Red Savina Review The Online Literary Magazine in the Southwest
Volume 2 Issue 2 Fall 2014 ISSN 2169-3161
EDITOR in CHIEF
John M. Gist
SPANISH LANGUAGE EDITOR
Lydia Huerta Moreno
Red Savina Review (RSR) is an independent, bi-annual e-zine publishing short films, creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry in March and September. RSR is a nonprofit literary review headquartered in southwestern New Mexico. For submission guidelines visit our website redsavinareview.org/submit-2/. Copyright © 2014. Red Savina Review contains copyrighted materials, including but not limited to photographs, text and graphics. You may not use, publish, copy, download, upload, post to a bulletin board or otherwise transmit, distribute, or modify any contents in any way. You may download one copy of such contents on any single computer for your own personal, non-‐commercial use, provided you do not alter or remove any copyright, author attribution, or other notices.
A Letter from the Editor “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” -Albert Camus
Dear Readers, Issue 2.2 of Red Savina Review (RSR) marks the end of our second year in the whacky world of the literary journal game. Many journals, for many reasons, do not last more than a couple of issues. We here at RSR plan on being around for years to come. Though there are no monetary rewards involved, money can’t buy you love, right? As cliché as it sounds, we love what we do. This is cause for celebration. When starting this endeavor two years ago, I was well aware of the facts: a small pond with too many fish and not enough food, little chance of return on investments of time and money, blah, blah, blah. Yet, fueled by an intuition that the literary tides are turning, that readers are growing tired (some even sick) with the current state of literary affairs, I dove into the pond head first. Luckily, instead of cracking my skull on an underwater boulder, I found the waters refreshing and deep. Though the pond may be small in circumference, it is, as far as I can tell, bottomless in terms of potential. The intention at RSR is to provide writers a space to publish work online that is widely accessible and to champion those writers whose work pushes the boundaries of what literature can be. Political Correctness and postmodernism, in my mind (and I am not alone), though necessary at one time, are approaching the end of their usefulness. At the university where I teach, I sense a growing urgency among students, graduate and undergraduate alike. No longer are they solely concerned with money and the superficiality it can purchase. Sure, they want to make a comfortable living, but they need something more: they crave meaning. As readers, they hanker for the meaning which has, deliberately or not, been diluted or covered up by the constraints of Political Correctness and the aimlessness of postmodernity.
All hail to these readers! They are opening up a space that has been closed off for most of my adult life. RSR hopes to help occupy this space by continuing to publish poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction that pushes boundaries and confronts the old ways of doing things that obviously cannot satisfy this craving for meaning. That this is all a little slow in coming about, I admit. Too many writers, conditioned by society and the ubiquitousness of corporate influence, are either afraid or still learning how to ask the questions that lead to meaning. Though the questions are virtually as old as language itself, and therefore universal (absolute from the human perspective), the answers, if they are to achieve the status of meaning, must come from somewhere deep within (relative). This is not to be confused with the outmoded subject/object dichotomy that dominated the scene for centuries. Neither is it a surrender to abject subjectivity where one person’s meaning cancels out the next person’s because each individual’s, ad nauseam, is valid for the brief life (and attention span) of that particular subject. Instead, and in following Heidegger, the world worlds me, just as it worlds you. We share this experience in common and express it differently. The subject/object dichotomy, then, breaks down and so does the solipsism which too often taints postmodern literary works. RSR’s role in all of this? To give writers the opportunity to develop the questions that lead to meaning and, through publication, ask readers to hear the questions and posit answers. The relationship is neither purely objective (the author is the god of their written world), nor purely subjective (the reader takes away any old meaning they choose). In the end it is a human dialogue about the human place in the world which we share with the earth, the sky, sea and stars. With all this in mind, the theme for Issue 2.2 is NO THEME. We purposely didn’t post Calls for Submissions at New Pages, The Review Review, and the like. We were experimenting (and operating on a shoestring budget!): Would there be enough interest in our foundling journal to risk word-of-mouth advertising? Was the word getting out? The answer: Yes! In this issue we are publishing a Walt Whitman Award winning poet and a former Walter Stegner Fellow, along with previously unpublished authors and everything in between. The result is an eclectic batch of poetry, stories and essays that share a commonality in that they all, in one way or another, ask questions that can lead to an evolution of meaning. This, I honestly believe, is what readers now seek.
So, if you are reading this and even partially agree with my take on things, please help spread the word. Though our unique visitors at RSR are at an all-time high, we won’t survive unless you help us bring in more readers. When we hit a specified number of unique visitors in an issue, we have little surprise for everyone involved…. Stay tuned. Finally, I am proud to announce The Albert Camus Award in Short Fiction. I am getting used to the water in our little pond, learning to hold my breath for longer and longer periods when diving below the surface. There is talent down there to be sure. Too often, however, real talent is pushed to the fringes by a marketplace which dictates value by popularity rather than insight. Camus encapsulates what RSR strives to publish: literature that looks deep into the heart of humanity. The award will be given annually to those writers whose fiction strips away the conceits of being human in an attempt to clear the way for human being. We hope to see the prize monies increase each year. Read more about the contest here. Please join me in congratulating the staff for all of the hours of work at their own expense. I deeply appreciate ALL the writers who submitted and contributed to this issue. Enjoy! Thank you for reading RSR! –JMG
Contents Creative Nonfiction
Charles Bane, Jr
Writing Poetry While Male
The Meaningful Senselessness of Wonders
Peter Pan Does Goldman Sachs
The Pregnancy from F—ing Hell
Mill Town, Atheists and Trees
Pine Mountain Overthrust Fault
Ana Maria Caballero
Bibliografía, The Suffering Game
The Last Time, Elegy, Always Walking Away
another country, toll, things with wings
Daniel A. Olivas
Slip Dream, Wonder Bread
GREEK CHORUS, PRAIRIE BURNING, UNRAVELED, CAN TIME RUN BACKWARD?
Backyard Poem #1, Backyard Poem #6, Backyard Poem #9
Travels in the Vortex
In the Twilight Kingdom
The Spectrum of the Suction Bus
Thicker Than Water
Charles Bane, Jr.
WRITING POETRY WHILE MALE
It’s clear that feminist poetry is experiencing a renaissance, powered by genius. Both Saskia Hamilton and Patricia Lockwood published new collections this year, and one is certain to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. That’s fitting when feminists are crafting work like Lockwood: “a city cannot visit / any city but itself, and in its sadness it gives / away a great door in the air.” Only the innocent believe that the Pulitzers are not political, and male poets must bow to its reality as painters did once before the Roman church. Sadly, for many male poets, editors and critics the gift of these women is baffling, and a personal threat. They hold onto their misogyny at their peril; because the irony of the explosion of new wave feminist poetry, succored by women writers on social media, is that men are prime beneficiaries. They no longer need male privilege to wall them from better poems to come. And a female poet who demands an equal voice in Letters is no more an actual threat than the Black man beside a Caucasian at a lunch counter, expecting service. In a remarkable scholarly work, Matilda Bruckner uncovered the unknown female troubadours of the Middle Ages (Songs Of The Women Troubadours, Routledge; New Ed edition, April, 2000). Empowered by husbands absent on Crusade, and in charge of working estates, they found voice. Unlike male troubadours, many remain anonymous. They responded in their work to the powerful lyric poetry that had risen in the south of France. They answered equally and in kind. Male and female began to search out the other, in measures.
For the male poet who has -perhaps unconsciously- wanted to express himself without the restraint that culture, faith, and tradition have demanded, their moment has come. They do not have to sleep in amber. The deep vulnerabilities theyâ€™ve kept hidden are the nucleus of poems only they can write. They will be met by a like vulnerability and new warbling altogether: Morning Feed You are a great round thing in my arms Each morning I unwrap you to make you cold And warm you myself Eat child drink only the good While you still can Unknowing small pale and perfect We become As you take from me the only self I have to give -Ana Maria Caballero (poem used with permission)
THE MEANINGFUL SENSELESSNESS OF WONDERS “Alien strains graft themselves on old legends in puzzling and strange fashion.” -Evan Connell Aerial anomalies that stir wonder have never been wanting. Pierre Boaistuau wrote in his History of Prodigies (1560): “The face of heaven has so often been disfigured by bearded hairy comets, torches, flames, columns, spears, shields, dragons, duplicate moons, suns, and other similar things, that if one wanted to tell in an orderly fashion those that have happened since the birth of Jesus Christ only, and inquire into the causes of their origin, the lifetime of a single man would not be enough.” Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck, who quote Boaistuau’s remark in their Wonders in the Sky (2010), have collected five hundred examples of wonders dating from the second millennium BC least likely to be misunderstood natural phenomena. (A luminous cross brighter than the sun that appeared over Jerusalem for several days in AD 351 “excited universal terror.” A “fiery cloud” over Constantinople AD 396 caused residents to flee to the Church. Those who saw an apparition hovering above the Church of Our Lady in Vladimir, Russia in AD 1491, “were very frightened and began to toll the bells all over the city.”) In pre-modernity such phenomena, along with powerful dream imageries, apparitions, the flight patterns of birds, configurations of animal entrails, and the babble of oracles, were regarded as means by which God or the gods conveyed messages to us. Their meanings were always tantalizingly ambiguous, of course, and interpreters, always in demand, have seldom been in short supply. Even in the seventeenth century, when many educated English were suspicious of credulity in fanatical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims, or astrologers, publications of the science-oriented British Royal Society that described aerial anomalies might offer readers a choice between supernatural and natural interpretations.
