The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Oklahoma City University July 2018â€©
© Red Earth Review 2018
All Rights Reserved
RED EARTH REVIEW Editorial Board
Hank Jones Keely Record Shelley Cassada
THE RED EARTH MFA
Write in the middle of it all Faculty Advisor
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
Red Earth Review is published once a year in July. For submissions, consult our website for guidelines and deadlines. Please email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not accept print or email submissions; directions for using our submissions engine may be found on our website: bit.ly/RedEarthRev. Submissions sent outside our open period or sent by mail or email will not be considered or returned. Red Earth Review is available in print and as a PDF document. Print copies are $12 each and the PDF may be downloaded for free at our web site bit.ly/ RedEarthRev or viewed at Issuu: http://issuu.com/redearthreview. Contact us by email or by post to order print copies. Red Earth Review The Red Earth MFA @ OCU English Department, WC 248 2501 N Blackwelder Oklahoma City, OK 73106-1493 Cover Art: OCU Sky © 2018 by Shelley Cassada Note: All Red Earth MFA student submissions are referred to outside readers for blind review.This year’s student submissions reviewer was Julie Chappell, Tarleton State University. After first publication in Red Earth Review, all rights revert to the author/artist. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Red Earth Review staff, The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program, or of Oklahoma City University.
CONTENTS POETRY Laurinda Lind Abandon Carpenter’s Daughter
Samantha Curtin Ekphrasis (Reflexive)
Jan Chronister Rock Collector
Mark Evans Self portrait
Satch Dobrey Beneath the Winding Stair Mountains
Carol Smallwood Hanging Clothes on Clotheslines
Ryan Clark Navajoe, TX It’s All About Water Great Western Cattle Trail, 1874–1896
8 9 11
Devon Miller-Duggan Monsoon Season, High Desert, with Miriam and Flowers Festschrift for Snodgrass
Heath Brougher A Metallic World
Alan Gann Transmission Ghazal for a Hushed Tongue
Jeffrey H. MacLachlan Joint Custody Kinkade Americana Lawnmower Quest Marie’s Remaining Smoke
19 20 21 22
Madelyn Parker Second Hand
Michelle Hartman The Police are at the Door Devil don’t go where I make my home
Taunja Thomson Brother and Sister The Mind
27 28 !i
Renae Tucker Bill Nye Says Horoscopes Are Fake Oh Princess, Oh Pea
Louisa Howerow Double Digging The Day I Understood Lucky Visitation Reflections On Leaving
31 32 33 34
Danny P. Barbare The Mountains
F.J. Bergmann Validation
Susan J. Erickson An Elegy for the Poet’s Mother Facing Fear (Or Not): An Abecedarian Nostalgia and Blue Shoes
37 38 39
Gus Palmer, Jr. River City Cronus Devouring His Child A Hill At Dusk
41 42 43
Lauro Palomba Mother and Child Library Power Couple
46 47 48
Winston Plowes tramp
Jack Granath Still Life in a Frame
John F. Buckley Last Straw
Steve Klepetar A Summer Night
Cameron Morse Cancer Patient
Cullen Whisenhunt Color Poem
Jennifer Hambrick Ask Me Again Valentine’s Day
Vivian Wagner Close
Michael G. Smith wild How are things in Montana this summer? I Thought I Understood Gravity None of This Should Be Mistaken for Physics
63 64 66 67
Ron Wallace Talons
Bruce Robinson To know ourselves . . .
Kelly Talbot Kansas City Madman
Tyler Friend hunger
Martin Willitts Jr Sonnet: Listening to Rain Making Love
Luke Morgan Splash Days
Kevin Brown If History Repeats Itself, Iâ€™m So Getting a Dinosaur There is No Evidence That the Tongue is Attached to the Brain Trust in God But Lock Your Car
75 76 77
Marc Janssen September VI Child of the Wind at Fifty, Thank You Bruce Cockburn
PROSE Hannah Meeske You Are Here
Joe Baumann Look at Me
Darren Dillman Making the Bully Cry
Andrew J. Hogan The Cold Front
Jonathan B. Ferrini The Final Watch
Kevin Fitton Something Worthy of His Shame
Bob Armstrong Testing
John Michael Flynn The Millbury Street Legend
Jill Talbot Bobby Fischer
Alec Osthoff Unincorporated
Tom Zoellner Drive
Karen Karlitz The Ex Flies
Rachel Marston The Shape of the Day
Constance Renfrow The Things That Change
LAURINDA LIND Abandon If we go. If we give the floor away forever. If the sun flicks fast, uncorks the old cold caves. If the worst wanting is undone in the air. Then the piecing of the paths, the tighter brighter turning. The ways wrought while we dreamed we were delivered.â€Š
LAURINDA LIND Carpenterâ€™s Daughter It is a plague year with three strains circulating. The two of us are wrapped against the ravaging, stricken from within. On the other side of the house sleep my parents, not yet sick, though at ninety-four all my father needs to make him fall off the earth and disappear forever is one fraught molecule from over here. Earlier years, when he had to hide he did it in the garage among generations of hand tools and fasteners halfsorted, and the air, so full of ferrous oxide, oil, and cement dust, sought his brain center where reassembled elements somehow kept him brave and safe. I donâ€™t dare go over there, even with gloves and a mask, so into his inert hands where he has lain in bed a month and a half I imagine a hammer and a hacksaw, hoping he will bash his way out, escape to another outbuilding. Or dig through to a cellar where once he gets there he stays and stays, secret and whole.â€Š
SAMANTHA CURTIN Ekphrasis (Reflexive) Her body fills the entire mirror hanging on the door. Hips rest at the wooden edges of the frame. Hands tangle in the bed mess of her hair, tying it up. Stomach strokes thick rolls of oil on her smooth skin. Blues and yellows stain her breasts while nipples become planets and stars. The trunk leads down to the holy steeple.
JAN CHRONISTER Rock Collector Small granite eggs, chunks of chocolate basalt fill pockets on my walk. Thrown by county trucks when winter sanding they sit like Easter candy on top of last fallâ€™s grass. On family vacations I was drawn to the polished rock bins in gift shops. I could fill a small pouch for two bucks. Apache tears, rose quartz, turquoise lured me but parents pulled me away. What do you need those for? Now I have good-sized rocks brought back from Pierre, Yosemite, Lake Superior. I visit my kids and grandkids, smile when I see geodes, limestone fossils amethyst displayed on shelves to remind us of beginnings, hold in our hands when sad.
MARK EVANS Self portrait I am not pretty. I have scars. One on my forehead Is proof I didn’t duck. One on my chin is when I ducked too soon. My eyes, thinly browed, Always look surprised and Ears, too wide, Frame a network of wrinkles That grew no matter what I applied. My face is accidental, one I didn’t plan. Smooth canvas for a child, A painter’s pallet for the man.
SATCH DOBREY Beneath the Winding Stair Mountains The ox-burdened branch of the Blackjack Oak frozen with a stiff feathered cloak of fur and blood, stripped to the cored vines at bark's end, hung with no rope attached to the neck; one man's blotted belly beat against the splintered wreck, ripped loose from its gutted cave of clay and ash to which the turkey vultures laid their claim. Long ago abandoned bones turned black found their way to the surface again. Relic of the past, unearthed from the rubble that tears this crusted and be-dusted end of the trail. No trace of twine wound the twisted nape of the native's spine, not tied to a pole, nor symbol carved for the totem. No village remains from the dynamite explosion that shattered the pots and brought down the sacred mound. No stone bearing name or passage closed the face of the splintered skull, fierce in its hot pursuit of myth. Lone Caddo warrior, born to the windblown hide of this country, who danced the ghost dance of the dead, entered into treaty with the Comanches and the French, defeated the Spanish at San Teodoro, dead before a new race is fathered. Knotted to the claws and breast of the beast, that drug the carcass across the foothills of blowing dust and whose breath melts the spoken word of ancestry. Nothing from the passage save an inscribed tablet denoting the Ouachita Trail, US Highway 259 and the stray colt running down Horse Thief Spring.â€Š
CAROL SMALLWOOD Hanging Clothes on Clotheslines Save energy instead of using dryers like most others do— before using lines wipe with a clean damp cloth each time, hang sheets so they block clothes you prefer others not to view. Wash on the traditional Monday and don’t be afraid of dew: no matter your age, if you work fulltime, or aren’t in your prime— save energy instead of using dryers like most others do. Pin up shirts by their tails, pants by cuffs, even if doing a few and it is best to hang them so they’re quite dry by dinnertime; hang sheets so they block clothes you prefer others not to see. Be neat and remove clothes pins to avoid them gathering grime, and it’s fine to use one pin instead of two if you only have a few. Save energy instead of using dryers like most others do. Pin up socks by the toe; keep hanging clothes—follow through as they stand straight when harvesting frozen in wintertime: hang sheets so they block clothes you prefer others not to view. Do try this advice as you’ll find it is solid, tested, and quite true and you’ll find taking clothes down also a relaxing pastime. Save energy instead of using dryers like most others do— hang sheets so they block clothes you prefer others not to view.
RYAN CLARK Navajoe, TX Mud dried on fences, wheat a flowing veil pressed over a shadowâ€”Navajoe undid itself, gave up the young trade town, and left. This is a mountain a Navajo established in defeat. Nothing of our location is stage, no holy wash of romantic wand. Some sites claim the railroad, and the wheat shifts south.â€Š
RYAN CLARK Itâ€™s All About Water 1. The dry nation of the forked river hung like dust eyes, a shook matter tore from where the water was, or where water was at least a stain bled through the red dirt, insistent gyp water from the wells, soft and undrinkable. 2. A river is sung, sewer-fraught width of suck water risen over what of us we release to it. There our care is wet, and hate is a dry fear showing tusk where arid lines sing. 3. The average annual rainfall is a song sung wide and short. We record it in waves of inches, follow a sound of rocks for hail. Even this is a year. 4. Cotton is a drought-resistant plant, meaning free of the collapse we find in us at key times. Here is a season as wet as we need.
5. Wet needles dive into a fresh water well, a lung dug rough out of a rain we lost to the table. Stick to this as a caught surface of what from a flood tears through us sudden in the night. What destroys is what secures us moving into unknown fields, this trusted river. 6. The Atlas missile silo is a giant deep in the water table. Pumps surround the cavity as if water is defeatable, closed off like oxen in a wooden, varnished yoke. A flat form loves time. 7. Construction of water is a dam washed into a river, a duct boarded off, for order is a search unending for what assures us full of panic in a flooded universe. Please fill what are our needs and do not destroy our fragile lives. This love of dams is an entreaty not to fail.â€Š !10
RYAN CLARK Great Western Cattle Trail, 1874â€“1896 The river held its pocket of the route, the freight steered toward Teepee in the Wichitas, steer churning forward as a head, each one a saddle or a mouth, steaks or teeth at the rates of the north. A used head driven on to profit joined a vein at the fork, crossed the Red for a night, and trod on. A narrow stain of pressed hoof rang thick over land, stretched Warren along the way up past the wood shops so tight to the canter it shot a fair even rectangle of a town. Dark wire fences cut off the route in settled acres, fence a stinging vine, a hundred teeth driven into crosses. It took homes made of sod to stop the trail from winning out. Dug-in families shove up the dirt; the dry grass tenses wheat.
DEVON MILLER-DUGGAN Monsoon Season, High Desert, with Miriam and Flowers Circling Albuquerque, 15 years ago, I thought “Oh, home,” though it was 30 years then since I’d lived among sage. Grey shawls the mountains each evening, unfolds over the red-dust town. Russian Sage purples the neighborhood we walk counting flowers, musicking their names when we can. That high-pitched blue creeper and mustard-edged rust weed with folded-back petals—I can’t name. Breath is hard here, though bright air promises abundance. Therefore, prayer comes and goes with each inhale, each exhale. I have learned not to want stillness. But gratitude is a window and curtains lifted by breeze. Names I know of flowers—holy. Names I don’t—the same. 20 years ago, I flew here after a death. Looking out over the plane’s wing, Ruins, sudden rises, cottonwoods—as much mine as one people’s home both belongs to all and also to none but its builders. Hummingbird moths ruffle the sage. The real problem is that you can only see the mountains from some balconies and spaces in between buildings. I don’t know whether I’ve changed my life or whether I’ve changed my life so many times I’ve lost track. I learn Mexican Hat Flower and Blue Rock Cress.
DEVON MILLER-DUGGAN Festschrift for Snodgrass I. First, we saw the Whitman-beard, avalanching down across gaudy folk-art vests as if his voice had cracked it loose. And the voice: Viols, cellos, a slice of brass. Then his stories: Hecht (gone, too) reciting “Lycidas” in W.C. Fields’s voice. Berryman (long gone) needing to be bailed out and the bright young men of poetry drunkenly discussing which looked respectable enough to do the thing. Croquet with Lowell at Iowa—blood-sport. The gorgeous bellydancer for whom he played the oud in some dark Detroit club. The gorgeous student who’d seen his jacket photo and thought to please by declaring he’d been handsome 20 years before. Speer, in prison, telling Snodgrass Hitler had “neglected his [own] knowing.” II. The day Snodgrass died was just a day. Possibly more than one poet died. Certainly more than one husband died. He didn’t disappear. There was no mystery. Like Yeats, he died in winter. The wolves of history and horror ran the woods as usual. The poems live or don’t, and don’t care about the poet.
III. Cancer’s taken three of my fathers— The blood father I claim slapped me into poetry, Wright—who cracked the egg of eloquence and made flowers bloom from bones, and Snodgrass, who thought Auden’s poem for Yeats tactless and uneven. Ruark’s gone south to softer air and accents. Enough fathers, Lord, enough. IV. Snodgrass, poet, is departed, Hungry-minded, wounded-hearted, Gone down breathless, gone down heard, Gone down confessed: he romanced words. Avowed, owned-up, revealed, disclosed, Un-bosomed, blown, unwrapped, exposed: We’re all complicit, all unmasked, Interrogated, each and all. He asked. Yet trippingly he danced the meters, Jigged the sounds and waltzed the letters, Mazurka-ed nouns, cakewalked verbs— Choreography of hearts and hurts. He played and carved and sang and taught, Loosened voices tied in knots, Asked his students for more brilliance, Conducting them toward resilience. Stand up. He stood. He played. He taught. He wrote. He loved. He sang. He fought. He died at rest, in love, in private, Unafraid, awake, and quiet.
HEATH BROUGHER A Metallic World Steel trees bloom above my head, their tinny foliage gleaming from certain vantage points along the path in the night, shimmering, as I trek onward noticing a copper birdâ€™s nest built on the silver branches without a smidgeon of verdigris. I canâ€™t help but wonder what happens when the chill of Autumn arrives with its light aluminum breeze and the iron leaves fall clanking to the ground beneath the turquoise sun. But for now it is warm and I pick you a metal rose, so heavy and shiny and lifeless.
ALAN GANN Transmission from the Latin Trans meaning beyond across change and Mission meaning to send away metal giants marching across stick figures shouldering their load of electrons bundled uninsulated garlanded from tower to tower look back look back look back there the coal burning wind harvested sun captured water pulled through the dam potential energy transformed stand beneath and listen to the hum hundred and thirty-eight kilovolt buzz feel your bones rebel against transmission somewhere a turbine spins so you can flip a switch and the television the computer refrigerator air conditioner light bulb in the end everything glows night is meaningless fire is meaningless In my tiny apartment I count two hundred and seven devices requiring electrons to flow through wire
Mission is a town butting the Rio Grande two in the morning prime crossing time transfer to a dark trailer transported beside transmission lines set free in the glowing parking lot of an HEB my mechanic prefers working on manual transmissions art of meshing gears shifting skill higher gears go faster lower gears do more work so rich men prefer smooth automatic rides and the stick figures transformers bulging biceps of copper and steel tireless across the fields beside the highways beyond the horizon connecting source to destination dreamers to dreams hands to purpose let their bones own the night double-clutch into overdrive let their skin own the day harvest the sun capture the wind until the turbines spin for themâ€Š
ALAN GANN Ghazal for a Hushed Tongue Watching Orion climb the night, we feel compelled to whisper. Milky Way puts city lights to shame, listen for the whisper. Sun pushing through stained glass projects a multihued stigmata. Under judgmental gaze of saints, we speak to God in whispers. Dim-lit hospital room, a loved one is about to die. Lean forward, kiss and stroke their hand, share secrets in a whisper. By day we can walk above the dead sharing a glass of wine. But after dark, only fools and graveyard drunks do not whisper. Books are holy things, by volume and page their spells are woven. Librarians stare, their presence reminding me to whisper. Siamese once worshiped, bronze statues glyphed with smooth exultations. Curled in your lap, they purr and listen only if you whisper. A waltz so our bodies meet and mingle, band and lights are low. Hand on waist, three steps turn, speak my name urgent in your whisper.
JEFFREY H. MACLACHLAN Joint Custody We met in a grand courtyard after work and the sun hung low like summer fruit ready to drop. A forceful breeze bent aquagreen fountain jets like willows and she munched on a sandwich bag of celery stalks. I rolled the bitter words around my mouth in a cherry pit. And finally spit. We both watched it hurtle to the ground and strike. It sat there, fleshless, shivering, awaiting its stone to unzip.â€Š
JEFFREY H. MACLACHLAN Kinkade Americana A candle-blue sun lights a slight cottage aflame and inside, children dine on fried sunchoke and blood oranges. Their mother in tattered silk paints a flowered hill with a weathered farmhouse. Smashed jelly jars stain light straw and a pigtailed blonde rolls a cigarette, lighting it cross-eyed. She takes a puff with the sound of a trumpet note, breaks out her paints and downs a dry shot of speed. Her pastel pupils march around her sockets with ebony torches in revolt against the white.â€Š
JEFFREY H. MACLACHLAN Lawnmower Quest I need directions to Howie Homelite. Small engine repair guy. Cheap. I hear you get off Van Camp and follow stone paths to the quarry. New families of raindrops move in every Monday, and my lawn is now a marauding hydra that I decapitate every morning. I never imagined this would be my life. I pictured vineyards and diners and desert highways as I lane split to the City of Angels. No one tells you that retirement is a vacation between worlds. So here I am looking for Howie Homelite to fix this son of a bitch or else the hydra boa constricts me in my sleep. The End. The wife and I had a date night Saturday and after waiting for the final credits to ascend to heaven, the projector never crackled. Just clinical quiet. It’s digital now said the kid sweeping smuggled candy. And this is why I landscape with quaking death machines. There’s no damn crackle waiting for anybody.
JEFFREY H. MACLACHLAN Marie’s Remaining Smoke Both of my grandmothers smoked, but my maternal one never bothered to hide it. When she died, my father and I retrieved her cat from the basement. The wallpaper throughout her house could only be described as damaged Tweety feathers. She always wanted to be a writer, but economic necessity made her a social worker. She published once. It wasn’t an exposé on the plights of New York elderly, or a villanelle about street girls pimped for a nickel on Christmas Eve, but a biography of her childhood mutt. She wanted to enshrine the pleasure it delivered permanently because, hey, dogs die every day. But she was seven and the stock market ignited into rotten ash. She found solace in fingering its white fur, its twitchy red nose dripping a bit, and never wanted anyone to forget.
MADELYN PARKER Second Hand I In the wintertime I used to pretend my breath was cigarette smoke, no cough after lengthly sips through two saluted fingers. I am still that child. Wet, dark, silvery streets of Madrid are the places to strike light. A man’s cloud of mouth a subtle shout. The biggest, boldest vapor —chemical encapsulation, miraculous and hazy— smoke-screens the sun out. The pipe—the more honest one, and my breath lit by the match unseen. II A young man lingers he hands out ads confections at the mouth of the metro. He’s offering english lessons. I could tell him I don’t need to learn english Instead I say No quiero.
I don’t want him to know where I’m from. I don’t want to spend 70 euros a day for english lessons any more than this guapo wants me to have a buenos tardes. His lips would be better suited to sucking out the insides of his daily cigarette. His lips, mine, and the rest of Spain’s all breathing each other’s tobacco smoke, —glimmering ink—the tar of the street.
The Police are at the Door Dead. The thought does not fully register. How does god pick who’s to die, how does a serial killer; or do I repeat myself? It seems to have the organization of those arcade cranes dipping into cheap trinkets and candy. Money slides in and the cranes go, articulated grip inside a glass case. Hold a button move it left or right, back or forward. A second button drops it onto pile of prizes. If you’re lucky it gets a drug dealer or pedophile, but if you’re not it gets your grandchild or husband. Money goes into charities church plates bribes trying to beat senseless, arbitrary crane.
MICHELLE HARTMAN Devil don’t go where I make my home No wonder prophets find God in the desert, falling into endless blue kiss try to hold onto dust remember who scorched the ground who said it’d be alright. I’d be happy to have him on this road. Desert, warps your thoughts strange and empty beliefs of how world works shredded by each desolate mile. Shimmers roll slowly into infinity world is upended and I dangle from spiny cactus over a universe of vacant sky.
TAUNJA THOMSON Brother and Sister Ours is not a caravan of despair.—Rumi I didn’t know I’d be sitting here talking to you, me at 49, you 40. You were supposed to be dead by 25. A misdiagnosis perhaps. But a damned good one as far as I’m concerned. What have we gained by these extra years? Laughter, so much laughter—eaves shook on rainy days with our laughter. And on sunny winter days? We were always warm hogging light at windows. Your cough went away for a few hours at those times. We very rarely had awful days at the same time so we were always 50 percent cheer. Wrapped in October’s fleet grey clouds, and perhaps some sort of worry on your part or mine, we retreated into horror movies, figuring what the hell, embrace the darkness—it’s always there inside body and/or mind. But mostly what I remember is laughing, losing breath to it, staring at trees, talking music and Zen. What I want moving forward? Laughter— thick, sliding down the throat like honey, pattering soft, then hard, like raindrops on eaves until there is no more sky. !27
TAUNJA THOMSON The Mind Jade moon—silent and full— coyly carved in clouds and leaning upon a sylvan boy a mirage on the roof of mind with its eaves rusting in rain determined not to see sails or hear psalms or love the diamond glint of herons the lyric of the loon. This mind would call a cab for a druid and miss the waving gorse for the jet overhead. Let it open to the cobra lolling in sun the ado of finches and fern in spring the riot of rot and wind in autumn the nubs of rays thumping ground on a crisp morning crows awhir wings awhirl leaving summer’s violaceous twilight. Open to papaya and eagle and ode and adieu. The bree is your dais— crack open mind spread your arms roll your tongue out so that it chimes and on cue sky above this Styx will clear to reveal dove and bat with eyes like full moons.
RENAE TUCKER Bill Nye Says Horoscopes Are Fake The moon is going to be so full next Wednesday its pants will pop off and the button will hit you square in the eye. Mercury will be in retrograde so be open to a new opportunity, Taurus. Get rid of the toxic person, Leo. You may meet someone new (but you will only see them with your good eye), Libra. Donâ€™t make any impulsive decisions, Pisces. When itâ€™s in the first quarter, do you consider it half full or half empty? Curiosity sings itself Happy Birthday on Mars once a year, but no one is around to hear. Does it sound?
RENAE TUCKER Oh Princess, Oh Pea I am lying right here. Like pancakes, Iâ€™ve stacked them high. Iâ€™ve maple-syrup smothered you. Under pillows, a voice I know cracks a joke. I cover my mouth. More mattresses. Your smell leaks through memory foam. I pile more. Somehow, you are still feeling me. Pulling on strands of loose hair or just barely brushing my elbow. Nothing says my name like your mouth did. I imagine myself clawing through kings, queens, springs and twins to swallow your whole body.
LOUISA HOWEROW Double Digging The year my aunt, Galya, carried the whiff of fruit, past overripe, we planted her garden with wild sorrel, beans and peas, made pickles from her gherkins, braided garlic heads with red ribbons to hang in the kitchen. We worked, spoke little. “Rotting,” Galya said once. I wondered if she smelled what I smelled as she pointed to her swollen abdomen. “This is what happens to old women, wanting children; we rot from the inside out.” Eaten too many berries I thought, berries she should have thrown out, put in the compost. The last year I sat by her bedside, I imagined the surgeons cutting her open, taking out what they could. I wanted to see Galya tall and sturdy, again. “Not giving in, not yet,” she said. “There’ll be a garden to plant.” I nodded, not daring to imagine any of it, not winter’s end, not spring.
LOUISA HOWEROW The Day I Understood Lucky When the teacher asked me, “Where are you from?” and swept her hand past the ocean, I stared at the wall map, the blue, the puzzle of pinks, greens, yellows. Because I was born in a stopover country, because I had no country, because my father warned me some things are best not told, I said nothing and pressed into the cold window to look at the yard, the children playing. I heard the teacher step closer, heard “You’re lucky,” and I thought yes, because I was inside, because outside the words came too loud, too fast, too garbled, because outside I was afraid. And when she said, “I wish I knew your language,” my heart didn’t stall and I loved her.
LOUISA HOWEROW Visitation We are in our church elder’s basement, drinking his not-quite-hidden booze, the pretty coloured sweet liqueurs. One of us talks about the dead man’s shotgun, its highly polished stock. I liked his dog, a girl whispers, a setter. Another dips one finger at a time into her crème de menthe and sucks. She starts a joke, forgets how it goes. We do not ask each other if or how we left our bodies in this house, how we let things be done to them. We will learn all this later. Now our parents are upstairs. We don’t care if they find us, know they won’t, wish they would. We want to be infants, again. We will not tell our children any of this, but we will fear for them and they’ll wonder why.
LOUISA HOWEROW Reflections On Leaving But I pity the exile’s lot. Like a felon, like a man half-dead dark is your path, wanderer; wormwood infects your foreign bread. —Anna Akhmatova*
But what of the woman whose bread is long gone? What if her tongue knows only the bitterness of wormwood? She, half-dead, voice muted years ago, stuffs her lot into a refuse bag. How it sticks to her, its smell, colour, its rough-weave as she drags it through parched fields, past belching smoke stacks and bloated bodies. Think of closed doors, of the sea as an opening. Think of barnacles on a boat’s hull, the swell of waves, the roll of a ship. How this woman never trusts she’ll find safe ground. and yet she pities those who could not or would not leave. Far off lights smeared in the mist, somewhere a shore, foreign tongues, the constant what if.
*from I Am Not One Of Those Who Left the Land, 1922 translated by Stanley Kunitz
DANNY P. BARBARE The Mountains The mountains wanted me to write a poem. So I took the sky in my hand and wrote across the ridges in colorful ink because it was autumn and the words were so cool the paper smelled like apples.â€Š
F.J. BERGMANN Validation Back then all you had were grievances and histrionics, the stories about where you had been and what had happened to you, and a crazy-quilted pair of Levis before you tore off the patches to prove to some asshole that there really were holes underneath. Now that you have spent all these years stitching and embroidering its surface how will you authenticate your history of grief?
SUSAN J. ERICKSON An Elegy for the Poet’s Mother For S. E. E. I wear your necklace. The coral and agate beads bezeled in gold lie at the peach pit of my throat, remind me how your voice could melt ice cubes. When you read poems to me at night the vowels were beach stones that kept my pulse steady and let me believe that in the morning you’d still be wearing your blue-green gown. The blue-green gown that floated an inch above the floor. Your bare shoulders carried the scent of cedar, sandalwood and moss as if you had walked through a forest on the way to my bedroom. I told you, Mother, You must never go down to the end of town, if you don’t go down with me. You read to me, warned me, Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. When you drowned in the backwash of divorce you went where the gowns were white and left your knees bare. Then your gown smelled like laundry soap. You came home. Made sure I ate a good breakfast. You came home to write in your diaries, but burned them before you died. You left me the entomology dictionary (long before I imagined being a poet) with its inscription: To speed you on your way.
Quotes from “Disobedience” by A. A. Milne and “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats
SUSAN J. ERICKSON Facing Fear (Or Not): An Abecedarian Arachnophobia: I can trace its origins back along the overgrown path of childhood. But discovery doesn’t diminish my impulse to squash any innocent spider daring emigration to the country I’ve staked out as mine. My fear is a prisoner that guards itself. No need for a pistol in a shoulder holster. But hey, not all spiders are innocent—that black widow with its jerry-rigged tangle of a web could kiss its eightlegged life goodbye when, with malice and forethought (or not), it established its base of operations on the backyard play set. I know an entomologist could quote good-spider statistics to reveal my behavior as selfserving cream of mishmash. But fear is a teflon-coated titanium burden that resists rational understanding. See, see what a golden-throated vireo I’ve become. See how I can warble on, never really expecting to change, never really yielding my grip on the zipline of fear.
SUSAN J. ERICKSON Nostalgia and Blue Shoes A pair of blue-footed boobies waggle their feet in a showy mating dance or so says the caption for the month of March on the new World Wildlife calendar. Actually, the color of their feet is not so much true blue as turquoise— that Mediterranean sea color popular in the ads for resort vacations this time of year. And the very color of a favorite pair of shoes I owned in my twenties. The shoes were suede, t-strapped, kittenheeled and trimmed in olive leather. They might have been mating dance shoes, but I was already in the nesting and breeding stages. I wish I had them back— the shoes, not the nesting/breeding stages. All last year, month after month, I was a voyeur of the solitary people and places that Edward Hopper painted. Like that guy on the page for June raking the grass in a Pennsylvania coal town. To my eyes there is nothing to rake in that lawn. What makes me shake my head is how he’s dressed—in a white long-sleeved shirt, black trousers and a black vest. No one, and I mean no one, in the small Minnesota town where I grew up raked the yard in such an outfit. !39
My best guess? He wanted to get out of the house. Maybe his wife had a migraine. The drapes (but not the green shades) of the yellow house are pulled against the sun. I changed my mind. He’s a bachelor. It must be his mother with the migraine. Today as I replace calendars, I focus on Hopper’s December woman sitting alone in a blue plush chair in a hotel lobby reading a magazine. The artist wants us to look at her hair, that gold natural only to children. I look at her blue shoes. And her legs—fluid as a foxtrot—that remind me of my mother’s legs. I never saw my mother dance, but she had the legs for it. In that Minnesota town where I grew up, mothers, at least mine, did not talk about their legs, themselves, dancing. So when I imagine I looked beyond the myopic contours of my own life to ask about her life before I was born, I see she has folded the Sunday Star Tribune crossword page into a neat rectangle and says, Could you sharpen this pencil for me? And while you’re up, could you turn the thermostat up a notch or two?
GUS PALMER, JR. River City We heard the song in the late afternoon but we did not come here to stare at the mound as if it was only a fixture and nothing more. We made our way up the narrow trail. Were we here because the river knows why and owns this place somehow? Is all of this but a memory the Cahokians collected like bones at the base of this earthen mound whose mouth is sealed against the black, barren clay in an incomprehensible stillness and simplicity we somehow fear? Some men cannot get over the way they feel when they fill in the lines with words and markings that are foreign and somehow futile. In their glory journals these men write prayers for a miracle that will save them from themselves, even though they are faithless and broken. We live in times when even the creatures we make from clay and make fun of teach us how to live one more day. Old Mound, tell us the oldest story you know, or parts of it. Teach us how to sing the oldest songs if you dare.
GUS PALMER, JR. Cronus Devouring His Child There were different camps at one time. These were slowly eaten away. Within his mouth there were owls which quivered slowly and were slowly eaten away, little advantage for a warrior who forgets how to dream. Having grown bigger, a hound now pursues him, closing in the spaces between himself and the feathery eyes that are watching him from a distant star. The moon shines just so. In the ridges above his house it is an evening to be remembered forever in his dream.â€Š
GUS PALMER, JR. A Hill At Dusk Something we used to walk through is growing again, Grandpa. But it isnâ€™t raging like the elegant weeds we battled to keep from choking our garden to death. When we reached the place where we planted peyote, you knelt in the dirt like you would kneel before the Queen of England. Remember? To clear away the pebbles you took out a black feather and drew it over the face of the earth carefully. Every stone held still as we made our way along the path at the base of this hill that made everything surrounding feel so sacred but wounded. You said it would be okay. Things will take time but will grow. You assured me and I still believe it. I do, Grandpa. Just like I did back then.
Sure enough, that spring we returned and soft things showed themselves as tender green shoots in the level places where the small rocks huddled together to keep warm. You were so careful as you moved the rocks aside to let the small plants breathe. I still go there when I can, Grandpa. I look at the little living things among your lovely plants I imagine are growing there. They are letting me know you will not be coming back for a long, long time. I try to kneel in the same dirt and remember things we used to do. I don’t know any more than I did then, Grandpa. These days it’s harder. I’m telling you this because it’s fitting that I do. And besides, I am about to write about these things so even strangers can read how we did things. You know that’s good. It’s good because we’re Indians and sometimes people think we’re strange. Mystical and shit like that. I hope you don’t mind me saying these things, Grandpa. !44
I donâ€™t want to bore you. I donâ€™t mind letting people know how we embraced the earth and how it embraced us and everything growing out there. Grandpa, I still believe. Grandpa, I do.
LAURO PALOMBA Mother and Child The carpeted aisle parts the rows of blue empty chairs. At its far end, mother and son are close. His wife has left them alone awhile. With only bouquets of flowers listening in. The movement of his head intimating he is speaking. He awkward in the wheelchair. She shriveled in the casket. Kindred conversation had resisted secondguessing the duel. If her dementia would constrict faster than his cancer spread. Though the topic once arose as to which was worse: a mother burying her child, a child his mother. The eulogy given tongue. A minister imported to tame the grief. Invocations. The chairs now topped with faces. At varied heights. In varied stages. Of varied trepidation. Funeral men coax the bolted casket out. Wheelchair son tight behind. An elder brother propelling him. His features swollen piteous from radiation. Theyâ€™d kissed his cheeks. Rubbed his arms and back. After bowing to his mother. His recognitionâ€™s unimpaired. But the treatments sometimes unmoor his mind. Blurted nonsense. Peculiar digressions from his engineering brain. Whether he has jumbled his demise with hers canâ€™t be gleaned. Nor if his tears seek pardon for having held out longer
LAURO PALOMBA Library Unnoted in the lulling thrall of books a teen, red-jacketed, bolted from the stacks— drugged, deranged, recent defeats —twice shrieked unspeakable rage stomped the harassing demons in thumping leaps, then hurtled through security, setting off an alarming silence A male librarian followed the anguish outside at a trot the patrons left to moot opinions louder than the posted quiet though none offered solace on why volumes of humankind poorly bound or squalidly used come apart
LAURO PALOMBA Power Couple Hera, Zeus’ wife, protector of marriages happened to be his sister. Her rage at his adulteries —coerced, finagled— she reserved for his bedmates
WINSTON PLOWES tramp he has cast off a world like some busy skin shed this crawling contraption of rush shrugged at us in our nests of bricks to sink into his armchair corner of long dry grass in the park by the glassless greenhouses all of him is browns and blacks a breaking down of man into his warp and weft grey grizzle and scuffed ochre fray and decay smothering the chance for the city to give him something big enough to make a difference to them both parching with the sun and sinking to the bottom of the rainâ€Š
JACK GRANATH Still Life in a Frame What he says offends her and he sighs, tries to apologize, gets up and follows. They leave a pretty picture at the table— two chopsticks leaning from a bowl of rice. A sparrow lands and can’t believe his luck. His hop is pitiably tentative. He inches toward the still life, enters it, then dips and grabs a grain of rice and goes.
JOHN F. BUCKLEY Last Straw It’s all turning into lyrics of a sugary pop song, an earworm, outwardly vacant and boring inwards. Everything collapses into it it it. A bee sting on the eyelid on the way to the interview. The pimples on my thighs, boiling mad, advancing a warrior culture. I’m hostage to the pus, the pain and the lance. Everyone formed a circle around me at the ex-wife’s wedding reception, staring at a ruined gut behind a rash-pink cummerbund, urging me to dance. Nobody reads the look in my eyes. Nobody reads Neruda and sighs. Half of the friends who promised to help me move a state away from shame overslept, never called, or locked the keys in the U-Haul with lights on and engine running. One promises legal action when the box he carries hurts his back. The cat wears a new tire track. She broke up with me with a Post-It note: distant, inappropriate, a little bit cold, attached to the knob of my front door. He borrowed eight grand for a party to which I wasn’t invited, where he met me at the gate in jodhpurs and a taut, cropped smile, a Burberry smarty with a knack for deflection.
Every stubbed toe that blackens the nail, every epic fail with a YouTube video, every false start and failed insurrection. These teeth, here and now, glinting on the floor. Maybe it’s all in a nerve’s work, the fault of my own thin skin. I’m lost and I’m old and I don’t know what I deserve anymore.
STEVE KLEPETAR A Summer Night Full belly and a summer night threatening rain. There is nothing to think about but these clouds piled in the sky, sagging toward trees. And now darkness flooding in from everywhere, black river overspilling its banks. Outside, streetlights click on. Bats or owls, those black shapes spun from dreams, flit across the lamps. The last cars have rolled away and the street stretches quietly to where it disappears in shadow and smoke. Silence grows from below, broken only by a few mechanical sounds, as things grind slowly into place. Someone has nailed us to our chairs, and something small and quick scampers across the roof. Thunder and rain, and stormâ€™s warm scent. Finally the heat has broken. I would sleep here, head lolling, book slipping from my hands.
CAMERON MORSE Cancer Patient Adrift in August ghost light, I mark where the sky begins again to merge with the emptiness inside me. Stand on the mossy stump of my past life and spread my tingling phantom limbs. Pink petals fall through my hands. Autumn begins with the zinnias. Like the cicada blowing into its waterlogged kazoo, I pour out words like rainwater over the sidewalk, a tea of sticks steeped overnight at the bottom of a garbage can.
CULLEN WHISENHUNT Color Poem Oklahoma Okla humma “Red people” Rednecks hillbillies, pig farmers, cattle ranchers, hay haulers, deer hunters, gun toters Red-headed, red-handed, red-eyed dope smokers, crack dealers, and meth cookers Bad Breakers Broken promises in the Promised Land Canaanites proudly wearing the buckle of the Bible Belt in God’s country FUCK Texas “Red River rivals” Crimson and cream smokes burnt orange any day Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner Boomer Sooner Schooners sailed red dirt oceans and weighed anchor at boondocks Where Deliverance descendants set up shop with banjos and shotgun weddings and Confederate flags and dead Indians and capitalist blood money and became religiously racist, radical, right-wing, Republicans I mean, red state, right? Wrong … ish Sure, Tulsa’s arts district has tried to whitewash over the good ole days when oil barons, barrel racing, and race riots were all the rage, When brown faces turned black and blue and the violet night sky was splashed red orange by burning black gold. And yes, some blue law believers are still fighting rainbows and pink triangles while their own hometowns are so far in the red that no amount of blood money can keep greengrocers from blacking out windows. But down on the Red River, dead Indians now paint with all the colors of the windfall at Windstar and Choctaw, Where greens, silvers, and coppers return to them straight from pink and purple purses of blue-haired white ladies. Up in the city, black jazz and blues roots show that invisible men can at least leave musical footprints, !55
And of course, if you listen closely, these Oklahoma hills still echo Woody Guthrie lyrics about blue collar worker’s rights and damn near Red Machine communism. In fact, just look skyward, and at the hills and at valleys, at the plains and creeks and soil and bedrock, And you’ll see there’s no state bluer, greener, or more golden, and all of it growing out of red, white, and black.
JENNIFER HAMBRICK Ask Me Again your online invite took me back— as these things sometimes do— to when you were becoming a man and i was still really a girl maybe a bit silly, but very pretty— to when, as these things sometimes go,
you wrote a note in a christmas card asking if i’d like to go out sometime and i said nothing—a cold front in the face of all that red-inked courage. but now, as these things sometimes go, the decades of husbands and broken dreams and all the gales of life have ripped the veil off your innocent proposition and because there’s a zero percent chance of it i’ll come right out and ask you to ask me again— ask me to meet you on your mountain and i would sail up and breathe your clouds and tremble from the amperes humming in the belly of my bones—ask, and i would wear black lightning for you like pearls around my waist and dance in the rain—a single sprite bubbling high above it all in your cool, dense air ask, and I would kneel at your st. elmo’s fire and savor morning glory like the milky way !57
ask me to be young and beautiful again and i would reverse the spin of the earth and in this raging tilted storm wrap around the echo at your coreâ€” ask me again, and i would do all of this if, as these things go, i could.
JENNIFER HAMBRICK Valentine’s Day You could set your watch to it— last week of January the pink marble slab lands on the kitchen counter bags of sugar cluster in the corner like sandbags set for a flood bricks of butter garrison the fridge. She burns butter and sugar just enough twists them into toffee on the marble’s chill. It’s easy for her to find the fudge recipe— pages deckled and discolored from caked-on cocoa and sugar. She follows years of custom pencil markings set back left burner between 7 and 8 bubble mixture for 3 ½ minutes. She stirs cocoa lava and I pick up the cookie press and shoot pink heart BBs onto a cookie sheet then wrap bits of toffee and nuggets of fudge in bright red foil place peanut butter bullets in paper candy cup and we fill heart-shaped boxes sending all that candied love to the neighbors who assume— there’s plenty more left for us at home.
VIVIAN WAGNER Close I almost saw winter, there, behind a drying leaf, under the 39 degrees. But no, not yet: the sky’s still orange, not the pink-blue that’s to come. Still, the grass grows. Still, the mist rises, unfrozen, even as the cricketsong has slowed to stopping.
VIVIAN WAGNER Landing We discovered a new planet on the last shaky leg of our journey. The Final Planet, we called it, because everything about it spoke of apocalypse: pirouetting dust, crimson rocks, searing heat, noxious gasses, you name it. But hereâ€™s the thing: we spent time there, hiking its twisty canyons, climbing its stark mountains, finding refuge in its indigo caves. We discovered there not an end but a beginning, the same start promised everywhere by deserts and too-stark light.
VIVIAN WAGNER Leaving Oh, leaves on the deck, you need sweeping, or you need to be left, leaving, blossoming into the fall you’ve already started so I sweep, but I leave some, and I sit among them, watching others cascade (because they can’t help but fall, can’t help but become these wrinkled dead versions of their spring green selves, which I remember, too) we are kin, as you know we come and we go, but we, or our children, always return, unfurled
MICHAEL G. SMITH wild at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest we are wild always will be wild hitched on everything our crawling mosses anything but dull i too rise beyond myself my crowns not shy swaying above the creek and its rapid loves wild with stress, burls and artful beetle galleries we never give up patience sing crysing singcry limbs rubbing against one then another catch the erratic light (we know comfort gained and lost) and when winter snows arrive early, well then we welcome them our tamed boughs, bowed
MICHAEL G. SMITH How are things in Montana this summer? a friend from home emails. I want to respond Montana has two seasonsâ€” winter and forest-fire smoke, and all that one needs to remember to survive are walking east leads to humidity, ash thickens to the west, north tops out at a slightly longer cold, no life exists to the south and carry a compass. But my friend is a more open soul than I (even though I wear a bracelet of Bodhi Tree seeds I bought from a vendor selling his wares meters from where the Buddha sat) so I respond road signs display the distinct cursive of Moose and Grizzly (antler and claw scratch marks multisecting the paint), both of whom I saw along with Eagle, Osprey, Heron and Beaver (Cougar hidden in the Willows) along the banks of an August river still carrying snowmelt while kayaking through the smoke, and the last solar eclipse almost achieved totality here, its light the magic of twilight but not (like a kiss from your wife of twenty years is the same and always new). !64
I ride my bicycle every day, everywhere, the car covered in the driveway and then I conclude the first snows are scheduled for this weekend. I will put two studded tires on the bike and pray to have traction like the natives.â€Š
MICHAEL G. SMITH I Thought I Understood Gravity I know the swing does as we swing back and forth through spring air whiffs of blooms childrenâ€™s hoots that cliff-edge moment when we reverse she asks What makes the swing swing I hold her with one arm and pump pump pump my legs Not too high! she screams Or fast! And I think we are made into a pendulum and say Gravity holds the swing swinging She asks who is Gravity? Falling falling backwards I say Gravity is not a who but a what but because she is three and every rock stuffed dinosaur moonbeam dust ball pulled through space is a who she howls Tell Gravity to not let go!
