When I first started taking over production from Sarah Kamlet, our original graphic designer (and a former fiction editor), I was a little lost. I had some graphic design experience, but nothing like Sarah’s—she’s a pro, and I’m sure there are signs in the first couple of issues I laid out, little things that aren’t quite as neat and beautiful. I tried hard, and I’ve learned a lot, and I think I’ve carried the flag well. It’s important to me that we present beautiful work beautifully, and I work hard to create a platform with every issue that seems appropriate to both season and content. But what I didn’t realize when Sarah was handling the layout was that putting everything together, the physical act of it, was perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience. Editing is such a protracted process; for months we read and discuss, and we pull pieces here or there from the piles. Sometimes we start discussing publishing timeline immediately, as with this issue, when suddenly we had a lot of great stories about bodies. The trends that pop up are interesting to watch, and this time, that was it: bodies and organs and health, so we began to divide the work. This piece for the spring, this one for summer, and then back into the pile to read and read more. It’s easy, then, to become disconnected. As the editor at the top of the list, I read so much. While I only lead fiction selections, I read poetry and creative nonfiction as well, just for my own edification, to keep the pulse of what we’re doing, and with all that reading, sometimes, things begin to run together. I forget the magic of a sentence or line after we’ve accepted something, because I’m wading back in to read more. But when production time rolls around, I’m forced to stop and look again at everything, though now it’s a whole. Order must be considered; the content should flow in some logical way, and everything has to be examined and explored in an attempt to apply some consistency in presentation. For a time, I’m elbow-deep in nothing but these wonderful pieces we’ve chosen, and it’s almost like experiencing the work for the first time all over again. They’re breathtaking. I found myself stopping to read Brynn Saito’s “How To Be Free” to my husband because I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I labored over Jennifer Perrine’s “Temperance | Gluttony” because I kept getting distracted by the precision of the lines. I had to re-set parts of Elissa Washuta’s “Toxic Megacolon and the Single Girl” three or four times, because a line would catch my eye and suddenly I’d be reading four paragraphs. A fortuitous page break sucked me back into Karen McElmurray’s “The Land Between.” I could go on, but the page is short, so this is just to say that I hope you experience something similar as you delve into the new issue. There is an irresistible pull here, I think, with this group of authors. Let them draw you in. Until the next, Alisha Karabinus Executive Editor
Super Mario Bros. 2 Brian Oliu Ask me about before. Ask me about the house that was not my house, the school that was not my school. Ask me about the trees, how they looked different once, how they changed with the seasons like tablecloths, like redecorating, like eyes from blue to green and skin from white to red. Ask me about layering: about putting one thing on top of the other like a building that we have never lived in, like a door where everything turns to shadow before the sun flares back out from behind black like a snake, like an extension of ourselves, like white knuckles. Before, there was a book. Before, there was no such thing as sleeping, no such thing as subconsciousness, no such thing as any of that: just pages that we read before bedtime, no, not before bedtime, this has nothing to do with sleep, this has nothing to do with any of that. What I remember is what I remember. What I love is what I love. Please don’t remind me of someone. You, with your slow dig. You, lighter than air if only for a moment. You remind me of someone I once knew, someone I remember from a dream—red hair, sharp chin. You remind me of the dark, of pulling grass up from the earth and hoping for coins, hoping for something that will make everything except you and I disappear, of hope, of hoping. I want your face to be your face and no one else’s. When you come to me, arms above your head, please don’t remind me of the girl in the book, don’t remind me of the waterfall, don’t remind me of long hair and the taking off of shoes, the castles made of bones, the way that I replaced her face with one that smiles when I ask it questions. Here, in the book that is not a dream, children are missing. This is what happens when you listen to the words that I am telling you. This is what happens when the letters form words, form sentences, form something that reminds you of you, of mud pits and snakes, of floating heads hungry for a key. Don’t ask why we need to go past that door. Don’t ask why it is locked. If you dig a hole, nothing happens. If you dig a hole, there are people in masks walking in between the lines in sand: they are swallowing mouthfuls. Ask them if they looked different, once, if their cloaks were pink instead of blue, if their faces were not masks, if they remember how it once was: how they existed, how you are not dreaming. Wake up. The only way to wake up is to kill the frog. Before we kill the frog, it is cold. It is cold but we cannot see our breath: we can walk on the backs of whales and the water will kill us, freeze us like a body caught in the bridge tresses, like being replaced, like a birthday ride in a hallowed out tree. The trees look different now. The trees look different now that they have been pulled from their ground, cut from their branches. Ask me about falling on the ice. Ask me about the blood pouring from my nose like a silk curtain, ask me about the other children and their masked faces, their changing eyes. If I were you, I could float out of here. If I were someone else, I could jump high enough. If I were someone else, I could dig with my hands through the snow, through weeks away from dying, through crystal. Give me a new hat, a red one. Give me a new face, one with eyes that blink, one where the blood slides right off like my feet on ice. Make me slick. Make me not think of 6
anything but how these hands could touch glass, about what was once you is now gone, resting comfortably in a book that is not mine, in a book that we would never read before bed, that we would never read to the children before bed in fear that they would wake in the middle of the night and they would find us half naked on the couch reading each otherâ€™s faces like a dream, like we are trying to remember where we are in the world and why there are no rockets hiding in the ground that can take us someplace a little less cold and a little more like a home that looks like a place we once knew: fountains and wooden tables: a place where there is nothing and nothing missed and everything looks fine. Everything looks as it should be. Everything. Ask me about the frog. Ask me about how we would never put anything in our mouths in fear that we would choke, that an egg would get caught in our mouth. Ask me if I remember you not breathing. Ask me if I remember you out of breath. In our dreams, we can run until we are floatingâ€”until our legs hover over the ice like our faces over a sleeping child, until we are frozen without movement. In words, you were never left without breath. In words we could never run.
Land of Dinosaurs William Garland You drive your undersized sedan and watch as its headlights curve in-and-out the mountainsides that seem to cut right into the highway. When morning traffic starts to pick up, you sit there staring out the windshield, trying to recall what the roads used to look like when you were a kid. All you really remember are the power lines covered in kudzu. You always imagined that they were dinosaurs, and that somehow, their leafy-green bodies were left over figures from some other world nobody ever really told us about. And if you could: you would jump out of the car and slink over there into those belly-high fields of kudzuâ€”then youâ€™d be able to disappear into a land of dinosaurs.
Strippers, Preachers, and the Lonesome Cabs of Eighteen-Wheelers Thereâ€™s not a lot to look at on the interstates of South Georgia. Roads are straight, and aside from the eighteen-wheelers carrying loads of nondescript goods down to Florida, there arenâ€™t many cars jockeying for your attention. The billboards are the only break from the streams of loblolly pines and desolate farmlands. And with the exception of the occasional promise of clean bathrooms ahead, even the billboards are lost in a competition between strippers and preachers, each just trying to get the occasional traveler to notice them. The road was never meant for you.
Whispered Relatives For Mother’s Day, we promised our mom we would do something special—we asked if we could take her out to Natalia’s. Our treat, we promised. She said no. Instead, she drove us into the country. Drove us to the places we never saw. The sun hung high as she filled us with tire swings, and had us dance with corpses, who never made good relatives. We teetered on rust-ridden railroad tracks that once took our teenaged grandmother to see her long dead husband. There was once a store that held a loft, filled with good stories. There was once a yard with a rope that broke Jim’s arm. There was a home where our mother’s feet still echo down hallways. Your roots—she whispered into a storm running through the empty field before us—these are them.
Toxic Megacolon and the Single Girl Elissa Washuta
On the third day of the National Association of Ostomates Convention, Leah stared at the patterned carpet in the conference room for the Single Ostomates program, trying not to fixate on the fact that nobody in the room had a colon. She took one of each of the pamphlets that the other single ostomates passed around the circle, even Sexuality for the Male Ostomate. When she handed a stack to the fish-faced man on her right, she tried not to be sick at the sight of the age spots on his scalp. These people were now her sexual prospects. Half the room looked over thirty. Leah guessed that three guys were around her age, but two of them were so gaunt and thin that they looked like they had just had surgery the week before and missed a blood transfusion, and the other one looked like he was really getting into the “dietary freedom” that is said to be on the other side of ostomy surgery. The introduction game was just beginning. Abe was going to the picnic and bringing apples, and Barb was going to the picnic and bringing beer. If the world were to end right now, Leah though, she wouldn’t have to think of something she would bring to this imaginary picnic where she would sit on the ground and eat apples and drink beer with these ugly people with shit-filled bags hanging off their guts. The picnic game was mean: apples and beer and crepes and donuts were just words, not foods anymore, unless Leah wanted more tiny holes punched in her guts. She excused herself and walked toward the elevator. Her cell phone told her that she had missed three calls from her mother. “There you are!” Pamela said when she answered. “Here I am,” Leah said. “How are you?” “Naked,” she shouted into the phone, as though Leah were an old person. Leah would have vomited in her mouth if she were an eater and if she weren’t used to her mother trying to be her bestie in a gross way. As soon as she and her mother went separate ways when the conference began on Monday, Pamela drove two hours to Sandy Hook so she could sprawl out on the nude beach and work on getting skin cancer, just like old times, before she divorced her husband and left New York with her daughter. The convention brought Leah and Pamela back to Westchester County, where a quick a MetroNorth ride to Manhattan could carry a person out of the suburbs and into a city that Pamela promised was packed with super arty galleries populated by men in expensive neckerchiefs, towers chock full of very wealthy men who were looking to wife up, and stallion-strong busboys with dreams and strong-jawed headshots. The glittering city had it all. Pamela’s townhouse in Pennsyltucky wasn’t even within fifteen minutes of a grocery store. “I wanted to tell you I’m not going in the city with you tonight,” Leah said. Pamela had plans for dinner, drinks, and dancing. She had spent an hour in the morning picking 11
out their outfits and makeup. She kept dotting eyeshadow on Leah’s lids, insisting it was important to test the colors until she found the perfect one so that Leah would look so gorgeous that she would snag a man and he wouldn’t even care that under her tight-ass jeans was an ugly beige shit pouch glued to the end of her small intestine, which had been made into a bump-hole placed below her belly button and off to the side, glistening like the inside of her mouth, bright red and wet with mucous. Pamela yanked on Leah’s eyelid. “What’s so important you can’t have a night on the town with your mom? Your poor mom who never gets to shake her ass and show her stuff?” “I have a date. I’m having drinks with somebody. With a guy, I mean.” The plan was for him to knock on her hotel room door, and she would let him in, and then they were supposed to decide what they were going to do for the evening—“It’s whatever,” he had said. She had met him at the lobby bar during the lunch break between sessions the day before, drinking Cosmopolitans and feeling glamorous, avoiding the treacherous barbs of solid food. Two drinks in, she put her hand on this cute stranger’s thigh, even though he was an ostomate, and invited him to stop by the next evening, while Pamela was out finding dick. She was the expert and Leah, who hadn’t had sex since before the surgery, was inept. Leah was terrified to even kiss regular men who would freak out if their hands were to wander south and find the hand-sized pouch full of shit under her string bikini undies. Pamela’s reasoning was that Leah could find a man at the convention because she would have more luck with people like her, men with stomas that would press against Leah’s pelvis just as hers would press into theirs, and nobody would complain. The pamphlets all said that although your ostomy surgery may cause you to lose desire for sex, and the ostomy surgery can result in a changed body image, causing lowered self-esteem and interference with sexy feelings, after a while, your sexual feelings will return to normal. Leah would barely look at her stoma. She wished she could shower with her clothes on. Pamela squealed from the beach, “Ohmigod. Cute? I knew this would work. But can he support you? Don’t waste your time if he won’t support you.” Pamela hadn’t been in a serious relationship since she left Leah’s father. The marriage had been shaky for a few years, ever since Robert started raising ponies up in Rockland. He would spend whole weekends there, doing the things people do to get the ponies’ coats shiny and their eyes happy. Pamela seemed to assume that Leah hated him as much as she did. Leah decided not to let the phone conversation turn toward the subject of husbandseeking because she had heard enough during the car ride to the conference, and in the hotel, and over dinner. “I’m getting in the elevator. I’ll talk to you later. Losing service. Bye.” “Can I get a rain check? Will you come to Gunnison with me tomorrow? Oh, it’ll be so good for you, some sun, some water, and your body image—” “Hanging up now.” Pamela had gone to Gunnison Beach most summer weekends for two decades before moving out into the country. She looked like a saddle, and her skin was ruined for good. Robert told Leah that he hated that Pamela would spend sunup to sundown, and 12 Washuta
after, sprawled out on a public nude beach, one of the biggest on the east coast, with her cooter out for everyone to ogle. As a girl Leah was afraid of the beach because Robert told her that it took so long for Pamela to get there and back because she had to go under the ground, halfway to hell, and fight off the devil when she wanted to leave. Some nights, Pamela never returned, and Leah’s body cringed all night against her Little Mermaid sheets as she worried that her mother had lost the fight and gotten sucked down to hell for good. If Leah was afraid enough, she would pad into the master bedroom to sleep in her mother’s place. Robert would sing show tunes until her heart rate slowed. He wasn’t a good singer, and he and Pamela had separate quilts to wrap around their bodies during the night, but Leah knew that to find a man and to settle into him was not such a bad thing and not something to be tossed away, even if he weren’t anyone’s dream man. Leah slumped against the mirrored elevator wall as it sucked her skyward. When she reached her room, she wanted to collapse face-first into the bed and let the sheets smother her, but she could imagine her pouch popping like a balloon, so she emptied the free pencils and pamphlets from her tote bag onto the bed and shut herself in the bathroom. In the two months since the operation, she had learned to take care of her pouch without looking at her ugly stoma. If the earth were sucked up into a vortex in space at that moment, she thought, she wouldn’t have to take care of this. She emptied her pouch in the toilet and washed her hands for at least two minutes with squirt after squirt of soap. The mirror over the sink was wall-wide, too big to ignore, but she tried to because whatever she saw would be disappointing. Her deep-set eyes with lashes that curled all by themselves, the twin wings of her collarbone under her shirt unbuttoned to her sternum (but not low enough to reach the top of her twelve-inch vertical scar), and her delicate wrists were not angelic enough to cancel out the devil-red outcropping from her waist, the tip of the iceberg that was her mangled guts. She hopped onto the bed and stretched her limbs out as far as they would go. When she reached for the remote, she found a floral-print paper bag under it. She pulled out a sateen pouch cover, round and saucer-sized, embellished with concentric circles of red lace. These were mentioned in Living With Your Ostomy!, which explained that they could enhance intimacy if an ostomate does not wish for her partner to see her pouch. The cover was supposed to slip right over the pouch and hide the stoma and the ugly beige—or even worse, transparent—bag that would kill even the most rabid horniness. Pamela had tucked a note inside. It’s kind of like sexy underwear, she wrote. She punctuated the thought with a smiley face and too many XOXO’s to be convincing, because Leah knew that Pamela couldn’t really love her that much. She turned on the TV and flipped through her pamphlets. Here was one about Appliance Options. One-piece or two-piece? Closed or drainable? What kind of skin barrier? Leah was sure that whoever wrote this didn’t have an ostomy because he believed that these new systems are easy to use and can dramatically improve your quality of life. She was familiar with these pamphlets that pretended that ostomies came out of nowhere and omitted all discussion of bodies rejecting intestines. Leah crumpled the pamphlet and threw it on the floor for the maid to pick up, thinking thoughts that exceeded what she Washuta 13
knew to be normal and should be shared with a friend, family member, or clergyman, but she had no friends and no reason to go into a church and might as well have been without family. The elderly ostomates had it easy, she thought, because most of them already had spouses who had learned to love them despite papery skin, soft flab, strange smells, and bald patches. She had dozens more pamphlets at the townhouse. She had been trying to cram her head full of information since the surgery, when she still wanted to be a scientist. She was on the last fifteen credits of her Biology degree at Penn State when she had to withdraw from school because her large intestine was so diseased that it could have killed her if it weren’t removed. After leaving the hospital, she reread her battered parasitology textbook and tried to re-memorize one fact per day, along with one dictionary definition. Pamela said it wasn’t such a good idea to go back to school yet and bought her a book about an independent, stylish, highlysexed woman. She looked through her pile for a pamphlet that would agree with her belief that after ostomy surgery, there is nothing left to live for, but most were like the one depicting old people holding hands on the beach and promising that the variety of appliance options would allow Leah to lead a happy, normal life full of exercise, swimming, sex, mountain-climbing, offroading, camping, sunbathing, and travel. She considered Pamela’s request that she venture to the nude beach on Thursday, if only to get out of sitting in on any more programs. On the schedule for this afternoon were Young Adult and Teen Rap, Pouching and Irrigation, Basics of Continent Fecal Diversions, and Scar Tissue. She didn’t need those programs, which had everything to do with after, but nothing to do with before the successful ostomy that makes life perfect again. They had nothing to do with bodies weakened by toxic megacolon, which is exactly what it sounds like. The episode batters the body enough to require intravenous feeding and medicating, close monitoring, and ultimately, emergency surgery to remove all or most of the large intestine. The program lecturers were silent on the effects complications can have on life after. If she were to spend Thursday at the beach instead of the hotel, it would be because she wanted to take off all her clothes and discover that the skin on her waist was never cut, the snaking guts underneath were never chopped, and she was so perfect that when she absorbed all the radiation of the blinding sunlight, she became a goddess. She imagined a place where every body was accepted—fat bodies, skinny bodies, big dicks and little ones, old breasts and brand new ones, surgical scars, pubes—and everyone admired her courage for baring herself. But she did not really have that much courage, and in reality, if she were to go, she would hide her skin. She wriggled under the tucked-in, taut comforter and flattened her body against the bed. She protected her pouch from being crushed by lying spine-down, belly-up, as she had done the summer before in her uncle’s backyard, half-naked, trying to get brown so she could go out and get noticed. She figured that her belly would now be winter-white forever. She slept through sunset. When the guy knocked on her door and woke her up, the room was dark except for the TV light, and it could have been tomorrow or the end of time, but the clock said ten p.m. She had morning breath and her outfit didn’t flatter, but she knew he wouldn’t notice anyway because he just wanted to bone her. 14 Washuta