Since then, of course, the generally accepted view in the West has come to be that while there are unexplained occurrences in Nature, none is supernatural. “In the Dark Ages it was considered the most natural explanation of a strange occurrence to assume that it was a miracle,” Dean Inge, the onetime professor of divinity at Cambridge University, remarked. “If something inexplicable happens [now] we assume that there is a natural explanation, and sooner or later we will find it.” Meanwhile, anomalous events are relegated to the underworld of The Unexplained where they are blessedly forgotten, unless they crop out in “X-Files” or “Twilight Zone” scripts, or the “Believe it or Not” productions of the media firm Robert Ripley founded nearly a century ago. (“Believe it or not” captures with wonderful economy the modern agnostic take on anomalies.) Early in the twentieth century, Charles Fort based a literary career on the contemplation of what he called the “damned,” phenomena whose defiance of scientific clarification consigned them to perdition: rains of frogs and stones, flying machines in the skies antedating the Wright Brothers, rhythmic blinking lights astronomers had seen on the surface of the moon, etc. However, UFOs and their “alien” crews have disturbed normalcy so insistently and compellingly, and in so many places, since the middle of the twentieth century, dismissing them with a shrug and a smile has become difficult–not that the attention they have attracted has shed much light on them. Because they seem to pose no threat to national security, American government officials claimed long ago to be no longer interested in them. Conspiracy buffs have always believed the government has continued to be quite interested in them, and has kept under wraps much of what it knows about them. (UFOlogist Vallee opines that what the government really wants to conceal is the fact that it knows no more about the UFO than the slack-jawed person in the street gazing up at one.) An intriguing thought, if one lets his or her imagination stray into teleology for a moment, is that that the purpose UFOs and other wonders serve is precisely to humiliate human intelligence and self-sufficiency. At any rate, when experienced personally that is very often their psychological effect. On March 13, 1997 thousands of people in Arizona saw flying over their state an enormous V-shaped, soundless or gently buzzing pattern of lights, its width estimated by some observers at a mile. Some saw the lights mounted to the arms of an immense, awe-inspiring chevron-shaped object that blocked the view of stars as it passed overhead. Bill Greiner, who was driving a truck loaded with cement down a mountain north of Phoenix when he saw the lights, said, “I’ll never be the same. Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.’ Now I’ve got a whole new view and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I’ve seen something that don’t belong here.”
The responses of thousands of Arizonans were similar: “I have never forgotten that experience and hope never to see another thing like it for the rest of my life.” “They [the lights] left such a disturbing impression that I still think about them from time to time.” “I always believed there could be other life out there–now I know.” “We have never seen anything like this.” “For sure it was not of human origin.” “This was a life-changing experience.” “It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.” Brenda Denzler in her The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs describes the case of a physicist who was doing field work in a region where UFOs had been sighted when he saw one himself. While he believed it to be the product of some advanced technology, this interested him less than his sense of a “relationship, a cognizance, between us and the UFO intelligence.” A year later he could not mention the experience in public without having to contend with a rush of emotion. Japanese UFO researcher Junichi Kato who, with his study group, has had numerous encounters with UFOs, also describes telepathic communion: “Sometimes it feels as if there’s something right in front of me, something I can touch. Occasionally I receive a symbolic sign or image quite vividly. Basically the feeling is very exciting and I am most grateful for it…. It feels like seeing someone you have been longing for very much. Sometimes I receive a great impression, as if a chord is struck deep inside me.” The wealth of UFO observations worldwide has done little to illuminate them. People have seen them as majestic light-radiating structures a la Stephen Spielberg. Others have been shy aerial saucers, derby-shaped structures, triangles, cigars, or cylinders. Shortly before one of the notorious UFO “abductions,” a bright miniature UFO resembling a child’s top hovered at the bedside of the abductee. People who have had “close encounters” have described the UFOs’ “alien“ crews as fairy-tiny, giant-tall, large-headed but small bodied, headless, boyish, grim, friendly or hostile. They have tiny, or immense, feet. They come in gray, blue, or green. They produce illnesses or effect miraculous cures. Some UFOs observable to the naked eye show up on radar, some don’t. A hunter who came upon one parked in a woods fired three shots at it. The first went “ping,” the second made a dull thud as if the bullet had struck a telephone directory, the third made no sound whatsoever. At the risk of offending the reader who may already have had his or her fill of UFO-related hijinks, here are a few piquant examples consistent with the idea that Whoever or Whatever is behind the nonsense is interested mainly in humiliating human understanding:
Late one Saturday night in July 1952, at the height of the Cold War, seven strange objects appeared on radar at Washington National Airport. They were moving at speeds impossible to conventional aircraft–up to seven thousand miles per hour. Looking from the control tower, airtraffic controllers saw bright white lights moving across the sky. When fighter jets from nearby Andrews Air Force Base went aloft in pursuit, the UFOs disappeared. The fact that when the planes landed to refuel the UFOs reappeared led a senior air-traffic controller to conclude that the UFOs must be responding to radio communications with pilots. In a final gotcha at sunrise the next morning, five huge discs floated over Washington in loose formation before shooting straight upward and vanishing. During World War II, fiery red, orange, or white lights which behaved as if intelligently control tailed American aircraft and flew in formation with them. They mocked pilots’ attempts to outmaneuver them. Shooting them out of the sky proved to be impossible. It was believed they might be some newfangled German reconnaissance, but it was discovered after the war that the same mysterious lights had bedeviled German pilots. (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) In February and March, 1967, there were numerous sightings of fiery orange or red balls and “flying saucers” over Montana. On the night of March 16, Air Force personnel at an intercontinental ballistic missile launch base in the state were gazing into a cold, clear night sky when they noticed what appeared to be a star moving in a zig-zag pattern. A second light then appeared moving in the same way. The lights passed directly over the base, stopped, and reversed course. A glowing red saucer-shaped object hovered over the front gate of the complex, and a number of alarms sounded at the base, indicating that the missiles had been reduced to “nogo” status. Later investigations by engineering firms could not explain how this shut-down might have occurred. When “flying saucers” first began appearing in our skies during the Cold War, missile technology was already far advanced and space travel was imminent. These facts encouraged the speculation that flying saucers, if not misidentified weather balloons, or the hallucinations of hard drinkers, were visitors from outer space–or Russia. Even now many UFOlogists, as well as the general public, assume that if UFOs are “real,” they must be nuts-and-bolts spacecraft. What the Chicago media wanted to know after a UFO hovered over O’Hare International Airport on a cloudy day in November, 2006, was whether extraterrestrials had blown into the Windy City. UFOs certainly do produce physical effects, and in some instances they seem to embody characteristics more or less like those we associate with material entities. On his deathbed, an
engineer who participated in a government investigation of the fabled crash of a UFO at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 described to veteran UFO researcher Philip Imbrogno being conducted into one of five tents on the New Mexico desert guarded by military police. There he found pieces of a weighty-looking, dull silver metal. “When I picked up the larger pieces, I was surprised to find they had no weight at all. It was as if I had nothing in my hand–I couldn’t even feel it resting on my skin. I had to grab it with both hands and squeeze it to make sure it wasn’t some kind of illusion. Some of the pieces were very thick and they looked like they weighed a ton, but they were lighter than a feather….The metal would not bend or crush even with more than three thousand pounds of pressure, and it would not react to a metal detector.” Material evidence of a UFO “crash,” perhaps–but more astonishing than illuminating. The best explanation of why a lot of people who cling to the idea that UFOs, if “real,” must be nuts-and-bolts flying machines, products of some incredibly advanced technology, is their unwillingness to imagine alternatives to the orthodox modern understanding of how the world works. That the nuts-and-bolts hypothesis cannot account for many aspects of UFO behavior was obvious early on to some, though. Psychologist Carl Jung in his 1959 “Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth” observed that while UFOs sometimes registered as physical realities on photographic film and radar screens, they behaved “not like bodies but like weightless thoughts.” The strangest possibility he could envision–it would “open a bottomless void under our feet,” he said– was that a UFO might be a “materialized psychism,” a psychological complex powerful enough to conjure subtle material forms like the ones sometimes manifest at spiritualist séances. Author John Keel, after a prolonged, failed attempt to prove UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft, noted in his UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse (1970) that they were generally transparent or translucent, rather ghostly in appearance, and that their incomprehensibly swift and erratic maneuvers, changeability in size and form, and prankish winkings in and out of visibility defied explanation in conventional terms. He concluded they were best conceived as temporary “transmogrifications of energy,” and that their “alien” crews were the contemporary equivalents of the shape-shifting, mischievous, sometimes malevolent minor spirits generally acknowledged to exist nearly everywhere in the pre-modern world: “ultraterrestrials,” not “extraterrestrials.” Ivar Mackay of the British UFO Research Association concluded that spirits intermediate between God and the Creation in the Kabala more illuminating where “aliens” were concerned than the “postulates and dogmas of a few generations of scientists.” An American-born Eastern Orthodox priest, Father Seraphim Rose, remarked that “the multifarious demonic deceptions of
