow. Because of the ongoing war in Syria, affecting him subconsciously as he smears himself with strawberry sauce. Because ice cream’s a metaphor for sweetness turning sour, our healthy appetites converted into pancreatic maladies, our boundless joys becoming diabetes. Because he loves his mom & me but feels torn because he feels he loves
ice cream more. Because the cone broke. Because the sprinkles plummeted in a murder/suicide. Because he ate the tiny napkin adhered to the cone. Because he wishes to return home &, when he does, swears he said he wished to stay. Because his logic is far from airtight, barely registers as logical. Because he wants to live in the ice cream parlor forever, but the scoopers & cashiers wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t let him stay. Because his fluctuating emotions are the crests and troughs of a tumultuous ocean. Because my cone had more ice cream, & when I tried to share it, he realizes the flavors Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d chosen were so much better than his.
Andy’s Done for the Night Softly, next to an overfilled trash can, Andy the guitarist, tired from another night replaying his life as a failed musician, sits and counts the coins in his cap, then shoves them in his pocket, looks back on twenty years of small change and indifferent audiences. His brother Tim is an engineer, has a well-paid job, one that took him far from home but closer to their father. In the house on Claymore, the old man attends to his roses when he’s not polishing the glass that protects Tim’s graduation picture. Nothing on the mantel of the long-haired Eric Clapton wannabe who strummed and plucked his battered third-hand Fender in the bedroom, various amateur nights, then in the park, on the street. The old man only has two sons. If it wasn’t for Andy, they’d have all done brilliantly.
Snakebit The snake’s mouth was flat and spooling upon the crook of the man’s arm. There was no feeling of the four pricks of fang, just a burn that sank deep and took hold. The man was, in the moment, wondering as to yank the thing from his flesh when it dropped to the ground, coiling instantly. Its eyes stared blindly out from lidless sockets, a slither of tongue dashing in and out with hisses. It sat like this, its unintelligible expression betrayed by its infamy. The man kicked out a wad of earth at the snake, and as it pounced upon it, he bent and grabbed a jagged stone, meaning to bring the thing upon the animal’s head. It was as he raised the rock up that he realised the snake was gone, disappeared into the surrounding piñon scrub. He wasted no time. Keeping the rock raised and ready, he scrambled back a number of steps, trying to clear the vegetation and gain a vantage. The scrub quickly gave way to a scorched and red shore of cracked earth, where the man stood with his rock, mute with eyes flaring down upon the border edge. He stood so for a thoughtless minute, a muscle ready to flex, when of a sudden his vision dissolved and his joints failed. He sank to the floor, the stone tumbling from his limp paw. The ground seemed to his confused vision to toss like the ocean, stones and crisp vegetation doubled as they came in and out of focus. He rolled back his head and let his vision swim across the open sky, where there were no objects through which to suffer delirium. It was whilst looking out into this enveloping blue that he slipped from consciousness. *** ‘Just assume we don’t know how poisonous any of ‘em are. Just assume that they’re all graveyard serious. There won’t be no fencing or cage out there, and there are too many to count, animals that’d answer this description of bein’ deadly.’ The warning words of the ranger he’d met at a reserve brought him back to the waking world. Nothing else had penetrated his collapse. Not the heat, nor his own convulsions. Even a bird that swept down and pecked at the flask on his waistband didn’t stir him, but simply entered into his dreams, in which he was tiny and terrified, a stranger to all and cautious. It was to the night that he awoke, the land about all bone-washed from the moon, sitting full in the still empty sky. His fever had worsened and the long cool of the night didn’t bother him. What was 75
disturbing to him was the otherworldly quietus that had shrouded the earth. It was as if the night were home to some ungodly thing that all living viewed with fear and from it retreated. Alone as he felt, he began to softly hum. His eyes to the moon, flicking once to the scrub nearby, from which he dragged himself a little further, and ventured deeper into the rocky void. He continued to hum, the sound bringing memory, and his spirits were raised slightly. It was a tune of his motherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s, and the emotion it brought tied with his fever strengthened the memory and nearly brought her to being. The tune was to him home, family and love, and he knew it to be those things to her too, and so he pictured her beside him, voicing all that was good. With the stars coldly aflame above, and the ground dead and numb below, his fantasy was born to an ancient world and the song turned to one of fear and loneliness. The tune was stripped of prior meaning and became heavy with woe, with unfamiliarity. For the man it now spoke of lost generations, not lost from each other but lost from him. It no longer held love and goodness, but brought sorrow and alienation. As his hum turned to a sob, he felt closer to those who had lived hundreds of years ago, the world to them full of danger and mystery as to him. He sat forward, raising himself up on his elbows, but his bitten arm was as though dead to his body and he slumped down on his side with a grunt. He picked up his lifeless limb and tried to study the area the snake had struck. It was dark but his sight had returned and he could just make it out. The four holes at his inner elbow had already dried off and sat crusted, powdery black. He risked prodding it with his finger and found that, whilst it was numbly tender, the pain was slight, and he felt small relief. He took a long drink from his flask and tried to gather himself, but fell asleep almost instantly, once again dead to the world. *** The sun stood above him, far from its rising point in the east, when he came to the next day. He had a vague recollection of the night, though the tune of his mother was gone from him. He looked all about and saw nothing from horizon to the pass he had come from. No time to make either journey. No reference to man in living distance. The ground about him lay cooking in the heat and he felt it twofold on account of his wound. He took the flask from his belt and held it empty to his lips. He cursed his confounded night state and threw the thing in a rage, his dead arm swaying at his side. He took it in his hand and studied the 76
bite. It had worsened in no time at all. Fresh blood had begun to seep from the surrounding pores and his skin was turning purple in large patches. He looked again to the pass, this time with defiance. Picking up the flask, as if to prove something to the scene of his trial, he started back the way he had come. *** The man hoped that there would be some knowledge of his passing to reach his mother, he hoped this even though he knew she would become inconsolable when the word reached her of how the wicked spirit chose the crook of her sonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s arm for its abode. He thought this as, lying, burning, convulsing on the ground, he cursed the hurt of unfathomable generations that lay upon the fingertips of nature. He was glad to have tried though, to not have surrendered to his wound. Once, he came to a road set in the crusted earth and enjoyed one last feeling of hope. But the road had its start and its end nowhere, and hope turned to confusion and despair. Darkness came to him in a fading accretion, barren of feeling or intent. He was dumb to himself as he jerked on the ground, alone and removed from memory and generations. Nowhere in the vast, unending rock was there a being he could shape himself to. To turn the sandy earth to glass would yield no reflection.
Pastoral Still grasses endoss my absence to a summer field out near goldenrod & aster as cattails stand before a son in peril a son who shall not trail into thickets of a rebel reluct among briars so lost he comes straight to clay a field broken by a staddle of stars as his grip is broken by a coarct aorta by a bicuspid heart into chambers a home surrounded by chain links shadows of foul poles broken as arteries of blood black as october white bodies of terror a thick void & sacred land I offer a red himation to my brokenness as a generation marrows my manred sin into scars lines & a box I balk so I stand & draw flesh with a barrel heavy with tars of pine.
Pastoral I havent quite stayed long enough here where blood shines & ash stirs heart pine pure white sand pouerte blossoms fall from high shadow & bracts bless burnt flesh here where deep silent songs pool & I cast down into roots dark leave puddles rot rich in ambages of grace I seen my cousins hold narrow & fragile above bodies as little wooden pieces in between panes surreach here where clay holds in times of trouble in whilom days we wont wither so I let go maunder my prayers to pretious waters part ignoraunt of the maiestie here dwelling our lands in cease of arethede as startling apocalypses form tableau minnows frist in out-of-the-way shallows come to water god moves past summersweet swamp red maple silverbell & mayhaw snags & timber launched upriver cast down resurrect in atonement & sanctification incarnate evening slowh & ydel & hidden under cooling trees. 79
The Hovering Bioluminescence of Being in Love Ten degrees north, lightening bugs so bright, I can’t remember if I would see them this time of year, back south, where my squash wouldn’t grow in buckets, but here, they also blink, welcome summer, though without heat, a chill in evenings, like the chill I imagine the greys of my state felt here, in these hills, on the day before their freedom from a return to the university quad where they mustered, or, like the chill of a gulf breeze of a late June day, standing in the shade of wide eaves, a Texas veranda, palm trees, and lintel posts of cast iron, and hearing the voice of a stranger in a rhotic accent so clear, they must have heard every are when General Order No. Three was read, as in: you are free, too, you are absolutely equal—you are now hired labor, but, you, freedmen, women, are advised to remain quietly at your present house,
as you are not supported in idleness, yet, we are both equally, supported in our lazy hours, after we have worked in false light, we sit near woods, in last light, a son of generations of mustered men, and his love, a daughter of women who heard proclamations, and we rest, we rest in the light of fireflies choosing a mate with flash pattern and intensity.
As If On Pause The sun-yellow bedroom walls cut us off from the winter dark. We might have been actors in a TV series—a firefighter, two officers in blue, three paramedics leaning towards the bed where you slumped, voiceless, head lolling like a ragdoll. Questions kept bumping into each other, into Dragnet’s theme music, Danger Ahead, Sgt. Friday’s, just the facts, ma’am. That was it. Everyone just standing around except you, as if the film was on pause or a commercial break. It was all I could do not to tear up the room before the the paramedic took your vitals and instructed the others to strap you into a chair. A husband-whisperer, I led us to the open hold, watched the ambulance speed away, speed you to safety. Only then did I trust the night would end like all Hollywood series do, with the promise of part two.
What Comes After Most of the women I know carry the dead with them, like imprints, like stains and after-sounds, or fitted into the curve of their shoulders, between yes, no, and in a rolling laugh. An old woman told me she sleeps in the narrowest cot she can find, but the dead still push up against her. My cousin who is often lonely speaks to her late brother. “We found a spotted turtle nesting in the back yard. See what you’re missing.” As for me, the dead and I are in a tunnel. Broken threads mark the walls. The opening is near. I hear soft rain.
Lift I knew she was crazy the second I saw her. Back pressed flat against the faded brick façade of the run-down townhouse, practically hiding behind her dying boxwood. Then tip-toeing towards the back of my car. What the hell is she trying to do anyway? Does she honestly think I can’t see her? She glances at her phone, then the back of my car, then her phone again. Checking the plates maybe? I would have thought that if you requested an Uber, and the app tells you a man driving a blue Toyota Corolla will be picking you up, it’s probably safe to assume that the blue Toyota Corolla that just pulled up in front of your home is your goddamned Uber ride. But that’s just me. She’s now at the passenger side window, knocking. Bug-eyed. Flighty. A beaten dog. I roll the window down a few inches. “You called an Uber.” She clearly needs guidance, so I don’t make it a question. “Are you Uber?” I glance at the black square decal with the grey “U” on it not six inches from her face, then sigh. I’ll let that one go, but by now I’m in a yellow, inching toward red. I’m losing other ride opportunities here. It’s a simple process, really. You call in a car. The car shows up. You get in the fucking car. The car rides away. Weeeeeeee! We’re all going for a ride! Simple. But she just stands there, scratching at her left and right forearms alternately. Staring at me like some fucking retard. Trying to peek into the backseat. Seeing if I’ve hidden an alligator back there, no doubt. Just get in the fucking car! But I can’t say that, so I don’t. Instead, I take a deep breath, silently count to five. “Yes. I’m your Uber ride.” “I’ll be right back.” And into the house she runs. Are you fucking serious? If I was a smart man, here’s where I just cancel the ride and drive off. Let her put in another request, get another driver. Fuck her. Nothing sinks a day quicker than having a nutjob in your back seat. Spend more time eyeballing them in the rear-view than paying 84
attention to the road. Wondering, is this the one who’s going to try and stab me? Smear shit on the windows? Demand that I drive her to Area 51 so the mothership can take her home? But I remind myself (as I do every morning I drag myself into the car), that I took this job to help people. If she called in an Uber, she needs a ride somewhere. And that’s what I do. I drive those who can’t drive themselves. I help people. Elderly people, who reek of tapioca and Ben Gay, who never—as in ever—tip more than one dollar. Poor people, so used to squalor that they don’t even notice how they stain my car, their little brats kicking the backs of the seats with their muddy Payless sneakers. They don’t tip at all. Supercilious Pakistanis who, for whatever reason never buy cars. Buy the fuck out of Dunkin Donuts and hotels, though. Infuse my car with their curry stink. They also never tip, even though they sure as hell can afford it. I sigh again and make my decision. I’ll stay and wait for the sketchy one. Helping people feels good, they tell me. More importantly, I need the money. She slides into the front seat with a mumbled, “Sorry.” I hate when they sit in the front. We’re not friends; this is a business transaction. Sit in the back. But her apology sounded sincere enough, so I decide to let it go. Just drive her to where she needs to go. Be professional. Hell, I think, looking over at her, I’ll even be polite. She ain’t halfbad looking. Hair’s a bit disheveled, true, and she must have been in a make-up application race, ‘cause that shit just looks slapped on. But looking through all that, I get a sense of what she’d look like if she gave a damn. The swell against her sweater looked firm. A little pointy. I like them pointy. I made a mental note to check out her ass when she got out of the car. I slide the red bar on the app to the right, calling up her destination. “The Sands?” “Yes,” she confirmed. I could see her in my peripheral, rubbing her hands as if washing them under an invisible faucet, looking sideways at me a couple of times, her lips moving in silent dialog. “How’s,” she hesitated, as if trying out new phrasing. “How’s your day?” She got the sentence out like a popped whitehead. “It’s been slow today,” I answered. Then I made the mistake. “How’s yours?” “Not good.” 85
“Sorry to hear that.” Whatever hesitancy that had held her back before gave way, and out it poured, “I just had another gall bladder surgery.” “Oh?” “It’s been four surgeries so far and no one’s been able to help. Four surgeries already.” “Oh, yeah? Wow.” It sounded like she was fighting back tears, but I was trying to make a right, so I didn’t confirm. “I’m in so. Much. Pain.” She was definitely crying now. I hate when they cry. Crying makes me uncomfortable. “Sorry.” “I was begging them not to send me home. Just begging them.” “Yeah?” “I kept telling them I was in pain. So much pain. But they didn’t believe me. Just sent me home,” she continued in between sobs. “Why would they do that?” There was a small break in traffic and I jerked into it. “I mean, can you think why they would do that?” “Do what?” “Just send me home like that. I was begging. Sitting on the floor, screaming for them to help me, and they just sent me home. Didn’t even feed me breakfast first. I’m starving.” “Wait, you had the surgery today?” “Yesterday.” That’s when I saw the clear-plastic bag hanging from her right hip. Is that a colostomy bag? I thought. Shit! That thing better not rip. Last thing I need is her piss all over my car. I only half-heard what she said next. “What was that?” “I said my parents are threatening to 302 me. After the ‘outburst,’ as they call it, in the hospital today. Such bullshit. ‘An outburst!’ I was in serious fucking pain and no one would believe me. Said I was just trying to score some meds.” “What’s 302ing you?” “Involuntary commitment.” Like I said, I knew she was crazy the second I saw her. But then she was pressed up against her house. Now she was in my car. The thing to do, of course, was to pull onto the shoulder, cancel the ride, order her out of the car, and leave her there. Last thing I need in 86
my day is driving an actual, certifiable crazy person. Have enough trouble with the amateurs; don’t need a professional. And I would have, too. Was slowing the car and easing onto the shoulder when I remembered I really couldn’t afford another one-star rating. Getting dangerously close to Uber’s cut-off, then it’d be back to slinging hash at Perkins or IHOP or someplace even worse, spitting into every fifth omelet just because. So, I keep driving, but I’ve changed my mind on the front seat business. With this 302 shit, I’m happy now she’s there. Makes it easier to keep an eye on her. Every time I took a right, I’d surreptitiously glance down at her hands, make sure she wasn’t palming a blade or something. Maybe I’ll just keep taking rights, I thought, drive her in a big fucking square. But I can’t do that, so I don’t. Instead, I turn right onto Catasauqua and head for the state highway. She, meanwhile, keeps rambling on about her parents, then her daughter, who apparently spent the night laughing at her pain. I nodded occasionally and tossed an “hmm” into what seemed the right spots, but I was checked out by the time I merged onto 378. I mean, I gave her a platform, let her share her story of woe, but I ain’t her keeper and I ain’t some goddamned therapist. The highway soon became static. Nothing but muscle memory and thoughts chasing their tails. Unplugged bliss. Just the way I like it. Sometimes, you forget there’s another person in the car. Harder to do with the crazy ones, like her. But even so, as I rushed down the highway, occasionally flicking my eyes at the cell phone’s screen, checking Waze for cop alerts, her mumbled rantings faded to little more than a murmur. White noise. I even stopped looking at her hands every so often. But then, piercing the fog of my unconcern a most lovely phrase: “My husband hardly even notices me anymore.” Forced through a sob that indicated she was either winding down a decent cry or about to start one up. I didn’t know which and I didn’t care. My only thought was: Bingo! There are many hidden benefits of this job. I can typically fool the old-timers into giving me cash for tolls even though tolls are already factored into their fare. I’m not allowed to pick up unaccompanied minors, and mothers with small children need to have the appropriate legally-mandated kid seat or I can’t take them anywhere; but in both cases, I just make them pay me an extra $20, cash, to “overlook” such policies. And they always pay. What choice do they have? And there 87