MICHAEL G. SMITH None of This Should Be Mistaken for Physics Riding my bicycle I see a young woman rolling her wheelchair her life, frequencies and colors I canâ€™t see but imagine as in this is like a missile launched towards us part perception, part projection like being at the exposed intersection of storm, time and place, charged air levitating knuckle hairs, the last waves of sunlight dispersed by water droplets, the rainbow real and not.
RON WALLACE Talons This time of year the ghosts of November slip through shadows that steal the trees. The first fog of my breath hangs on the night air, and I wear my scars like memories beneath the faded folds of a chambray shirt. The sun sets early, the night cools quickly and the inside light calls me to leave the ice white stars hanging on the black of night. I play old songs that I never want to end take well-worn books from oaken shelves, thumb through titles I know by heart, seeking resurrection until Jeffersâ€™ voice lifts up from off the page, shreds the darkness into ink stained lines with talons, sharp as broken glass, revealing the world I know best.â€Š
BRUCE ROBINSON To know ourselves . . . the words are finally coming, more or effortless, but can you receive some funds of Lost Lottery Ticket for Investment in your Country, get back to me with your details i.e your names: age: occupation: address: country: cell: the way you part your hair the manner by which you brush your teeth, and the hours of the day during which you do so, whether you button your shirt from the top or the bottom, and which shoe you put on first, that is, upon which foot, the left or the right, you generally adorn yourself with footwear. And if you no longer wear a tie, which knot do you not use? do you use instead your outside rearview mirrors, and if so, what do you use them for? Within those outside rearview mirrors of yours are people really closer to you than they appear? to know ourselves and to facilitate the release of funds Kindly reply asap. Regards. BR Senior Lottery Manager
KELLY TALBOT Kansas City Madman Bare-knuckles boxer, Kansas City madman, doolie, mick, scrappy little ex-con, â€™ccino, on your Harley, Kansas City madman, you shattered my glass skull with your sledgehammer words. The bottle factory has shut down. Whiskey River has run dry. No more ranting, raving. Our chain of rage is broken. The lingering wisps of our pyrokinetic friendship drift beyond my horizon. Kansas City madman, do your ghosts still send you screaming into the night?
TYLER FRIEND hunger when i speak of hunger / i speak of her / of how she holds me in her mouth / of how she told me / i’m the only thing she’ll never / throw / up / about how i cried / when she squeezed my fat / about how i chewed up a textbook from the 80’s / just to find a few words she’d like / about how nothing beats / 2:00 am sex punctuated by ice / cream
MARTIN WILLITTS JR Sonnet: Listening to Rain Making Love Serene clouds are parting, joyful, almost holy, after rain. When I was young, lovemaking was thunder and lightning and torrential rain. When I was older, I discovered it was better to play the softer music on the keyboard of a loverâ€™s spine. Now, I compose, slower than an all-day rain, careful sonatas enriching both of us with light brushstrokes, dabsâ€” how easy the melody; how actually complex: serene clouds are parting, joyful, almost holy after rain. When Beethoven could not hear, he listened inside the metronome of heart. He recalled birds, the riverflow under ice, leaves twisting in wind before falling, horses clopping on stone. His hands remembered lovers: after-rain, holy, almost joyful, parting clouds, serene.
LUKE MORGAN Splash Days The county didn’t care about the road, pock-marked with potholes, eroded with time and toil of the farmers that kept the fields alive with wheat, corn, and maize that sang in the wind. Each stalk a small victory. Out on Bottoms, prayers for rain were frequent, spoken from the sun-cracked lips of men rendered leather, weathered like the path they traveled −and the lips of a child whose hands and soul had yet to grow callus. Though many prayers go unanswered one for rain, for nature doing that which it must because it knows no difference, is a sure bet. And on those days, when the skies grew dark and the hardened men rushed to keep their tools from getting lost in the aftermath of the storm, the child smiled Splash Days, they’d come to call ‘em. He and his father, turning on that stretch, and stopping, for a brief second, to survey what lay ahead through drops of rain erased by wipers, only to return in defiance.
Pools of dirt and tar-tinged water lay before them as foot met pedal, and pedal met floor and streaks of answered prayers went darting into the air, from which it came. The childâ€™s glee, a permanent grin, broken by burst of laughter, reflected in the eyes of the father, who held the wheel steady, as he navigated the joyous lake.â€Š
KEVIN BROWN If History Repeats Itself, I’m So Getting a Dinosaur Like a caged rat that beats its head against the lever for randomly released pellets, I returned again and again to the same women, jobs, and personas: I read Thrasher and wore the same anarchysymbol covered shoes as my skater punk friends, but didn’t own a board; I tried the head-banging heavy metal ripped jeans and chains, but spent Saturday nights watching movies with subtitles; I even tried to go corporate, but I only owned clip-on ties my co-workers pulled off every time they walked past my cubicle. The women moved on to men with more stable selves, while friends cut their hair and bought baby strollers, all while I circled back again and again like a plane that’s low on fuel, looking for a place to land.
KEVIN BROWN There is No Evidence That the Tongue is Attached to the Brain When she asked if I was white trash, I told her our family wasn’t too proud to be poor, that we ate dinner from cans and boxes because we had a family of five to feed and needed ways to make a pound of hamburger go further, white bread and butter always on the side to make us feel fuller, adding nothing of nutrition. When she asked why I greeted everyone with Howdy, howdy, I told her I was twice as proud to be from the South, though I never felt I fit in when I was there, as if I were the star of a film about an immigrant who wanted a better life she could only find in a foreign country or a sci-fi movie about a man stranded on a planet where the atmosphere alone could kill him. When she asked why I didn’t have an accent, I told her about my mocking Wayne until he stopped pronouncing yellow like it rhymed with tallow—what our ancestors used to light their lives—or our Advanced Senior English class where Lisa asked how to spell holler when she meant hollow, which is how I felt, or the way my father pronounced Hawaii as a greeting, made me want to respond with, I’m fine; how are you?, if only I wasn’t afraid of his reaction. But I didn’t say anything, sat there like a bump on a log, as my mother would often say, and I never would. !76
KEVIN BROWN Trust in God But Lock Your Car Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, but insure every piece of property you own on earth; buy bonds and stocks, so you can leave your life savings to whoever comes after you, so they can leave your legacy to comfort those who mourn. Love your neighbor as yourself, but donâ€™t give handouts to the homeless, those indignant indigent who insist on asserting their needs as you walk to work, as you know they want cash for coke or crack or cheap beer, freedom of choice a right only for those with wisdom. Do justice, have mercy, and walk humbly with your God, but walk proudly in the office, stride with assertiveness in your suit so new it jingles and shimmers, dry-cleaner-pressed pleats so sharp they cut through bureaucratic nonsense to get what you want need to clinch the contract close the deal win. Have faith, but not too much.
MARC JANSSEN September VI You are gone now Like the color blue is gone. I feel like the hops fields, Dotted with spare poles and naked wires The bare earth churned, upset And every good thing taken away. When I think of you now, The afternoon air is close in and lifeless The morning lawn is full of tears And everything we meant to each other, The little things: Smiles Glances Words Have evaporated with the dew.
MARC JANSSEN Child of the Wind at Fifty, Thank You Bruce Cockburn
I love the complaint and click when a train stumbles across a clanking intersection deep in the foggy night. I love the barking hubbub of kids playing soccer on a fresh wet field their efforts flung back from the uninterested cream colored school wall. Love the cooing seduction of the Willamette as it silk slithers across supine trees, sleeping rocks and shadows. When I face love, I blink, I shudder, and make myself small. There is a message coming in, a wave, the horizon is folding down: In that eternal autumn wood where two paths meet— I’d rather turn around, find my way back home. The wind sings like a seductive lover, sounds like a tumble down amusement park, a playful firefight, a calm salacious ocean. And the children of the wind, dirty faces, exhausted, trapped in the gutter with nowhere to roam. I hover over the earth, blue and insecure; there is so much bigger so much that is more important. There is so much wrong down there— There is so much that is right. Outside I can hear the wind’s children moan a sleepy diamond chip sky I can hear my love breathe next to me below warm blankets as I turn off the light.
HANNAH MEESKE You Are Here A long-distance relationship is like balancing two lives in two different places. Places. In Harry Potter, Hermione could be in two places at once. Sometimes I want to be in two places. Sometimes I really am. I am in Nebraska going to school. Sometimes I want to be home in Colorado and sometimes I want to be in Oklahoma with my cat and fiancé. Sometimes I’m talking to my fiancé so much when we aren’t in the same geographical location that I feel although I am physically in Hastings, I am mentally somewhere else. It’s like leading two different lives, which is silly because I hardly handle the life I was given. Home. It’s one of my favorite places. The first place I left; the first place I returned. The scenery was something I took for granted. I didn’t know anything but the mountains, vast forests, blue skies. It took leaving for me to appreciate what I woke up to each day. She shut the tablet and grabbed her duffel bag, several smaller bags and her pillow. Hoping she had everything she needed, she walked out the door. ~ The radio rattled on as the pickup meandered down a dusty highway. She kept throwing sideways glances at him; he caught her from the corner of his eye. She smacked the button on the dashboard silencing the loud commercial. “Let’s play a game,” she said clutching the notebook she’d been scribbling in. “Okay,” he said. “What game?” She tells him once on a road trip to a rodeo in South Dakota—or was it North Dakota?—her friend played a game where every time they passed a specific sign, they had to compliment each other. On this route, there were signs every few miles advertising an attraction. “Since there aren’t really signs like that,” she said looking around the barren, unmarked landscape, “we’ll just take turns saying nice things.” He smiled shaking his head ever so slightly. She wrote at the top of a page in her notebook, “10 Things I Like About You.” Turning a page, she wrote, “10 Things You Like About Me.” She put the date in the top right corner like the scrupulous writer she was. She looked up at him. “You first,” he said. !82
“I thought of the game.” Pause. “I like your laugh,” she said. It was something she knew he was self-conscious of. He used to be embarrassed when she made him laugh; he’d cover it up and never let a full hearty laugh out. “I like your smile,” he said. She tried not to smile. Each bump and jostle of the road drown in the background and the places they cruised by might as well not have existed. “I like your butt in those jeans,” she said. “Hmm,” he murmured. “I like the way you accept me the way I am.” The landscape started to change. There were more hills and trees. The grass held shades of autumn. “How much longer?” she asked. “Oh, not too long.” “Okay, let’s do things we hate about each other.” Again, she titled two different pages. “I hate how you won’t listen to my music,” he said. “I try!” she retorted. “You’re getting better,” he acknowledged. She looks out the window. A large property with a beautiful home, a barn and lots of pasture. They make eye contact, the knowing look that says someday. “It’s only ‘cause,” she says returning to the conversation, “my brother used to listen to that kind of music and he would get so angry and frustrated. I just associate it with that.” He nodded. “Your turn.” Without hesitation, she said, “I hate your driving.” “I hate your side seat driving,” he responded. She wrote “side seat” in quotations refraining from saying she hates that he said it that way. They pull up to a house with a car port. Leaves from a tall expansive tree crunch beneath our feet. “This is my future daughter-in-law,” her future father-in-law said wrapping an arm around her. “Hi,” she says to the first of many people she’ll meet for the first time. ~ You are here. But you don’t want to be here. Your mind is elsewhere. !83
The future, the hopes, the fantasies couple with dread that you are here and you don’t want to be here. You want to be in the distant time where your brain guarantees that it will be better. You are here but you can be there. It’s an obsession and you feel like you’ll never get there. You stop, drown in your sorrows and feel no sense of purpose. You push away your reality searching and seeking anything. You are here and everything you want is elsewhere. You got here by giving up everything, making the necessary sacrifices until you were left dry and thirsting for anything to give you a sense of bliss. She looked up from her tablet, her hands poised above the keyboard. You are here, she thought to herself. She leaned back in the chair with a sigh. Her coffee was cold; her brain running on fumes. ~ “We’re praying,” someone said. Everyone stood in a large circle. She grabbed his hand and he grabbed his grandpa’s next to him. His grandpa saw her and quickly switched spots with him. “I want to hold a pretty girl’s hand,” he said in a raspy voice. She smiled and obliged. They bowed their heads as the prayer began. Just like that there was movement to the kitchen, a pot luck style of filling your flimsy paper plate with as much as you can. After eating they went back outside. The sun was shining and it was warm out. He stood by her as she sat on the tailgate of her pickup. They had a cooler of beer. The contents of it they had to drink inconspicuously. “We’re starting games! Get in here,” a woman said peeking out the door. “Noooo,” she groaned. She meant to keep that internal, but her dread pushed outward. “Do I have to? Can we just hide?” He only nodded in sly confirmation. He poured a beer and they walked towards the park. The family gathering was taking place at a church so there was plenty of room to spread out. It was only a matter of minutes before his mother called out to them, commanding them inside. Everyone was on teams. The noise ricocheted off the walls, bouncing off her ears and making her head pound with it. “You can take my place,” a brother’s wife said. “Or you can hold the baby.” “I’ll hold the baby,” she said. The baby was reaching for her watch as it caught the light. As soon as he was in her arms, he nuzzled his head against her neck and dozed off. She tried hiding but the mother found her and insisted it was her turn to play; she needed to feed the
baby. Her stomach dropped when she saw plates of whip cream on the tables. “Come on!” everyone seemed to yell. Hesitantly, she stood next to him. “You can’t use your hands. There’s a letter on each plate. You have to find all five to spell a word,” a voice said. She pulled her hair back eyeing the plate. Then stuck her face in it. But she could not find a letter. The rest of the team had already found theirs. She stopped, looked around, and paused before continuing. Another team already won. Her future mother-in-law patted her on the back. “You’re a trooper,” she said. ~ “Now what are we doing?” she asked for what felt like the hundredth time. “Going to Papa and Nana’s,” he said. “My dad’s parents.” “How long of a drive?” “Two hours.” She plugged her phone in and played the end of the podcast they hadn’t finished earlier. She was fidgeting and after stopping at Starbucks, the caffeine only made it worse. “Let’s ask each other questions,” she said. The highway was extremely dark now. “What kind of questions?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I saw some good ones on Facebook.” The screen lit up her face as she scrolled. “Okay,” she said. “It says, ‘Without prompting, ask your significant other these questions and write exactly what they say.’ Okay. What’s my favorite food?” He thought about it for a while. “I’m not sure actually. Steak?” “I’m not sure either. . . depends on my mood. Yours is definitely steak,” she said. “What makes you proud of me?” “Your writing. You write so well, and you’re just so smart.” He turned the cruise off as his brother slowed down in front of him. “I wish he would just pick a speed,” he muttered. “What are you proud of me for?” She glanced at him. “How adaptable you are, especially at your job. They can throw anything at you and you can handle it.” “Mmpf,” he grunted. They grew tired although it was only eight o’ clock. He followed the pickup in front of them onto the exit ramp. But his brother continued back on the highway. !85
“What is he doing?” he said aloud as he turned right. “Is this the right way?” “Yes,” he said. A little later he said, “I guess it’s just a little longer.” He turned off on a side road and drove into some trees. He pulled into a grassy area by some campers and parked. An older gentleman walked towards them with a flashlight. He went to hug him but when his grandpa saw her, he pushed him aside. “I’d rather hug this pretty little thing,” he said. “How are ya?” “Good,” she smiled. They followed him toward the house. There was a garage full of junk. A fridge stood open; it’s doors filled with non-perishable items. The home was warm, filled with family and shelves of knickknacks, a large kitchen, cook books filling the cupboards. A crock pot of white chili. The men say in the living room. A father and a son reminiscing of old hunting stories. ~ The morning was brisk. Frost covered the grass and a light fog floated around the trees. It was completely silent. Inside the house cinnamon rolls were baking in the oven, coffee brewing in the pot. Everyone was slowly waking up, even the kids. “I’m going to Atwoods today to get some bullets,” he was telling his father. “Yeah, I’ll go with,” his father had said. They went, the two of them, a brother, father, and grandpa to town. Grandpa drove with sharp turns, unexpected braking and random swerving. Expecting it to be busy on this Black Friday, they were pleasantly surprised. The spent almost an hour perusing the sales at the country store. Camouflage, camping gear, home decorations, clothing. “If we stand here long enough, I’m going to buy a pair of boots,” the brother said to her. “I know right. Fifty bucks off?” she said. Eventually all of them found their way to the front, and they made their way back to the house. Someone else drove on the way back, sparing all of the necks whip lash. At the house, the rest of the family started showing up. More introductions for her. “This is my betrothed,” he said. “Hi,” she said shaking their hands. “I didn’t know you were engaged,” one woman said. “It’s still early,” she said. “We’ll talk after Thanksgiving.” The woman laughed. “I think you’ve found your match,” she said smiling up at him. !86
I wasn’t joking, she thought to herself. They stood in another circle of prayer. “Does anyone want to say grace?” Nana asked. “My dad does,” a boy chimed in. Everyone laughed and his father stared down his boy from the other side of the circle. She stood in his arms as the prayer ended and everyone ushered into the kitchen. This was her place. You are here.
JOE BAUMANN Look at Me Doug Pfluger was pretty sure he was not a vampire. He loved his mother’s pesto, which was loaded with freshly-crushed garlic, and he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror smeary with crusted spearmint toothpaste every morning to poke, prod, brush, and comb his unruly cowlick, and he sat on the spongy lounge chairs next to the pool in his back yard on the weekends, soaking up the sun while the neighbor dog barked and ran the length of the cedar-planked fence. When he let his mother and father drag him to church on Sundays the holy water didn’t burn his fingers or forehead. And yet, the morning after he made out with Trey Bonomo in Trey’s Honda Accord, Trey called, wanting to know why the sun was hurting his eyes and blistering his hands so badly. “And my cat keeps hissing at me.” “And I really want a bloody steak.” “Oh, and I have no reflection. My hair looks awful. I think.” Doug examined his teeth in the mirror, pulling back his lips to expose his gum line. He pressed a thumb against one of his canines, which didn’t look or feel any longer or sharper than usual. He opened the door to his parents’ bedroom, where a cross hung over their bed, bejeweled and lacquered, the edges a dark onyx, and when he hopped up on the giving, squeaky mattress he had no problem touching his palm to the cool metal and felt no burn, no achy unpleasantness. He slept through the night just fine, waking at the honk of his alarm as always. He found Trey leaning against his locker. Even though it was mid-September, the weather still pungent warm so the air smelled like a swamp, Trey wore heavy layers; a long-sleeve shirt covering veiny biceps, a scarf wrapped around his throat like a coiled snake. A pair of leather gloves sheathed the hands that had dashed across Doug’s jaw the weekend prior and a baseball cap tilted over Trey’s forehead. The bits of his face Doug could see—Trey’s nose, his chin, his cheekbones—were blistered and blasted like Trey had been slapped over and over. “I told you, something’s wrong. The sun hurts.” Trey’s skin was usually a warm bronze, the color of fresh caramel; he spent hours on the tennis court over the summer, shirtless, working on his backhand and serve, lathering himself to a sweat doing footwork drills and sharpening his volleys. Doug was his !88
hitting partner, not on the team but popping balls over the net for Trey and spending those hot hours watching the twist of Trey’s muscles, which were lean but refined, his legs particularly striated already, clumps of mass drooped around his knees. “Oh,” Doug said, and before he could stop himself he reached out and pressed his fingers to Trey’s reddened skin. Trey jerked back, eyes wide, and looked around the bustling hallway. No one knew about them. They had been careful, telling their parents they were going to parties or to the movies with clusters of their friends when they were in fact alone, sometimes at a small Mexican restaurant a town over where the refried beans leaked small lakes of grease and whose sodas tasted flat, other times sitting on the squeaky pleather benches of a shoe store in a mostly-abandoned strip mall where no one bothered them and they held hands and stared at the hundred-dollar Air Jordans. On weekend afternoons, sitting in the mall ten miles north, they shared jumbo pretzels caked in too much salt and dipped them in neon orange cheese. Trey always drove because Doug didn’t have his license yet, not because he was too young but because he hadn’t tried to pass the test, unsure of his ability to parallel park or remember when to look over his shoulder. Trey would settle his Accord two blocks from Doug’s house and they would sit in the thrummy, warm night, the interior of the car illuminated an evil lime green from the dashboard and radio displays and they would lean into one another, Doug inhaling the arctic scent of Trey’s deodorant while he worried about his own breath and body odor, convinced, despite Trey’s assurances that he smelled pleasantly of almonds and fresh bread, that he was cadaverous and tainted like an abscess. “I’m sorry,” Doug said, pulling his hand back as a gross of cheerleaders rushed by, lips sparkling glossy pink. “No one saw.” “I can’t sleep at night,” Trey said. “Ever since.” Trey’s hand hovered near his neck, and Doug remembered: he’d been lost in Trey’s skin. Before he’d thought about what he was doing he was kissing Trey’s throat, and then it wasn’t just a kiss but a small nibble—or what he’d thought was small, but was apparently much larger, because Trey had jerked back, squeaked out a pained noise and slapped his hand to where Doug had, without realizing it, taken out a small square of flesh. Trey’s eyes were bloodshot, as if he’d been smoking weed with the stoners behind the auditorium before school, a cluster of stoopshouldered boys—and one girl, hair dyed seafoam green—that even the principal had given up on, resigned to the illegal inhalations !89
happening on the property. Word was that he’d struck a deal with them: smoke all you like as long as you don’t reek of it in class and you pass biology. The stoners had one-upped him, dousing themselves in beauteous colognes and perfumes and acing their exams, publishing operatic letters in the school newspaper about equal rights and the importance of a free press. Doug once had a crush on one of them, a tall, brooding kid with broad shoulders that looked wide as eagle wings in his black t-shirt. His eyes were lined with mascara, but this somehow gave his face a delicate depth, accenting the sharpness of his jaw and the striking slimness of his nose. “I don’t know what to say,” Doug said as the bell rang and students began scampering into nearby classrooms, the halls emptying like a tub whose drain stopper has just been yanked. Trey shook his head, adjusted his baseball cap, and shrugged his shoulders, jouncing the strap of his backpack slung against his back. “Do you want to hit today?” Doug tried, his voice straining. “I don’t know if I can. My eyes and skin.” Doug swallowed. “Okay.” He watched Trey turn and walk away toward his math class, regretting that he hadn’t reached out to squeeze Trey’s gloved hand or brushed his fingers against his neck buried in the silky scarf. Doug skipped first hour history, partly because Mrs. Grakowski didn’t take attendance and just showed old movies about World War II. He sat down in the library, the woman at the circulation desk eyeing him over her coke-bottle glasses but saying nothing when he opened up his English textbook and appeared to be studying. He was really looking through his cell phone, exploring WebMD and doctor.com, trying to diagnose Trey. Doug himself didn’t feel any different than usual aside from the sparkled high that being with Trey —even seeing him ill, or whatever he should call Trey’s condition— left punching at his arms and chest. A saline warmth permeated his body when they touched, as if part of Trey was melting into Doug, leaving him tingling and aware and sharp, as if the lines of his body and face were otherwise blurry and wishy-washy and Trey’s touch gave him definition and meaning. This feeling always lasted, pushing through him like he imagined the rush of cocaine or speed would. He found nothing online, and when the bell announcing the end of first period buzzed through the quiet library he spasmed in surprise—a chalky smirk flashed across the librarian’s face—and he rushed to shove his book into his bag and stumbled off to chemistry, where Trey was his lab partner. This was his favorite class of the day, !90
when he could be near Trey without anyone feeling out a sniff of what was going on between them. They could lean their heads together over the balance scale, touch one another’s wrists while pouring acid from bottles and pretend it was out of precaution and safety instead of tender want for physical contact. But Trey wasn’t there, his stool a jarring empty space next to Doug, who couldn’t follow Mrs. Wizell’s lecture on balancing equations. He didn’t even write down the homework assignment when class was over. He did not see Trey again that day. Doug snuck text messages, his phone jammed against his crotch in English and trig while he typed blindly, staring up at lessons on sine and cosine, even answering a question about Catcher in the Rye while his thumbs danced across his screen’s surface. Trey did not respond. Doug felt an uncoiling in his stomach like his innards were a snake slowly waking and stretching, biting at his stomach lining and squeezing his heart. But Trey did appear that night, rapping on Doug’s window while Doug sat at his desk, reading through his Spanish textbook. The noise startled him, so jarring he almost fell out of his chair, and when he turned to the window he had to stop himself from screeching. Trey was perched on the sill, one hand clutching the window frame, the other knotted in a fist. Doug’s bedroom was on the second floor, and his window wasn’t near any ledge or jutting part of the roof. “I can fly,” Trey said when Doug opened the window. Through the screen came the hazy buzz of insects. “And look at this.” Trey smiled, and there they were: a pair of fangs, teeth oversized and cartoonish, glistening with Trey’s spit. “I can smell your blood. The scent is stronger when your heart beats faster. You’re warm.” He winked. Trey looked better, his skin back to its normal smooth bronze, like that of the tiny shimmering bodies on soccer and basketball trophies. His eyes were glossed white, pupils narrow even though it was dark outside. He’d ditched the accoutrements, and his thick black hair wavered in the night breeze. Doug shivered. The word warm coming from Trey’s lips was seductive and thick. Trey tapped the mesh between them. “Can you open the screen?” Doug pried at the plunger bolts holding the tension springs in place and managed to pop the screen open while Trey hung from the window, the toes of his shoes pressed lightly against the narrow strip !91
of wood jutting out like a thick lower lip. Doug pushed the screen wide enough that Trey could slip into the room. “You’ll have to invite me in.” “Okay. Come in.” Trey swooped through like a gymnast and planted himself on the end of Doug’s bed. Doug pulled the screen shut again and then locked his already-closed door. “Just in case. My parents.” “I know.” Doug wasn’t sure what to do with himself, so he stood by the door. His heart was thumping fast, so hard he was sure Trey could hear it. His breathing was shallow, as if he’d just finished a series of wind sprints; he felt ragged inside, torn and ripped. They’d had sleepovers when they were kids, of course, Trey sprawled out atop a slick, ribby sleeping bag that Doug’s mother would root out from the cluttered basement, but this was different. The air was damp, thick with teenage musk, that cloying, acidic odor that follows adolescent boys around no matter how much showering or deodorizing they put themselves through, a miasma filled with Taco Bell and farts. “You don’t have to be scared of me,” Trey said. He flashed his teeth, parting his lips and poking the tip of his tongue against his fangs. “After all, you did this to me.” “I don’t really get that.” “You must have. It’s okay.” Trey shrugged. He was wearing his letterman jacket; on most people Doug thought they looked cartoonish, puffy and one size too big, even for the linebackers whose swagger had only grown after they won the state championship last season, but Trey’s fit him perfectly, creasing over his shoulders and arms in a way that made him seem larger than life, a bursting giant. He slipped it off, revealing a ribbed sleeveless t-shirt, the kind Doug knew Trey knew Doug liked on him. Trey licked his lips. “Now that I’ve figured it out, it’s kind of great.” He patted Doug’s bed. Doug felt himself move across the room and sit next to him. “Want me to show you?” Trey’s breath smelled of cashews and yeast. Doug felt the brew hall smell pass over his skin, the little hairs on his neck standing at attention as Trey fit his mouth against Doug’s throat. Doug leaned away. “What’s wrong?” Trey said. Up close, Trey’s pupils shined like oil slicks. Doug sighed. “I don’t know. This feels strange.” !92
Trey laid his hand on Doug’s thigh and pressed his fingertips against Doug’s quad muscle, kneading at his skin. “Just relax.” There was an edge in Trey’s voice, one note off-key: not anger but a grunted-out want for control, a fuzzy spangle of frustration. “I just—well, I like sunlight. And garlic.” Trey rolled his eyes and stood. “Fine,” he said. “Just think about it, okay?” And then he was gone, out the window in a flash, so quick that Doug didn’t have a chance to tell Trey he’d left behind his jacket. Before Doug pulled the window closed, he looked out into the night, listening to the soft wash of breeze as it rattled the maple trees in the front yard. He imagined Trey bounding through the dark, soaking in the blackness and the silver of the moon, his arms wide open as he embraced his new sordid self, the one that Doug had, inexplicably, created. * Trey stopped showing up for school, and tennis practice was out of the question. He did appear at Doug’s window most nights right before Doug was settling in to bed, often catching him off-guard in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. Trey eyed him with a vicious hunger that made Doug blush and feel a twisted gnarl in his stomach, and before he opened the window he would pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, despite Trey’s objections that he liked looking at the flat gnarl of Doug’s belly button and the muscled folds beneath his nipples. One night Doug handed Trey a vial, cylindrical and stoppered. He’d felched it from the chemistry lab. “What’s this?” The vial was filled with a dark purple liquid, a combination of crushed peonies, periwinkle, a teaspoon of cranberry juice, and a quarter cup of cow’s blood; Doug had defrosted a pound of ground beef his mother had swaddled in aluminum foil, hoping too much fat or gristle hadn’t wheedled through when he siphoned off the brownish liquid. “I found a recipe on the internet.” “And?” Trey held the vial up to the light, tilting it so the liquid sloshed back and forth. “It’s supposed to cure vampirism.” Trey lowered his hand and stared at Doug. “Why would I want to be cured?” Doug felt a sour tinge in the back of his throat. “Well, you could go back to normal.” “Normal?” !93
Trey said nothing and passed the vial back to Doug, who, when Trey left, poured it down the bathroom sink. Every time, Trey would ask the same questions, wondering aloud if Doug was ready yet. Doug kept saying no even though he relished how close Trey perched on the end of his bed, the nutty smell of Trey’s breath washing over him when Trey leaned in toward Doug’s throat, his hand resting on Doug’s hip. Trey always looked perturbed when Doug said no, but he kept coming back, speaking with patience, a rushed kindness that Doug knew was forced. “Why not?” Trey finally said. “You did it to me first.” “About that,” Doug said, but then wasn’t sure what to say next. He’d scoured the internet for the various ways one becomes a vampire, had learned everything he could find about the lore and myths, but there was nothing about a non-vampire turning someone else into a vampire. “I still have a reflection,” Doug said. “I can go outside when it’s sunny.” They were sitting in Trey’s car. He’d offered to fly through the night with Doug clinging to his back but Doug had declined, citing a desire to actually be able to have a conversation. They’d settled in their spot blocks away from Doug’s house, the ranches along both sides of the street dark except for the occasional low lamp visible through drawn Venetian blinds. “So?” Trey said. “So how can you be sure I did this to you?” Trey blinked and bared his fangs, which Doug was pretty sure Trey had sharpened somehow; his canines were slimmer and more scythe-like. “How else do you explain it?” Trey said, tickling his fingers against his neck. The skin had long healed, no sign of Doug’s bite remaining on Trey’s throat. “I guess I can’t, really. But I’m still pretty sure you have to be a vampire to make a vampire.” “Well,” Trey said, “maybe I’m not a vampire. Maybe I’m something else.” “But you exhibit all the signs of vampirism.” “Looking like something and being something aren’t the same thing.” “That’s true,” Doug said. Trey asked again if Doug was ready to be transformed, his voice assuming a low growl that Doug had figured out was meant to be alluring more so than frightening, though it was becoming cartoonish !94
the more Trey employed it. He looked Doug in the eye, and Doug felt a tugging deep in his spinal column, an urgent need rushing through his nervous system, a whisper telling him that yes, he did want Trey to bite him. But then Doug snapped out of it. “I’m just not sure,” Doug said, laying a hand on Trey’s where it clutched the steering wheel. “I’m not ready for that.” “You don’t want to be like me,” Trey said, his voice falling, eyes lowered. “That’s not true,” Doug said. “Then what?” “I don’t know.” Trey sighed and started the ignition. He let Doug out a few houses down, as usual, then sped off. Doug waited that night for Trey to tap at the window, clinging and grinning, but he never showed. * It happened when Doug’s parents were out of town. Trey came through the front door, courteous enough to knock even though it was unlocked. They sat on the living room sofa, arms around one another, and watched football, a college game between two schools no one cared about; after all, it was a Friday night, and the highpowered division one teams vying for the national title only played on Saturdays. Doug’s hand wandered to Trey’s chest. Trey still breathed even though he didn’t need to—he liked, he said, to feel the expansion of his ribs and the cascade of oxygen through his nostrils—but his heart did not beat; where in the past Doug had felt the heavy thud-thump when he pressed a hand to Trey’s sternum and could feel the pulse of blood through his neck or even his wrist, Trey’s body had turned into a cold, unresponsive thing, stoic like a bank vault and more like a slab of thick meat than a living, moving creature. Trey laid his hand over Doug’s and leaned back, taking Doug with him so they were parallel on the couch, Trey’s body behind Doug’s, ankles tangled together like bougainvillea, Trey’s kneecaps pressing against Doug’s hamstrings. Trey still smelled like Trey, his voluntary breath filled with his nutty scent; he had spritzed himself with his father’s cologne and so Doug’s nose was filled with the salty tang of the ocean. Doug felt a warm rapture, an intense wish that this could be his everyday life, that at parties he and Trey could let their fingers wander together like other couples did, that they could saunter down the hall at school like the pairs of movie star attractive soccer stars and their cheerleader girlfriends, hands cupped around waists and lips pecking at cheeks and mouths. !95
“Have you thought about it more?” Trey finally said, his voice a low buzzing grumble against Doug’s head. “I just don’t know,” he said. Trey’s body tensed and he slid out from behind Doug, snaking up so he was suddenly atop him, their configuration changed before Doug could process it. Trey towered over him, his legs locked around Doug’s. “It’ll be fine,” Trey said. “I promise.” Trey stared down at Doug, his eyes wide and unblinking, and once again Doug felt that urge to give in, a melting heat spreading through his body that relaxed his muscles and calmed the frantic synapses firing in his brain. It was the opposite of what he used to feel in Trey’s presence, when his breath would sharpen, blood pounding through him like he was listening to the whoosh of the ocean. He would pinch himself in the thigh to fend off the throbbing erections that would plague him if he and Trey touched for too long. This, on the other hand, was a cerulean, washing feeling, as if he’d swallowed painkillers and was floating on a dissociative buzz. Trey leaned in, keeping his eyes on Doug. He cuffed Doug’s arm, his grip tight and forceful as he lowered himself, squashing Doug into the couch’s plushy cushions. When Trey broke his stare with Doug and lowered his head toward Doug’s neck, the yielding wallow in Doug’s body snapped away, torn like a stripped bandage, and he felt a sudden nauseated fear, his ears flooding with an ocean whoosh of blood. He tried yelling out, but Trey wasn’t listening. Doug felt the hot stickiness of Trey’s lips against his neck and was, for once, not aroused but instead disgusted and worried and terrified, and when his continued yelps did no good, he, without thought, brought his free hand up in a fist and clabbered it against Trey’s temple. Trey crumpled. He tumbled off the couch, wedged against the coffee table whose glass top cracked when Trey’s elbow nickered against it as he fell. Trey was trapped long enough for Doug to pole vault his way over Trey and into the kitchen. He padded through the junk drawer where his mother, thankfully, had once stuck a plastic beaded rosary, which Doug yanked out and held before him. When Trey stood he stared at Doug then shook his head, holding his hands up in surrender. “I told you I wasn’t ready,” Doug said, his voice a hoarse hiss. He lowered the rosary but clutched it, letting the sharp edges of the cut plastic beads slice into his skin like little teeth nipping at the soft flesh of his palms. He was washed in sadness as if a pet had died. !96
Before Doug could ask him to leave Trey was gone, zipping out of the house like a flash, leaving the door sagging open like a lolling jaw. * Trey showed up at school one last time a week later. He was covered in thick layers of fabric, sunglasses with lenses the size of coffee cups covering his eyes, a scarf layered like a queen’s collar around his neck, a knit cap pulled tight over his head as if it had been vacuum sealed against his skull. His arm was slung over one of the cheerleaders, a leggy brunette known for wearing skirts even in the coldest weather; today she was sieved up in tight jeans, her face covered in the same accessories drooped over Trey. Doug felt a tight coil as Trey and the cheerleader passed him. Time seemed to slow, and Trey, raising a hand clad in a leather biker’s glove, pulled down the massive sunglasses just enough to make eye contact with Doug. Doug thought he saw a shiny sadness there, but then the girl did the same, smirking. Together, Trey and the girl flashed him toothy grins, revealing identical pairs of fangs. Doug said nothing. He watched them march straight down the hall past the math classrooms, pull a sharp right, and slink in the direction of the front lobby, and the front door, and the parking lot, and their freedom. He pictured Trey and the girl flying through the night, hands locked, bodies tingling with weightlessness. Doug felt a pang of sadness knowing he would never feel Trey’s lips on his again, never know the touch of their hands on one another’s shoulders or quadriceps. The earthy smell of Trey’s breath would never press his earlobes. Now, though, Doug would wait, and nibble away at someone only when he was ready to be nipped back.
DARREN DILLMAN Making the Bully Cry I’ve got Jesse Qinonez’s arm in an arm bar, twisting it like Diego, my trainer, taught me. Both of us are skinny seventh graders, grappling on the mats at Sticks & Stones Gym in the Yuma Mall. The air reeks of sweat and body odor, and Jesse’s rubbery body is squirming beside me. He is tapping, wincing and yelping, but I can’t hear him. I’m thinking of Dude Botone, the eighth grader at Jefferson Middle School who bullies me, and which jiu-jitsu move I’d use on him if I had the courage. “Arn!” Diego says, hurrying from the bench. I let go of Jesse’s arm, which Diego cradles and examines. Jesse is crying, and the first sting of guilt brings me back to my senses. “Sorry, Jesse,” I say. “You’re okay,” Diego tells him. “You’re a tough kid. Go get a drink of water.” Jesse takes off his grappling gloves, wipes his eyes with his forearm, and ambles dejectedly toward the water fountain. “Over here, Mr. Collier,” Diego says, moseying back to the bench. Short and stout, Diego fought in the UFC and was ranked in the top ten welterweights. When I sit down beside him, he puts his arm around me, his bicep flexing, illuminating a turquoise crucifix and, just below it, the face of his younger brother Fausto, who died from a hail of bullets in Mexicali. “You almost broke his arm,” he says. “Haven’t you broken some?” I ask. His head dips as he nods. “Yeah. But those were in sanctioned fights, not training.” He studies my eyes, like he suspects I’m on drugs. “Is there something you need to tell me? Anything at all.” I think about it. I shake my head. He pats me on top of the head. “When you get to the UFC, you can break all the arms you want.” *** In my family’s apartment at Rio Paradiso the steam of ground beef and pasta careens into the living room from the kitchen. On the TV a CNN anchor is spewing the latest unemployment numbers. Dad is sunk in the recliner, his skinny frame curled up like a spider, combing the Yuma Sun’s classifieds with the aid of his glasses. Last year he lost his job at the copper mine in Ajo, where I’d spent the first !98
twelve years of my life, so we said goodbye to our friends and foreclosed on our house and trucked to the scorched desert of Yuma. When Dad’s not buried in the newspaper or driving around town looking for a job, he is cooking breakfast or dinner or vacuuming or doing laundry. I drop my backpack on the sofa, wander into the kitchen and fix a plate of spaghetti. Even though it’s my favorite dish, my sister Katy, a first grader, rebels, staring down the saucer of spaghetti sauce with her hands on her hips. Her red hair is free of the ponytail she wears to school. Like me, Katy has after-school activities and has just come home from her dance class. “I don’t like Dad’s spaghetti,” she says, wrinkling her cute freckled face, twisting in protest toward my mom, who’s sitting at the kitchen table grading a stack of papers. Mom, who is a little on the hefty side, has the same red hair and freckled complexion as Katy. She teaches eighth grade English at my school, and it was her job that lured us to Yuma. “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to eat,” Mom says. Seconds later Katy’s Cocoa Puffs are rattling into a bowl, and I see her pouring the last of the milk. “You can’t eat cereal all the time,” Mom says. “I don’t mind,” Katy says. Then she makes a funny, gnarly face. “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” As I sit and eat the spaghetti, I consider our “fortune” of Mom having a job. Yuma has a teacher shortage—maybe because it reaches 120 degrees in the summer and no one wants to live here—and because of it, Mom landed a teaching job without having teacher certification. The more I think about this baked town, the more my appetite wanes. I can’t imagine a worse place to live. On any given day a body turns up in a canal, drugs are seized by the Border Patrol, a pit bull mauls a baby, or a Chevron station is robbed. My teachers lay the blame on Arizona, something about it being a right to work state, which means there aren’t any jobs that pay more than ten dollars an hour, it’s nearly impossible to form a union, and the workers have no rights. I force down a few bites before scraping the rest of the pasta into the trash. *** At Desert Heights Middle School the first morning bell rings, which gives us students five minutes to get to our first period class.
The hallway smells of ammonia, and the dead crickets on the floor have been swept away. I stand at my locker and start turning the combination. I’m hoping there is no dog poop inside. I know Dude is the one who puts it inside, because he brags about it afterward. The numbers are 25-2-14: wins, losses, and title fights for George St. Pierre (aka GSP), my favorite UFC fighter. When I open the locker, a photo of GSP wearing spandex shorts and grappling gloves, standing in the Octagon, gleams from the inside of my locker door. The locker is clean. I sense someone coming at me, from the side, and I jerk my hands out of the way before Dude, one of the largest guys at our school, pounds my locker door shut with his fist. He’s big-boned with tousled black hair and calm hazel eyes. “G-string pussy,” he says, strutting past. I look around the hallway to see if anyone saw it. Two girls are watching but go about getting their books from their lockers. The only teacher around is Mr. Enriquez, a short pudgy man who teaches Special Ed, and he’s busy talking to two students at the hallway’s end. During first period I have band practice, followed by English, which is just upstairs from the band room—and a quick route devoid of Dude. I grab my English book, spiral notebook, two Bic black ink pens, and hurry toward the opposite end of the building. *** That night, at MMA practice, I’m grappling with Tim Buccholz, a ninth grader. The older guys are watching and saying things like damn!, shocked that a seventh grader my size can hold his own with someone stronger, taller, and older. He’s no man-child like Dude, but still. Tim’s on top, his bulk too tenable for me to shove off, but I have full guard and am trying to get a firm grip of his arm with both hands. “Wrist control, Arn!” Diego shouts from the bench. “Wrist control!” His punches mostly graze my headgear, but one lands flush on my cheek, and for a moment the lights blur. Every time I grab his arm, he pulls it loose. I finally reach up and pull his head down, shove it toward my midsection, and lock his neck with my legs. In three seconds his face is purpling and he’s tapping. *** Later in the week, at lunch, I’m sitting in the cafeteria, eating a cheeseburger with my friend Blake Carver, a seventh grader. His
parents are loaded and live in a new four-bedroom Spanish stucco house. I cringe from a deft thump on my ear. “Cauliflower,” Dude says, passing behind me with two burritos and a boxed grape drink in hand. Behind him are his sheep: Jake Tomasek and Randy Carver. Also in the eighth grade, Randy is tall and lean while Jake is shorter and muscled up. Another thump. “Cauliflower,” Jake says. And another. “Cauliflower,” Randy says. “Watch it,” I say. Randy makes a fist and feints like he’s going to punch me, causing me to flinch. “Whatcha gonna do?” he taunts. The three of them strut away, laughing. Mrs. Thorpe, a 60-yearold English teacher, scowls at them through her glasses. Then she chases them down to offer a proverbial warning. *** On Friday night Blake and I are in my room playing UFC on Playstation 3. A month ago I spent the night at Blake’s house, and now he’s spending the night in our apartment. Although Rio Paradiso has its strong suit—sprawling lawns, two swimming pools, new terra cotta exteriors—police cars and ambulances frequent the place like ants on a crushed beetle. Our first week here, a Marine shot his family and then himself. I still remember the sirens that woke me up. How, when I looked outside, the red and blue squad car lights whirled along the stucco walls. Blake is polite, but I can tell he’s hiding his real thoughts, his suspicions, and I can’t blame him. In addition to a backyard pool and diving board, his house has a basketball goal and small concrete court. One of the bedrooms is used as a game room; it has a pool table, pinball machine, and a foosball table. Each time I visit, it feels like a vacation, or summer camp, or like the pinnacle of the roller coaster before descending into freefall, where Dude Botone and my family’s struggles lie temporarily suspended. “What does your dad do?” Blake asks. He’s sitting in the floor against my bed. I’ve warned him about scorpions, black widows and brown recluses.