Orthodox literature have [simply] been adapted to the mythology of outer space, nothing more.” Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, scientific advisor to the U.S. government’s early study of the UFO, Project Blue Book, who had originally pooh-poohed such talk, came later to agree with it later as offering the only possible explanation for the phenomena in question. That UFOs and “aliens” are able to produce definite, measurable influences in the physical world might seem to challenge the view of them as paranormal phenomena, but the historical “ultraterrestrials” could do that, too. Celtic folk, well aware of how the “little people” might affect their persons and property, tried to avoid their habitats and stay on their best side. John Donne remarked in a 1627 sermon that angels with no more substance than “froth is, as a vapor is, as a sigh is,” can, if so disposed, reduce rocks to atoms. An acquaintance of this writer, Jerry, who befriended a Haitian living in Minneapolis, once accompanied this man on a return to his home island. There, in the back country, the Haitian introduced him to a voodoo doctor. The voodoo man liked Jerry, and before they parted asked if he would like to have a spirit to do his bidding. Jerry’s superior at work at the time was a woman making unreasonable demands on her staff. He said he would like to have this woman frightened badly, but not hurt. The voodoo man retired to a back room of his hut, performed certain mumbo-jumbo, and returned with a glass bottle containing, he said, a water spirit. Back in Minneapolis, Jerry followed the protocol for launching the spirit on its task the Haitian had specified, and that day a powerful windstorm arose in the quarter of the city where the targeted woman lived. She was gazing at the storm through a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window in her apartment when a blast of wind shattered the window and sent dagger-like glass shards flying into the apartment and stabbing the wall behind the woman. They outlined her figure perfectly–but none struck her. Terrified upon learning what had happened, Jerry wished to have nothing more to do with the spirit. On the banks of the Mississippi River that flows through Minneapolis, he followed the directions for releasing the water spirit into Nature the voodoo doctor provided. However, he had for some time afterward an uncomfortable sense of the spirit’s lingering presence. In 1978, Philip Imbrogno and his team of UFO investigators were studying the case of a New York state woman, “Sandra,” who complained of being followed around by strange aerial lights, and assaulted by demonic figures who appeared by her bed at night. Under hypnosis, the woman recalled being carried through a vortex with her young daughter to a place neither could recall later. The dialogue between Sandra and the hypnotist had been tape-recorded, and Imbrogno in
his Interdimensional Universe describes what happened when he replayed the tape the next day: Over the voices of the hypnotist and Sandra he could hear “a pulsing siren, or a high-pitched electrical noise,” followed by animal sounds, and a voice speaking what sounded like gobbledygook. Then a voice said abruptly in perfectly lucid English, “Stop playing with my head, they pointed you out to us and we know where and how to get you all.” Mystified, Imbrogno consulted a specialist in audio recording at the State University of New York at Purchase who listened to the tape and determined that what sounded like nonsense was actually English being spoken backward. When the tape was run in reverse at controlled speed, a voice identified itself as what sounded to Imbrogno like “Ablis,” the “Supreme Commander of the Millennia Council.” (He later discovered a figure in the Koran called “Iblis,” leader of a group of djinns punished for ignoring God’s command to cede the natural world to humans.) The speaker on the tape explained that his race had been imprisoned in a dismal void, and that the only way back to earth and its pleasures for them lay through sensitives like Sandra. The vortex Sandra had mentioned led to this void. “If you continue to interfere with our work,” the speaker said, “we will have no choice but to take action against you.” Imbrogno’s attempts to discover how some knowledgeable prankster might have meddled with the tape were fruitless. Meanwhile, a member of his team, a biologist Imbrogno describes as “one of the most intelligent and grounded persons I have ever met,” had begun hearing voices at night, then during the day. He awoke one night to find three dark blue creatures about five feet tall with blazing red eyes circling his bed. In what struck Imbrogno as completely out of character, the biologist committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Another member of the investigating team, an airlines pilot, received a visit from an odd man in a dark suit claiming to represent the National Security Agency who instructed the pilot to discontinue his research. At the bedside of a third member of the team appeared a hooded figure who held out to him a glowing red heart. “This could be your heart,” he said. He squeezed the heart, spraying phantasmal blood about the room. The investigator learned shortly thereafter of a minor defect in a heart valve said to be correctible in simple surgery. He had the operation, but died unexpectedly afterward. Now, as in the past, “ultraterrestrials” seem quite capable of working influence in the physical world!
Whatever the differences between the “realist” and “paranormal” approaches to the UFO, each is scientistic; i.e., each regards the UFO as a mystery to be unraveled, a problem to be solved. UFOlogists of the “realist” persuasion pour over reports of crashed UFOs and alleged preservations of debris from wrecked machines and alien corpses. The National UFO Reporting Center posts at its website ever-increasing numbers of sightings from all over the United States and abroad–between three hundred and seven hundred in a typical month of 2011–one no greater explanatory value than the next. The “paranormal” faction would also like to get to the bottom of the matter. Jacques Vallee, an astrophysicist and computer scientist who embraces the paranormal outlook, lamented in a radio interview several years ago the lack of research money to support serious scientific studies of UFOs. In a foreword to Wonders in the Sky (Vallee and Aubeck) folklorist David Hufford applauds the authors’ “rigorously scientific” approach to their subject. Mike Dash, who studies UFOs and other “wonders” asks in his Borderlands (2000), “What, then, is the point of studying something so ephemeral?,” and answers himself, that if only half of one percent of what is said to happen in these anomalous incidents actually does, “the chances are that some sciences will be revolutionized and some histories rewritten.” Well, maybe. But scientists generally want nothing to do with UFOs. Conversely, UFOs seem equally uninterested in scientific studies. John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who studied a large number of “alien abduction” cases in his Abduction (1994) wrote in his introduction to his Passport to the Cosmos (1999), “It is as if the agent or intelligence at work here were parodying, mocking, tricking, and deceiving the investigators, providing just enough physical evidence to win over those who are prepared to believe in the phenomenon, but not enough to convince the skeptic”; and Vallee, while continuing to hope for progress in understanding the UFO, often sounds close to despair in Revelations (1991) as he surveys the dense jungle of private and public agendas, government propaganda and disinformation, grown up around the UFO. It seems likely that before the study of the UFO will revolutionize sciences it may force the reconsideration of ancient metaphysical views of a “chain of Being” linking the natural world to “other dimensions” populated by subtle material or immaterial beings. A rash of books late in the twentieth century by Mack and others described the infamous “alien abductions” that thousands of people, the vast majority Americans, claim to have experienced. According to psychiatric social worker John Carpenter, about a third of abductees had conscious
recall of what happened to them. The other two-thirds had partial recall, or simply felt they have experienced something terrifying, and their abduction tales emerged during hypnotic regression. Curious uniformities in abduction stories led David Jacobs, a historian at Temple University and author of Secret Life: firsthand documented accounts of UFO Abductions (1992), to remark that it is as if the same VCR-cassette had been plugged into multiple minds. In a typical case, an abductee was dragged from his or her bed or automobile, lofted into a UFO, laid out on an examination table under the mesmeric gaze of a magisterial Chief Examiner with large, dark eyes, and subjected to examinations and medical procedures reminiscent of the torments of Hell in medieval woodcuts: a tube inserted down the throat, a catheter up the urethra, a large needle through the navel. Steel implements probed women’s reproductive organs. Eggs were extracted from women, sperm from men. Women subjected to artificial insemination learned of their involvement in a scheme of cross-breeding to fuse alien genetic material with humans’. Internal pain, lesions and scarring, and brand-like markings on the skin were apparently consequences of the abductions. From the nasal canals or elsewhere on the persons of some abductees surgeons had removed tiny metal objects, function unknown. Most astonishing of all, some women have believed that during abductions “alien” doctors removed from their bodies fetuses of human or mixed human-alien lineage. Budd Hopkins, a pioneer in abduction studies, first became interested in this motif while studying the case of “Kathie Davis,” the principal subject of his Intruders: the Incredible Visitation at Copley Woods (1987). Kathie and members of her Indiana family had had more than one UFO-related encounter. In the 1970s, a physician had confirmed with positive blood tests and urinalysis that Kathie was pregnant by her fiancé before she experienced what was evidently a miscarriage. She was, indeed, no longer pregnant her doctor determined when he examined her, but he could not explain the lack of evidence she had ever been pregnant. Kathie had always sensed the child of that pregnancy had somehow survived. Under hypnosis during Hopkins’ study relived emotionally an abduction in which the fetus had been removed surgically from her body by an alien. After the publication of Intruders, Hopkins learned of “hundreds” of women who believed they had had similar experiences, their pregnancies ending typically near the end of the first trimester, sometimes later. Hopkins investigated personally two cases in which fetuses vanished in the seventh month of pregnancy “without any of the serious, even dangerous, symptoms that usually