She watched him through the peephole as he tossed the hair out of his eyes. She stood with her fingertips against the door and did not plan to move until she could remember the point of this. His name was Mike and he was probably her age. Leah was sober and he was not very attractive, but she had a bag glued to her waist for the purpose of collecting shit, and she had not had sex in four months, and her hymen was practically growing back, so she tried to think happy thoughts. That was useless. She imagined his tongue in her mouth, protruding from between his lips, glistening, wet, and rosy like a stoma. Intercourse will not harm the ostomy nor will most positions disturb the pouch, and your lovableness and self-worth do not depend on a body part. She wanted to feel the hard contours of his pelvic bone, because she hadn’t seen one for so long, but even if his groin had had the marble-hard cut of a Greek god’s statue, he still had a pouch. She pulled her fingers away from the door and shuffled to the bed, ready for nightmare visions of his naked torso, blemished by a stoma even danker than her own, but not ready to see the real thing. She lay on her side on the bed and he knocked again. There was no need to lie still and breathe quietly, pretending not to be there, because the locked door that separated them made him seem so removed from her world that he didn’t exist. She watched the real-life murder mystery and turned up the volume so that if he called her name, she wouldn’t hear it, because to hear her name generated by those vocal cords like bass strings would undo her, and she would slink back to the door to let him come inside and take her. But all she heard were footsteps in the hallway every now and then, and some of them must have been his, because he didn’t knock again. The experts were close to finding a suspect. The medical examiner had some clues, and the cops were hot on the trail of some gang members with priors. In the darkened room, the screen’s images turned into bluish light covering every wall, and the bodies on screen turned from light into real figures pressing against the walls and disappearing, then returning, dark and light in some off-rhythm pattern punctuated by dramatized dialogue and mood music. Leah dozed off before the case was closed. Her sleep worked its cycle around the flashes. At eight the next morning, Pamela pounded on the door. “Beach time! Beach time! Do you have your suit? Just kidding!” Leah had two options: to go to the beach or to go to the conference. She couldn’t stay in bed. If she didn’t join her mother at the beach, Pamela would come home tipsy and annoyed that she and Leah never hung out anymore, and would demand to know what Leah learned and what networking she did and whether she hooked up with anyone. Leah couldn’t imagine going back down to the conference and seeing Mike’s face again. With her face in the down pillow and her body a horizontal plank against the mattress, she couldn’t feel or see herself enough to pass judgment. Then she shifted. Her nerves woke up and reminded her that her digestive tract had been dismembered, its pieces tossed off Osiris-like. Even if she tried to gather them all up and put herself back together, pieces would be missing. If she were to go to the beach, she expected that Pamela would nag her to get naked, Washuta 15
and she would refuse, and they would probably have a public argument. But there was something to this idea of needing to be forced to do something without having the freedom to make the decision, like the way Leah prayed for good fortune during spin-the-bottle in middle school because she was too scared to initiate kisses, or the way Pamela forced her to sign away her internal organs because Leah didn’t have it in her to take responsibility for her mutilation. She wanted to go to the beach, just a little, back to where she and Robert dug out moats around upside-down buckets poorly imitating sand castles one summer. She imagined that in the burning light, everyone got along, because they were drunk and heatstricken and didn’t care so much. So, since she couldn’t go downstairs, and since there was something about the beach that made a feeling rise up in her stomach, she left on the jeans and t-shirt she had worn the day before and didn’t bother to say a word as she followed Pamela to the car. Her mother charged through the lobby like a lightning bolt, brown skin and yellow hair and pink muumuu generating an electric aura that could shock anybody stupid enough to get close. Pamela let Leah sleep in the car until they reached Sandy Hook. Then she batted her hand against Leah’s shoulder like a flipper. “Baby! Baby, can you smell that salt water? It’s like you were never gone!” Leah had never been to Gunnison, but the family went “down the shore” together once in a while when she was young enough not to hate the sight of herself in a swimsuit. For her junior prom, she and her friends rented a room in Seaside Heights and her boyfriend of three weeks nested his head in her taffeta skirts and offered her the first sexual experience of her life before he ran to the bathroom to puke. She sat lock-muscled on the bed, next to her blacked-out best friend who was being done by the sophomore date she had brought. Leah told herself years later that she was too naïve to know that she wasn’t supposed to let that happen. She had been focused on her disappointment that the sex act Cosmo had told her was the Holy Grail failed to bring up even a stirring. Seaside, a resort community with a boardwalk that showed up on MTV, was crowded all the time, and with its bars and roller coasters, it barely resembled Sandy Hook. Seaside was hyperactive, but the Hook’s sand had almost nothing piled onto it, just a road and a handful of buildings and the people and cars that crawled over it but barely changed anything. When the car moved onto the peninsula, into National Park land, she could see nothing but sun. Pamela pulled up to the guard station, avoiding the ranger she said was a douchebag, and said the password: “Lot M, bayside.” The ranger waved her through without taking the ten dollar parking fee. The car accelerated. They passed a few incidental buildings before reaching the North end and parking in a lot that lay at the feet of one of the buildings that made up the defunct Fort Hancock. As a child, Leah was afraid of the Hook because her father had told her that the army used to test their weapons there, from cannons to Nike missiles—there were still a few of those on the Hook—but now the only buildings put to any use were those that tourists filed through. Leah and Pamela hauled a cooler and a bag of beach things through the parking lot, down the road, past Gunnison Battery, past the concrete block of bathrooms and a refreshment stand, and down a skinny string of wooden planks before they hit beach. Her 16 Washuta
sneakers sunk into the sand heels-first. Walking with any speed was impossible. “I can’t believe you wore those shoes,” Pamela said. “And those jeans. And that shirt.” She pointed to the “Nude sunbathers may be present past this point” sign. “The key word is ‘may,’” Leah said. “They don’t have to be nude. Not necessarily.” “Why come to the beach with clothes on?” “I’m just saying.” Pennants on tall poles flew above a clot of umbrellas, bright towels, coolers, windscreens, and permanently baked skin. The sunbathers were set apart from the pale world, like a massive family on the top of Mount Olympus, and this congregation of blatant nakedness could only be reached via one public access road. Leah kept her eyes down. If she looked up she would see dozens of penises and as many vulvas. She didn’t know what to do: she was afraid to appear to be ogling, but she had to stop looking down in shame, so she raised her head and tried to look everywhere at once. She saw short penises ranging from little nubs to one larger flaccid than the average erection; mix-and-match breast roundness and perkiness and nipple size; balls of all kinds. Leah supposed that these people were confident and liberated, but not any more than a fairly normal college student: she had experience in skinnydipping and pantsless parties and postgame group showers. If her body were intact, baring it would require little courage. But she couldn’t imagine ever being brave enough to let a stoma see sunlight. When Pamela stripped out of her muumuu, Leah fixated on the cooler beside her. She had seen her mother naked before, but there was so much sun at the beach, and nothing could prepare her for breasts swinging near her face when Pamela bent over the cooler to pull out two dripping boxes of wine. Gunnison was the only Sandy Hook beach where getting sloshed was allowed. Someone decided that the naked people could do what they wanted as long as they stayed away from the covered-up people being singed by the same ultraviolet rays expanses of shore away. The miniature wine boxes reminded Leah of the juice boxes Pamela had packed a decade earlier in brown bags with bagel sandwiches and Oreos, but the little wine boxes had no sippy straws and no satisfying corn syrup jolt. Pamela filled her mouth with wine, gulped, and said, “Aren’t you going to get nude?” “Not at all.” Leah opened her box’s spout and took in three swallowfuls before feeling ready to retch. “Oh, come on, don’t be a prude. If everyone else can have the balls to, you can.” Pamela began rubbing SPF 2 sunscreen on her arms. She grinned at Leah’s skyward-tilted wine box. “Chug! Chug! Chug!” “Do you have an SPF higher than that I can use?” “Aren’t you going to take off your shoes at least? God.” Pamela threw the sunscreen toward her and ran off to hug all the old regulars she hadn’t seen since the day before. Leah lay on her side in the sand, drank from her wine box, ignored the grains slipping into her waistband and socks, and fell asleep on the surface of the sun.
Heat exhaustion felt like morphine, stupefying and nauseating. Leah sat next to her mother under the shade of someone’s enormous green umbrella, feeling like an ant under a toadstool. She felt burnt through to the bones. Months before, when she was in the hospital, morphine was fed into her veins, making her want to throw up all the nothing in her stomach all the time. It pulled enough clarity out of her that she didn’t have to understand that she had lost pints of blood and passed out in front of the toilet in her apartment, wearing two sweatshirts and three pairs of socks. She had drifted far enough from lucidity to sign some form without reading the pamphlet Pamela thrust into her lap. Pamela never looked so much like a mother as she did when she took command in the hospital. She challenged the doctors’ recommendations until they convinced her that there was no other way, hunted down nurses when Leah’s pain rose and needed to be beaten back, and kept vigil long after Robert returned to New York to play with his ponies. Leah’s body was in revolt, stinging on the side that faced the sky while she napped, and every organ she had left threatened to dry out and shrivel up. Her left arm was flushed from the hem of her t-shirt sleeve downward, and the stinging spread like a rash up the left side of her neck to her cheek and ear. Even though the skin sheathed in cotton had been made only slightly pinker, the radiation had reached right through the layers of fabric, skin, fat, and muscle to make her bone marrow boil. She fed her insides with warm water from a bottle the size of her thigh while Pamela sipped a cocktail and chatted with regulars who had traded their human skins for the speckled hides of ponies. “I don’t know why she won’t at least show a little skin,” Pamela was saying. “Leah. Fran wants to know why you’re wearing a full three-piece suit over here.” Leah shrugged and kept gulping. “Just take off your shirt. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Pamela said, jabbing her finger at Leah’s arm. “You have to show off what you got. Look at what a little hottie you are. Show it off!” “Please don’t poke my sunburn,” Leah said. The man sitting in the chair next to Leah pinched her bra strap. “You’re mom’s right, you’ve got a nice little body, you’ve got to show off your nice little body. What are you, thirty-six B? I’ll bet you’re thirty-six B, maybe a little on the bigger side of B, between a B and a C?” Leah pulled her shoulder away from him. The elastic slipped out of his fingers. Pamela reached across Leah’s chest and slapped his hand lightly with the soft part of her palm, avoiding allowing her French tips to meet his skin. “Stop it.” “And tell me if I’m right, do you wear your bra on the last hook? You’ve got a ribcage on you.” “Brady. Leave us alone.” Pamela gave him a threatening glare. He shrugged, downed the rest of his beer, and left for the water. “What the fuck?” Leah said. “Who are these friends of yours? You let people talk to me like that?” She felt as though she had been x-rayed, as though there were no point to covering her skin because he saw right through to it. She hid herself behind crossed arms, but they didn’t really cover anything. “He was just being funny. Honey, listen to me, you’ve got to flaunt what you’ve got 18 Washuta
left. Plus, you’re being weird. Everyone probably thinks you’re weird.” Leah wanted to know what Pamela was hoping to get out of this, why she was treating Leah like a party in an arranged marriage, or a child beauty queen, or a body to be trafficked. “Nobody says I have to be nude. Not everyone here is nude.” Leah pointed to a woman in bikini bottoms, then to an obese man in a t-shirt and no pants. “This is a nude beach.” “This is a clothing-optional beach, not a nude beach.” “You say potato,” Pamela said. She looked away quickly. “What does Mom know, anyway?” “God.” Pamela might not have known much, but she knew about sex, and Leah was headed for Spinsterville, where she knew she would rot in the enclave for the deformed until even her pretty parts would turn ugly. But she still couldn’t show off to the men who couldn’t see their dicks peeking out from under their beer guts, and the grandpas, and all the other men she would have to begin seeing as marriage material. Pamela began to pull up on the back of Leah’s tee, only enough to encourage without exposing anything. Leah swatted at Pamela’s hand and stared at the sand so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact. No matter how perfect her breasts were, no matter that they were the trump card she knew she could pull when her pretty face wasn’t enough to balance out the atrocity committed against her body, she could not bare her white torso to the light and show everyone that she was split in two by the scar that stretched from sternum to pelvis. “You are effing ridiculous,” Pamela said. “Sometimes it’s like you’re not even mine.” “Yeah, who would’ve thought you’d pop out a baby who grew up not wanting to show her tits to a thousand strangers. Who never learned to use her tits to catch a husband she’d throw away when she got bored of him so she could fuck around.” “Asshole,” Pamela said, “I’m just trying to help.” “Your help is not helpful.” Pamela grabbed her bag and ran down the beach, her ankles bending and heels sinking in the shifting sand. The rest of the group had abandoned their patch of land in favor of the ocean. Now Leah was alone among their towels and empty chairs, all shaded by two umbrellas like cupped hands. Leah watched Pamela wrap her arm around the shoulders of a man with nice arms and just a little bit of a belly. When Pamela shifted her weight onto her right foot to scratch her left ankle, she lost her balance and swayed like a prom queen after three vodka shots. She grinned at all the gratification just up ahead the way Leah did five years earlier, the night after prom, when she walked the Seaside boardwalk after making out on the beach till she had no saliva left, one hand gripping her boyfriend’s big fingers and the other clutching a Gatorade bottle full of rum, eyes fixed on the hotel lights that promised some kind of ecstasy that had to be better than anything she’d ever known. Leah knew that Pamela had not gone to her senior prom, not because she knew anything about Pamela, but because she had seen the dates on the spines of her four high school yearbooks—’81, ’82, ’83, ’84—and she knew Pamela was busy bringing a daughter Washuta 19
into the world in May of 1984. Leah did not know her creation story but she could guess, she could do the math, subtract her age from Pamela’s and Pamela’s from Robert’s and figure out the timeline. Robert was born in 1959, when everything was Cold War and Space Program; Pamela in 1967, a date Leah’s history textbooks never dropped without coupling it with words about war; 1984 was all new wave and Reagan and Leah. Eightyfour minus sixty-seven, eighty-four minus fifty-nine. She wasn’t sure whether to think of it as romantic or predatory. These numbers meant to her that cutting Pamela a little slack was the charitable thing to do, because her girlhood was cut off at seventeen and she was still getting it out of her system at thirty-nine, because she brought Leah into the world when she didn’t really have to. Leah rummaged around in her mother’s bag and pulled out The Doctor’s Surprise Bride, a Harlequin Romance paperback with water-warped pages. Even though she felt too nauseous and lightheaded to read, she opened the book and stared into it so she wouldn’t have to look anywhere else. The sun was slung low in the sky and sunbathers were beginning to pack up and begin the long walk back toward pavement. Leah was trying to sleep, or had been sleeping, when Brady returned to sit in the beach chair next to hers. Leah tried not to let him see her looking at his distracting facial mole and the hairy legs that spilled out of the chair. “Whatcha reading?” he asked, and pushed the book’s cover upward so that he could read it. “Bodice-ripper?” “I guess.” Leah resumed pretending to read. “What’s it about?” “I guess a surprise bride.” He pinched at the fabric of her t-shirt where it met her jeans. “Your mom told me why you won’t get naked.” “Oh,” Leah said, and turned the page. “I respect that. I do. I think she should stop bugging you. I mean, this is a nude beach but there’s no rule saying.” She looked up. He was middle-aged and not very attractive, but not repulsive either. “Cool, thanks.” “But that doesn’t mean you can’t get wet.” Brady stood and offered Leah his hand. “What?” She gripped her book and bent the spine back until it cracked. “I haven’t seen you get in the water all day.” He tucked his hands under her arms and hoisted her up. She tried to resist but her whole torso was in his hands. Once she was on her feet, he led her toward the water. “My jeans will get wet.” She tried to turn into dead weight and stay where she was, close to the cheerful towels and the cooler full of warm water, as though she were lost in a department store and had to stay in one place so her mother would find her. She expected the ocean to be a horizontal line disturbed only by occasional boats and incidental waves, but off to the left, not so far away, a chunk of Lower Manhattan was lodged between ocean and hazy air. Suddenly the Hook was sucked back into the world, susceptible to invasion not only by way of the single public access road but through the open waters that extended beyond Leah’s peripheral vision. Gunnison was no longer 20 Washuta
an insular strip of paradise but a finger gesturing toward Manhattan’s open hand, close enough that the fingertips could touch in a million years when the continents would shift just the right way, if the world wouldn’t end first. She predicted that if everything were to explode—if Indian Point melted down all over posh Westchester McMansions and maybe even all the way out to Rockland pony farms, and if everyone burst out of Sing Sing and set fire to the river—these clean beaches might be a refuge for a little while. A few survivors, bare and sun-toasted, would hang out on this six-mile-long, pencil-thin pile of sand. They could watch the city fall. Then they could be plowed over by the waves. Leah knew that even before the spread of radiation, everyone would be fucked. They were already trapped in toxic bodies. Even the sun wanted to commit mass murder. If the world were to end—murderously or calmly, it didn’t matter—everyone would be better off. Pamela could stop diving vagina-first into a place where divorce and middle age and an elasticizing body were irrelevant. Robert wouldn’t have to close himself in a barn and pick stray hairs from a pony’s hide until the coat was closer to assembly-line than nature. Leah could quit the thoughts of suicide if the earth would just beat her to it, and then she would go to heaven, where all her organs would return and angel wings would sprout from her back. Brady’s doomed white ass disappeared into splashing water. She stepped into the water, and then he grabbed her hand and jerked her toward him, against the waves. He put his hands in her soaked back pockets and said, “I bet you’re gorgeous under all those clothes.” She had to pretend she didn’t hear it. If she were to submerge her whole head she wouldn’t have to hear, and without a fish’s uncomplicated body and feathery gills, she could fill up with water and disappear before the apocalypse hit. His curly hair smelled as though it were made of the skin it sprouted from. Leah breathed through her mouth and turned to face the beach. “Hey,” Brady said, “I’m over here. Hey. This way.” “No, I’m looking for my mother.” From the water, all the dark bodies looked the same. Umbrellas obscured heads. The crowd had thinned and Pamela was not in sight. “Your mother left you.” “She did not.” “Yes she did, she asked me to take you to where you’re staying. Briarcliff Manor, right? Westchester? It’s only a little out of my way.” “Where did she go?” The feeling of being a little girl lost in a department store returned but there were no mall cops or info-desk attendants to save her. She began pushing back toward the shore, but Brady detained her. “I wouldn’t worry about it. She looked like she’s in good hands.” He smiled to expose a jaw crowded with teeth, a few of them chipped to sharp angles, resembling the however-many-thousand teeth Leah had learned a shark could grow and shed in a lifetime to keep the set sharp so that prey could be held with the lower and flesh could be cut with the upper. “She’s a slut.” “Your mother loves you.” He began to rub her back, then her sides, and then slipped his hand into her waistband. His fingers were on her half-full pouch, groping the plastic as Washuta 21
though it were flesh. He leaned close and whispered with yeasty breath, “Will it feel good if I kiss it?” Leah’s hand skittered to cover her stoma. “It doesn’t have any feeling. It doesn’t have any nerves in it.” “Can I see it?” She laughed because she didn’t know what to say. The water had crawled up the cloth to nearly neck-level. The long walk from the beach to the car was going to be cold, and the car ride was going to be hours-long, and then she would let Brady get her out of those wet clothes, because even if she didn’t want him, Pamela wanted her to want him, and Leah was out of choices. By the time Pamela was twenty-two, she had found a man, she had married him, she had had his child. The child had started school. Pamela had not ruined things yet, had not let her feelings make her give up what was maybe not so good but was the best she was ever going to find. Stranded in the ocean, she might as well have been pregnant and doomed, she thought. But it didn’t feel so bad, because she knew that no matter how bad things were going to get, there would always be at least one way out. Leah’s hand fell to move Brady’s hand away from her pouch, but he held her waistband tight, so she let her hand rest on his wrist. His chest was hairy and adult, a little soft, and she lifted her legs to float with him. The water tossed her but he caught her wrist and docked her. She let his arms close around her like a circle of sharks and hoped that when his mouth touched hers, she wouldn’t feel a thing.