was that drunk rich asshole in the Armani, passed out during the drive, middle of the day. I was able to slip a cool $360 from his wallet. But the best perk of all is the pussy. This city is a cornucopia. Unsupervised teenaged girls. The drunken sorority bitches over on College Hill. The meth-heads, so open to suggestion. And now, this lady. Crazy, yes, but not unattractive and—more important—present and vulnerable. I’ve always had a thing for vulnerable. I figure a blow job is the best option, it being the middle of the day and all. Plus, I don’t want to get anywhere near that bag of piss on her hip. I just hope she’s better than that last one. So stoned out, she couldn’t do it right. Not the way I like it. Wasn’t tight enough at the lips. Couldn’t keep her teeth out of the way, and wasn’t using her tongue the way she should. I had to grab her head, pushing it up and down at the pace I like, masturbating with her face, like she was a human Fleshlight. Empathy, I thought. Go with empathy. “That’s awful. Here, let me pull over and we can talk about this. Just talk. Do you want to do that?” Her weak smile told me she would say “yes” if I pushed just a bit more. “Sometimes, letting it all out to a perfect stranger helps, I find.” “That sounds nice. You’re such a nice man. To be willing to do that for me.” I’m willing to do a lot more for, or to, you. But I can’t say that, so I don’t I drove to an underused strip mall parking lot. Nothing here but a payroll advance place and some vacant store fronts. From driving the night beat, I knew this was a favorite spot for the overnight whore shift. She should feel right at home. I pulled into a far corner and got ready with the sales pitch, some manipulative foreplay. A metallic burp from across the parking lot interrupted. Some jackass dumping a mattress and three TVs against the yellow donation boxes at the lot’s edge. It always pisses me off when I see people do this. I mean, it’s stenciled right there on the side in baby blue, cellophane-clear: “Clothes and Shoes Only.” I swear, some fucking people! The crazy lady misinterprets my annoyed sigh and is out of the moment now. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she said. “Thank you for the offer. It was kind. But I think I’d rather you just drove me to the casino now.” 88
I take a few moments to memorize as much as I can about the dumper and his car, in the hopes that I someday have an opportunity to run him over, and pull back onto Third St. I think in an attempt to fill the awkwardness between us, she decided to talk about her old man anyway. “He won’t pay me what he owes,” she said through renewed sobbing. “What I earned. I earned that money, goddammit. He hasn’t paid me in weeks. I got no way to pay my bills when he doesn’t pay me.” What is it, I wonder, her husband pays her to do? Perhaps he’s a pimp? Maybe I was right; maybe she is a whore. Or a stripper, maybe? Sorry, dancer. Not that I’m judging. Whores provide a valuable service. Help people. Like I do. Strippers too, I suppose. Well, come to think of it, strippers don’t really help at all. Quite the opposite. Just tease. Give empty promises. All strippers are, are whores without courage. Or self-awareness. Bitches. “That’s why you’re taking me to the Sands,” she said through a forced smile, faking an esprit de corps I’m clearly expected to share. Her leaked mascara is drying now, cracked motes of ink flaking onto her lap. “This is what I do when he doesn’t pay me.” “What is?” “When he doesn’t pay me, I scrape together whatever I have and I go to the Sands. Got my last $600 in here,” patting her purse. “You can’t be serious.” “My oasis.” “You’ve done this before?” “Mmm-hmm. Couple three times already.” “And it works? You pull it off?” “Not yet. Usually lose what I brought. But this time’s different. I can feel it. I’m going to hit big today. I just know it. Then all my problems will be solved. That fucker’ll see. Don’t need him. Don’t need anybody. But if not, I’m gonna sign myself out. This is the last time. If I don’t win today, I’m just gonna sign myself out and think of something else.” “Sign yourself out?” “Yeah. You can sign a paper at the casino, promising to never go back and authorizing them to kick you out if you try. They can even have you arrested for trespass.” She added the last in the gleeful voice of a child mentioning the newest ride at an amusement park, and it must have been that naive 89
optimism that got me. She wouldn’t think of anything else. There wasn’t anything else. She was at bottom. She just didn’t know it. I felt swallowed. Flooded. And unaccountably sad. No longer jaded, no longer bitter. Just sad. I knew what I should do, what I had to do. There was no way I was taking her to the Sands. That would make me, what’s the term? An enabler. An accomplice. So, I turn right, cutting through St. Sebastian’s parking lot, and take another right onto Broadway. “What, where are you going?” she asks. “This is a mistake. You’re about to make a big mistake. The casino is a bad idea. A really bad idea. I’m not taking you there. I just can’t. You need help. So, I’m going to take you back to your home, and then to a shelter. You’re going to get the help you need. That’s how you start over. That’s the something else.” Surprisingly, she doesn’t explode. Doesn’t rant or demand or go crazy. She just smiles. Smiles and cries again. “You don’t even know me,” she says through her tears. “But I do,” I reply. And the moment it is uttered, somehow, I really, truly do. “The light’s green.” Her voice reaches me through the fog of fantasy. Still on Third Street. Surfacing from the dream, I consider the choice before me. Turn right, through the parking lot of St. Sebastian’s, head west on Broadway, back up to 378, let her get her things, then swing her over to the Sixth Street Shelter, or maybe Turning Point. Or straight on Third. The ETA according to Waze is just two minutes. I could be out of this, unentangled, in two minutes. “The light’s green,” she repeats. The neon promise of the main entrance bathes us both in red and gold. “Thanks for the lift.” Before she shuts the door, I lean across the passenger seat and yell out to her, “Hey, good luck.” And I meant it. I hope she hits it big. I really do. And although I’m annoyed I forgot to check out her ass as she got out, and I’m pissed she didn’t tip me, those feelings are more than balanced out by the warmth of satisfaction I feel, knowing that if she does hit it big, I played a role in it. Because that’s what I do; I help people. And there’s a whole world of people just like her out there. People who just need a lift.
On a Limb My Kentucky coffee tree still bears its seeds, even after the cast of fall, even after the snap of winter– the ice display and northern wind, and here we are at the mouth of renewal. Imagine the small riot of needing only to hang on a limb. How many times have I made up my mind only to circle back like fallen fruit, grounded and grown anew. Your back to mine on a sun-lit hill, the bones and meat of us ringing like a bell inside a sea. Some days–decades happen, and some days take a decade to shed– they lodge themselves like splinters in our fingertips. Bitter and sweet as time must be. Do we even want what we want or do we just need to want to avoid being idyll? What would we do inside a day in which we had nothing to give? We can never know– these minds of ours hungry as loggers punching roads through old growth forests, wet with dew. It’s no wonder we take a moment to wander this bridge of you. 91
Whitewash It took me a long time, years I’m talking, before I noticed the electrical line that cuts the sky in half on my hillside where I track the planet’s turn, so sure of the stratus and the settings, the constellations locked in their towers of twilight— I hadn’t seen the mark that made Siamese twins of this sky. From some window now in a mountainous city a woman is choosing not to see the billboard of a future you are selling. It’s all uphill and dense with vegetation where all the animals bound unharmed. Anything can be unseen— the barbed wire and the littered grass, the shanty towns, the black men behind the prison walls. So much forgetting, that I don’t mind this line across my scope of view— it’s only now it makes me wonder what else I haven’t seen. 92
S. FREDERIC LISS
Shakespeare in the Alley Shakespeare hunched over his computer, the keyboard wedged between the parentheses of his shoulders. A scrim of cigarette smoke curtained the monitor, blurring the images, a 3D movie without 3D glasses. Nicotine and caffeine and a variety of less than legal stimulants kept him awake, alert. He tapped the Enter key and his latest inspiration, Cymbeline by the other Shakespeare, specifically Act IV, Scene ii, line 308, ‘A headless man?’ flooded inboxes, Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and other social media throughout the world. In Boston’s Back Bay, Mona Paris, a painter and collagist who exhibited in galleries in Boston, New York, and Paris under the name Ruthie Panama, not having a mast to lash herself to, heeded the Siren’s call. On the morning of an August dog day, Billie Paris, Mona’s spouse, awoke to a headless corpse in the private alley behind the condominium where she and Mona lived. It sprawled on the pavement three stories beneath the kitchen window. It wore a threadbare theatrical costume of an unbraced doublet and pointed shoes with bells woven into the laces. If it weren’t for the blood pooling where the head had once been, Billie would have thought it a mannequin discarded by a Newbury Street boutique that had gone out of business. Billie watched as a Boston police officer replaced the headless corpse with graffiti, a chalk outline jagged and wobbly as if drawn by a young child. Drawn beneath signs warning ‘Private Parking– Trespassers Will be Towed’ and ‘Monitored by Security Cameras,’ the chalk outline was too small for an adult, too large for a child. Age, gender, motivation for the beheading, the graffiti held its secrets close, its mysteries closer. Shakespeare was a pseudonym he had created through the Carlos Danger Name Generator, a random name generator that cranked out pseudonyms for people who wished to become someone else. It had dubbed him Efraín Shakespeare. He discarded Efrain as too foreign, retaining the surname to add an aura of learnedness, a patina of intellectuality, to his identity. Later, he appreciated how Shakespeare was his perfect pseudonym, one of history’s immortals whose real life 93
was pretty much a blank page. Someday he would, too, be an immortal with a blank page of a real life. He shared another talent with the original Shakespeare, the ability to control the inhabitants of the worlds he created, whether ancient Rome or Greece, medieval England or Denmark or Scotland, enchanted forests. He, Shakespeare 2.0, controlled inhabitants of the real world through a virtual world curated by computer keystrokes. For his online avatar Shakespeare chose the Chandos Portrait of his namesake, altering it by elongating the face, hollowing out the cheeks, coloring it ash white, until it resembled the mask of the villain in the Scream movies. He inserted his avatar in the shadows of the 100 best videos he selected from the videos his followers, The Players, posted online after each assignment. To be anointed with his blessing generated a ravenous competition among The Players, a mechanism elegant in its simplicity for feeding their needs and compelling them to do his bidding. Shakespeare thrived on this feeding frenzy of competition. Shakespeareâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s first great insight was to realize that most people suffered from cherophobia, the fear of happiness, aggravated by anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from things normally pleasurable. As the Internet erased the boundary between real reality and virtual reality, the number of the afflicted skyrocketed, an expanding pool of potential acolytes. Shakespeareâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s second great insight was to understand that shallow celebrity culture in which the illiterate and unwashed pogo-sticked their way to fame by prostituting themselves on reality television or online streaming video was fertile ground for him to sow, then reap. Those who lusted after fame were perpetually unhappy as they never had enough, never had as much as someone else they knew or read about or saw bragging on social media. The epidemic of self-promotion through social media mirrored a world of epic unhappiness, people so anhedonic and cherophobic they scratched and scrounged for the slightest sliver of fame. He exploited their insecurities, their low selfesteem, their need, as basic as food, water, and oxygen, to transform themselves into celebrities for only in celebrity could those afflicted with cherophobia and anhedoina find happiness. An upside-down transaction, The Players selling their souls, paying him to buy them. Fame, notoriety, Shakespeare shunned. For him, happiness was privacy, anonymity, being an unsolved mystery, a blank page. No one knew who he was or where he was which allowed him to manipulate The Players with a degree of control an absolute dictator would envy. 94
Bots routed his Internet access and online banking through dozens of servers and hundreds of computers in a multitude of countries. Firewalls rigged with alarms alerted him to any attempted breaches. There was not a hacker, Russian or Chinese or American, skilled enough to trace him back to his home computer. Billie and Mona Paris had relocated to Boston’s Back Bay forsaking the bombast of Broadway and the hedonism of Hollywood for Boston’s colonial Calvinism, choosing a neighborhood whose weekly newspaper devoted the precious real estate of its next front page to a photo essay on the backyard garden of the Hopkins twins, Elizabeth and Constance, named after their Mayflower forbearers, rather than news about the headless corpse found in one of the neighborhood alleys. The public’s fascination with finding goodness in evil had made Billie Paris, a novelist and screenwriter, a rich woman. Mona Paris sold paintings and collages under the name Ruthie Panama, successful enough to pay her fair share of their living expenses. They did not argue about money and finances; they did about evil. Mona did not believe good lay entombed within evil waiting to be exhumed by a grave digger. Billie did. For Mona, people who thirsted for evil died upon first sipping its poisonous drink. For Billie, every poison had its antidote. Intellectuals debated this in periodicals like The New York Review of Books or National Review, neither side persuading the other. Readers of People could care less. They flocked to Billie Paris’s films for the violence and occasional flash of skin. For Shakespeare, evil was a biological imperative present in everyone and as proven by the Wisconsin schoolgirls who attempted to murder a classmate because Slender Man, an Internet urban legend, a mythological being who existed only in virtual reality, inspired them to do so. Without this biological imperative to activate and aggravate anhedonia and cherophobia, The Players would be few, only the deranged and demented. As for Slender Man, the very name implied weakness of body and mind, someone there but not there, what remained after an excess of dieting. Yet, Slender Man’s power was as palpable as the sharpened tip of a foil. Shakespeare hunted larger game than twelve-year-old girls. The next morning, another August dog day, Mona Paris sipped dark rum on the rocks at a back table at Honky-Tonk Lagoon, a biker 95
bar in a neighborhood hard by Boston’s harbor that had not gentrified and never would, awaiting delivery of her new life, a passport identifying her as Helen Cornelius, the name stolen from an infant who had died before the end of her life’s first and only week, a driver’s license, Social Security card, a checkbook, and credit cards, an American Express Platinum Card and two black Master Cards, all with unlimited spending limits. She had requested a Canadian passport to facilitate her emigration. Everyone needed a back door and Helen Cornelius was Mona’s. Neon signs pitching brands of beer provided the only interior light at Honky-Tonk Lagoon, the colors at war with each other like rival motorcycle gangs. Twelve stools fronted the bar, each a different height, some listing to the right, others to the left, some forward, some backward, butchered home repairs performed by barkeeps who were all thumbs when it came to carpentry. One had donated the tip of his middle finger to the effort, now preserved in a mason jar of vodka on a shelf with other knickknacks of questionable origin. Tables ringed a small dance floor, many edged with cigarette burns from the days when lighting up a smoke was legal. Mona signaled for a refill and Lucius, the day barkeep, appeared so quickly she wondered if he had read her mind. “Ragman’s here,” Lucius said. Ragman, Newbury Street’s most aggressive panhandler, was a magician’s shadow who disappeared in bright light when he had to, reappeared when the danger had passed. Lucius swiped moisture off the table as Ragman sat opposite Mona, swinging his leg over the back of the chair as if he were mounting a Harley. He had the eyes of a dog lover who had just seen man’s best friend killed by a hit-and-run driver and ached for justice. Ragman pushed an envelope across the table. Mona checked the contents; it was all there. “Buy you a drink?” Ragman pulled down the brim of his baseball cap, plain white with no logo, no design, as blank as Ragman himself, and left without responding. “Not a man of many words,” Mona said to Ragman’s back. She thought she saw his shoulders twitch but wasn’t sure. Returning to his apartment, Shakespeare locked the door and booted up his computer. He had tens of thousands of videos of headless corpses posted for his viewing to be winnowed down to the blessed 100. It would be a late night, but a pleasurable one. 96
Sipping Chardonnay at one of Newbury Street’s sidewalk restaurants, Billie and Mona speculated on the identity of the headless corpse, on whether there was any meaning to its murder, on why it was left in the alley behind their condominium rather than one of the many other private alleys in Boston’s Back Bay. “A coincidence,” Mona said. “I think it means something,” Billie replied. “A message intended for us? We’re not the only ones with windows overlooking that alley.” Mona wiped the condensation from the outside of her wine glass. “Where’s the buried element of hidden good in that murder? Nothing good about that evil.” Mona wore what she called her neon madmen outfit, a talisman of good luck she always wore to her gallery openings. A frenzy of stick figures in a rainbow of colors pirouetted around the blouse. Black and white rectangles separated by mortar lines of silver patterned the skirt, the outfit creating the illusion of stick figures dancing on a brick wall. The first time she wore it, she sold a painting for a high five figures and the majority of the rest before the show closed, three to second tier museums which were her first museum sales. Wearing it every subsequent opening, neon madman yielded one or two lucrative sales on the night of the opening, several more during the show’s run, and, at her last show, a sale to a first-tier museum in New York. Billie reached across the table and covered Mona’s hand with hers. “The deeper the good is buried, the longer it takes to surface.” Mona withdrew her hand. Time passed. One month. Two. The per diem rate of headless corpses plummeted. Shakespeare issued a new inspiration: Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2, Stage Directions between Lines 135–136, ‘. . . pours poison in the sleeper’s ears . . . ’ On a pleasant morning in late October, Billie Paris awoke to another body in the alley behind the condominium she and Mona shared. The leaves on the trees in the Boston Public Garden and along the promenade that separated the two lanes of Commonwealth Avenue had descended from peak color into fecal brown. This corpse, still with its head, was soon identified as the panhandler who called himself Ragman. No one knew his real name. Ragman’s cause of death was quickly established, poison, enough in his system to kill a brigade of ragmen. 97