“He’s between jobs,” I say, repeating my mom’s explanation. I’m on the bed, leaning beside a poster of UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, a Yuma native. Blake asks about my dad’s old job, and I’m forced into a corner, explaining about Ajo, a tiny company town where even enemies were friends, except for the copper company’s brass. A town where the desert was lined with green cactus, mesquite, and creosote, thriving with rain and tarantulas and coyotes and hawks, instead of this dying gray desert. *** Later, we’re watching the UFC on Fox, and the announcers mention that George St. Pierre has hurt his hand during training and will withdraw from his fight with Johny Hendricks. The news leaves me with the same hollow feeling I had when I learned my dad had lost his job in Ajo. Dude will pepper me with this. I begin imagining what he might say, and it’s difficult for me to focus on the current fight between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Nate Diaz. The Octagon floor is spattered with blood from the prelims. Cowboy lands a sharp kick to Diaz’s jaw, and Diaz wobbles, but while Blake is jerking and hopping on the floor, I’m thinking about Monday—and Dude. Katy keeps wandering by the room, looking inside, and trying to come in. Her hair is dolled up in a high ponytail. I can tell she’s smitten with Blake. After Cowboy finally knocks Diaz out with another kick, Mom brings us a plate of homemade chocolate chip and pecan cookies. Katy fidgets beside her, practically dancing, swinging her shoulders left to right, watching to see if Blake likes the cookies. “I helped,” Katy says. “Yes, you did, Honey,” Mom says. “What’s wrong, Arnie,” Mom asks. I guess I look sad or something. I tell her about GSP’s injury, and then, to my chagrin, Blake mentions Dude, and Mom wants to know more, and I fail to prevent the inevitable: Blake spills the details of my tormentor and his tactics. Now Mom looks angry. “I’m going to have a talk with Jean,” she says, referring to Mrs. Sumtow, the assistant principal at Desert Heights. *** On Monday, after the third period bell rings, I’m at my locker, grabbing my history book, when I see Mom talking to Mrs. Sumtow in the hallway. Mrs. Sumtow is about fifty years old, with neat short !102
hair, and is fairly slender, or appears to be, except for her enormous calves, which are so grossly out of proportion to the rest of her that when she walks, it appears she is rolling like an Abrams tank. She dons Native American clothing and jewelry, including Hopi bracelets and turquoise necklaces. While Mom and Mrs. Sumtow aren’t exactly arguing, they are standing firm, upright, almost directly in front of each other, and I sense tension between them. I hear something pound the locker next to mine. “Canadian Bacon,” Dude says, flitting past, alone. He mimics a baby’s crying. “I hurt my fuckin’ hand!” Despite my heart’s pounding, it’s mild compared to what I was expecting. Mom walks over. “What did he just say?” she asks. “Nothing,” I say, and head off to my history class. *** The next three days hardly go as well. On Tuesday Dude thumps my ears in the hallway after first period; on Wednesday he slaps the back of my neck in the cafeteria; and on Thursday he trips me in the hallway after sixth period, and my books and pens go flying. Even though I expect more hits, slaps, kicks, thumps, and pranks on Friday, I catch a break, instead. During lunch Dude gets in a fight with Ezekiel Lopez, and they are both arrested by the police. After the lunch bells rings, on the way to my locker, I see the janitor mopping up blood near a stairwell. I’m relieved, for the time being, that Dude is locked up. *** With Dude in juvenile detention, the next month at school goes quietly, at least for me. Jake Tomasek and Randy Carver call me faggot a couple of times, but there are no slaps on the neck. No thumps on the ears. No shit in my locker. Then, during the second week of Dude’s absence, while I’m on my way to my history class, I see Mrs. Sumtow at the end of the hallway, her face austere, berating Mom, who is just standing there like there’s nowhere to go. I’m too far away to hear the words, but I know they are not nice. The image sticks with me for the rest of the day, and while I’m training in the gym that night, I kick Justin Loveless so hard in the leg that he can barely walk home. ***
The next week Dad takes a job at the dollar store Pennies & Pesos. Even though it doesn’t pay much, it doubles the amount he was getting from unemployment. True to its name, the store accepts both currencies. Half its products are imported from Mexico, and its employees are required to speak both English and Spanish, so every day after dinner Dad studies Spanish on the computer with the company-provided CD. When we hear him attempting to pronounce the words—like hablo espanol, or que bueno—Katy and I can’t stop laughing. “You guys stop,” Mom says. “He’s trying his best.” On the weekend Mom drives Katy and me to Pennies & Pesos and gives us each five dollars to spend. The floors are dirty and the aisles stacked with unpacked cans and packages of food. While I rack up some Mexican candy and Tootsie Roll pops, Katy is choosing stationary items and little toy accessories like Barbie bras and dresses. When we’re finished shopping, the three of us wander toward Dad, who is on his knees, wearing a smug green vest, slumped over a bottom shelf in the personal hygiene section. He has been given the simultaneous role of stocking shelves and manning a checkout lane. Things used to be normal, I think. The world around us used to feel right. I suddenly yearn for the impossible: for Dad to quit this job, for us to move back to Ajo. Katy runs toward Dad and hugs him. We speak just long enough to say hi. Then a customer standing at one of the checkouts, a mustached man holding a quart of motor oil and a bottle of STP, swaggers toward Dad. As he comes closer, I see the man’s t-shirt, which has a red stock car and the message Bite Me, Jeff Gordon! “Can we get some help over here?” the man asks. “Absolutely,” Dad says, springing to his feet and scurrying toward the checkout lane. Since Dad can’t check out family members, we have to check out through another lane. I wave as we leave the store, but Dad is too busy scanning merchandise to see me. *** The next week, on Wednesday, Dad picks me up from the gym, as he sometimes does when he is free. When we get home, I hear Mom crying in the bathroom, short, staccato stabs of hurt, and when she comes out her face is red. I ask her what’s wrong, and she shakes her head. Dad doesn’t say anything. Later, while I’m doing my algebra homework in my room, I hear traces of one of Mom and Dad’s conversations, words like Jean
Sumtow, car insurance, probationary period, deductible, and unannounced observations. Afterward, I mosey into Katy’s room. She’s changing the clothes on some of her dolls. Because she’s the sweetest, sanest one in the family, and the only one not devastated by the move to Yuma, I try to show some interest. “Are you laughing?” she asks, pointing a finger at me, pretending to be angry. “No,” I say. “Better not be,” she says sternly. But inside I am roaring with loving laughter. *** On the Monday that Dude comes back to school, he is sent home for wearing a t-shirt that says “Who Gives a Fuck?” in black Gothic font. The next day he is back to his usual self, and my locker is stewing with dog shit again. “Canadian Bacon,” Dude says, thumping my ear as he passes. “I run this damn school!” I stare at the shit. “Ewww, gross,” Cindy Berner, an eighth-grade cheerleader, says. I leave my books under the shit and go to class without them. *** Over the next few days, I receive the first F of my academic career. On the weekend Cain Velasquez makes a homecoming to Yuma and signs autographs at the mall. Because I’m a member of Sticks & Stones Gym, and because Diego likes me, I’m the third person in line. When I reach Mr. Velasquez, I’m breathless at his sheer size. Even sitting down, he is intimidating. His shoulders swell as big as footballs, his eyes dark and face square as an Aztec lord. He smiles, which totally catches me off guard. Noticing my shell shock, Diego ambles over and introduces me. As we shake hands, my hand disappears inside Mr. Velasquez’s. “The drive in this one is off the charts,” Diego says. Then he whispers to me, “Ask him for some pointers.” Mr. Velasquez signs his photo To a future UFC pro. Give em hell! I start to turn away as he hands me the autograph; desperation, however, has replaced the butterflies in my stomach and forces me to speak up. “How do you deal with bullies?” I ask. Mr. Velasquez’s smile evaporates; he turns dead serious. “Tell someone,” he says. !105
“Like who?” I ask. “Someone of authority,” he says. “Like a teacher or principal. And never let the bully know you’re afraid.” I trail off with disappointment, and Diego notices. Perhaps I was not only expecting a different answer, but yearning for one. What if Mr. Velasquez had said “Kick his ass” or “Get even with him?” Would that have made me feel better or given me hope? I certainly think so. *** Later that night, while sparring with Trey Gunter, an eighth grader a weight class above me, I catch a slew of jabs before I take him to the floor. I ground and pound him, and he tries to block and dodge my punches, but they sneak through like pit vipers and connect with bite until Diego pulls me off. “Get dressed, Arn,” Diego says. “You’re done for tonight.” After I dress, Diego’s waiting for me on the bench. His eyes seem darker than usual. I sit down next to him. “Who were you fighting?” he asks, nodding toward the mat. I’m silent. Diego sits. I shrug, but I don’t need to say anything, because Diego sees through me. “Cain said you asked him something about bullies,” he says. Again, he waits. I tell him about Dude, the verbal taunts as well as the thumps and slaps. Diego narrows his brows with understanding, looking away from me. “I know this kind of guy,” he says. “He’s waiting for you like a shark. He thinks you’re a seal, but he doesn’t know you have razorsharp teeth. If you decide to fight him, you have to prepare for the consequences. Maybe you lose, get hurt. How will your parents feel? Maybe you win, he gets hurt, you go to juvenile detention. A lot of things can happen. You have to be prepared for the good and the bad. Besides, I don’t want to lose my best student.” He puts his arm around me and pulls me close. “You’re pretty cool for a guy named Diego,” I say. He laughs. “And you have the humor. You see? You have the total package. When you’re kicking butt in the UFC, don’t forget me, okay?” “Never,” I say. *** At home, my parents look exhausted. Mom is camped out at the kitchen table, hair disheveled, eyes baggy, grading papers late into the night, while Dad is sunk into the recliner, which he hits as soon as he !106
comes homes from work. His hours at Pennies & Pesos keep changing; sometimes they get cut. Now he’s watching SportsCenter, keeping the volume at a low level so that Mom can concentrate. Mom Asks me about Dude, and I tell her nothing has changed. The next day at school, she goes above Mrs. Sumtow’s head and takes the matter to Mr. Hardison, the principal. As I exit the cafeteria, I see her arguing with Mrs. Sumtow. They’re thirty feet down the hallway in front of the trophy case. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” Mom says. “But when my son’s safety is concerned, I have a responsibility to protect him.” I try not to listen to the rest, but words like “contract” and “legal obligation” filter through the crowd and distance. I head into the gym, where kids are either playing basketball or hanging out with their friends in the bleachers. I join a game of “Twenty-one” with some seventh graders. On one of the two main goals, Dude and Jake Tomasek are playing a game of “Hitball” with a group of mostly eighth graders. In “Hitball,” the person with the ball tries to score, just as in basketball, except the defenders punch him on the arms, ribs, and back. A heavyset eighth grader, Ross Sumruld, is dribbling the ball, and Dude punches him in the ribs, and Ross drops the ball, wincing. *** Later at Sticks & Stones Gym, I’m kicking the heavy bag. I’ve kicked it seventy-six times with my left leg and plan to stop at onehundred. Diego has taken a bathroom break, and currently no adults are around. Tony Norris, a ninth grader, is shoving Benson Chavez, one of my seventh grade friends. Benson shoves him back. No one does anything to stop it, and it looks like Tony is going to kick Benson’s ass. I stop kicking the bag and take a step towards Tony. “You’re only two grades older,” I say sarcastically. “Shut up, Collier,” Tony says. “You afraid of the other ninth graders?” I ask. “You think you’re the shit?” Tony asks. Now he’s in my grill. He tosses a headgear piece at me. I put it on, and we begin fighting, just like in a match. Tony’s a striker, and he possesses power, but I feint and bob, and his padded fists whoosh past my head. By the time Diego returns to the room, I have Tony in a Kimora, and he’s tapping and flailing like a fish on a fillet board. ***
The next week, on Friday, I come home to find Mom crying again in the bathroom. Dad, who has the day off, waits with Katy and me in the living room, watching TV. “Did Grandma die?” Katy asks. Dad shakes his head. “Your mom lost her job today,” he says somberly. “They’re not hiring her back for next year.” I look at Katy, who is almost expressionless, and I wonder if she’s too young to know the ramifications. Dad can’t support us on his skeleton salary. Although I wouldn’t mind leaving this train wreck of a town, this isn’t the way I imagined it would happen, and it hurts to see my mom suffering. “Will we have to move again?” Katy asks. “I don’t know,” Dad says. I imagine a lot of things. I imagine us moving in with my aunt and uncle in Phoenix. I imagine skylines, fast cars, and kids bigger and meaner than Dude. And I imagine Dude giving me hell about Mom’s firing. Dad finally pads toward the bathroom door and knocks. “Beth Ann,” he says. “You doing all right?” The door opens and Mom steps out, dabbing her eyes with tissue. Dad embraces her. Inside, I feel weightless again. I desperately wish I could remove their misery, but I know I’m powerless. *** As April comes, some of my teachers inform Mom of my recently acquired poor study habits, and therefore, my declining grades. After MMA practice Mom waits for me on the sofa to confront me. She is livid, but more than anything, she is hurt. I can tell she is wondering, behind her red face, what happened to our family, and I wish I could give her an answer. I remain silent throughout her questions. I haven’t touched my locker in four weeks. After students complained about the smell, Mrs. Sumtow made Skeeter, the janitor, cut the pad lock off and destroy the books, which were rotting from the poop. Mrs. Sumtow told me if I wanted new books I’d have to pay for them, and I didn’t feel like infringing on my parents’ tight budget. At her wits’ end with my grades, Mom finally threatens to pull my membership at Sticks & Stones Gym. I tell her about my books, about having to buy new ones because of Dude’s shitty pranks. The next day at school, I see her chewing out Mrs. Sumtow in the office, her face red and voice rising. Mrs. Sumtow is wearing a light dress with brown vistas, and she stands calmly in place, her arms crossed,
maintaining a light professional grin. Mr. Hardison steps between them and ushers Mom to his office. “Mrs. Collier was gonna throw down,” Paul Villalobos, an eighth grader, says as I go to class. *** The last week in April, on a Saturday, I take Katy to the park near our apartment. We are having our usual fun time: crossing the monkey bars, climbing the jungle gym, sliding down the slides. I’m standing at the foot of the tunnel slide, waiting for Katy, when Dude’s voice gives me a jolt. “Cauliflower!” he says. I turn and see him, along with Randy Carver and Jake Tomasek, strutting toward the slides fifty feet away. Just as Katy reaches the end of the tunnel, Dude slaps me on the back of the neck, and I cringe from the sting. “How we doin’, Colliturd?” Dude asks, his hand on my neck. “Hey!” Katy says, getting to her feet. “Don’t hit my brother!” Dude and Randy and Jake laugh. “Are you a Colliturd?” Dude asks. “No!” Katy says. “That’s not our name!” Her face is reddening, just like Mom’s when she blows her top. All of which makes the three eighth graders howl even more. “I heard Mrs. Colliturd got canned,” Dude says. “Let’s go, Katy,” I say, grabbing my sister’s hand and heading away from the slide. Katy turns around and sticks out her tongue at Dude. “She’s ugly like her mom,” Dude says. Katy stops, and by holding her hand, I feel her chest rumble, or sputter, as though something inside has been broken, and she begins crying. “Fuckin’ crybabies,” Randy says. Seeing the pain in her face, I know I can’t tell Katy it’s okay, or not to listen to anything Dude and his friends say. The fact he hurt the most innocent, defenseless person in my family is simply unforgiveable, and it stirs an anger inside that I’ve rarely experienced, a combination of chivalry and indignation, and as Katy’s tears stream relentlessly down her face, I flush George St. Pierre’s and Cain Velasquez’s high road advice, as well as all the slogans of passive resistance, down the septic tank of self-control. The next second, using a textbook takedown, I drive Dude into the sand at the end of the slide. “Fucker,” he growls, trying to fight back. !109
The moment I begin punching him, my knuckles, hardened from sparring, groan with pleasure. I punch Dude for hurting my sister. I punch him for bullying me. I punch him for my mom losing her job, and for my dad working at Pennies & Pesos. And when I hear frustration in Dude’s grunts from the pounding I’m giving him, I rain down fists and elbows on his face, hoping he will cry and give up, but he doesn’t stop fighting back, and the sand whips up like a bad dust storm and the only sound I hear, besides my rummaging heart, is Katy’s even keeled sobbing, pleading like some sad howling of the wind. Then an adult’s strapping arms pull me from Dude, and I realize it’s Dad, dressed in his green work uniform, and he has this look on his face like Where did that come from? Jake and Randy step back as I pass by, staring at me like I’m some uncouth beast. Katy has stopped crying, and Mom is standing beside her, and as we walk back to our apartment, Katy takes my hand, looks up at me, and smiles.
ANDREW J. HOGAN The Cold Front The wind howled through the open-air dinning room. Iresine clutched the shawl around her shoulders. It was wool and had an Irish diamond pattern I had seen on shawls back in Michigan. I wondered how, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, would anyone ever come to own a shawl like this? But this was Fordlândia, everything was out of place. Even the weather seemed more like Michigan than Brazil. O friagem, they called it—the cold front. “Your English is so good,” I said. A radiant smile blossomed on Iresine’s face. “And you’ve never left Fordlândia to study?” “Not since I come here as a teenager to work for the Treadwells. I have left Fordlândia only for some business trips with the Doctor to Belterra and Santarém, and once to go to Belém for the hospital,” she said. “Of course, when I am Mrs. Treadwell’s maid and later the Doctor’s assistant, I speak English almost all the time. Back then, the Company offer free English lessons. I attend every one of them. Later, when Belterra open and most administration move there, I become English instructor for the Brazilians who work in the research plots here at Fordlândia, and I help the Doctor to translate during his morning clinics.” “How did you become the librarian?” I said. “Same way. As Belterra grow and Fordlândia decline, there were fewer people who speak English to take care of administration records. I learn to type the Doctor’s clinic reports; near the end I even draft most of them. Of course, he always make correction, even in final drafts. It not a bother to me, it help me improve my skills. To me, that is the great vision of Fordlândia, improve yourself, be more productive, more efficient.” “You must have had a good education to be able to learn so much so quickly?” I said. “No, only primária. My mother send me. My father think girls only good for to cook and to make babies.” She paused, as though she were about to speak of someone who died recently. “Fordlândia was my teacher. I learn to read and write English, become Doctor’s assistant at clinic and later take over library. Anything I want, if I work hard, I can do.” For me, for most people, Fordlândia had become a useless relic, swept away by World War II, a colossal failure for one of the world’s richest men. Both Henry Ford and his ill-fated project had been !111
ailing long before the War, and now both were being ushered into their graves. For most, a long expected demise is a relief, but I could see Iresine was grieving the death of Fordlândia. The wind gusted again. Iresine shivered under the shawl. I wondered if the shawl had belonged to Mrs. Treadwell. The friagem descended the night before. I’d been traveling for a day on the steamboat, the Estrela de Itaituba, down the Rio Tapajós from its confluence with the Amazon at Santarém. It was the last leg of my mission for the University of Michigan Botany Department to save, or sully, the reputation of Professor Carl LaRue. When I’d fallen asleep, the warm moist night air rising from the river was streaming in through the forward windows of my cabin. I woke about three o’clock. It was cold, as though I were on the car ferry from Detroit to Windsor on an early autumn evening. I shut the windows and started looking for blankets in my cabin. I heard some of the other first class passengers opening their doors, speaking Portuguese to someone in the corridor. I peeked out my door onto the deck. Along the banks of the Tapajós, I saw firelight flickering through the waving jungle vegetation. When my neighbor passed by, I asked what was happening. “O friagem,” he said. I gave a look like I didn’t know what he was talking about, which I didn’t. “A cold wind blows in from the Andes. It brings the frost.” He pointed to the twinkling firelight on the banks of the river. “The Indians, they try to protect the flor de cafe.” “How long will it last?” I said. “Not long. A few days, maybe a week. The jungle will survive, but some of the flowers will be magoado,” he said, “blighted.” There were no blankets. I got under my sheets with my clothes on. Five hours after the friagem descended on us the ship’s horn sounded. I peeked out my cabin window, trying to let in as little cold air as possible. Scattered along the riverbank were a few hamlets. Fifteen minutes later, the boat turned to the right, and around the bend I could see a larger settlement. There was a water tower with ‘Ford’ written across it, several smokestacks next to two large buildings, and a collection of Victorian cottages looking as though they’d been transplanted from the banks of Lake Erie. I changed into a fresh set of clothes, packed up my belongings and moved my luggage onto the passenger deck for the landing.
“Did you serve in the military during the war, Mister Ryckman?” Iresine said, while she served me lunch, a sandwich of homemade bread with a thin slice of pork and some kind of unfamiliar cheese. There was mustard on one slice of bread and catsup on the other. She’d called it real American food when she slid the plate in front of me. “No, I was 4-F. A knee injury when I was a child. I can’t walk much more than a half a mile and my knee swells up.” I couldn’t tell if she accepted this excuse for my lack of military service. Now with the war over and so many men my age being discharged from service, I was constantly being questioned. “Of course, I did my best to help with the war effort. I worked with Professor Carl LaRue on strategic rubber supplies. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?” “The name sounds familiar,” she said. I couldn’t tell whether she was just being polite. “Professor LaRue may be one of the main reasons Fordlândia exists today,” I said. “He explored this region in the early 1920s. He was one of the first economic botanists, and he thought this area would be suitable for a rubber plantation. The Ford Motor Company helped to finance his travels.” “And he is your professor?” Iresine said. “Early on in my graduate studies, I was thinking of asking him to be my thesis advisor. But Professor LaRue has fallen out of favor somewhat.” “Why?” “Well, because Fordlândia and Belterra seemed to have been such failures. During the war when rubber was so scarce, the seringueiros, working under the traditional Brazilian share-tenancy arrangements Henry Ford thought were so inefficient, produced more rubber per hectare than either the Fordlândia or Belterra plantations. Some people think Professor LaRue’s bad judgment hurt the war effort. In rebuttal, Professor LaRue’s supporters point out that Ford refused to hire any botanists when he cleared the land and first started planting rubber trees at Fordlândia. Perhaps some of the mistakes could have been avoided.” Iresine’s face became very cold; her eyes receded into her head. I realized these weren’t just intellectual arguments for her. “I’m sorry. I’ve started making speeches,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve heard this all many times.” Her expression softened somewhat. “I maybe do remember to see a copy of Professor LaRue’s report in the library,” she said, “but of course I have not the training to understand it. Perhaps tomorrow we look for it in the library.” !113
I changed the subject back to her. “Besides being the librarian, you helped Doctor Treadwell with his patients at the clinic? How long were you the Doctor’s assistant?” I said. “Next to eleven years, beginning late 1934, after he return from Mrs. Treadwell’s funeral, up to the time he move to Detroit late last year. Of course, after 1934 much rubber production move to Belterra. The number of workers here fall quickly and remain low until 1942, after America enters World War II and the supply of rubber from Asia cut off by the Japanese.” “Was Mrs. Treadwell’s body buried in America?” I said. “No, Doctor Treadwell take his wife’s body back to Salvador, where her family have a large plot in the Presbyterian cemetery,” Iresine said. “Mrs. Treadwell’s father, her grandfather, her mother, and one of her brothers, they all missionaries there, in Bahía.” She hesitated, seeming to consider what she wanted to say. I waited. “After the funeral, the Doctor start to drink,” she said. “His family are Orthodox Presbyterians; they drink no liquor at all. The Doctor start coming late at the clinic; the Company very strict about punctuality. If the Doctor late, then the workers he care for are late also.” “They didn’t fire him for drinking?” I said. “I thought Ford had forbidden alcohol anywhere inside of Fordlândia.” “The Company prohibit alcohol, but the enforcement of rules become lax after the riot,” Iresine said. “The riot?” “Yes, in 1932. The Company import three hundred men from Barbados to help clear the jungle. They paid special wages, but they made to work thirteen-hour days. They speak English,” she frowned, “but crude. They dirty and foul-mouthed. They like the food in the cafeteria. The Brazilian workers complain about food all the time.” “So the Brazilian and Barbadian workers didn’t get along?” I said. “No, they hate each other.” Iresine’s eyes widened; some hatred had been left behind. “Finally, the Brazilian workers riot; they burn down some buildings, and the American managers have to flee on boats onto the river until settlement is reached. Afterwards, the Company send the new workers back to Barbados. The Company loosen the rules; the Brazilian workers allowed to take liquor on Sundays. After that anyone can drink, in secret at home.” “Still the Doctor must have had troubles being late for work?” I said. !114
“Yes, at first, but I start to help him,” she said. “I get him up in the morning, and while he recovers, I go to the clinic and begin the paperwork for the patients that day. After a while, I know the patients so well that I can hand out remedies for sickness the Doctor already diagnosed or check on how well is a cut healed or a fracture mended. By the time the doctor arrive at nine or nine-thirty, many of the patients already helped. People with new illness or injury learn to come little later in morning, when the Doctor is there.” “It’s amazing everything you learned to do for the Doctor,” I said. “He probably would have had to leave Fordlândia without you.” “Many times he want to leave, but I convince him to stay, for the workers.” Then, as though she was speaking to herself, “I do everything for him, everything he need at work, everything he need at home.” I’d first seen Iresine on the dock. Approaching Fordlândia, the Estrela de Itaituba sounded its horn every couple of minutes, heralding a major event on shore. The streets leading to the main pier swelled with people as the boat approached. One section of the pier close to the moveable passenger gangplank had been cordoned off from the rest of the pier with a low wooden fence. Inside the enclosure was a group of men in white shirts, preening like a flock of bureaucrats. Off to one side stood a slender dark woman in a white dress with a bright red flower pattern; she held a white parasol with a tiny gold fringe and wore black-laced shoes like those I had seen middle-aged teachers wear in my hometown of Albion, Michigan. She had written me that she would be wearing a dress covered with the flower after which she was named. As a graduate student of botany, I didn’t need to ask for any further description to identify Miss Iresine do Rio. I had expected an older, heavyset woman with a dowdy appearance, like the librarians back home, but Iresine was only six or seven years older than me, in her early thirties, and more beautiful than I had expected. Her hair was long and jet-black. She was taller and her features finer than most of the other native women I had seen on my trip up the Amazon. Once at the dock, I went directly to her. “Bom dia. O meu nome é…” I said in my broken Portuguese, but she interrupted me immediately. “Please, Mister Ryckman, I prefer to speak English as much as possible. I have few opportunities to practice these days,” Iresine said. !115
“Well, sure.” I shook her hand; it was covered in a white glove. “Please, come this way,” she said. She pointed at my bags, and an adolescent boy in grubby clothes jumped over the low fence to pick them up; he followed us out through the gate of the reception area. Iresine led me down the main street to what had been the Fordlândia administration building. Along the way, we passed a rusted red fire hydrant, with an oval stamped on it, ‘mfg Detroit, Mich.’ While the water tower I’d first seen from the boat still wore a faded Ford logo, the old administration building Iresine and I entered had a large, less weathered rectangle over the main door where a sign had been removed. We passed through an office area littered with gray metal desks and chairs, dusty from lack of use, and emerged into a courtyard overgrown with flowers and ankle-high grass. “This is the house used by the Fordlândia administration for visitors like you,” Iresine said, pointing to the northeast corner of the courtyard. “I hope you are comfortable there. My quarters are in the rear of the administrative wing, behind the dining room and the kitchen. We can meet here,” she said, pointing at the dining room, “for lunch. In past days, the lunch whistle sounds at 11 am, but that practice is not continued. You have a watch, so there is no problem.” Inside the cottage I found a small living room with hardwood floors recently cleaned and polished. A white wicker divan and a wicker chair sat next to a wooden table. On the table was a vase with orchids, a white and a purple epidendrum ibaguense, fairly common in university hothouses, and a beautiful pink epidendrum calanthum, a flower so rare I had only seen drawings. The cottage windows were open and covered with the first screens I’d seen since leaving America. There was a slight mustiness in the air, as though I were the first visitor in some time. Off the living room was a small bedroom with a single bed. Thankfully, there was a blanket with a Dutch pattern folded at the foot of the bed; the friagem had not abated. The bathroom was almost identical to that in my grandparents’ house; all the fixtures were from the late 1920s, but perfectly functional. I considered taking a shower before lunch, but the lack of hot water, unnecessary most of the time in a climate where the overnight lows hardly ever went below 75 degrees, made me choose a simple change of clothes. When we finished lunch, Iresine served me coffee and something that looked like a homemade Hostess cupcake for dessert. She drank
her coffee quickly and said, “I apologize to interrupt our lunch, but I have some important things to do.” After Iresine hurried out of the administration building, I decided to take a stroll around Fordlândia. The former administration building lay on the main street leading away from the dock and the river. Half a block east, I found a man on a ladder removing the street sign. On the ground lay the crossed street signs for Avenida Dearborn and Rua Michigan; the new sign read, Avenida General Sanches Cunha and Rua dos Heróis. The pavement for the former Avenida Dearborn continued another block to two large factory buildings, one on each side of the street, their large smokestacks now extinguished. To the right, the former Rua Michigan led to an open area a block away, containing a town square with a Victorian gazebo. I imagined a troop of uniformed band members playing Souza marches after church on Sundays for the idle plantation workers. Friagems come on the wind, and two young boys were attempting to fly a battered kite in the center of the square. The gusts were too strong, and the kite kept crashing to the ground. Across the square was a long building, much in need of painting, with a large sign that appeared to have been whitewashed and then hand-lettered, Municipalidade de Boa Vista. I sat on a bench next to the gazebo, sheltered from the wind, watching the crashing kite, when Iresine came rushing out of the municipal building. A man in a white shirt followed her with his arms open, as if to say, ‘what else can I do.’ Iresine was screaming at him, waving some papers in front of his face. I was too far away to hear much, and what I did hear was Portuguese. I understood nothing. Iresine turned, stamping away from the man down the road bordering the river. She moved quickly at first, then slowed to a walk; she began crying, slowing further to a shamble. I wondered if I should try to comfort her or offer my assistance. I didn’t know how such a gesture would be interpreted in this part of the world. Iresine reached the rear of the administration building and went inside. I decided to wait for dinner to see how she was faring. At dinner she only seemed to want to talk about the Doctor. She gave no evidence of the problem at the municipal building. I asked how the Doctor’s wife had died. “I hear a scream,” Iresine said, raising her coffee-colored hands to her ears. “I run out from my room in the back. I see a thing wiggling at Mrs. Treadwell’s bedroom window. Red and black and yellow, a
coral snake, I think. They never show themselves during the day. It was the friagem, like now. The snakes look to find the warm. “I come into the bedroom, Mrs. Treadwell on the floor. Next to her half of a snake, wiggling; the other half still in window. Probably she see the snake crawl through the window and slam the sash down to kill it, but the snake cut in two and the head fall to the floor and bite her on foot. I run to clinic and bring back Doctor Treadwell, but nothing he could do.” “Is it a painful death?” I said. “Not so much as the bite of the caiçaca or the jararacacuçu; their bites kill very slow, painful,” Iresine said. “The bite of the coral snake stops the breath; death comes fast.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Mrs. Treadwell’s death a bad blow to the Doctor.” “How so?” I said. “The Doctor fall into sadness. The Company already decide to start a new plantation downriver, near Belterra. The Doctor supposed to head the clinic on the new plantation. Because of his condition, they leave him here to recover, but he never recover.” “He was lucky to have you to help him all these years,” I said. “I try to make life go back to normal for Doctor,” she said. “After a month, two, he drink only at night. I get him to bed not too late so next morning he can spend half day at clinic. With so fewer workers and my help, he only need half day.” “Weren’t there problems with emergencies?” I said. “Sometimes, people get sick at night.” “One, two times, American worker is sick at night, and I have trouble make Doctor sober for house call. Complaints made all way to Dearborn, but they let Doctor stay. Brazilian workers get sick, must wait until next day.” “He must have been lonely without his wife?” “Not so much.” She straightened, stiffened. “Marriage not so happy before snake bite Mrs. Treadwell. I speak English, learn to cook American food, read American magazines. I make good home for him, give him everything he need.” “They never had any children, the Treadwells?” “No, the Doctor have problem. That why Mrs. Treadwell so unhappy.” “Where is the Doctor now?” I said. “When the plantation handed over to the government of Brazil October past, the Company transfer Doctor to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit,” she said. “He supposed to be a consultant of tropical
medicine, but he really not be able to see patients any more by himself.” The next day Iresine took me to the library. It was a half a block east of the administration building, between it and the two factory buildings. The door was padlocked; Iresine had the key. The air inside was stale and musty. She walked carefully to avoid stepping in rodent droppings; I could see she was embarrassed. “I don’t have much need to come here any more,” she said. “Last year before the Doctor leave, I spend many days here to organize the collection, update the catalogue, get everything ready for shipping to Dearborn.” “So you knew that Ford was going to hand over the plantation to the Brazilian government.” “The Doctor have acquaintances in Dearborn,” she said. “Henry Senior step down and his grandson Henry II take over the Company; the war over in Europe and almost over in Japan; everybody know Fordlândia is ready to close.” “Why were you updating the catalogue?” “The Doctor said all the company documents are going to the Ford headquarters, to maintain a record of the experience here in the Amazon,” Iresine said. “I would be much needed to make the transfer to Dearborn.” “What happened?” “The Doctor go first to Dearborn to arrange the transfer, but the interest in natural rubber is not so great anymore. They learn how to make synthetic rubber during the war.” I wondered if the Ford Motor Company would really want to document Henry Ford Senior’s greatest mistake. Ford paid nothing for the million acres of jungle the Brazilian government signed over to him; he promised Brazil in return twenty-five percent of the profits. But Fordlândia and later Belterra never made a profit; they lost money even during the war when rubber was scarce and expensive – millions of dollars in total. With the introduction of the synthetic rubber, the price of natural rubber was now so low that most trees were no longer being tapped. Brazil paid Ford $250,000 for the return of the land, an amount equal to the severance payments promised to Ford’s unemployed workers. “What will happen now with the library?” I said. “I do not know. Almost all books and papers written in English, and I am only one left who can read them.”
I could see that Iresine was becoming upset, but I wanted to know what was going to happen to her. “What will you do if Ford doesn’t move the library to Michigan?” “For now, the Doctor thinks I need to stay here to guard the library. Once he’s sure the Company not want it, he will send for me. He needs me to help him with his house and his practice.” She smiled when she said this, but there was fear in her eyes. Iresine located a copy of Professor LaRue’s 1923 study of rubber trees along the Tapajós River. She also found a copy of the proposal written by a local businessman named Villares for the purchase of a quarter million hectares for a rubber plantation along the lower Tapajós near the town of Boa Vista. Iresine told me it was later discovered that Villares owned some of the land around Boa Vista that the Brazilian government transferred to Ford. She let me take these documents back to my room for further study and to make notes; the air in the library was too rancid to remain there for long. On the way back to the old administration building, Iresine took me by the old Fordlândia hospital where the Doctor had his clinic. Like the administration building, there was a large rectangle of less weathered paint above the door where a sign had been removed. A piece of paper was thumb tacked next to the door, ‘Clinica de Saúde Pública.’ “I should talk to the clinic manager to have the Doctor’s records moved to the library,” Iresine said. “Would you mind to be waiting for one minute?” I sat on the bench outside the clinic. There didn’t seem to be any patients coming or going. I heard some loud voices inside, and shortly afterward Iresine came out, slamming the door behind her. She quickly composed herself. “All taken care of. We can go now.” She walked quickly and said nothing on the block back to the old administration building. The next morning I awoke to the noise of furniture being moved. I looked out the window and saw Iresine sitting on a bench in the patio, frozen cold with rage. Two men came out of her apartment carrying a mattress and a bed frame. They went through the main section of the old administration building and turned east toward the factories and the library. I got dressed. By the time I reached the patio, the four teams of movers were almost finished. I went through the administration building toward the street. A man in a white shirt, who appeared to be supervising the move, met me at the door.
“Please to remain here as guest of government of Brazil. No need you move.” “What happened to Miss do Rio? Why did she move?” I said. He didn’t understand at first, but then said. “Ah, Senhorita do Rio? She go take care the library. Doctor Treadwell send money to Boa Vista municipalidade for his amante. She to live there now.” I found Iresine sitting on a dusty bench in the library. She smiled at me, but she was holding back tears. “They say I have to live here in the library,” she said. “There is no one else to guard it.” “Maybe I can help you move some of the boxes and bookcases around so that you can have a living area in the back,” I said, lifting a nearby box to move toward the front of the library. “No, you are a scientist,” she said, blocking my path. “You should not be doing housework.” “You can tell me more about Fordlândia while we work; that way, I can learn what I need to know, and you will have a place to sleep tonight.” I helped her rearrange the furniture and bookcases and clean out the library. We were able to make a small living area in the rear of the library building. There was a toilet and a sink in the rear, but no shower and no kitchen area. I felt sorry for Iresine. Fordlândia’s collapse had swept her life out into a flooded river on a very small raft. While Iresine arranged her private area, I swept the floor and the windowsills to remove the rodent droppings and dust, knocked down the many cobwebs, hoping not to dislodge any banana spiders, and stacked some of the boxes scattered around the library. Since she no longer had a kitchen, when we finished Iresine took me to a local guesthouse near the river where most of the government bureaucrats who lived in Fordlândia without their families took their meals. We finished our very basic meal, and I tried to pay, but the waitress said the mayor had already made arrangements to cover the cost of all my meals. She nodded toward the far side of the room, and the man in the white shirt who’d supervised Iresine’s eviction this morning nodded back at us. Iresine took two cruzeiros out of her purse and, glaring at the man, slammed them on the table. Iresine walked me back to the administration building. “Thank you for your help today,” she said. “I sorry we could not spend more time looking at the documents in the library.”
“I think I have everything that I need for the report to my Botany Department chairman.” We shook hands, and I watched her walk up the street to the library, her shoulders gradually sagging and her step slowing to a shuffle. She looked back and saw me watching; she straightened up immediately, opened the door and waved good night. I was lying in bed, trying to sleep after the troubles of the day. I heard a knock. I opened the door; it was Iresine. She was wrapped in a blanket with a Dutch design, like the one on my bed. The wind was still howling from the friagem. She walked in. I was going to ask her why she had come, when she dropped the blanket. Underneath she wore a sheer nightgown that seemed too long and too large for her; it must have belonged to someone else. I could see her nipples standing out through the fabric. I touched her cheek with my hand; it was cold. She started to cry. I put my arms around her; she was shivering. She opened my shirt and kissed my chest. I picked her up and took her into the bedroom. After we’d finished, I got the heavy blanket that had fallen on the floor to protect us from the friagem. “You will be leaving soon?” she said. “Yes, tomorrow, when the Estrela de Itaituba returns. I need to be in Belém by Friday to meet with Professor Domingues Silva at the Universidade Federal do Pará.” “After that, you will return to America?” “No, I will be collecting orchid specimens on the west coast of the Ilha de Marajó with Professor Domingues Silva,” I said. “I will be staying in Villa Aramá for about three months.” “And that will be the work to complete your dissertation, not your visit here to Fordlândia?” she said. “That’s correct. My visit here was a service I performed for the chairman of my department,” I said. “He gave me the money for my field trip, in return for which I would gather evidence. Some of the Professor LaRue’s enemies would like to censure him as a way to distance the Botany Department from the failure of the Ford rubber plantations to contribute to the war effort.” I felt Iresine getting tense again, as she had before, by this topic. “Of course, being here, seeing Fordlândia, talking with you about how much effort was put into the plantation, I can see there is no basis for such an accusation.” I decided a lie would be the best relief for what must have been one of the worst days of Iresine’s life. “If not for synthetic rubber, I am sure
that Fordlândia and Belterra would have become famous rubber centers, like Manaus was forty years ago.” “Couldn’t you finish your research here? There are many beautiful orchids in the forests around Fordlândia.” She slid her hand down my side. I didn’t want her to stop. “I would need to talk with Professor Domingues Silva about that.” I knew what he would say, that Fordlândia had been so disturbed by rubber farming that it would be unsuitable to the study of the natural history of any plant. But I would ask him, just so I wouldn’t be technically lying to Iresine. We made love again, and afterwards she relaxed. We chatted more about my trip to Belém. She told me that tomorrow she would have an elderly carpenter who used to work for the Company build her a kitchen on the back of the library. Later she would arrange for an outdoor shower and have a little garden planted in the back. “By the time you get back from Belém, the library will be the perfect place for your research.” I awoke to the sound of a distant horn. I was alone in bed, sweating. The air was still and moist; the friagem had lifted. At first I didn’t realize where I was. Iresine was gone, and the Estrela de Itaituba’s horn was announcing its approach to the dock. I jumped out of bed and back into my clothes from yesterday; I would have to clean up on the boat. I hurriedly repacked my suitcase. Iresine wasn’t in her former quarters in the old administration building. The library door was padlocked from the outside. The horn sounded again, and I saw the Estrela de Itaituba pull into the dock. I started walking to the boat. I had to be in Belém on Friday. Iresine wasn’t at the passenger reception area. I waited as long as I could and then boarded. I stowed my belongings in the cabin and climbed to the upper deck for a better view. Nothing. The captain sounded the final boarding call, and the crew raised the gangplank. Still no sight of Iresine. After we pulled away, I climbed back down to the main deck and went to the stern for a last look at Fordlândia. During the dry season, the level of the Rio Tapajós is low, leaving many sand bars stretching out into the river. As we rounded the bend where I’d first seen Fordlândia, a woman stood at the end of a long sand bar, staring at the water. Around the sandbar was a flock of large pink fish with long snouts. One after another would swim toward the sand bar where the woman appeared to say something;
then they would retreat back into the river. The third mate saw me looking at the fish. “São botos,” he said. I looked at him, confused. “Dolphins of river.” Then pointing at the woman. “The women here who not marry and have baby, they make excuse, they say, I swim in river, I get pregnant from boto. The myth say the botos know when a woman is ready for to be pregnant.” The woman speaking to the dolphins wore a broad-brimmed hat covering her face; she was dark and about the same size as Iresine, but I couldn’t be sure. I called her name, but she probably couldn’t hear me over the noise of the riverboat. Months later back in Michigan, I expected, even hoped for, a letter, but nothing came. Ten years later I had my first sabbatical from the University of Florida, and I went back to Belém with my wife, Cindy. She’d been a romance language major at the University of Michigan, French and Italian, and she was learning Portuguese for our trip, to act as my translator. We went up the Amazon, all the way to Manaus to visit the famous Teatro Amazonas opera house built during the pre-WWI rubber boom and to see the pied tamarin and other rainforest animals. We passed by the mouth of the Rio Tapajós in both directions, but I didn’t try to visit Fordlândia. That last night I spent with Iresine was still alive in my memory. Her lovemaking was desperately passionate, passionately desperate; it’s never been the same with any other woman. Back in Belém, Cindy returned one day from shopping with a potted plant for the balcony of our little sabbatical apartment near the Universidade. “Tom, do you know what this is?” Cindy said, holding out a plant with tiny white flowers and brilliant red bracts. “It’s an Iresine,” I said. “That’s not what the flower market ladies call it,” she said. “Oh?” “They call it the coração magoado.” “Blighted?” I said. “Blighted, or damaged,” she said, putting the pot on the ledge, “it’s the damaged heart.” She smiled and held it up again for me, “Beautiful, don’t you think?”