In which Jane takes Our Friends to a Washington Wizards game Alyse Knorr Go go go Johnny go they yell, and for once they are right. She had considered the Coliseum, but in the end, decided against its connotations. Basketball is a family-friendly sport. In fact, months after Jane was born, her father, a lifetime Tarheels fan, had driven her five hours to the Dean Dome, where Dean Smith kissed her forehead like the pope giving a blessing. There is a photo of this, and in it, her father is the age of one of Janeâ€™s students. His hair is brown and gets in his eyes. He looks at his baby like the baby is all.
Missed Connections Hailey Uhler to know a thing is to hold it in your jaw– taste it. study its shape. a pelican’s beak carries three times more than its stomach but if it doesn’t have teeth, how can it understand its prey? swallow it whole, says the Ibis. do it before it’s plucked from your open mouth. tongues are the first to learn an absent tooth, to tell exposed nerves, what you feel isn’t there. the visible and the real are vastly different things.
Beating the House Bryan Shawn Wang Wanda hadn’t the slightest bit of interest in the senior center’s overnight trip to Atlantic City, but it wasn’t every day that her husband suggested an outing. And to the shore, no less—when had Grady ever voluntarily taken her to the shore? Though Wanda could just about hear her daughter now. By the time she moved out for college, Lara had already begun making comments about the way Wanda lived her life, and since becoming a mother herself, she’d turned into a walking editorial. She would point out that Grady was only thinking of himself, that Wanda hadn’t had any say in the matter. Maybe she’d be right. Maybe better not to mention Atlantic City at all to Lara. On the morning of the trip, Wanda woke just after five. While Grady slept on like a babe in a bassinet, she changed into her travel outfit, a purple-and-silver velour jogging suit and a pair of tennis shoes for the boardwalk in case the weather improved. She took her time in the bathroom, and then stowed her cosmetics and toiletries in her suitcase under the nude satin pumps and periwinkle skirt suit she’d worn for her niece’s wedding in Harrisburg last June. Into the side pocket of her purse she tucked the pamphlet from the senior center, along with that gaudy flier, the one with the words “SENIOR SPRING FLING!” printed across the top in ridiculous bubble letters. It was a quarter to six. Grady was still asleep. “Wake up, wake up.” Wanda knocked on the door frame as she bustled out of the room. In the kitchen, she set out the cereal, bowls, and silverware, tapped Grady’s medications out onto his placemat, and started the coffeepot brewing. Finally, she heard the bathroom door slam shut. Sixty-seven years old, Wanda thought, as she split his bales of shredded wheat. Sixty-seven years old, and he still needs someone to get him up for the day. Grady came downstairs grumping and grousing. He ticked off the morning’s injustices. The decaffeinated dishwater Wanda called coffee. The breakfast barely fit for livestock. How his nuts had damn near frozen when he got out of the shower, couldn’t she have waited to set the thermostat back? It didn’t do any good to reason with him when he went on like this, but Wanda made a point of clearing as soon as he’d finished his cereal. She poured the rest of the decaffeinated dishwater into a travel mug and reminded him the bus was leaving at seven o’clock sharp. Grady drove fast, racing along on the rain-slicked streets like a reckless teenager. For a distraction, Wanda took out the casino pamphlet. The brochure advised planning a gambling budget and sticking to it. For the trip, she’d taken fifty dollars from her stash to add to the twenty-dollar voucher she’d receive from the tour people. Although in all likelihood, she wouldn’t gamble a single dime. She’d never had any desire for gambling. She wondered how much money Grady had brought. Sometimes he returned from a day trip to Atlantic City saying he’d won a hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars. 25
Of course on other days he might lose twice that amount. Wanda never nagged him, however, and she only shrugged whenever Lara asked whether Grady had a problem. “Is he compulsive?” Lara would say. “Does he need help? Goddammit, Mom, how can you be so passive about everything?” Wanda doubted it, didn’t think so, didn’t respond. Grady was Grady, and she was herself. Nobody was going to change that. Besides, what argument could she possibly supply to satisfy the girl who already had everything all figured out? They reached the Chesterton Senior Center at five of seven. The line to board the bus stretched clear across the parking lot. Lou and Jeanine Sheldon, who’d started out in the Briggs’ neighborhood once upon a time but had long since traded up, stood at the back. Despite identical blue-and-white golf umbrellas, the Sheldons looked mismatched. Showy Jeanine, yellow hat and raincoat setting off her apple red lipstick, standing beside Lou, who always carried himself modestly. “Ho, Briggs!” Jeanine’s voice was shrill as ever. She flapped her hands at Wanda and Grady. “You folks looking to get lucky today?” Wanda granted her a polite smile while Grady, his grouchiness having abruptly vanished, chuckled and thrust his hand out toward Lou. The men shook, and then Jeanine leaned in and pecked Grady on the cheek, an action that so took Wanda by surprise that she could think of nothing to say as Grady winked at Jeanine and joked that he’d already gotten luckier today than he had in weeks. Lou scowled, but he turned to Wanda and said hello. The bus filled in from back to front, and the Briggs and the Sheldons were left sitting in the very first row. “Are these assigned seats?” Jeanine arranged herself across the aisle from Grady. “You’d think we were a group of naughty schoolchildren.” As the bus rumbled out of the lot, Jeanine began chatting Grady up about the senior center, saying she was dying to try that salsa dance class that was enrolling next month. She went on to brag about her volunteer work with her church, and the library board, and the town rec committee. “You certainly know how to get busy,” Grady said to Jeanine. You certainly know how to dress yourself up, Wanda thought. Jeanine had taken off her raincoat. Her blouse, a black silky number with ruffles that crisscrossed down past her cleavage, didn’t quite make it to her jeans. Which, Wanda noticed, were hugging her hips tight as a tick. Jeanine blathered on about the upcoming primaries and the never-ending construction on highway 578 and finally settled on the topic of her children. Apparently, the youngest one had just finished college down in Virginia. “Lara’s getting along, too,” Grady said. He mentioned Lara’s promotion at the bridal company, and their son-in-law’s working as a psychologist for a private school outside Philly. He talked about how much they enjoyed little Asher’s visit over President’s Day weekend. “Like being a parent all over again,” Grady said. “Lara’s had him—what?” He 26 Wang
turned to Wanda. “Birthday sometime in September. The baby’s one and a half years old already?” “Two,” Wanda said. “Your grandson is two and a half.” Grady turned to Jeanine and shrugged, and Jeanine smiled right back at him. “Well, time gallops on,” she said. “As much as you may want to stop her, she gallops on. Hold fast and enjoy the ride.” When they reached the turnpike, Wanda got up to use the lavatory. She teetered with the sway of the bus as she walked back. She didn’t recognize any of the other Spring Flingers. She wasn’t exactly a regular at the senior center—the community for older folks. For soon-to-be old folks. At the hospital laboratory where she’d worked twenty-five years as a receptionist, a glass partition had shielded Wanda from the patients’ ages and conditions. After she retired, however, the reality of aging had quickly confronted her. At the supermarket, the hair dresser, the mall—wherever she went out, it seemed—she caught herself examining those who would go before her, their wrinkles and spots and thinned-out hair, their what’syour-hurry attitude and attendant resignation. That feeling of apathy would pull at her, a relentless undertow. She’d once told Lara: “I feel like I’m waiting to die.” She was shocked to hear that come from her own mouth. She’d always thought herself fundamentally content. And perhaps that was how she intended it: she anticipated the completion of her life, and she was planning appropriately. Well, would be planning—she should really call a lawyer and get her affairs in order. Nevertheless, she was infinitely relieved when Lara changed the subject. On her way back from the lavatory, Wanda found Grady stretched across the aisle, his hand draped around Jeanine’s headrest, the pair laughing away. Wanda pushed past, separating them. Jeanine smiled. “Your husband was telling me it’s your first time to Atlantic City. Be careful of the slots. They’ll drill a hole in your pocketbook in no time.” “That’s all right,” Wanda said. “I’ve set a budget for myself.” To keep Grady from suspecting about her stash, she added, “I don’t have much to lose.” Grady folded his arms. “I’ve made plenty of money on the slot machines.” Lou, who’d been facing his window, turned and said, “The only reliable way to make money on gambling is by cheating.” “Nah.” Grady was all smiles. “You just have to understand the system.” He put his hand on Jeanine’s headrest again. “See, slot machines aren’t all the same—some are tight, and some are loose. The trick is to find a machine that’s worth your time. You don’t want to waste money on one that won’t ever give you no love.” Wanda hated the way her husband talked sometimes. Grady leaned in toward Jeanine. “The casinos always scatter a few hotties around the entrance to help draw in a crowd, but most of the slots in the high visibility areas are colder than a nun’s bed in a Polish winter. You have to go to the back, to the corners, the places that aren’t real well lit, if you’re going to find one that’s willing to put out.” “Put out.” Lou winced. “That’s a way to phrase it.” Wang 27
Grady put his hands in the air. “Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.” “But you spit it out, anyway.” Lou glanced at Wanda. “That’s a lady sitting next to
“It’s just talk,” Jeanine said. “He doesn’t mean anything by it, Lou. It’s just talk.” “That’s right,” Grady said. “Pardon my French. I’m a simple, common man.” They fell silent. Whenever Wanda complained about Grady’s locker room language, he’d use that same line. “You married a simple, common man, Wanda. I call a spade a spade, a pussycat a pussycat, and a goddamn prick a goddamn prick.” But to use such vulgarities and innuendo in public, in front of the Sheldons. It offended them—well, it offended Lou, anyway. And it insulted Wanda. She glowered at Grady. If there had been another seat available, she would have had half a mind to take it. After checking in, the Sheldons headed straight for the elevators. Wanda wanted to go upstairs, too, but Grady said he didn’t come to Atlantic City to fart around in a hotel room, and as soon as they received their room assignment, vouchers, and show tickets, he started off toward the entrance of the casino. As he zipped up the escalator, Wanda called after him, saying she’d meet him at the buffet for lunch. She took a minute to appreciate the lobby, with its chandeliers and gleaming gold trim, flowerpots stuffed with bouquets as large as bushes. If this were anywhere besides Atlantic City, Grady would have judged the hotel far too lavish, and Wanda wouldn’t necessarily have disagreed. They’d never stayed at a place with so much glitz and glimmer. She had as much right to be here as anyone. Just last week, Lara had been saying she needed to be more assertive. Just what, Lara asked, did Grady do to justify his consumption of resources? Wanda hated when Lara talked about her father that way, but Lara was in full lecture mode. “A person has to choose between living her fears and living her dreams,” she said, and went on and on about how everyone had to be responsible for her own happiness. Finally, she noticed Wanda’s silence. “Oh, God,” she said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m totally blaming the victim.” Which had somehow made Wanda feel even worse. Now, however, as she crossed the lobby to the elevators, Wanda decided her daughter was right. Her spine needed straightening. For instance, she should have told Grady exactly how she felt about his banter with Jeanine Sheldon. “Don’t dirty your beak chasing after that chick.” The words sounded good, even if the meaning wasn’t exactly as she intended. She tried again: “Why don’t you feather your own nest?” She pressed the call button, leaving a smudge on the metal disc. Glitz and glimmer, she thought. It was just a veneer. Her first impression of the room was that it was very nice, between the breath mints beside the telephone, the in-room coffee pot, the television concealed in a cabinet on the bureau. 28 Wang
But then Wanda detected a whiff of cigarettes on the bedspread, which led her to wonder about the people who’d stayed in the room before them. Who slept on that same bed. She started to call the front desk, but they would probably need Grady’s keycard for a room change. She turned down the bed, folding the bedspread over itself, and decided she could manage. After hanging up her suit and arranging her things in the bathroom, Wanda checked her watch. She was famished, and although it was only eleven-thirty, she saw no reason to wait for Grady. She left him a note. Lunch at the buffet. See you there. W. She never signed her notes with an initial, but it seemed to strike the right tone. Direct and matter of fact. How was that for assertive? Wanda felt exposed eating alone—thank goodness the Sheldons didn’t appear— but she lingered at her table waiting for Grady until nearly one o’clock, when she left the restaurant and rode down to the lobby, wondering if she should have him paged. That would sound absurd, she thought. He’d been away for all of two hours. He was a grown man. She continued down the escalator, left the hotel, and stepped onto the boardwalk. Outside, the wind was brisk, but the rain had stopped. She started north, ignoring the other pedestrians, keeping her eyes on the beach that stretched out toward the water and on the ocean that reached forever into the horizon. She used to fantasize about making beach going a family practice. One summer, after they’d spent a week at Stone Harbor, she’d even let slip her desire to own a shore home. At which Grady had scoffed and declared he had enough beach up his bum to last a lifetime. Wanda walked on. When she returned to the room at half past three, her note to Grady lay on the night table where she’d left it. So what, she thought, trying not to worry about how much of their money he might be losing. How much of her money: before the plant had closed, he’d brought home a good paycheck, but Grady Briggs had never been one to plan ahead. Although Wanda would never advertise it, it was her savings and pension that supplemented their social security. Long ago, she would have thought the idea laughable, that she would provide as well as serve, but then she’d come to understand that providing was, in fact, just another way of serving. With their package they’d gotten tickets for a Frank Sinatra tribute show that started at five. See if Grady remembered on his own, Wanda thought. She wasn’t about to fetch him now. Instead, she took her sweet time relaxing in the tub, and afterward spent a good thirty minutes fluffing and buffing in front of the bathroom mirror. She got into her suit, reveling in its satiny texture, the flare of the skirt swishing at her knees as she paced the room. At the wedding in Harrisburg, even Lara the fashion expert had given her approval. “God, Mom, you look fantastic,” she kept saying, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Très chic.” Wanda stopped pacing. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, turning one way and then the other. Très chic, très moderne, très sexy!—those had been Lara’s exact words. Too bad Wanda wasn’t dressing up for her. Wang 29