“Still think it’s a coincidence?” Billie closed the window so she and Mona would not hear the sounds of the body being removed. “Probably a dump and run,” Mona said. “Why Ragman?” Mona stirred sugar into her coffee with her baby finger. “It’s time to admit we’re mismatched.” “Mismatched?” “Just saying.” Mona sipped her coffee, then added more sugar. “Just saying what?” “Time to move on. You go your way, I go mine.” “We disagree, but we don’t fight.” “You don’t have to pull hair or slap faces to fight.” “We can move back to New York or Hollywood if you want.” “The grass is no greener on the other side of the fence.” Billie stopped buttering her toast. “Then we should tear down the fence.” Mona finished her coffee, then glanced out the window. “No chalk outline this time.” At his computer, Shakespeare counted corpses. In the first twentyfour hours, a higher box office gross than Cymbeline. Not a surprise as killing by poison was much easier than killing by beheading. The videos poured in and he began the pleasurable task of culling them. He used a system of rolling admissions so the most ardent of The Players knew the sooner they posted their videos the better their chances. Exhausted after a night, a day, and a night, he felt in a celebratory mood. It quickly passed. The Players needed a challenge, one far more difficult than a beheading or poisoning. A new inspiration: Richard III, Act I, Scene 4, Line 100. Mona Paris recited the single line from Richard III in her mind as she tried to wrap her mind around Shakespeare’s latest inspiration. ‘What? Shall I stab him as he sleeps?’ A question; not a declarative statement. She couldn’t decide if she had to stab her victims as they slept, or whether it was a rhetorical question. ‘A headless man?’ was also a question. A trickle of postings appeared on YouTube, Facebook, elsewhere online, then a flood. Spouses or other family members bore the brunt of the early murders. The convenience of close proximity. Flatmates, almost as convenient, came next. Within hours, muggings; then breaking and enterings. 98
Billie would be the easiest, but she had no reason to murder Billie. If anything, Billie had the better side of the argument. Her request for a divorce so unsettled Billie that Billie shredded her latest work in progress, burned the shreds in the fireplace, deleted all drafts from her hard drive, her thumb drive, the cloud. Property division would not be an issue. Mine and yours were clearly delineated in the financial structure of their marriage. No children to worry about, no alimony as both were self supporting. Marriages came and marriages went and life puttered along. Billie would get over it, live long, prosper. She, Mona, would disappear after the stabbing as would Ruthie Panama, both replaced by Helen Cornelius who would be as reclusive an artist as J. D. Salinger was a writer. If she were an artist. Maybe a new identity would break the spell Shakespeare held over her. She didn’t understand how he controlled her mind, the minds of so many others, all by an avatar digitally inserted into a minuscule percent of the videos posted online of victims murdered at his direction. She had become another John Hinckley in a legion of John Hinckleys obsessed with an avatar the way Hinckley was obsessed with Jodie Foster. Shakespeare was a myth, an urban legend, his charisma nothing more than zeroes and ones, the pixels that created him. She wished she knew how he did it. She was an adult, not an adolescent like those Wisconsin girls in thrall of Slender Man who attempted to murder their friend by luring her into the woods and repeatedly stabbing her in the hope Slender Man would step out of their computer monitors into their lives. Her brain had matured, developed fully. Her personality had formed. Yet, Shakespeare said ‘behead’ and she beheaded, ‘poison’ and she poisoned. Now he said ‘stab’ and she would stab. At least there was logic to poisoning Ragman, the only person who could link Helen Cornelius to Mona Paris. There was no logic to the headless corpse other than its resemblance to the headless corpse in Cymbeline. Still, compulsion strangled her and she knew she would self-destruct if she did not stab someone to death. It made little sense psychologically, this compulsion. It was as if the real world had one set of psychological laws, the virtual world a second set; as if the brain operated by one set of rules in the real world, a different set in the virtual world. She decided to will her brain to science. She had to select a victim. Not Billie. Never Billie. Her, Mona’s, family lived a safe distance away, although her mother deserved to die for disowning her when she disclosed her sexual preference, for doing everything possible to destroy her self esteem, for causing one failed 99
suicide attempt, then a second. Mom wasn’t worth the gas money or the drive time. Flatmates, she had none other than Billie. The headless corpse had soured her on picking a victim based on a physical resemblance to a Shakespearean character. Breaking and entering was not her style. A street crime, a mugging, stabbing someone in a subway station or parking garage, might work, but conditions would have to be perfect. The victim alone. No witnesses. Someone elderly she could easily overcome. The more she thought about it, the more the compulsion roiled her system. It ate at her, a parasite that devoured her soul the way necrotizing fasciitis bacteria devoured flesh. Someone had to die, stabbed to death by her hand. Shakespeare himself, she realized, would be the ultimate challenge. Stabbing him would satisfy Billie’s criteria for intelligent evil, mining a nugget of good from the evil of murder, one particular murder. And, it would it liberate her from The Players, her and everyone else. Shakespeare. If she could lure him to Boston. Create the right circumstances. And then, escape into the identity of Helen Cornelius, Canadian citizen. If she never sold another painting, she had enough to live on. A cherry bomb of inspiration exploded inside her head and she hastened to her studio. A triptych modeled after a 13th or 14th century altarpiece, perhaps in the style of Giotto or one of his followers. One leaf, a headless corpse with Shakespeare’s avatar luminous in the background; the second, a poison victim, again with the avatar; the third a blank canvas but for the words answering the question posed by the second murderer in Richard III: ‘Yes. I shall stab Shakespeare in his sleep.’ The images on the first two panels adapted from YouTube postings, the avatar clearly identifiable as Shakespeare, yet with a crown of thorns, stigmata, mounted on a wooden cross. Shakespeare as Christ, crucifier as crucified. Title: Shakespeare in the Alley. At his computer, Shakespeare pondered Ruthie Panama’s triptych, Shakespeare in the Alley, posted online in a back channel frequented by The Players by the Galleria de Manolo Furtiva, Panama’s Boston gallery. It tickled his ego that a serious artist–he had Googled Panama’s name–would incorporate his avatar into a work of art. In this way, his evil would live after him in brass, to paraphrase the other Shakespeare. The name Ruthie Panama did not appear among The Players and he was obsessed with curiosity as to what inspired her to create Shakespeare in the Alley, how and why it was posted in one of The Players’ back channels. He was especially intrigued by the third panel, 100
the one that answered the second murderer’s question. He assumed Ruthie Panama was one of The Players under a different name; perhaps Mona Paris, one of his favorites, who hadn’t posted a video of a Boston stabbing. With several dozen key strokes, Shakespeare created a passport, driver’s license, credit cards, and a checkbook in the New York branch of an international bank, all in the name of Fabricia Verboten, another identity furnished by the Carlos Danger Name Generator. To hide in plain sight, he cross-dressed, elegantly as he could afford to accessorize with tasteful, but expensive jewelry and other bits and pieces of high fashion. He booked a flight to Boston. “Madam.” Manolo Furtiva rose from his chair with the playful grace of a dolphin bounding from ocean to air to welcome Fabricia Verboten. He wore a painter’s smock as if he needed to protect his shirt from errant or unset paints. A bow tie peeked out above the collar of the smock. His eyeglasses were frameless, the lenses square and tinted the palest of blue. He lacked only a beret and a French cigarette glowing in a long, thin holder to be a Parisian cliché. The gallery walls were glossy white, better to contrast the paintings and sculptures and highlight the sterility that was so fashionable in the gallery world. The only flowers in the gallery were on canvas, the only plants bronze or silver sculptures in glass cylindrical vases. Other than a spider weaving a web in a corner where ceiling and walls converged, Furtiva and Verboten were the only living things in the gallery. Ruthie Panama’s altarpiece lay open against the back wall. “May I offer Madam an aperitif?” Furtiva asked. “I would like to see Shakespeare in the Alley.” Verboten affected a broad Boston accent so people would think she was local. Furtiva took her by the elbow and escorted her to the back wall. Approaching the altarpiece, Verboten bowed, so slightly, so reflexively, she didn’t realize she had done so. “Most people,” Furtiva said, “react with reverence.” Verboten studied the altarpiece from different angles, sidestepping from right to left, then from left to right. She moved forward and back, pausing at different distances, as close as nose to nose with the Christ figure, as far away as the front door.
“An odd juxtaposition,” Verboten said, “Christ and the avatar of an online urban legend. The source of inspiration, has the artist spoken of it to you?” “No, Madam.” “I should like to purchase it.” “Alas, Madam. It is under reservation. A major art museum whose identity I am forbidden to divulge.” Verboten winked at the unknowing pun of her name. “I will pay double.” “The prestige of being in this museum’s permanent collection is beyond value.” “As is the size of my bank account. I would like to meet this Ruthie Panama to discuss a commission. Another altarpiece with a similar theme. Perhaps a painting or two. Please arrange dinner. You would join us, of course.” “Of course. How shall I contact you?” “I shall contact you. Good day.” Dinner at a fancy restaurant became Chinese take-out in the back office of Galleria de Manolo Furtiva which afforded a degree of privacy a restaurant could not. Ruthie Panama was confident her mouse trap had caught the mouse she was hunting. By dinner’s end she hoped to have Shakespeare’s murder fully plotted. That Shakespeare was a woman added spice to the recipe, a hot spice like the chili peppers in the Kung Pao Spicy Scallops. Ruthie carefully piled them on the side of her plate for Verboten who had asked to eat them if Ruthie didn’t. To die with tongue aflame seemed to Ruthie to be so Shakespearean. A glass of water, a glass of water, my kingdom for a glass of water. Ruthie pondered whether to ask for a deposit up front and decided she would. The irony of Verboten paying for her own execution juiced her. She wore her neon madman outfit, Ruthie did, in part because she was superstitious, in part because it was her favorite outfit, in part because it would be the last occasion she would have to wear it. Like her past, she would leave it behind in Boston when she dissolved into Canada. “An altarpiece?” Ruthie said. “Similar in theme?” “One scene spread over three panels,” Verboten replied. Furtiva excused himself to accept a phone call from a Chinese collector. “Twelve-hour time difference makes things difficult.” “A feral little man,” Verboten said. 102
“Yes,” Ruthie replied, “but he could sell a Seeing Eye dog to the sighted.” With her chopsticks, Verboten plucked a chili pepper from Ruthie’s plate and popped it in her mouth. She ate a second, then a third. “Your reduction of Christ to an urban legend, a mythical creature from a virtual reality world, speaks brilliantly of the world we inhabit today. It both embraces and rejects Italian art at its most religious while also depicting a world totally divorced from reality.” “Perhaps a Madonna in your altarpiece,” Ruthie said. “Would you pose? With or without halo. Your choice.” Ruthie struggled to capture a peanut between the pincers of her chopsticks. “I would like to place you in one of Back Bay’s private alleys. Background landscape is an important element in much Italian religious art and I want my altarpiece to incorporate that tradition. Will you join me to scout a location?” “Now? In the dark?” “There are so few night scenes in Italian religious art that I see it as another way to upend the conventional.” “I bow to your genius,” Verboten said. The peanut slipped from the grip of her chopsticks. “A minor detail. I want you give it as a permanent loan to the museum that purchased my first altarpiece.” “A bequest, perhaps, in my will so I can have the pleasure of its company during my lifetime.” “Fair enough. I will write that into the contract between us.” “You are a true i dotter and t crosser.” “If the artist does not protect her legacy, who will.” In her studio, Ruthie Panama stretched a fresh canvas on a frame, the first step in creating a new third panel to replace the original in her triptych. Spurred on by more adrenaline than had ever surged through her nervous system, she worked through the night, painting first the alley, a night scene, the source of light a kitchen window in the upper left corner, the kitchen window in Billie and Mona Paris’s condominium. On the alley’s pavement sprawled a corpse with hundreds of stab wounds, face obscured in shadow. Beside it, Jesus on the cross rising out of a dumpster, not Shakespeare’s avatar as in the other two panels, but Jesus as traditionally depicted in Italian religious art with hippie hair and beard and a mournful look that suggested he wished God had honored someone else with the privilege of dying for 103
the sins of humankind. At Jesus’s feet knelt a Madonna with Fabricia Verboten’s face illuminated by the halo above her head. The next morning Billie Paris awoke to another corpse in the alley behind the condominium she shared with Mona. She decided to let someone else report this corpse to the authorities and returned to bed. As she slept, Mona emptied her half of the closet except for her neon madman outfit, and her dresser, but not the small safe under their bed that still held the passport and credit cards in Mona’s name. When Manolo Furtiva opened his gallery for the day, he found the new third panel and a notarized letter from Ruthie Panama instructing him to use the proceeds from the sale of her art to fund scholarships in her name to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She sent similar letters to her galleries in New York and Paris, specifying museum schools in those cities. With her new American Express card, Helen Cornelius purchased a ticket on Air Canada from Boston to Toronto, then to Yellowknife where she boarded a bus to one of the Territories’ many hamlets, preferably one of the municipalities. She would sample several before choosing. With her new passport, she cleared security at Logan Airport, boarded the plane, and disembarked in Toronto where an officious Canadian immigration agent welcomed her home. “Glad to be back,” Helen replied.
The Drifter We live with spirits we cannot escape, with death there is an unwritten code, at least, that’s what they told us when our ears were fastened to our eyes and we learned the definition of Believe. He who passes holds the confession, the place where the ageless follow maps in their hands, the servants dressed in black holding light for the path they take. There was once a boy who told stories in dreams. He spoke of the future and how it was sculpted from the past we create—we become one eventually, we follow the line of blood as the naked traveler, we replace the torch in the long dark hallway for those left arguing with the windows. And when the time comes for a river of sunlight to warm our foreheads, we rise from our sleep and the sweat of dreams, knowing the work has been done, the leaves have turned to ash, for the drifters, for kings and queens, and wherever angels reside, the genesis of their quest, I hope I’ll be there with a book in hand, invisible to the crowd.
The End of Reason Leave your prayers under the bed, the mission is in the daytime, a shootout at noon for when he draws his leaden eyes, a pair of knives held before the sun— weeping glare, stolen shine. Of the dust and dirt, I find all that’s left to distinguish man from treading a path is a degree of confrontation— the bureau’s veneer glowing beneath an empty glass of water, like a halo of human debris, I swirl in the hazy dawn.
Headlines from the Sioux City Journal “The Tulip Festival is a celebration of all things Dutch in Sioux City, Iowa” where the ferris wheel spins sunscreen-scented teenagers. Women in bespoke white bonnets ride by in bicycles with rainbow ribbons woven between the spokes like beaded ribbon shirts Sioux warriors wore into battle at Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Rain in the Face, Kicking Bear walked the Great Plains with buffalo prayers, stopping to harvest bloodroot and hepatica, cures for infection. Their great grandchildren still roam, infected by white food and drink, looking for home in the East, West, North and South. “At Blackbird Bend Casino earn three times the points when you play the slots on Memorial Day”.
High Desert New Mexico The White Place claims its same splendor, chalk and rocks rising sky high. Cathedral pillars finger down the red canyon where ancient water cannot return. Rounded peaks scribble tight scrawl along the morning. Limestone valley wakes, desperate to rinse cracked throat and sore foot soles. Sun licks dry each leafless cottonwood while wide ribbed clouds ignore moist union, drape shade blankets thin on day’s edge. Ancient desert wishes for water, its smooth, empty pools parched by sun’s false shimmer. Drawing the day over thirsty saguaro limbs, scrambling between heat-stolen moments until silted ledges crumble beneath, afternoon steals any hope for escape as sweat marks each stop on the climbing trail. Sangre De Cristo range carves blue lines across the horizon, longing for cool moon slow on burnt skin. During sunset journey across the mesa a low voice echoes its mosque tone and night’s light breeze whistles through an empty valley. 108
Cover Dry thunder off the river, and somewhere in the distance a man, he assumes, sits playing his banjo. A cadre of street sweepers comes through the grenadine haze to perform matins, an expurgation of leaves and last night’s mosaic poisons from cobblestone. Is someone who revels in his own sadness still a reveler? He ought to enjoy it more: the slaking of lime in the tub, the blinding overcast sunlight beaming into wakefulness, the God-knows-what stain upon an old poster abandoned in why-not fashion beside the toilet. He can only think, it seems, of what isn’t there—either jazzman or priest beholden to the indulgence of his parish, negotiating between soul and ceremony and always favoring one over the other. He’s thankful, at least, that the street is without a cover, though the day has a two—make it nine— drink minimum and the footsteps of strangers can’t hack the rhythmless afternoon set. He holds tired narratives in a brown bag bottle, spies the world in its lacing: dissipating monochromatic skylines, an ashen civilization spanning the harp player’s drop in key, remnants of a blues bar choir murmuring their assent to the coming dark, taking stock of before so as to better mourn the after.