accompany such late miscarriages.” A doctor attending one of these women had heard the heartbeat of the fetus more than once. When the woman awoke one morning feeling she was no longer pregnant, her doctor confirmed that this was the case. While performing the “D and C” cleaning procedure that follows miscarriages, he found the placenta, but could not explain the absence of the fetus. “False pregnancies” aside, odd things happen during gestation, Hopkins allows. Doctors will attribute vanished fetuses to “missed abortion, fetal ‘absorption,’ or unreported miscarriages.” Still, he found it curious that memories of abductions accompanied so many of these interrupted pregnancies, and his study of the phenomenon convinced him that a program to blend “alien” and human genetic strains was afoot. Really? David Jacobs’ case studies led him to the same conclusion. In an interview concerning his 1998 The Threat: What the Aliens Really Want and How They Plan to Get It, he remarks that the aliens are “here on a mission…a breeding program, which accounts for the reproductive activity that we see, and a hybridization program…an integration program in which ultimately these hybrids, who look very human, will be integrating into this society. And who will eventually, I assume, be in control here because they do have superior technology and super physiological abilities.” Really? Harvard psychiatrist Mack’s position on the idea of a “hybridization” program is harder to pin down, but in an introduction to Jacobs’s Secret Life he wrote that the abduction phenomenon “has a hard edge, a huge, strange, interspecies or inter-being breeding program that has invaded our physical reality and is affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people….” Really? But how in these cases is the “real” to be conceived? In the abductions, as in other powerful UFO-related “close encounters,” something that is not all in the minds of experiencers has obviously happened unless, as Mack writes, “we are willing to extend our notions of the powers of the psyche to include the creation of cuts, scars, hemorrhages, and bruises, the simultaneous production of highly elaborate and traumatic experiences similar to one another in
minute detail among individuals who have not communicated with one another, and all the physical phenomena associated with the UFOs themselves.” At one point in Abduction (1994) Mack writes, ”The alien beings that appear to come to us from the sky in strange spacecraft present a particularly confusing challenge to…naturalistic or objectivist ideology. For they seem to partake of properties belonging to both the spirit and the material worlds…. On the one hand, these beings seem able to be seen by the abductees, who feel their bodies moved and find small lesions inflicted on them. On the other hand, the beings seem to come, like intermediaries from God or the Devil, from a non-embodied source, and they are able to open the consciousness of abductees to realms of being that do not exist in the physical world as we know it.” Apropos, another question: Supposing the miscegenation of humans and “aliens” actually occurs, should its primary significance be regarded as symbolic? Perhaps a way God or the gods have of insisting we acknowledge our dual (or dueling) spiritual/physical nature? More than once in Abduction Mack remarks that understanding abductions probably requires transcending the dichotomies in modern Western thinking between happened/didn’t happen, physical/psychological, objective/subjective, and fact/fiction. That said, Mack often seems honestly, honorably confused about how such transcendence is to be conceived. Mack’s outlook at the time of his death in 2004 was perhaps not very different from that of the flummoxed Whitley Strieber who, attempting to come to terms with his personal kidnapping by aliens in 1987, stumbles back and forth drunkenly between realism and loopy metaphysical speculation: “Perhaps something very real had emerged from our own unconscious mind, taking actual, physical form and coming forth to haunt us. Maybe belief creates its own reality. It could be that the gods of the past were strong because the belief of their followers actually did give them life, and maybe that was happening again. We were creating drab, postindustrial gods in place of the glorious beings of the past.” In Communion, Strieber writes, “Every time one decides either that this [the abduction experience] is psychological, or real, one soon finds a theory that forcefully reopens the case in favor of the opposite notion.” The fact that Mack seems at times to take the abductions and all that they entail quite as literally as Hopkins and Jacobs invites Walter Stephens’ comparison in his Demon Lovers (2002) between Mack’s interest in abductions, and late-medieval and early-modern theologians’ fascination with witches. Urged by a “will to believe,” and seeking to arm the ecclesiastical establishment against burgeoning secular influences, witch-hunting theologians took seriously
the “metaphysical daydreams” of “intellectually, emotionally, and socially underprivileged persons” that included tales of sexual congress with demons. As Stephens sees it, Mack’s motivation was similar. In either case, educated minds were looking to the experiences of disturbed, irrational people for confirmation that a spiritual world intersects the natural world, the difference in the two cases being that Mack was trying to reinvent the spiritual reality the theologians were defending. Mack’s studies had not suggested that abductees were generally to be classified as disturbed and irrational. All sorts of people had become abductees, including many who had no previous interest in occult matters whatsoever. Whether either abductions orwitchcraft can be dismissed as casually as Stephens does is questionable. English Roman Catholic priest Montague Summers in his The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) remarks that the learned, highly respected men who presided at witch trials had found the testimony of witches compelling enough to mete out death sentences. Summers thought an attentive study of the records of the trials cast doubt on the cavalier modern dismissal of “demons,” and witches’ claims to have had sexual intercourse with them. At séances during the heyday of spiritualism temporary “materializations” of bodies, or body parts, occurred that were convincing even for people suspicious of mediums’ trickery. If dead relatives could materialize temporarily at séances, Summers remarks, “why not evil intelligences?” (What enabled materializations, it was believed, were interactions between spirits and the subtle-material “ectoplasm” of mediums. A 1921 photograph, apparently authentic, which appears in Mike Dash’s Borderlandshows Norwegian psychic Einar Neilson vomiting a whitish semi-transparent mass of this stuff, a quantity of which was once collected in a test tube and subjected to chemical analysis. It proved to be, Dash writes, “an unsavory concoction of human fatty matter…white blood cells, and cells from the mucous membranes.”) Some “alien abductions” have included reports of sexual congress with aliens, and, historically, theologians took seriously the idea that sexual congress with incubi and succubi was not only possible, but might result in childbirth. Stephens quotes seventeenth century Franciscan Ludovico Sinistrari, an advisor to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Rome: “To theologians and philosophers it is a fact that from the copulation of humans with the demons human beings are sometimes born.” Martin Luther and sixteenth century philosopher Jean Bodin believed such children were frail and short-lived, and German witches described them as thin and insatiably thirsty for nurses’ milk, but paradoxically weighty-feeling when lifted.
Mythology and folklore are rich in stories of occult entities invading human reproduction. The Latin author Apuleius in De deo socratis wrote of spirits (incubi) in the atmosphere between the moon and earth capable of assuming mortal shapes and cohabiting with women. St. Augustine attributed the birth of the giants mentioned in Genesis 6:4 to the miscegenation of angels and women. Demi-gods abound in mythology, and folklore characters like Morgan la Fay of Arthurian legend have mixed human and “ultraterrestrial” parentage. St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas pondered the question of how demons, being immaterial, could beget physical children, and envisioned a scheme that certainly deserves an A for ingenuity, while serving mainly to emphasize the uncanniness of the phenomenon. First, they surmised, demons assumed the forms of seductive succubi and in that guise extracted sperm from men (e.g. in erotic dreams accompanied by nocturnal emissions). Then, having evidently demonized the sperm while possessing it, they reshaped themselves as male spirits (incubi), seduced women, and implanted the stolen sperm. More interesting than this recondite speculation is the question of what the devil inspired minds as acute as Bonaventure and Aquinas to labor in its contrivance. Many experiences of UFO-related phenomena, as well as other “wonders” –conceivably all– occur for people in states of mind that resemble dreaming more nearly than waking. One UFO abductee Mack studies in Abduction, a twenty-two year old music student “Catherine,” had experienced repeated abductions before concluding that resisting her abductors was futile. When she began cooperating with them, rather than resisting their assaults, she began to understand that in these experiences she was neither dreaming nor awake, but in a state of mind distinct from both: “I kind of shift to this other consciousness that’s not really either….I have access to an entirely different part of me that I don’t have access to in normal waking consciousness.” The “other consciousness” defied the conventional distinction between “this-isreally-happening” and “I’m confabulating things.” The folk of the British Isles understood that those who saw and communicated with fairies, elves, brownies, and such, had the “second sight” or “third eye.” American anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz who roamed the British Isles studying the “fairy faith” early in the twentieth century met near Ireland’s Tara Mountain an old man who told him, “The souls on this earth are as thick as the grass, and you can’t see them, and evil spirits are just as thick, too, and people don’t know it”; but the “old people” with “second sight” had seen them about the mountain hundreds of times.