JONATHAN B. FERRINI The Final Watch Interstate 8 climbs west out of the Imperial Valley and twists through the rugged mountains upward into East San Diego County. My name is Tommy and I recently graduated from the Border Patrol Academy. I’m assigned to work the graveyard shift at the Campo checkpoint along Interstate 8 which is 65 miles west from the Mexican border crossing and fifty miles east from San Diego. The checkpoint is surrounded by rugged, isolated terrain accessible solely by four-wheel drive vehicles. Thousands of vehicles pass through our checkpoint daily but you wouldn’t realize it working the graveyard shift as wild animals outnumber the vehicles. My Senior Agent and mentor is Ben who reached mandatory retirement age. He loves his job and is a widower without children. He is kind, fatherly, and enjoys telling tales of his storied career more than mentoring me. His rotund body is showing wear and tear. He has a limp and bouts of memory loss. Ben’s faithful partner is a drug sniffing German shepherd named “Ruger” who can hold his own in a brawl. We spend most of our shift relaxing in recliner chairs and keep a cooler filled with soft drinks and water. Ben and Ruger nod off from time to time which I don’t mind. Our office is a small trailer. It’s a full moon tonight and the sky is full of stars. A breeze is kicking up the fragrance of the chaparral. It’s 0230 and Ruger barks. Ben wakes and grabs the binoculars looking east down the freeway which is dark. “It looks like CHP Officer Wally is on the beat,” Ben remarks. Although I see nothing, I won’t question a Senior Agent. Ruger is barking relentlessly and dragging Ben to the checkpoint. Ben says, “Hand me a Coke for Wally, Tommy.” I comply but remain dumbfounded. The checkpoint is lit with floodlights but I see nothing. Ben and Ruger cross the two lane freeway to the checkpoint. Ben crouches down and leans as if peering into a vehicle to speak to a driver. Ruger stands on both legs and Ben holds him close. I watch in disbelief as Ben holds a conversation with an apparition. Ruger barks and pulls Ben towards our chase car. Ben yells, “Wally just received a radio call to respond to an overturned tanker truck at mile marker 4. I’m going to assist. Man the fort!” Wally and Ruger race down Interstate 8 with lights and siren. I’m tense and confused. I radio Ben who doesn’t answer. To my relief, I hear Ben request radio assistance from CAL FIRE Station 44, “Overturned fuel truck on !125
fire. Driver trapped. Assisting CHP Officer Wally. Send fire engine and ambulance.” Within minutes, CAL FIRE Engine 44 and an ambulance race by the checkpoint. I run to our four wheel drive truck and speed towards mile marker 4 to assist. Mile marker 4 is several miles west from the checkpoint. I see Ben’s chase car emergency lights flashing ahead and his chase car is positioned across the two lane freeway as a safety measure to prevent vehicles from approaching. A coyote darts from the brush, crosses my lane, and disappears into the wilderness. I swerve and narrowly miss the animal but at ninety miles per hour I struggle to gain control and keep from flipping. I maintain control of the truck and park but don’t see Ben or Ruger. There is no overturned tanker truck. Engine 44 is parked alongside the freeway with its emergency lights off. The ambulance is leaving empty. A masculine, calming voice calls to me, “Up here on the bluff, kid.” I climb up on to the bluff and meet Chief Johnny of Engine Company 44. He is tall, thin, and has a thick mane of silver hair and handlebar moustache. He is handsome and I suspect many are happy to be rescued by Johnnie. “Call it a night fellas,” Johnnie commands his men who conclude their search for Ben and Ruger. Johnnie asks, “What’s your name Agent?” I reply, “Tommy, Captain.” Johnnie places his arm around my shoulder and raises his head towards the sky remarking, “You can practically count every star.” I’m flustered and quivering. Johnnie holds me tight and looks me in the eye. In a hushed voice he says, “About thirty years ago, I responded to a tanker truck fire at this very place. Ben and CHP Officer Wally were attempting to extricate the driver. Just as we began spraying the tanker with foam retardant, it blew into flames. The driver was pulled to safety, Ben suffered singed eyebrows but CHP Officer Wally burned to death. There’s no earthly explanation for what happened here tonight but I’ve seen it before. Agents like Ben never forget losing a fellow officer. When their time to die comes, they prefer it occurs doing the job they love and choose to vanish forever into the wilderness. The San Diego Commander of the Border Patrol and I go way back. I’ll call him tonight and explain everything. He’ll understand.” Captain Johnnie and I walk down the bluff to our vehicles. Captain Johnnie waves as Engine 44 returns to the firehouse. I park Ben’s chase car alongside the meridian and will retrieve it later. I return to the checkpoint confused. I stare at the star filled sky and learned tonight life holds many secrets. I miss Ben and Ruger and will never forget them. I hope they are together in a better place. !126
Across the freeway a lone coyote exits the brush, sits and stares directly at me. Our eyes meet for a moment and the coyote belts out a howl before returning to the wilderness.
KEVIN FITTON Something Worthy of His Shame The control room of the steamship was always warm. In midsummer, it was oppressive. By the time he had finished bringing the engine up to speed and locked the automator into place, synchronizing the flow of steam with the rise and fall of the cylinder, Matthew was dripping with sweat. He mopped his forehead and traced his jawline with a handkerchief. His fair skin was chapped from the hours spent in the belly of the ship amid the boiler’s thrumming heat. The tip of his nose was crusted with sores. He had grown a beard, but the mustache didn’t cover the patches of red worn onto his upper lip, and he often found bits of scab caught in his facial hair. Leaving the control room, Matthew found Freddy, his assistant, reclining in the crew’s cabin, resting his thick legs on a second chair. He was reading a Life Magazine, and Matthew could see the cover as he approached: a man and woman dancing, the woman’s pearls flying. “Okay then,” said Matthew. For a moment, Freddy didn’t respond, and Matthew waited impatiently, strumming his fingers on his thighs. Then Freddy stood up, tossing his magazine onto the chair in front of him. Most likely, Freddy would find some other distraction before taking his place behind the controls—visiting the toilet or passing a word with another member of the crew. He didn’t believe his understudy would ever make engineer. Matthew had tried, again and again, explaining to Freddy that the steamship was, at its essence, a bomb, waiting for the opportunity to explode, and that the control room was the center of its seething power. Perhaps Freddy was too used to things working out, incarnated as he had been into a well-formed body with perfect skin and rows of milky white teeth. Perhaps it was not possible for Freddy to understand what Matthew knew first-hand—that God is just as likely to make sport of his creatures as he is to provide for their needs. Matthew slid the displaced chair back into its row, taking the seat Freddy had vacated. He removed a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket. Sunlight poked into the cabin through a small window, but the dark-paneled walls soaked up the light and the room remained dim. Still, he didn’t have to strain to read the words; he had already read the letter several times, deciphering his uncle’s looping cursive, and had it largely committed to memory. !128
“She is a hard working lass and well-mannered. Truly, she is a lovely girl, and I’m sure you will find that her only defect is her thick Scottish brogue. Sometimes, even I can’t understand her.” Matthew refolded the paper and tucked it again into his breast pocket, wondering again whether he shouldn’t just go ahead and take the girl, though he was convinced that, in saying she was lovely, his uncle meant that she was gentle but not pretty. Mary, the ship’s stewardess, appeared at the door. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, “but a woman and her son would very much enjoy a tour of the ship.” Despite his self-conscious nature, Matthew didn't mind occasionally giving tours. He enjoyed showing off The Ticonderoga, built twenty years before with an engine from the Hoboken Ferryboat Company and a hull constructed in Newburgh, New York. At the Shelburne Shipyard, the top craftsmen in the state of Vermont went to work fashioning one of the finest vessels in the world. “Of course, of course, just give me a moment,” he said and walked to the toilet where he could inspect his appearance before heading above deck. The woman and son were waiting on the balcony of the main deck, standing at the railing. The mother looked out over the rippling water to the east, wind playing with strands of hair which had fallen out of the bun pinned to the back of her head. Matthew pictured the boat as it would have appeared from the shoreline. From that distance, the big white ship would have seemed oblivious to the waves and currents of the waterway. The long double-decker would have seemed as if it wasn’t moving if not for the diamond-shaped walking beam teetering back and forth on the roof deck, and the black chimney funneling smoke into the sky. Matthew could feel the ship’s hull driving against the waves, but from where he stood, he couldn’t see the lake water below. Instead, the woman and child were framed by green Vermont hillsides, walls of leaves shimmering in the sunlight, and behind the hills, paisley mountains drawn zigzag across the bottom of the sky. “Who are you?” the boy asked. The mother turned around. “I am the engineer for The Ticonderoga, and I will be your tour guide. If you’ll have me.” “Certainly,” The boy nodded his head. He was five or six years old, Matthew figured, a year or two younger than his landlord’s child. “This is my son, Peter,” said the mother. “And I’m Dorothy.” She was wearing a simple blue dress, decorated with buttons on the front !129
and pleated below the waist. She was the sort of woman that you noticed, not only for her beauty but for the way she held herself— straight and tall, as if she were always preparing to be photographed. They headed downstairs, Matthew first, then Peter, and then the mother. When they reached the ship’s bottom deck, Matthew stopped in front of its business office. The office was cluttered with papers, tickets, and typewriters. Two men worked side by side, murmuring back and forth, filling the room with cigarette smoke. Matthew looked down. “This floor,” he said, “is one of the ship’s more interesting features.” The tiles were shaped like puzzle pieces, only two inches long, thousands of them locked together into a pattern that seemed to go on forever. “These pieces were forged in a General Motors Auto Factory in Detroit—made from tire rubber.” Peter was watching the men in the control room, caught up in the sputtering activity. A voice, a pause, the click-clacking of a typewriter. Another pause. “Well, that is something,” said the mother. She looked over the floor, and, while her eyes were occupied, Matthew noticed how her torso gathered at a narrow, belted waist. She was not wearing a wedding band. “I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Matthew Bender.” As Matthew offered his hand, he pictured his own half-hearted smile, the uneven beard and blotchy skin, misaligned teeth trying to hide behind thin lips. “What is your destination today?” “We’re going home,” she said. “At least it’s home for now.” She looked down at the floor again. “Peter’s father died in the war, and we’re living with my parents.” Matthew made a quick calculation. Her husband would have died three years ago, at least. Unlike most men his age, Matthew didn’t fight in the Great War. His gimpy left knee barely permitted his work on The Ti. Many days ended with his leg elevated, icepacks holding down the swelling, the ongoing punishment from a childhood injury that never healed. The control room was empty, and for once, Matthew was glad about the young man’s disappearances. He wanted to have the room to himself. But then, as Matthew was describing the ship’s intercom, a pair of tubes and bells running from the control room twenty feet up to the pilot house, Freddy reappeared, as if smelling dinner about to come out of the oven. “Young man,” Freddy interjected, “do you want to ring the bell? We have a special ring that tells the captain we have a guest in the control room.” Freddy smiled his perfect, magazine-cover smile. !130
“Could I?” Peter asked, looking to his mother. She nodded agreement and smiled at Freddy. “How kind of you.” Freddy grabbed Peter by the waist and lifted him up where he could reach the bell cord. The boy’s lips were pursed with focus like a man writing out his thoughts, while he grabbed the knotted rope. For a moment, Matthew was distracted by the letter in his pocket. He pictured a young woman standing at the top of a rough, Scottish hillside, wild orange hair whipping around in the wind, a dirty gingham dress, deep brown freckles hardened on her face. When Freddy set Peter back down, the boy was beaming. She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Freddy looked at the engine and then at Dorothy. “It certainly is impressive,” said Dorothy. “Impressive,” said Matthew, “is closer to the mark. This engine is the result of decades of refinement, every component crafted with precision.” Matthew had served aboard The Ticonderoga for eight years, but he still found himself occasionally pausing his work to admire the perfect curvature of the steel pistons, the grace with which the interlocking gears drove the ship’s paddles, the massive force generated by a cauldron of boiling water. “Yes, I can see that,” she said. Matthew led Dorothy and Peter out of the control room. They passed the stewardess’s quarters, a private room for the ship’s only female staff. For Matthew, this room was the ship’s lone mystery, the world of the woman. It was like a missing piece in an otherwise completed puzzle. And it both piqued his curiosity and repelled him. The three of them continued on to the bow of the lower deck, packed full with automobiles, horses, buggies, livestock, and three large storage bins of grain. The storage area smelled of wet leather, grass, and manure. “It’s like Noah’s Ark,” Dorothy said, smiling. Peter approached a buggy, stepping on tiptoes trying to see inside. Cattle moaned from the other side of the deck. Matthew was thinking about this young widow—how life had driven her back to the farm while practically everyone else, it seemed, was moving to the city, leaving their parents and grandparents behind to tend the unwanted land. “Is it lonely back on the farm?” he asked. “Lonely might not be the right word.” “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m prying.” “It’s all right. I’m not made of porcelain.” !131
While Peter explored his surroundings, Dorothy leaned back against a wall made from rough, undressed pine. She held herself steady against the ship’s rolling motion with the palms of her hands, and Matthew worried she would get splinters in her fingers or snag her dress against the bristly wood. The lower deck was rustic, unlike the passengers’ cabins upstairs, which carpenters had lined with cherry wood, sanded smooth and finished with lacquer. Since he’d met Dorothy, Matthew had been careful with his eyes, but for a moment he allowed them to focus on her soft skin, tender pink lips, and the slope of her graceful neck. He imagined himself pulling back the collar of her dress, kissing the hollow of her shoulder. He thought about the long slender legs hiding beneath her ankle-length dress. “Be careful, Peter,” she said. The boy was right behind Matthew, approaching a grey pony tied to a metal beam. Peter stopped moving toward the animal, drawing his hands down to his side. “Do you live on board?” Dorothy asked, walking closer. “Oh no,” he said. “I have a place in Burlington.” “A place? That sounds lonely.” She winked and placed a hand on her hip. Matthew didn’t answer. He felt uncertain speaking with this woman, worried that the more he said, the more likely he was to betray his clumsiness. He approached the pony, stroking its neck. The pony was chewing on some hay, folding it into his mouth, crunching and waggling its head. Matthew waved for Peter to approach, and the boy mimicked him, running his hand down the pony’s neck to the withers. He knelt down beside the boy. “Are you making friends?” he asked. “Oh yes, of course,” said Peter. “The animals are all my friends.” Matthew smiled. If only he shared the boy’s confidence, his certainty in the reciprocating affection of others. If only he possessed the sort of panache that allowed a man to speak to a woman, knowing that she would find him charming. Leaving the busy storage deck behind, Matthew led his guests to the crew’s cabin and then back upstairs to the lounge, busy with passengers. For a moment, he lingered. A breeze was flowing through the lounge, ruffling his stiff, matted hair. “Thank you for the tour. It’s really wonderful,” she said. “The ship, I mean.” “Oh, it is. And thank you. You were very gracious.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say. !132
The Village of Charlotte was a minor port, and they docked for only a few minutes as passengers boarded and disembarked the ship. Soon Matthew was again working the starting bar, bringing the engine back up to speed for the next leg of the northward journey to Shelburne. He was just about to set the automator when he saw Dorothy rushing past, her perfect posture ruined by an urgency of movement. It took another minute to finish his work. Then he went looking for her. Dorothy was in the big storage room calling for Peter. When she saw Matthew, she said, “I told him not to leave his seat. I told him not to move a muscle.” “What happened?” he asked. “I went to the restroom, and when I came back he was gone.” Her face was as white as the limestone cliffs at Rock Point. In fact, she seemed almost to have transformed into a different person. Her mannerisms were changed—her voice pinched with fear, her strides long and uneven as she walked across the storage deck looking for her boy. Peter could have been hiding any number of places. He could have sneaked into one of the buggies, though Matthew didn’t see how he could have climbed into one of the grain bins. “He doesn’t know how to swim,” she said. Matthew could almost see her insides churning like the lake waters swirling below as she confronted the possibility that she had lost her son. “He’s a smart boy,” Matthew said. “He’s going to be all right, we just have to find him. And we will.” He had never won a prize in his life, not even a spelling bee. With the condition of his knee, he had never participated in athletics. But if he managed to find Peter, for once he might play the hero. Promising to find help, he went striding down the hall, up the stairs to the lounge, where he found Mary. “I can’t imagine where he could have gotten off to,” said the stewardess, “or that he could have fallen overboard without being noticed.” Mary’s personality matched her body: solid and unwavering, functional but without grace. And Matthew suspected that she was chosen for the job partly for her competence, and also because she would not distract the male crew. “True,” he said. “But the mother will be in a panic until we find him.” He asked Mary to help Dorothy search the lower deck, while he made for the pilothouse. “If you see Freddy,” he said, “send him back to the control room.” Then he climbed the second set of stairs to the roof deck. He rarely visited the top of the ship, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust !133
to the harsh light—the shimmering sun reflecting off the water, the whitewashed deck, and the chrome railings and flagpoles. In the sun and the wind, his eyes startled to tears. Walking carefully across the rocking deck, Matthew wondered why he allowed himself to fantasize about women like Dorothy. In all his life only one woman had expressed any romantic interest in him, a sad girl named Rose (he’d always thought of her as a girl, though she was nearly his age). She had worked in his boarding house where he lived ten years before, back when he was ship’s mate on a steamer running in and out of New York Harbor. She wore a black blouse beneath a plain white apron, the faded black cloth matching the shadowed hollows of her eyes, which always looked sunken in the dusky, lantern-lit house. She had taken to him immediately, and for a few weeks, he had been flattered. She certainly wasn’t beautiful, but she was pretty in the way a dying flower becomes remarkably soft in its frailty. As time passed, though, Matthew grew more and more certain that he would turn the girl away. Part of him, deep inside, always believed that someday a woman like Dorothy would appear: tall and beautiful. It was the other part of him, however, that was speaking now, criticizing his desire for a woman he could never have. Even the letter in his pocket felt as if it were going to disintegrate and blow into the lake. The boy was nowhere to be found. The captain hadn’t seen him on the roof deck, and Matthew did not find him in the restaurant or in either of the sleeping rooms. He descended to the lower deck, and, as he took the stairs, he felt his knee beginning to groan. Passing the control room, he raised his hand to acknowledge Freddy, who had, in fact, taken his position. Dorothy was still searching the storage room. Her eyes flashed with panic. “He must have gotten off in Charlotte,” said Matthew. “I’m sure he’s sitting on the pier right now, waiting for the ship to come back.” Matthew’s certainty in Peter’s safety was wavering, but he still believed the boy would eventually turn up. “He’s gone,” she cried. “I know he’s gone.” She collapsed into Matthew’s chest, her head pressed right up against the letter hiding in his blazer. “I was going to be remarried. He just met my fiancé, and now he’s acting out.” Matthew felt his arms wrapping around Dorothy’s body. She was a tall woman—her hair tickling his chin even though she was slumped over. Still, she felt small. It seemed to him that he could have picked her up like a child and held her. !134
For a moment, Matthew closed his eyes as he felt the electricity of her body against his, feeling the pressure of her head against his chest, her arms around the middle of his back. But then he opened them again. It was bittersweet, holding this beautiful woman close, knowing that she was thinking only of her missing son. She let go and looked up at his face. Her eyes were red, and her mascara had smeared and left a black streak on her cheekbone. “What are we going to do?” she asked. Matthew was sure again. The boy was not dead but had almost certainly left the ship in Charlotte. Matthew knew what this was about. His parents were older and doting. They rarely punished him, and even when they tried, often failed to follow through. One time, he had broken a mirror, and his mother had sent him out of the house. He stood outside the kitchen window screaming, and crying, and banging against the side of the house, until his mother finally, guiltily, let him back in. Peter’s disappearance, he was sure, was a cry for attention. Matthew promised to help search the ship again as soon as he had checked in with his assistant. Introduced again to the extreme heat of the control room, it took only a few seconds before his armpits began dripping with sweat. Freddy looked startled. “Matthew,” he said, “I'm glad you’re here.” The pressure gauge had been sneaking upward. “It’s something to watch,” said Matthew. It irritated him that Freddy, who couldn’t be trusted to pay careful attention to the controls, was now worried about a slight increase in pressure, something that was quite normal on a hot summer day. “You’re not worried,” asked Freddy, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. “Not yet,” said Matthew. The hallway felt narrow and cramped. Of course, he practically lived on board The Ticonderoga and was used to its tight spaces and low ceilings, but every once in a great while, the cramped lower deck felt small and bereft of air, as if the stuff he was drawing into his lungs was devoid of oxygen. He almost didn’t hear the sounds coming from the stewardess’s cabin. It sounded like a cough, the noise that first caught his attention. Then there was a sound like shuffling, like stocking feet sliding across the floor. He stopped and looked at the wall, as if the wall might speak to him, but it was silent, and he wondered if he had imagined it.
He knocked on the stewardess’s door, expecting Mary to answer, but there was no response. “Mary,” he called. “Mary.” He knocked again, and, despite his misgivings, when no answer came he opened the door. The room was very small, barely large enough for a grown man to lie down, and with an even smaller bathroom attached. There was no one there, just a cot, a duffle bag on the floor, and a blouse and skirt hung on the wall. Matthew shut the door. The sounds must have been coming from the control room. After searching the ship again, Matthew and Dorothy stood outside the dining room, trying to decide what to do next. “I should have waited,” said Dorothy. “I should have waited until Peter was ready, instead of forcing this on him.” Matthew combed his beard with the fingers of one hand and checked his watch with the other. “The thing right now is to find Peter,” he said. “Let’s not worry about anything else until we find him.” Even as he spoke, though, he felt the pointlessness of his words. What was there to do besides worry? Red blotches had formed on Dorothy’s neck, creeping up to her jawline. Her eyes were bloodshot, and more hair had fallen out of its bun. “Maybe you should sit down for a minute,” he said. When he returned to the control room, Matthew worried that the engine might actually be overheating. The steel pistons were shimmering. Streaks of blue shivered up and down the surface of the silver tanks, though the pressure was holding steady at 110 pounds per square inch. Freddy’s black hair was drenched with sweat, thick strands sticking to his forehead. Freddy’s handkerchief was soaked, but he was still employing it, wiping his face like a windshield wiper throwing rainwater from glass. His jacket had been discarded and his rough cotton clung to his body. Matthew stared at the engine, but no irregularity was visible. Below his feet, a storage tank trembled. He could hear the condenser hissing, cool lake water meeting the indefatigable steam. “What do you think?” he asked. “She’s running hot, no doubt about that,” said Freddy. “When we arrive at Shelburne, we’ll empty the storage tanks and let the engine cool. It will put us behind schedule, but it’s better safe than sorry.” !136
“Captain will be up in arms,” said Freddy. “Schedule’s a bitter mistress,” said Matthew, smiling. He called the Captain on the intercom, delivered the news, and returned to the dining room. Matthew felt silly for having assumed Dorothy was unattached. He was the type of person who felt he must always make an excuse for himself, as if his very existence required an apology. He wondered if the woman in the letter, the Scottish girl, felt the same way about the world, that her placement in it was some sort of cosmic mistake. He ordered a glass of soda water and joined Dorothy at her table. He drank whiskey at home, but this was all he would allow himself on board. “I’m terrified,” she said. She was cupping her hands together, as if in prayer. Around the room, diners clinked silverware against dishes, oblivious to this woman’s crisis. Matthew looked out the windows at the lake, wishing that the waves could incite a breeze to come cool his body. He needed relief— relief from the day’s heat and from the anguish in Dorothy’s eyes. “You know what?” he said. “When we make it to Shelburne, I’ll take you back to Charlotte.” “Oh, that would be wonderful.” She took his hand. “You have been so wonderful.” When the ship was docked, Matthew and Freddy emptied the storage tanks, covering their ears while the tanks screamed in relief. He told Freddy about Dorothy and asked him to guide the ship to Burlington. “Be careful,” said Matthew. “You know I will,” said Freddy, and Matthew felt encouraged by the earnestness in Freddy’s voice. He led Dorothy onto the pier, carrying her suitcase a quarter of a mile to a filling station. Entering the garage, Matthew offered the man twenty dollars to borrow his car. “It’s an emergency,” he said. The man gave Matthew the keys to a Ford Model T. Dorothy was sitting on a little strip of grass lawn next to the road, her head buried in her knees. The sun was bright on the trees and glinting on little pieces of bauxite packed into the road. Matthew’s knee was aching. He had lumbered all over the ship, climbed the staircases repeatedly, and he knew he would pay for it later. He was headed for a poor night’s sleep however things turned out.
The car had a rounded hood, a square-shaped grill on the front, and two chrome-plated headlamps that looked like eyes. The vehicle felt as out of place on those backcountry roads as a radio tower planted on the shaved top of a wild Vermont mountain. The top was down, and dust swirled all around the car as they traveled. Throughout the drive, Matthew continually veered one way or another avoiding the biggest potholes. But even with his constant attention the car banged and rattled, bouncing out of the biggest ruts. For a while, Dorothy didn’t speak, but then she said, “How much further?” She had taken her hair down and was trying to wind it back into a bun. She was holding the long hairpins in her teeth, and her hands remade the style with practiced ease. “About four more miles, I’d say.” “Do you really think we’ll find him?” she asked. Matthew believed that he could now see into her mind. She was imagining what it would feel like to see Peter’s form walking down the street, to call to him and see him turn back, and experience the beautiful recognition of the sweet child’s face. She was allowing herself to feel, if only for a moment, the incredible relief in knowing that he was alive, as if she had the boy wrapped in her arms, and she was promising herself that she would never—never—lose him again. “I really think so. Yes.” “Oh, God, I hope so,” she said, but then she fell silent. Matthew drove the car as hard as possible on the rough road. He thought about The Ticonderoga steaming north, while he was travelling in the opposite direction. He reminded himself that Freddy had been apprenticing for well over a year now, but his mind kept running through the things that could go wrong—a broken safety valve, water loss, corrosion in the boiler. He thought about Rose and how he had lied to her, telling her that he was engaged to be married. Charlotte was just a village: a dozen large white colonials, a general store known as the Brick Store, a congregational church, a doctor’s office, and a firehouse. Matthew checked the Brick Store first, entering ahead of Dorothy, walking past the woven baskets filled with bright vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, and onions—and two shelves filled with canned goods. There were three patrons in the shop and a girl working behind the counter. Dorothy approached a middle-aged woman, asking if she had seen a six-year-old boy, walking alone. Matthew walked to the counter where two men were talking. No one had seen Peter.
They traveled down to the dock where a man was fishing from the pier. His canvas pants were too long, hanging down to the heel of his boots where they were muddied and frayed. “We’re looking for a boy,” said Matthew. At first, the fisherman didn’t turn but continued looking out toward the water. For a moment, Matthew thought he could see the line flying out from the end of the pole. “He’s six-years-old,” said Dorothy. “We stopped here on the ferry, and we think he might have got off.” Her chest was heaving, and she had to force the words out through caught breaths. The man turned. He was sunburnt on the top of his bald head, a bushy mustache covering most of his mouth. He pinched his lips to one side. “A boy,” he said, “let me see.” Dorothy’s eyes lit with anticipation. If the man had even seen Peter, at least she would know that he’s alive. But then, as if the wind had suddenly shifted directions, and he had caught a different scent, the man tipped his head to the side and shook it. “No, I haven’t seen any children.” He flashed an awkward smile, his teeth bared behind his mustache. The two of them turned around and walked away. “I could have pushed him in,” said Dorothy. “I don’t think we could have trusted him either way,” said Matthew. Returning to the village, they came up behind a roan horse, trotting along. When they came closer, they could see that there was a child seated behind the rider, close to Peter’s age. Matthew drove alongside the horse until he could catch a glimpse of the child’s face, but it wasn’t him. Matthew drove into town and pulled the car off to the side of the road. He had thrown his jacket over the seat back behind him. His pants were sticking to his legs; patches of sweat grew under his arms and in the center of his chest. Dorothy’s eyes darted around, unwilling to rest from their constant searching. “I don’t think he’s here,” said Matthew. Dorothy broke into tears. She pounded the dashboard with the bottoms of her fists. “Dammit, Peter. Where are you?” The distress was crushing her now. Matthew could almost see it—the pain and anger like an aura radiating from her body. Matthew placed a hand on her shoulder, and her body settled back into its seat. Her eyes were closed, and he could feel her body rising and falling with each breath. It occurred to him that, for the !139
time being, he was the only thing she had in the world. Peter was gone. This man to whom she had pledged herself was nowhere near. Matthew could imagine himself with her, some day in the future, walking arm and arm down the brick streets of Burlington, the city lights reflecting off the storefront windows, peaking into alleys. It wasn’t impossible. If they found Peter, or even if they didn’t, she would need someone like him, who was strong and capable. Someone to see her through. They decided to drive to Burlington in an attempt to catch up with The Ti. For the first part of the drive, Dorothy didn’t speak. Her eyes were set straight ahead, though Matthew suspected that she was seeing only Peter, imagining the thing that she feared from the very first moments of his disappearance—her helpless son falling into the merciless water. They passed open pasture where cattle and sheep huddled next to fences and rocks for the little shade they offered. They passed stretches of timber: hemlock tucked beneath the topheavy white pine. After they’d driven past the filling station in Shelburne, she said, “What if he’s lost? What if I never see him again?” “You can’t think that way,” he said. “People die, Matthew. It happens. It happens all the goddamned time.” The road became smoother as they approached Burlington, and the car was cruising along nicely. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” She took a big, gulping breath. “I was just starting to feel like a person again.” Burlington was alive with the traffic of cars, horses, and people. As they crossed Maple Street, he could hear the blacksmith’s hammer tolling like a muffled bell. Down the street, artisans worked in their shops. A cobbler, a potter, a man who dipped candles and carved wooden utensils. The city streets were rank with the smell of steaming manure, the sour burn of rotting hay. He turned down King Street heading toward the harbor. This street was lined with yellow apartment houses, rambling structures that housed the men who kept the city’s industry greased and moving forward—the dock workers and the ship builders, men who worked in the back rooms of restaurants, who maintained the rail line, running south to Albany and north to Montreal. The house where Matthew boarded was two blocks away on a quieter street, but these, he felt, were his people—these lonely men with blistered hands and feet, men who drank away their evenings and their Sundays at the !140
taverns or, as in Matthew’s case, the quiet of their own bare rooms. Perhaps the owner of the filling station could drive him back to Burlington once he’d returned the car. Long before they reached the bay, Matthew could tell that something was wrong. One man yelled to another across the street, “Did you see?” And the other yelled, “Yes.” It could have been nothing, but Matthew could feel the pulse of his heart beating in his temples. Their view of the waterfront was obscured until they reached Battery Street and were running along a few hundred feet above the lake. They passed the busy railroad station and then came into a full view of the Burlington Harbor: a large pile of coal stood like a black pyramid; the Electric Power Plant behind the coal pile with its triple smoke-stacks like giant candles climbing into the sky; the water, smooth inside the breakwater and white-capped beyond, fretted in the afternoon light. The Ticonderoga was being towed into the harbor. He could see smoke leaking from cabin. A fire was burning below decks; almost certainly, it would have started in the control room. Four lifeboats had arrived at shore, and survivors were being led away from the dock. A few were sprawled out in the grass, collapsed from exhaustion. Others stood around the waterfront like buoys leaning to one side or another, watching the scene. As soon as Matthew parked, Dorothy ran from the car. “What happened? Has anyone seen my son, a little boy? His name is Peter.” For a moment, Matthew was frozen. He didn’t know what to do. His only thought was that this—all of this—was his fault. Whatever had caused the engine to overheat, if he’d been on board, he would have caught the problem in time. He stumbled out of the car, following Dorothy. She was talking with someone. It was Mary. “Is he going to be okay?” “I don’t know. He was in my room when the fire started, hiding in my duffle bag. He was there the whole time. I heard him crying.” Dorothy fell to the ground, collapsing to her knees. Whatever force of will that had been holding her body upright now abandoned her. But to Matthew it was as if Dorothy and her fears and worries were a hundred miles away, though he could have reached out and touched her. His pulse beat in his temples, his heart smacking in his chest. “Where’s Freddy?” he asked. Mary didn’t speak. She only shook her head, and Matthew knew he was dead. He would have been in the control room when the !141
engine was finally overwhelmed, a pocket of surging heat exploding, sending fire and shrapnel flying, and Freddy just a few feet away. He felt sick, but nothing came. He saw the captain and the rest of the crew on the large dock, working with the lifeboats. Matthew walked back to the car and sat in the driver’s seat with the door open and his legs hanging out. He buried his head in hands, and Dorothy came around and knelt before him, placing a hand on the top of his bad knee, but with the surge of adrenaline pulsing through his body, he could no longer feel any pain. “My son is in the hospital,” she said. Matthew sat up. “Get in,” he said. “Let’s go.” While he drove, he thought about the letter and the girl and wondered if he might disappear to a place like that, some Scottish vale. Peter had been bleeding profusely where a piece of shrapnel sliced through his leg, but if his body escaped infection, he would recover completely, bearing nothing worse than a long, colorless scar. When the doctor delivered the news, Matthew took Dorothy in his arms. He held her close and felt her tears and her breath against his neck. The doctor thought Matthew was the father, and Matthew didn’t correct him. “He’s a good boy. We’re so glad he’s safe,” he said. Peter was asleep, and Dorothy sat at his bedside, running her fingers up and down his leg, touching his face, placing her hand palm-down on his chest and feeling his heart beating, letting it sink in that he was alive. For a few minutes, Matthew stood by, watching. Peter’s face was perfectly peaceful. His skin unwrinkled, his eyes closed, his mouth fallen ever so slightly open like the very first and smallest crescent of a moon. The moment was both beautiful and terrible. Dorothy had been given a gift. But Matthew would never experience peace again, he was sure. Not only had he failed his ship and his crew, he would doubtless be found legally responsible once everything was sorted out. There was one death, at least, and the loss of the ship, and it must fall on someone. Matthew looked at the door. “I have to go,” he said. She didn’t rise to say good-bye. “Thank you, Matthew,” she said. “I will never forget you.” Matthew understood, though, that she would forget this day completely if it were in her power. He understood, because he wished that he could go back to the beginning of the day and start completely over. He wished he would have stuck to his own set of responsibilities and let someone else worry about a missing boy, who was bound to !142
turn up eventually. Now Matthew had done something, finally, that was worthy of all the shame he’d been carrying around for all this time. The car was waiting outside, parked on the street. He walked out of the hospital, and felt the afternoon sunshine pressing against his shoulders, and remembered how he had taken ill when he was living in the boarding house. He’d grown feverish and disoriented, and Rose had cared for him, replacing one cold washcloth with another, coaxing him again and again to take another sip of water. Quietly and persistently, she cared for him, though she believed he was engaged. In the car, he rolled his pants up to his knees, feeling the tenderness in his bad knee, the first signs of swelling underway. The plaster in Matthew’s room was darkened from years of dust and grime. Holes in the walls had been patched carelessly, and he looked at these strange shapes while he waited. He knew when the train was due to arrive, leaving three hours to sit in his room, drinking warm whiskey and throwing it back up. He gathered a few things that were worth packing, including a silver framed picture of his parents at the Ohio farm, taken the year before they died, his mother from meningitis and his father, not long after, out of grief. He also packed his watch and some clothes: two of his best shirts and a pair of leather boots. The letter was sitting on the nightstand, damp from sweat, the ink blotted. He had not yet responded, and now there was nothing to say. He had nothing, no home or life to offer. He picked it up, tore the letter in half, and then in half again, letting the pieces fall to the floor. When he left the room, it was dusk. Street lamps cast long shadows on the grass and dirt. The world felt hard beneath him as the Model T rolled down Maple Street toward the waterfront. Hard as stone. It seemed impossible that the same street during springtime was thick with mud and impassable. The train station sat just above the harbor, and Matthew could see the top deck of The Ti still holding its head above the water. He left the car two blocks from the harbor and walked the rest of the way to the station, then waited in the shadow of a large oak. He was invisible. Matthew would not buy a ticket; he couldn’t risk being seen. Instead, he would stow aboard like a hobo, riding in boxcars until he reached Montreal. There, he would buy a ticket to someplace far away—maybe British Columbia. Away from steam ships, his skin would heal, and then who knew? Maybe on the other side of the continent, he could make a life for himself. Maybe people there would !143
be different just as water runs in the opposite direction on the other side of the divide. When the train approached the station, he limped toward the tracks, walking away from the city he had known for nearly a decade. The electric streetlights were burning in the background. He found a door cracked open and peeked inside. The car was empty, unloaded at some stop along the way. With an effort, he was able to slide the door open, scramble into the car, and shut it behind him. Now he was sitting in the dark. In the empty car, even his breathing echoed, and Matthew was surprised to find that the loneliness, the long-suffering feeling of hopelessness, had gone away. He felt surprisingly numb. Leaning against the cool and gritty wall of the boxcar, Matthew considered the life that lay before him. There would be guilt and regret. Sleep would be hard. The drinking would get worse. Each man had his own way of coping, and this was his. Even now, the thought of Freddyâ€™s burnt body was forcing its way into his soul, even now when he felt as though he was unable to feel. His shirt was grimy with sweat and dirt. It had been a long day, most likely the longest he would ever live. The train rattled, its iron wheels groaning against the tracks. Matthew touched his chest, but the jacket and the letter were gone. The jacket lying on his old bed, the letter torn in pieces, its remnants gathered on the boarding house floor. The pain in his knee was growing, consuming his thoughts. He was exhausted and dehydrated, and his hamstrings were cramping, stabbing and seizing. Rolling onto his side, Matthew massaged his legs. He put his travel bag beneath his head for a pillow, though he had no hope of sleeping. Not tonight.
BOB ARMSTRONG Testing I should have seen where things were going the night my boyfriend mumbled Julian’s name during sex. It wasn’t that kind of warning. Nick was no confused closet case, and believe me, I’d have figured that out quickly. In college I’d pretty much minored in dating guys who turned out to be gay. “Fucking hell,” Nick said. “I’m sorry. It’s not that- I mean to say, I’m not-“ How upset could I be? I’d been thinking about Julian too. “It’s just that my mind rather wandered.” Guy knew how to make a girl feel special. It was our last night in Mexico City and Nick and I had a private room at the hostel. Julian, in an uncharacteristic attack of sensitivity, had gone out with my brother, Owen, in order to give Nick and me some time alone. I was thinking about Julian because I was wondering what temptations he might be presenting to Owen. Nick? Maybe he was afraid of losing Julian to my brother, or maybe Julian was just some kind of mental virus. It wasn’t my idea to go travelling with Julian, but Nick was so full of stories about his brilliant new flatmate, brilliant in that British sense meaning some combination of “cool” and “charismatic.” Nick and I had met when he came to Madison for junior year and I got up the courage to say hello to the tall guy with the blue eyes and carefully trimmed beard I kept seeing when I ran along Lake Mendota. We Skyped all through senior year after he went back to the U.K., and when I landed a summer internship at the State Senate in Bismarck we decided we’d travel together in the fall. I could hardly say no to Nick bringing a friend, since my parents had begged me to bring my brother Owen. Owen had a hard time his freshman year and said he needed to take a semester off to decide if he could continue. Since I was doing my post-grad gap year, our parents asked if I could keep him company for a few months. Paying for our Mexico-New Zealand flights sweetened the deal. Owen and I were already in Mérida, in the Yucatan, when Nick and Julian joined us. I wanted to ease into travelling life by working on my Spanish, seeing some sights and getting a nice base tan. And yes, I get that all this makes me sound like another bored, privileged white girl.