One Day We Will Speak There may be primrose in a roadside ditch that abuts a string of condos on the sparse side of town. There may be somewhere in that string a fly unobtrusively whirring through a vacant living room and a ceiling hook on which to snag his wing. There may on his wing be a vein that resembles a keraunograph all fibrous willow branches (or maybe fern), joyous with sudden movement. Or clouds, there may be clouds whose shadows drift freely across the puddles that are too deep to walk through without drenching your ankles (or perhaps mine). When I tell you they look like lazy angels you may reply, “That’s impossible. For they are each a cannon of fog and a fist of cotton.” You may tell me you don’t talk this way, that no one uses for as a conjunction anymore, that you lost your sight years ago but still know it’s dull to use cotton as a metaphor for clouds. And who am I to even anticipate how you would or would not respond to my telling you what you might say, as if I could even assume that much.
But then we would be speakingâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; one day we will speak so I can tell you there may be a fly with his wing on a ceiling hook, there may be a sparse side of town with shadows drifting over puddles, there may be a roomâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; it is at least worth considering.
Hardcore Happiness Myths If only I’d done something else, than dodge those dusty bombs of bliss that found me thirsting for liquid relief a worldly mix of love on the rocks melting the paint off Jesus’s tears on a steeple inside my chest. If only I’d known what happens when the body becomes the spirit’s slave blindfolded & bound in a box of beliefs, where Elvis found his blue suede shoes & danced on Sunday like the Lake of Fire before Martin’s head hit the balcony rail & freedom poured from Mulberry Street not a wooden cross. If only I’d made heaven a body that had nothing to do with perfection or place, nothing to do with a spirit healing the weirdest & worst wounds we bear like tiny black coffins at the end of our names to help diagnose our addiction to endings, our ignorance of how suffering works face to face with reality’s breath, everyone, always, the same & forever gorgeous gritty & gone.
Food Stamps Interview I keep an eye on the caterpillar climbing the front rail baluster while completing my food stamps interview on speaker phone and my son carries up toy cars from the driveway below, a little too close to my tender friend for comfort. I keep an eye on my caterpillar. There is provision of this in soft October morning air that swaddles and calms me like coil relaxing. There is provision for me to keep doing what I’m doing. There are food stamps and no, I’ve never traded them for guns, never been convicted of a felony. This worldly enclosure is amniotic. Summer’s red rash has begun to fade, its itch relieved. There is tenderness in the tissues of morning.
Quiche Twenty-four weeks and Liliâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s belly bowls through her waistline. I persuade her to sleep in one of my T-shirts. Rubbing her shoulders thereafter feels like rubbing my own, an unintended consequence. The faucet drips all night long splattering the sparkly slate granite basin. You have to jiggle the handle just right to silence the finger tapping at the dark window pane. Dark, which is how early I have to rise to be alone. Somebody leaves the refrigerator door ajar and I crack warm eggs for the quiche. The last day of a bag of power greens is grim. I triage the freezer-burnt, the blackened baby chard and split spinach, the chopping board blotched with dank leaves, the air pungent with their wet cut grass aroma. Outside, the salmon-colored clouds float like fillets in the azure frying pan of sunrise. Sky opposite, a waning gibbous, egg whites only and one droopy eyelid
On a Post from GBM SURVIVORS TO THRIVERS! A branch dangles in the crab apple’s welter of leafless tines. She says she has a headache, fellow patient, fellow sufferer. Still, she’s somebody’s mother. House sparrows pounce in the wobbling orchard. Bark-shagged and moss-plashed, the branch hovers at the birding hour of morning. How these crusty branches ache, marrow-deep, while nubby blue colonies blotch cracking bark. Overwintering sparrows carry on running their errands, perching on telephone poles, gray coils and electrical boxes in the paling sky. She gets into these three-day depressions. Won’t leave the house.
GBM: glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor.
KEVIN J.B. O’CONNOR
after Karen An-hwei Lee
Interdisciplinary approach lends itself to exploration of narrative and nation. Transnational inquiry, while flawed, yields fruit. As some scholars note: “Angels in denim work around an invisible clock.” On the other hand, animals haunt shore, sniffing scraps of orange marmalade and chili dogs, the hegemonic occurrence of blue undermined by non-traditional elements of discourse. Theorists in black hoods hold staffs— a non-traditional element of discourse, the hegemonic occurrence of blue undermined by orange marmalade and chili dogs. On the other hand, animals haunt shore, sniffing scraps. “Angels in denim work around an invisible clock.” As some scholars note, transnational inquiry, while flawed, yields fruit of narrative and nation— interdisciplinary approach lends itself to exploration.
KEVIN J.B. Oâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;CONNOR
Border Form is less contingent than anti-form. The tambourine, in its moment of lucidity will broaden perceptions of space-time nearly inconceivable for the disenchanted. Hardly a moment expires without need yet hope is a spectral flower, unhinged and relegated to the back of the hall, screaming. The rhizome and bud underground transmit politic innuendos, claw through darkness. Not a second alters without the condemnation of the damnedâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;such is fate, delimited. Barricaded from the just, buttressed indelible irises bloom uncannily in air in middle earth, neither holy nor unkempt, their singing a salve for the evacuation, a drunken waltz transmitted by toy piano, revenant wrapped in a white robe, tiptoeing across the boundary of night
KEVIN J.B. O’CONNOR
Buenos Aires II
after Karen An-hwei Lee
(known) eternal apples . improvised clouds . transmission . alrededor de . punctuation . infatuation . the confíteria sells croissants three for . ancient inn . sinking boat . flag . jonquil . effluvium . with regards to the amaranthine trees . leisure . hypnogogic visions . terrarium . más difícil . regrets . swamp . two women lost in equivocation . a specter on a beach . in technicolor . pulverized . rooibos . red-spotted wren . awaiting the amanuensis (unknown) transplanted . rhizome . with an appetite for . gloaming . una plaza sin sol . cab . cerement . digging a tunnel through the cemetery . living in . espresso . turquoise ceramic jars . midday heat blinding cartoneros . temperament of the condor . un boliviano y una . carved cypress . billboard of american express . mothers of the disappeared . conditioning . quadruplicate echoes . pressed oranges . stamen . capillary network leading to . flat-line . expiration . evacuation . fin
CHRISTIAN RIVERA NOLAN
Nopalito El Nopal que crece Las raíces–las venas del desierto No importa, cuando hace calor ni frío Ni importa al Nopal el hambre o sed Toca el cielo; sus flores Brillantes estrellas Del desierto sueños Adelante Nopalito, continúe creciendo Respirando y florecer,—Con ojos tan abiertos —Casa de los ablueos
CHRISTIAN RIVERA NOLAN
Nopal The Nopal that grows, Roots–the veins of desert No matter, when it is hot or cold Nor the hunger or thirst Touch the sky; your flowers Brilliant stars of Desert Dreams, Forward Nopalito, continue growing Breathing and bloom, —With eyes wide open —Grandparent’s house
Carnevale 1. From the shadowy curtain beneath Ponte delle Guglie they bow in, not coyly but declaring their festive armada snug as happy barnbound cattle free from shoving long low lean boats sharp-prowed or dolled with cartoonish figureheads floating on benevolence the boats merrymakers-stuffed singing, waving, videoing back gondoliering upright, placidly oars gently welcoming water violent forward thrusts suspended in headwear round, peaked, Viking stovepipes, bonnets, tricorns costumed as mice, ducks, penguins pirates, assassins, decks of cards the beloved of childhood fairy tales and from every century, cloaked masked, hooded, gay-coloured as jelly beans or a themed cast family too seated in modern dress cadging ride and favour 2. Theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d coalesced for hours suffering for better vantage points Asians and North Americans Europeans, outnumbered Venetians seven deep, both embankments millions of souvenirs stored through flat touch screens or telescopic lenses almost reaching 121
across rio di Cannaregio, intent on archiving the charm of pageantry now the mass began to thaw lumping anew at the corseted bridge shuffling to line up once more for pizza al taglio, gelato, washrooms bottlenecking next on the wider calle selfies, paired with characters eras past, gowned in baroque splendour, shimmering and lavish, a young woman in a gush of wig and feathers glittering gold and black mask of a quarter moon pausing to pose above a little boy alcoved in her skirts ‘sei bellissima’–the grateful mother, perhaps of heart but cheeks, mouth eyes visibly making her so 3. Deadend Campo San Marcuola vaporetto stop nuzzling il Canale Grande distant from congested sights blundered into as much as sought church façade unfinished (once relicing St. John’s baptizing right hand and walling up less holy folk) the pigeon niches excepted a puny, stony piazza lending it a forsaken emphasis but spaces enough to rest shouts of the transport’s arrival the bags’ growling trailing wheels dabblers quitting Carnevale prematurely the platform stop scooped empty
the throngs tending to their stomachs the custom of riposo il Canale Grande improbably a hushed backwater, vaporetti sulking along its meandering; in the campo we remain in scattered cliques rising merely to murmur, communing with panini, fruit, bottled drinks unexpectedly an encore show former performers darting singly from il Canale’s watery alleyways into its breadth, oaring briskly homeward pirates and penguins a duo–king and queen of hearts– in unison taxiing a freeloading Labrador then, a bygone troupe of actors standing in the bow Arlecchino in his chequered suit the raffish diamond shapes not yet done his saxophone jazzing to their matching strokes sounds sadly sweeter than the vaporetto’s warning horn till il Canale Grande’s curve mutes his ebbing notes
Night School In the dead of every night this week thousands of spangled mackerel— sardinella lemuru—invade Bali’s beaches. Like torpedoes fired from phantom submarines, they skim the shore until out of breath, exhausted from flight, they land in sand where gathering crowds explode with nets and bags to scramble for the bounty of a sea’s suicides— a result or a prediction of tectonic action, a complement to the full moon, the prey of dolphins, tuna, or sharks, a symptom of warming oceans, a curse, a game, despair, or perhaps a miracle.
Will I be read Dear reader, what if this is all that I am, all I will be. What if the only record of my existence is this very page, and nothing else. Would you free me from my paper trail, or am I destined to be stacked with the rest of the undesired and unloved records of time. Among authors who poured their hearts out on a page. With hopes of recognition, wedged in with their cathartic melodies. Even though Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m just words on a page, will you hold me close. Will you feel the weight of my words roll off your tongue and carry me with you?
Trifecta At six-foot two and one hundred and eighty pounds, I was a bit shorter and heavier than the real John Wayne, but I had his prominent nose and crooked smile and learned to saunter the way he did. I’d been part of a casino look-alike act, with my best friends Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, and James Dean. The Duke had been dead for the past two years, since 1979. They were all dead, for that matter, so when I got tired of dressing like John Wayne in “True Grit” I took off the eye patch and moved to that part of the Colorado River where the Baker Dam has backed enough water into the canyons to form a lake and a series of lagoons. I felt I’d escaped my first two marriages, a stalled acting career. I was flush with money from a Reno gig and an old vagrancy charge was receding in the rearview mirror. Where I was now, luxury homes were strung like necklaces along the ridges of the Colorado and I was looking for a way to make my luck stick. I rented in the Crestview, on the California side. That’s how I met Corrina Pasquale. She moved into the Crestview Arms the week after I did and invited me for a drink. It had been a long time since I’d been with anyone and when our hands touched clinking glasses, I felt a rush of pleasure. She was in her early thirties—thirty-four, the exact same age as me—and told me her ex-husband was a bank president. Corrina had very clear eyes and a bright smile. She wore a strapless turquoise sundress that was tight around the waist, then flared above her tanned legs and rope sandals. She wore a tinge too much makeup—lip gloss with a sheen like Vaseline and dark eyeliner; even her toenails were painted—but she sold real estate and was the first person I’d ever met who told me she was completely happy. That first night, we were on the balcony of her fourth floor apartment, leaning against the railing and standing so close that our bare arms rubbed against each other. The river was a cobalt blue and the lights from the casinos on the Nevada side danced in its movement. Taxi boats crisscrossed the river, their running lights intersecting in the dark. It was nearing Halloween and some of the homes hanging from the ridges were decorated with orange lanterns. “What makes you happy, then?” I’d asked. I could switch the John Wayne voice on and off and used my natural voice, the one that 126
sounded like who I was—Morty Cranford, the son of California cow farmers. “Maybe just that I’ve gotten away from where I was born.” “I’m with you.” The Crestview in 1981 seemed a long way from Cerritos in the 1960s. The only thing going for Cerritos then was the dairy industry and proximity to Knott’s Berry Farm, where I’d gotten my start acting in the Birdcage Theater and doing magic tricks. Two decades later I was still doing magic tricks; only now it was in casinos. “Not much going on for you there?” “It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Some bastards.” She drummed her fingers on the railing. “I’d like to bury all that. It doesn’t really matter.” She gestured toward the desertscape. “What matters is this is a growth area,” she said. “People here are going somewhere, and going somewhere fast.” I had the mimic’s ear and in her voice heard a thwarted eagerness, a desire to break out. Thirty-four wasn’t old, but there were only so many chances left for a roll of the dice. I could feel the contours of her body against mine. In the half light, I could see what she must have looked like when she was a decade younger. Her dark hair was twisted into a pony tail and her sharp profile held still against the flowing river. “I’m very happy,” she said quietly, moving even closer. We clinked glasses again. “I know I can be very happy,” she said. “That’s all.” And I think we were genuinely happy the first few weeks. Sometimes it was almost perfect. *** Tearing up the road in her Datsun 280Z, I could smell sage and cottonwood trees and could see the sparkling outline of the Riverboat Casino. I shifted into fifth and looked over at Corrina. Her hair flew back in a straight line and she turned to me and smiled. We were on our way to Tabletop Mountain for the sixth night in a row, and she let me drive her car because it gave us both a thrill. We were roaring to the peak of Tabletop for the same reason. We each had an apartment, but the thought of being with each other outdoors, lying on a blanket between the Joshua trees with the shimmering lights of the basin and the slick snail’s trail of the river below us, our bodies smooth and blue in the moonlight, gave us an illicit thrill. Each night, looking at each other, we talked about a lot of crazy things: how we’d make a killing in the real estate market with a hundred grand or blow the lid off the stock exchange; how I’d get my big break in acting with a t.v. series all my own; together, we were 127
going to beat the odds—maybe the third time really was the charm. We just needed a set up so we couldn’t lose. But mostly we talked about how good it all was when our hips smacked together like fierce electromagnets. Electro-magnets covered in sweat. *** We spent the long holiday stretch, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, in Vegas because I was getting low on cash and needed to work in a magic act. A room came with the gig and Corrina didn’t mind the cramped quarters. We were together. That’s all that mattered, she told me, and the real estate business was dead around Christmastime. After my second act each night, we’d usually meet at the Red Flamingo next door and sit at the bar before returning to the Tower of Rome Casino and our room. The day after Christmas she was running late, so I ordered a double bourbon from the Filipino bartender who flipped the bottles around as if they were juggling clubs. He put on quite a show, twirling the bottle above the glass so the bourbon spiraled into it. In the old days, a guy could get away from the din and clatter of the casino floor and avoid gambling by sitting at the bar. Now, they had video monitors set into the counter every foot or so, and before I knew it I was playing five card draw against a television screen. “I know . . . I’m late,” I heard Corrina say. “I was on a hot streak. Couldn’t leave until I knew how it’d play out.” I knew how it would play out. Sooner or later, the house always wins at roulette or any other game, unless you rigged things in your favor. We brushed lips and I could tell she’d already gotten a couple in her. Her eyes were glossy and her bracelets jangled noisily as she sat down. I ordered another bourbon and one for the lady. That was the night Corrina told me more than I wanted to know about her ex. I sat with a stack of silver dollars and stared down into the video machine. She told me all about his predilections as I watched the stack of silver dollars melt away like a sand castle lapped by waves. “He abused me, you know. I was only nineteen when I married him. I ran away from Cleveland to be a dancer. Jerry was thirty-four and very athletic. He was already the vice president of a bank and used to take me flying. He had a pilot’s license and a private plane at Elmwood.” I watched the video cards flip over to reveal a pair of aces. Another silver dollar was gobbled by the machine. I wasn’t in the mood to hear how bad things had been with Jerry—or how good they’d been. That’s 128