Eighteenth century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg claimed that in deep trance states induced by restraint of breathing he enjoyed visible and audible communication with angels. Sometimes, though, without any special preparation on his part, angels just appeared before him spontaneously, perhaps while he was walking in a city street with friends. At such moments he would be especially aware of the contrast between normal and “other” consciousness. He describes one such experience in a rather torturous passage of his Spiritual Diary: “I was in the interior heaven, and certain spirits were at the same time with me in their own world; and although being in heaven, yet I was…in the body, for the kingdom of the Lord is in man, and everywhere, or in every place, so that at the Lord’s good pleasure a man may be conducted into heaven, and yet not be in an ecstatic [state]. I was then just as I am in this present writing, but my interior man was in the exterior, which was the reason of my being associated with spirits in their world….” The philosopher Schopenhauer, who embraced the Kantian position that metaphysical reality (the noumenon) lay beyond the grasp of human reason, posited in his “Essay on Spirit-Seeing” the existence of a “dream organ” which allowed for the apprehension of noumenal realities in apparitional forms; and Henry Corbin, in his Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, writes of the medieval Sufi mystic’s vividly sensuous “theophanic visions” which occurred in an “intermediate supersensory world.” The “near-death” experience described most famously in Dr. Raymond Moody’s 1975 Life after Life is a type of seeing-without-eyes that has attracted attention in recent times. People undergoing surgery, in seeming separations of spirit from body have witnessed paradisiacal landscapes, angels, deceased relatives, and spiritual guides. The uniformities in testimony concerning these experiences are as remarkable as those found in UFO abduction tales. It would be tempting to dismiss out-of-body experiences as the work of the imagination operating under the influence of anesthesia, were it not for the fact that near-death experiencers upon “returning to their bodies” have been able at times to describe accurately procedures performed during operations, the behavior of operating room personnel, etc. They claim to have made these observations from aerial perspectives while out of body. Stranger still, people blind from birth who have never before seen anything with physical eyes have sometimes been able to provide such descriptions. (Dr. Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper discuss these cases in their Mindsight, 2008.) This writer– Gallant–was with members of his birth family at a funeral home in Ohio viewing the body of his father in its casket when he had a personal experience of “other consciousness,”
preceded by a faint but perceptible alteration in the quality of vision, like the one occurs when two pieces of cinematic film depicting the same scene have been spliced. Gallant had the distinct impression of seeing his father’s chest rising and falling as it would have in breathing. He would not have believed his eyes’ report, excerpt that his brother at his side whispered a moment later that he had just seen the same thing. Was their father breathing? No. Had they seen him breathing? Yes, but not with their eyes operating as they did ordinarily—or maybe not with their eyes. There was nothing shocking about the moment which rather resembled one the practical jokes the dead man had fancied while alive; and read as one might symbolism in a dream, its implications were clear enough: The old man, though not in the pink, was still around. The Society for Psychical Research founded in England at end of the nineteenth century studied apparitions of various kinds: premonitions of disaster that had visible form; crisis-apparitions (images of people in distress visualized by others in distant places); visions of loved ones recently deceased; scenes from history that have sometimes appeared spontaneously before people in the present. (Across centuries, ocean-going sailors had sight of the ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman. Two modern women touring France shared a sudden hallucination of the gardens at Versailles as they appeared during the reign of Louis XIV.) As the name “Society for Psychical Research” suggests, its members were intent on bringing the methods of the empirical sciences to bear on depth-psychological phenomena. Judging from what G.N.M. Tyrrell, a fellow of the Society, wrote in Apparitions (1947), he and other in the group had generally agreed on the basis of their studies that while apparitions might be vividly lifelike, they were not physical presences in space. Rather, they were projections of the subliminal minds of witnesses. Tyrrell’s view was that apparitions involved telepathic communication between the subliminal mind of some “agent” or “sender” and that of a percipient or percipients. Consciously or otherwise, agents communicated “idea-patterns” to percipients. Tyrrell likened the relationship of sender and percipient(s) to that between a playwright and those who produce a play on stage. What the percipient envisions involves a creative collaboration with the sender. An “idea-pattern” similar to the one that once caused rural Irish to “see” fairies might conceivably cause people today to “see” aliens. In crisis-apparitions, or post-mortem visions, the source of the idea-pattern seems obviously be a person related to the percipient. It was easy for Gallant to believe that his father inspired the apparition he and his brother witnessed–that this was the father’s way of revealing to the sons that he was still about. In some instances, though, the sender’s identity and purpose are no clearer than why the percipients should be receiving the idea-pattern.
The longer one ponders apparitions, the more puzzling they become. How, for example, can an apparitional figure generated out of the subliminal mind of the beholder–a ghost, say—appear and move about a room amid furniture, carpets, wall-hangings, and lamps of a room that look very much as they do ordinarily? For F.W.H. Myers, a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research (and later, C.D. Broad, 1962) the apparition was like a cutout figure pasted onto the normal scene. Tyrrell found this conception problematic. If the apparition is a production of the percipient’s subliminal mind resembling somewhat an image in a dream, how can the senses be operating simultaneously as they do in wakefulness to articulate the surroundings? (Swedenborg had sometimes been conscious of normal consciousness and “other consciousness” functioning simultaneously, but when that happened, he would have to shift his attention back and forth between the one type of awareness and the other. He never suggested they could collaborate in the production of scenes.) Tyrrell pointed out, as have Celia Green and Charles McCreery of the Institute of Psychophysical Research, Oxford, in their Lucid Dreaming: The Paradox of Consciousness During Sleep (1994), that the difficulty here is overcome if one assumes that for as long as an apparitional scene lasts both the paranormal figure and its setting are spectral. Tyrrell wrote of a “complete machinery in the personality for producing visual imagery exactly like that of normal perception up to the range of a complete environment, and for making everything [in the environment of the apparitional figure] appear as natural and as fully detailed as normal sense-perception can do.” On this account of the matter, for as long as this writer and his brother observed their deceased father breathing, his casket, the background draperies in a nearby window, and a chair visible beyond the casket were all phantasmal; and if the UFO hovering over O’Hare in November, 2006 was apparitional, then the various unrelated witnesses who witnessed it were all hallucinating the airport environment simultaneously. This hallucinatory “machinery” is necessary, Tyrrell says, because without it, the apparitional scene would not be as convincingly real as it wishes to be—although he never explains why the apparition should be so intent on verisimilitude. Somehow his reading of the apparitional scene as a phantasmal totality strains credibility about as severely as the hypothesis of bifurcated vision it opposes. Green and McCreery, while acknowledging the internal consistency of such a totalistic reading of the apparition seem underwhelmed by it, and having expressed uncertainty in the matter, pass on to other matters. A second question that concerned Tyrrell and other members of the Society for Psychical Research was how, if the apparition is a production of the subliminal mind, multiple witnesses could experience it simultaneously and give nearly identical accounts of it. Edmund Gurney and
Myers of the Society proposed that in group sightings there must be a primary recipient of the apparitional idea who spreads it to others by telepathic “infection.” This conception also troubled Tyrrell. He recalled experiments in which one person attempted to project an image to others telepathically, to “infect” them with it, as it were. In these experiments, telepathic communication did often seem to occur, but the responses of those who received the projected image would only approximate the original. If, for example, the projected image were a factory chimney, recipients might envision a telephone pole or an obelisk. Tyrrell concluded that if verisimilitude were to be achieved in multiple sightings of an apparition, all percipients within range of the phenomenon must receive the idea-pattern simultaneously. But if the Myers-Gurney hypothesis of “infection” allows for too much leeway in the interpretation of the idea-pattern, why suppose that the simultaneous reception of the apparitional idea by all present guarantees uniform perception? Wouldn’t each recipient of the idea still have to “stage” the idea in his or her own imaginative terms? Somehow Tyrrell’s account of the matter does not inspire a “Eureka!” While diligent scientific and philosophic scrutiny of apparitions serves mainly to emphasize their paradoxicalness, direct personal experience of them has a way of producing instantaneous conviction that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. That this is, perhaps, their purpose occurs to one. Welsh scholar Samuel Roberts, in conversation with anthropologist Evans-Wentz, remarked that God deploys apparitions “in times of great ignorance to convince people of the existence of an invisible world.” Reverend Robert Kirk in his classic study of fairies, The Secret Commonwealth (1691), described paranormal manifestations similarly as “the courteous endeavors of our fellow creatures in the invisible world to convince us (in opposition of Sadducees, Socinians and Atheists) of a Deitie, of Spirits.” Jacques Vallee, in Dimensions, describes the experience of a doctor in southern France who had risen from his bed one night to tend a crying child when he saw through a window two hovering, flashing, disk-shaped entities. As he watched, the two combined into a single disk which pivoted to become vertical and shot a strong beam of light directly into his face, instantly curing a physical wound suffered in a wood cutting accident, and another dating from his army duty during the French-Algerian Wars. His experience of the UFO imbued him with a sublime calm observable to people who knew him well. Students of abductions like Jacobs and Hopkins emphasize the sinister aspects of the humiliations humans suffer at the hands of “aliens”; but some abductees Mack studied sensed that their abductors, while cruel, had their best interests at heart. “Scott,” who believed he’d been
abducted repeatedly since childhood, came to think that “getting through the trauma part” had opened him up to “the real stuff, the spiritual behind it.” “Sheila,” was trying to come to terms with her recognition that there are “greater powers…how insignificant we are as human beings,” and she felt her abduction enabled her to cross “some barrier.” The aforementioned “Catherine” discovered that submitting to her abductors had expanded her understanding of herself and others, and enabled her to read auras. Mack detected a similarity between abductions, and primitive societies’ initiation rites in which people were isolated from families and communities and subjected to harsh abuses, to dissolve ego-states blocking access to wisdom or a new life stage. (Wisdom, the Book of Proverbs tells us, begins in the fear of the Lord.) Whitley Strieber during his personal ordeal intuited that his abductors, though vicious in their attacks, were seeking “communion.” He speculated that we may be witnessing the origins of a new religiosity based not in beliefs and dogmas but an unknown “biological process,” or perhaps a “force of evolution.” The “collective apparitions” studied by the Society for Psychical Research involved small groups, e.g. a cluster of people who witnessed a ghost. However, in the last chapter of Apparitions Tyrrell muses on the possibility that an “idea-pattern” deployed by some very powerful mind amid large group of individuals might have momentous, transformative cultural effects. Vallee in Dimensions states boldly his conviction that UFO-related phenomena are expressions of a “spiritual control system for human consciousness.” He does not pretend to know how this system operates, or whether it expresses a “superhuman will.” But, he writes, if some agent or some tendency in Being were intent on producing a cultural revolution, there would be much to be said for deploying UFOs. What prevents cultural transformation are the inertia of institutions, structures of authority, and scientism. To offset their sway, it would be necessary “to bypass the intelligentsia and the church, remain undetectable to the military system, leave undisturbed the political and administrative levels of society, and at the same time implant deep within a society far-reaching doubts concerning its basic philosophical tenets”– which is precisely what the UFO has been accomplishing now for half a century. According to a survey conducted on behalf of Reuters in 2011, more than one person in five worldwide now believes that aliens live in our midst.