There was a Cuban bar a block from our hostel and we went there to celebrate the beginning of our adventures. Julian ordered mezcal all around with the assurance of an aficionado—“Leyende de Oaxaca, por favor”—or perhaps the assurance of somebody who’d memorized an article in GQ. We toasted each other and Mexico, and I asked the waiter in Spanish when the band would start to play and what he would recommend from the kitchen. “Your Spanish is excellent,” Julian said. I told him I’d started to pick up the language in high school when I went on a two-week Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip to build houses in Nicaragua. “Good show, helping them overcome their tragic shortage of unskilled, manual labour.” I told him to fuck off. He told me “chinga tu madre” in a much better accent than mine. I laughed and he ordered another round of mezcals. I admitted that I used my volunteer trip as source material for my college application essay because I desperately wanted to go out of state and my parents said in that case I’d better get a scholarship because if UND was good enough for them it was good enough for me. The band began to play and Nick and I threaded our way to the dance floor. We’d barely begun when I noticed Julian dancing with the most Spanish-looking Mexican girl in the bar: light complexion, big dark hair, long legs. Julian didn’t have that flawless sense of rhythm that the locals had, but he didn’t move like an Englishman either. He was light on his feet, his pelvis thrusting and tilting in time to the conga drum, not a hint of concentration on his face. He knew when to pull the girl in close and swivel in unison with her and when to let her cut loose and mesmerize everyone with her hips. The singer in the band called to a waiter for a tray of mezcal shots and handed one each to Julian and the girl. I wondered if she’d end up coming back to the hostel with us or if Julian would disappear with her and if Julian would turn out to be one of those hound dog guys for the whole trip, but a few songs later a tiny dark-skinned girl with delicate features, a page boy cut and a dress like plastic wrap took his place. The girls moved together in a single undulating, eight-limbed mass of glowing flesh and Julian signaled to the waiter and handed them each another shot, then returned to the table where Owen waited, sucking on a Dos Equis. So that was Julian. The product of centuries of English breeding. Tall. Grey-green eyes. Ideal angle on the jaw line. Face kept from being too perfect by a nose that was an eighth of an inch too long. He !146
wore his hair short on the sides and floppy on top and had a trimmed mustache and he called this his Siegfried Sassoon look. Turns out Siegfried Sassoon was a real person. I saw an archival photo of him on the internet and he didn’t have a mustache. You could never be quite sure with Julian. The next day we took a collectivo to a cluster of cenotes scattered around the scrub forests of a 19th century plantation. As the collectivo bounced along pitted tarmac, Julian wore what I took to be his habitual look of studied boredom, but on closer inspection I could see his eyes darting about the interior of the battered stretch van. As passengers got on and off, he appeared to keep a running tally. Eventually I asked him what he was doing. “How many collectivos do you think there are in Mexico?” I said I had no idea. “Let’s say ten per cent of the population relies on them for their daily travels. That’s ten million two-way trips a day. They don’t have a fixed schedule. They leave when they’re full. If they leave with empty seats, that’s unsold space, and they’re losing money. But if they wait too long to fill up, they’re paying the driver for unproductive waiting time. If you could develop software to optimize the number of collectivos on each route for maximum capacity with minimum waiting that would be worth millions of pesos every day.” I asked him what he’d studied. “Maths. Risk arbitrage. Game theory.” I thought about his proposal a bit. “Maybe the driver isn’t paid by the hour. He just gets a percentage of the day’s fares.” Julian smiled and regarded me with fully open eyes for the first time. “Fucking hell, I hadn’t thought of that.” We had a great few days in Mérida. We swam in cool, clear cenote water in underground chambers where shafts of light illuminated schools of cave fish. We climbed temples and what I took to be ancient stone bleachers at sites where the Maya played their sacrificial ball game. Owen and Nick competed for Julian’s approval. Owen launched himself into parkour jumps and rolls off stone walls. Nick backflipped into one of the cenotes and over-rotated into a belly flop that was painfully hilarious to everybody but him. One day we took a bus to the beach and Julian talked us into bluffing our way into a resort with free drinks, as if the price of a drink mattered to him. When the bartender asked us to show our wristbands, Julian told him “Wristbands? We don’t need no stinking wristbands.” !147
I wanted to continue south from Mérida and head to the highlands in Chiapas, but Julian presented us with an alternative one morning at breakfast. Since we had to go to Mexico City for our flights to New Zealand anyway, why not explore Mexico City instead? My answer, that I’d promised my parents we’d stay in the safe parts of Mexico, would only get Owen angry. He hated the idea that I was his chaperone. Julian regaled us with stories of communists, anarchists, surrealists, futurists, Spanish Civil War refugees. How could we pass up the opportunity to explore the city of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and lucha libre? He had Owen and Nick on his side immediately and, rather than be Ms. Buzzkill, I played along. The next night, as we sat in a booth in a club in the Zona Rosa, I wished I’d been willing to be disagreeable. It was dark and crowded and the electronica was thunderous. A half a floor above us, in a VIP area guarded by thick-necked bouncers, tattooed men in track suits mingled with lawyerly types in dark, tailored suits. “Why are we here?” I asked. “See that geezer in the Real Madrid kit?” I didn’t because I had no idea what that meant. Owen translated. “Tough guy wearing a white soccer jersey. He’s standing next to a big guy in a t-shirt, crossing his arms to show off his biceps.” Julian continued. “They’re with the cartels. This is where the cartels meet their bankers to make deals and launder money.” Between the horrible music and the hard-faced men with their jailhouse stare-downs, I was already having a shitty time. I particularly wasn’t in the mood to be raped, beheaded and buried in the desert. I told Nick I was leaving and pulled the big sister card on Owen and we got out of there and found a cab at what I hoped was a legitimate cab stand. The next day I got my way and we went to the National Museum of Anthropology, even though, to be honest, after the third stone carving it’s all old rocks to me. That night, Julian said since I was interested in such educational experiences, perhaps I’d like to visit a syncretistic religious shrine that had attracted the attention of anthropologists from around the world. Something else I should have looked up at the time. We got an early start and boarded a packed metro, transferring twice to get to the B line. We got off at the Tepito station and Julian led us along a densely packed avenue where the drivers appeared to be even more aggressive than normal. Each side street we crossed !148
was lined with stalls covered in yellow or white plastic tarps with all manner of products—soccer jerseys, video games, car parts, cosmetics, plumbing fixtures—spilling out onto the pavement. “What is this place?” “Mexico’s largest market for stolen and counterfeit goods.” He must have seen my eyes widen. “Don’t worry. It’s safe this time of day because most of the criminals are still asleep.” Not all, though. Street kids stood watch on every corner and every block had at least one heavily tattooed little dark-skinned enforcer standing in a building entrance. I felt the eyes of the kids and the tough guys follow us up the avenue. “There’s a religious shrine here?” We turned a corner and arrived in a square facing a red brick building with a banner of a skeleton in robes resembling a cross between the Virgin Mary and the Grim Reaper. I tried to translate the sign above. “Don’t fear where you go … after death… where…something…” “It’s the Shrine of Santa Muerte,” Julian said. Owen shivered, though the temperature was well into the seventies. Nick pulled out his phone to take a picture, but Julian took it from him and shook his head: “Wrong time, wrong place, amigo.” Julian sauntered up to the entrance as if he paid his respects to Latin American death cults every day. The others followed and I decided I preferred the risk of cult sacrifice inside to that of gang abduction outside. We entered a room dominated by a statue of a skeleton, draped in bejeweled robes, seated on a throne. Platters covered in amulets and flowers, notes and photos, children’s toys, piles of coins and small bills surrounded it, offerings for those seeking help from their patron saint, Lady Death. Julian, with Owen in tow, took his place in line with the Mexicans, entire families dressed as if for church, bent old women with canes, men in cowboy hats and work clothes, corner boys in track suits and ball caps. They waited patiently for benedictions from a little dark-skinned crone sitting next to the statue. Nick, still looking embarrassed about his selfie faux pas, stood in the corner with me as we tried to make ourselves small and inconspicuous. When it was Julian’s turn, he handed the old woman, the Santa Muerte priestess, some folded bills and gestured to the two of us. When we were done, we walked back into the light and wove our way through the growing crowds in the street market until we !149
reached the metro. We returned to our hostel by mid-day and I announced that I was going to take in the drop-in yoga class next door. I met a couple of German girls there and they could see I was upset, so after class they took me to an organic bakery and café around the corner. I guess I unloaded on them about Nick and Owen’s trained-puppy act and Julian’s charm and calculations and obsession with risk. Jutta sighed and pointed to my untouched tea and pain chocolat. “You have been talking for thirty minutes without once stopping. Three weeks you have travelled with these men and now you have an afternoon to talk with women, and you talk only about your boyfriend, your brother and Julian. Your life does not even pass the Bechdel Test.” I laughed because I could tell this was supposed to be funny, if pointed, but I never asked her what exactly it meant because I hate it when Europeans act like they know English better than Americans. That night Nick and I had our not-so-romantic moment and the next day we took off for Christchurch, via Auckland. Everything they say about New Zealand is true. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, the driving is scary, and it’s expensive, especially if you’re used to Mexican prices. We hiked and swam and took pictures of young male seals sparring on the shoreline. There were more German girls everywhere but, except for greetings in the campground showers, I never spoke to any of them, just my three guys. Ten days into our travels we arrived in Westport in a storm blowing in off the Tasman Sea and, instead of driving out to see the surf breaks Julian had told us about, we found a café where we could sit and have a drink without hearing the pounding on our metal roof. The storm passed as promised and my brother was impatient to build a bonfire on the beach like he’d seen in all the movies (we’re from North Dakota, so coastal bonfires aren’t really a thing in our lives) and as we sat that night by the fire Julian mentioned that the surfing should be excellent the day after a big storm. He handed around a surf shop brochure he’d picked up at the café. “Do they do lessons?” I asked. “Lessons,” Owen said. “We don’t need no stinkin’ lessons.” Julian laughed and handed him a beer. The next day we rented boards and drove a few minutes to a beach being bombarded with breakers. Owen and Nick did rock, paper, scissors to determine who’d accompany Julian first. Owen won. !150
“This doesn’t look like a beginners’ beach to me,” I said. I don’t think anyone heard me over the roar of the waves. I took Nick aside. “Nick, talk to Julian.” “Julian’s an experienced surfer.” “Owen isn’t.” “Maybe you should talk to Owen.” A couple of surfers were already in the water. They had to struggle hard to get their boards through the breaking waves, then they bobbed in the water, waiting to catch a big one. To my eye, they looked dangerously close to the jumbled rocks near the cape. I pointed that out to Julian and Owen. “That’s where the break is,” said Julian. I told Owen to be careful and to come back to shore if the waves were too powerful. He rolled his eyes and reminded me of all the times he’d been snowboarding at Huff Hills. I noticed for the first time that he was growing a mustache. Nick and I watched from shore as they paddled through the breakers. Julian got through on his second try, but Owen was swamped again and again. He’d have the angle wrong on his board as the wave broke and it would flip backward, or he wouldn’t take the wave directly enough and the board would flip to the side and dump him. He looked exhausted by the time he made it to the waiting zone. Julian managed to get up on his board a couple of times and was able to get a few rides, but he wasn’t in the same league as the two locals, who cut and turned at will on the edge of the wave’s curl. I was trying to wave Owen back in when he finally managed to stand up. He was too far forward and the board pitched upward in the back, throwing him face first into the water. He surfaced, waved in our direction and returned to his board. I jumped, shouted and waved with both hands. He paddled back out, reaching the waiting zone after two tries. The ocean appeared to have calmed and it looked as if Owen wouldn’t get another ride, but then a group of larger waves came in. Owen and one of the locals stood up on one, but the local cut out right away. Owen remained on the board and seemed in full control, but for the fact that he was riding toward a broken sea stack. He seemed to realize the danger and threw his body to the side in an attempt to turn, but at that moment the force of the breaking wave hit him and drove him under. I lost sight of him for what seemed like hours. I saw something surface and cried and pointed but the other surfers were already converging on the scene. They reached into the water to pull Owen !151
up and held his head above the water while paddling him toward the shore. When they were in close enough, the locals jumped off their boards and waded in, holding Owen between them. Julian followed well behind. I remember the roar of the wind and the cold. I remember wanting to get close to Owen but the two surfers blocking my view and Nick holding me back. I heard a scattering of words: CPR, breathing, c-spine. They covered Owen with a sleeping bag and called EMS and I pulled out of Nick’s grasp and held Owen’s hand as we waited for an ambulance with a backboard. While Nick cried and Owen repeated that he couldn’t feel his hands and feet, Julian put his board in the van, changed out of his wetsuit and combed his hair. There’s a much longer story to be told about the next days and months and years. Doctors. Nurses. Insurance companies. Terrible phone calls that arrive in the middle of the night on the other side of the world. A world narrowed down to a series of specialists’ offices and rehab wards. I saw Nick again three years later. He’d put on weight and shaved the beard and looked a decade older. He’d flown to Minneapolis to begin a Great American Road Trip and detoured up to Fargo on his way to the Black Hills. He was with his fiancé, Anna, who’d convinced him to take the trip because he used to like to travel. I took them to see Owen, who was having a good day as he learned, slowly, to operate a computer by blowing and sucking on a tube. Owen demonstrated the breath controls on his chair. Nick’s voice went up half an octave. “Technology’s amazing, isn’t it?” Owen asked about Julian. “The last I heard, he was working in the City.” Owen translated for me: “The financial district in London.” “Involved in big international deals, I should think,” Nick said. “Has he optimized the collectivo industry yet?” I asked. Nick shrugged. I waited for him to ask about me. There wouldn’t have been much to tell. I was still at my parents’ house. I worried about Owen’s heart stopping. I worried that I might be making things worse for him by being there. I help with Owen’s personal care because our insurance only goes so far. Owen resisted that at first, but I think he accepts it now as part of life. I remind myself that I’d considered enrolling in an occupational therapy program after my gap year. I’d be dealing with strangers’ bodies if all that had worked out.
I feel uncomfortable being away from Owen for too long now, so travel’s out of the picture. Actually, so is leaving the house for the evening. So I have a lot of time to read, but I find it hard to concentrate on anything for long. Mostly I read articles online. Just last week, for example, I finally learned what the Bechdel Test is. It’s a kind of minimum test for whether or not a movie has a female perspective. You ask three questions. The first is: Are there at least two women in it? The second is: Do these women have a conversation? The third is: Do they talk about something other than a man? Nick asked Owen if he’d like to go outside. I told Owen it was sunny and the birds were singing. I opened the door for Owen and he sucked and blew his chair into the backyard, where we kept a row of bird feeders. Nick followed him. I suppose Nick wanted absolution. Anna remained with me, arms crossed, taking up as little space as possible in the corner of the sofa. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Nick and I were just a college thing. Next best thing to junior year abroad. Go out with a guy doing his junior year abroad.” “I’m not bothered. It was my idea to come here. To see Owen. This has been difficult for Nick.” “It hasn’t been a cakewalk for Owen.” Anna shot me a hurt look and turned her head to peer out the back window and observe her fiancé and the man her fiancé’s friend destroyed. So she wanted to clean out her fiancé’s skeletons before the wedding. Maybe she also wanted, needed, to talk. I thought of my obligations as hostess and considered making tea, but then I remembered a bottle of mezcal that I’d bought on a whim months before. I stepped into the kitchen and poured two shots and returned to the living room and held one out to Anna. We were two women, alone, having a conversation and I wanted to find out what it could be about.
JOHN MICHAEL FLYNN The Millbury Street Legend Look, Dale, you’re my nephew and believe it or not what your mother has told you about your Uncle Karchi is true. She hasn’t told you a thing? She said I’d fill you in if you asked? Okay. Why don’t you sit? This may take a while. The thing with Uncle Karchi is that he said he wanted to make good, but he didn’t. Not really. Actions speak loudest. I never believed a word he said. Your Mom, being the youngest with three brothers, didn’t know him the way I did. No. Sorry. Let me start again. He was my brother. I was supposed to love him unconditionally. Damn it, I did. When he let me. You really want to hear your Uncle Karchi’s story? Really? We can go back into the reception hall and I’ll buy you a drink. Your sister is a beautiful bride. Okay, okay, we’ll stay here. So first thing is don’t be hard on your uncle. Forgiveness is an underrated virtue. Things have changed. Here in Worcester alone, half the Catholic churches I grew up with are closed. You should have heard your grandmother complain about the new storefront churches popping up in pod malls. As you know, she was a devout Catholic, bless her soul, but after that scandal back in the 90s and the way it finally broke, she never again had the same—how can I say it?—naïve devotion. But you want me to talk about Uncle Karchi and me growing up together on Union Hill, on Dorchester Street, not far from Vale Street and Worcester Academy. Nowadays, that neighborhood’s a mess, but even back then it was touch-and-go and always changing. Immigrants and newcomers gotta start somewhere, I suppose. Your Uncle Karchi wasn’t wicked bad, but he never went to mass or to school, for starters. He was raised like the rest of us by your grandfather, Theodore. Your other uncle, my oldest brother Dean, as you know, was killed in Vietnam. Theodore seldom talked about Dean. Neither did my Ma. She kept one framed picture of him above the TV in the living room. There was Dean, the Pope, and JFK. Growing up, me and your Mom knew Dean was a hero. To this day, nobody knows what happened to his body. He was what they called M-I-A. Missing in action. If that don’t break a family’s heart, I don’t know what does. So anyways, when Uncle Karchi dropped out of Voke High, he needed money. He moved in with some guys and started selling weed full-time. I graduated from Voke. For a while, I got him a job with me stocking shelves at Zayres in Webster Square. We lifted weights at the !154
Y, and drank cheap beers in Monahan’s, Lord Vasil’s 333, The Blarney Stone, and Mulcahey’s pub. Most of them dives are long gone and nobody misses ‘em. We had fake IDs but nobody carded us. Remember, this was the late 70s and the drinking age was still 18. Karchi and I we’d torch a joint with friends in the parking lot of Ralph’s Diner and then go inside to hear live bands. We’d get hot dogs at Coney Island. Sometimes, we’d take our meals at Herbie’s, which is still there. Great soup, by the way. In Leitrim’s pub we’d pick up freshman girls from Assumption College. For a while, we went out every night and tossed darts, shot pool, or got into fights—from Grafton Hill to Chandler to South Main, the city was ours. But we always ended our nights in the Hotel Vernon. See, we played flag football for The Ship. That team, those were my boys. Hotel Vernon was our sponsor. What a team, too. There was Doug Normandin at quarterback. He drove a truck for American Linens. Jamie Duran, our half-back, worked a Teamster gig with UPS. Armen Gregorian played middle linebacker and sold cars at Harr Ford on Goldstar Boulevard. I looked up to these guys. Not Karchi. He sold dime bags of third-rate weed to most of ‘em. The Ship: second family. Hotel Vernon: second home. You roll on through Worcester on the 290 Expressway and at the Kelly Square exit on one side you’ll see it on the corner plain as day. Way back when Babe Ruth pitched for the Boston Braves, he lived on nearby Vernon Hill and he’d walk to the Hotel to buy a plate of raw hamburger. He’d eat it with his fingers while standing at the bar. Babe once said this. He said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” You gotta love that. It’s fearless and it’s how Karchi rolled. So you haven’t been inside the Hotel? Of course not. My sister would never allow it and that ain’t necessarily a bad thing. Quick description: first-floor lounge lined with reddish slats of wood that curve like the interior walls of a schooner. Behind the bar there’s a model ship that’s a centerpiece for the shelves that hold liquor bottles. This ship is a three-masted clipper too large to fit in a bottle, and it’s lit from below so it looks haunted. It’s handmade. Full sails and riggings detailed down to each knot. Thing is, no one knows who built it or how it got there. Was it a good place to stay? Hell, no. Basically, it was a fleabag dump and an eyesore, but it still anchors that one corner where Kelly Square melts into Millbury Street. A lotta history there. See, Millbury Street was once a canal linked Venice-style to the Blackstone River, back when Tommie Heinsohn and Bob Cousy played
hoops at Holy Cross before making their names with the Celtics. All my life that’s been an immigrant neighborhood crowded with dives. What do you mean, Wormtown? You don’t think Worcester’s loaded with history? I refuse to call my home city by that name. Wormtown. It’s disrespectful. I look like a worm to you? One thing, though, I always wondered about was why we called the traffic circles squares. Lincoln, and Newton Square, for example—those are traffic rotaries on the city’s dashboard. What the Brits call roundabouts. Is it any surprise the Boston snobs think we’re chowderheads. Back to the Hotel. On the outside, it’s still sheathed in yellow brick. Red brick everywhere else. There’s a Miller neon above its door that faces one-way Millbury. It’s a quick walk from Vernon Hill and Monahan’s package store, the Emerald Isle Diner, and the Golemo Polska Sausage mural you can see from 290. No windows on the first floor, just a pair of rectangular slits. Sandstone sills frame the higher windows where troubled residents have more than once nose-dived into oblivion. Troubled, yeah, we’re all troubled, ain’t we? Growing up, your uncle and me, see, we’d tool down Union Hill, cross a bridge over 290 and with Kelly Square spread out before us we’d watch cars speed-dodge each other like they were in a game of chicken. Horns blaring, drivers shouting, it was a confusing juncture of six streets, some one-way, some without stop signs, all of them forming a cockeyed hub accessible from lucky Exit 13. Chaos. Your grandfather Theodore liked to say that the BostonHibernian politicos inflicted it on the city. Since in his prime he was a bruiser and a card-carrying member of the steamfitter’s union, he could get away with those wisecracks. Me, I never joined no union. Don’t mean what it used to, especially now. On the other side of Kelly Square, narrow Water Street wobbled through mostly Jewish-owned businesses. Widoff’s Bakery, for one. Charlie’s Surplus used to be there. Charlie Boulanger kept a mountain of damaged Chuck Taylors on the floor under a low-swinging bulb. Yeah, those old-school high-top basketball sneakers, that’s right. They were all we wore back then. Weren’t no Jordan Nikes to tempt us. Karch and me we’d rummage through ‘em looking to make matching pairs. Charlie B gave Ma a family rate: five pairs for ten bucks. Weintraub’s Deli is still there. It’s a classic and you should go because one day they’ll just tear it down like they’ve done to so much of the city. Every year on your grandfather’s birthday, we’d take him there and treat him to his favorite: liverwurst on rye with a bottle of their !156
homemade cream soda. Karchi, me and some friends we’d hang around that neighborhood in the warehouses that stored truck frames, suspension coils and gigantic rolls of upholstery fabric. The original Saint John’s High was there. You had ironmonger shops, gear works, cold storage buildings—the air always smelling of creosote from the nearby rail yards. There was Sir Morgan’s Cove as a place to go hear live music. A tough place. The Stones played there one time. Never announced it. Just showed up. Wished I’d been there. You could say Gilrein’s picked up where Sir Morgan’s left off. I mean, Worcester’s the kind of city that needs a dive where you can hear live blues, but I don’t think Gilrein’s is even what it used to be. Then again, what is? All these places are gone. You think that’s sad? Maybe so. But it’s life. So Karch and me we’d share a grinder fifty-fifty bought on credit from Kelly Square Pizza And Grinders. We’d meet everybody there. Nicky Renard clerked at Old Colony Paint and Wallpaper. Eunice Renny was a tailor at Maurice the Pants Man. She played Bingo with Ma at Holy Name on Friday nights. Fat Luciano was always munching down a slice with pepperoni. He drove delivery for Table Talk. Luciano was a trip. He’d stop on our street early Sunday mornings and leave cartons of week-old pies for Mrs. Lopez and some of the other ladies on the street with a lot of kids. We all knew it was illegal and Luciano was risking his job, but nobody ever said a word about it. For me, Union Hill was more than a neighborhood then. It was mixed, too, not all one race or ethnic group. All the neighbors were like family. We kids were all born at Memorial Hospital and were told to speak English, though most of our parents didn’t. We went to Union Hill Elementary. We knew everybody’s business. We looked after each other. Nowadays, I can’t say the same. Some three-deckers are boarded up, others have been made into condos. Some streets and yards are clean. Others, there’s trash everywhere and who knows what the hell language they’re speaking. Last I heard the city’s largest new immigrant population is from Bhutan. What they speak there? I got no clue. At Goldstein Scrap, Uncle Karch and I knew Zeph, a retired plumber who fought in World War II. He’d tell us the coolest hero stories. We knew guys at Foley Aluminum and anyone who shopped at Chevalier Furniture knew your grandmother cuz she worked there so long. Grandpa Theodore worked close-by at Wyman Gordon along with the Dads and uncles of a lotta Voke classmates. He didn’t want me at Wyman. “Get a real skill,” he’d say. “That place won’t last.” Turned out he was right. Thirty years he worked there. Dropped dead a year into his retirement. What they do? They made airplane parts !157
and sold most of them to Israel. Even today, that’s big business. It just don’t happen around here, that’s all. Broke my heart when they leveled that factory. It’s an empty lot now. Me? I got a skill. Baking. Yeah, some guys called me a sissy. I didn’t care. I started at Automatic Rolls on Southbridge Street in Auburn from six a.m. to three. Mostly, I cleaned and changed baking racks. McDonald’s was our biggest client—50 million buns served meant job security. I wore my hairnet and apron with pride. I even got Uncle Karchi hired there, but all he did was complain. After work, I’d take Karch to D’Amico’s on Shrewsbury Street, which in those days was an Italian neighborhood. We’d fill up on a meatball the size of Jupiter. We’d drive off to meet his dope connections in Green Hill Park, where we’d drink beers and smoke some grass, but when it came to hard stuff I drew the line. So this, my good nephew, is the message in my story. Don’t do drugs. Keep away from ‘em, especially the hard stuff. Your Uncle Karchi always had drugs on him. Not me. I kept saying no while he kept zipping down a freeway toward hell. He’d make fun of me, saying, “I make more selling crack in one day than you do in a month of washing flour out of your pubes.” You think that’s funny? Maybe it is now, but not then. I hated him for saying that. Still, no matter how drunk or sly, your Uncle Karchi was hard to resist. At six-four, a beanpole, he always had scraggly hair in his eyes. Muscle-wise, I could cream him, but I respected his speed. He had excellent hands, too, but serious guys didn’t like him, especially Augie Cooper and Jose Molina. They’d both been high school football stars. Augie at Burncoat. Jose at South. They stomached Karchi because The Ship was usually short of guys. It came as no surprise when Karchi quit Automatic Rolls. Why? Because he started selling weapons with Lizard—real name Gary Monitor—a cretin from May Street who’d done time. Lizard would shadow Karchi, promising him salad days were around the corner. Whenever Lizard approached, Augie Cooper made a show of walking away. I wish to this day Karchi had done the same. No, I take that back. I wish I had stepped in. That’s what I’d confess in front of a priest. Not my actions. My inaction. Let me share an average night in the Hotel. Picture the air like it’s strata of marine layers of cigarette smoke trapped under a low ceiling of stamped tin squares peppered with holes. More than once while shooting pool, I’d see a mouse drop from one of them holes and scamper across the slate. !158
Not the night I’m thinking about, though, no, I was feeling no pain that night—we all were pain-free—cuz our team, The Ship, won against Sweet Life Foods due to practicing one night a week at Gaskell Park. We played our games on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights, either at Crompton Park or a grass panel near the fire station at Chadwick Square. Our schedule was set, but locations changed at the last minute and someone would phone to update us. Sometimes I drove a half-hour out to Leicester to pick up teammates, especially on Sundays because guys knew if they got hammered after the game they’d risk a DUI. Claude Boudreaux, our sponsor and coach, covered a player’s cab fare. No crashes were gonna be linked to rides home from his dive. Fed us, too. Each game-day, win or lose, a sheet of plywood went over the pool table for a post-game feast. From Widoff’s, he bought every bulkie they had. From Weintraub’s, piles of cold cuts, deli salads and half-sours. He filled big bowls of chips. Sometimes, he cooked a pot of chili. I’d get to work the next morning, but I was usually late and reeking of beer. So this one night, your Uncle Karchi approached me. His eyes bloodshot, making the rounds, he was apologizing to everyone. He and Lizard had shown up late to our game, wasted, in a Buick LeSabre. Without them, we would have needed to forfeit due to a lack of players. During half-time, they’d brought members of the opposing team over to the Buick, where Lizard opened its trunk to show off some guns. Neither one knew that a guy on that other team was a part-time cop in the town of West Boylston. Yep, out in the burbs where you live now. Augie Cooper knew. He huddled us up on the field while Lizard and Karchi strutted around the Buick. He told us about the cop, and with that we agreed to lose. This pleased the cop, but the loss made us one win shy of making the playoffs. Sure, guys were ticked off. Me, I ignored Uncle Karchi’s apologies. He offered to buy me rounds. Big deal. I kept refusing. He insisted I join him at The Lamplighter to meet strippers. As if that would make everything better. I said no. It was just an excuse for him to keep dealing drugs. Those girls there were his best coke clients. At that point, losing my temper, I told him to fuck off and get his shit together. Sorry, I know that’s strong language, but those were my exact words. You know, brothers can be really mean to each other and I can’t lie to you or to God, can I? It was the only time I point-blank hit my brother with truth. If he wanted a fight, I was ready. I’d kick his butt and he knew it. I also knew, deep down, I was sending the right message. I felt satisfied I’d taken enough action, but nothing changed. Karchi started dressing flashier and throwing money around. I caught him !159
smoking crack in my car. He’d snort lines in the toilets of every dive we drank in. A full-time pharmacy and gun shop, he looked seedy, twitching all the time. I started to get worried, but I did nothing to help him. Your mother was too young to know what was really going on. Ma tended to shield him, and even Ma had no clue, not really. But I did. I just kept my mouth shut. Again, inaction. I had no plans for my future, just a greater awareness of possibilities brought on by a raise I’d earned at Automatic Rolls. I started saving. Not for season tickets to Bruins games, but a better life, a way out. I told Ma and all she said was, “Sooner you get out the better. One less mouth to feed.” I bought a nicer car. Nothing great, but it was reliable. When I told Karchi about my raise, he blew me off. “Donkey work,” he said. “You’re looking at a tycoon.” I asked Jose Molina to talk sense into him. Jose tried. Karchi blew him off. I talked to Augie Cooper about my future and how I believed things were going to improve. Augie confirmed what I’d been thinking— my brother Karchi was living in fantasyland. I couldn’t live there. I had to be ready to adapt because change comes whether you want it or not. One night, I told Theodore about my issues with Karchi. “Dad, he never listens. All he wants to do is get high.” My old man whacked me in the head. “You really so stupid? That road goes one way.” “Then why don’t you tell Karchi? Don’t tell me. I already know that.” It was a time when I needed my old man and he was there, but he wasn’t there for Karchi. For some reason, it was different with him. Maybe because he was the middle son. Or maybe because of Dean getting killed. To this day, I don’t know. I felt sorry for your Uncle Karchi. I believed he’d turn the corner, but Sunday night’s party at Hotel Vernon became an extension of Saturday night’s, with flag football in between to keep his blood pumping. Sunday morning games were the worst. They started at nine and we were hung-over for all of ‘em. After one night with Karchi and this redheaded stripper who drank me under the table, I was hit so hard from my blind side that I landed ten feet out of bounds, my head slamming against the side of a Johnny-On-The-Spot. The collision knocked me out. Coach Claude snapped me awake with ammonia pellets. As a way to tame headaches before Sunday morning games, Karchi convinced me to smoke bong hits with him. He always had coke and !160
coke whores, or he was tripping on acid, but he chose me first—never anyone else—to join him. Was I flattered? Yeah, to some extent. You ask why? Because this meant sex as long as I used a condom and agreed to toot with him down Millbury Street, where the legend still held—no man alive had made it from end to end while stopping for one drink in each of its bars. It was never one drink and I never said no. I became an enabler. That’s what they’d call it now. We’d start at the Hotel and stagger south against traffic, hitting a bar every fifty yards. I can list a few: Stoney O’Brien’s, 3G’s, Green Pub, Emerald Island, Green Island Diner, The Pit, and The Harding, which was Karchi’s favorite. Down at the end past Riley’s Engineering, there was Madigan’s Again, and then the Irish House. Some were on a corner; some had bands and a cover to get in. The beer was cheap, the regulars as tough and loyal as they were friendly. Karchi-the-drugstore was a magnet. I was his muscle, and I admit to liking how his customers bought us rounds. He’d snort coke. I’d down shots. Because of him, I became popular, and popularity became my drug of choice. Blitzed at four a.m. we’d sit with two pole dancers in a booth at the Acapulco on Highland Ave, bleary-eyed over nachos and huevos rancheros. Having sold his crack and coke, his pockets would be stuffed with cash. I’d down coffee, sober up and drive us out of the city to the Redwood Motel in Charlton. He’d pay for two rooms, we’d each get laid and I’d drive the dancers back to The Lamplighter. Next, we’d change into our jerseys with The Ship in fuzzy felt letters. I kept all football stuff in my trunk. The letters had started to peel after machine washings, but the uniform didn’t matter. Nor did the game. Nor anything else. I got more and more careless and at Automatic Rolls I showed up late one time too many with a hangover and they fired me. Theodore gave me two weeks. “You pissant, find something new or move your ass out.” The Ship lost our season’s final game to Morgan Industries and it was party on at the Hotel. Nobody heard the thugs enter. They slipped in wearing jeans and sweatshirts like the rest of us. The music was loud, cigarette smoke fogged the air, and the crowd was a wall in front of the bar. The old-time regulars that lived upstairs had long ago turned in. Those thugs knew Lizard and before anyone could stop them, they were dragging him out to Millbury Street and Lizard was shouting “You got it wrong. It ain’t me.” I started toward the door. Augie Cooper stopped me. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. !161
Someone shouted behind me, “Hey, Lizard!” It was Karchi squirming through the crowd and out to the street. I followed him. Augie horse-collared me from behind. Jose Molina grabbed Karchi and shouted, “Pendejo, they will kill you.” Karchi didn’t stop. Neither did I. Karchi was my brother. He was standing by Lizard and I was gonna stand by him. Karchi fought with Jose until Jose released his hold. Augie let me go, too. I got to the sidewalk in time to see Lizard on the ground in an alley across from the bar. Thugs were kicking him in the ribs. He was spitting up blood. Karchi bolted across Millbury, yelling slurred nonsense. He made it easy for those thugs. They left Lizard moaning, seized Karchi and slammed him against a brick wall. Karchi crumbled. One thug propped him up, pinning his arms behind his back. The other thug drove steady punches into his stomach until Karchi was slumped over and gasping. A black car drove up. Doors opened. Tires squealed. The car was gone and so were Karchi and Lizard. Drunk, dazed, I’d watched with the others from across the street under the Miller neon’s red glow, Led Zeppelin blasting “Whole Lotta Love” through the Hotel’s open door. Looking back, it’s one thing to say it happened so fast, but nobody called the cops or lifted a finger to help. I moped back inside and found Augie Cooper and shouted at him that it was wrong, that Karchi was family, that I should have done something. Augie’s pained look proved he got my gist. He shouted back, “But it don’t work that way. Not for me. I got kids to look after and a wife.” “They wanna play, they gotta pay,” shouted Jose. “Even if he is your brother.” I’d heard enough. I ran to my car and drove the city, looking for that car, for my brother, all the while listening to the radio and thinking about fearless Babe Ruth eating his raw pound of hamburger. I had to do something, but all I did was drive around until I was so tired I could barely get myself home. Next day, I got the news while nursing a coffee in the Kenmore Diner and reading Help Wanted ads in the Telegram. It was Theodore, of all people. He’d left work early to tell me cops had phoned him. They had ID’s for two bodies found in a trash dumpster near the Great Brook Valley housing project. Their mouths were stuffed with baggies that had once held drugs. They’d been shot somewhere else, dragged there and left to rot. All Theodore said was, “Get in bed with dogs you’re gonna catch fleas.” !162
Both my father and I had failed Karchi. A good brother, a good father makes you listen. I couldn’t blame Theodore. Truth was, he’d tried with Karchi, but they’d fought all the time and eventually Theodore just gave up. Can’t say I blame him. The man worked hard. He lost one son to a stupid war. Eventually, he just got tired. I felt so guilty, as if it had been my fault. I took long walks to Gaskell Park at the top of Vernon Hill. Three-deckers lined the streets like canyon walls. I walked past the blue panels and white marble of Saint Vincent’s Hospital. Night after night this was my journey alone. A turning point in my life. I never felt safe during those walks and I never found answers. The funeral was held at what some guys used to call The Polack Church, you know, Our Lady of Czestochowa on Ward Street. Theodore and Ma went there every Sunday because Father Krzysztof said the 7 and 11:30 a.m. in Polish. Not this time. Father Krzysztof said Karchi’s funeral in English and kept the sermon super-short. Wasn’t like my brother had been a model citizen. Of course I’ve relived that night and those times over and over and I still feel heavy regret. It’s still hard for me to breathe when I think about what I could have done, could have said—anything to change the trajectory he was on. No, your mother isn’t avoiding the issue. She knew little about this stuff and Karchi’s death came as a shock. Me, I keep telling myself I could’ve grabbed Karchi and shook him out of his stupidity. I’m sick with guilt. My doing wrong was that I did nothing. I let my brother’s death happen. I knew better, but I didn’t act like I loved Karchi. Mostly, I loved his worst qualities and I think a part of me was afraid I’d be rejected if I challenged them. Yeah, you’re right, it’s a form of purgatory, I hear you on that. Sure, I’ve said a few thousand Hail Marys. You can say a couple more for me, for all the good they’ll do. Karchi in a better place? Maybe. But I sure ain’t. C’mon, let’s get back to the reception. They’ll be cutting the cake soon.
JILL TALBOT Bobby Fischer Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. —Wittgenstein The Rook slaps his hand on the table—at least I think it’s a hand— whoever thought that that would be something up for debate—a hand is a hand—he slaps his hand on the table and The Black Knight seems to give up on their argument. The Knight is wearing a black cloak, maybe he’s actually The Grim Reaper. Is there a funeral? And yet, shiny black, not the sort of black that seems like a black hole you might stumble into, just black. Playmobil meets chess. Like you could just snap off a limb to have a snack. He has a rocking horse, smokes an e-cigarette. Like plastic. Like Atlantis and Wonderland. Like The Fairies. His cloak barely moves in the wind. If you are The Grim Reaper, please don’t come for me, I’d rather die by something more noble than a toy, barely holding himself together. Moving to Atlantis, away from Kansas. The Black King says, “We’ve been waiting for you, Bobby.” I am getting sick. Sicker than a dog. Why do we say that? My dog was never sick until he died and then was he sick or was he just old? Aren’t all old people sick? But I am young and strong and not named Bobby. “The King is here, The King is here, guard him at once!” The Black Knight says. “My name is not Bobby,” I say. “Check, Check, Check,” chime the black pawns. I am not afraid of chess pieces. I’m not sure what I am afraid of but know this, time is relative and The Grim Reaper is not made of black plastic, there would have been a product recall. “Bobby, The King would like to speak to you!” The Black Knight says. The pawns chime in, “Speak, Speak, Speak!” “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” “Speech, Speech, Speech!” “Check, Check, Check!” I find a cloak that is black, black like a black hole, placing it over me and inside me to see what happens. There’s no place like foam. Where did that come from? There is a giant candle in the middle or !164
have I been shrunk and this is the standard candle size? An Olympic torch of sorts. “Checkmate, Checkmate!” the pawns say. There is a white piece, they’ve got a rope around her. Now the entire black cast is starting to assemble and each pawn salutes—“Alpha, Beta, Gamma,” they chant, “C4, D5, Check, Check, Check—“ “Checks complete?” asks The Black Knight. “Yup!” The White Queen is plump like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s wife. They have her in chains. French words flow off her tongue like an atom bomb. “Fuitre l'invitation laisse-moi tranquille! C'est une démence. Cela me rend malade! Lancer les hostilités. C'est une demande de guérison personnelle!” “The White Queen is French?” I ask. “The White Queen is French Canadian,” says The Black Knight. “Check, Check, Check!” “Can you tell the pawns to stop doing that?” I ask. “No, they are busy making preparations,” says The Black Knight. “Preparations for what?” “Do you want to know?” “I asked.” “Guess you don’t want to know.” “Bobby, Bobby.” “My name is not Bobby!” “The Grim Reaper would like to speak to you, My Name Is Not Bobby,” says The Black Knight. “Give the boy room to speak,” says The Black Rook. “Speak! Speak! Speak!” None of this makes any sense. Whatever lesson I’m supposed to learn, I’ve failed. I suck. I give up. I watch too much South Park, you’re right. You Bastards. # “We’d give you a full tour but you were late arriving,” says The Black Bishop. “How could I be late when I didn’t intend to come here?” I ask. “There’s that chess master ego again. There are other forces which were to bring you to us sooner,” says The Black Bishop. “Is this one of those things where I end up being friends with Jesus?” “My boy, this is a chess game! Do you think Jesus played chess?” “I don’t know. I’m just asking.” “Check, Check, Check.”