Now it was ten minutes before the show: Wanda had no choice but to go on downstairs without him. She set the other ticket on the bed, in the middle of the white sheet, where Grady couldn’t miss it. Abruptly, she felt her face tighten, felt the drops form at the corners of her eyes. She sniffed, hard, and drew a deep breath before she left the room. In the theater, she listened attentively to the first number, noting the lyrics, the acoustics of the hall, the quality of the singer’s voice. During the applause, she removed her jacket and laid it over Grady’s seat. If he bothered to show up, she’d tell him the place was taken. The Sheldons, sitting six chairs away and one row up, hadn’t yet noticed her, and as the singer crooned on about strangers in the night, Wanda stole a long look at Lou. She continued to glance at him as the evening went on, watched as he turned from the stage and scanned the concert hall. Restlessly, she imagined. Was Lou Sheldon bored? She took her jacket from the empty chair, folded it, and set it in her lap. To herself, and only to herself, Wanda would admit to a long-standing infatuation with Lou. Nothing she would ever act on, but something more than a passing appreciation for his appearance, professional achievements, and civic-mindedness. She found the man alluring, plain and simple. Although what could she ever possibly give to Lou Sheldon? Whenever she began to wander down this path, she collared her yearnings and admonished herself, saying it could lead her to nowhere but regret. The performer announced his closing number. As he sang of endings and final curtains and doing it his way, Wanda shifted, stretching her arm over the empty seat. Where was Grady? She recalled the stories she’d heard about Atlantic City, the muggers and drug dealers and call girls. Worry creased her heart. “Always Turned On,” the billboards read. Things happened in a city that was always turned on. After the show, Jeanine waved Wanda down. Jeanine, in a sleeveless dress bedecked with hundreds of silver spangles. She strode over, blocking Wanda in her row. Jeanine asked where Grady was. The sequins on her dress winked under the house lights. Wanda shook her head. The woman was teasing her, gloating over how Wanda couldn’t get a date with her own husband on their weekend away. “I didn’t force Grady to come to a show he wouldn’t enjoy,” Wanda said. She nodded significantly at Lou, who’d remained in the aisle, excusing himself as the audience flowed past. A perfect gentleman, but it was obvious to Wanda that he wanted to get away. “I think Lou’s going to run off if you’re not careful,” she said. Jeanine frowned. “I was just making conversation, Wanda.” “Why don’t you worry about your husband, and let me take care of mine?” Jeanine took hold of Wanda’s arm. Wanda felt the pinch of her fingers just above her wrist. “Grady made a pass at me,” Jeanine said. Wanda stopped. “You’ve seen Grady?” It was the best she could manage. 30 Wang
“Oh, I’ve seen Grady.” Jeanine’s lips pursed, as if from something withheld— outrage? triumph? “I’ve seen him, and smelled him, and felt him.” Jeanine’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Your husband put his hand clear up my dress. He rubbed my fanny. He suggested—” Jeanine sounded near hysterics, but she was smiling. “He suggested we find a room for ourselves. This was right in the middle of the casino floor.” A fist of contempt clenched inside Wanda. She imagined Grady’s eyes passing over Jeanine’s body, pausing at her hips, and again at her bust, and her freckled shoulders, the black straps of her dress, if you could call it that, with its shimmering neckline dipping into her bosom and the fringe of the skirt that ended just above mid-thigh. Lou, still in the aisle, was turned toward Wanda now. Their eyes met. Was he aware of any of this? Was it all simply beneath his concern? She looked away. “I’m sorry,” Wanda murmured. At the same moment, Jeanine sneered and said, “He looked as desperate as a starving child.” The elevator opened to the casino: a gauntlet of blooping, flashing machines, the clamor of synthetic clinking and ringing, the air at once overperfumed and intensely stale. Wanda grimly plunged in. Of course Grady had done what Jeanine had claimed. He’d done it, and worse, before. The woman wasn’t special. Nevertheless, Wanda could still hear Jeanine’s crowing her false indignation, could still picture her triumphant expression. Although Wanda could overlook Grady’s straying, she wouldn’t overlook his straying to Jeanine Sheldon. She tromped past row after row of slot machines and video poker, dice pits and card tables. What if Grady had left the casino? Maybe better to wait for him upstairs, wait for him to slink back. Maybe better to have him wait for her. She was in the line for the money changer, a smiling woman in a gold paisley vest and bow tie asking, “May I help you?” Wanda opened her pocketbook and handed over her voucher and the five ten-dollar bills she’d taken from her stash. “Chips or receipt?” “It doesn’t matter,” Wanda said. The lady was no longer smiling. “Are you planning to play a table game or the slots, ma’am?” “Slots,” Wanda responded, without thinking. She took her receipt and wandered the floor until she found an empty bank of slot machines. She inspected the winnings table printed on the front of one of the machines. She sat for a minute, watching the patrons in the row behind her. When she inserted her ticket, the machine swallowed it right up. She played with quarter bets at first, clasping her hands as the symbols whirled by and then slowed and then locked into place. When she won on her tenth spin, a hit that paid twenty dollars, a feeling of giddiness fluttered through her. It wasn’t that she cared so much about the money. If she hit a jackpot, she’d buy something for Lara, or better yet, for Wang 31
Asher—a fancy toy, maybe one of those motorized cars he could tootle around in on the driveway or in the backyard. Lara’s husband would probably deem it unsafe, however, or excessive, or who knows what. Maybe she would just put the money into savings, or give it away to charity. Wouldn’t that be a statement: Wanda Briggs already owns everything she needs or wants? All the conjecture proved unnecessary as the machine repossessed her winnings and then some. Wanda’s finger cramped from tapping the button, but she pressed on, dropping her wager to a dime, and then to a nickel for each spin. The credits continued to drain away. It doesn’t matter, she thought, as her last spin came up empty. She sat for a moment. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t a whole lot poorer than when she started. “Have you been entertaining Lady Luck this evening?” Wanda looked up. It was Lou Sheldon. As he settled in beside her, Wanda said, “I think Lady Luck’s giving me the cold shoulder tonight.” She smiled. Turning a phrase wasn’t her typical forte. “I’m broke, Lou. And all wasted on the slots, I’m afraid. Jeanine wouldn’t be pleased.” Lou said, “Jeanine’s upstairs.” He fanned his face. “I needed out of the room. Too stuffy.” All that hot air, thought Wanda, and then regretted it. Now who was blaming the victim? Lou put a hand on Wanda’s arm. “Would you like to join me at the tables?” She stood and let him lead her away. She discovered her other hand in her pocketbook, fumbling for her charge card. Just another twenty dollars, she thought. After the day she’d had, she deserved another twenty dollars. And how many evenings would she spend in a lavish hotel in Atlantic City at the side of a handsome man? Instead of the cashier’s counter, Lou steered her toward a roulette table with a twenty-five dollar minimum bet. “Oh, that’s too much for me,” Wanda said. Lou passed four green chips to the dealer. “We’re playing with my money, Wanda. You said you were busted.” The dealer handed four roulette tokens to Lou. “Twenty-five each, sir.” “Give me a number,” Lou said to Wanda. Twenty-five dollars on a single game—such extravagance. He was showing off for her, Wanda realized, and then decided it was flattering to be shown off for. She scanned the table. “Thirty-two.” Lara’s birthday on March 2 had just passed. The dealer set the wheel and the ball spinning. Lou stacked his four chips on 32. “One hundred dollars!” Wanda exclaimed. Lou shrugged. “Lose it fast on the wheel, or slow in the slots. When you’re at a casino, you’re going to lose your money. Maybe not this minute. Maybe not today. But the house is going to get it eventually. The question is whether you enjoy yourself in the meantime.” Wanda regarded everyone around the table. Younger folks, stylish and poised. They did seem to be having a time of it. Nearly everyone held a glass, and they watched the roulette wheel with tamed interest, without a hint of desperation. She turned back to Lou. Level-headed and practical Lou Sheldon. Had he really just 32 Wang
wagered one hundred dollars on this game? As the ball bounced across the slowing wheel, she tried to remember if she’d ever risked one hundred dollars on anything. The ball settled into number 32. The other patrons applauded, and the dealer congratulated Lou. Indicating Wanda, Lou said, “I think I’ll keep her.” Wanda blushed. The dealer pushed several stacks of tokens toward them. Passing a few chips back to the dealer, Lou asked Wanda if she wanted to press her luck. She shook her head. Lou nodded to the dealer, and the man exchanged the roulette tokens for seven purple chips. “That was a smart move,” Lou said, as they walked toward the exit. “Now you and I can enjoy our supper.” Wanda stopped, daring to meet his eyes. “Your treat?” she asked, and then chided herself for such immodesty. Lou smiled. “Treat a lovely lady who just won me thirty-five hundred dollars? I think I can take care of you tonight, Wanda.” “Thirty-five hundred dollars.” She kept her voice steady. “Holy socks.” Lou took her arm again and led her toward the hotel concourse. They dined at a Pan-Asian steakhouse, where Lou cajoled Wanda into a sushi plate appetizer. Despite his assurances, the very thought of seaweed and raw fish horrified her, although she finished her portion like a dutiful child. Thank goodness he ordered Porterhouses for their main course. And she certainly appreciated the bottle of cabernet he’d insisted on. She didn’t feel even a smidgeon of guilt, not after Grady’s philandering. And Lou and she weren’t doing anything, anyway—they were just old neighbors, acquaintances on friendly terms, sharing a meal and talking. Not so different from Grady and Jeanine’s yakking on the bus, although Lou had nothing in common with Jeanine. Or with Grady, for that matter. Lou suggested a walk, and they rode downstairs and went outside. The warm front had arrived, and the breeze felt fine, the air wet and salty. They crossed over to the beach side of the promenade and leaned against the railing. The tide had come in, and with the roll of the surf, Wanda could almost feel the waves’ surge and pull. She stood close to Lou; her eyes came to his chin. She envisioned him pressed against her, front to front. The inside of her skin pimpled as she realized the intensity of the crush she had developed. Here was a man she could not only admire, but a man she could love. Naughty, naughty, she thought. Could have loved. And then Lou turned to her and said, “Jeanine and I are separating.” Wanda stepped back. The pimples vanished; the feelings inside her receded. “Who?” “Jeanine and I have decided to separate,” Lou said. “It’s a mutual decision, and a long time in coming.” His words sounded rehearsed. “We’ve always had our difficulties, but while the kids were growing up, it just seemed easier to keep going along. Keep going along. . . We thought we had to keep going along. But now it seems as if we’ve wasted so much of our lives. Why waste the rest?” Wanda stared at Lou. He was facing her directly now, and his fingers brushed her Wang 33
cheek. He leaned into her. “I hope it’s not too forward of me.” He was so close that his voice seemed almost to come from within her. “I know you and Grady have had difficulties, too.” He said this gently, but there was no question in his tone. He was making an assumption about Wanda. About her marriage and her hopes and dreams. About who she was. But who was he, and who was Jeanine? Those Sheldons who could build a life together and then separate again just like that and remain thank-you-very-much just fine? “I’m sorry,” Wanda said. She backed away. As if they’d all merely been playing house for all of those years. “I’m sorry for your troubles, Lou. I truly am sorry. But please don’t put your troubles on me.” She slipped away and started off, calm and steady, back across the boardwalk and into the hotel. He didn’t follow her. In the lobby, she pressed the call button for an elevator. She waited, and then pressed the button again. And once more. Finally, a car arrived, and she stepped inside, and she rode up to her floor alone. After the door sighed shut and the lock whirred and clicked back into place, Wanda returned the keycard to her purse and discovered the casino chips at the bottom of her bag. Lou had given her the seven purple casino chips. She stepped into the room. Thirty-five hundred dollars. Was it a payment? A gift? Charity? She didn’t want to think about it. The television was muttering away. Grady lay sprawled on the bed, shoes still on his feet, the remote in his hand. The glow of the bedside lamp highlighted every crease on his face, the sweat and grease in his hair. A thin stream of saliva dripped down his cheek and onto the pillow. His eyes blinked open. “Wanda? Where were you, Wanda?” She snapped the television off. “I should ask you.” He looked puzzled, and then he stiffened. “I’ve been in this room waiting,” he declared. “Waiting half the night for you.” He checked the clock. “The show should have been over at seven. Where have you been?” She set her purse down. She removed her jacket and arranged it on a hanger, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Hell!” Grady cried. “I lost three hundred dollars in the goddamn casino today!” His voice cracked. “And then come upstairs to find my goddamn wife’s deserted me.” He was sitting hunched over now, his hands limp across his lap, just useless old things. His face crumpled and beat, tears welling in his eyes. Wanda sat down on the bed beside him. His chest and shoulders heaved as though the simple act of breathing were too much. “Who needs you?” he asked. Fiercely, like a final, desperate gasp. “Who needs you, Wanda?” She put her arms around him and held him as he wept. “Wanda,” he cried. “Wanda.” After a while, she got up and retrieved her purse. She took out three of the casino chips and put the bag back down. Perhaps later she’d slip a token under the Sheldons’ 34 Wang
door, so Lou could still come out ahead. She placed the three chips in a row on the night table. “Jesus, Wanda,” Grady said. “Did you win those?” He didn’t pick up the chips, didn’t touch them. “Jesus Christ Almighty.” She walked to the bathroom and shut the door. “You win those purple chips, Wanda?” Grady was shouting again, gleeful now. “Goddamn. You were in the goddamn casino winning a goddamn pile of money.” Wanda used the toilet, and then washed her hands. Grady was still shouting. “Jesus Christ Almighty. Purple chips.” When she returned to the bedroom, he’d taken off his shoes and shirt and trousers. He was lying back against the pillow, grinning. A starving child, Jeanine had called him. “Got something for you, Wanda,” he said. If she were like that flashy little Jeanine, Wanda would remember Grady as he was thirty, forty years ago, when he really had something to strut about. She would preen and sing about how she still turned his head. She would pretend that no matter how Time galloped on, it wouldn’t carry them ahead one bit. Instead, she sat down again on the bed beside her husband, who showed every worn-out day of his sixty-seven years. He’d never taken care of himself. Her eyes wandered down to his legs, the flab that stretched between knobs of crooked bone, a landscape dotted with patches of pale, withering hair. She let her gaze linger on the chalky flesh pooling around his briefs, and then on the fatty mounds of his chest, the furrows and ridges of his throat. Nobody knew this terrain the way Wanda did—how it had changed, and how it had not. “I’ve got something for you, too,” she said. She tugged at his shorts until they slid free of his waist and buttocks. Down past the ankles and off the feet. Grady closed his eyes. Even thirty years ago, before his heart had threatened to quit, before life had dealt him its tricks and wild cards and poor hands, she had been the stronger one. She ran her fingers along his neck and then traced a circle around each of his nipples. She moved down to his midriff, stroking from one side of his waist to the other, and then continued farther down. She’d always asserted herself. She cupped her hand and rubbed at him until he finally became firm, removed her blouse and her skirt and her underthings and set them on the floor, licked her fingers and moistened her secret place, spread her legs until they straddled his. She’d taken responsibility for her own happiness. Afterward, she soaked a washcloth and wiped herself clean. She brought the other washcloth out to Grady and cleaned him up, too. He was nearly asleep. She settled the sheet and the blanket over him. She changed into her pajamas, got into bed beside him, and turned off the light. In the hall outside, a door slammed—some poor man, seeking Lady Luck in the bedroom after she’d eluded him in the casino, being turned away.
Rosso on Trial Rowland Bagnall Let me astonish you: Rosso was born on the same year as Edith Piaf, sketched into the world to do something so simple as having a heart-attack. Then I find out he’s a playwright and a novelist which I’ve always been interested in doing myself. But now I’m surrounded by poetry claiming it’s death to be taken too seriously while Rosso, driving down fifty years of undone roads with a very bloody face, is heading to Greenwich Village in a suit paid for by Coco Chanel.