what she seemed to be remembering. I glanced up to see her staring at the Tiffany billiard lamp above the bar, her fingers rubbing an old fashioned glass. She rattled the ice cubes as if they were dice, then turned to me. She was breathing deeply through a slightly open mouth. “He was rugged, a little taller than you and a bit older, and he looked like a movie star. But it was the way he did things that I didn’t like—and the kind of things he liked to do.” “I get it. I get the picture,” I said. “He liked a bit of roughhouse.” “Rough ain’t the word for it,” she said, draining her glass and calling for another. I bet the maximum on a pair of Jacks and watched the video cards flip over to reveal three kings—a full house. At least I wasn’t going to leave the counter empty-handed. Corrina rubbed my arm. “With you it’s different, Morty. It’s wild and we fight sometimes, but it’s not abusive. We never go that far. We ride on the edge but I think you care for me. I know you do, Morty. We believe in each other and there’s nothing we can’t do.” I pressed the payout button and the silver coins started dropping into the dish so fast that a crowd gathered. “Let’s go back to the room,” I said, “and I’ll show you a magic trick.” It was a running joke with us: even the less salacious-sounding names for magic tricks—Assistant’s Revenge, French Drop, Indian Rope Trick—could have been positions in the Kama Sutra. “I bring you luck,” she said, still rubbing my arm. “Hang onto a good thing, baby, while you can.” *** I took a few months off when we moved back to the Colorado River. By St. Patrick’s Day we were still going strong and the dreams were the same, but Corrina was growing impatient. She said nothing big would happen without action. One night, we drove across to the Nevada side for dinner at the new fern bar, “Rainmakers.” Of course, whenever I went out I’d get that “I know you from somewhere” look. If anyone asked, I’d say “You must have seen my ads. I’m running for County Sheriff” to shut them up. A couple of Rob Roys, some Lobster Thermidor and Coq au Vin, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisseé, and we were humming nicely for the drive back. Halfway across the river on the Wilson City National Highway Bridge, she spoke up. “Morty,” she said. “We could be rich. That’s all I want.” 129
I was driving my car, a Ford Custom 500 that was about as good on gas as a Sherman tank. I could hear the trestles snap by outside and could smell the water that rushed around the pilings. “We’ve been through all that.” “I’m ready for it now. There are ways to make this work. I don’t have anything else in life and then the two of us could be so happy. We just need to follow through on things.” She went on with her plan. I’d heard it a dozen times before. Maybe it was time for taking a big chance. I was tired of being a hasbeen actor, an also ran, a never was. The way she told it, we were about to hit paydirt. “Anytime you’ve got water in the desert you’ve got slaughter in the desert,” she said. “Land is today’s speculation. It makes you or breaks you. I know all about bad land deals but we can make this one work. I’m ready for it now.” The plan was to invest in the acreage bordering Freshman Springs. One hundred and fifty miles beyond the Colorado and fifty degrees hotter in the shade, there was a muddy spring that gurgled water into a dry lake. It would take a lot of capital but Corrina assured me that if wells could be drilled through the cracked soil, and the flow of fresh water increased, building lots would be worth a fortune. They wouldn’t be in the desert anymore; they would be at “Lakeside Shores.” We were almost at the end of the bridge and about to exit on the California side. An amber traffic light flashed at me. I flicked on my turn signal and started to move down the exit ramp. “This could be it, Morty. The real deal. Our payback time. And if you wanted to move on to other things, I wouldn’t complain. If you left me the very next day, it wouldn’t even bother me, though I myself have gotten tired of putting goals in front of other people. What we have together is what can make this work. That’s the best part of it.” But first I’d have to impersonate a bank president and walk out with a hundred grand. *** We followed Reservoir Road that night past the hills of houses, the terraced restaurants, and the V-line of boats anchored upstream, until we reached the flower streets—Jasmine, Poppy, Poinsettia, and turned down Narcissus. We parked and took the apartment elevator to the fourth floor. We decided to use her apartment that night. It was a long drive to Tabletop Mountain and the past few weeks we had bunched up the sheets either in her place or mine. 130
In the middle of the night, her voice came thin and hard from the other side of the bed. “I wanna ask you something.” “What?” “Are you gonna help me with this plan? Are you gonna follow through on it?” “I’m supposed to impersonate your ex-husband, a bank president, and somehow order a cashier’s check for a hundred thousand dollars. Then, I’m supposed to walk out of there and cash it.” “It can work, Morty.” “And all the time you’re keeping your ex busy, because he still wants you back.” I looked at her in the half light. Scrunched against the white wall, she seemed all elbows and sharp collar bones and a hard, angular profile. The light from the window slits fell across her in long streaks. “Maybe I can impersonate a prison guard, because that’s where I’ll be.” “We could be rich, Morty. That’s all I want. For us to be together. I don’t have anything else and the two of us could be so happy.” “You’ve told me that before.” “And you put me off before. Morty, when are you going to stop pretending and be the real thing. The hero. The lead. ‘The Duke.’” “It’s called acting.” “That’s why I know you can pull this off. Because you’re good at it.” She had moved over to my side of the bed, sat next to me. I sat up as well. The light had shifted and seemed to probe the room like a beam from a flashlight. Corrina seemed agitated, tugged at the sheets. Thinking about how this could actually come about got me excited as well, and I felt my breath grow shallow. “Okay, so your ex looks like James Arness and with a bit of makeup I can too. He’s about fifteen years older than I am. Elevator shoes, a wig, the right clothes. It’s not a problem. I can get the voice right with a bit of practice if you’ve got him on cassettes.” “You can do it, Morty. I know you can.” “Right. Monday morning at a bank, busiest time of the week. I can walk straight through to his office. Body mass, posture. It’s just an impression. Nobody really has to see me.” “That’s it, Morty. You can phone the head cashier. Just say you need the check.” 131
The light fell against the back wall. An ambulance went by. I could hear its siren and the whoosh of tires on a road. “And then what?” I asked. “What then? Even if I do pull it off, the bank can stop payment. Even if you do keep your ex busy all morning, and I walk out with a cashier’s check, the cops will be all over me. The minute I try to hang paper I’m done.” “It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “I’ve got a friend. In Arizona. He can take care of it.” *** It was like that for the next few weeks. She kept telling me she had a friend who could cash the check for us, but I wasn’t sure. When I thought of everything that could go wrong, I felt a gnawing in my stomach as if I had ulcers spreading by the minute. I kept putting her off. It was close to Memorial Day by the time we set a target date, the third Monday in May. But I said I wanted to take a good look at the property first, this place we were going to develop into the desert version of San Diego’s Mission Bay. *** We didn’t get much sleep that night. By mid-morning, we were racing across the desert in her sports car and the brown earth spun as if on a turntable. Even with the blue haze of mid-morning, the thermometer hovered above ninety-two degrees. I kept the car fan on high. Ahead of me, Jess Mountain lay like an alligator sunning itself on a brown piece of wood. Where its back would have been, the ridges appeared dark and leathery, and deep yellow cracks ran along the sides. I started to climb at what must have been a forty-degree angle. Streaks of green copper, like thinned paint, splashed across the mountainside and we passed what was left of some homesteader’s dream: a stone porch, a chimney, a frame water tower. It only seemed to grow hotter the higher we climbed and I could feel sweat trickle down my ribs. “You can do it,” Corrina said. I didn’t say anything, maybe because my throat had gone dry. We reached Round Rock Pass and I could see the terrain sloping down in front of us, all the way to the horizon. “You’re almost there,” she said, and in the distance I could see small cubes of white that would have been the trailer homes ringing Freshman Springs. 132
I followed the turnoff past black earth and weeds anchored like red coral to the ocean floor. I could smell the dry lake. A fetid stench seemed to follow us in. I had a sinking feeling as I parked near the perimeter of the lake. I told myself Corrina was the best thing—the only really good thing—that had happened to me in a long time. I could feel my hands tremble on the car keys. I got out of the car slowly and heard Corrina step out and slam her door. A low rumble started beyond the horizon as two Air Force jets pierced the sky and twisted together like rose stems. I looked back at the dead lake. Cracked soil caked with salt ran in a wide oval forming the outline of a shore. At one end stood a single clapboard building with a wooden sign “Saloon”; at the other, a trailer park. It was hard to see much potential in the concave pit fed by Freshman Springs, but the lake bed wasn’t entirely devoid of water. An oozy mulch pooled in its center and a few coots picked through its weeds. “Corrina—why did you bring me here?” “I thought you knew. I thought you knew what this place is like. It’s not going to be easy,” she said. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do hard time just for the chance to have “lakeside property.” The muck seemed almost solid and looked like run-off from a chemical plant. In the heat, I could sense Corrina standing close to me. The midday sun cast almost no shadow and ours were like two concentric rings overlapping slightly. “I used to come here with Jerry,” she said. I looked over at her. Rivulets were running along her neck and pooled near her throat. “I’d like to bury him here.” She seemed transfixed, watching the bubbling font in the middle of the dry lake, and swayed slightly. I was feeling light-headed. Was this about devotion? Revenge? Payback time? I was only a cheap impersonator, a mimic. Maybe she didn’t care about the check. Maybe she was just trying to make it look like Jerry—the real one—had stolen the money. “I’m out.” “That’s it?” she practically shrieked at me. Her face was flushed from the heat and her mascara ran from the sweat beaded around her eyes. “Where are you going?” I was striding toward the saloon. “To pick my poison—of the Old West variety.” 133
“What kind of an answer is that? You’ve been saying for months that you wanted in, that it was just the two of us, that we could make it happen.” I pushed through the batwing doors and entered the single room with its counter at the far end. I could hear Corrina swinging through the door behind me. Paintings of cowboys with branding irons hung on the plain wooden walls. Old hurricane lamps dangled from the ceiling rafters and nailed above the stone fireplace were horseshoes and a bear trap. Time seemed to hang still within the four corners of the bar— everything preserved as in an Old West Museum. With the grandfather clock and the pendulum swinging back and forth, time seemed to run backwards rather than ahead. In a way, it was almost as if I was back in school again, working summers at Knott’s Berry Farm, where it had all begun. Directly in front of me was a picture of John Wayne, a two-man band saw placed against a wall, a birdcage hanging from a hook.
living in a 55+ community in Mesa, Arizona people walk toward the mountain in the morning but never in the heat of a summer day many walk at night avoiding the light but see the mountain in the distance nameless perspective determined by the framing of palm trees trimmed every spring before heat arrives there are no cacti the walkers with walkers are blind unknowing trust in things to come
Tourist Ennui in Eastern France you have to be too bored and too self-conscious to look up a dictionary definition of ennui hoping that it might change in front of your eyes all you can do is keep reading keep going keep trying to live if you’re moving you’re one step ahead of the sanity sheriff you try to avoid and embrace ennui all your life you wear a boredom badge and maybe that is how you find yourself in Strasbourg in January meteorological ennui you want to go beyond the French in your languor you navigate ennui on top of in spite of and because of life you travel in January and the joy of Christmas has just left the days are miserable and cold and darkness comes way too early the tight buildings block whatever cloudy sun there might be as Strasbourg contemplates Germany and in an old city time travels at a different speed than do tourists looking for holiday bargains going to the cold gives good karma for the continued comfort of your palm’d home you dig into reserves of oppressed vitality to deal with snow and sleet and sand on the streets it all seems fair and right and sane and living like locals while away has always been your freedom that thrills like having another tourist ask you for directions as you walk with a fresh baguette and don’t feel as silly as you look
The Motel It was spring, and she got fired from her job as a waitress and went to work for an escort service to pay for her heroin use and the first warm days reminded her it had been two months since her last period, and this motel was a good place to not want a kid, a good place for the cops to bust her boyfriend for possession. She found another job in the pancake house and the grease from the breakfasts stuck to her hair, and her breasts began to swell and she felt woozy on her high heels on her twelve-hour shifts. She made nice tips, which almost paid for her heroin use. When she was three months pregnant she injected whiskey twice. Then she woke up in the backyard garden of a white town house. Petunias sprawled from a tub and ivy covered the earth. From somewhere in the house,
classical music drifted through open windows. She tried not to remember her time in the motel but some days it came back.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM
Nothing Like An old fool painting the same trees with river colors, expecting frost in his eyes to melt like sunrise. I wave at green as it passes me by, a bus too full. Yes, I can wash my own self like my own clothes, iron wrinkles out of memories and weariness. And I can cook a table of words into a mean stew. My eyesight fades with shortened days this end September. Ready or not, allee infree and strolling home, all the time in the worldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s great remainder
lies in my bones, white rocks ready to be reinterred. I am okay with that, like any fool motleyed by life.
DAVID ANTHONY SAM
Peering through the Narrow End He shouldered the wooden crate, carrying its weight, feeling its ninety-degree corner etching itself into his flesh as he walked uphill. This is how, he thought, this is right, the dark sky getting darker as the nearly-new moon set west. He heaved the crate from his shoulder, cradled it like the coffin of a small child for a moment, then–kneeling– lay it carefully on the damp, cool grass that seeped the dewfall into the fabric of his pants at the knees. This is how, this is right, this is. He unlatched the wooden crate, the metallic snap of each of three hasps singing out against the song of crickets and the tree frogs in the copse that haunted the valley below the knoll–a dark silhouette of bare branches in black mass. The tripod slid into its shape as easily as young bones. He raised the yoke, twisted metal joint, leveled the legs in harmony with gravity, and stooped to lift the telescope up to the level of the eye–this was right, was sure. The telescope mated easily to yoke. He inserted the wing bolts and turned each tight, swiveling the instrument until it aimed its way to the quadrant where Saturn waited in the dark sky. 141
Eying the stars, he adjusted more, then bent to look into the elbowed lens. Twirling slowly the focusing knob, breathing out the vapors of silence, he saw the planet clarify itself in sphere and rings impossible to bear. It was now, it was right, this was how to unsee what had been seen. Leaving the telescope, he walked downhill.