PETER PAN DOES GOLDMAN SACHS
I had lunch with a dragonfly today. Let me explain. I was writing at a bench beside an outhouse at Cherry Beach on one of the last warm days of fall and a dragonfly landed in the northeast corner of my gridded 11 x 14 Moleskine pad. The wings relaxed almost immediately upon landing, but the long flute, which makes up most of the body of the insect, simply pulsed, expanding and contracting like it was breathing heavily. On each segment of this flute, technically called the abdomen, was tattooed a golden ring that with the bright sunlight burst like ten concentric rings of fire. I read that these markings on its abdomen, this fire, is a mechanism that enables other dragonflies and damselflies to distinguish each from the other and serves as one way to attract or fail to attract a mate. The dragonfly on my Moleskine sat for almost a minute, wings still, body vibrating, and then took off and flew away. Maybe it had had enough of this strange man staring at it on a warm day in October? Good riddance. About a minute later the dragonfly came back and landed in the same spot on my notepad. Again, it flew off. The third time the dragonfly came back, it had a small flying bug in its mouth, a tiny wing poking out of its jaw. It sat and very carefully devoured it without the help of its six legs. The mouth did all the work. I half expected one of its little legs to help slide the entrĂŠe further into its gullet, like the dame at a restaurant who, when no one is looking, allows her finger to help push in an unwieldy lettuce leaf. In her book Dragonflies of the World, Jill Silsby would point out that the legs do much of the work in
helping the dragonfly obtain an adequate lunch. While in flight, the legs “are armed with stout bristles which interlock to make a ‘basket’ into which the insect scoops its prey and, from the basket, the meal is easily transferred to the mouth.” She goes on to say that dragonflies “discard” the wings before mealtime. Maybe it depends on the size of the insect? This dragonfly certainly had a wing in its mouth. One might wonder why what a dragonfly does with the wing of an insect prior to consuming would be of import to this discussion. I would say that the issue of whether dragonflies eat wings or discard wings is only important if we are interested in making accurate descriptions about the real world. It is only important if we want to believe the results of others’ inquiries. Only important if we want to follow the scientific method toward our basis of knowledge. They say of the scientific method that if one can repeat a result in an experiment under controlled conditions that one can start to push toward the final statement. But I have come to believe that this truth that is being pushed toward does not hold for everything that is being referred to, especially when it is related to the natural world. There is the one dragonfly that prefers its flies with wings, there is the chameleon that cannot change its colors, the mother who eats her young. There is always something on the fringe, the creature that does not fit the mold, the odd exception, a small percentage of the kingdom out of character. 2. I am someone who might be considered in that small percentage of the kingdom. I am a 42-yearold man with a decent resumé and indecent thoughts who has just left his country, his job, his rent-stabilized apartment, his favorite Italian restaurant on Second Avenue, his hibachi grill that serves as a nest for the neighborhood pigeons, his friends and frenemies, and his nutty neighbor lady who eats papaya, fresh or frozen depending on season, to keep her “regular.” I left all of these things because in what would probably be the middle of my life I decided to take a chance on love, among other things. This love sparked from a chance encounter in Central Park six years ago and this chance encounter resulted in a move to Canada. Canada is not so different from the United States, save for one simple fact in my particular case: I have time to really think about things up here and, because I am a writer, I have been able to put this thinking into words. This is either a good or bad thing, depending on the day and the mood, and on my ability to present with words observed and received understandings. Today, I continue to consider the natural world.
On top of the outhouse are two swallows. It is a known fact that a swallow can fly six-hundred miles a day in order to get enough food into its gullet to feed itself and its young. Sally Carrighar, an observer of the natural world, speaks in Wild Heritage of how a hyper-intensive search for food can affect the flight pattern of a swallow. “When swallows are out to forage, they try to funnel into their gaping mouths whatever insects are in the air, and since we can’t see those minute bites, the birds’ flight seems erratic.” Swallows and dragonflies eat similar insects and at times compete for food sources. One might imagine a flight of swallows coming into contact with a fetch of dragonflies. The beaks of the swallows would be opening and closing causing off-kilter flying patterns—natural pilots who look like they’ve had a bit too much to drink. Dragonflies, known for their graceful and agile flight, would be acrobatically avoiding the sparrows (sparrows eat dragonflies) and at the same time scooping up as much prey with their legs as they could. Like mixing up ballet with moshing, the resultant aerial dance would not fail to make a few jaws drop. Who would grasp the most food—really thrive? I’d be cheering for the dragonflies from the sidelines because their time here, at least in adult form, is so limited. Dragonflies only get a few months of aerial life and the flight season for adult dragonflies in Southern Ontario is sometime between June and September, although some species do survive through to the end of October. There was a real chance that this was one of last days on earth for the dragonfly that landed on my Moleskine. There was an urge here to trap the dragonfly, take it home and see if I could provide it a few more days or weeks of life. The notion of trapping a life form to protect and prolong its course had its own cruelty. What kind of winged life is lived in a jar in a room? It seemed appropriate to allow this creature the dignity of a natural death. A natural death for a dragonfly could be one that occurs in the mouth of some predator. The ones that are not consumed by birds, spiders, and frogs, die presumably like other insects, in a variety of ways. One posting on the Odonata-L Mailing List sponsored by the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, says cheerfully that “insect organs and limbs fail from overuse or injury. They die from infections, starvation, dehydration, drowning, heatstroke, hypothermia. There are insect parasites and viruses and, for all we know, there may even be incidences of lemming-like suicide among our winged wonders.” While the dragonfly was munching on her bug on my pad, I was wishing I had brought along a sandwich or a pastry. A bike ride down to the beach, which had taken about an hour, had made me peckish. The sun on the water was spectacular that afternoon, a million points of reflected light that came and went with the lift and turn of the waves. There they were, there they weren’t, and then there they were again. Two swans seemed to appreciate the generosity of this sight too, as they kept arching up, spreading their wings, and flapping. Was this their way of clapping to
their environment, to their world—bravo sun and water! No, it was probably not. The swans rise and clap because they are trying to seduce others or are attempting a threat display. I’m the one thinking of the swans through the filter of my mind, seeing them as encompassing my own moods, seeing them all wrong. Well, I am seeing them all wrong if prior observers of geese are certain that these creatures never fall out of character, certain that they are not incapable of responding to a nice sight. 3. I was raised on a small farm in the Midwest to appreciate the nice sights that came at the end of the days. I and my family would sit outside in synthetic lawn chairs in the warmer months and watch the shifting shapes of light in the corncribs, the silhouetting of ancient trees in the yard, and the deep and deepening green lines in the soybean and corn fields. We would drink lemonade or iced tea or an American beer from an aluminum can. We never had much to say to each other in those days, but we could sit for a period of time and take in a pleasant view. These views all occurred in the late afternoon or early evening because that was when we had the time to look at them. During the day, my parents worked and I went to school. There was a time when I may not have had the privilege of going to school. The primary role of the child was to help out on the farm; the reason parents had children—and had so many children—was to create a source of free labor. The farm work came first, school second, if at all. This inclination and attitude stopped at my generation. The farm folk no longer believed that children had to stay on the farm for their whole lives, didn’t believe they had to spend their days keeping rusty tractors and combines rotating, didn’t believe they had to spend their days in the back forty uprooting cockleburs by hand or picking up stones, (you piled the stones along the periphery of the field because the stones dull or damage the blades on the rusty plows), didn’t believe that you had to have a red neck to secure an identity that was becoming more historical than actual. I was free to secure a future that I thought I wanted. Advice may have been given, but it did not have to be heeded. New York is so big! So expensive! The streets are filled with God knows what! There might be clenched fists, slammed doors, silent meals—outright rage and violence— but in the end I was my own agent. “Go and do what you have to do,” was the providential line that crept through every lip. There was always a check with three zeros to ensure that it could happen.