Bobby Fischer, I heard you’d always end up here but what have I done? I am no Alice—I just wanted a sandwich—My vision switches to black and white. Playing chess against myself I always seem to lose —I lost a game again, I looked the queen in the eye, “Bastard, Traitor!” they cry. “The White Queen is in the middle, the middle of all the troubles, you wouldn’t know about the troubles, would you?” asks The Black Rook. “Have you checked under the desk? There is a lesson to be learned here, my son,” says The Black Bishop, “Never listen to a pawn, my boy. Never. And never give up your Queen. You are only half alive and no one is coming to your aid.” “Let’s get this over with—I forfeit,” I say. “You can’t forfeit,” says The Black Knight. “What if I pray?” “The Bishop is busy. We lost him because of you,” says The Black Rook. “But he was just here…Am I White or Black?” “You are Bobby,” says The Black Bishop, suddenly reappearing. “But I am not… Oh, forget it.” “You are the boy who wouldn’t eat his asparagus,” says The Black Knight. “God forgive me,” I say. # “Here lies, here lies—she lies!” says The White Knight. “Pass the door—the door—that is what I’ve been forgetting. There must be a door,” I say. “By what logic?” asks The Black Rook. “If there’s a way in surely there’s a way out.” “Do you really think logic will save you? Logic is why you are here.” “I thought I was here because I didn’t eat my vegetables and I called Kenny Schizo.” “You are here because you are here,” says The Black Bishop, “All winners must lose.” “To prove what?” “That they are human.” “But no one here is human.” “It would seem that way.” # A girl appears. She’s wearing what appears to be a school uniform with curls and freckles, a dance to just look at her features. What did !166
she do to end up here? Looks like Alice, the computer game. It was rated mature so I wasn’t supposed to play it. But I was more mature than my mom thought out and actually, by her own admittance, wasn’t violent enough. At least what she would have admitted had I told her what I allowed people to do. Video games saved my life, I was ever so powerful—Soviet or Allies—Red or Blue—Black or White—The Queen, The Queen, The Queen. “Someone is here to save you Dear Alice,” says The Black Bishop. “My name is not Alice!” the girl says. “Oh I’ve seen this one happen before,” says The Black Rook. “Did you know Woody Allen?” asks The Black Knight. “Your point being?” asks the girl. “Oh, forget it, forget it, let’s get out of here,” says The Black Rook. “Check, Check, Check!” “Bloody pawns,” I say. “Do you play chess, Alice?” asks The Black Bishop. “My name isn’t Alice,” the girl says. “Trust me, it’s best to just go along with whatever name they give you,” I say. “Good grief, good grief!” says a single pawn. “How is grief good?” I ask. “Not good but sometimes necessary,” says The Black Knight. “Do you remember how you got here?” I ask. “No, I can’t even remember my name,” says the girl. “Me either,” I say. # “Traitor, traitor!” “All hail The Black Queen, The Black Queen.” “Where is the girl?” “Alice and Bobby sitting in a tree!” “Oh Good Lord, not this again.” “You mean this has happened before?” “Not exactly. It’s a short story.” “You mean long story?” “No, a short story. This is a short story.” “I am not kissing that fool and my name is not Alice!” “I thought we had been over this.” “I’ll trade three pawns for the girl.” “All hail Vienna, all hail The Black Queen.” “What is Alice doing here? She isn’t meant to be here.” “And I am?” “Hush boy!” !167
“Alice is ours, Alice is ours!” “But she is the only person here who isn’t crazy, let her stay.” “Let it go, boy.” “What about Alice, doesn’t she get a say?” “I have no idea what is going on but if it comes down to Black or White, I choose White.” “Alice The White Queen is a French Canadian! You will live to regret this.” “But I will live.” “Too bad, Bobby, you lost your little girlfriend.” “Je peux te rétablir. Te remettre à toi. On va les donner un coup de patte à la rue.” “Will somebody shut her up!” # “Is Alice really gone? Where did the candle go, is The White Queen dead?” “Too many questions, my boy.” “This place will never make sense.” “Sense is overrated.” “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.” “I told you my name isn’t Bobby.” “So what is your name?” “I…I... seems to have lost me.” “Did you lose it or did it lose you?” “Does it matter?” “Off with his head! I’m sorry, I’ve always wanted to say that,” says The Black Queen, “now let’s get on with it,” “You guys know that the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland were made in the dark ages, don’t you? Your references are kind of outdated,” I say. “You’d rather be in South Park? We couldn’t get the rights. Besides, we had to save Kenny, not kill him,” says The Black Queen. “Kenny the Schizo?” I ask. “You’ve learned nothing,” says The Black Knight. “Off with his head!” says The Black Queen. “No!” “Off with his…” “NOOO!” # “Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein, the most underappreciated philosopher—Austrian, gay, rich—completely mad. He is the real
Chess Master. The pawns are so stupid most of them have had lobotomies,” says The Black Knight. “Oh philosophy! What good is philosophy! Monopoly money!” says The White Knight. “Alice beat the pedophiles, Bobby beat the Russians, both were half mad children. Bobby and Alice were born traitors. For Wittgenstein words are like chess pieces. Names are just words who’ve gotten lost. You call me The Black Knight as if it weren’t painfully obvious. But what is a Black Knight? Language is just a game of chess where pieces move on their own accord. This is why poets are never lonely and a solid opponent is worth plenty. The French Canadian and I go way back. Lewis Carroll was a traitor. Not to mention a pedophile. Everyone’s a pedophile these days, or a victim, or a traitor, or an author—the most deadly of sorts,” says The Black Knight. “Not that obvious that you’re a Knight. You could be Robin Hood,” I say. “Absurd! Nonsense! Oh will you shut him up!” says The Black Queen. # From now on I will sit silently at the board, waiting for my move. I will not tell people my name is Bobby Fischer and I am Away With The Fairies. I will not say Checkmate at every mistake my parents make. I will not claim The Black Plague is back in season. I will not be a traitor like Bobby Fischer. I will not have an imagination. I will never again take apart my Oreos. I will do my homework. I will not write letters to Bobby Fischer. When I hear that cousin Iris is Away With The Fairies I will nod and leave the room so that arrangements can be discussed. I will not call Kenny Schizo. I will not play with chess pieces or set them on fire. From now on I’m a new man. I will not call Harry Potter gay. I will not watch South Park. Now take me back where I belong, I’ve learned my lesson about playing God. I’ll apologize to my sister for her doll’s haircut. Then—then you’ll see. Just transport me. # “I think I’ve had enough of Chess for awhile,” I say. “You can’t escape this so easily!” says The Black Queen. “Why not, I am writing the story and I quit,” I say. “You only think you have been writing it,” says The Black Knight. “Checkmate!” says The Black Queen. “You can’t kill me in my own story,” I say. “Bobby Fischer was a traitor,” says The Black Knight. “So I’ve heard.” !169
ALEC OSTHOFF Unincorporated Tyler Simms liked to polish his Keystone single shot twenty-two. It had a walnut stock that looked fake, but wasn’t. His grandpa figured if we shot ourselves in the foot there wouldn’t be much hell to pay since it was just a twenty-two, so we were allowed to lug it around with us. Tyler also had a Smith and Wesson thirty-aught-six. His grandpa kept it locked in a safe by his washing machine. Tyler didn’t know the combination, but we still thought this was pretty cool. The twenty-two had been swung around more than a few times, so the alignment was all wonky. At thirty yards it always hit five inches left and beneath where the irons said it should. It almost never hit squirrels. Even though it was just a twenty-two, his grandpa would only let us have one bullet at a time. I guess he thought it was safer that way. Whenever we shot and missed, we had to walk back and pick up another one. Whoever fired had to carry the rifle home. All told, we shot three squirrels, a blue jay, and a crow that summer. Mostly we shot trees. Tyler was a local. You could tell by the way he stressed his A’s in words like “bag” or “faggot.” You could tell because he could smell rain before it happened. The rest of us were yuppies; we came in June and left before it got cold. Port Wing, like most of the towns along Wisconsin-13, didn’t have a population sign. Instead they had a sign that said UNINCORPORATED, which meant they were too small to be bothered with. Port Wing had two gas stations if you counted the marina, and two bars. There’s an unwritten rule in the North Woods that a town needs at least two churches for every bar, and Port Wing had seven churches—six real ones and one Unitarian. The locals were proud of this. Tyler was a local, but he didn’t give a shit about churches. In July he made it his mission to get me to shoot something. Whenever I would miss he’d say, “You aren’t going to hit shit with your feet together. Fuck man, it’s like swinging a bat.” But it wasn’t. If it had been like swinging a bat, I’d have hit him with it. He had his Camel Lights seized by the county cops three times in June before he switched to chew. The stuff gave me the creeps after I learned there were little motes of glass in it. Tyler would roll a wad of it against the roof of his mouth until it was sopping wet; then he’d slide it between his toes. Sometimes he would hold it in place with a bandage, but usually he just let it stew in the sock. He swore by Grizzly Mint. One time Dan asked, “Why mint? Your toes can’t taste it.” !170
Tyler cracked a fresh tin and said, “They can too fucking taste it. What would you know about it anyway?” We all said fuck, but Tyler knew what it meant. I’d just missed a shot at what the locals call a seagull, but my dad calls a kittiwake. He’s a veterinarian, so he’s probably right. I call it a seagull. It flew away. Tyler howled, “How the fuck Frank. You were six fucking feet from it.” Jack said, “You could have pissed on it.” They were just razzing me. I’d have done the same to one of them. None of us could shoot for anything. If God had dropped down from the sky and filled the whole eastern horizon, we probably would have missed him. The trees were small but dense along the lakeshore, and alive with wood ticks. The shoreline was pocked with creeks and springs tumbling down from the hills. The waters of Lake Superior stretched out behind us. On a clear day you would think you could see Minnesota, but you couldn’t. Once Dan and I had seen a family of black bears, fat and happy, plopped down on the highway’s center line, looking like a cross between gorillas and pigs. We’d run down the road to Mark Olson’s farm, pretending that we didn’t want the bears to go after his cows, but really we just wanted to tell him what we’d seen. We found him coiling up his hose after watering the white petunias hanging from the corner of his house. The dirt and mesh bowl holding the flowers was still dripping out. Dan shouted, “Old man Olson, you’d better get those cows inside. Frank and I just saw the biggest, meanest black bears out on the road.” Mark smiled and waved us over. He said, “You boys come here and look at this.” He walked us to the pasture fence, held the wire ties open so we could slip between them. He had three Oreo cows that we knew he planned on eating someday. They were crowded around a feeding trough. He said, “You can’t buy corn right now cause of the drought.” He guided us towards the cows. They had thick, dull horizontal bars for pupils. They smelled like beef gone bad. They were eating a wet, muddy rainbow, and their flat teeth looked human. Red and yellow and green gobs slipped from their mouths and back into the stew. We looked into the trough and he laughed. “Gummy Bears. My cows are living the high life. Munching on Gummy Bears.” He pulled out a handful of mostly dry candy for each of us. We walked back to the highway. The black bears were gone when we got there. We dropped the candy in the ditch, and hoped that the real bears !171
would come back and eat them, though we agreed this would be a kind of cannibalism. *** We were walking back towards Tyler’s to pick up another bullet when Jack spotted a snowshoe hare trying to blend in with the ground foliage. The four of us fanned out. We’d never caught a rabbit before. They were too quick, and they could outlast us. But rabbits are stupid, and we thought we might get lucky. It tore off through the woods, the four of us hollering after it. The gun in my hands slowed me down. Jack tripped over an old bicycle someone had left out. I heard Dan shouting from the lakeshore. Tyler climbed dripping out of the lake. He held the rabbit upside down by its feet. It kept trying to jump away, but this just bobbed it up and down while Tyler kept ahold of it. “Like a living yoyo,” Jack said. Jack and I wanted to name the rabbit Yoyo, but Dan wanted to name it Mariah after Jack’s older sister whom the rabbit vaguely resembled. Jack said, “That’s stupid. We don’t even know if it’s a girl.” Dan said, “Yoyo isn’t a real name. That’s bullshit.” But Tyler said, “It’s my rabbit. I’ll name it whatever I want, so fuck off,” and that settled it. Tyler handed me the rabbit by its feet. He said, “Hold this a sec. I need to put a dip in.” I set the gun down and pinned Yoyo against my chest. I could feel her tiny heart pumping away. My dad said that rabbits could die from being too scared, and I hoped Yoyo wouldn’t die. Tyler popped his tin open and slung a dip into his mouth, rolling it around like an old pro. He unlaced his right shoe. My dad liked to say he became a vet to help sick animals, but mostly people paid him to put their dogs to sleep. If Yoyo had been smart she’d have bit me and run free, but she wasn’t. If she’d been smart, Tyler would never have caught her in the first place. He wriggled back into his sock. I handed him the rabbit. She left a patch of lake water on my shirt. Tyler held her against his chest with both hands so she couldn’t jump away. Her pupils filled her whole eyes. We found the road near Mark Olson’s place. Tyler’s grandpa was only another quarter mile walk towards town. I said, “Old man Olson feeds his cows Gummy Bears.” Everyone stopped. “Bullshit,” Jack said. Tyler held Yoyo by the ears like he had pulled her from a hat. “No fucking way.” “It’s true,” Dan said, “Just the other day we saw it.” Jack asked, “Don’t they eat grass?” !172
I said, “They eat grass, but he feeds them Gummy Bears.” Yoyo thumped against Tyler’s chest. He asked, “Why?” Dan pointed back towards the pasture. “There’s no corn this year.” Jack asked, “Why don’t they just eat grass?” “Shut the fuck up, Jack.” Tyler started walking back towards his grandpa’s. Jack said, “Well let’s go take a look.” Tyler turned back to face us. “I’m not messing around with this rabbit while we look at some fat fucking cows.” Dan said, “Yeah, Frank and I already saw it.” Jack said, “Why’d you bring it up if you don’t wanna show us?” “I didn’t bring it up, Frank did. You go look by yourself. No one’s stopping you.” “No way. Old man Olson gives me the creeps.” “Why,” Tyler said, “You afraid he’s going to rape you?” We all looked at him. None of us said anything. We didn’t know what the word meant. Jack smiled, unsure of what else to do. Tyler nodded at him, “You know what that means?” Jack sunk his hands into the pockets of his shorts. Tyler turned back towards his grandpa’s. We all followed him. Halfway back Yoyo let loose a bunch of pellets that bounced off Tyler’s leg. Dan said, “Guh, that’s nasty.” Tyler said, “Eat it Frank.” I said, “No.” “Eat it or I’ll make you eat it.” He was holding Yoyo with both hands. Every time she breathed in she puffed her whole body up. “No.” He didn’t make me eat it. Nobody said anything the rest of the way back. *** Tyler put Yoyo in a cardboard box in his grandpa’s garage. He folded the top shut so she couldn’t get out. Jack, Dan, and I ran down to the unofficial dump to see if we could salvage an old dog kennel or something. It was where the locals went to throw away refrigerators and box springs—anything they didn’t want to pay the landfill to take care of. Sometimes we found bikes without seats, brakes, or handlebars. Usually we found nothing worthwhile, but we always thought we would. This time was no exception. Jack thought we should try to make due with an old washing machine that had rusted through enough to let the air in, but the three of us couldn’t move it.
We walked back empty handed. Tyler had the garage door open. At first it looked like Yoyo had wet the box. Tyler waved us over, said, “You guys have got to see this.” Mr. Wilkes, my fourth grade science teacher, told the class that a match could be put out in liquid gasoline. It’s the fumes that ignite. If you could just move really fast, you could sneak the match past the fumes, and the liquid would put it out. The problem is that no one will ever be fast enough. Tyler struck the match and the box sneezed fire. Before I knew what was happening I had the twenty-two in my hands and I was drawing back the hammer. I aimed from the hip, but the pin just hit the spent primer from earlier. I don’t know if I was aiming at Tyler or the rabbit, but I probably wouldn’t have hit either of them. She broke free from the box and sprinted across the yard, flames and smoke sticking to her. She screamed, and I realized I’d never heard a rabbit make noise before. It sounded like the chirping of a bird song, as if inside her there was a red and white canary trying to take flight, but there wasn’t. It was just a rabbit. She collapsed before she reached the tree line. I hoped she died from fear, but I knew that was silly. I shook. I wanted to puke, but couldn’t. Tyler said, “If any of you say anything about this to anyone, I’ll kill you.” Then he pulled the garage door shut and disappeared inside the house. If they had asked me, I’d have said the noise was the sound of the rabbit’s soul leaving her body, but they didn’t. The wave of new sensations made us all weak. I tugged at the trigger of the twenty-two, but the hammer wasn’t cocked, so nothing happened. Jack was crying, and repeating the word “fuck.” Dan put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and said, “I bet he named the rabbit Yoyo. I don’t think he would have done that to your sister.” We all nodded because it made sense. I dropped the gun, let it fall against the gravel. We walked back towards town. We smelled like smoke and gasoline, but I didn’t want to say anything. Jack was still bawling when he asked, “Do the cows really eat candy?” I tried to say yes, but my head was all mixed up with smoke and the word rape, and instead of saying anything, my voice cracked—as if inside of me there was a desperate bird trying to spread its wings for the first time. They both glanced at me. Then Dan said, “Yes,” and Jack said, “Good.”
TOM ZOELLNER Drive Into the car and away; away to the next valley over the ridge, away to the next town, the next exit, the unknown lump of color around the turn in the road just out of sight, forever leading and receding. Into the car, into the country. Here is where I feel most at ease, and have since the age of majority: when I am propped upright and relaxed at the wheel and the country spinning along outside the windows. There is little I love more than the spell of motorized land journey, a languorous day, a vague forward-looking destination in mind and a full tank of gas. If there is an opportunity to fly, I will not take it unless the schedule makes it mandatory. I have crossed and recrossed the breadth of the United States alone, more or less coast-to-coast, at least thirty times in the course of twenty years, and made hundreds of lesser partial crossings, making exhaust contrails across all 48 contiguous lower states in the bargain, feeling some unspecified hunger to lay down a coat of invisible paint. Ours is a nation into which motion and migrations and impatience are written into the fibers: the Congregational hegira to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then into the inviting Hawthornian forest; the miserable commercially-driven relocation of Africans to the cane fields of the South; the spreading of railroad knuckles between cities eager for trade and exploitation; the continuing flow of low-paid workers across the desert borders; the lusty job-chasing that keeps—according to the U.S. Census Bureau— approximately 14 percent of the population engaged in at least one move every year across a land, making us all, in the words of a British character in a Tom Wolfe novel “hopeless children whom Providence had perversely provided with this great swollen fat fowl of a continent.” All that country means all that driving. Horizon plus time: an exultant combination. My personal endurance record is 28 unbroken hours. This connected Phoenix, Arizona to Appleton, Wisconsin with 1,800 redeyed miles without a stop for anything but fuel and coffee; I can remember little else but the glare of the sun in Iowa and the curve near the end of the odyssey where tires screeched and the white lines grew fuzzy. The largest city in the U.S. where I have not been is Fayetteville, North Carolina; the only state capitol steps I have not climbed are in Tallahassee and Juneau. I can tell you that the most beautiful capitol campus belongs to Kentucky; the most impressive is Texas. The worst is in Arizona, followed closely by Oklahoma. The !175
totems of statist power function as emotional slalom flags, meant to be touched quickly as part of the drive-by—a brief tactile experience in lieu of possession. My annual copies of the Rand-McNally Road Atlas (accept no substitute, even in a digital age) have been coffee-stained and torn, phone numbers scribbled near the legends, their covers usually off their staples within a month, the page-edges worn by repeated jammings into the side pocket of the door, and repeated hasty withdrawals as I prop it across my knees at 60 miles-per-hour, trying to decide, with the option fast expiring, whether to take a particular exit or side road before the chance is gone. This is a dangerous habit which I keep resolving to break, but slowing down and pulling over for a good hard look is almost physically painful; an option reserved only for major structural deliberations of the day’s course, not a minor choice of way which will cost me at most two hours and could lead through an interesting canyon, or a town I’d wanted to see, or just a road I’d never traversed before. Such choices enhance the map, strip away its semiotic essence and make it a deeper document—something I can visualize, if only partially, as the very thing that it represents instead of black lines and red dots. I am an endless (but I hope amusing) frustration for the people who have been unfortunate enough to be along for the ride. I think Interstate highways are a historic crime against the country, albeit one with grudging benefits, something on the level of life insurance or $5 movie popcorn or the Mexican-American War of 1847. You loathe what they stand for, but occasionally appreciate them. Automobiles mean freedom: this was one of the organizing principles of the Detroit revolution so close to the preexisting national mythology and soon a cornerstone of the American Dream, that endless quest to punch into new territory, ahead of the rest, and civilize it in the name of home ownership and big breathing lawns and open spaces where the children can run free. Yet the car has created some truly terrible civic decisions in the last fifty years: checkerboarding suburbs, the withering of mass transit, those big breathing spaces that look so attractive but divide people from one another and wreck the conventionally humane ideas of community, a dependence on great gluts of oil from pusillanimous moth-eaten dictatorships. I have no moral high ground; I cannot preach to anyone, because I love to drive. I love it even as I jam the mosquito-nosed proboscis of the gas pump into the welcoming slot and feel the flow of the hot and heavy liquid rushing into the tank, and know that there is a shade of guilt here, that this zesty vegetative remnant of the prehistoric world is !176
going to be converted to thick black gunk as I skate around on my vague and sometimes pointless meanderings, helping to cloud the atmosphere with carbon and sap away a resource that is all too limited. It feels vain and somewhat prolicidal. But I cannot help myself. I love it too much. Without that option to wander, I feel as though I may not be me. *** The first major extended trip was on July 3, 1987, near the start of my freshmen year in college. I was taking some classes at the University of Kansas and had been given the use of a former Hertz rental car sold off for private use, a red Ford with plaid upholstery and an air conditioner that spat out humidity and a whiff of metal. There was only a radio, but I set a boom box on the passenger seat and made it a stereo. I had no real girlfriend that summer, no Mary to save from beach-town drear, but I did have a car that would (let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand) take me anywhere and near noon on the day before the Fourth of July with no classes and the weekend stretching out like a scroll in front of me, I went down to the parking lot behind the J.R. Pearson residence hall, climbed into the Ford and started heading east, without a clear plan in mind. I got off the turnpike in Kansas City, wound through middling neighborhood arterials for a bit, and eventually found myself on Interstate 70 (yes, I cheated) in Missouri heading still further east and there was a rise in the road near the town of Leeâ€™s Summit where the sky suddenly seemed overly large and almost cathedral, and the distance to the horizon seemed to be nearly twenty miles and it seemed like the whole country to the east was ready to unfold and show itself. I had never really been east of Kansas at that time in my life and the older half of the continent seemed wonderful and exotic. That sense of incipient possibility I still recall as one of the more exhilarating moments of my late adolescence. I still take note of that particular lift on I-70 when I travel that way, which I have done multiple times since. On the spot, I decided not to turn around and go back to Lawrence but to just keep going, damned where I was going to sleep, formulating a vague plot to see a high school friend from Arizona who had moved to Columbus, Ohio, see him quickly and turn around and be back in time for Microeconomics at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. On I went through Boonville and Columbia and Crystal City and Truxton and finally to the edge of St. Louis where at nightfall I tuned to a FM station playing classical music as accompaniment to the fireworks on the Mississippi and the 1812 Overture with cannon fire was on as the !177
arch came into view. Off the Poplar Street exit, I parked illegally and ran down to the water, touched the river that I was seeing for the first time, wandered through the crowds in the park, knocked on the grayplated wall of the arch, listened as the wife of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush made a brief speech to the crowd, yelling “Happy Birthday America!” in a nasally voice at the end. This was not nearly enough. I kept going, over the Eads Bridge, into Illinois, where fatigue and the reality principle started to overtake me and I abandoned on the spot my plans to see my buddy in Columbus. The industrial gloaming of the Illinois side of the river was a dark lure—I have always been drawn to wrecked landscapes—and I took a highway exit that listed weirdly dystopian place names like Cahokia and National City. The scent of cracked petroleum and green undergrowth curdled outside the windows and I zigzagged through roads that led past refineries and sinister-looking taverns and white clapboard cottages. There was one vista I will never forget: a wide and empty field stretching away under a reddish night sky with a line of tall eucalyptus trees far in the distance and a set of radio antennas winking red. To another observer it was certainly a mealy and uninteresting section of downstate Illinois; to me, then, it seemed utterly fascinating and ominous, like the way a roll of hay in a Provencal field or a set of café chairs might have arrested the imagination of a not-very-good impressionist painter. I cannot explain the power of this heart-pulling image, even today. And I kept moving, scarcely wanting to stop or even slow. (I have since relocated this field just south of the town of Roxana and am sorry to report it does not look nearly as foreboding in daytime to me now as it did in hazy hellgoing summer night to an 18year-old). Where now was I going? A study of the atlas under the dome light yielded an answer: I settled on the highway tracing the route of north up the Mississippi, passing by the wheeling possibility offered by the sign that read Chicago: 254 (it seemed at the time a place as faraway and impossible as Damascus). The two-lane road had been deemed “The Great River Road” by some government entity or another and was marked periodically by signs with the image of an old-timey riverboat wheel, and I followed this road past bluffs and house with docks and through sleeping little towns, the long plate of the river water winking in and out of sight, as the night deepened and drew closer to morning. In the town of Kinderhook, I stopped to buy a Pepsi out of a lonely vending machine underneath a lonely sodium lamp and drank it as I moved, thinking of the girlfriend I had broken up with to attend the summer session at Kansas, picturing her asleep in her narrow pullout !178
bed back in Arizona, mouth open against the pillow, hair smelling of that morning’s White Rain shampoo (an intoxicant to me then). How many miles away? Yet the world was huge and I wanted more of it. I saw the light grow over a field of wheat-heads and re-entered Missouri at the town of Hannibal, the boyhood town of Samuel Clemens, who learned here to set type and began the career that would make him Mark Twain. It was the morning of the Fourth of July and the theme motels were jammed full of tourists who had come for some kind of fence paint-off or raft race or some other damn thing. Paying for a motel seemed a huge extravagance (although gas did not!) and I felt like I could drive well into the next day and possibly into the next night. Stopping to piss in a vacant lot that overlooked the river, I thanked my good fortune, decided to quit the journey’s forward motion then and there and hoped that I could make it back to Kansas without falling asleep. This I did, though barely. And for years afterward, I always took note of July 3, and tried to get away if I could for some directionless nighttime driving in commemoration of this oddball solo road trip that was still a formative experience, a founding event of exuberance whose anniversary I have tried to preserve. *** I don’t think it is an accident that the posture of driving is one of concentration. You are sitting in a state of day-dreamy relaxation, but it is not meant to be mindless. Rather something like a bench for a craftsman who enjoys his work. True road traveling requires the ability to see the land passing and, to some extent, to feel it. Without that, there would be no point. Three days to cross the country; a lifetime to know even a fraction of its everyday majesty. In a 1992 essay for Harper’s, entitled “Why I Don’t Live Where I Used to Live,” Richard Ford wrote this: “I take it as a point of civic pride that I know where the streets go in most major American cities, where the freeways meet in Downey. Where there is at least one good Indonesian restaurant in Providence, how to get a tire changed fast in the shortterm lot at the airport in Great Falls.” This is the kind of universal citizenship that I long for, and even if it is true that the leveling force of the Internet has made obsolete the hard-won knowledge of road journeys—made it so any moron can call up in ten seconds a photo of a Maine beach that you tried so hard to see, or the knowledge of a Memphis barbecue place that you happened on by accident. I am left with the hubristic pleasure of refusing to consult GPS in cities where I last visited ten years ago, stubbornly finding my way around unaided. The longest single American journeys I had ever tried went through 29 major cities, totaling 11,000 miles in a van conversion !179
tracing a grand arc around the country, starting in Tucson, over the Mohave to Las Vegas and then to L.A. and up the west coast to Seattle, across to Montana and down to Salt Lake City, over the Rockies and through the Midwest (taking note again of that wonderful rise near Lee’s Summit, Missouri) to Chicago, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and to Tucson again. And in those two months of constant travel, sleeping on roadsides and in WalMart parking lots, in all of that time, I realized that there wasn’t a single piece of road longer than 10 miles that I hadn’t already driven on at some point. This was truly a sign of advancing age. I have become more vulnerable to the seduction of a motel as I have gotten older, but the standard operating procedure in my feckless twenties was to make every attempt at saving $40 by sleeping in the car or on the ground near the car. This is most easily done in the mountainous West, where federal land is abundant and a tent can be pitched in the woods or in the desert with little fuss or fanfare. The first time I tried this was after midnight outside the town of Moab, Utah, where I pulled over, exhausted, on my way back from Kansas after that first magical summer. The desert yawned in every direction, but I somehow felt like sleeping close to town. There was a lot across the highway from a giant patch of bare ground, with what looked like a white tarp across it. I rolled out a sleeping bag and tossed fitfully until morning, dirt in my hair. A few years later, I learned that I had spent the night across the road from the contaminated site of an abandoned uranium mill, where the core material for atomic bombs had been processed. Yet in cities and in the east, the land is private, the lights are invasive and the cops are prowling. The sleeping-in-the-car routine takes some practice, and I got very good at it. Total up all the nights I’ve slept in the reclined driver’s seat of the car, shoes off, keys in the ignition, fleece pillowed up on the headrest, and it would likely add up to six aggregate months. There is a system. Churches are by far the best option in a suburb: They have empty parking lots, often in the rear, out of sight of the street, and nobody ever pays attention to a lone car there after midnight; it is assumed that someone must have left it there after choir practice or baking class. Park in a way so that the car is not skulked off in the shadows, but slightly in the glow of the security lights so as not to arouse suspicion. I have rarely been bothered in the parking lots of the Lord. This is, unfortunately, not a dwelling option on Saturday nights (early arriving parishioners on Sunday wouldn’t like the sight of a derelict in their lot) and so the next best option is a school or behind a !180
shopping center. A residential street, out of the lights, in a solidly middle class neighborhood also works well. For one night, you can pick your ideal neighborhood, rent-free. But you must be careful. Socioeconomic redlining, unfortunately, plays a deciding role. Your position is vulnerable (what could be more elemental to our prehistoric sense of predation like the feeling of being attacked in sleep?), and whether it is fair or not to associate poverty with crime is a debate that shouldn’t be held with oneself as an exhibit under glass. The neighborhood cannot be too rich, either, as the cops are more responsive and some of the more paranoid among the wealthy have their own security guards who are paid to look for unwanted folks like me outside their downy estates. And so I look, above all, for dullness when it is time to turn off the headlights. Cops have awakened me only a few times. Two of them tapped on my window at dawn outside the gates of the famous Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, South Dakota where the life of Jesus is recalled for tourists. They were polite, but still ran my license number through dispatch to check for outstanding warrants. Another was less genteel in a town whose name I don’t recall outside the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey. He pounded on my window with the butt of a flashlight, hard, jarring me out of a deep sleep and I woke up with shouts and thrashing. The lady who lived in the house I had parked outside had called and I was told I really ought to get moving, and though I had broken no laws, I thought it wise to be compliant. Anyway, it was dawn. I still resent that Jersey cop, because I hated that feeling of being woken by force and surprise and have been far less able to relax on a residential street ever since. Rainy nights are the best: nobody is out, the feeling of security is that that of being at home, in bed, and the tapping on the car roof is a lulling and comfortable sound. After awakening, the usual routine is to rub the eyes, crank up the seat, and then a drive to the nearest gas station, generally the only business open at 6 a.m., for coffee. I am not discriminate in this area: any kind of swill will do the trick. Heavy sugar, heavy lightener. Then, drive for an hour, radio loud, to a diner for breakfast and the local newspaper. A distinct sense of pleasure emerges from reading the metro news in a strange town—the prolix city council dramas, the features, the wedding announcements of people I will never meet (I wonder if they’ll make it; what will happen to them), the occasional spot of good writing, a cranky letter-to-the-editor. I will have bought this newspaper from the rack outside and will have used it to conceal a small washcloth and a pocket-sized bottle of Head and Shoulders. At !181
some point, I will take this package, along with my chipped plastic water glass, into the men’s room and lock the door. Then I’ll empty the glass, fill it up with tap water and dump it over my head. Wash, lather, rinse, dry. Fingers through the hairs, a sponge of the armpits, other business accounted for, and back out with my empty glass and clean hair. This costs no less than $6 and comes with breakfast. Shaving and teeth brushing is generally done at the side of the road, with the aid of the driver’s-side window and a bottle of water. Then it’s back in the car, Rand faithful at the side, for another day’s journey in the car, another pass at America. There is a quality nearly erotic about a smooth weaving through poky lanes of Interstate (caught again!) with a good song on the radio and a hand draped casually on the wheel. Local radio, like the local newspaper, is always the first choice, the concentric circles of the broadcast zones eliding into each other in a chain of spheres across the country, as omnipresent as they are invisible, fueling the dreamy concentration with a hum of pop culture consensus. While it is true that distinctive local radio has been partially drowned in a corporate bathtub of I Heart Media, enough independents can be found by periodically sending the scanner to fetch a new voice on the left side of the dial. At 4 p.m., comes NPR’s “All Things Considered,” another continental voice as durably unifying as The Eagles, The Commodores or Trisha Yearwood, and I remember the time as a passenger crammed with at least forty strangers in an aerial tram outside Palm Springs, California when the driver, feeling whimsical, put a song on the loudspeakers and all of us began to sing, at first hesitantly, then more boisterously. Even in the mass-production zone of cultural fulfillment centers, you can perceive Walt Whitman’s sense that we are all connected in matters of wordless language, despite different races and tastes, seeing the same “vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet.” This land contains multitudes but it draws its people together in extravagantly conceived accidental communities of art, sound and road. Here’s another giant contradiction: I don’t even like cars. Or better said: I am indifferent to them, and uncaring of their particularities. My gang of friends in junior high school went through a car fetish phase, drawing elaborate sleek designs in the recesses of their notebooks, invariably in imitation of DeLoreans, and each other, in the way that girls of a slightly younger age are supposed to pass through a “horse phase” and read The Yearling and Misty of Chincoteague with a certain longing. I pretended to be interested (what girl or boy does not stutter through the low-grade misery of junior high school with a surfeit of pretending) but inside I could have not cared a hamster’s ass about !182
cars. I wanted a driverâ€™s license just as bad as them (and the day it came was like a received parole) but the style and the aesthetics of the ride never mattered. I have not washed one since I was 18 years old. This habit, learned mostly from dad, and done as a self-imposed obligation anyway, stopped after that summer when I passed through St. Louis at night. The condition of the car should not matter, so long as it takes you where you need to go and can be depended upon with minimal maintenance. The best in a long line that I have owned was a boxy and innocuous 1985 Toyota Camry which marched like a robot soldier nearly a quarter of a million miles before I had to let it go. Four cylinders, stick shift, speedy merge, a steering alignment slightly out of whack as a souvenir from the only time I have deliberately taken a car airborne on a bumpy road (knocking my friendâ€™s head against the ceiling in the bargain). At one point, the hinged lid over the gas tank refused to stay closed and I simply drove it around like that, flapped open to the breeze. I could not have cared less what the car looked like. It was an extension of me, true, but one whose appearance was never central to its core function. The car is like your eyesâ€”seeing outward, not regarding itself, total outer-directedness. What matters about the car is where it can take you, what it can show you. This exposure can be as profound or as mundane as you choose to make it. I have always tried to combine the rambling with an appreciation for the local geography, although this is a lake that has no bottom. I once was taken to an over-fried lunch by a pair of elderly sisters who I had met in a church outside the town of Superior, Nebraska. The northbound road into town was a series of prairie swales that I half-heartedly admired on approach, typically at the speed of 70 MPH loving, as always, the interplay between the fixed and the fluid. During this lunch the sisters told me where they had grown up at the beginning of the century on a farm just off this road. They described the spot and I knew it, and it shamed me a bit to think of how they and their parents had worked themselves to the bone on that plot, lacking electricity or running water, had deep intimate knowledge of the land which I blithely darted past without truly understanding or seeing what kinds of activity, geological and human, had made that grassy undulation what it was. Painful as it is to initiate drivus interuptus, I now make it a general policy to slam on the brakes for historic markers, those bolted steelplate toothpick flags of memory which lend character and depth and meaning to a rug of grass or an impasto of mountains. The best ones tell a specific story, about three paragraphs, about an event that !183
happened right there on that ground: A cabin that once stood, a massacre that took place, a song that was composed. I’m thinking now of the one Smith County, Kansas, which announces the vanished homestead where Higley Brewster penned the song “Home on the Range.” He had moved there to escape a shrewish wife, hence: Where seldom is heard/A discouraging word. For all its other virtues, Kansas has the best historic markers in the U.S.: loaded with context, site-specific, easy to read even in the dark with your headlights aimed at the steel plate at a non-glaring angle. The worst are in Pennsylvania, which is a shame for a state so rich in American happening. They are brief as a telegram, just as archaic, often pointless, and devoid of context. And they are annoyingly abundant, forcing me to slam on the brakes for baffling miscellany—I like my miscellany served with a helping of purpose. One of the finest I ever saw was near the town of Menominee, Wisconsin on a foggy spring night. My college girlfriend was in the car with me, endlessly patient with this eccentricity, as I hit the brakes for yet another marker, expecting a schoolhouse site or a politician’s birthplace, but instead finding not a sign, but a stone monument bearing a powerful intellectual shock. This spot on the roadside of the Upper Midwest happened to mark the 45th parallel, meaning that we were exactly midway between the North Pole and the Equator. There was a half-crescent illustration on the iron plate, locating us on the curvature of the earth. And I had a sudden dizzying sensation, like a camera angle suddenly wheeling backward at a thousand miles a second, of being fixed on the whirling globe in a sea of blackness. It was a moment not unlike that state of weird awareness that the French author Georges Bataille terms “disintoxication” (or perhaps what Katherine Butler Hathaway would call an “arterial sentence”) when the banal facades and fictions of life disappear for a moment and we become conscious of an overwhelming reality: our own mortality, the morality of others, or perhaps just the sense of being aloosed in a vast and dazzling emptiness, as the historic marker was there to helpfully point out. This invisible line belted the globe; it appears in unbroken sequence across ten American states and yet only this small stone in Wisconsin and a giant highway sign in Salem, Oregon are the two places I have seen it commemorated. “How was it?” my then-girlfriend asked, wearily bemused, when I climbed back into the Ford. “Best I’ve ever seen,” I said. It was as oddly frightening as that night field in Illinois. And I think this comfortable sense of dread is also what helps gives the country richness and drama and adventure. I will never forget my first sight of !184
Crater Lake under the moonlight; my heart was thunking as I passed the last ridge on the trail I was not supposed to be on, this weird shining immensity about to come into view, as though a hole in the surface of the world was about to open and devour my frame of reality. I like to go to the source, even if the source has just announced itself unexpectedly with a sign or a brochure or a half-remembered name on the map. Ascension Rock near Whitehall, New York, where the Adventist prophet William Miller and his followers gathered on the night of October 22, 1844, to await what Miller predicted would be the end of the world. Spook Hill in Lake Wales, Florida, where an optical illusion in the road lends the impression that tennis balls and grapefruits are rolling uphill. Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Frank Lloyd Wright once designed a slim skyscraper for an oil services company (now the weirdest bed-and-breakfast in the Sooner State). A calm lake in Indiana where a now-neglected author Gene Stratton Porter kept a country house and wrote book after book. The house in Ketchum, Idaho, just barely visible from the road, where Ernest Hemingway ended his life. To see what they saw, the approximate shape of the terrain, the same line of mountains, the same approximate oxygen, perhaps shuffle the same dirt. It is meaningless and also brimming with portent, all at once. The map of personal history plays a role, too. Life feeds best on new experiences and does not benefit from endless retracing, but I sometimes cannot escape the draw. In Seattle, I had to stop again at the neon-lit and self-consciously gothic B&O coffee shop, where I downed two espressos in preparation for an awful all-night drive back to Missoula, Montana after a final and irrevocable breakup with a woman I had been with two years and now understood I would never marry. This was the night before my 35th birthday; a manâ€™s biblical allotment is supposed to be seventy years and if this was true, that night was an exact chronological fulcrum, the biological equivalent of the halfway mark between pole and equator. In Cornwall, Connecticut I have revisited the grounds of a failing prep school where I taught for a summer, down the road, the geography nerd wants to add, from the house of Charles Van Doren, former Columbia professor disgraced in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s (I never bothered him). In San Francisco, I cannot reasonably avoid driving past houses of various friends, corners where certain conversations took place. In Phoenix, I sometimes relent to a drive-by of the house where I grew up. In Denver, I slept, where else, but in the car on the street on a lovely rainy night a few blocks from downtown St. Josephâ€™s Hospital, where I was born in the maternity ward forty years ago. These places are !185
imbued only with as much meaning as we choose to assign. They are emotionally pre-packaged, and sometime feel phony and cheap. So much better are the encounters that can never be planned, and the sights that bring a certain calm transcendence. There is great happiness to be found in a banal view; Edward Hopper understood this; so too did Richard Ford who has written about the pleasures of the “literal landscape” in the ambiguously-zoned and utilitarian swaths of central New Jersey. There is such unexpected beauty in the visual bric-a-brac of the roadside: those great sad homes on the edges of small towns in western Maryland lit by electric candles in front of window curtains; a room you spot on the second floor of a townhouse with a ceiling fan and a poster of Morrissey; the way the concrete shell of a car wash is angled to the street in a crossroads at the edge of a Texas town; the rails shining in orange sunset in a railroad yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa; the empty-eyed slab of the Michigan Central depot in Detroit looming like the corpse of an assassinated monarch over the ruined prairie kingdom; a towering apartment block in Philadelphia once owned by Father Divine; a riverboat casino in Missouri where I won $5 on the first hand of blackjack I ever played and stopped cold right there and walked out (this may serve as a metaphor for the whole driving experience); a middlebrow country club in Alabama where I plundered a shower in the locker room; the Dollar General store in Murfreesboro, Arkansas where I bought boxer shorts when running low; a highway bridge near the Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia where I once stopped and got out and felt the night close in like a perfumed blanket. Ours is a country where fresh experience and memory twist together. *** Is there a self-indulgent side to all this? Isn’t there something breathtakingly arrogant, and annoying, about blowing into a town, making the rapid-read, glancing at the courthouse, zigzagging along the river, perhaps downing a Rueben-on-rye at the diner before getting the hell out after sixty minutes and feeling as though the place has been notched, “owned,” placed gently like a poached duck into an invisible bag of the mind? Thinking that you’ve understood a damn thing at all because you spied the house in Cadiz, Ohio where Clark Gable grew up? (No time to take the tour, thanks). What have I gained, really, with another cruise at the posted speed limit through another town or city, in a stack of previously cruised tens-of-thousands of towns among Dutch colonials and auto parts shops and plastic kiddie castles in municipal parks? I will have almost certainly initiated conversation with no one, understood no new precepts, forged no new !186
understandings. A servicey and to-the-point exchange with the diner server is usually as far as my generalized shyness will allow me to transgress on the privacy of my fellow Americans. Part of what really motivated me in the ten years I spent as a newspaper reporter was this license to speak: a built-in excuse—if not self-preservation imperative—to drill through the thin layer of ice that encloses us as we walk around the planet minding our business. I could “interview” anyone as long as a plausible construct could be formulated. This took effort and embarrassment, at first, but I learned to be dulled against my own insecurities and just start talking. The story provided license to interact, and some of the most enjoyable conversations I remember having with total strangers involved subjects far removed from what the “interview” was supposed to be about. Yet stripped of this identity and on the road once again, I am once again encased in a comfortable and useless silence, not living in practice my own self-image as a wandering collector of brief, affable and somehow meaningful exchange. This does have exceptions. An interesting life tale from a man I once sat next to at a firehouse fish fry in Emmitsburg, Maryland. A woman in San Antonio who told me how much she distrusted her parish priest. The hard handshake I got from a man who had surveyed the highest point of land in the state of Nebraska. But I am sad, and somewhat guilty, to report that the drive is mostly a solitaire. The arrogance has an acquisitive dimension, too. In trying to get to as many places as possible, I think I might be attempting a repressed version of trying to own those places for a moment, to capture them and make them mine, as a tourist will try to possess and frame and mount the Grand Canyon by taking a photograph from Bright Angel Point. One might well decide to deposit Alpha Centauri in a private bank account after a few glances. Nature never agrees to confiscation, of course. Not even our bodies truly belong to us. In literature there is a school of both fiction and nonfiction that strives for the encyclopedic prison: a book that seeks in one document to explain the entire world, to be the universal key to a subject. Pliny the Elder traveled all over the known world in the first century, obsessively writing down nearly everything he saw and cataloguing the world’s then store of knowledge into a mammoth Naturalis Historia which included lapidary descriptions of dolphins, olive trees, volcanoes, statues and wars. The French enlightenment author Denis Diderot attempted to pour the world into his Encyclopedie; Honore de Balzac wrote as though he was preserving the miniaturist details of Paris for another civilization. Melville decorated Moby-Dick with every !187
allusion he could drag: this great American novel takes place on five continents and three oceans. Jack Kerouac made motion a life-subject; John Dos Passos made the kaleidoscope of the nation a character in the U.S.A. trilogy. Former Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent John Gunther tried to report the entire world of the 1940s in a series of doorstopper books: Inside Europe, Inside Africa, Inside South America. James Michener’s novels read like admixtures of melodrama and Homeric charts. There is something at once noble and pathetic about this Sisyphean ambit, and I understand it perfectly. Trying to write the world is trying, on some level, to own the world: a bit like the original sin of wanting to have the knowledge of God. The urge to drive may be a cousin to that ancient blasphemy of wanting to be everywhere and know everything all at once which takes on a military aspect: aggression for the sake of possession. Which always ends in futility and absurdity. When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept, and when his friends asked him what was the matter, he replied, “Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?” The driving urge may also be an extension of Eros, the life-force, the hand-maximizing urge, that thirst for living as much and as fully as the boundaries of biology will allow. And so I suppose my urge to knock off courthouses, touch the sides of civic monuments, see over the next ridge, puncture the next county line is an oblique method of trying to pack as much Americana into the manuscript of memory as possible; to know my country in a more sensual and tactile way at the expense of a more fixed and certain arguably more satisfying perspective from the porch of an owned house. And this leads to an essential question: What do I think I’m trying to accomplish? Would it be better to heed the advice, expressed on a refrigerator magnet I once saw, Grow Where You Are Planted? Richard Ford wanted to know the same thing about himself regarding the number of homes that he’s rented over the years. He says: “One never moves without an understanding of that staying is the norm and that what you’re after is something not just elusive but desperate, and that eventually you’ll fail and have to stop. But those who’ll tell you what you have to do say so only because that’s what they’ve done and are glad about it—or worse, are not so glad.” I know I have been, on some level, sacrificing depth for breadth, and occasionally not very good breadth. There was always a schedule to keep, an obligation on the other end: a job, an impatient friend, a school calendar, a deadline. Severing the rope to a “real” life and becoming a complete and rootless hobo is an act I’ve never been able to !188
pull off, though I look at hitchhikers and the homeless and the graybeard RV crowd with envy. Our physical bodies all come to occupy a tiny patch of land, or get scattered to the breeze, and so why now wander far on the slackened leash while it may still be done, knowing that weâ€™ll be rounded back home at night? Why not stack up summertime experience like harvested wheat? An ancient Norse metaphor for life is a Great Hall with a window on each end. A sparrow flies through the first window and flutters on to the next window. That is life: a flight from one obscurity to the next, though a bright and fascinating chamber, full of portraits, ornaments and filigree. But the bird cannot stay. It is hustled in and out, with barely enough time for a long look. The drive is ancient, and so is the paranoia that something important might be missed on the journey; an irrecoverable truth; a vision that could heighten the experience, delight the senses, perhaps make the whole ineluctable puzzle make sense. And thereby a horrible dilemma: do I stay in one place? Or do I keep moving? Which option is ultimately more futile? I can only act in doses, and immersed in an idealized theory of self on the drive, I do not have all the time in the world to dawdle in the village and jaw with the citizens, and, at least in praxis, there is that contrast febrile ever-urge to get hustling right along, into gear, though the light, around the bend, and hell-and-gone and going next to whoknows-where within the limits of land and road. There is never enough time to stay; something else beckons from the unseen: this is the needful fiction that fuels the drive.