All Your Future Songs Michael Wheaton Across the street from another dive on the last leg of tour, the drug store door slid open, sterile light falling at their feet. Julia, in heels, bit the nails she’d just painted black. Billy shuffled off rhythm, frayed drum sticks holstered in his denim pocket, and when she reached for his pinky, he turned to face the only street-parked car, their battered Caravan, their guitarist, back turned, waddling his tube amp past the door man. “Jesus,” Billy said. “Can’t this wait?” She walked ahead, inside, and he followed her straight to Family Planning. Planning. She paced the full shelves, boxes of varying shapes, sizes, colors. All said early detection, all said the most accurate, and she picked up the expensive box. He opened his wallet, thick, but all ones—his share of bad tips. “You still rich with your mom’s last deposit?” he said. “It’s for emergencies,” she said. “…Like this one?” “Like flat tires. Or overdue meals. Or motel rooms in shady-ass towns. Or you— getting thrown in the drunk tank again.” He counted his cash—short. “I’ll have more after the door deal tonight.” “If people show,” she said. “They’ll show.” “…Like last night?” Julia slid the test into her purse, stood on her tiptoes to see past the row of candy and toys that intersected the end of the aisle. Far as she could see: only one night clerk, and he was all the way at the register, a magazine open. They located and slipped into the grimy bathroom, wet paper towels clumped on the tile. Billy layered the toilet with three flushable seat covers, yet still, pants around her ankles, test between her legs, Julia hovered the bowl. “I can’t pee,” she said. He gushed the faucet, and she looked to the door. “Is it locked?” she said. He locked it. Julia dribbled onto the test, just enough. Billy read the box. Two lines meant pregnant, one line meant not. It started with one—started out strong. No matter how faint, the box said, a second line meant positive. Positive. Even a faint line. “How long does it take?” she said. He cut the water. “Five minutes.” The faucet dripped. Julia wiped and pulled up her pants. She shook the test as if it were a thermometer, and Billy shielded his face. “Watch it,” he said. “You’ll wave the piss off of it.” “Wave the piss off of it?” she said. “Jesus.” Both their phones buzzed just once—a text, the same text. Billy took the phone from his pocket. Their guitarist. “What does it say?” Julia said. 37
“On in twenty. First band might have to cancel.” She glanced at the test. “How long has it been?” “I don’t know,” he said. “A minute. Two.” “No way it’s been two.” She handed it to him—still one line—and turned from a glimpse caught of herself in the mirror. “You’ll still want to play that smoky bar?” “We always play smoky bars.” “If I’m pregnant?” “I don’t know,” he said. “Play sober.” “Won’t that look suspicious?” The phones buzzed again. “We can’t bail, too,” Billy said. “I’m sure we have a better reason than the other band.” “You want to explain that?” he said. “Why we’re ditching tour?” “We don’t have to tell him it’s yours.” Billy breathed and hunched over the sink, filling the empty mirror with his face, all angles and young lines. “Mine,” he said and looked down the drain. “Mine.” “My parents would help,” Julia said. “My dad would be happy,” he said. “The responsibility.” He straightened up to meet her eyes, and she pulled the test from his fist. “We do have to grow up at some point,” she said. “You mean turn into our parents.” “It wouldn’t hurt if I got—we got—jobs. Real jobs.” “I have a real job.” He drew his drum sticks, gripped them until his knuckles went white. “These. These are my real job.” “Until when?” she said. “And then what?” Billy cranked his arm and slapped his sticks on the ceramic sink, a hard down beat echoing in the space between them. “So you get pregnant?” Julia backpedaled to the wall. “I told you I forgot my pills.” “Forgot?” he said. “Or left?” She checked the test. Still one line. “You could’ve used the condom.” Billy’s stick was split down the middle, and he pried it in half, tossed the pieces near the trash can in the corner. He pulled the frays off the other. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “Say something. You said you loved me. So what?—it was all booze? Again. I told you we shouldn’t. I told you.” Billy looked away. He stared at her purse atop the hand dryer, her phone buzzing in it—an actual call. Julia heard it. She tucked the test in her palm. “It’s him,” she said. “I know,” he said. She let it ring. “Has it been five minutes?” Her phone stopped, and his started up. He punched ignore. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think so. I don’t know.” Julia peeked into her palm. She dug her nails into her scalp, pitch black hair blonde at the roots, and ripped out the bobby-pins, split-ends falling in her face. “I’m sorry,” Billy said but she said nothing. “Baby?” “The waiting,” she said. “Just the waiting.” He stepped to her, toe-to-toe. He cleared the hair from her face. They met foreheads and looked down. They waited. One line. They waited. 38 Wheaton
Our Dream Wedding Lisa Summe One day in math class I plotted our dream wedding on a sheet of graph paper from my graph paper notebook. It was the first time I ever thought about getting married in my whole life. You had no idea that I wanted to marry you and maybe it was because we were just ten years old. I would say that’s too young for girls to be thinking about getting married but the truth is it isn’t. The church and the cross on top of the church were very easy to draw with all the squares and since I was a kid when I planned our dream wedding I still believed in church. That church was where everyone got married. What I liked about you was that you always shared your Dunkaroos with me. My mom never got Dunkaroos because she said they cost too much. You only liked the cookies so I got to have all the icing to myself which was good because there wasn’t very much of it. In the drawings both of us were rectangles. You were eleven squares tall and just right and I was only eight squares tall because I was really short as a kid. You had these beautiful curls in real life that I had to unfortunately straighten in our dream wedding because of the straight lines on the paper and my obsession with only drawing on the lines. It bothered me that on the page certain things didn’t look right. Like the flowers in your hand were just squares on sticks. I made up for things not looking right by drawing hearts all over to add to the romance of it but they ended up looking half like field goal posts and half like bad drawings of Ohio. Luckily holding hands on the page was easy besides the fact that we didn’t have fingers because having fingers on graph paper would look like monster claws which I didn’t like. I’d always wanted to hold your hand for about three weeks before our dream wedding and this was where it happened. What was dreamy about it was the palm trees next to the church. I know we were in Ohio but you need to understand that in a dream wedding anything can happen. The coconuts on the palm trees were square but you could tell what they were by using context clues. I wore a top hat because that was easy to draw and it just made more sense if one of us dressed like a boy. I liked to do boy things mostly so I thought maybe I could be the boy for you. The limousine ride was going to be the best part. It was a big rectangle that looked a lot like us but sideways. The wheels were square like everything else which is probably why this never went anywhere.
Dream Girls 1:
It’s raining tomato sauce and meatballs. It’s raining the lightening bolts kids draw, little yellow zig-zags made of construction paper. I’m a helicopter pilot in this bad storm and you’re the girl I rescued from something very scary, something like a castle on fire or a sinking ship or real life. You’ve been waiting for me all along. I know this because of the way our shoulders touch. It isn’t just the smallness of this helicopter. You’re wearing this one dress that’s white and pretty and showing me what this is. Picture this helicopter not as a helicopter but rather as the buoyancy of two lemons in iced tea and our hearts are those lemons. I kiss you. I eat aluminum spaghetti and offer you some. You say okay. You say it might hurt but you’re not going to stop me. We stick our plates out the window for some lightning bolts. We drink beer that’s on tap and it gets easier. If I had a fortune cookie, the fortune would teach me to say a moment in Chinese right this second.
We’re in outer space and you’re wearing a dress where every seam is a zipper and you did it on purpose because you like me. I like you also and I notice only your eyelashes and not your zippers until you leave the spaceship by jumping out the door and then I see only zippers. Zippers for days and days and how I should have unzipped your zippers because we both wanted that. I think about your zipper dress and what we both meant for me to do. Paying for groceries I’m unzipping your zippers and taking off your dress. Someone is walking their dog and I’m taking off your clothes in the middle of the street. I’m at an action movie and when someone is about to fall off something, people gasp, and there we are onscreen where I’m taking your clothes off in front of everyone but we’re also in the audience watching ourselves undress each other. I gasp. It’s hot. Suddenly I’m wearing clothes made of only zippers. Where are you?
Mrs. Chandler Can Sing Sandi Sonnenfeld Mrs. Chandler drives her station wagon down the same street every day. It is a nice street, with wide, neatly marked lanes, and two straight rows of leafy trees that line either side. Mrs. Chandler notes how the branches of the trees bow towards each other like pairs of giant lovers joined together in a permanent embrace. Mrs. Chandler thinks the trees remind her of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, which she read during her first and only year of college before Joey Chandler came home from Korea. They got married right away in a small Catholic church in Brooklyn, just a few blocks from where the two of them had gone to high school. Two years later, they moved to a threebedroom home on the south shore of Long Island. Now, Mrs. Chandler loads her four children safely on the school bus every morning. Then she drives to the supermarket to do the family shopping. She goes every day because her husband likes to have only the freshest vegetables in his nightly salad. Max, the grocery clerk, waves to Mrs. Chandler from among the radishes. He tells her that cantaloupes are on special today. It’s early in the season and the melons are small. She holds the rinds up under her nose, smelling their flesh. Mrs. Chandler raises one to her ear and gives it a good thump. She listens to the sound it makes, checking for ripeness. Her husband is very proud of her ability to always pick the right melon. Mrs. Chandler knows that her husband is very proud of her. Three times a week after school, Mrs. Chandler teaches her children to play the piano. She starts with easy tunes, placing her fingers over the smaller ones of her children, pressing down on the appropriate keys. She tells them that when she was a little girl, notes on a scale looked like little bugs trying to wriggle off the page. She asks them to wriggle their fingers as fast as they can, so they can keep up with all the bugs, especially the spiders, which are called sixteenth notes. Mrs. Chandler’s third child, Jenny, is afraid of bugs and starts to cry. Jenny cries far too often, and Mrs. Chandler worries about her. She also worries about her eldest, her Danny, because at thirteen he disappears up into his bedroom for hours on end and when she walks by his door all she hears is silence. The silence frightens her—when she was growing up, the kids played stickball and tag in the dirty Brooklyn streets. There were always shouts and mild oaths, the sounds of competition and loss and victory. Here on Long Island, there are tree-lined avenues and well-kept lawns to play on. She often commands Danny to go outside to play with some of the neighborhood kids, but he rarely does what she asks. 42
Danny says that the games are dumb. Dumb is better than silent, Mrs. Chandler thinks, but does not say so out loud. Mrs. Chandler’s skin is going slack. When she does the dinner dishes, moving the bright orange scrub brush in circles over her china patterns, she notices the underside of her arms wobble. The more vigorously she scrubs, sanitizing each plate and leaving it free of food scraps, debris and germs, the more her flesh wobbles. Mrs. Chandler pictures the flesh of the turkey that they had for supper wobbling in just the same way before the axe fell on its dumb, unsuspecting head. When the children come home from school, Mrs. Chandler doles out peanut butter cookies. “How was your day?” she asks each one, handing out the cookies in exchange for a detailed answer. Mrs. Chandler does not make the peanut butter cookies herself. She buys them at the store, the same place where she buys her husband’s vegetables. All the cookies are uniform, with a hard floury crust and a smear of peanut butter cream. All the answers the children give Mrs. Chandler are uniform too. “Fine,” the children say. “School was fine.” And off they go to do their homework. Mrs. Chandler has very fine children. Everyone always says so. Teachers, aunts and uncles, the priest to whom Mrs. Chandler confesses twice a week at St. Agnes, always comment on what fine children Mr. and Mrs. Chandler are raising. Mrs. Chandler worries that some day one of her fine children will take a bludgeon and hit someone over the head. She doesn’t know why she worries that might occur, except that she sees similar situations plastered across the pages of the tabloids while waiting in line at the check out counter at the supermarket. “I should have made him homemade cookies,” the mother always says in the news story. “That’s where I went wrong. He was always such a fine boy. A good boy. I wish I had made him more cookies.” On television, Jack LaLanne does exercises dressed in a clinging red shirt and tights. Mrs. Chandler doesn’t quite trust him because he slicks his hair back with Vitalis; it reminds her too much of the tougher boys in her old neighborhood who might approach girls with a line. She does the exercises anyway, feeling ill and worn down. Sometimes when Mrs. Chandler drives down the street, she doesn’t feel as though she is moving at all. Sometimes she has no idea where she is going. Mrs. Chandler goes to the local music store to buy some records. While she browses through the selections, a red voice in her head goes off whenever she sees an album that either her husband or one of her children may like. She wonders what it must be like to be Sonnenfeld 43
disentangled from her children and her husband’s thoughts, but can’t help being caught up in them. Once she ignored the voice and picked out a record that only she cared about, but when she brought it home, she didn’t enjoy it as much as she thought she would. She was too consciously aware that her husband had fallen asleep shortly after the opening bars of the opera. It bothered her that what interested her did not interest her husband. Mrs. Chandler wished it did not bother her. Mrs. Chandler has discovered a lump on her breast. She discovers it while showering, checking to see if the exercises she has been doing has made her flesh tauter. Her hands are wet and slippery from soap, and at first she thinks she just imagines the lump is there. In fact, she immediately drops her hand from her breast and shampoos her hair, letting the water pour down on her. She wonders why in the Bible and in Lives of the Saints none of the women ever died of breast cancer. Instead, they were burned at the stake, got stoned to death, or turned into pillars of salt. Mrs. Chandler thinks about the silver salt and peppershakers that her grandmother gave her on the day of her wedding. “A matched set,” her grandmother told her. “Too much salt without pepper ruins a stew.” But before she handed the set over to Mrs. Chandler, her grandmother took the filled saltshaker and sprinkled a few grains over her right shoulder. “The tears of marriage,” her grandmother had said. “I’ve spilled them all for you now. No more will fall.” The bathroom is hot and foggy, the steam clinging to the walls and mirrors like billowy clouds of angels. Mrs. Chandler feels a thin trickle of cold air creep through the fog, as though someone has disturbed the pattern flow by opening the bathroom door. It sends a chill down her spine. “Joey?” Mrs. Chandler calls out from behind the shower curtain. “Joey, is that you?” The water pours down upon her head, muffling all sound. In bed at night, Mrs. Chandler is awakened by a noise. The wind howling, she thinks, a low moan, cold and breathy against the side of the house. She listens for a few moments, wrapping the coverlet more tightly about her. Now she hears a rustle, a slight scratching at the bedroom window. Her eyes strain to make sense of the sound in the dark room, her face quiet, stiff, pointedly staring at the window across from the bed. Thick, cream-colored curtains hide the glass, a passive wall against the outside elements. Mrs. Chandler waits in bed, trying to get up the courage to pull the curtains away. Her senses are alert and poised for the confrontation. She can hear her heart beating in her chest; she can hear—yes, wait—if she listens carefully, her own blood as it thickly courses through her veins. The transport slows down as it nears her brain, like a train nearing a station, putting on its brakes so not to overshoot its destination. She feels the vibration echo 44 Sonnenfeld
in her head. Joey lies next to her, his buttocks pressed against her right thigh. Now that her eyes have adjusted somewhat to the darkness, she can make out the even rise and fall of her husband’s chest as he sleeps. Each time he takes a breath, he emits a long whistle that rattles through his nostrils. She hates him suddenly—a pure liquid emotion that comes from nowhere. Then just as suddenly she crosses herself in the dark, asking God’s forgiveness for having such a feeling. Too late, though. The sound is in the house. He, it, is upstairs in the attic—the old wooden floorboards creaking with each step. Mrs. Chandler feels the bitterness in her throat, and with self-loathing pulls the covers back over her head to drown out the sound. Fear has taken up residence in her attic. Mrs. Chandler takes her breast to the doctor to have it examined. She tells her husband and her children that she is going to the city to see a matinee concert by the Philharmonic. Alice, who is married to Max the grocery clerk, will sit for the kids when they get home from school. Mrs. Chandler waits for Danny to say he is too old for a babysitter. He simply shrugs, stands up from the breakfast table, slings his book bag over his shoulder, and reaches for the last slice of toast. “Bus is coming,” he says. And the rest of the children trail after him. Joey takes a final sip from his coffee. He leans across the table and kisses Mrs. Chandler on the cheek. “Gotta catch the 7:40 train,” he says. “Enjoy your day. A change of scenery will do you some good.” Mrs. Chandler tries to catch onto his arm as he stands up. But her hand only touches the cloth of his gray pinstripe suit. “Hey,” he says. “You’ll get it dirty.” Mrs. Chandler pulls her hand away. After he leaves, she does the dishes and gets ready for her journey. She goes to her double-length closet and looks at her clothes. The shoes are vertically stacked in neat plastic tubs. She used to have a matching handbag and gloves for each set of shoes, but nobody wears gloves anymore, except if it snows, so she has given them to Jenny and Mary to play with. Mary puts them on her tiny hands very carefully, then holds them up vertically into the air. “Nurse, I’m ready to operate now,” Mary says to Jenny and bends down low over the burst appendicitis of her Chatty Cathy doll. Jenny covers her mouth with her hands at the thought of an exposed doll stomach and bursts into tears. It is partly because she fears Jenny’s outbursts that Mrs. Chandler did not tell anyone of her appointment this afternoon. Mrs. Chandler quietly goes through each dress that hangs on the rack. Just for Sonnenfeld 45