At Emily’s Emily was the name of a gender-bending tomcat who lived at a café where his artwork adorned the walls. The café was on a familiar street in a major city. In better days, cat fanciers from around the world had come to watch as Emily’s owner applied tempera to tiny rollers, then rolled them onto his paws and released him onto a piece of outlaid canvas on the shop’s rustic wooden floor. The wealthiest of his fans had paid handsomely for an original Emily, the bar having been set four years earlier by the owner of a Japanese start-up who’d paid $8000 for a particularly jarring piece in Alizarin Crimson and Prussian Blue. The piece was entitled, Smiley Face #01, for the way three of Emily’s stray white hairs had dried on the canvas in a formation that recalled that familiar symbol. “Eight thousand for cat art,” Carl said, having read the anecdote on their tri-folded table topper. In Sonja’s appraisal, Carl’s new look affected homelessness, which had lately become acceptable. “I’d pay it,” she said. “I would now, I mean. Does it make any difference what I blow my money on now?” “Now? No, I suppose it doesn’t. But this was before. This was four years ago.” “Well,” Sonja considered, “if four years ago I’d had a start-up fortune, maybe I’d have bought an Emily painting even then. And jade eggs. And, I don’t know, a magical monkey’s paw. I don’t think I’d have been very smart with money if I’d had it, is I guess what I’m saying.” “Well,” Carl said, “you wouldn’t have been alone.” Then from the table topper, he read: “‘The magic of Emily’s process is when his work goes from being paw prints on canvas to becoming something more.’” He moved their sugar bowl from the wall and hid the table topper behind it. “I mean—I’m sorry, it’s a cat with paint on his feet.” “Or is it something more?” Sonja took a drink of coffee, satisfied that the times hadn’t robbed her of her instinct to be pithy and cute, then she dabbed two fingers at a short hair that had affixed itself to her tongue. “You know, since this all started—these last weeks, I mean—I’ve gone back over a lot of my life choices. And honestly? I feel okay knowing that I was basically average. Meanwhile, other people got to these depths. To buying-cat-artwork depths.” 143
“Not a cat fan?” “Don’t blame the cat, this is pure people.” His eyes searched for and found Emily in the front window, batting at something dark that had smeared the glass in the previous night’s rain. They were quiet then. Sonja counted sugar packets and the ratio of the café’s women to men patrons, and the buttons she could see on Carl’s shirt—translucent green discs with the slightest swirl of yellow that made each one unique from the rest, a simple beauty that caused her breath to catch. They’d driven to the city from Idaho. Where better to come at the end of it all than a major city? And how better to spend this final day than in a world-renowned cat café? These thoughts had occurred to them both. To one of them, earnestly. To the other, with a kind of acquiescence, a recognition that it made no difference where they chose to spend this last day, a day that would be stolen from them, wherever they happened to be. “The prices are higher than they are back home,” Carl said, fidgeting again with the table topper. On reflection, neither could remember who had paid, Carl or Sonja, or if they’d even paid at all. In every movie they’d ever seen about extinction, there seemed to always be a shortage of supplies, scenes of perilous looting expeditions in abandoned houses and super markets, dollar store toiletries becoming essential tools of survival. But in this version, the real version, their only deficit was time. All around them, pantries and walk-in refrigerators and warehouses were stocked with more food and supplies than they could possibly use up. As fewer and fewer shopkeepers found the motivation to open their doors each day, more and more of those who did came to treat their services as charity, a final act of kindness toward the doomed human cohort. “These chairs are hard,” Sonja said, “but comfortable.” Recurrently, they remembered that it was July third. It rankled when they thought of it, how it would all end on the eve of that specifically American day. It felt mocking, somehow. Through the café’s front window, light reflected on the cars that were shut down on the street. The bravest and stupidest among them sat on the hoods and trunks, gazing skyward. All over the city today, they’d seen whole families in folding chairs on sidewalks or sitting in the beds of pick-up trucks, preaching to one another and staring upward, some holding open umbrellas as if open umbrellas could do anything to save them. 144
Without warning, something struck the roof of the café: a reverberating smack followed by the tinkle of lighter debris. Patrons gasped. Emily jumped from his windowsill into the lap of an adolescent girl in a hijab who had begun to cry. In the window-frame of street that Carl could see, there was movement that was too chaotic to register. At the sound of a second impact, Sonja took his hand. Her eyes were glassy, but the tear that dropped to their table was his. He opened his mouth to speak, but in a voice of authority and reprimand, Sonja said, “Let’s have a picnic tomorrow. Before we leave the city. Carl, okay?’ Carl’s eyes dropped to the ripples in her mug, and he held them there. “Tell me about it. Where will we go?” His mouth hung open, but he had no words. “Carl? Tell me.” “Um—we’ll go to the park,” he guessed. “Yes.” “I heard that there’s a big, open patch of grass still. No craters or anything, just open grass.” Sonja closed her eyes. “Mm,” she said as if visualizing something delectable, “fresh cut grass.” “Right. And we’ll bring food and a bottle of wine.” “Yes, okay.” “And when it starts to get dark we’ll sit at the edge of the pond and watch the fireworks reflected in the water.” “And the sound will scare the ducks, and they’ll come running for us.” They were smiling now, their hands clasped and their eyes closed as if conducting a séance to summon this scene into being. “And one of the ducks will try to steal your sandwich.” “Like back home that time.” “Right. Only this time, the duck won’t get it. But you’ll still throw him a crust because you’re kindhearted.” “And we’ll steal Emily and bring him too.” “He can paint the fireworks and chase the ducks around.” “And when we finish the wine we’ll lay down and we’ll tell each other that we can’t fall asleep, even though we both know we’re going to.” “And then we do. You first, and then me.” Somewhere near them, there was an explosion. Fireworks, maybe. Innocent joy. 145
All around them there was movement and stillness, tumult and quiet, and through it, Sonja and Carl held each other, heads bowed at their cafĂŠ table, spooning on their picnic blanket, waiting on a sun that for two lovers in a park is guaranteed to rise.
Breath He watered the houseplants with rainwater only. Only he didn’t think of houseplants as houseplants. He thought of them as oxygen. Their breath was his, was his family’s. And when he watered he watered at the pace of the rain. The rain he captured in barrels, and what he captured he transferred upstairs in buckets and cups. He watered, the roots of the potted plants absorbing the rain at nearly the moment the system of roots outside absorbed it. The drainage, if there was drainage, funneled through PVC piping that ran back to the barrels outside two floors below, accumulating there. No minerals from the soil were lost. He would wash with this water too when there was excess. The food he ate he didn’t cook. While it rained his partner removed their infant’s clothes—roughcut cotton gown, no diaper or cloth of any kind below the waist. Then she removed the cloth that wrapped her body and stood on a stone, three feet in diameter and depressed in the center like a birdbath. She sanded this stone smooth with another stone, and on it she stood and let the downpour wet her child. The infant faced the clouds, squinting in filtered sunlight, falling water. She placed her thumb on its gums and tenderly pried open its mouth, believing the child was drinking. When it rained the water muddied the upturned yard beneath which a piece of placenta decomposed; after drying what had remained of the placenta in a dehydrator, careful the temperature never exceeded one hundred five degrees, the couple powdered and encapsulated and ingested it as medicine. The water from the tub she birthed in—the tub in their one-bedroom apartment—they siphoned out the window to their garden. Rarely any water went down the drain, only the little they mixed with Dr. Bronner’s and wicked from their scoured skin. The man drank his urine out of store-bought kombucha bottles. The occupant below them worked security overnight at a complex of buildings that was the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. *** The infant—named Ocean—lived eight weeks. Its parents, River and Iona, brought the body to the hospital as it convulsed and stiffened in agony until it moved no more, the little circular mouth loosening, looking for liquid no longer. The hospital handed the body to the county, its weight a couple of dozens of ounces. 147
An orderly escorted River and Iona to an empty room and asked them to wait for a doctor to arrive. “We will update you when we know more,” the orderly said. A male nurse guarded the room until security came. Police separated and questioned them. Neither carried identifying documents. River had eighty-seven dollars in cash in a roll in a deep pocket of his flowing tribal-print drop crotch pants. Iona teared but spoke little and didn’t ask about Ocean’s status. She later told me she kept quiet because she wanted to live longer in a world where Ocean still breathed. River refused to speak. At the station, Iona told police their street name and apartment number. *** I heard reports of a possible infant death while listening to the police scanner at the office of the Mountain Observer, a local newspaper in a small town in the Great Smokies of Western North Carolina. The paper pays me eleven dollars an hour to write about crime, local events, council meetings, and what to do for fun as the seasons change. The paper is a vehicle for ads. No matter what copy I turn in, the founder/editor/Facebook page administrator rewrites it to read as follows: “When the temperature returns to Summer highs in the Fall, as happened this past Tuesday, the wind is not blowing and the rain stops, hiking trails under the changing leaves is invigorating, sweeps away the dust from your brain—and a wonderful way to exercise.” I do not know who would pay a quarter to read that. I do not know why the editor capitalized “Summer.” I’d written, “The temperature returned to summer highs early last week, and the spate of rain ceased. Hikers took to the trails to enjoy one of the last looks at the changing leaves before the winter blues set in.” I’m not proud that I’d written “winter blues,” but I knew if I didn’t the editor would insert it. “Winter blues” appears in our publication, front page, above the fold, half a dozen times a year. He only excised “winter blues” from the original copy because I typed it out first. Ed improves all copy. When I asked to take the day to investigate the potential infanticide, Ed said he’d “hook it.” He didn’t. He spoke with the police chief, a man he’s known for a quarter century, a friend not a source. He walked the block to the police station, holding his mug of tap water, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Ed ran instead a piece from the AP newswire: “A Western North Carolina couple has been detained in connection with the death of their eight-week-old infant, fed only homemade almond milk and water.” 148
“Sad story,” Ed said to me two days later as he read the AP sidebar. “What did Bevers”—the police chief—“say?” “Hard thing even to have that image inside your head, dead child. You don’t need to see that, not now.” I kept looking at him. “Unrecognizable as a child—Bevers said that.” *** I was twenty-eight then. At home my wife, Sandra, twenty-seven, nursed an infant—or, rather, tried to nurse an infant, a girl five weeks old. Sandra wanted to breastfeed exclusively. She also wanted to deliver in water without painkillers. But after twelve hours of laboring, eight of those hours pushing, she received an epidural so that doctors could insert a vacuum head to guide the baby through the canal. She delivered in bed, a tube in her spine, no sensation below the waist. As Ed and I talked about the child unrecognizable as a child, Sandra breastfed in our curtain-drawn apartment, unsure if our daughter, Caren, was taking milk. She streamed Netflix and winced at the pain pinging from her rubbed-raw nipples, needlepoint pricks of blood scabbing over areolas no longer resembling hers. Hungry always, Caren never slept more than ninety minutes without startling awake, screeching and sucking air. I would typically go home to a sour room confettied with diapers and nursing pads, a dim room with no circulation. Walking in the door would disorient me. After the birth, Ed, who has no children, granted me a week of unpaid leave, and that week we spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, where wires trailed Caren as if she needed to be plugged into an outlet. Caren paused in the birth canal for so long that she expelled and, after emerging, inhaled the material meant for her first bowel movement—meconium, or womb debris the fetus ingests during gestation, a sticky tar-like substance. She required a weeklong regimen of antibiotics, the drip of an IV her only sustenance. I blamed the stay in the NICU for the indifference I felt initially toward my child. Where was the love? My child could have been any of the incubating babies in the funhouse of curtains that was the NICU, babies ejected from the womb months premature, babies with congenital malformations of the heart, babies that looked dead to me as I passed them, following nurses to my own in a bay next to twins who didn’t weigh combined what my daughter weighed. I looked at her, and 149
surrounded by such precarious life I felt I was another species. Who was this thing they said belonged to us? In those days as I walked into our apartment that resembled a heroin house I would sigh—Another night like the last—and as I entered Sandra would hand me Caren and go to the bathroom to soak in a bedpan placed over the toilet seat. Her slowly healing organs radiated pain and heat, the memory of labor, and her nervous system would shiver. *** The story of the starved infant remained a topic in the community. The Mountain Observer ran a few AP pieces about the parents—the judge sentenced the man to twenty-five years, the woman to six. The judge speculated that River manipulated Iona, and therefore reduced her sentence. After the sentencing, the story died. A year passed before the parents, whose story never left the margins of my mind, returned fully to me. My daughter was walking. Ed, who in that time thinned out without my noticing, killed my pitch to run a feature on the couple. “It could revisit the circumstances of the case and look into the couple’s incarceration,” I told him. I wanted to know what motivated River and Iona. I wanted an inside view of their incarceration. Did the ideology that impelled them to live outside society persist in prison? “We pay you to cover pressing news items,” Ed told me. He groaned. I cringed. That he’d been groaning more in the office irritated me, groaning while holding his lower back. “The trails should be crowded now. Takes a lot of work to get out there to experience the waterfalls,” his voice rising. “No more work than it’d take you. Cover the hikers.” At the paper I’d been given a raise: I now earned thirteen an hour, a windfall, according to Ed, who said this could all be mine one day, indicating the office. Before he could remind me of the raise, I started working the waterfall story. I interviewed a friend via email—“Brian Matlock, 26, of Asheville, loves this time of year.” With six hundred words turned in I left the office. In my Camry I pulled out from the curb, looking in the rearview at the empty car seat. I circled the block where the couple had lived and the infant withered. I’d done this once before. I wanted to write about the couple right after the death, to do real investigative work. But no trace of the couple remained at the apartment, and my job and bank account and child 150
restricted the radius I could move in. As I’d done before, I circled the block and then parked across the street, watching. The other time I pulled away without doing anything, the engine never not running, but this time I removed the key and said aloud, “I hate myself.” I blanked my mind and walked to the apartment complex. No one responded to my knocking on the first-floor door. I heard music pulsing upstairs, however, the zap of clipped electronic bass kicks. I climbed the exterior staircase and knocked with my knuckles, then with an open palm, surprised at the sting. A man answered while apologizing about the music. He looked about forty with thin sandy hair and gray eyes, but I sensed he’d aged prematurely and estimated him to be under thirty. “I’m here about your neighbor, man,” I said. “Don’t worry about the music. Do you know him?” “I don’t understand what this is about.” “I’m a reporter—” “You’re like my age.” “What’s your neighbor’s routine?” “Don’t think he does drugs, but his car’s gone all night and he sleeps all day. Leaves about six at night.” He looked around outside. “I sleep at night—I don’t feel bad about the music.” I asked if he knew about the previous tenants. He said he didn’t. I looked into the apartment—repainted walls, new carpets, no water catchments or incense sticks or tapestries. I drove home, trying to decide on an evening to return to talk with the man downstairs. I would have to leave Sandra with Caren all day and all evening, for naptime and bedtime and all the feedings—she still nursed—and changings. That night I told Sandra: “Next Thursday I have to cover a special council meeting.” “You’re saying you’ll be home late?” “It runs until eight.” “You’ll go in later then?” “It’s extra. Ed’ll pay me overtime.” I would have to turn in “a feature,” eight hundred words about the dog park maybe, so that the modest increase in my check would corroborate the lie. “I get the whole day Saturday to myself,” Sandra said. “We need the money. I have to go.” “This Saturday and the next—she’s yours.” 151
At the apartment complex that following Thursday, I got out of my car and walked toward the building but stopped and turned and walked back to my car, thinking about the magazines to which I would submit the profile of the parents, the glossy pages and custom font. I walked in circles around my car, glancing at the door until it opened and a man emerged and I blurted— “Excuse me, sir!” He looked at me as he approached and asked did he know me, his denim jacket unbuttoned, the shirt beneath it displaying an insignia— BAYER SECURITY. I don’t believe I went there expecting to talk to him. I think I went there to pretend that I’d talk to him. A pretense of due diligence to preempt the shame I felt/feel for never publishing anything significant. I didn’t want to see him, I don’t think, but I did and spoke before I’d realized I was speaking. “I write for the Mountain Observer.” “I have work in a minute.” He shuffled. “Your neighbors. The couple—” “I have work.” He put his palms out and waved them as if to move me with the air. “With the baby.” He wasn’t as gruff as I’d expected. I expect all white working men older than me to be gruff. Pallid and meek and soft, he was a man who hadn’t labored much in his life, the type who made no money, probably only worked service jobs alongside other, much younger employees. He waved hands as soft as the arch of a foot and shuffled a belly like a plastic bag on water. I sensed a working-class aspiration to gruffness, but nothing genuine, nothing of my dad. Doing security was likely the closest he’d come to what he thought of as masculine work. “I like to be early to work.” “Did you know them?” He paused behind his opened car door and said, “I didn’t like the sight of them.” He entered his car and readied himself to go. I stood there wondering if he said that because River was black, Iona white. *** With Iona, River joined a water-worshipping cult, the pinnacle of a pilgrimage circling America, moving from the diet of an undernourished inner-city adolescent to vegetarianism to veganism to raw foodism to breatharianism. To prison rations. With only skeletal knowledge of River’s history, I’ve imagined a biography. I know his 152
mother raised him alone in Raleigh, and I imagine he lived a volatile existence. His mother worked seasonally at the post office, separating mail in twelve-hour shifts during the holidays, and worked part time at other places when the post office released her, cashiering or cleaning offices overnight. I imagine they lived in South Central Raleigh, a neighborhood in effect still segregated. I searched Raleigh on Google Maps for an actual house I could imagine they lived in. I selected a unit in a row of units on Montague Lane as theirs. And in there I imagine the life of a boy who would flee the poverty and racism of America, flee the constraints of the United States’ underclass, to seek transcendence. *** After sentencing, River and Iona entered the prisonsphere—that collection of flesh, fingernail clippings, concrete, rebar, underpaid keepers, razor wire, unventilated air. Unregulated, ultraregulated. Or so I imagine. After that AP article that reported their sentences— nothing. No other reporters filed stories about them. I knew the dullness and disquiet of parenting a weeks-old infant, and it unsettled me to think of this being their transition to incarceration. It unsettled me that they didn’t emerge from that dullness, that disquiet, to watch their child take form. They knew only the hazards of keeping an alien-like creature breathing. And they had no help of professionals or relatives. I wanted the judge who sentenced them to know that a white couple’s infant died unnecessarily weeks after Ocean died unnecessarily. I wrote to the judge. I revised the letter and sent it to op-ed departments. It detailed the birth and death of a newborn in Northern Idaho. The labor of this birth lasted twenty-seven hours. In this time, only half of the infant’s head had crowned. I imagined the head crimped around the circumference, as pliable as a half-filled water balloon. When the child fully emerged from the vaginal opening, he was limp and silent, covered in meconium—like my daughter was. The father wiped the baby’s unresponsive face with a beach towel he’d dipped in a bowl of icewater, and the baby gasped, pulling the meconium into pockets of tissue in lungs that had yet to breathe, causing an infection, which festered. The newborn’s parents, members of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing community, declined to seek medical help when their infant’s condition worsened. To heal him, the community spoke in tongues and swabbed the infant’s chest, esophagus, and upperlip with rancid olive oil, casting out demons with homophobic slurs, and the 153
newborn deteriorated. Then died. And was buried in an unmarked plot. The state didn’t prosecute the parents—religious exemptions codified into law by Christian Scientists in the Nixon administration shielded them. The judge, of course, never responded, nor the editors, who, I’m sure, deleted the opinion piece email with all the others sent that day. And reflecting on it now I realize the base of my argument called for jail time for the Christians, not clemency for River and Iona. It pointed out hypocrisy only: self-righteous fluff. *** I wrote to Iona at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. Among nearly thirteen hundred other inmates, some on death row, Iona studies horticulture and stands on a line stamping serial numbers on slim sheets of aluminum. She doesn’t know what they’re for; they’re not license plates. I’ve written a letter to River too but received no response. My first letter to Iona was a single paragraph telling her I am sorry the state incarcerated her, sorry she lost a child. I disclosed that I was a journalist and asked if she would like to talk. She wrote a page back: small handwritten block letters spanning the paper, uncontained by margins: You are the first to contact me. I wrote to my family—Mom Dad and little brother who is thirteen now. They live in Inverness, in Florida, Central Florida, the lightning capital of the world. I wrote to them all at once and sent the letter to the house our house the one I grew up in and left three years ago at 18. They are your typical loving Racist Inverness family, Dad openly using slurs after interactions with Black People and Mom smiling and saying, You have to stop. Stop that in front of the kids. Dad always saying, Never, ever, never take up with a Black Guy. Ever. I had to get out, even though they had loved me—though they apparently don’t anymore—I had to leave Central Florida, so I started traveling. Thank you for writing me, no one has actually contacted me. In Oregon is where I met River. In Oregon harvesting lavender for tinctures. Huge open fields of purple which they distill in amber bottles with droppers. Then we trimmed in Humboldt. Then we picked peppers in New Mexico—where we found the water people, LIVING ON ONLY A CUPFUL A DAY! Then we came back to the South. In Asheville we panhandled and preached and played. He was shy. I wasn’t.