KAREN KARLITZ The Ex Flies I’m getting an excellent contact high sitting next to Larry at a patio table overlooking the pool. He and his roommate Greg are the biggest stoners in our Santa Monica apartment building. If I was alive I’d give them a good run for that distinction, but I’m not. Dead as a doorknob as they say. Larry and Greg always have the best marijuana, and when they’re not at work, they’re usually at the pool, which is packed right now. Must be Friday. Everyone’s drinking, smoking and who knows what else. Chemically manufactured though it may be, they all seem very happy. That is, except for my ex. Maxine. I watch as she stands staring down at her neighbors from her second floor balcony. She drinks from a large water glass that’s not filled with water. Maxine’s always been into red wine, claims it’s the healthy alcohol choice. When we were married and I still had money she drank the expensive stuff, as if drinking Chateau Montrose 2005 instead of two buck chuck made her any less of a wino. Now she drags home lower shelf bottles of red from CVS, whatever’s on sale. It irks her not to have money, but when I hit hard times her alimony sank. Now, of course, she gets nothing. Maxine looks grim. I suspect she’s gotten one too many left swipes or a recent hookup dumped her. No surprise there. She’s screeching into her cell phone. I can’t make out what she’s saying, and don’t feel like flying upstairs. I don’t care what goes on with her, haven’t for years. In my semi-stoned state, I’m content to sit back and watch. It’s still light enough to see that her face is red and her expression deranged. She’s worked herself into one of her usual freak outs. She’s no longer on the phone, just drinking. Something must have really ticked her off because now she’s slugging straight from the bottle. That woman can usually hold her liquor, but she’s staggering around her terrace in a very un-Maxine-like way. She stops to take a swig, then lurches back and forth. I assume she’ll pass out on her lounge before long. I lose interest and fly over to my friend Jerry and his girlfriend Jennifer. We’re the only spirits in the building unless some agoraphobic spooks are hiding out in someone’s apartment. “Larry’s got great stuff, Jerry,” I say. FYI, only the dead can see the dead, who all look somewhat like their old human selves, but now we’re covered with shiny see-through scales; we have no bones, skin, organs, or blood. Jerry gives me the thumbs-up sign; Jennifer’s face scales crease into a smile. “Catch you later, Henry,” Jerry says, and they head in Larry’s direction. !190
I look up at Maxine’s terrace. I expect to see her laid out on her lounge. Instead the top half of her body hangs over the iron balcony railing; the bottle of red dangles from her hand. I watch as it falls onto the grass below. I can’t see her face, but I know I’ve never seen her this drunk. Healthy drink my ass. Red wine can be lethal. She’d be better off smoking a few doobies. And then it happens. It’s like watching a movie because I can’t believe it’s actually happening. Sure I’ve often daydreamed about something befalling her, thought up countless ways my ex’s demise could play out. But falling from a balcony? That’s a little grotesque even for my taste. But thar she blows. Head leading the way, she careens down, long hair flying in the breeze. Maybe she foolishly chased her fallen wine bottle, maybe she decided to voluntarily check out. In any case, she lands without fanfare on the grass; just a few feet over and she would have hit the concrete surrounding the pool. I fly over. There’s no blood. She lays on her side, more peaceful than she’s ever been, though admittedly a bit disheveled. Maybe she’s ok. A young woman rushes over. She kneels and leans in close to Maxine. “Are you alright,” she asks, softly patting my ex’s arm. Maxine’s serene face is still. A man who looks like a handsome extra at a California pool party comes by. “Is she passed out? I think she’s the woman on the second floor near the trash chute. Can you tell if she’s breathing?” “Yes, I think she’s breathing. She may have fallen from her balcony.” “No shit! Are you ok, lady? Can you speak?” the Central Casting guy asks Maxine. Silence. “I’m calling 911,” he says in a take-charge, melodious voice. He whips out his iPhone as expertly as John Wayne drew a gun. I stand by taking this all in. She’s breathing. She’ll probably be alright. I never really figured anything could kill her. The ambulance arrives. Two men lift Maxine onto a stretcher and take her away. The party at the pool resumes. No one in the building really knew her except me and my old college girlfriend, Pam, who lives next door to her. I've been inhabiting Pam's place since my ex threw my urn at Pam after discovering she was the woman I tried reuniting with on Facebook while we were still married. But that's another story. The sky turns dark. Beer bottles open, weed is lit and passed around, pizzas from 800 Degrees are delivered. No one worries about the unhappy woman who lives on the second floor. !191
*** Many sunrises and sunsets pass near our building by the sea on 4th Street. I try to catch many of them. Now that I no longer have eyes (although I see quite well), I can look straight into the searing light without incurring injury or having to turn away. So life and death continue on as before, although living next door to Maxine I know she has yet to return. Then one day I hear Maxine’s front door open and slam shut. I figure she’s back, and fly onto her balcony, the scene of her unfortunate swan dive. I look through the slider fully expecting to see my old nemesis. I’m surprised when her cousin Eileen walks into her bedroom. Maxine hated Eileen. Called her an opportunistic, phony, controlling, manipulating, jealous, devious witch, said her behind was even bigger than her mouth, and claimed, above all, she was not to be trusted. Aside from the ass description, Maxine may well have been talking about herself. So here’s Eileen, Maxine’s closest living relation, scavenging through her belongings, the great majority of which were originally mine. Maxine looted some furniture and artwork in our disastrous (for me) divorce settlement. Eileen’s speaking into her cell making a verbal list for the moving company of what to ship to New York and what to leave in Maxine’s apartment. In her unmistakable Brooklyn accent she says: “Take chest of drawers, nightstands, desk, chair and floor lamp. Leave bed, headboard and ugly purple velvet chair. Wow, it’s freaking hot in here.” She opens the slider, giving me full access. I enter, perturbed that this Machiavellian nightmare is taking possession of my beloved worldly goods. The question of what happened to Maxine crosses my mind, but I’m too intent on watching her cousin defile my belongings to dwell. I feel . . . violated. I follow her into the small living room. “Nothing much in the living room” she reports into her phone, wiping the sweat from her brow. “The cocktail table is a maybe.” A maybe! What a moron. It’s a vintage Knoll in almost perfect condition and worth a small fortune. After I died and Maxine’s shithead lawyer succeeded in ripping me off yet again, Maxine was given my apartment keys; I’d been living in a cheap Beverly Hills rent-controlled one bedroom my last few years. From my mantle vantage point where Maxine kept my urn, I watched as she and some guy carried the table into the Hollywood Hills house she won in our divorce settlement. They also lugged in several packing boxes filled with stuff she hadn’t legally been able to grab from me in the first go round. Almost killed me all over again. Not long after, or so it seemed to me, the house ended up in foreclosure; that’s Maxine’s karma for you, and also how she came to live in a Santa Monica apartment. !192
I wonder what this imbecile will decide about the art. There’s a signed Picasso pen and ink over an ugly end table that Maxine brought with her from a prior marriage (she went through two other suckers before me). Eileen barely gives it a look. I bought it years ago when I sold my first book. Herald Square turned out to be a pretty big seller. I tried, but never came close to that success again. Eileen enters the kitchen. I follow her behind which is, as Maxine phrased it, double wide. “That’s a cute picture,” she says aloud, looking at a colorful framed print from an ‘80s Picasso Retrospective. She speaks into the phone: “No artwork except for the framed Picasso print in the dinette.” Unless someone who knows something gets here quick, my Picasso will end up in the dumpster, but at least Eileen won’t have it. *** Pam’s at work and I’m stretched out on the yellow beach lounge on our balcony. Just came from the pool and I’m feeling mellow. Larry was there smoking. I stuck close by him, got sufficiently wasted, and flew back upstairs. I’m snoozing, peaceful as all get out, when a familiar voice sears through what’s left of me. “Well, look who’s here. I’ll be damned, and I suppose I am. If it isn’t Henry Davis. I’d say in the flesh, but clearly you don’t have any.” The laughter that follows is diabolic. I’m afraid to look. Maybe if I don’t move she’ll disappear. I’m fully awake and completely horrified. It’s Maxine, no mistaking that god awful shrill voice. She sits on the railing between our apartment balconies holding on. Guess she’s not taking any chances. She resembles Maxine except, excuse the repetition, no bones, organs, skin or blood, and she’s covered with scales. So there’s the answer to my question: my ex has bought the farm. “Fuck, Henry, have you been here the whole time and I didn’t know it?” She looks ready to blow. I say nothing. Anything at this point could bring her to a boil. “Well, have you?” “Yeah,” is all I can manage. I haven’t felt this screwed up since before my demise. I hope she’s not planning to stick around. “Jesus, you’ve been spying on me for years. Watching me have sex, take a shower, getting off to me undressing. Gross. I should have you arrested.” “Don’t flatter yourself,” I say, regaining some spunk. “Admit it, you old piece of shit, you’ve always been sex-obsessed.”
“Not when it comes to you,” I shoot back. This is getting ugly, too ugly for such a beautiful day. “Get off it, Maxine. Since you threw my urn at Pam, I haven’t been inside your apartment.” “You didn’t have to be inside. You could see plenty lurking from the balcony.” “Nope. Never. Except for after your fall…” “Go on,” she says, her scales quivering with fury. I’d never seen that before, not on any of the spirits I’d encountered. I’m wary, but at the same time fascinated. Illuminated by the sun, her fluttering scales explode in a brilliant light show that’s almost blinding and even more captivating than the old Joshua shows at the Fillmore. “Your cousin Eileen came by.” I speak slowly, watching her face for signs of a major freak out. I ready myself to bail if necessary. “Oh, fuck! Is that why nothing’s left in my apartment? Fat ass took it all.” “Not exactly. She took some stuff, mostly from the bedroom. The moron didn’t take the cocktail table or the Picasso.” “Where the hell are they?” “A guy from Out of the Closet came and took what her movers left behind. Some of their customers hit the jackpot. Maybe they don’t even know it.” “Why didn’t you stop her?” “Have you lost it completely? What could I do? Give me a break, Maxine. I’m dead.” “I suppose,” she says, but doesn’t seem convinced. “Can I ask you something?” I say. “What?” “Did you….deliberately…you know, jump?” She turns away. I refrain from repeating the question. If the broad doesn’t want to tell me, why should I care? She turns back around. “Are you nuts? Why would I do that? Life was good. I was seeing someone. Very seriously. A doctor. Head of something at UCLA. Radiology, yeah, he’s head of radiology. Handsome. Has a house in Bel Air. You’d love it. Mid century, a Richard Neutra. It was an accident. I had a little too much wine. I was due for my period and had taken a Valium. I never drink when I take Valium, but I forgot I’d taken it. It was an accident, Henry. Plain and simple.” So there it was. The tell, tells actually. She always drank when she took Valium, and there was no rich, handsome boyfriend. Maxine committed suicide, no doubt about it. Saving face. She may be dead
but she still has her pride. Why rub it in? “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” We both get real quiet. My high is ancient history. Shocking as it is, I feel sorry for her. She’s so forlorn, so alone. She looks down at the cracked cement floor. “I don’t have anywhere to go, Henry. I won’t stay long. Promise. I’ll figure something out.” Fuck me, I think, but say, “No worries. Stay as long as you need.” We could have fit (the scales of the departed vaporize and disappear upon entering a vessel), but I refuse to let Maxine sleep inside my urn. The lunatic woman actually suggests this. When I nix the idea straight away she says, “Are you sure you don’t want to sleep with me, Henry? C’mon, it’ll be like old times.” The scales surrounding her eyes flutter. “You may not be expired long enough to know this, but the dead are incapable of having sex, Maxine.” “Well, no, I didn’t know that. I mean, how would I?” She looks at me coyly. “We can still snuggle, honey bear,” she says, using the name she used to call me way back when. If I’d eaten, I’d chuck my lunch. This chick is certifiable. Still, I’m not ready to tell her how I really feel, but no way she stays in the bedroom I share with Pam. I’ve got to put her as far away as possible; I relegate her to a piece of Mexican pottery, a good sized bowl, on the kitchen counter. Time passes. I try to avoid running into her, but she’s always floating around, especially when Pam’s at work. It’s driving me nuts, but so far she’s on her best behavior. It reminds me of her act before we got hitched. Thoughtful, selfless, patient, kind, free of neurosis (or psychosis for that matter), a real sweetheart. As I would later discover, she put on one hell of a show, giving no hint what lay beyond that carefully constructed facade. I had no clue who I married. Some things remain constant. Just like when she was alive, my ex never goes to the pool. And never partakes of weed. She doesn’t know we can still get high from second hand pot smoke. She never was a stoner, said marijuana made her eat whereas wine just made her pass out. Different strokes, as they say. And even though she’s clearly depressed, I don’t tell her relief is within easy flying distance. The last thing I need is her hanging out at the pool. So far she hasn’t clocked me, although she often asks how I got to be so calm now that I’m dead. I tell her that death hits some people that way. “Lucky,” she says, then drifts into another room to lick her wounds. I’m certain she’s not looking for a place to move to. I’ve yet to see her leave the apartment; !195
she even stays off the balcony, although that’s understandable. To my dismay, I believe Maxine’s become agoraphobic. Somehow I must expand her horizons, take her on flights around the neighborhood, starting short and easy, then branching out. It’s the only chance I have to get rid of her. It’s not easy getting Maxine to leave the apartment. She resists my many friendly invitations to go flying, even when the weather’s perfect. “Let’s stay home and watch TV,” she says, settling onto Pam’s sofa in front of the tube. She works the remote with the skill of the living. “Don’t you get sick of television?” I say, sitting on a chair on the far side of the room. I don’t get too close. She’s already made several romantic lunges at me. “You do hog the computer, honey bear,” she says sweetly. Who is this pleasant person? Yes, I am guilty of computer hogging, but I need to get my writing time in when Pam’s not home. (You wouldn’t be reading this if I didn’t.) But the real Maxine would sulk and scream about this inequity, then viciously demand equal screen time and copious apologies. Instead, this one smiles seductively and says, “Come, sit next to me. Remember when we used to love watching old movies together? You always made the popcorn.” Clearly she’s become delusional. I’ve got to get her flying or she’ll stay forever. And that may be a very long time. “I’m going out,” I say cheerfully. “It’s a beautiful day. Come with me. We’ll have a great time. Like the old days,” and I smile my best Henry “the player” smile. I know I’m beginning to give her false hope, but I’m officially desperate. “You look so handsome when you smile, Henry. You should smile more often.” “Let’s go,” I say, taking her hand and pulling her off the couch. “We haven’t held hands in decades,” she says, the scales on her cheeks blushing a pale pink. Okay, okay, I’m a cad leading this poor, dead, depressed woman on. But what other recourse do I have? Our first fly takes us around the corner. The next day we switch directions and reach the north side of Wilshire Boulevard. My hope is that in this crowded area we’ll meet up with a deceased flyer, someone Maxine can hook up with, male or female, it doesn’t matter which. A roommate, I must find her a roommate. After several trips, I decide to get her to TJ Maxx. I’ve run into the departed there before. The store is a magnet for dead shoppers who keep their addictions going vicariously. Chicks mostly. Hopefully one will gladly take on a new roommate.
The only problem is that Maxine was never a fan of discount stores. When we were married she had Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus cards. I’m hoping she lowered her expectations when she hit the financial skids. Like any serious shopper with money woes, she must have switched shopping destinations. “So what do you think about going shopping?” I casually ask, as we fly down the stairs and into the modest lobby leading outside. It’s easier to get her out of the apartment, I’ll say that much. “Have you forgotten we’re dead, Henry?” she smiles, gliding to a stop by the large glass front door. “Window shopping,” I say. “Isn’t that what they call it?” I fondle her arm to encourage her. Probably not the best idea. “But where would we go? Bloomies, Neiman’s and Nordstrom are too far.” She looks wistful. “I know,” I say, as if just coming up with the idea. “TJ Maxx is two blocks away.” Her scales flip downward in sorrow. “Oh, that place. I had to shop there at the end.” My disappointment is obvious. I’ll never get her inside TJ’s. I’m silent as we follow behind a live young woman who opens the lobby door. “What a wonderful idea,” she says, switching gears, scales returning to neutral. “I don’t know if I can fly that far yet, but I’m willing to try.” I am so screwed. Like I said, this is not the Maxine I know. My real ex would have shrieked, “You idiot, I won’t ever step foot into a shit hole like that again.” I may be an idiot, but I know she is intent on remaining in her Mexican bowl by channeling a nice person. I push this reality aside; I can’t let any opportunity to pawn her off on someone pass. “That’s my girl. Let’s give it a fly.” I take her hand in mine and we float slowly down 4th Street. We cross Wilshire Boulevard, fly one block, then wait outside TJ’s for a shopper to open the door. It doesn’t take long and we’re in. We’re there awhile when I spot him in the women’s department. He’s an older man, probably late seventies, sprightly flying over the racks and fingering the clothing. I figure he was transgender or a cross dresser in his day. This is of no import. He has the one major component in a potential roommate for Maxine: he’s dead. I approach him. “Hey, how’s it going?” I ask. Maxine is in the jewelry department. “Oh, a fellow spirit. How nice,” he says. “I’m Henry, Henry Davis. I live up the street.”
“Ben Epstein. I’m around the corner. One of the newer buildings, a lovely apartment.” He continues touching the dresses. “Been in L.A. long?” I ask, waiting for the right moment to introduce him to Maxine. “About twenty years. Moved here when I retired. I’m from New York. I was in the rag business. Dresses. Never lost my interest. Keeps me busy, especially since Alice passed.” A dead man without a spouse! “I have a woman I’d like you to meet.” “Is she here?” I point in Maxine’s direction. “That’s her over there. Pretty good looking, wouldn’t you agree?” We fly in for a closer look. Maxine is perusing the fake diamonds. Probably had to sell the real ones I gave her to pay the rent. Well, looks like her problems won’t be my problems for long. This guy is perfect for her. “I don’t think she’s for me,” he says, killing my reverie. “Why not?” I ask, struggling to hide my alarm. “Nice try, but no tomato.” He winks. “What do you mean?” “She’s your ex, right? You can’t stand the sight of her, but you’re trying to let her down easy, find someone to take over for you. She’s trouble. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know. It’s written all over her; a bona fide ball breaker, excuse the expression. Nice meeting you, Henry. And better luck next time.” Ben hurries back to the dresses. Jesus, I’m stuck with Maxine forever. *** Disposing of Maxine has become a full-time obsession. When I’m not actively schlepping her around town, I’m plotting our next excursion. I can’t concentrate on my writing, no longer enjoy getting stoned at the pool (well, maybe just a little), don’t have the stamina to enter into Pam’s dreams (yes, the deceased can do this). I’m a dead man. Okay, we already know that, but I’ve lost my zeal. I focus on one thing only: expunging Maxine. My OCD’s in full bloom; I need my old meds. Our trips to TJ Maxx take on greater urgency, for me that is. Maxine goes wherever I suggest. I worry that any moment the real Maxine will break through her amiable facade. I have to find her a roommate and fast. One day we’re flying around housewares; Maxine has developed a particular fondness for this section of the store. “OMG, look at this blanket, Henry,” she says, as if I would care. “It’s a Ralph Lauren. I !198
must see if they have the matching sheets and pillowcases.” She whips around the corner. I’m ruined. How long can I keep this up? I hate this store, have no interest in anything in it except for those who have bitten the dust. And we barely run into any. There was one, an elderly French woman, but the language barrier was a real deal breaker. I tried to remember my high school French, but couldn’t get past “Come on tally vu,” (disregard the spelling). I turn the corner looking for my ex. I’m so astonished at what I see that I sink onto a stack of tablecloths. From this perspective I watch as Maxine and a woman spirit engage in a spirited conversation about designer sheets. Initially I’m too excited to move, but curiosity wins out and I fly over. They don’t notice me at first. Finally, a smiley-faced Maxine says, “Oh, Henry, this is Caroline.” I’m blown away. Of all the spirits to run into, this is one I actually know. My friend Jerry used to date her. He was smitten, but it turned out that the only thing Caroline cared about was vicarious shopping. Jerry broke up with her and swore off women, but then he met Jen on a cruise we took to Cabo. We hitched a ride to the ship with Larry and Greg; their cabin was next door to Jen’s ex husband. He brought Jen’s urn with him and, with his girlfriend watching and no emotion, flung it overboard when we docked in San Diego. With our help Jen learned to fly before he dumped her ashes, which is crucial to having an active afterlife. But back to the present. Caroline turns and looks at me. “Oh, hi, Henry,” she says. “Haven’t seen you for awhile. How’s Jerry?” What luck! Caroline lives on 5th Street, right around the corner. As long as she hasn’t moved in with Ben Epstein, I stand a chance of handing Maxine off to her. “Caroline, so great to see you. You’re looking good,” I say. Caroline is very pretty, scales and all; Maxine looks envious. “You two know each other?” Maxine asks with venom, her toxic self making a surge. “Jerry’s old girlfriend,” I say, patting Maxine’s scaly shoulder. “I haven’t seen her since they broke up.” Maxine looks relieved, and her poison dissipates. The two female spirits make plans to meet the next day, and Maxine and I take off for home. I’m anxious to get to the pool to celebrate my good fortune. Maxine now flies to TJ Maxx and even Banana Republic and the Gap without me. She always meets up with Caroline, and comes back exhilarated. !199
“You won’t believe what we found today at Banana,” she says excitedly. I feign enthusiasm; she babbles on with detailed descriptions of what they saw on their recent trip. She’s gone almost every day. I’m free again to hang at the pool and get twisted. I don’t want to become overly confident and jinx anything, but I think her days of living with me are numbered. One late afternoon after returning from a shopping expedition, Maxine flies onto the terrace where I’m resting. Her expression is solemn. Uh, oh, she’s had a blow-out with Caroline. I don’t dare say a word. “I’ve got something to talk to you about, Henry.” I nod for her to continue. “I know we’ve been getting along great, better than ever really. You know how much I enjoy your company, and my bowl is truly lovely.” I’m gaining hope; I know that Maxine hates Mexican pottery. Mexican food too, which only proves that the woman knows absolutely nothing. I remain silent. “Don’t be upset, honey bear, but I’ve decided to move in with Caroline. She’s closer to the stores and we have so much in common. I know you got used to having me here, but it will be easier for me at her place. She took me to her apartment today. It’s in a new building with a beautiful lobby, AC and wood floors.” I’m speechless. “Are you okay, Henry? I’ll stay if you really really want me to.” Time to jump in before the broad changes her mind: “Just a little surprised is all. It has been terrific having you here, but I fully understand.” “You’re so wonderful, Henry. And we’ll still see each other. It’s not like I’m moving to the Valley.” “Yes, of course we’ll get together. When are you planning to go?” I attempt to curb my enthusiasm. “Tomorrow, honey bear. I’m sure going to miss you.” She flies over me and puts what’s left of her lips to the top of my head where my hair used to be. I worry she’ll stay a while; I’m still as a corpse. Fortunately before long, she zips back up. “I’m going to get to sleep early. Big day tomorrow. Night, Henry.” She heads inside. *** She’s gone! Flew out early this morning. Before leaving, she taps on my urn. I pretend to be asleep. Can’t take the chance something I say will change her mind. I wait, then tentatively exit my urn and fly into every room. My last stop is the kitchen. The Mexican bowl is gloriously empty.
I fly down to the pool. Greg’s smoking a doobie. I lean in close and breathe in the marijuana-laced air. He lights up a second. Does he know I’m there rejoicing in my Maxine-less status? Nah, of course not, he’s just a stoner, is all. I slip outside the building and gaze at the ocean shimmering in the distance. While basking in the sun under the swaying palms an idea for a new short story comes to me. With worry no longer consuming me, I’m thinking clearly again. I fly back to Pam’s apartment via the balcony, and hover over the computer in her bedroom, my legs floating straight out behind me. Soon my fingers start clicking the opening lines on the keyboard. Peace is restored in apartment 201. I’m free.
RACHEL MARSTON The Shape of the Day At 7:14 am, Alexandra wakes to the sound of hammers. Or, she thinks they are hammers. Regardless, it is the incessant banging, cachung, ca-chung, rhythmic and steady, so loud, which wakes her from sleep. While sleeping, she dreamt of an impossible place with impossible people and she thought that maybe the dream was caused by the hammers or maybe it was the sun. She wakes up tired every morning. She lies in her bed and stares at the wall, ignoring the clock, reaching over to press snooze again and again. The hammering continues. She presses her hand to her stomach. She thought that once she was out of her and Peter’s house, once she didn’t feel him watching her anymore, once things were decided, that she would stop dreading the moment in the morning when she opened her eyes. Or the moment when she had to pull the blankets and sheets off her body and sit up and move. Instead, here she is, sleeping in their old bed in a new place, and waking up still feels awful. She hears the sound of metal on wood, the moving of two-by-fours, metal on metal. It is now after nine o’clock. She needs to get out of bed. But she stays, for a moment, her hand still on her stomach. Before they divorced, before she said to Peter on the telephone, “Yes, I’ve made a decision” and “Are you sure you want to talk about this over the phone?” before they went to counseling, and discovered that perception was just the beginning of their problems, Alexandra wanted them to have a conversation like this: “I can’t take this anymore,” he said. “What?” she said. “This.” He opened his hands and his arms wide, trying to take in the whole kitchen. “Can’t you be more specific?” She turned the burner down under the onions. “I don’t really know what else to say,” he said. “And you persist in willfully misunderstanding me, which just aggravates the whole situation and makes me want to punch my fist through that wall.” She faced him, her arms crossed at her chest. “Go ahead then.” “And punch my fist through the wall?” “No,” she said. “Go ahead and leave.” “So you do know?” !202
“Yes,” she said. “This situation. This house. These past years. This.” She pointed at him, at her, at the kitchen. He waved his hand, pointed his finger at her. “Yes. Yes. That is precisely it. This. You and me. Us. This. Pretended domestication.” Alexandra can no longer force herself to remember these false conversations, to have them supplant the actual conversations, the years and years, of her saying, “I can’t take this.” “What?” he said. “Nothing.” “No, you said something. What is it you can’t take?” “It’s just work stuff. Frustrating. You know.” “Are you sure? Are you okay?” “No,” she said. “I mean, yes. Of course. Everything is fine.” And Alexandra thinking, “Because it always is. Fine. But never finished, never the end. This relationship seemingly on endless repeat —the double bar and the dots, return to the beginning repeat and repeat and repeat. Isn’t the refrain lovely? Doesn’t the harmony resonate inside of your ear, tickle the cilia, circle round and round the drum, beat after beat, to think that my voice is a series of rhythm and vibration inside of your head—But really I make that up—or suppose it to be so, because I know nothing about how sound carries, rises from within my body, moving up, catching slightly on the ridges of my trachea, causing the uvula to sway, gliding across my tongue, slipping past my lips and sliding through your ear—at least not the scientific information. Except those three small organs, they form a small band hidden by the strange mixture of flesh and cartilage attached to the side of your head.” Now Alexandra misses Peter in strange ways, like when she is watching a stupid movie and knows that he would appreciate it. Or when she used to sit and watch him play video games for hours, lulled to sleep by the repetitive drone of the game’s soundtrack. She misses him when she watches television, particularly reality TV shows which they mocked but both secretly enjoyed. Now she feels guilty watching television alone, that somehow Peter’s presence made it less a waste of time. She misses making dinner for another person and how, on Saturday mornings, they always had something to do, weeding the yard or going on bike rides. She misses having someone who knew the history of her family, the way even when he didn’t listen, he knew: her father, William, with his heart that is not good, or it isn’t his heart exactly, but his arteries and veins. He is a large man, large hands, large !203
head, large voice. He sells printing and he smells like ink—that deep chemically smell that Alexandra loved growing up. She sometimes smells it, or a similar smell, when she stops at gas stations, in that moment right when she opens the car door. He called her “little bug” and “my sweet girl”. He taught her how to swim. He was the big crier and the big yeller, his voice shaking the walls, as Alexandra sat with her sister and brother on the couch in the living room. And so, she had a sister and a brother and then there was her. After her there was another, a little boy born with perfect small white hands, and blue veins in his forehead, so sweet in his casket, his dark head framed in white satin. Now, it was just the two girls. The men couldn’t stay, they always left. First the baby brother, unable to wait even one minute, unable to open those tiny eyes. Next the father, who left when Alex was nine, who they missed, but they also lived easier without all the yelling. Then all those years later, Alexandra married to Peter (and so lonely), the other brother, James, dead in the morning, lips blue, and in the midst of her sorrow and the funeral preparations, wondering if being a widow was a way of being free. But Alex doesn’t miss Peter’s voice, or his smell, or the way he liked to hold her hand, and this makes her sad. Peter’s parents sent her a card on her birthday every year, including this one. Instead of signing “Mom & Dad” like they did for six years, this year they signed their names. They still wrote, “We love you.” Alexandra doesn’t understand. This is the part she can’t manage. How do you divorce a whole family? She finds herself missing them in ways she never missed them previously. When she was married, she didn’t feel very close to Peter’s family. They were sort of distant anomalies, kind and loving, but never friends. But maybe it was that sense of them loving her, not really understanding her, but loving her immensely, maybe it was that feeling she found herself missing. Had she undervalued the sense of being loved by someone? Of having someone who was always there? Nick, the man from Seattle, is in town and his grandfather is dying, but that isn’t what is hard. What is hard is that this grandfather is Nick’s father’s father and Nick barely speaks to his father, something he told her during those first nights they were together six months ago. He sometimes calls her unexpectedly and she pretends that she is fine, !204
that it is no big deal to be speaking with him. This time he doesn’t call but shows up on the sidewalk outside her apartment. The outer door is locked and he begins yelling to get her attention. She only goes to the balcony when her neighbor knocks at her door and says, “I think that someone is looking for you.” The neighbor also says, “He looks normal, but I didn’t let him in just in case.” At first Alex thinks it might be Peter, though she never gave him her new address. She needed a place that felt solely hers. Then she steps out the French doors, and there Nick stands, acting as if he had spoken to her days earlier. She considers not letting him in, but she wants to see him, wants him, even though she shouldn’t. “You cut your hair,” he says, reaching out to touch her head. She ducks her head slightly, avoiding the graze of his hand, as she lets him past her into the apartment entry way. He spends at least an hour with her, telling her funny stories about his graduate work, about people he works with in the lab, about visiting his sister and her boyfriend in California. He says, “You look good,” and he touches her on the arm. This time she lets his hand stay. She asks him why he is here. “My grandfather’s in the hospital.” He puts his hand on her face and his other hand on her waist. “I’m sorry,” she says. She is going to ask another question, but then he kisses her. And she knows how this will go. They will end up in her bedroom and he will say lovely things to her and then when it is all over, he will say something like, “We probably shouldn’t have done this,” or “You know how much I care for you, but I live in Seattle and you live in Salt Lake and where could this go?” He has said these things before. But after he kisses her, he doesn’t say any of those things. Instead he stands to leave and says that he will come at seven and take her to dinner. He calls her at six o’clock and says, “I can’t come over tonight.” His father called and said, “You never want to make calls like these. You probably never want to get them. I don’t know how long your grandfather is going to last. You should probably go see him.” She imagines that Nick is angry and he resents feeling sad about someone who he is connected to by someone he hates. But he won’t use the word hate because it probably isn’t true or it says too much. He says “I am angry” or “My dad rarely calls me” and he feels abandoned and unloved by this man who he looks so much like. And now, this man’s father is dying and this makes Nick think about his father dying. He doesn’t want to feel sad about that, but he does. And so Nick and his father will sit by his grandfather’s bed, and together they will watch !205
the university’s basketball team play and lose. This is something they will share. Nick says, “I don’t know how long I will be there. I will call you later or tomorrow.” She is disappointed, but she understands. Death is important. Alexandra has been close to death many times. She’s lost count. Her father seemed like he might constantly disappear, his substantial body ironically fragile, a thirteen-pill-a-day body and only fifty-seven. She realizes that she is always waiting for the call that he is in the hospital again, the call that she needs to come home immediately, leave right now, get in the car and drive. She knows that the call she received over three years ago, the one from her mother that her brother had died, was a mistake. She knows that her brother is dead, she touched his waxy cheek, placed her lips against his smooth forehead, but she also knows that the call should have been about her father because that is what made sense in the world. On Wednesday morning, Alexandra interviews a man who is eighty-seven years old. He chuckles and says to her, “Eighty-seven years young.” She laughs because she likes Mr. Anders and doesn’t care that she’s heard that joke every week for the past four years. He is sweet, with his tan cap and his cane and his spotless ironed shirt and checked sports coat. He dresses up for her and she appreciates this effort, and also the ease with which these elderly men flirt with her, the safety for all of them in the half century’s difference between their ages. Mr. Anders smiles at her and, when he thanks her for listening, pats her arm gently when she walks him to elevator, Alexandra feels loved in a way she rarely does. Her time is valuable to this man, to these men and women. They feel special when she sits with them, asks them to tell her where they were born, about their mothers, their fathers, their first loves. They describe the houses they grew up in, the red bricks, or white wood siding, which they repainted every summer. They tell her about making jam with their grandmothers, hands sticky and heavy with the pectin and the syrup of the fruit. They wipe their eyes, hold up their hands for her to pause the recording when something becomes too difficult for them to articulate. She smiles with them, touches their arms, shakes their hands, opens her arms greedily to their hugs, forgetting in these minutes and hours and days her own life, taking on these memories, so privileged and amazed by the way these people share their lives with her. !206
When they leave, and the small room with it’s couches and cushions and laps and microphone smells slightly stale, full of these people and her, Alexandra wants to cry because she wants to talk about her life in these way. She wants these lives to be her life, to appropriate these narratives, to understand how to make each story she hears her own. Alexandra calls Peter because she keeps missing him. She wants to know that he is okay. She says, “Maybe we should go to lunch.” He says, “I guess. I think that would be okay.” She doesn’t know what else to say or if, now that she is actually on the phone with him, if she wants to see him. He says, “Alex, this lunch would just be lunch, right?” “I don’t know what you mean.” Peter clears his throat. “Well, I was talking to some friends of mine and they said you were probably calling to try to get back together with me.” He says this and Alexandra knows that she does not want to see Peter. She feels angry, that heavy pressure in her stomach tightening as it moves up her esophagus. She tries to swallow. “It’s just lunch, Peter. I don’t think it is a very good idea anymore.” She does not say, “I wouldn’t have divorced you if I still wanted you” or “Don’t be stupid.” She says, “I guess we will talk again sometime. Take care.” She closes her phone. She realizes that she and Peter’s relationship is not over; it is just a prolonged series of goodbyes. Alexandra thinks about her mother, the oldest of the girls in her family. She folded laundry and washed dishes and snuck out of her bedroom window after she should be in bed, dreaming about holy and sacred things. Her mother, so smart and witty, laughing easily but ready to escape the small house, the shared basement room with the younger sister, the four other siblings, their mother locked in her bedroom typing, and the father, too tired when he came home to give attention to anyone other than the mother, so needy, clinging to his arm, pulling him to her. Oldest daughter, dark-eyed and sad, but only sometimes, fast to take the plates off the table, even if the younger sisters were still eating. She scrubbed dishes furiously, wiped them dry, stacked them in the cupboards, eager to leave that place. Alexandra wonders if her mother still feels like escaping, not that her mother has ever used the word escape. !207
Her mother says, “I never could talk to my mother. I wanted my relationship with my children to be different.” Alexandra agrees, but also wonders what her mother means by talking, when Alexandra’s attention returns to the conversation, her mother is talking about James again. “He and I just thought the same about so many things. We could talk in a way that I just don’t talk to anyone else.” Alex couldn’t talk to James about anything, not really, everything always felt so fraught, Alex “too emotional” as James always said, and James working so hard to hide everything he felt, something she only saw later, or maybe, really only a story she told herself to feel better. Alex says,” Yes, Mom,” and “I’m sorry, Mom. I know you miss him so much.” And in the face of her mother’s grief, Alex finds little room for her own. When they finally see each other, Nick is leaving the next day. They don’t talk about his grandfather or his father. They talk for hours, but don’t really talk about anything. She remembers, during those weeks in the winter, talking about everything. Now they speak around topics,,just like she and Peter did, both of them opening their mouths but never saying a thing. Nick does say things like, “I don’t want to be in relationship right now” or “I’m not ready to be in a relationship now.” Sometimes he says things like, “Neither of us are ready for this,” which annoys her, his way of thinking he can speak for her. He sits next to her on the couch. Alexandra is aware of the inch and a half of space between her hand and his leg on the couch. She wants to touch his hair. She sees him look at her, trace her lips with his eyes and then look away. He crosses his legs toward the doorway, away from her. He squints his eyes to look at the titles of the books in her bookcase. When Alexandra turns her head away from him, looking through the balcony doors at the streetlight outside, he moves his head and watches her face. He says, “I should probably go.” “Are you sure?” She puts her hand on his leg. He puts his hand on hers. “Nothing can happen,” he says. She presses her fingers into his leg. “It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. There is still this thing, whatever it is, here between us.” She touches his ear with her other hand. She knows she should stop, but it feels good to touch him. He moves his fingers across her knuckles. !208
“If it’s any consolation,” he says, “You look amazing.” She doesn’t understand what sort of consolation he thinks she needs. But he does not leave, not yet, and her hand is still on his leg and he is touching her on the cheek. She leans over and kisses him. He says, “Even your breath is familiar” but he won’t return her kiss. She feels as though she is in some soap opera, this part of herself that is able to be outside this moment, always watching. “It wouldn’t be wise,” he says. Eventually, being wise doesn’t matter because they end up having sex. He has his arms around her. “I can’t stay the night,” he says. “I really just want to sleep in my own bed.” “Okay,” she says. Then she says that she is worried about him driving home (he’s tired, he almost fell asleep on her couch, and he’s been sick, taking all sorts of cold medicine). She sees that he doesn’t believe her. He thinks she is trying to get him to stay. She wants to know if he imagines sleeping next to her, but realizes he probably hasn’t or if he has, he won’t tell her. So she helps him find his car keys, walks him to the door. She says, “Drive safely” because what else is there. After he leaves, she wonders if he will come home for the funeral. She wonders if he will call her if he comes home. Then she wonders if she even wants to see him again. She wonders what will happen when his father dies. She smells him on her pillow. She turns the pillow over and tries to sleep. Alexandra’s father is going to die. She knows this and waits for it, telling herself that she is prepared. He was always going to die, with all that bad plumbing, those arteries and veins building plaque and more plaque, causing small series of heart attacks he insisted on attributing to heartburn, pausing every fifty feet or so to stop and catch his breath as he walked. Then his heart, slowly dying, those little black spots on the x-rays and films from the angiograms, showing decaying tissue, areas of misuse, underfed by the heart’s own primary purpose, the steady distribution of blood to the body. She reaches over and feels the warm space in the bed where Nick was lying. She wonders if, in her sorrow, she will also feel relief, or just the continued expansion of the dull ache residing deep in her own chest, under her own heart, too small already for the losses she feels.
Alexandra was raised Mormon. She was baptized and she went to church every Sunday. But her father stopped going to church long before she could remember and her mother only drove them, her and her sister and brother, until her sister could drive. Her mother always left after Sacrament meeting. Alexandra always believed. Everyone, bishops, Sunday school teachers, her friends’ parents, told her she had such great potential, that she was a great soul. She needed to know that she was special in some way. It wasn’t only that, the way of feeling set apart, of feeling different, it was more than the pride people took in her, and her spirituality and the knowledge she already had of the scriptures. She really believed. She believed in God and Jesus Christ and in the restoration of the true gospel to the earth through the prophet Joseph Smith. She prayed and felt the spirit just the way the scriptures said she would, a burning in her bosom, a light in her mind, a clear path to the truth. When her parents were still married, when her father still lived in the house, but at this point was sleeping in the room downstairs, she would say to her mother, “I don’t want to go to church.” Her mother would say, “You have to.” Alexandra would look at her father, lying on the couch, watching the pregame show and say, “But Dad doesn’t go to church.” This argument never worked. Still she went, uncomfortable at first in the classes, with the children whose parents were happy, and their parents who were still married, and their mothers who did not work, and the years these children had already spent in church together, until she saw that she could be better than them. She could answer all the questions with the right answers. She could volunteer to say the opening prayer or the closing prayer. She loved to give talks and volunteer for activities. She loved church and everything that came with it. It was a place Alexandra belonged. It was a place with rules and order and people who stayed. She misses the comfort of religiosity, the steadiness of knowing how she is supposed to behave. Actually, no, it was never that for her, she never had a sense of a dictatorial presence or her religious affiliation as an oppressive entity. She misses the community, the assurance that comes with belonging to a group of people who believe in similar things, believe that there is something more to this world than the living of just each day. She very much wants to keep believing that this life, her life, meant more than … what? She doesn’t know exactly, but needs it to mean something. She tries praying again, tries !210
to understand prayer in a different way, tells herself that she can still have a relationship with God, but she doesn’t know what that relationship can be. She lives too much inside her head. She misses the easiness of helping other people that came with church attendance. She misses feeling like her life helped other people. When she is not interviewing the Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Anders of the world, Alexandra spends her summer in coffee shops. She sits with her computer and reads about the brain, downloads music, checks her email. She reads, “If you lose your hippocampus you only lose the ability to store new memories.” When she reads this, she begins to cry, small tears, unnoticeable in their thin traces on her cheeks. If she couldn’t remember the things that happened, this new part of her life, would those things have happened? Would she forever only know her life as she had led it for the first thirty-two years—not that she was in danger of losing her hippocampus, that small internal sea in the brain, but the thought of never having a new memory, which seemed an oxymoronic concept anyway., as though remembering was something that always implied time and distance, seemed devastating. What if tomorrow, when she woke up, she couldn’t remember the mixed berry scone and cup of coffee she had today or the way that the deep grey sky, with its low hanging ridge of clouds changed so swiftly to bright blue? What if all she could remember was the sadness of this past year and the years preceding that and the other sorrows of her life, that she catalogued and held so closely, even though she was trying so hard to let things go? Nick doesn’t call her. She didn’t expect him to, but wanted him to call, and now she can’t even talk to her friends about him. They all just say to forget about him and move on. She doesn’t want to date anyone she knows in the place she lives. She thinks of people who may want to date her (a lawyer, a physics graduate student, a guy from Seth’s gallery) and they don’t appeal to her. Being alone is a viable option. But she feels unsure, uncertain—of what—her looks, her talent, her ability to attract and keep someone? Perhaps it is her fear of being alone forever, of someday waking up and realizing she made the wrong decision, the she never should have left her husband, of falling in love and in love and in love, only to end up reading each night, alone in the middle of the bed, until her eyes feel so heavy she can’t keep them open.