a second she thinks about wearing a bright red dress, the one Joey bought her for her birthday five years back. The dress is sleeveless with a v-neck bodice, flared skirt and a linen belt that cinches her waist. Even though it is old, the dress is the most stylish that she owns, coming straight from Lord & Taylor’s. Mrs. Chandler pictures her breast in such a dress and decides it is inappropriate. Gray linen will be more suitable. She dresses in the semi-darkness—wriggling into her one silk pair of pantyhose. The doctor she is going to see is a specialist; she wants to be sure that he treat her correctly. Mrs. Chandler has heard horror stories about acts of butchery done to women in the name of keeping them alive—at the PTA, she heard of a hysterectomy that went wrong, the doctor’s scalpel slipping and nicking away part of the intestine. The woman said she wound up in the hospital for eight weeks, and when she got home she found out that her husband had taken the kids (and himself) to his secretary’s house for safekeeping. Mrs. Chandler pours herself into a bra and slip, careful not to touch the round swelling that just a few weeks before didn’t exist. She transfers her wallet, keys and address book (with the doctor’s name written in pencil—why make such a thing permanent?) into her good leather purse and slips on a pair of gray low-heeled pumps. She looks at herself in the mirror. Mrs. Chandler is still a fairly good-looking woman. Her brown, slightly wavy hair is middle-length and clipped back neatly with a large mother-of-pearl barrette. Every night, just as her mother had done before her, Mrs. Chandler rubs cocoa butter lotion on her face, neck and elbows to keep them soft and wrinkle free. Dressed, no one can see the stretch marks on her stomach that heralded Lindsay, her final child’s birth. No one but her notices the brown mottled pigmentation starting to form on her once creamy white thighs. She feels a sudden, insistent stab of despair. The commuter train is crowded and noisy, filled with women on their way to the city to see a Broadway matinee or a gallery opening. They sit opposite each other in mushy, vinylupholstered seats, their legs neatly crossed in front of them. The women talk about their children, how dress hemlines are so short these days, about the benefits of living in the suburbs. Mrs. Chandler feels sure that the look the women give her periodically means they are speculating about why she’s alone and staring out the dirty train window instead of flipping through the still crisp pages of the magazine on her lap. A straying husband? Economic woes? An overbearing mother-in-law? Whatever it is, Mrs. Chandler thinks the women are probably glad that such a thing has happened to her and not to them. Her troubled face frees them somewhat, for if Mrs. Chandler’s husband is straying with the office secretary, then statistically speaking their 46 Sonnenfeld
own husbands are not. Mrs. Chandler’s problem, whatever it is, has let these women off the hook. In gratitude, one of the women offers Mrs. Chandler a stick of Juicy Fruit. Mrs. Chandler gives a brief smile, politely shakes her head, and then resumes her watch at the window. The landscape whizzes by, all of Long Island, nearly all that Mrs. Chandler has known for the past fifteen years passes by in a gray-greenish blur. The lights go off as the train enters the tunnel to Penn Station. Temporarily disoriented, Mrs. Chandler clutches tightly to her purse as her body absorbs the train movements as her own. “Shake, rattle and roll...shake, rattle and roll...” Unsummoned, the words play inside her head. When she was in high school, she and her girl friends used to dance to that song at the gym sock hops. They would dance with each other, calling out the words just seconds before the singer did. Mrs. Chandler tries to remember the name of the group that sang it. Bill Haley? James Brown? Chubby Checker? Mrs. Chandler used to know things like that. “You should be on Name that Tune,” Joey used to say to her. “We could really clean up.” Mrs. Chandler would blush then and stroke her husband’s hair. The train huffs its way into the station, gives a single shutter, and then stops. Mrs. Chandler throws her raincoat over her arm and follows the rest of the passengers out through the automatic doors. The station is cloudy and dank. After all these years, Mrs. Chandler still marvels that Manhattan sits on top of this huge network of train stations and subway stops. Fifty feet above her is the street. One hundred feet above that is the doctor’s office on the tenth floor of a Park Avenue high rise. She takes a cab, telling herself not to worry. She remembers the time a few months after Lindsay was born when her Pap smears came back a little strange. Dr. Toby, her trusted ob/gyn, had patted her on the back and said that sometimes pregnancy could change things. They would watch it carefully together, Dr. Toby said. Four months later her Pap smears went back to normal. But Dr. Toby has retired, so now she is seeing a doctor she has never met. Mrs. Chandler lies on the white table, a cold sheet over her naked torso and legs. Her neatly pressed dress hangs on a wooden peg, her stockings, bra and panties are modestly hidden away in her purse, which she zips up carefully. The doctor is dark and balding with warm fleshly hands that feel too human for Mrs. Chandler’s comfort. Dr. Toby’s hands had been small, cool, and precise as the silver instruments that he wielded to do the examination. “Dr. Toby sent me your records,” the doctor tells her, his hands circling her right breast checking for the lump. “Your history indicates that you are at low-risk for this type of cancer.” He squeezes her nipple hard to see if any fluid comes out. Sonnenfeld 47
“I wouldn’t worry,” he says. Shake, rattle and roll. The pain floods through her body. “I mean I wouldn’t worry about it unnecessarily,” the doctor says. “But there is something there. Have my nurse schedule an appointment for next week so we can do a biopsy. A minor procedure—you won’t even have to stay in overnight.” “Stay in? The hospital? I have to go to the hospital?” “It’s perfectly routine. You get your husband to drive you,” he says, patting her hand. Suddenly, Mrs. Chandler is dressed and out of his office on the elevator. She feels chastened somehow, like when the nuns at school would send her into the hallway to think over what she had done wrong. Then, like now, Mrs. Chandler felt genuinely sorry for causing trouble, but still uncertain about what sin she had committed. The elevator door dings open. She is there at the bottom, back on the street. The doorman offers to get her a cab. “Thank you,” Mrs. Chandler says. “But I think I’ll walk.” The doorman looks skeptically at Mrs. Chandler’s pumps, and then shakes his head. “You sure, lady?” “Yes, I’m sure.” She is off, launched into the sea of people on the sidewalks. It is nearly four and the first stirring of rush hour pushes itself onto the busy streets. Like a giant amoeba, it engulfs her in its gooey membrane. All the people feel they move independently, the freedom to window shop or meet a friend for dinner, or run to catch a train. They feel they move independently, but Mrs. Chandler knows they do not, for here she is covering block after block, her gray heels clicking along the pavement, and though she is getting tired, can already feel a red-hot blister forming on her instep of her arch where her stocking rubs against the leather of her shoe, she keeps moving. The sounds of the city grow around her. “Papers! Get your evening paper right heah,” the hawkers sing out on every street corner. “Don’t miss all the news. No waiting. Buy your paper heah!” “Shoe shine, shoe shine. Fifty cents a shoe. I do one pair, two pair, three pair—how many shoes you got, I can do. Right here. Sit yourself down and I make you look good for that evening date. Shoe shine.” Mrs. Chandler smells the noxious fumes of the diesel engines as the buses make their runs down Park Avenue. She draws in a deeper breath to find some fresher air; the smell of damp cardboard and stale urine fill her nose. Just behind her, a taxi beeps its horn at a group of pedestrians who cross against the light. The pedestrians laugh defiantly, their arms laden with leather briefcases or neatly wrapped store packages from Saks or Bonwits. Mrs. Chandler counts the avenues as she completes them. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. The station is just three blocks away now. She checks her watch to ensure she will make an earlier train than her husband. She cannot bear the thought of their meeting just now. His questions about the Philharmonic, his surprise that she didn’t keep a copy of the program, sitting across from each other on the crowded train making polite, unbearable conversation—because how in 48 Sonnenfeld
front of all these people can she say to Joey what she needs to say? She takes the stairs two at a time, climbing back down into the bowels of the city. A hot gust of air meets her when she gets to the gate, the view obstructed by hundreds of commuters awaiting the train’s arrival. They swarm around the small entranceway like angry bees, each wanting to be the first to crawl inside that square, honeyless hive. Then it happens. Right there with all the people, the din of voices on the public phones as they scream into the receivers trying to be heard, the announcements from the station information booth as it calls out the departing times of one train after another. It happens. Mrs. Chandler begins to sing. “Mich-ael ro--ow your bo-at a-shore, hal-le-lu-jah! Mich-ael row your boat a-shore, hallelujah!” It comes unbidden. Even Mrs. Chandler herself is surprised to hear the melody come from inside her head. Mrs. Chandler’s mouth is round, her chin dropped, her breath easy. The notes come from deep within her belly and move outward, ever outward, echoing through the immense cavernous space, echoing upward, back towards that strange, gorgeous, dangerous world above the station. “Sist-er help to trim the sails, hal-le-lu-jah...” A few commuters slow their pace somewhat as they pass by Mrs. Chandler, listening to her words. One even puts his hand into his pocket to draw out a little change to show the concert pleases him, but when he sees no hat on the floor, no place to deposit the coins, his face turns red with embarrassment. Mrs. Chandler does not notice—she only knows that her brain is filling up with notes, her body being replaced with music, filling up those empty, silent spaces inside her, filling them up so quickly that it pains her, the same way that eyes ache for a moment when a light is instantly turned on in a very dark room. First shock, then clarity, and finally adjustment. The song echoes inside her a long time, so long that only when a smattering of applause reaches her subconscious does she realize that she had sung this song, this small song which she used to sing at bedtime when her children were babies, in front of all these strangers. Her body feels warm and thick. Then the green sign flashes that Mrs. Chandler’s train has finally arrived, and once again the amoeba resumes its fluid movements, pushing her along in the crowd down the final set of stairs and on to the train. But just for a moment, just before she feels her body lifted up and carried away, Mrs. Chandler hears someone quietly humming the notes of her song.
Control Kyle McCord Sometimes I think I understand the way things work. In Vale, Colorado, I was behind the wheel while you breathed soft letters into the carâ€™s glass. I love you, but you sleep badly, rupturing into the world in gasps and panic. Outside, darkness obscured the culverts filthy with snow and muck. And I was driving fast terrified of skidding on the ice I could half make out in what lights could touch. Not the cults of housing, or the ghosts stuttering along the side of the highway. We were so far from the funeral. When the wheel twisted because the road twisted around a ski resort, the smell of oxygen heavy with alpine scent, you would wake a bit then leave again into the cocoon of a dream. I wasnâ€™t ready for anything to die. We survived, and that is what I thought: I understood: how to keep us alive on the thousands of miles between California and Illinois, the distance between 50
between that fear of loss and what you can lay in the earth. Is that truly sad? Feeling the wheels peeling out from under you? And that I didnâ€™t, we didnâ€™t. That one had to at once let go, grip tighter.
Vietnam Asks For Love Letters Whittney Jones The river rose this year with the rain, covering the cornfields. It was like living next to the ocean for four weeks. I thought of you, sat at the edge of it, watching the crows fly over the place where we parked, your hand pulling at the hem of my shirt, my skirt, until I said no, not yet. I waded in with boots, careful not to fall, found the place where Daffodils used to grow, and stood until darkness came. At shore, I dug a hole and buried your class ring with gravel rocks. It aches to be sixteen and home, Steve. Is it hot there? You never told me. Sometimes I sleep on the wood floor of the living room to stay cool, sucking on an ice cube just to breathe. I bet you miss even that.
The Land Between Karen Salyer McElmurray A storm is sweeping across the lake, but we’re ahead of it, just between worlds. Dusk and sky, black with thunder clouds, streaked with brilliant veins of lightning. It’s the end of summer, not quite fall, so we linger in warm patches in the cool water as we swim the distance across the cove. My students are at my lake house for writing and dinner and now I’m swimming to the far shore with one of them. Swimming to the line of pines and the cabin where I’ve never seen another living being in all the time I’ve lived in Georgia. Adam, the student I’m swimming beside, is a devotee of magic. He writes about his visits to the jungles of Peru, about ayahuasca ceremonies, rituals for cleansing the soul. He has told me my own soul needs cleansing and since I’ve been healing from a major illness, I’ve listened hard, but sadly, my own mysticism these days comes only in rare moments. View of a full moon from the tall windows of the a-frame house I rent. Echoes across the dark waters. Dogs. Fireworks, come July. A blaze of orange in Georgia’s hot autumn days. Trails of goslings by the lake’s edge when spring comes back and before its quick Southern departure. This lake house has been my home for seven seasons, and some days I tell myself this is itself a magic number, but mostly, my time is linear. I count by school terms, by afternoon classes, night workshops. Tonight I am swimming with my eyes closed off and on, a crooked beeline toward a destination I can’t see without my glasses. I’m thinking about water and lakes and places where I grew up. Water was for sitting in with all your clothes on, like in a picture I have of my grandmother and grandfather at a river on a family vacation. They are fully clothed and sitting in a shallow spot in the cool river in a state park, their arms around each other and their faces lit with love. My grandfather holds her close and safe in the shallows. Back there, in the mountains, water was pretty to look at, but could also be a fearful thing. It was snakes and dark. It was for baptisms and looking at, at a safe distance. Here in Georgia, I swim to the far shore, often. The shadow of the dock is there but begins to vanish in the shadows. I breast stroke, free style, then back stroke for awhile. Without the glasses I see the speckles that stars make and the jagged streaks of fire, the pre-storm lightning. Wings hover and dive above our heads. Night herons? Long-winged bats? To my right I hear Adam’s even breath, see his pale hair. He vanishes into clouds inverted over the water. He’s outdistancing me and I remind myself to relax, not to hurry this swim or measure it, not make this a who-getsback-first night swim. Voices drift from the dock. Look at that one! New fire-line of lightning, and the not so far thunder. I scissor kick, tread and rest, try to remember all I know about which comes first, lightning or thunder. Lightning sizzles again through the black sky, a slash of light to some other world, if only I could make the opening last long enough.. Then the sky contracts and the atmosphere quakes. Whoo-eee!! Voices from the dock and the grand 53
splash of a body into water. I remember warnings about water and storms. Leave the pool as soon as the thunder comes. Don’t stand near trees. Electrical discharge always seeks out the shortest path to ground. Can you see them? Someone whistles, sharp and loud, and I reposition myself, swim toward the voices. Adam and I finally converge in the shoulder-deep water beside the dock. I feel strong and sleek and I circle my arms in the lukewarm shallows, thinking of my favorite fairy tale, about the princess who only attained gravity when she was in water. My gravity is this lake, and I float again on my back, the voices of my students disappearing into the water over my ears. There are five or six of them there, sipping wine and talking poetry and prose and where they’ll all go next, after this last MFA year. I like the way I can only halfhear them. Risk. Bringing the story to a close. Rip the story apart at the seams. The words float across the lake, pass me. The Georgia night floats over my skin and I think longingly of my sweetheart, who lives hours and hours away from me. I remember how once, on this very dock, during another storm, I said this. Do you think there will ever come a time when we can make storms arrive when we want them to? He is a man who is, like I wish I were, a believer in magic and the power of the world to summon light. Controlling storms? You’d better hope not, he said. Of the vast number of lakes in the United States, an indeterminate number harbor ghost towns. Beneath Liberty Lake, north of Baltimore, are copper mines, quarries, old roads and a town once known as Mineral Hill, today mostly a patch of blacktop along a stretch of trail along Bollinger Mill Road. Farther south in Alabama, the town once known as Irma is beneath the waters of Lake Martin. Irma once had a post office designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Civil engineers say that at ninety feet down in a lake, the waters are too acidic for wood boring worms and bacteria, and that this structure would be still mostly intact. Head north and west a bit to Arkansas and you’ll find a water-filled gorge known as the Narrows, with a town called Higden underneath it. In the 1800’s, Higden suffered from constant flooding, the land was purchased, residents left and the city was abandoned, but nearby residents and several eyewitnesses report that homes and buildings can still be seen, a water ghost town. South and further west, there’s Lake Texoma. Droughts in 2011 opens the pages of history for several submerged towns: Preston; Hagerman; Cedar Mills. And in Oklahoma, there’s Woodville. It was reported to have 360 residents in 1944, when it sank into an underwater ghost town. A former Woodvillian reported this: “Bonnie and Clyde used to come to old Woodville to chicken fights and they camped at Washita Point without causing too much trouble.” And moving back east to Georgia, where I live, there’s Lake Lanier. That lake, built in the 1950’s, has beneath an old dirt racing track. Foundations of buildings. Sunken cars and boats. Even a stretch of Georgia Highway 53. After the years of living in Georgia, boundaries blur between water and shore. Between my job and home, between the words I’m writing and the hundreds of pages I read by my student writers. Nights, when I cannot sleep, I punch the button on my Dream Machine 54 McElmurray