My grandfather, who frequently wrote the checks with the three zeros to ensure that the future could happen, took a trip to Mexico or a Mexican border town with some friends in his early twenties. He never spoke about this trip or this time in his life. He never spoke about much at all. I only knew about his sojourn because there was a black-and-white photograph of him with his three friends in a hairspray box in the garage. My grandmother, who was a beautician, had stored it there, out of reach, uncared for, as if she wasn’t so enthusiastic about revisiting this part of the past. In the snapshot the young men are wearing sombreros and have ponchos draped over their shoulders. One man is sitting on a donkey, while the others, my grandfather included, are sitting in a cart that the donkey is presumably pulling. I say presumably because this is a souvenir photograph, one the men paid and posed for in order to have a token from this trip. The donkey is real—poor thing, they even have a sombrero on its head with holes poked out for its ears—but everything else, from the cardboard palm trees and cacti to the painted landscape of the Mexican outback, is fake. Even the sombreros look kitsch, the words “Mexico” and “Tijuana” and “El something-or-other” (the word is not decipherable) written on the rims. I look at the picture today and can almost see the photographer circulating tourist after tourist onto the set and into the costumes. Goddamn, memories are easy to make. I spoke to my aunt Pat about this photograph and she explained that my grandfather had gone out to California for a year at the time to a vocational school in drafting. She did not know what type of drafting this school trained young men for, whether it was to draw farm structures or machinery, or something altogether different. She surmised that the photograph came from a long weekend or a version of spring break while he was there. He was probably going to clear the cobwebs, get some sun and a little sex and a whole lot of buzz. I don’t know if my grandfather had a deep interest in drafting, whether this was his “dream job,” or if going away to school in California was simply a practical means toward making more money. What I do know is that it was a vocation that might have taken him off of the farm, reversed his direction. Gridded paper and mechanical pencils and slide rules are a far cry from tractors and combines and cockleburs and stones. “You’ll be sixty before you have a chance to look back…and by then it’ll be too late,” he would say after he buried his wife. Was he referring to this time in his life that he never spoke about, the drafting school and the trip to Mexico with friends, the donkey and the pushcart, that almost blank space in his personal history and our family history? I’m trying to recover it here. Trying to recover not just this time in my grandfather’s early life, but in all of our early lives when everything is apparently before us. It is before us until the years pile up—the corncribs crumble, the lawn chairs rip, the melanomas appear or return. We glimpse its recession at points but it is a
seemingly slow progression (fast too) and we get caught up in work on the farm or in the factory and in raising a family and in carving out whatever it is we are going to carve out. We get caught up in the ruts and grooves that dull our centers that deaden our lives. 4. For the generations labeled with the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth letters of the alphabet, the centers were never going to be deadened. We were generations who would have options. We were generations who would go to the expensive colleges and universities where we would learn and then remember or forget The Dialogues of Plato, The Divine Comedy, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We were generations who would drive around the country for a few years in cars we borrowed from our parents listening to alternative and indy music. We would dazzle each other with our clothing finds from the thrift stores that lurked on half-forgotten streets across the country. We didn’t believe we had to shower everyday, liked a little musk on our bodies because it made us feel more natural and we wanted to be as synched to our environments as possible. We would do Europe for the summer. Call the folks or grand-folks when we needed a cash infusion or other type of support. We would take the time to get the kinks out, or allow them to form. But there was a moratorium on this time. There was a point when we had to weigh our options, figure out what it was we were going to do, get to work, real work, the kind you don’t like getting up for, the kind that hunches your back and reddens your eyes, and makes you, at times, not want to go on. The academic pedigrees and the remembered and forgotten texts and the road trips and the European summers were all a part of this discernment process. This was how we of the late twentieth century were instructed to locate a path that might resonate with some inner interest. It was simply the “call,” and we embraced it with the ferocity of children trying to take down or fend off players in a game of King of the Hill. The proto-type for the individual journey that I speak of is the Arthurian legend, a grail story which has appeared in different forms in Europe and the Near East, sometimes under a Christian point of view, sometimes not, and which was assimilated at one point into the Arthurian romance The Quest for the Holy Grail. At the beginning of the tale, Sir Gawain says to his men that they must partake in an adventure before they can attend the feast. A grail mysteriously floats into the room and it is covered in a veil. “I propose that we now should go in a quest of that grail, each to behold it unveiled.” The grail then floats off toward the dark forest in the distance. Before the men set off into the forest, Sir Gawain makes clear a few rules and conditions of this quest. First off, each man has to take the journey alone; friends cannot accompany the man through the dark forest. Second, each man cannot take an existing path. He
must go into the forest “at the point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.” Third, what each man will find on this journey and inside the grail, assuming he follows his own path and goes alone, is an answer to something that only applies to him alone. The riches of this quest are not of gold and silver, but of a currency much deeper and more meaningful. This legend alludes to that time in early life when we set out on our paths, that time right after armpit and crotch hair, acne, and diurnal and nocturnal emissions. But I think there was the haunting realization among members of my and later generations that these explorations, these dark journeys to the interior, just might not be confined to a certain timeframe, and that they might come to a head over and over again, like the pimples on our greasy faces, the ones we scrubbed and scruffed as if determination and sand granules might clear out what lay hidden beneath. The forest may have to be entered over and over again. A person might come to understandings that require directional changes at myriad points. He might find out the person he was yesterday is different from the person he is today, and tomorrow. There are particular points, crucial points—they don’t come all the time, but they do come—when a glance in the looking glass produces only a blur, or a figure that is unrecognizable. The image can look absolutely butchered and cross, in fact, like a child standing in front of a darkened mirror repeating Bloody Mary. It’s not you, but it simply must be you? The image in the mirror is of what stands in front of it, right? Or, is it just possible that we can incant a new creature altogether. If that happens (and I dare say that it does), then the young man in the sombrero and the poncho can vanish. The middle-aged man in the rent-stabilized apartment can disappear. The child who clings to his mother’s polyester pants can fade away. Is there no way to force the masquerade to a halt? 5. Some people will wonder whether the adult dragonfly is the same creature—the same essence— as the larva from which it emerged? Or, are the two forms different creatures altogether? Is it something in between, a composite? We can never conclusively know the answers to these questions. All we can do is ponder the strain and outlandishness of the transmutation. When the dragonfly matures, moving from larva to adult, it goes through a metamorphosis wherein it turns from an aquatic creature to a terrestrial one. Right before its conversion, the larva will stop its feeding frenzy, poke its head out of the water, and hitch itself to a branch or a stem. Half in, half out of the water, it is “as though [the dragonfly is] contemplating the aerial
world [it is] about to enter,” suggests Peter Miller in Dragonflies, Naturalists’ Handbooks 7. Actually, it is “exchanging gases through the first spiracle which is near the front of the thorax and can now be opened.” Soon, it pulls its whole body out of the water by moving to a higher plane on the branch or stem. A resting period ensues—wherein the dragonfly is called a teneral, which is Latin for delicate or tender—and “it is surmised” this is when the creature becomes fully terrestrial, when the way it takes in oxygen and sees the world changes. A rip then emerges in the neck of the old body, which it must worm its way out of. A labor that turns it from water bug to flying wonder. You are a dragonfly. You’ve spent your whole life up to this point as an insignificant bug trolling under the water’s surface eating other bugs smaller than yourself. You have been growing as your larva self for months or years. You’ve come to know your neighborhood, the best nooks with the best food. Maybe you’ve had to move upstream or downstream once or twice because the food was not plentiful enough or the water source had become polluted, in which case you got to know several neighborhoods. Then one day in the last part of your life, you are pressured to permanently pull your head out of the water. Do you know at that point that you are never going to be in the water in the same way again? You are going to have a few dark nights alone where you will hang out, harden and form, where your eyesight will sharpen, exemplify. There, you’ll have to wait, wait for the amount of time it takes to become your dragonfly self, you can’t rush it, no way. “The sky, too, is folding under you,” sang Bob Dylan. That might be one way to describe how the world looks to you at these moments. You change form dramatically. And then for the first time, you extend your wings, push off from your perch and approach your world in a way heretofore unknown. You will either eat your flies with or without the wings attached. You will either die in the mouth of a frog, or from old age or suicide. You will either land on lily pads or writing pads. You might inspire a sentence or story that raises the stakes, sends someone off to the races. All bets are on. 6. I said earlier that I left a job to move up to Canada. The job I left was a job at Goldman Sachs, a large investment bank in downtown Manhattan. I was working at Goldman Sachs so I could financially support film and writing projects. I stayed at Goldman Sachs because they paid a salary which was many times over what many people my age were making, and I only had to work twenty hours a week for most of my tenure. I stayed because there was a bonus every year