She sees Seth and he asks her about dating. Her sister and mother ask her if she is dating. Maggie says, “Alexandra, you should be dating.” When Alexandra does try dating and it doesn’t work, they all say to her, “Well, it’s probably too soon anyway.” Sometimes she drives to the place where she and Peter had talked. She sits in her car, the windows open, watching the sky. She turns the volume up on the stereo and listens to David Bowie. She thinks about Peter. She thinks about her family. She thinks about Seth. She thinks about Nick, and his father, and his grandfather. She thinks about all the people in world and wonders when she will stop feeling so alone. She doesn’t understand this loneliness. She usually feels happy— no that was untrue—she doesn’t feel happy, but she doesn’t feel unhappy. She feels slightly melancholic but knows that somewhere in there she is okay. She keeps trying to find a way to be okay alone, needs to be okay alone, needs to dress in the mornings for herself, not for an imagined person, or a real person, not someone she barely knows, or the possibility of someone she might meet. She begins writing Nick again, letters she types but never sends: N, It is the four o’clocks in the morning, or maybe not that late (or early depending on how you look at it) but you know the times. Those lonely moments when all you really want in the world is someone to call who won’t think you are crazy when you want to tell them that it is the end of March at midnight and it is snowing like crazy outside, those big wet flakes that hardly stick to the grass, but float in a steady stream past the street light. I hear the trains and feel the air drifting in through my open door and wish for someone to be here with me, to sit on my balcony wrapped in blankets with cups of tea and watch the snow and be together in that silent and important way, when we really don’t need to talk. You have to know someone really well to have that, to sit comfortably together and not continually interpret their silences, wondering constantly what those silences mean, but just be there. Maybe I should be brave and venture into that world of snow and blankets and tea and balconies on my own, figure out a way to be silent with myself, stop trying to fill it with people or things (but primarily, people, a person, maybe you). Because, yes, I need to stop for a moment, pause and take a deep breath, breath slowly in and out, air in my mouth, my throat, my lungs, push it through my fingertips, exhale with my ribs, feel my body breathing. I place my toes, bare, on the rough wood, dig them deep into the wet, let the flakes melt on my feet. !212
I am not really outside, letting these flakes fall on me. I sit at my desk, in my chair, on my couch. I stand at the sink, in the bathroom. I am afraid of the world outside, but so in love with the steady drip from the trees and the sound of tires on the wet road, the quiet shhsh, backed by the sound of trains. It seems so trite to write about death. But I like the way things hurt now, this external pain because I have nowhere to place or displace or transfer what it is I currently feel. I take the caps of pens and place the skinny tab in the flame of a candle, watch the plastic heat until it begins to melt, and I place that tip against my skin. I crave the smell of my burning flesh and like these visible markings of pain. My doctor prescribed Ambien because I have trouble sleeping or sometimes have trouble sleeping. The second night, when I poured the whole bottle into my hand, all those skinny pills, I didn’t know who I could tell, so I continue to tell no one because what would they say. Alexandra’s father calls, once and then again. He leaves messages on her answering machine, her cell phone, his voice low and soft (unusual). He calls her at eight pm on a Friday night and she thinks, “Does he really think I’d be home on a Friday night?” though, she is, of course, listening to him leave the message as he calls. Maggie suggests that his call on a Friday night at such time as eight pm suggests that he called when he knew he couldn’t talk to her. They both sigh and nod. She knows this call. She makes these calls, in the late morning or early afternoon to a home phone, saying things like , “Sorry to call when you are at work…” but she is never sorry. Calling during work is entirely the point. Alexandra plays the message again. She says to her friend, cooking dinner in her kitchen, “Listen to this please.” The friend pauses in her chopping, wipes the onions from her blade into the metal bowl. Alexandra presses the button and there it is again—the low and short message—no information but something in the words or the way he says them or how his voice seems so quiet and her father, this man, never has a quiet voice. She is ready to panic but she tries to not. She asks her friend, “Does he sound sad to you?” “Yes,” her friend says. “He does.” Alex goes through the list. If there was a death, a hospitalization, car accident, heart attack, flooding in the house, fire, any specific and real emergency, he would say something more, he would say, “Honey, you need to call” not “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” But the sadness in his voice feels to her like an emergency and she doesn’t know what to do !213
except feel afraid and then pretend she is not and continue her evening with all this pressure, like so many hands pushing out from the inside of her chest. And this month, the pretending is so much harder because this is the month when bad things happen—she expects them—she feels them in the twitch of her eyelids and in the smell of the storm coming off the lake and the easily changeable weather, heavy rain one minute and ninety-one degrees the next. How do you dress for such weather? You cannot be prepared. And this is how September is. Sly, she thinks. And dangerous. She drives past each apartment where she and Peter lived, marking the absence of this relationship, the one she no longer wanted, but needs to make it real in a physical sense. She drives on 100 South, she drives on 1300 East, she drives past the apartment she lived in when she and Peter started dating,, needing to know that these times existed in her life, that she wasn’t born ten months ago. This city is marked in too many ways, every building, street corner, storefront signifying someone else. She doesn’t want to mark her life in people, especially in men, but she doesn’t know if there is any other way. So here are the places that are Peter’s and the places of the men since Peter, the ones who say that they want her, but don’t want her. Alex wants places that are hers and hers alone, space marked by her presence and not intruded upon by the way her understanding of self seems to be constructed around romantic relationships with men. She drives past her old house; it was hers, with that strange blue siding, just months ago. The people who bought the house take good care of the yard. They have replaced the blinds she and Peter picked out, a dark bamboo Roman shade, with white wooden blinds. She wishes she had taken those window coverings, thinks maybe she can knock on the door and say to them, “I used to live here. You bought this house from me. Can I have my Roman blinds?” She wants to enter those rooms, see where they have put the furniture, explore this space that is not hers, but will always be, know what changes they have made, how they have finished the baseboards with quarter-round and changed the paint colors she and Peter picked and then spent hours applying, taping the ceilings and floors so carefully. And the house is Peter, and the house is Alexandra, and the house is Alexandra and Peter, but is no longer anything but a house in which other people live.
Alexandra is sad in the mornings and the evening. Sometimes she is sad in the afternoons but, usually, she keeps busy enough during her days to stop thinking so much, spending hours interviewing people, the ways they speak to her about their lives. Mrs. Roberts reciting her mother’s fudge recipe by heart. Mr. Anders singing “I’ll Walk Alone” for her when she said she’d never heard it. It was the song he and his wife first danced too. Then she forgets this little weight inside her chest, sitting like a stone on her heart. It is not so heavy anymore. If she goes home, she can cry and this is what she feels like she needs to do. To sit on her couch or her bed or her balcony. She is tired of these tears that still come so easily and she wonders what happened to enjoying her solitude and feeling as though she had made right decisions. Her life is unfamiliar to her now, unrecognizable, changed too much in one year, and she forgets that she is allowed to feel this sorrow, feels that it is too easy or she keeps wanting to excuse this sadness, apologize for still feeling as though she has lost herself and lost a life, that there is loss and loss and more loss, and that somehow this accumulation of loss ought to be resolvable and understandable. That she ought not desire these things she never really had, or desires the loss to be more comprehensible, palpable, like those missing thumbs, the empty space on the hands forever a reminder of what the boy didn’t have. She sits at the Roasting Company and she still feels disappointed when she checks her email. But she checks it far too frequently, knowing that the only messages she is likely to receive are those from people at work forwarding pictures of animals doing stupid things (often their own pets) and the automated emails announcing the arrival of her electronic bills. She wants to delete them, these emails, just as she wants to erase, eradicate this confusion. She wants to not want emails. She stopped wanting emails from Nick—this is not true. She feels as though technology is a bit of a betrayal for as much as it may keep you in communication, it also lets you know that no one is attempting to communicate with you. She desires a greater disconnectedness from the world in this particular way, a freedom from this wirelessness; perhaps like freedom from memory. If she were to lose this, would she know? Would it be cruel to reintroduce the ways to connect after their absence? She misses enjoying solitude, of sitting outside in the cooling night, appreciating the light changing over the mountains, the darkening blue, and just being there in that moment. But she is always waiting. She has stopped filling her time or is filling her time with herself, !215
enjoying her own company. Now, not entirely sure of what has shifted or changed, she keeps taking up her time with people and places and movies and things. She has gone to three movies in the last week. She needs to start leaving her cell phone home again or turned off, so she doesn’t keep looking at it in the pocket of her bag, seeing if, just by some chance, the red light is flashing. Alexandra turns her face from her bag, from her phone, from her computer in front of her and looks at the world. This is what she sees: a flourishing Japanese maple, a lamp with a globe like the moon, bright and low in the sky, a dullish yellow light, distant even five feet from her face. The small balding man, sipping his iced coffee, the dark bushy mustache, trimmed as carefully as possible, his sleeves rolled above his elbows, concentrated on the screen, his small eyes interested and intense. The sulfuric smell off of the lake, drifting over the planters and wood benches, the peonies and the mini carnations, the wrought iron willows and false hanging moon. She looks at her phone again. She really doesn’t know who she is expecting to call. The bright neon white of Scientology, backed by the red and green of Sizzler. Spirituality, faith in the science of man and steaks. The young man at the upstairs counter, thin in jeans, like a thing so far past, impossible to recapture, even with all the Neil Young songs in the world at her disposal. She has stopped reading the newspaper. She glances at the headlines, skims over the news about the continued insurgency in Iraq, the war protests scheduled to correspond with the President’s stop in her fine state, his first trip out of Texas since the start of his holiday. She doesn’t want to know what was happening in the world because she lives in the world and she feels responsible for this world and her place in it. The man upstairs taps his hands on his stomach and she admires the knobbiness of his fingers. She was always a woman for hands and arms. Peter’s hands were too small, delicate, the skin on the palms softer than any of the skin on her body. She thought of them as womanly hands, in the sense of Madame Bovary, hands pampered and preened, lotioned and gloved before bed. Not that Peter did any of these things, but it was as though he had. She always felt so rough next to that skin. She can’t stop looking at this man. Untrue. She looks away long enough to hope that he doesn’t catch her staring at him. She doesn’t quite know why she is staring at him. It isn’t as if she would talk to him should the opportunity present itself. Hasn’t she just been reconvincing herself of her desire for more time alone? But her looking at him !216
doesn’t have to do with him, exactly, or her either. It has something to do with the way the train sounds as it passes, on its way to the University. It has to do with the heavy sirens of an ambulance two blocks away on 2nd south, driving a woman experiencing respiratory failure up to the hospital where she will die, despite hours spent plying her body with drugs, and saline, and oxygen. She will die, she will die, she will die. But all this will not happen for hours yet and when it does, it will not matter, not to the woman, because once she is dead she has no ties to this earth. And so it is with James, the older brother, and her dead baby brother. And the soldiers in Iraq. And the children, and the suicide bombers, and the so-called fanatics who desire to die honorably. And all that matters is the way you see it. And you can’t see it. So the paramedics press, one, two, three, four, five, on the woman’s chest. And they breathe, one two, into her mouth, prolonging this time that isn’t quite living. And Alexandra sits outside the coffee shop, no longer hearing the sirens, just the low rumble of a truck’s diesel engine. And she looks and she looks and she looks.
CONSTANCE RENFROW The Things That Change Maggs is first into the truck after the baby shower. Her baby shower. Her third, and sure, the kid’s already a few months old, but I would’ve thought she’d want to stick around, spend some quality time or whatever with her little family. I’d wanted to make the eight o’clock bus back to the city—at worst, the 8:25—but Maggs dumped the kids on the husband and, taking me in one arm and her friend Ronan in the other, hollered something like, First night out in months, bitches! In the back, Maggs drums her hands against the front seat, like she still thinks a drive is an adventure. Like we did when we were seventeen. Dahlem, the guy I’m with these days, outpaces me, arms loaded with loose cans of beer that drip with ice water from the cooler on Maggs’s new porch, and grinning like this is the best thing anyone could ever leave Brooklyn to do. He’s into this kind of stuff, suburban decay. The ruined barns, the houses with the rusted-out cars on the lawn; where Maggs wants to go, the old bar near the orchard, we’ll pass plenty of them. She makes me clamber over her. The guys roll the beer into the passenger seatwell, except for the ones they toss us, the one Ronan pops as he turns the key in the ignition and rolls the truck over the thick jagged rocks of the driveway. Maggs woos. “That was the shit, right?” she says and props her legs against the seatback. “Everyone had fun.” I should give her another Fuck yeah! or Best baby shower ever! The things I said the first time around, in high school. If I asked him to, Dahlem could humor her. He’s a skinny kid, on one side or the other of thirty, and ravenous for lives that aren’t his. He can part his lips and pause his breath and really look at you, into you. Like, forget everything in the entire world—it’s your story, most of all, that’s worth listening to, and he wants to know you and everything that is your life that led him up to you. He’d make Maggs feel special, like he makes the bands feel special at our house parties, the performers at our basement open mics. Just a hint of how he looks at me would be enough for her. But instead it’s Ronan who says, “It was really good.” Simple agreement. Yes, Maggs, everything is perfect, Maggs. He’s been this way for years and years; he used to fetch her books from her locker and drive her to parties when she wanted to drink. Now he’s bigger and tougherlooking, with hair grown out past his shoulders and a beard he didn't !218
have back then, but apparently he’s handing out chips and Bagel Bites at her baby showers and is still driving her places to drink. “Well, it’s gonna pale in comparison to tonight. Orchard Bar, pool, shots, maybe when you’re loosened up some karaoke?” Maggs jabs her finger between my ribs, expecting me to yelp, probably—our old routine. She might do it to Jax now, her oldest kid. “I’m down for whatever,” Dahlem says. “Just so long as we make the last bus,” I say. “It leaves at midnight.” So what if there are one or two after? If we miss them, we’ll have to spend the night in Maggs’s spare bedroom, our old art class projects on the walls, and I’ll have to breathe the stagnant hovering air that even now, with the windows down and the truck going fifty, has me choking. Baby powder and stale weed and cow, and vaguely, maybe just a feeling of exhaust from the Turnpike. “Yeah, you’ve said. I get it.” Maggs kind of huffs. Her feet shudder against the bottom of the truck, but she raises her beer up high, “A toast!” Ronan follows her lead. “To old friends and new ones.” “And to a great night!” Maggs hollers. We touch our drinks together. Nothing clinks; the aluminum just indents, and when the truck swerves onto the shoulder, beer sloshes our fingers, drips onto the old cloth seats. A great night, or something. * She’d invited me on Facebook last week. Hey, I’m doing this thing. You better be there. The same way she told me about ragers in high school and house parties when I was in college and she wasn’t. And now, apparently, how I learned about courthouse weddings and birthday parties and after-the-fact baby showers. I ignored it. Easy to do with my housemates downstairs, recounting the night before—the impromptu wrestling on the sidewalks, the cops that broke it up. Outside, the subway rushed past on Brooklyn’s elevated tracks, a clanking echo of half-full cars headed to places with culture and shows and people and places to go. I stretched out onto the cool side of the air mattress that takes up most of the room I rent, for cheap—a segment of an attic in an arts collective of sorts. Closed my eyes against the sun streaming in, like every afternoon at that time—the brick of the wall warm against my hand. No money for curtains, no place to fit a dresser or desk. Just me and the little stuff I’ve kept with me—old textbooks and ragged clothes— and, on occasion, Dahlem. She messaged me again. !219
I don’t think there’s anyone left here to come. It jolted through me. I felt it in my heart. Not sarcastic, like Maggs always was, but changed, like fact. Like she was scared. It was enough, just then, to push me off the air mattress and down the two flights of stairs from my shitty room in the garret to Dahlem’s shitty room on the second floor. PBR cans lined the stairs, not all of them empty—leftover from what had started as an open mic. So many new faces come through the house, gone from it again, voices become a part of the walls. Lives transient, unfixed; no roots, no ties. Only the smell of cigarettes, weed, the impressions of words or dances or songs—it’s all that ever lingers in the mornings, with the promise that soon, again, tonight, tomorrow, always, we will be reborn. I knocked on Dahlem’s door. No answer, so I let myself in. He was sprawled in bed, passed out from whatever he drank, or maybe smoked, or took, before finally he brought the show to its end, close to dawn. He called them magnificent, the poets, the artists, and they were—he made them so. Asked everything from those who went up to perform, and for him, they always found something more with which to say, This—this!—is me. I crawled in next to him—his single bed too small for the both of us, but at least it doesn’t creak with the settling of plastic and air. I pressed myself into his back, my nose against the furrows of his spine. The ceiling so high above us, I whispered, “I need you to come home with me.” Dahlem rolled over, the push away before pressing me close. He touched my face. His voice doubled in the vibrations between us, as he said to me, only to me, “Anything for you.” * We’re halfway to the bar when Dahlem asks, “What’s that?” and Ronan brakes hard in the middle of the road. In the light of the sun setting behind the trees, just empty pastures and deer wandering the side of the pavement. Up ahead, the dead man’s curve, and I think maybe that’s where he’s looking. “What’s up?” Maggs gets as close as she can to standing in the cab and leans against the headrest. Her fingers near Dahlem’s neck, so close she could touch the fringes of his hair, tangle herself up in him. “All I see are trees. You know, like nature. They have that here.” All I see is Maggs, taking up space in the window. He says, half-laughing, “No, it’s in the trees. What is that?” When he points, I see what he sees: a tall building painted blue, back far in
the woods and boarded up. A sign hangs in faded innocence over one of the doors, telling nothing, to no one. “It’s just that old camp.” Ronan dangles his empty out the window, lets it fall. It rattles on the asphalt. “They abandoned it years ago.” I’d forgotten the old summer camp, where kids from the city got bussed to to spend a week in the countryside. I’d seen them, year after year, and pitied them for the way they looked so out of place here where everything sprawls. The bags they carried with their scant possessions. They weren’t used to all this space or all this air to breathe. I don’t know when it got shut down or how long it’s been a ruin. “That’s so fucking cool,” Dahlem says. Maggs says, “Want a closer look?” “We don’t have time,” I start, but Ronan makes the hard turn right, the sudden noise of the engine and gravel. The side road overrun with weeds and branches bent low. The force pushes Maggs into my lap. Her hair so fine, it drifts across my cheeks, and I feel the softness of her, familiar. She doesn’t get up when I try to get out from underneath. * People did come. A couple dozen at least—women just past middle age with smiles like bad theater. Family, maybe, or friends of Maggs’s mom. And too many of Maggs’s own group I knew, or had at least passed once or twice in the halls before we graduated. An ex or two. They told me they’re managers at the ski resort in town and that it’s changed so much since my time. They said they could hook me up, if I wanted to come back. Think about it, they said. I circled the room a few times, with nothing to do with my hands but drink, telling Maggs everything was great every time our routes overlapped. First with the baby in her arms, and then Jax on her hip, and then the middle kid, Alaska. Maggs and her husband swinging her between their legs. Laughing, all three of them. I’d had midterms when she was born; I texted, Congrats. Then there were the presents. Maggs sat with the baby stuck on her lap, and she beamed while the old aunts and the kids from school brought up toys and clothes and cardboard books like offerings. Mine at the bottom of the pile. A certificate to Spencer’s. Last time we made it to the mall, it was her favorite store. * Maggs slings her bag onto a castoff table in what must once have been the cafeteria—this one still upright, and surrounded with debris, as though someone before us had cleared away a space. She rummages in her backpack—the same one she had in school, or else it looks just like it. With her head down, I see the purple streak on the underside of !221
her hair. So she can hide it for work, I guess. Like the tattoos with the names of her kids, her husband, the bands we listened to back then. She mentioned during the shower what she’s doing now, but I don’t remember what she said. She grins at me, holds up a bottle of champagne from the party, and orange juice, open and not quite full. “We’re having mimosas,” she says. “Can’t we just make this fast?” Maggs picks at the foil wrapper. “It’s called pre-gaming. We can drink while your boyfriend looks around. Besides, where better to do it, right?” She points to the old bottles and soda cans, a condom wrapper; in the dying light, I make out a syringe on the floor. People do party here. “We’ve got time for one drink,” Ronan says, his arms crossed and solid. “The bar’s gonna be dead until later anyway.” Dahlem calls for me, so I groan, “Fine, one drink,” before crossing to the other side of the building, where I fold myself under his arm. He whispers, “I thought you could use a break.” He holds out his phone, the light from an app showing the wall’s bottom half colored blue, and up top the white, spraypainted with graffiti tags. Initials in block letters, wrapped in hearts, swooping lines that carry into so many names. Samantha was here; Jeremy; Amanda loves Steve. They bleed in to the words of the administrators—Clean up, Campers!—painted in thick black strokes, the murals on the walls, the multicolored handprints the city kids left in one corner. As though, with more years, more prints would have spread out and grown, surged across the cafeteria, but now they recede, bare and alone, a few together in the dark. Maggs opens the champagne. The muffled pop, and she whoops. I rest my head on Dahlem’s chest, warm against his flannel shirt. “I just want to get out of here.” He sighs and his collarbone knocks against my temple. “Yeah, but why? It’s got something, this place. Vernon.” And the name of my hometown grates at me, the way he says it. Like when a song you know by heart comes on and there’s another person there to hear it. A friend, a lover, your family. You can’t sing along—can only keep your face straight, a willful paralysis, because they’ll never hear it the way you do. They won’t understand, they can’t appreciate, they can’t know your history with the sound—how you’re entwined forever, to your very soul. You’re inextricable. All you can do is pretend not to feel. “You don’t understand,” I say to him and he says back, “I want to.” But he’s trying to read the words printed on a crumbling poster still tacked to the wall. Dream Big! just visible under the spatter of !222
spraypaint. His eyes are alive and starving; holding out his phone, his arm strains—I feel where the muscle just starts to indent after the swell. I know it from so many nights, when we’ve just given in to morning. “Hey lovebirds,” Maggs says, smacking first my shoulder, then Dahlem’s. In one hand, she balances two Solo cups; Ronan carries two more and hands one to me. Red for Ruby; her new daughter’s name, the party’s color scheme. Maggs doesn’t clink our cups or offer a cheers, but goes off toward the kitchen. She seems to take it as fact that we’re right behind her. She poured too much. With the orange juice, the champagne doesn’t taste as cheap—no worse than the free mimosa that comes with Sunday brunch. Dahlem makes a face. “Should she be drinking like this?” he asks. “I mean, is it safe for her kid?” I shrug. “Ask her. She’s the one who keeps having babies.” I knock back most of what’s in my cup. “Wouldn’t you be drinking too if you had to live like that?” Maggs trips over something. She curses. * I’d hovered back by the food table, where Maggs and her mom had spread pretzels and store-bought red velvet cake, red napkins and plastic cutlery. Across the room, Maggs used baby Ruby’s tiny limp hands to pull apart wrapping paper, holding up onesies in every color. People laughed. They thought it was cute. Maggs’s mom came up then, an unlit cigarette stuck between her fingers. She strewed a fistful of chips across her plate, into leftover mayo and ketchup. I stepped away, or tried to. “Haven’t seen you around in a while,” she said, her voice as gravelly as I remembered it, from those nights when the three of us watched movies together, a frozen pizza for dinner and stolen sips of whatever liquor had been cheap. “It’s good to see you,” she said, a moment too late, because I was already saying, “Glad to be back . . .” I turned to the pictures on the walls. Baby photos. Jax and Alaska, and Maggs holding Ruby in the hospital, the husband leaning over the bed. I didn’t see any signs their smiles weren’t genuine. I felt Maggs’s mom examining me—my hair slipping down from its knot, jeans torn at the knee, the bag with all my stuff still slung over my shoulder. “Still in New York then?” she asked, like my clothes were proof of the life I’d left there to lead; as if this were all I had to show for it. I just kind of made a noise in my throat.
“Shame,” she rasped, bringing her cigarette to her lips and feeling her pocket for her lighter. But Maggs laughed especially loud at something and her mom looked at the kids on the husband’s knee. She asked me, “Ever think you’re missing out?” Though she must have seen what I saw: gnarled old aunts cooing with Maggs over Walmart booties. My exes and Maggs’s with their new girlfriends—same group, new pairings. Probably she expected an answer. But Dahlem came over, looking for me—looking into me, his lips parted and smiling. And I slipped his hands inside mine and threaded our fingers together. He pulled me up tight against him, so close that I heard him breathe in. There came a burst of applause— something Ruby unwrapped or Maggs did—and when we turned to see, Maggs’s mom had just said, “Ah.” * I stumble out into the middle of the camp. The dark has risen fully now and Ronan gets the car engine running—not to leave, he says, when I start for it, but so the headlights can shine onto the path. They stare into the whitewashed sides of single-floor buildings, made to look rustic, but now the moss and graffiti look more natural, an end result, a reclamation. We can’t see the road from here. Maggs still nurses her mimosa, and ahead Dahlem peers between the slats of boarded-up windows. Ronan grabs another beer from the passenger seatwell and Maggs says, “Good call” and snags my sleeve. She pours the champagne into her cup and mine, draining the bottle between the two of us. I swallow maybe half of it down. All booze—no mixer left. “There’s an old car over here!” Dahlem calls. “Like a Jeep or something.” “Really?” Maggs yells, boisterous and so loud. “Does it still work?” She races after him, the plastic cup hanging from her fingertips. He says something about the hood being gone, rust, vandals. I slur, “Wait up” and Ronan, at least, does. “Classic Maggs.” He takes my arm, holds onto me. “The same,” I say. “She hasn’t changed at all.” “You haven’t either, you know,” he tells me. “You’re just like you were in school.” His keychain’s got a flashlight and he shines it at me— not at my body, not at my hair. At me. And in the edges of the beam I see the way he looks at me. Like Maggs’s mom had looked at me—just like Maggs, like the kids from school and the ones I dated. It says: You belong here. It says: You’ll always be one of us. I want to scream. Instead, I run, slipping over dead leaves and rusted-out cans of spray paint, to the old Jeep, to Dahlem. But Maggs wraps her arms !224
around my waist, and we stagger, long and out of step, down the stretch of pathway that had spoken to someone of promises and future and fun. We pass the cabins where the city kids slept. Small and white, ivy covered, blending with the dusk and lurking there. Dahlem takes photos through the windows. “You think I just keep making mistakes,” she says. “Don’t lie, you do.” I lurch but swig champagne. “What’re you talking about?” “My daughter.” She throws out the baby’s name. “You think three’s too many. You think all I do is fuck myself over. That’s why you’re being such a bitch.” “You’re drunk.” I don’t get mad—don’t yell or anything. I never used to, with Maggs. “You’re saying such stupid things. You’re not even a little bit right.” Because she isn’t. I don’t think those things, and I don't think Jax was a mistake or Alaska either, or the husband or the new house in the old town. I don’t think. I don’t. “I think you’re the one making mistakes.” Mean—she always used to get so mean when she got drunk. “Don’t you sleep on an air mattress? With, like, eighteen other people? How can you live like that —how can you date someone in that place? I mean, are you even happy?” And I think I could tell her how I want to go home. But she’d take me to my old house, where my family used to live. Or she’d have Ronan drive us to the bus. She’d say the city is two miserable hours from here but if that’s what I want I can go. She wouldn’t understand. She’d think I mean a place—somewhere she can take me to, or send me. Not how it felt staying up nights, talking on futons over cold pizza and her mom’s peach schnapps, and knowing—knowing—that this was where our lives started. We were supposed to leave, both of us. In those days, there was nowhere to go but away from here. Instead I drain the ruby-red plastic cup and drop it onto the grass that was once asphalt. It will stay here always and never decay—just red against the gathering, strangling green. “Yeah,” I say. I know she reads the lie in my eyes. “Yeah, I am. Are you?” “Yup.” It’s in hers too. And maybe, what I mean, no one but me can understand. The history intertwined on itself. What no one else can share. Not even old best friends. “Looks like we’ve reached the end.” Maggs nods to the last of the cabins, the road in front of us again—the county route we came down
on. Just past the turn that comes up out of nowhere. Caught up to it on our detour. Ahead of us somehow, Dahlem calls back, “There’s another one. I don’t think it’s part of the camp, though.” I let go of Maggs, go up to the lip of the asphalt, paved fresh here. I know without seeing it what caught Dahlem’s eye. “What’s with this place?” he asks, again at my side. As though not every small town has its rickety old buildings and broken-down barns. Because that’s what this is. A new barn wall in place of the old one, and this one has a hole the size of a car gaping in its side. Cinderblock and mortar, scattered across the grass. The same as the old one and the one before that and the one before that. As many times back as you can think. Where Jackson Pike didn’t brake in time our junior year. Where Amanda something crashed a few weeks ago—I’d read Maggs’s tribute on her Facebook page. Their wreaths long gone, their crosses fallen over. I glance back at Maggs and her mistakes; she doesn’t look at me and mine but into the darkness spilling out from the gap. Pooling into the woods and into us, the whole county black with its shadow. She raises her Solo cup of cheap champagne and nods to the hollow, the cement dust still swirling there. She drinks.
THE AUTHORS Bob Armstrong is a novelist, playwright and freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His comic novel, Dadolescence, was published in 2011 by Turnstone Press and his play Noble Savage, Savage Noble was published in 2004 by Playwrights Canada Press. Danny P. Barbare’s poetry recently appeared in Willard & Maple. Barbare attended Greenville Technical College and he lives with his family in the Upstate of the Carolinas. Joe Baumann has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Zone 3, ellipsis…, and many others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and is the founding editor / editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism. F.J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change (mobiusmagazine.com), and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. Work appears irregularly in Analog, Asimov's, Polu Texni, Pulp Literature, Silver Blade, and other places. A Catalogue of the Further Suns won the 2017 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook contest. Heath Brougher is a poetry co-editor of Into the Void Magazine (2017 Saboteur Award for Best Magazine). He has published three chapbooks, one full length collection, About Consciousness (Alien Buddha Press, 2017) and edited the anthology Luminous Echoes, the proceeds from which are donated the prevention of suicide/self harm. Brougher’s work has been translated for publication in Albania and Kosovo and has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Chiron Review, MiPOesias, Main Street Rag, Riprap, Blue Fifth Review, 48th Street Press, *82 Review, SLAB, BlazeVOX, and elsewhere. Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University; he has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Website:: www.kevinbrownwrites.com. !227
John F. Buckley’s publications include various poems, two chapbooks, Sky Sandwiches, and, with Martin Ott, Poets’ Guide to America and Yankee Broadcast Network. Buckley lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife. Website: johnfbuckley.net. Jan Chronister lives and writes in the woods near Maple, Wisconsin. Her chapbook, Target Practice, was published in 2009 at the University of Wisconsin. She currently serves as president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Ryan Clark, an Old Greer County (OK) native, writes much of his work through a unique method of homophonic translation. His poetry has most recently appeared in Panoply, Otoliths, Split Lip Magazine, Found Poetry Review, and Aufgabe. His first book, How I Pitched the First Curve, is forthcoming from Lit Fest Press, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Waldorf University. Samantha Curtin’s undergrad was in communication arts focusing on media production and minored in photography and English. In early May she hosted her second solo art show, See/Glass Fragments, that showcased her poetry and photography. One day she hopes to publish a book filled with her poetry and photos. She graduated from Salisbury University in May 2018. Website: www.samrosecurtin.com/ Darren Dillman is from New Mexico and he is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Western Sydney University in Australia. He earned an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University. He has published one novel, The Preacher (David C. Cook, 2009), and his short fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, the Tulane Review, The Laurel Review, George Washington Review, New Texas, Southwest American Literature, Consequence, the High Desert Journal, Prole, and Best of the West. Satch Dobrey has a B.A. in English from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and an M.A. in International Affairs from Washington University in St Louis. Recent poetry appears in Bluestem, Rampike, PØST-, Grey Borders Magazine, Painters and Poets and Blotterature. Fiction appears in Tribe Magazine and the Blue Fifth Review. Creative non-fiction forthcoming in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. The author currently works as a librarian/freelance writer.
Susan J. Erickson’s first full-length collection of poems, Lauren Bacall Shares a Limousine, won the Brick Road Poetry Prize. Susan lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she helped establish the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Walk and Contest. Her poems appear in Crab Creek Review, Literal Latte, The Fourth River, and The Tishman Review. Visit her website at susanjerickson.com where there is a link to view her book trailer. Mark F. Evans graduated from the U. of Central Oklahoma with both Bachelor's and Master's Degrees. In 2006, he retired from teaching in public schools after having also worked as an in-house editor and, later, a freelance writer for text book companies. Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA. Kevin Fitton is a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He is the author of a children’s book, Higher Ground, with Caldecott-winning artist, Mary Azarian. He has published short fiction in several literary magazines, including Limestone and Jabberwock. His short story, “Crashums,” was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and was published in the Broad River Review. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters. John Michael Flynn’s most recent collection of stories, Off To The Next Wherever, was published in 2016 by Fomite (www.fomitepress.com). Previous story collections are Dreaming Rodin (www.publerati.com), and Something Grand. Writing as Basil Rosa, he has published two novels with Jaffa Books of Australia. Find him on the web at www.basilrosa.com. Tyler Friend is (a) an apricot/human hybrid; (b) from Tennessee; (c) avoiding choosing a preferred pronoun. Alan Gann facilitates writing workshops for under-served youth at Texans Can Academy, and wrote DaVerse Works, Big Thought’s performance poetry curriculum. A multiple Pushcart and Best-of-theNet nominee, Alan’s has one book of poetry, Adventures of the Clumsy Juggler, published by Ink Brush Press. Journals that have published his work include Red Fez, Dragon Poet Review, San Pedro River Review, Main
Street Rag, Red River Review, and Cybersoleil. His nonexistent spare time is spent outdoors: biking, birding, and photographing dragonflies. Jack Granath is a librarian in Kansas. Jennifer Hambrick is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of Unscathed (NightBallet Press), nominated for the Ohioana Book Award. Her work has been published in dozens of literary journals, including Chiron Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Main Street Rag, the Santa Clara Review, the San Pedro River Review, and Modern Haiku; in the major Japanese newspapers The Asahi Shimbun and The Mainichi; and elsewhere. Her poetry has garnered numerous awards in international competitions and from Tokyo’s NHK World TV. Jennifer Hambrick’s blog, Inner Voices, is at jenniferhambrick.com. Michelle Hartman’s new book, The Lost Journal of My Second Trip to Purgatory, dealing with child abuse, was released in January 2018 from Old Seventy Creek Press. Her other books, Disenchanted and Disgruntled, and Irony and Irreverence were published by Lamar University Press. Hartman’s work has been featured in the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas and appears in many journals including, among others, Slipstream, Plainsongs, Poetry Quarterly, Raleigh Review, San Pedro River Review, Concho River Review and RiverSedge. She is editor of the online journal, Red River Review. Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies and, before retirement, served as a faculty member at SUNY Stony Brook, University of Michigan, and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine. He has published more than eighty works of fiction in journals such as Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), Long Story Short, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Mobius, Stockholm Review of Literature, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, and others. Louisa Howerow's poems have appeared in Red Earth Review, Nimrod International, and Queen's Quarterly. Her poetry has also been included in anthologies, most recently, I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems (Guernica Editions), Imaginarium 3 & 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications), Cider Press Review Best of, Volume 16, and River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century (Blue Light Press). !230
For many years Marc Janssen wanted to be a novelist. He started lots and lots of novels. His first real job after college was as a copywriter. Janssen wrote catalog ads, and spent his days describing the same wrench set hundreds of different ways. In that time he also learned that when it came to writing, he was a sprinter not a distance runner. Even now twenty and more years on, when he reads what he has written there is still a little of that catalog in there. Karen Karlitz's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in, among other venues, the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Broad River Review, Loch Raven Review, Ranfurly Review (Scotland), Short Fiction Break, Pink Panther Magazine, American Diversity, Report, Toasted Cheese Literary, Twisted Endings Magazine, and Prime Number Magazine. One of her stories won the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Award, and another was performed theatrically in Syracuse, NY. Her e-book, Baggage, which received favorable reviews, is available on Kindle. "The Ex Flies" is a self-contained excerpt from her unpublished novel, obit.com. Steve Klepetar's work has received several nominations for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, including four in 2016. Recent collections include My Son Writes a Report on the Warsaw Ghetto, The Li Bo Poems, Family Reunion, and A Landscape in Hell. Laurinda Lind teaches in northern New York. She is the 2018 winner of the Keats-Shelley Prize in adult poetry. Last year she won first place in the North Country Writers Festival, and second place in the New York State Fair Poetry Competition. Some publications/ acceptances are in Comstock Review, The Cortland Review, Ekphrasis, Main Street Rag, and Paterson Literary Review. Jeffrey H. MacLachlan has recent work in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, Minetta Review, among others. He teaches literature at Georgia College & State University. He can be followed on Twitter @jeffmack. Rachel Marstonâ€™s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Black Candies, Event, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, and other journals. She received her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint Johnâ€™s University in Minnesota. Devon Miller-Duggan has published poems in Rattle, Shenandoah, Margie, Christianity and Literature, and Gargoyle. Her books include !231
Pinning the Bird to the Wall (Tres Chicas Books, 2008), Neither Prayer, Nor Bird (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and Alphabet Year, (Wipf & Stock, 2017). She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Delaware. Hannah Meeske graduated from Hastings College with degrees in English, Spanish, and publishing, and she earned a certificate in publishing at Denver Publishing Institute. Her works have been published in Plainsongs, Art Cult Zone, and Oklahoma Gazette. Hannah lives in Chickasha, Oklahoma, with her fiancé and their cat, horses, and cattle. Luke Morgan studied English and Literature at Tarleton State University where he developed his love of poetry. As a student, his work was published in the Tarleton State University publication Anthology, and he was invited to read at the Langdon Review Weekend in Granbury, TX. Though his work has not been as prevalent in the years since his graduation in 2011, Luke Morgan has continued to quietly hone his craft. Cameron Morse taught and studied in China. Diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2014, he holds an M.F.A. from the University of Missouri—Kansas City and lives with his wife Lili and son Theodore in Blue Springs, Missouri. His poems have been or will be published in over 100 different magazines, including New Letters, Bridge Eight, South Dakota Review, I-70 Review and TYPO. His first collection, Fall Risk, is available from Glass Lyre Press. Alec Osthoff received his MFA from the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Easy Street, Midwestern Gothic, and as winner of the Blue Mesa Review Fiction Prize. He can be found on Twitter @alecOsthoff, or in Gainesville, Florida with his wife and two cats. Gus Palmer, Jr. has published one book, Telling Stories the Kiowa Way (2003) and he has also published poetry and fiction in anthologies and literary magazines. He is currently editing a volume of Native literature, When Dream Bear Sings: Native Literature of the Southern Plains, to be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2018. He is also working with his son on a documentary film on the life and art of N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa poet, writer and painter, for PBS’s American Masters, to be aired in 2018.
Lauro Palomba has taught ESL and done stints as a freelance journalist and speechwriter. Approximately sixty of his stories and poems have appeared in literary journals. Madelyn Parker was born and raised in Oklahoma. She is currently an editing intern at Mongrel Empire Press and will complete her BA in English at Oklahoma City University in May of 2019. Winston Plowes lives aboard his floating home in Calderdale, Northern England UK, which doubles as a home for lost and homeless books. He teaches creative writing to primary and University classes and local groups. His latest joint publication with Gaia Holmes, Tales from the Tachograph, was published by Calder Valley poetry in 2017. www.winstonplowes.co.uk Constance Renfrow's writing has appeared in such places as Mud Season Review, Litro, Petrichor Machine, Cabildo Quarterly, and Denim Skin. Her first book, Songs of My Selfie, an anthology of millennial fiction, was a 2016 IndieFAB finalist. She recently completed her MFA in fiction from Pacific University. Recent work by Bruce Robinson appears or is scheduled to appear in Yo-NewYork!, Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, enclave, Mobius, Split This Rock, Fourth River/Tributaries, Cleaver (Life as Activism), Panoply, Pangyrus, and South Florida Poetry Journal. He acknowledges the assistance of the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Key West Literary Workshops. Carol Smallwood returned to college to take creative writing classes and has founded humane societies. Her 2017 books include: In Hubble’s Shadow (Shanti Arts); Prisms, Particles, and Refractions (Finishing Line Press); Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction (Shanti Arts); Library Outreach to Writers and Poets: Interviews and Case Studies of Cooperation (McFarland). A semi-retired chemist, Michael G. Smith’s poetry has been published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, Nimrod, Sin Fronteras, and Superstition Review, among others. He published a chapbook, The Dark is Different in Reverse (Bitterzoet Press, 2013) and a full-length collection, No Small Things (Tres Chicas Books, 2014). He also published The Dippers Do Their Part, a haibun and katagami collaboration with visual artist Laura Young arising from a Shotpouch Cabin residency, (Miriam’s Well, 2015) and Flip Flop, a haiku collaboration with Miriam Sagan (Miriam’s Well, 2017). !233
Jill Talbot’s writing has appeared in Geist, Rattle, Poetry Is Dead, The Puritan, Matrix, subTerrain, The Tishman Review, The Cardiff Review, PRISM, Southword, and others . Jill won the PRISM Grouse Grind Lit Prize. She was shortlisted for the Matrix Lit POP Award for fiction and the Malahat Far Horizons Award for poetry. Jill lives on Gabriola Island, BC. Kelly Talbot has edited books and digital content for 20 years, previously as an in-house editor for John Wiley and Sons Publishing, Macmillan Publishing, and Pearson Education, and now as the head of Kelly Talbot Editing Services. His writing has appeared in dozens of magazines. He divides his time between Indianapolis, Indiana, and Timisoara, Romania. Taunja Thomson’s work has most recently appeared in Claudius Speaks and Pink Panther Magazine. Two of her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Awards: “Seahorse and Moon” in 2005 and “I Walked Out in January” in 2016. With Donelle Dreese, Karen George, and Nancy Jentsch she co-authored Frame and Mount the Sky, a chapbook of ekphrastic poetry, published in June 2017 by (Finishing Line Press). She resides in Kentucky with her husband and six cats, where she p r a c t i c e s g a r d e n i n g a n d b i r d - w a t c h i n g . A u t h o r ’s p a g e : www.facebook.com/TaunjaThomsonWriter/. Renae Tucker has published fiction in Sun & Sandstone and creative nonfiction in Steel Toe Review. She is currently a senior at Salisbury University majoring in English and minoring in Ethnic and Global Literature. Renae is the Managing Editor for The Scarab, Salisbury’s in-house literary magazine. Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Muse/A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She's also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Ron Wallace is an Oklahoma native of Scots-Irish, Choctaw, Cherokee and Osage descent. Wallace has published eight books of poetry; his most recent book, Renegade and Other Poems (TJMF, 2017), !234
won the 2018 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. He was also awarded the 2016 Songs of Eretz Poetry Review Prize. Recent publications include, among others, poems in Oklahoma Today, San PedroRiver Review, Red River Review, Oklahoma Poems and their Poets, Concho River Review, Oklahoma Humanities Magazine, and Poetry Bay. He teaches English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Cullen Whisenhunt is a graduate student with Oklahoma City University's Red Earth MFA program and a full-time Developmental English instructor at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Martin Willitts Jr is the winner of 2013 Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest; 2014 Broadsided award; 2014 Dylan Thomas International Poetry Award; and Rattle Ekphrastic Challenge Editorâ€™s Choice (June 2015). He has over 20 chapbooks including the winner of the Turtle Island Quarterly Editorâ€™s Choice Award, The Wire Fence Holding Back the World (Flowstone Press, 2017), plus 11 full-length collections including How to Be Silent (FutureCycle Press, 2016), Dylan Thomas and the Writing Shed (FutureCycle Press, 2017), and Three Ages of Women (Deerbrook Editions, 2017). Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University, the politics editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the author of five nonfiction books, including Train (Penguin Random House, 2014). His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The American Scholar, The Oxford American, Time, The Maine Review, Foreign Policy, Men's Health, Slate, Scientific American, Audubon, Sierra, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other places.
Red Earth Review is edited and produced by students in The Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing @ Oklahoma City University
Published on Aug 3, 2018
Red Earth Review is edited and produced by students in The Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing @ Oklahoma City University