alarm clock and it plays me an ocean-like hum to lull me. I dream of water, those nights I can finally sleep. I dream of shores I’ve seen or wanted to see. Greece. The cold clay beaches of England. The hot sands beside northern Australian reefs. Waves and fins. Saltwater and fresh. And most of all, waves and waves of words. My days are numbers. Seven years of teaching. Fourteen terms. Thirty five workshops. Ten times four times five times seven workshop pieces read. Director of over a dozen fine arts projects of some one hundred and fifty pages each. Two literary magazines. One magazine edited. One magazine advised. Websites to maintain. Submissions read. Contests judged. Alongside all those words, there are conferences and residencies. Readings and lectures. Program applicant files. Enrollment predictions. Faculty meetings. School meetings. Department meetings. Committees and agendas. End of year reports. Merit pay points earned. Tenure files. Promotion files. Add to that eight months of chemo treatments, five days a week of radiation treatments, three years of climbing out of illness. Some days, I think I am drowning. On the nights I can’t sleep, I get up and sit at my dining room table. The blue screen light is its own body of water, an unnatural blueness through which no living soul could swim. I stare into the screen’s light and try to see some unfamiliar ocean’s bottom, some silty, lake-floor. I try to tell myself that writing is an act of prayer. A magic that can transform everything. In a Wednesday night fiction class I’m teaching, I’ve instituted new rules of etiquette for our discussions. I’ve been tired a lot, having moved through a major illness, so I’ve needed something solid to sit down in the middle of the conference table, in the midst of our discussions. So I’ve brought in a wooden carving of an iguana, and my students pass it, one to the next, when it is their turn to speak. It’s a kind of talking stick, something I learned about from John, my sweetheart. He is Monacan, and in his tribe, a talking stick means no one can interrupt. In the workshop, the stick passes fluidly from hand to hand for awhile, until one young man sits with his hand up in the air, waving, ready to be heard. I just don’t think this is a story yet, he says. Someone slides the iguana across the table at him. All the while we’re talking, I seem to hear it. A hush of rain from somewhere overhead in the windowless conference room. A ripple of moonlight in the memory I have of the lake, from the night before. I find that I’m having a hard time listening to the conversation, which is about craft. Croft, as a friend once pronounced it in a lecture at a writing residency. We’re talking about interruptions in the voice of the story. About better ways to frontload the plot, which is about a young man, a musician, who has come home to stay with his parents for awhile and never left. We’re talking all the things we usually talk about in a writing workshop. Dialogue. Place. Character. What I’m really listening to is far down somewhere inside me, and I’m trying to remember exactly what it is. A chair blew off the dock yesterday at the lake, and I watched it drift out over the water, then submerge, disappear. Or blue heron. How they hold themselves out, a straight line of gray and wings over the water, then dip down suddenly and completely, disappearing in the act of foraging. So many things disappear that way in McElmurray 55
the waters of the lake. The flip and dive of fish. Turtles and snakes. Or the circles and waves human beings leave in the wake of their speedboats and pontoons and jet skis. What I wish I knew how to do is bring that magic to the stories we’re discussing. The ring after ring on water as my father, in some photo of him as a boy, cast stones out over a lake. My Aunt Ruth’s pale shoulders, wet with the waters of faith as she was lifted up on the day she was saved. My own self now standing alone on the dock beside my house, casting my voice over the waters, hoping against hope that it comes to me, a story fully formed. How to bring that to the table in a writing workshop? The story and the heart converging, whole? What’s at stake with this story, one of the students wants to know. Are you risking enough? His words ripple at me across the seminar table and I remind myself to sit up straighter, pay attention, focus on the subject at hand. I wonder for a little if I’m becoming the shadow of a woman behind a wall of water. In Georgia, there are eighteen lakes, the majority of these man-made. Man-made lakes are impoundments—water accumulated in reservoirs—that do not occur naturally in the landscape. The land that makes up present-day Georgia had few natural lakes before its settlement, but a system of rivers and streams, large and small. To create its man-made bodies of water, there have been displacements. Bridges. Plantations. Houses. Graveyards. For the construction of Lake Lanier, for example, 700 families were relocated. To construct a lake, channels are blasted. Powerhouses constructed. A river is diverted through the open gates of this powerhouse. Saddlebacks sit in place until the gates are closed and the lake begin the slow process of filling. In my childhood water had rules and cautions. Lightning strikes. Swimming during menses. Potential copperheads in creeks and rivers. I remember standing in the warm house, out back of my grandmother’s house. The warm house smelled of all things live and not. There were canned tomatoes and beans and a deep bin full of potatoes for the winter months. The building was kept cool by a spring that fed under the floor. I’d stand at the edge of the hole and look down and imagine forever, a place fearful and full of god. Anything could have winged up out of that hole in the earth. These days I am unafraid of the expanse of water in front of my house. I do not hesitate to swim alone, though friends and family urge me not to. I swim laps to the dock to the left of my house. I swim laps to the third ladder on the shore to my right. And on warm weekday afternoons, when the jet-skiers and the pontoon boat crowds are at work and I am back from classes, I swim the distance across the cove. Breast stroke. Side stroke. Free style. Rest. Breast stroke. Side stroke. Free style. Tread. As I swim I squint and study sky and distance, waves and shore. I think of swimming laps at the public pool, years back, and how a sculpture named Esther swam up to me and asked me to model for her. She gave me a copy of the piece she did. For years I had it, a chocolatecolored bust of myself that I’d dress with scarves and hats and sunglasses, until I left it 56 McElmurray
behind in a house where I once lived. Between my outstretched hands now, as I breast stroke, I see impressions of the world. Million-dollar Georgia homes in the distance. Two roads I know are there, beside smaller houses and trailers, a church. Once when woman I met at the doctor’s office asked me if I needed someone “out there” to clean my house, she said, you live on that road where there ain’t many black people, don’t you? Behind me as I swim there’s my house, and in the woods beside that house, there’s a lone grave marked 1897. A sole piece of land owned by a former slave. Her family refuses to sell, to make way for another lake house lot. As I swim, I think about a film I love. Night of the Hunter, based on a script by James Agee. Shelley Winters meets Robert Mitchum, the tattooed-hand preacher who tries to steal her fortune and finally leaves her under the waters of a lake, “down there in the deep place, with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadow grass.” She could be under this very lake, as little as I know about it. I know that it was created in 1953. That it is has over four hundred miles of shoreline, over fifteen thousand acres of water. Down there at the lake’s bottom are things lost, left behind, forgotten. Countless flat stones cast over the waters, skipping out, making rings on the lake’s surface, sinking, once earth become depths. A crane-feather that drifted down from the air, now nothing but a spine. Or that chair I used to own. A child’s swimming mask, blown off a pontoon and floating out. All of it submerged, invisible. I swim each morning, early, or each afternoon, late, and each time I swim across the lake I leave the world of town and building and halls and office behind. I shed the skin of days. My skin is a heightened surface from which I do not deflect the world well. I am permeable. Over the last nine years, I have drunk words by the thousands. Pages upon pages upon pages. Listened to a thousand conversations about stories. Gathered up the threads of a hundred lives not my own, and rewoven them into pages turned by other fingers. Nine years of traveling from my house to the land of words and my own words, inside my own chest, are an almost forgotten language, some days. When I swim across the lake , I think of it as a kind of baptism. I reach out into shadowy water of a lake and the language of days washes away from my skin. I hope each time that I am made anew. I imagine a house beneath this lake, a front porch, though anything made of wood would not survive years of submersion. The house is plain and weather-boarded, with a lattice where morning glories blossom against late afternoon heat. I imagine a woman in a glider, her hair flooding back in the same watery light that warms me as I swim. Her dress is cinch-waist, fifties style, and neither time nor the murky depths of Lake Sinclair have altered its tidy prettiness. On her knee, a china cup. Ginger tea and lemon and tea leaves that she will keep for later, for her fortune. In the watery depths of my imagination steam rises from her cup, trails up through the depths of lake water and algae and the nipping mouths of fish. The trail of steam is a rope of light and I can grab hold, ride it up into the brilliance of this autumn afternoon. Down to the lake’s most impenetrable bottom. All stories are water, really. Begin, you say, with one word on a page. Lake. McElmurray 57
The word lake comes from Middle English lake (“lake, pond, waterway”), from Old English lacu (“pond, pool, stream”), from Proto-Germanic *lakō (“pond, ditch, slow moving stream”), from the Proto-Indo-European root *leg’- (“to leak, drain”). Cognates include Dutch laak (“lake, pond, ditch”), Middle Low German lāke (“water pooled in a riverbed, puddle”), German Lache (“pool, puddle”), and Icelandic lækur (“slow flowing stream”). Also related are the English words leak and leach. After the first word, ride the waves, sentence to sentence. Do they rise and fall? Think the luscious lines, the paragraphs and pages of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.” Snow falls into water. Birds meet twilight. Blue heavens, scripted with stars. And each sentence, meeting the next sentence, beauty and rain synonymous. I ride those sentences like waves. Transparent, he says. Another water-lesson. Beauty. Shown via snow and birds. Celestial space become earth. Awe become here and now. But if Emerson is too rife with the tra-la of transcendence for you, try the shallows, the shoreline of a particular lake. There you’ll find the nitty gritty. Mud, dank and brown with summer’s end. The yellow-green lines of September’s pollen, washed up, a divide between water and bank. Wade out a ways and you can’t see your own two feet. Wade in up to your chin, or your chest if the waters are too dark, and watch what could float past. The effluvium of the fishing world, for one thing. A left-behind Styrofoam bait bucket next to the dock, earthworms and silvery minnows gone to maggots. Tabs from beer can. A bobber or two and the odd tangle of fishing line. A hook buried in the clay right next to your toes. A fish head. A spine. The razor-sharp edges of mussel shells. The brown-liquor color of the water sucked up your nose, on your tongue, steeped into your flesh. A world ripe, fecund. But if this lake-world is still not specific enough, take it apart a little more. Limnology is the study of inland waters. Of how those waters flow, metabolize, transport to a lake. Limnology tells us that lakes can be divided into three zones: the sloped area close to land; the open-water zone, where sunlight is abundant; and the deepwater zone, where little sunlight can reach. The depth to which light can reach in lakes depends on the density and size of suspended particles in the water—sedimentary or biological—and these color the lake waters. Decaying plant matter lends yellow or brown, while algae causes greenish water. Iron oxides make water reddish brown. Biological particles include algae and detritus. And those waters are a chain of eating. Bottomdwelling fish stir the mud in search of food. Other fish devour the plant-eaters. And all of this in the light, dark world of surfaces and depths and all the watery world in-between. But stories, you say, have people and voices. They have actions and consequences. Those, too, can be summoned via water. Try a particular morning, a particular slant of light. Out the windows of the house, see the boat just beyond the dock. An unusual sight, a girl and her father fishing in the just-before-dawn. Step out onto the deck and listen. You can hear their voices if you listen, how the girl is laughing and how they’re playing 58 McElmurray
music. Patsy Cline, some song about falling in love. You watch the girl bend over the side of the boat, trail her fingers through the water. Even from that far away, with you on the deck and the early morning fog, you can see her. How she looks down into the still waters, wondering how far they reach, whether there is such a place, the faraway bottom of a lake. In November, 1959, the body of a woman was found in Lake Lanier. She could not be identified, and was for years known only as “The Lady of the Lake.” It was not until 1990 that a construction crew building a cofferdam, a support for a bridge across the Lake, found a 1952 Ford Sedan, submerged since 1958. The Lady of the Lake was actually two women, Delia Mae Parker Young and Susie Roberts, both missing since April, 1958. Workers clearing debris on the lake bottom found the car, its tires still inflated with air, the chrome hubcaps shiny and the ignition and radio switched to on. Identification of skeletal remains inside the car led to the identification of the body and a story unfolded. How Suzie and a companion drove to a local roadhouse, Three Gables, where they enjoyed a few drinks. How they filled Suzie’s car up at a gas station and left without paying. How a watch found in the Ford Sedan, all those years later, was set at 11:30. In the 1993 film The Piano, a woman named Ada feels the music of the piano she plays in the palms of her hands. Following an arranged marriage, she travels with her beloved piano and her daughter to 1850’s New Zealand for an arranged marriage. The husband is a distant man who has no understanding of who Ada really is and she takes a lover. In response, her husband mutilates her hand, trying to take away her music. When, late in the film, Ada leaves the island, she almost believes this, that music cannot save her. She insists that Baines, the lover, throw her piano overboard into the sea. As the piano sinks, Ada deliberately puts her foot into the loops of rope trailing into the water. She is pulled deep under the waves, connected by the rope to the piano, but then she changes her mind and kicks free, rising through water into light. All these years later, I remember rising through water and light. Baptism. A preacher’s hands reaching out to me and how I noticed his fingers. Fat little fingers with chewed off nails, but I reached for them and watched waters flood from the long, wet sleeves of his robe. Outside, it was summer, and that I had never been allowed to learn how to swim, never been shown how to hold my breath at a pool or beside an ocean. In the name of Jesus. In the name of the Father. My legs kicked and I flailed, reaching myself up toward the light of some far-distant bulb, some ceiling a million miles from myself. What I want to remember is goodness bearing me safely over to some home beyond all the world I knew. This is the body of the Lord. Take ye and eat. What I want to remember is the light of god in my mouth forever and ever, amen. The last year beside that Georgia lake was also like rising slowly through water, past seven years of my life. I seemed to move through those years via a world between. Lake and shore. Office and a home that wasn’t ever really mine. Five years between an illness’s diagnosis and the final verdict of wellness. And fourteen hours away was my sweetheart, McElmurray 59
a journey I undertook again and again via car and plane, highways and skies, between north and south. I was between the words of others and the stories of my own heart that I longed to write. How did I kick free? At any given moment, there are an estimated 2,000 thunderstorms moving over the earth’s surface. A storm happens when light air rises quickly into higher, colder air, creating drafts that sometimes reach over 100 miles per hour. And then there’s lightning. Air carries charged water droplets upward to heights where some freeze into ice and snow particles. Clouds form. As these particles begin to fall back to earth, charges within the cloud become mixed. The differences in charge are released as lightning. A single lightning strike over a body of water can deliver a billion electron volts and 100,000 amps. Air within such a lightning stroke can be hotter than the Sun’s surface. Strikes touch water, spread out, penetrate the depths, touching everything alive. Storms are what I will remember most of all from my time by that Georgia lake. The day the storm swept, white and heavy, across the waters. I could see it coming as I stood by the windows inside my house. Such strong wind it picked up the row boat I owned then, flung it across the yard and toward the shore. Wind that pushed so hard at the unlocked door in my living room I had to stand against it with my whole body. Rain drummed on the roof, wanting its way inside. Another day. Down on the dock alone as I watched the storm’s wide hand move forward. How the wind stilled, that day. Such silence and the slate-gray waters. A long vein of lightning flashed and the sky became the belly of the earth. The world was so still I forgot to breathe. For a long while I’d begun to inhabit not just a land between water and shore, between work place and house, but between soul and self. Soul. That is a word it seems we must use sparingly in this age of the bottom line. I was soul-sick. Cancer’s little hiss inside me, and more, Lost in a torrent of words. Stories and essays and poems and meetings and readings and my own voice inside one more room. Classroom. Hotel room. Boardroom. Bedroom with the shades drawn at the end of a long day and the distant sound of thunder over the lake. My soul’s room was empty, but I lay at night and listened to a faraway amniotic sea. “I will show up whole,” a friend wrote me recently about public events and a new book she’ll be promoting. “It is how I want to do everything. Show up whole for readings. Show up whole for friendship. Show up whole for writing. Show up whole for cooking and walking and filling the bird feeder.” Way back in graduate school in Georgia we went, each spring, on a writing retreat to Sapelo Island. There was a field study center with room enough for all of us young writers to stay beside the long, empty beaches. One night we all went out there to play under the stars and I had brought sparklers for everyone. We all stood there, ready to light them and dance beside the surf, and my teacher, the kind and wise Jim Kilgo, said to everyone, “Karen brought these.” I hurried down the beach. Alone and embarassed, I hid myself in 60 McElmurray
the shadows down the beach. How quick the flames were, sizzling up into the black night. It has taken me years to claim the power of that night. I have traveled the world looking for light, it sometimes seems. In the south of France at Bastille Day I watched Roman candles exploding over the sea. In the north of India, I watched the lit byres float out, bodies already on their way to ash and bones. And later, back home again, I sat watching my grandmother’s hands light newsprint and coal in the grate in the back room of the house I thought of most as home. And there is this. The memory of sound. Water poured into a basin over the feet of believers in a church for which I still long. And shall we believe in this, the fire of the Holy Spirit? Amen. All these years later I try to teach via fire, via water. Like my grandmother and her mother and the ones before that, I try to lay on hands. What, I ask my students, is the heart of the piece at hand? They imagine prettiness with that word. Heart. They imagine lace and arrows and cutouts in pink and white. But I tell them that is not what I mean at all. Lay your hands against the pages, I tell them. Reach in. Find the about of the piece at hand. Pull meaning up from the depths. If you are afraid, be afraid. Ride the waves of intention and translate them into the sentences, the pages to come. Via some transcendent power, some magic act of trust and discipline, inner life and the act of story converge. It was early May when I moved away from my lake. That last afternoon I sat out on the dock with my sweetheart and with two students who’d come to help me pack. We sipped cold beers and dove into the chilly, early spring waters. I studied the lake’s surface, trying to remember the exact configuration of light and water. Then I dove a final time, swam far out, my lungs shocked by the almost-cold, then the patches of warm. Beside me, waves and sound, a boat and water impacting distance. I held my breath, pushed my body down as hard as I can, down into those warm spots, still trying to reach the depths of the lake after these years. I had never been able to push myself down far enough in the water, nor linger long enough to see very much, but I held my breath, held my eyes open, kicked my legs, and I began my brief descent. I passed shadows of tree limbs, trails of plant-debris. Strands of grass. Threads of moss. My arms pushed through pale green sunlight. Lower down, I entered memory. Water, by the season. Spring and clear-cold. A trail of goslings. The tall, lanky crane with its wild white mane. Summer and the boats returning. How they wave to me, the lone woman on the dock. Then the lake is fireworks and random songs from motorboats. Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee. Lying down, eye to a knothole, water gliders skim past and time barely moves. Sweating cold bottles of water down from the house. Lie on a float out in the water and dream. All the way up to the listless, dog days in August. A cakey layer of pollen forms on the surface of the deep. Water turtles lie on hot, dry patches of earth beside the cove. And out there, a water moccasin, the one with its tiny head held up out of the waters. Autumn. The air smells of wood smoke, creosote. Docks and houses, tuning themselves up for winter. And that time, the cold season. The woman, living alone beside a cove in winter. She heads out to the slope of grass beside the lake, carries arms full of kindling back to her hearth. Guests come for red potato soup and wine. She keeps herself warm in a bed laden with quilts her own grandmother stitched by McElmurray 61