We still exchange letters. She writes that she’s written to River too but isn’t sure he gets the letters. The state incarcerated River at Craggy Correctional Center. The prison is twenty-five minutes from the Mountain Observer office. I drive a little past the prison sometimes and park and backtrack on foot to sit by the French Broad, a river running by it, wondering if I could walk up to the tin guard shack and ask to be admitted. On the banks of the French Broad I read The New Yorker or The Atlantic or The Nation, Ta-Nehisi or Naomi. Or I sit and write in this journal that I am now writing in, a portfolio of drafts I wish to revise and submit. Iona writes that she misses River and misses being pregnant. She couldn’t miss mothering, she writes, because she was one only for weeks of a life of years: My breastmilk never came in, and I didn’t know what to do about that. I had no help, and it wasn’t instinctual like I thought it’d be. The weeks of his life were choppy waters of trying—trying to feed sleep heal love rebecome the person I was alongside this other person. Rebecoming is something I’m still trying for. I ask what River’s voice sounded like, and she writes back, High and excited, and this surprises me; I don’t know why I expected him to be silent and watchful. He always doubles back and asks if what he’s saying makes sense. And he apologizes all the time for doing this. I would tell him to stop apologizing. She writes of her incarceration: Prison isn’t a matronly environment of goddesses, women gathering strength from women, as I’d expected when I was taken to Buncombe County from the hospital. She writes of her life: Bars and cinderblocks and bars and cinderblocks and abuse and bars. This one guard makes me strip in my cell and always makes me lift my breasts up and let them fall so they bounce—It’s protocol, he smiles. He supervises my showers and makes me get innovative to contain my menstrual flow. She writes of more than guard abuse: Other inmates, of all ages twenty to sixty, leer at me and lunge at me and grab me. I tell the backwall of my cell of my pain, all one hundred eight cinderblocks, which I want to smash, but not to escape because there is no escape but to take the pieces and throw them at the bars. I want to hear the deep resonance of the vibrating metal bars. I want to hear that noise. *** Ed has died; he didn’t seek treatment for pancreatic cancer that doctors found spreading to other organs. My own daughter is living, well into what the culture calls the terrible twos. 155
Becoming a parent has given me no new emotions. It has only made me emotionally unpredictable. The fear of her death makes me irrational. I construct elaborate tragedies that haunt me. In the first year I feared Caren would stop breathing in the night. I feared I would go to her crib in the morning, and there she would be dead, her body temperature the temperature of the room. Now I fear I will forget her in the car, a false memory of her at home with Sandra blinding me to her presence in the car seat. Or I fear a car will hop the curb, and while I watch the vehicle will thwack her frame, a tire eating her head. I fear this and feel this fear throughout the day, every day— not continually but in flares of debilitating terror. I know it will happen. When a stray cat swipes at Caren’s face, sticking a claw in below her eye, which pulls out a dot of blood, Sandra says, over Caren’s shuddering sniffles, “I hate that any day can break everything.” After Caren goes to bed, Sandra says, “I read this article about a woman who hung her two-year-old over the rail above an African dogs exhibit at the zoo, thinking he could get a better view, and she dropped him. The pack of dogs ate the boy.” “Don’t read those articles,” I say before admitting that because I click those articles, the African dogs exhibit story populated my newsfeed too. “Are you taking Caren in the morning?” Sandra asks me. I am editor at the Mountain Observer now. And I still do the reporting. I report on what I think is important, but advertisers contact me about each issue to complain about the content. I want to hire another reporter but there is no money. On Wednesdays, the day the paper goes to the public, I typically bring Caren to the office until lunch to give Sandra a morning to herself. “I’m taking her,” I say. *** River never responded to the letter I sent, and I never sent a second. He never spoke to the media, and I doubt the media ever spoke to him. Maybe my letter never reached him. I don’t know what his daily life is like in prison. How much time he gets out of his cell. If he gets out of his cell. How guards or other inmates treat him. What his access to education is. If he can care for plants. If he can hear the rain. But I know what he will have for dinner tomorrow—or at least what the prison will give him for dinner tomorrow. Over the past year, 156
I’ve called the prison a couple of times and talked with multiple people who mumbled into the mouthpiece and seemed not to know much about where they worked. I called just to hear the voices inside. On the first call I posed as a medical supply company employee and asked how I could send an inmate a device he needed. On subsequent calls, I asked about teaching writing to inmates or about what has changed since the prison privatized. Employees typically transferred the call around until no one picked the line back up. I called yesterday, a Tuesday, and gave my reporter email address and requested information about the food the prison offers. I didn’t expect a response, but this morning I receive the following message from info@CCC.com: Hello Sir, hotdogs and fourth cup of beans, Pinto. Excited, I reply: Thank you for the information. What else is available to eat? What will inmates eat tomorrow? Any additional information would be very much appreciated. Within minutes, info@CCC.com writes: hotdogs today, hotdogs tomorrow. Warden bought a tractortrailer full of hotdogs. They’ll eat those till they spoil Sir and when they spoil Sir they’ll go in chili mac all cut up. But they’ll be on Pintos and hotdogs Sir for quite a little bit of time yet.
The Weight How could the atomic weight of grief Be unknown? Chemical reactions happen in one state Or the other; Always an exact chain of events triggered Differently within different People. In this new age Of enlightenment, Nothing escapes the microscope. Is grief equal to the gravity found On an Earth that supports no life but your own? That’s how alone Grief forces you to feel. Sorry For your loss. Loss Lighter than a mother’s dying breath; Your mother’s dying Breath Trapped In a balloon You will never Get To hold. Again.
Waylaid in the sky, Lord, in the sky – old gospel tune fragment
My friend has come back from a long and arduous journey, returned to us, patient with our need and our doubt. She had wanted to go to Heaven, bags packed and ready, but no—Heaven will wait awhile for her yet. She tells me this like someone who’d been waiting her whole life for a dream trip to Paris, all its glittering lights, only to find herself waylaid in some crummy little Texas town, like someone who sighed deep to deep and then just got on with her day—this day, for instance, this afternoon, this hour, this meal together. Her face is peaceful, her gaze takes me in, though I know she hears her Heaven tapping a toe, tidying up the place, arranging and rearranging the sunflowers in a vase of perfect earthenware blue. After lunch she drives away. I stand blinking in the parking lot, the summer sky thick with haze, the sun a near distant star. I tilt my head, shield my eyes from the grey and the glare. I squint I look up and up and up.
DOUG VAN HOOSER
Disappointment slouches in the chair stares at the clock as it repeats itself and I throw the calendar on the stack in the corner as if it were a snowbank and spring will come. Lost opportunities do not melt. They daydream haunt like a shadow that shrinks or grows as you change direction and life shifts A.M. to P.M. Regret puts on pounds. Effortâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s knees buckle. The daysâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; tinnitus swells an incessant reminder this is a no parking zone. A hollow echo does not fade
Poets Playing Catch In my faded Yankee cap under the Oklahoma sun flickering through trees turning green the four of us move onto grass finding the corners, north, south, east and west in a celebration of men becoming boys. I have the horsehide, two fingers across the seams like I am about to fire a fastball back into the 20th century. But in an exercise of unexpected wisdom, I send the orb spinning gently toward Hankâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s outstretched glove. He throws it to Cullen who tosses it to Paul at what would be third base should a diamond erupt beneath our feet, and he brings it home to me. The cycle repeats for a round or two before we alternate throws in random patterns occasionally bouncing balls into bushes. This is poetry, admittedly a rough draft, but still poetry Poets playing catch in April sunlight seems perfect to me, holier than any summer sermon as eloquent as a sonnet by Shakespeare and has, somehow, sanctified my day.
The End of Flowers We walk under a bower of crepe myrtles to a path leading out among the lambs and angels that decorate tombstones still standing a hundred years after the Spanish Flu planted this field with lost children. Keeping a promise made years ago to my mother, we place Christmas decorations on the graves of her father and first child my sister, taken twenty years before I was born. Decemberâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s short sun fails its attempt to brighten the necropolis, where most of the gravestones in the forgotten cemetery are broken or worn down by over a century of wind and water. Two nearby markers of the Confederate dead, Tennessee cavalry and Arkansas infantry lean perilously toward muddy earth holding the old bones of soldiers fallen long ago. â&#x20AC;&#x192; Moving back beneath the leafless trees I am saddened by the lone bit of color we leave behind. The bright red and green will go unnoticed. No one walks among these markers anymore. 162
Not another flower not another wreath can be seen in the fade of winter. Breathing in the sunlit air, I taste the melancholy of December on my tongue, knowing the day, too soon, will come when I no longer make this trek to these abandoned grounds and Christmas flowers will cease to dance in a cemetery wind.
What Moses Should Have Said I. Thou Shalt Thou shalt teach children how to think, not what to think. As Ian Tyson once said you must see no point in writing bullshit. Thou shalt begin all thought with doubt. Read some of Emerson, most of Faulkner and all of Steinbeck Thou shalt treat the janitor like the superintendent no wait, treat him better . . . heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s less likely to be a sonuvabitch. Remember other people have bad days sometimes even worse than yours. Thou shalt try to make a hand. An injurious truth is worse than a kind lie. Heed the words of Woody Guthrie this land really is your land. Thou shalt know exactly how much alcohol it takes to make you an asshole then stop two drinks before the limit just to be safe. Thou shalt be kind to animals and men unless they bite. Change your underwear daily if you wear underwear at all, that is. And if you donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t wear underwear be cautious how you sit. Thou shalt learn to distinguish the soldier from he who simply wears a uniform the same goes for policemen. Protect what you love. Love the things that deserve protection. Sit tall in the saddle. Dream. Thou shalt laugh often, and not be afraid to cry when needed. Love blue skies and green trees 164
feel the rain on your skin, watch the clouds run across the stars at night, and make love on the shore where the moon is in the water. Laugh. Thou shalt wear your scars well. Believe in baseball, books and beer the things most holy. Keep your baseball glove well-oiled (a game of catch could break out at any time). Thou shalt tip your waitress or your waiter appropriately. Always make your momma proud. And as someone once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” II. Thou Shalt Not Thou shalt not hesitate to sacrifice a bishop for your queen. Do not speak ill of others unless they really deserve it. Thou shalt not be offended by words; Fuck it; they’re just words, Instead, be offended by acts: cruelty, racism, sexism, injustice— these are real offenses. Thou shalt not turn the other cheek you’ll most likely just get hit again. Do not abide a bully in any form. Thou shalt not pull back on your reins as your horse is leaping. Never dance with the devil, but sometimes give his lady a quick spin. Thou shalt not forget you’re just a man better than some worse than others; you will be right, and you will be wrong. Don’t be foolish enough to believe rules only come in sets of ten. Never draw to an inside straight. 165
Thou shalt not play the fool for those who would use you unkindly. Thou shalt not bear false witness; Hell, even Moses got one right occasionally. Never trust the Queen of Diamonds, boy; she’ll beat you if she’s able; Henley and Frey got a lot of things right. Thou shalt not be afraid to change your mind nor to question the majority. Don’t drive your truck with your spurs on. Thou shalt not believe everything you hear; if it’s on Fox News, don’t even believe what you see Don’t read badly written books; you only have so much time. And most importantly, thou shalt not mention Waylon Jennings in the same breath with Luke Bryan.
Four Cotton Tales I. You Always Tell Me, It Is What It Is To rabbits it’s a burrow, perfect nest, though you intended mulch beneath the pines to nurture trees, not cottontails. Their zest for peppers, love of hollyhocks—the signs conspicuously clear: leaves fully stripped, and stems like middle fingers taunting us. You’ve planted over, started fresh—but whipped by rabbits every single time. You cuss, but try again. When I assess their tails of white, their noses puckered up, their ears on high alert, their lifts toward leafy grails, I don’t mind that our veggies and flowers are shared. My heart hops like an optimist’s. Better add peppers to the grocery list. II. From the Study of Animal and Human Behavior I can’t describe why they so fascinate, as do the mesa’s other morning sights: hot-air balloons, clouds that accumulate like hope, volcanoes pink in dawn’s thin light. But cottontails are out my window, here, almost in reach. Oh, I’m a fool for fur, for big, brown eyes, a fetching little rear. They sense me through the screen and freeze, unsure of what to do or where to go, though all I want is simple pleasure, nothing more. I understand why they can’t trust, but haul their bunny butts as fast as meteors. The ground is empty, though the skies are full. Why do I feel the scavenger’s dark hull? III. Keeping Aggression in Check A bunny jumps into our yard, as if the spaces in our gate are meant for him. He stops and hunkers down, the herbs a gift too good to pass, these months of drought so grim 167
that even mint is tempting this dry year. His deep brown eyes look hungry, so I risk my husband’s wrath and let him munch. I’ll hear those goddamn rabbits, his usual list of curses, worse if there’s complicity suspected. Silly wabbits, my response. Those snuffling whiskers, scrunched-up noses! Me: I can’t resist. And though my husband wants his herbs untouched, he’s left a water bowl, near the mint, a small oasis that’s full. IV. If Life Were a Cute Animal Video A cottontail, a baby, hunkers down outside the storm door on the welcome mat. It blinks but doesn’t move or make a sound as I approach, nor budge when our lounge-cat slinks near. The bunny, pepper-sized, remains stock-still, unfazed by man or animal. I wonder if it’s lost or hurt—or means to come inside—to feign invisible? Could cats and rabbits coexist? All kinds of creatures cuddle up in videos online—alpacas, pigs—none seems to mind companions, species unlike them. Suppose there’s any hope for us? Though while I muse, the welcome mat goes empty—and we lose.
BETH OAST WILLIAMS
with thanks to the Avett Brothers
We live on a paper street, a road drawn by man that never made it to land. An idea like religion, promises of love written in a book, never coming to fruition. Some seeds, unplanned, do take root. Volunteer vines take over my yard. I climb among them to pick the reddest fruit, as river wind spits in my face, knotting my long brown hair. I wonder if Jesus had hair blown into his eyes, and if he used his hand to ponytail it out of his face. Maybe he just asked God to calm the air. Air, it pushes a song through my lungs. I have no enemies. Light in an overgrown garden, tomatoes and hands washed by rain, and the world reads like a newfound poem.
BETH OAST WILLIAMS
Canning October, when we cover our skin and turn our backs to the wind. The sun, just a drop in an autumn cup, does little to lighten the sky. Days of yellow and red signal change, a shortness of breath. We wait for the haunting, the day we remember his leaving. Watch what falls from the treeâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; an acorn, pecan, nuts the squirrel hurries to bury underground. We hide him there too, like fruit, preserved in a jar. Grapes are pulled from the vine, so sweet at their prime, skin peeled back and seeds discarded. We wonder how our father, dead for years, could possibly nourish us now.
MARTIN WILLITTS JR
Billy Holiday, Until the Real Thing Comes Along
1942 session with Teddy Wilson and his orchestra, just before the blackout of Black music
Billy knew. Billy knew pain buried deep where the sun cannot find it. No drug could ease that kind of pain. You canâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t sing that kind of pain away. Billy tried. Billy tried really hard. Billy sang so hard, the sun went out, the moon became a magnolia flower in her signature hair. Yeah, Billy tried. The real love never came. Love never was easy; it was hard as knuckles. Love made you want to give up, throw in the towel, accept the pain, beg for more. Yes, sir, Billy knew pain. She sang at it, tried to sweeten it. Life was either up the scales or down. No middle ground. Billy knew pain. She leaned to the microphone, moaned a long trumpet. Blew hard; blew emptying a river; blew hot; blew cool. Billy knew pain.