hand and, out there, the lake is the color of flint. If I could have pushed past, reached it, the heart of water, what might I have seen? Some other vast city, maybe, one five thousand years old. Pottery shards and walls, beads and sculpture, human bones, teeth. Stone tablets, maybe, with the secret codes of everything inscribed in cuneiform. Or if none of those things, how about light, or its absence? Thoreau says this about the surface of water: “…waves may reflect the sky at the right angle, or because there is more light mixed with it, it appears at a little distance of a darker blue than the sky itself; and at such a time, being on its surface, and looking with divided vision, so as to see the reflection, I have discerned a matchless and indescribable light blue, such as watered or changeable silks and sword blades suggest, more cerulean than the sky itself….” Is there reflection there, too, at the bottom of everything? Is the farthest reach of water obsidian-black, impenetrable, a void? Or is there a brilliance underneath the world so amazing we just might reach it if we understood how? Tell me how it is that women imagine transcendence. Pages gathered from the waters. Eyelids of children fluttering as they suckle and sleep. The memory of lightning. I wish I could tell you that my departure from that time and place was an act of magic. That I vanished, whoosh, and reappeared some other place, new and whole again. Magically transformed into who and what I had always longed to become. Now that I have moved away from my lake to the suburbs outside of a series of cities in the north, I write stories about that lake time. Fragments from a life taken back. One piece is about my last days in the lake house, my back aching and my arms bruised from the boxes I’d carried to a truck out by the road. Boxes of papers and pots and pans, shoes and towels, dishes and knick knacks, all the paraphernalia of years of a life of indecision. What were the choices in those boxes? Stay at a job that left me empty? Risk a life where I wrote, but perhaps life of the very poverty I’d come from in the first place, before I climbed the ladder toward success? I carried bags of books from my office, day by day. Nights, at the lake house, I filled seventy five boxes with the books I was keeping, the notebooks I could not bear to throw away. When I remember that lake time, I remember questions about the heart, both my own heart and the hearts of the pages I encouraged as they were born. I remember the question I keep, even now. Can the writing of stories be taught? I asked myself this for years as I drew the intricacy of lines and arrows, marks pointing the direction to where this sentence goes and when and how. Find the heart of your piece, I said. And I meant the essence of the thing at hand. The deepest place. The thing you’d get if you boiled it all down, a water and cayenne tincture made on a blazing hot woodstove smack dab in the middle of a hot season. Find the heart and follow it, I said. Eyebrows raised. This silly business about hearts. That last lake day, I dog-paddled up to the ladder to the dock, felt the thick barnacles on the ladder’s rungs. I’d lived beside the lake enough seasons to know the plankton and sediments by touch, how they’d eaten away with rust what had once been new metal. I pulled myself up on to the boards and lay on my side on a towel, staring at water and sky. 62 McElmurray
Yoke Jennifer Perrine Pressed to my tongue like a pill, a Eucharist, you wake in me this spark and spur. Dear, dread catalyst, you wake in me. You arrange a place where I must wait, one smoldering cigarette the only remnant of this tryst you wake in me. After sex, sweat collects at your sternum, rainwater pooled, placid after the tempest you wake in me. Your hair loops, whorls in the sink, the shower. I fill a room with its straw, set spinning the alchemist you wake in me. In the gold purse of morning, I find origami stars that mimic each practiced turn, each twist you wake in me. You tear each flower from its stem as if this could undo the bloom, forestall fruit, withhold the harvest you wake in me. I see you now, glinting, coin tossed in a fountain. Single wish thatâ€™s gone unnoticed, you wake in me. You wrap the blindfold tight, lead me to a room of steel implements where I swear, honest, you wake in me. Tonight you wear all your teeth, don your finest claws, release a beast to roam the forest you wake in me. You appear as archangel. As serpent, too. Either way, I cast you out, invoke the exorcist you wake in me. Drunken god, you pursue me. Salvation means I turn to stone. Contrite, you weep wine, gloss of amethyst you wake in me. You crook my arm into this hook, this pivot and punch I did not know I owned, the swinging fist you wake in me. Fair phantom, you wander from room to room in the dark, master of obstacles. Somnambulist, you wake in me.
Temperance | Gluttony At the dim sum parlor, while my mother devoured full plates of bao, steam exhaling as she broke open each fluffy white mound, I held back, allowed only a mouthful of soft dough, bright sweet meat. I knew to keep room for the slick chew of wide rice noodles and one delicate har gow: burst of shrimp, translucent skin pinched into a seashell. I regarded each passing cart with calm control, not risking the big bowl of thick congee, nor the pile of crimson chicken feet my mother called phoenix claws. Flavors sold at the local strip mallâ€”pot stickers, egg rollsâ€”went untouched while I sought secrets lifted from bamboo baskets: lotus leaf triangle, its subtle earth scent infused into the sticky heap that hid sausage and slivers of mushroom. I plucked single morsels, unfamiliar chopsticks fumbling, sipped chrysanthemum tea, petals blooming with warmth, watched the stamps collect on our card. Last to my tongue: an inch of taro cake, fried dollop of red bean paste. How that strange array mixed in my belly as at last we spilled into the late morning on Mott Street, its wallop of baffling talk, of sun-splashed awnings as we walked through wafts of garbage, fish markets, the mystery of city scents. Years later, I will recall for you, new love, this whole excursion, fine balance
I found to temper temptation. Iâ€™ll urge restraintâ€”just a taste, the smallest nibble, one tiny bite. Iâ€™ll teach you all I know of the strap of savor, harness of feast, how bridle and rein kindle appetite.
The Last Painting Susan Lloy Following the death of my parents in a car crash, my late sister and I had to do the usual difficult things that are required. Dealing with the estate trustee, going through the clothes and personal items that one collects throughout one’s lifetime. Deciding which to keep and which to disown. My late father was an artist. We were left the task of cataloguing each painting that he had ever created, tracking down paintings in galleries and art rentals. The shock of the accident was paralyzing. It was arduous to take a simple breath. Drink a drop—chew or swallow. When living in Amsterdam a psychic told me that I was a white witch and mentioned that if I ever wished to investigate and pursue paranormal activities it could be accomplished without strain. One has the usual déjà vu; I have it more than often. The psychic’s remark was strange to hear because I had had a recurring dream of a car accident six months to my parents’ crash. I was in a small vehicle—a Volkswagen Bug. It had been our family car twice—first a white one, then a red. No matter the car color my dream was always the same. I took a sharp turn on the steep embankment that runs above our cove. Defective breaks. Unable to stop. Going over the side multiple times per week. My parents hit black ice on a November morning traveling to my father’s last one-man exhibition. They lost control and ran into a sixteen-wheeler—slid off a mountain. I never gave this dream much thought. Following the crash I never had the dream again. Many years later while my late sister and I were doing mescaline on a hot Montréal summer afternoon I had a vision. Not Jim Morrion-esque, but a clear definitive acknowledgment that my sister would die at forty-three. I kept this to myself. Like other previous premonitions this one was tossed aside and attributed to merely being stoned. It was soon forgotten and filed in a faraway dusty corner of my mind. When I visited the medium in Amsterdam she said This is in your family. We all had the gift of knowing things… though our gift did not extend to choosing lucky lottery numbers. But when my sister died at forty-two, the memory of that incident resurfaced once more. The week following my parents’ accident we were occupied with my father’s work. Making lists of sizes and dating the beautiful panels in his vast collection. Articulated from his love of nature. Poems of color. A cadence comprised of brush and palette strokes. We came across a large painting that was still damp. His last. It displays an unusual subject matter. Although my father is a well-known landscape painter, this piece is a depiction of a cemetery with a great moody sky and white-capped lake. A mountain range embraces the clouds and two small islands, one with spruce, drift lonely offshore. In the foreground, various tombstones worn my age and storms lie scattered on a soft hillside. Red-turned 66
branches confront the cold winter water. Snow and shadow sweep the land. My father always signed his painting on the bottom left or right hand corner. Understated. Camouflaged. This one, however, was a deviation. Out of order in the sphere of habit and tradition. My father had printed his first and last name, letter by letter, carefully executed by fine brush on a tombstone in the painting. The year ‘1986’ placed directly under his name. The year of his death. We stood and stared into each other’s eyes not believing what we were witnessing. An unconscious comprehension of his own mortality. I was living in a different city and had not seen my parents for ten months prior to their death. I was told that my mother had said the day before the crash, “If I can just get through this weekend.” She had a foreboding, was scared of the trip. My sister had planned to travel with them but had to study for exams. Initially, my parents had decided to take the truck but switched to their small hatchback at the last minute—forfeiting traction. It was a gray bland Saturday in Toronto when I got the news. That morning I awoke glum and anxious. We had a neighbor who owned a six-foot Burmese Python and wished to present it to us. For some reason many friends had decided to drop by that afternoon. We drank beer, chain-smoked and discussed life. The neighbor came with the snake. When my sister rang and told me about the crash the snake was slithering through the flat. The painting hangs on my wall and I feel close to him. And I wonder if death will greet me in a dream. Provide a clue—a glimpse beyond the temporary. Nudge me to take a trip. Not stress about retirement. Spend. Pull the arrow of time. Send me on my way.
from THE SUN & THE MOON Kristina Marie Darling (I) You began as a small mark on the horizon. Then night & its endless train of ghosts. You led them in, one after the other. They took off their shoes, hung their coats & started looking through the drawers. By then I could hardly speak. I realized the lock on the door must not be working. The floor was covered in ash. There was nothing I could do, so I kept trying to tell you goodnight. You just stood there, your hands in your pockets, that small army behind you. That was when they started polishing the knives.
(III) Even when I said the fires were too much, I loved the way the flames lit your face from the ashes below. Ablaze & shimmering, youâ€™d watch as the party grew smaller & the room brighter. One by one the ghosts left for the ocean, dragging those cold dark stars behind them. The house was nearly empty. When you closed the door for the last time, I could only stare. The tablecloth was burning & still you just sat there, stoking that enormous fire. Thatâ€™s when I turn to you & ask if daylight always looks this way.
How To Be Free Brynn Saito Go to the ends of the earth/girl/go like a leopard chasing her longing/go like the grasses grown and cut and blowing over the valley by autumn fire-winds/Go away from the valley/girl/go to the city/go like a fighter/with gold ore precision/with penny-like pain/with plenty of power/Please ignore/what you can girl / the growls in your absence/the men with their ice-blocks melting in arms/the men with their mine-field hearts/ The women like me/wishing you well/whistling wisdom into your spine/learn to lie to survive/ girl /learn to outlast the flame/learn the art of surprise
Contributors Rowland Bagnall is a 22-year-old student of English Literature, currently based in Oxford. His work has appeared previously in The Missing Slate, Revolver, Cake, the Oxonian Review, and the Belleville Park Pages, among other publications. Kristina Marie Darling is the author of seventeen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo. William Garland teaches English at the University of South Carolina, where he is a graduate of its MFA program in creative writing. His work appears or is forthcoming in Hoot, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Real South Magazine, and other literary journals and anthologies. He was the recent winner of Jasper Magazine’s “One Book, One Poem” contest, judged by Ron Rash. He is also one of the founding editors of The Frank Martin Review. Whittney Jones is an MFA graduate of Murray State University. She lives in Southern Illinois, where she works as a Project Next Generation mentor at her town’s public library. She has work published or forthcoming in Zone 3, the minnesota review, and Parable Press. Alyse Knorr is the author of Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books, 2013) and Alternates (dancing girl press, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Caketrain, RHINO, Puerto Del Sol, The Minnesota Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. She received her MFA from George Mason University. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Gazing Grain Press and teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Susan Lloy has had the privilege of growing up surrounded by her father’s paintings. The premonition evidenced by the graveyard signature in his last painting still haunts her to this day. Susan has honed her perceptual skills working in diverse environments; from handling nitro and explosives in the Canadian North to slinging drinks in Halifax, she now coordinates a Cardiac Surgery Unit in Montreal. A graduate of the Nova Scotia of Art & Design, Susan has published with Production Gray Editions, Penduline Press and in the 71
spring with PARAGRAPHITI and Beecher’s Magazine. She is currently crafting her second novel. Kyle McCord is the author of four books of poetry including You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze (forthcoming Gold Wake, 2015). He has work featured in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. He’s received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Baltic Writing Residency. He’s the editor of American Microreviews and Interviews. Along with Wendy Xu, he co-edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. He teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton where he runs the Kraken Reading Series. Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Other stories and essays have appeared in Iron Horse, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Riverteeth, and in the anthologies An Angle of Vision; To Tell the Truth; Fearless Confessions; Listen Here; Dirt; Family Trouble; and Red Holler. Her writing has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Most recently, she was named Distinguished Alumna at Berea College and her essay, “Strange Tongues,” was the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award from The Bellingham Review. In Spring 2014, she will be the Lewis Rubin Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University. Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of So You Know It’s Me, a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Level End, a collection of lyric essays based on videogame boss battles, & the forthcoming Leave Luck to Heaven, an ode to 8-bit Nintendo Games. Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues, 2007), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Jennifer teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and serves as Associate Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and on the advisory board of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. For more information, visit Jennifer online at www.jenniferperrine.org. Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press (2013), and Northern California Book Award nominee. She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook of poetry from Diode Editions (2013). Brynn’s work has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth 72
Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Pleiades. Currently, Brynn lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: ImpassioPress), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. Upon the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat. For more, visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com. Lisa Summe was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and earned her BA and MA in English at the University of Cincinnati. Her poems have appeared in Fourth River, Mead, The Licking River Review, and elsewhere. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Atlantis Award from The Poet’s Billow for her poem, “Pilot You” and was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, she lives in Blacksburg, Virginia where she teaches first-year writing, and works as the poetry editor of the minnesota review and the associate poetry editor of Toad. Hailey Uhler is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis. She hails from Columbus, Ohio and can be reached at email@example.com. Bryan Shawn Wang lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two children. His stories have recently appeared in places like Valparaiso Fiction Review, Washington Square, Rathalla Review, and Kenyon Review Online. Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules, a memoir (Red Hen Press, 2014). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Filter Literary Journal, and Third Coast. She serves as adviser and lecturer for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. Michael Wheaton is a native of Northwest New Jersey and current resident of Central Florida, where he teaches English Composition at Valencia College. Dr. Ernest Williamson III has published poetry and visual art in over 400 national and international online and print journals. Some of Dr. Williamson’s visual art and/or poetry has been published in journals representing 50 colleges and universities around the world. 73
Dr. Williamson is an Assistant Professor of English at Allen University, self-taught pianist, editor, poet, singer, composer, social scientist, private tutor, and a self-taught painter. His poetry has been nominated three times for the Best of the Net Anthology. The poems which were nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology were as follows: “The Jazz of Old Wine”, “The Symbol of Abiotic Needs”, & “The Misfortune of Shallow Sight”. He holds the B.A. and the M.A. in English/Creative Writing/Literature from the University of Memphis and the PhD in Higher Education Leadership from Seton Hall University.
With new work by Rowland Bagnall, Kristina Marie Darling, William Garland, Whittney Jones, Alyse Knorr, Susan Lloy, Kyle McCord, Karen Salye...
Published on May 7, 2014
With new work by Rowland Bagnall, Kristina Marie Darling, William Garland, Whittney Jones, Alyse Knorr, Susan Lloy, Kyle McCord, Karen Salye...