Run’s End One day I’ll cease to run. I hope. I could return where it began— no body cult, no mental dope, but leisure walks, an aging man. I’d find the time to see the land, whatever shows in front, beside. I’d always have the sky at hand, enjoy my shadow, hit my stride. No stopwatch on my scrawny wrist, enough of that, I’d trust the sun. And if restrained, I’d just insist— no roads to strive along, but fun. However near or far, that date, I feel already primed, secure. And should the final call be late, I’d send away for it. For sure.
Stellar Graffitist Look up for the time is ripe— not even seers would deny that. And if stars shouldn’t shoot anymore, on account of a cosmic strike of sorts, against man or what else I don’t know— I’d use the remains of my childhood dreams just like fluorescent neon markers, to streak the silence of the night with colors and picture fireworks all across the vault. Before I write my next piece of truth in the shape of fluctuating lines, my empty mug cools down, and remembrance fails— I’ll have filled up the void I cannot name, wiped out everlasting nothingness, made sense of these overflowing skies, befriended their affronting vastness. Only then I’ll be allowed to lay down the pen, mute my conscience out awhile, drift off to well-deserved sleep.
THE AUTHORS Joshua Allen is an American reject from Indiana, though you may know him as the guy your friend's cousin knows. His work has been published in Angry Old Man Magazine, River and South Review, and Tributaries, among others. Bob Armstrong is a novelist, playwright, speechwriter, and freelance writer. His first novel, Dadolescence (Turnstone Press) was a comic novel dealing with masculinity in crisis. His forthcoming novel, Prodigies (Five Star Publishing), is a western/superhero crossover. His fiction has been published in Exile Editions (Canada), an anthology of Canadian comedy writing entitled That Dammed Beaver, Red Earth Review, Kudzu House, and Prairie Fire (Canada). He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. M.P. Armstrong is a student at Kent State University studying English and United States history. A native of Warren, Ohio, they enjoy traveling, board games, and brightly-colored blazers. Work published or forthcoming in Neon Mariposa Magazine, Riggwelter, Thimble Literary Magazine, and others. Find them online @mpawrites and at mpawrites.wixsite.com/website. Devon Balwit lives scarily close to the Cascadia Subduction zone. Her most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her poems can be found in The Worcester Review, The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Apt (long-form issue), Tule Review, and Grist, among others. For more, see her website at: https:// pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet Robert Beveridge (he/him) makes noise (xterminal.bandcamp.com) and writes poetry in Akron, OH. Recent/upcoming appearances will be found in The Virginia Normal, Credo Espoir, and Chiron Review, among others. Joey Brownâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s work has appeared in Concho River Review, Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, Louisiana Review, The Oklahoma Review, Cybersoleil, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Florida Review, San Pedro River River and other journals. She has published two collections of poems: Oklahomaography (Mongrel Empire Press) and The Feral Love Poems (Hungry Buzzard Press). She is working on Content Subject to Change, a poetry collection dealing with perception and memory. Joey teaches at Missouri Southern State University and lives in with her husband, prose writer 175
Michael Howarth, and their congenial pack of rescue dogs in their somewhat-renovated house. Sam Campbell grew up in Cary, Illinois and currently resides in Reno, Nevada. A Best of the Net nominee, his work can be found in numerous journals including Sierra Nevada Review, Poetry City USA, Zoomoozophone Review, Yes Poetry, and elsewhere. He co-edits Wend Poetry, holds an MFA from Boise State University, and teaches English at Western Nevada College. Marisa P. Clark is a queer writer from the South whose work has appeared in Apalachee Review, Cream City Review, Foglifter, Ontario Review, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere, with work forthcoming in Shenandoah, Dunes Review, Pangyrus, Qwerty, and Whale Road Review, among others. She was twice the winner of the Agnes Scott College Writers' Festival Prizes (fiction, 1996; nonfiction, 1997), and Best American Essays recognized her creative nonfiction among the Notable Essays of 2011. She reads fiction for New England Review and makes her home in New Mexico with three parrots and two dogs. Matt Dahl is a visual, verbal and musical artist whose work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Grub Street, and “Land of 10,000 Homeless” (music video). As editor of Chatsworth Press, he published an eclectic collection of national and international writers in the book Lonely Whale Memoir. His musical act, Drunk Girl Crush, will release its first album in late 2019. Mary Christine Delea has a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing, and is a former college professor. A native of Long Island, she now lives in Oregon. She is the author of one full-length book and three chapbooks, the most recent of which is Did I Mention There Was Gambling and Body Parts? from dancing girl press. Poems are upcoming and have recently been published in The Comstock Review, Jenny, River and South, and Tipton Poetry Journal. RC deWinter’s poetry is widely anthologized, notably in New York City Haiku (New York Times, February 2017), Cowboys & Cocktails (Brick Street, April 2019), Nature In The Now (Tiny Seed Press, August 2019), Coffin Bell Two (March 2020), in print in 2River, Adelaide, Event, Genre Urban Arts, Gravitas, Kansas City Voices, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, the minnesota review, Night Picnic Journal, Prairie Schooner, and Southword, among others and appears in numerous online literary journals.
Oklahoma-born Margaret Dornaus holds an M.F.A. in poetry translation from the University of Arkansas. An award-winning poet and nonfiction writer, her food and travel articles are published nationally and her poems appear regularly in international anthologies and journals. Her first book of poetry, Prayer for the Dead: Collected Haibun & Tanka Prose, released through her small literary press Singing Moon, received a 2017 Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America. Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer born in Chicago sometime after The Great Fire of 1871. She has been assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress, an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, playwright and screenwriter, Director of Development at Columbia Pictures Television, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and a mother. Seventy-one of her stories have been published by literary journals and anthologies and she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart. Her short-story collection, If One of Us Should Die, I’ll Move to Paris, is available on Amazon. F.I. Goldhaber's words capture people, places, and politics with a photographer's eye and a poet's soul. As a reporter, editor, business writer, and marketing communications consultant, they produced news stories, feature articles, editorial columns, and reviews for newspapers, corporations, governments, and non-profits in five states. Now, paper, electronic, and audio magazines, books, newspapers, calendars, broadsides, and street signs display their poetry, fiction, and essays. More than 100 of their poems appear in sixty-plus publications, including four collections. http://www.goldhaber.net/ Jonathan Greenhause was the winner of Aesthetica Magazine’s 2018 Creative Writing Award in Poetry, a runner up in America’s 2019 Foley Poetry contest, first runner-up in the 2018 Julia Darling Memorial Poetry Prize, and a recipient of 2nd Prize in Cannon Poets’ 2018 Sonnet or Not Poetry Prize. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, Moon City Review, New Ohio Review, and Salamander, among others. John Grey is an Australian poet and US resident who has recently published in That, Dunes Review, Poetry East, and North Dakota Quarterly with work upcoming in Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal, Thin Air, Dalhousie Review and failbetter. 177
Nicholas Higginson is an English writer who studied Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. He divides his time between the family home in the countryside, where he writes short fiction, and his house in the city, where he is currently working on his first novel. He has previously published in The Garfield Lake Review and Literally Stories. Brent House, a coeditor for The Gulf Stream: Poems of the Gulf Coast and a contributing editor for The Tusculum Review, is a native of Necaise, Mississippi, where he raised cattle and watermelons on his family’s farm. Slash Pine Press published his first collection, The Saw Year Prophecies, and his poems have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cream City Review, The Journal, Third Coast, and The Kenyon Review. Louisa Howerow's latest poems have appeared in Inscape, and the Canadian journals Arc, Grain, Event as well as in the following anthologies: Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times (Frontenac House, 2018), and Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology (Mansfield Press, 2018). Paul Juhasz has recently moved from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma City. He has worked at an Amazon fulfillment center, manned a junk truck, and driven for Uber, all to gather material for his poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. He has read at dozens of conferences and festivals across the country, including Scissortail and the Woody Guthrie Festival. His work has appeared in bioStories, Red River Review, Red Earth Review, Voices de la Luna, Windward Review, Dragon Poet Review, Tejascovido, Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way, and Speak Your Mind. His first book, Fulfillment: Diary of a Warehouse Picker was published by Fine Dog Press in July, 2020. Casey Knott received an MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University. She works in education, mentors students, tends to her urban farm, and helps edit The Wax Paper literary journal. Her book, Ground Work, was released in 2018 from Main Street Rag. Casey’s poetry has appeared in a number of journals, including Harpur Palate, Red Rock Review, White Pelican Review, Cold Mountain Review, Midwest Quarterly, and Poetry City, USA. S Frederic Liss, whose first novel will be published July 16, 2020, is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize, the St. Lawrence Book Award, and the Bakeless Prize. He has published more than 50 short stories. His work has been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, H.O.W. Literary Journal, Two Bridges Review, 178
Hunger Mountain, The Florida Review, Carve Magazine, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He earned an MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA and leads a fiction writing workshop at the St. Botolph Club, Boston, MA. Website: ︎www.sfredericliss.com Josh Mahler lives and writes in Virginia, where he was educated at George Mason University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Plainsongs, the Evansville Review, Exit 7, Chiron Review, the Carolina Quarterly, the Broad River Review, the Alembic, and elsewhere. Lisa Masé (she/her and they/them) writes about family, food, geography, and the invisible thread that weaves them. She teaches poetry workshops for Vermont’s Poem City events, co-facilitates a writing group, and translates poetry. Her poems have been published in Open Journal of Arts and Letters, Jacard Press, the Long Island Review, K’in Literary, Inlandia Review, Press 53, and Silver Needle Press among others. Born and raised on Long Island, Nolan Meditz received his MFA at Hofstra University in 2014. In 2018, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His poems have appeared in Roanoke Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Journal, Marathon Literary Review, deLuge Journal, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Weatherford, OK, where he teaches writing at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Daniel Edward Moore lives in Washington on Whidbey Island. His poems have appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Columbia Journal, Cream City Review, Western Humanities Review, Phoebe, Mid- American Review, december magazine, and others. Poems are forthcoming in Weber Review, The Cape Rock, Kestrel, RipRap, The Timberline Review, River Heron Review, Passages North, Passengers Journal, The Night Heron Barks, Coachella Review, Ocotillo Review and Nebo Literary Journal. He is the author of the chapbook, Boys (Duck Lake Books), and his full-length collection, Waxing the Dents, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2020. Visit him at Danieledwardmoore.com. Cameron Morse was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2014. With a 14.6 month life expectancy, he entered the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missouri—Kansas City and, in 2018, graduated with an M.F.A. His poems have been published in numerous magazines, including New Letters, Bridge Eight, Portland Review and South Dakota Review. His first poetry collection, Fall Risk, won Glass Lyre Press's 2018 Best Book Award. His latest is Baldy (Spartan Press, 179
2020). He lives with his wife Lili and two children in Blue Springs, Missouri, where he serves as poetry editor for Harbor Review. Kevin J.B. O'Connor received his MFA from Old Dominion University and has published poetry in numerous journals. He lives in Baltimore and teaches English. Lauro Palomba taught ESL and done stints as a freelance journalist and speechwriter. Approximately eighty of his poems and stories have appeared in American and Canadian literary journals. A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quartercentury in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his verse appears this year in Headcase: LGBTQ Writers & Artists on Mental Health and Wellness (Oxford UP) and Lovejets: queer male poets on 200 years of Walt Whitman from Squares and Rebels. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha Harsh Ramchandani is a writer based in Hong Kong. Currently working in the IT industry, he enjoys writing poetry and short fiction as a creative outlet. He would ultimately would like to use his creative writing to help raise funds for various causes he supports. www.harshchan.com Carlos Ramet earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. His scholarly articles and short stories have appeared in The Critic, the Bilingual Review, Bolivian Studies, Studies in Popular Culture, Puckerbrush Review, and the Michigan Academician, among other publications. He is the author of two books of literary criticism and interpretation, both on the novelist Ken Follett. Christian Rivera Nolan grew up in his grandparents home in Santa Clara to a working-class Mexican-American household, raised by his mother and disabled brother. He studied Latinx Studies and BiologyPhysiology. An aspiring physician, poet, and community organizer. He is a child of alcoholics, of divorce, and the son of a Navy veteran battling post-traumatic stress and mental illness. He enjoys backpacking, spoken word poetry, and salsa dancing. He believes in growth through conflict and in the accumulation of knowledge through the service to others. 180
David Salner’s writing appears in Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, Salmagundi, Beloit Poetry Journal, Lascaux Review, and North American Review. His fourth book is The Stillness of Certain Valleys (Broadstone Books, 2019). He worked as iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, and now librarian. He has an MFA degree from the University of Iowa. David Anthony lives in Virginia with his wife and life partner, Linda. Sam’s poetry has appeared in over 90 journals and publications including Crossroads Poetry Journal, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Gravel Magazine, december magazine, and Two Cities Review. His poem, “First and Last,” won the 2018 Rebecca Lard Award. Sam has five published collections including Final Inventory (2018). A sixth, Dark Fathers, is forthcoming in 2020. He currently teaches creative writing at Germanna Community College, from which he retired as President in 2017; he serves as Regional Vice President of the Board of the Virginia Poetry Society. M.C. Schmidt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University. He is the author of two novels, and his recent short fiction has been published by Litro, Every Day Fiction, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Dime Show Review, The Book Smuggler's Den, and Cleaning Up Glitter. He has work forthcoming from Abstract Magazine. Chad Szalkowski-Ference received an MFA from Carlow University. He is a PhD student at Duquesne University. His work appeared recently in Fjords Review. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his partner and their daughter. David Tromblay served in the U.S. Armed Forces for over a decade before attending the Institute of American Indian Arts for his MFA in Creative Writing. His essays and short stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review; RED INK: International Journal of Indigenous Literature, Arts, & Humanities; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; Pank Magazine; Yellow Medicine Review; Open: Journal of Arts & Letters; Watershed Review; FIVE:2:ONE Magazine; and BULL: Men's Magazine. His memoir, As You Were is forthcoming from Dzanc Books (2021). He currently lives in Oklahoma with his dogs, Bentley and Hank. Robin Turner is a community teaching artist and online writing guide for homeschooled teens. She has recent work in Doubleback Review, Deluge, Unlost Journal, and Sweet Tree Review, new work forthcoming in One and in Heron Tree Review, and is the author of a chapbook, bindweed 181
& crow poison (Porkbelly Press). She makes her home just up a leafy path from White Rock Lake in Dallas, Texas. Doug Van Hooser's poetry has appeared in Chariton Review, Split Rock Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, After Hours and Poetry Quarterly among other publications. His fiction can be found in Red Earth Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Bending Genres Journal. Doug’s plays have received readings at Chicago Dramatist Theatre and Three Cat Productions. Ron Wallace is an adjunct instructor of English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, in Durant, and is the author of nine books of poetry; five of which have been finalists for the Oklahoma Book Awards. Renegade and Other Poems won the 2018 Oklahoma Book Award, and his latest work, The Last Blue Sky was a finalist in the 2019 Oklahoma Book Awards. Wallace has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has recently been published in Oklahoma Today, San Pedro River Review, Red River Review, Concho River Review, Red Earth Review, Oklahoma Humanities Magazine, and Borderlands, among others. Scott Wiggerman is the author of three books of poetry, Leaf and Beak: Sonnets, Presence, and Vegetables and Other Relationships. He is the editor of several volumes, including Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry I & II, Bearing the Mask, and Weaving the Terrain. Poems have appeared recently in Chiron Review, Unlost, Pinyon Review, Better than Starbucks, and Allegro Poetry, as well as in the anthology Lovejets. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his husband, writer David Meischen. Beth Oast Williams is a student with the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Her poetry has appeared in West Texas Literary Review, Wisconsin Review, Glass Mountain, The Bookends Review, and Willard and Maple, among others. She was nominated for the 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry, received second place in the 2019 Poetry Matters Project and was a semi-finalist for Poet’s Billow’s 2018 Atlantis Award. Her workshop experience includes Bread Loaf and VQR Writers Conferences. Martin Willitts Jr has 24 chapbooks including the winner of the Turtle Island Quarterly Editor’s Choice Award, The Wire Fence Holding Back the World (Flowstone Press, 2017), plus 16 full-length collections including the Blue Light Award 2019 winner The Temporary World. His most recent book is Unfolding Towards Love (Wipf and Stock). He is an editor for the Comstock Review.
Alessio Zanelli is an Italian poet who writes in English and whose work has appeared in over 150 literary journals from 15 countries. His fifth original collection, The Secret Of Archery, was published in 2019 by Greenwich Exchange (London). For more information please visit www.alessiozanelli.it.