and they paid for a masterâ€™s degree from an Ivy-league university. I stayed because they threw thousands of dollars into a 401(k) at the end of the banking year. I even stayed because there was freshly squeezed orange juice in the morning and there was ice-cold San Pellegrino with fresh sliced lemon in the afternoon and a shoeshine man who came to your desk twice a week to make sure that you could see your reflection in the leather. It didnâ€™t matter if you recognized what you saw or not. It was a glorious reflection. There was a time not that long ago in Manhattan when the majority of young people worked part-time or contract jobs in order to service their artistic ventures that may or may not ever pay off. They were waiting for their big break, assured that it was just around the corner. These were more often than not interesting people, slightly neurotic, unusually absorbed in personal ideas of grandeur or austerity, odd characters who believed they could make it work in the core of the modern world. New York characters. Some of these characters still exist but their days are numbered, like the days of those who can still make a living with a few acres of land and a dream. By the 1990s the corrosive nature of finance had infected the whole city. The artists, the bohemians, the misfits were pushed out by high rents, and in their place were newly minted MBAs, each dead-set on a venture that might produce significant capital gain. These creatures wanted to churn and earn money. These were the kids who had wanted to grow up and sit behind a big oak desk on the top floor of a skyscraper and utter phrases by Ayn Rand that only tangentially, if ever, tied to the moral spine of America. These people were either blind to what the modern working world was, or became conspirators in creating what it would become. The modern day working world would quickly become a world of cubicles and spreadsheets, fluorescent lights and thirty-minute lunch breaks, punch cards and horizontal and vertical organizational structures. It would become a world of once a month orders for supplies from Staples. There would be red lines and black lines. Bi-monthly paychecks with deductions for health and dental. Nix the dental, the deductable was too high. It would become a world of 360degree performance reviews, demotions, promotions, and stagnations. It would become a world of vacations at sanitized resort destinations booked by Sandy at Worldwide Travel Services and a retirement plan based on personal contributions and fluctuations in the marketplace. Was this the point of leaving the farm? Was this the point of moving from Chicago to New York and then to Canada? (There were more moves, more places, but why quibble?) Was this the point of dissecting the texts of T.S. Eliot, of taking to the road, of rest-stop tricks, of all the unholy unions with the lost? Was this the point of the indie music and the village thrift and the
grunge that permeated all the senses? Or, was this just something called growing up, something I had never had much interest in, but something I had known, early on, I had to do? The first musical I was in was Peter Pan in the summer stock at Rock Valley College. Peter Pan is about a boy who refuses to grow up. I was in the chorus as a pirate. I could not sing, so I am sure they gave me the role because they needed bodies to fill the stage. I remember very little about that musical outside of “I’m Flying,” a musical number where Peter Pan imbues the children with the power of flight, and an epic duel between Captain Hook and Peter Pan. What I also remember was a girl named Mary Currie, who was dressed in a white ostrich suit (she must’ve played a whimsical character from Neverland), drinking punch out of a red plastic cup at a cast party. Her mother came to pick her up and her mother turned out to be my English teacher from the eighth grade. Ms. Currie. I don’t remember much about that class with Ms. Currie, but I do remember we had several written assignments that were due at the end of each week based presumably on the five-paragraph essay structure. This is the structure where the first paragraph is the introduction, the last sentence of the first paragraph the “thesis statement,” the second through fourth paragraph the body, or “meat,” of the essay, and the final paragraph the conclusion—sum it up and get the hell out of there. It is a structure I abandoned (mostly), but one that provided an elementary road map to writing that allowed me to squeeze a group of related ideas into a structure. It’s equivalent to the PowerPoint presentation of a written essay. It works, but it lacks a fundamental creativity. Yes, some people do make it creative, but some people make sculptures out of garbage, too. What it does by pointing the way with a thesis statement, a statement that is often reiterated in the conclusion, is forgo discovery. And a reader always wants to be discovering something, even it if is a hard truth that might cancel out a notion of himself or the world. The whole reason a writer writes is to allow the reader—that strange other and alter—to discover and recover precious things, not about the text at hand, but about the self; in this way, the act of reading helps prevent the dulled centers that denigrate lives. That a person could just go out and experience life and then write it down was a conceptual construct that was foreign to me at that time. Did they pay a person for work like that? Could a living be made attuning myself to the messy and tangled and fantastical world that lay behind and beyond my doors? And if this was a valid way to lead a life, then why wasn’t I told in the eighth grade how difficult it would be to get my experiences down just right—how my senses can fail me and my words can be all wrong? Why wasn’t I told how hard it would be to pay attention while paying rent and utility and phone bills? Add in a sex drive and my ability to pay attention can become absolutely dismal. Am I whining here? There were, in fact, no allusions to
the compromises I would have to make if I chose to take a path that tries to make personal sense of the world through words. This is a classic demonstration of how I, a semi-intelligent young man, can end up at an investment bank with shiny shoes and a cold glass of bubbly water instead of in a dark forest with a ball of twine, wit, and words. 7. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question that pervades childhood. It is the question that starts the child thinking about his future and his place in the world. This question can continue its vice-grip well into adult life. We always think about our place in the world. Perhaps this is why we can be held captive, regardless of age, by a portion of a commencement address given back in 1975 by Joan Didion at the University of California, Riverside: “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that is what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.” The concept that creeps through this haunting address is the hallmark projection of man at this point in time—that one can only experience life, really experience it, by deeply immersing oneself in the world. Live in it, look at it. It is the only way, from her viewpoint, to get the picture. A life considered on these terms is open to the question of subject matter: considering there are infinite ways to immerse—our colleges and world provide many specifics—what and what part of the world should one be immersed in? Sitting with a dragonfly on Cherry Beach in the sunlight, researching the life of the dragonfly, and contemplating the trajectory and meaning of the dragonfly veers toward an idea of active immersion to me. So, can I perform these exercises for days and then years on end and have considered my life well spent? Could I have been said to have gotten the picture, really gotten it?
For a while it could be argued, yes. But spotting and educating oneself on dragonflies is but one interest in a lifetime of interests. The horror of interest—the horror of our lives—is that it may not, and frequently does not, hold for all time. It can be lost, even for those things with which we have a close affinity, things that just yesterday we did not think we could live without. We all go through phases of interest. I can personally dredge up a fascination with aquatic fish, pinball machines, Mousetrap, fluorescent crayons, James Dean, solar systems, tennis, film studies, language etymology, and psychoanalysis. Which is another way of saying that what is on the line may only be on the line for a bit. Like clothing fashions and hairstyles, what charges us with interest can change at every turn. What has been kept from us, the secret buried in our cells, is our natural inclination to search out interests—which can be defined as many things, but always comes down to pleasure—at every turn. An individual who is in search of pleasure at every turn, the glutton who hopscotches between one thing and the next, believes that the only life worth living is the one that allows him to obtain satisfactions when and where he wants them. Children are naturally like this, at least for a while. It’s one of the reasons we like children; they present us with a vision of our prior nature when there was no admonition to our wanting. There are only a few among us who adopt this nature into adulthood, a few who refuse to adapt, a few creatures in the adult world out of character with their contemporaries. Like the dragonfly who prefers its flies with wings, there is the individual over eighteen years of age who prefers his life on his own terms, whatever those terms may be. This is the person, for example, who shelves several books a week from a used bookstore into his overstuffed basement apartment in a neighborhood that needs attention, the person who has accepted the part-time job that either uses or does not use his specific and non-specific knowledge, the one who gets paid just enough to get by. He is the person who finds the most scrumptious cuisine at the cheapest restaurant in the fringe neighborhood, which he is able to find because he has the time to explore. He is, at turns, a pilgrim, a provocateur, a derelict, a comic book man, and a midnight toker. (This person can also be the teenager with a Glock and a grudge.) He explores everything, constantly trying to find things that light his fire. “Why sell out?” is a question that loops through his head. He lives like this, on the edge of the social system and in the dead center of his personal psychic system, because he needs to be able to research all of his interests, because he is not exactly sold on the specific fluorescent-lighted path that might provide him relative security at the cost of his pleasures, at the cost of his real (or perceived real) self.
8. When I was in third grade, I raised my hand in order to ask a question that perplexes me as much today as it did back then. “What makes me me?” Miss Heidel did not have an answer for me that day. What she did offer was that I might best be suited to a future in philosophy. I did not become a philosopher, despite an interest (one among many) in metaphysics and thought games. What I became instead, what I am still becoming, is a writer. When you are a writer— and you sit outside on windswept beaches—you will sometimes, if you are lucky, encounter a creature that makes you question the elusive content of the journey, of the life. 9. There are a few more interesting points about dragonflies I discovered after a day of research at the Toronto Reference Library—their mating rituals involve elements of sadomasochism and other sexual positioning; they are adept in flight and were around at least for as long as the dinosaurs, perhaps even longer; they have a complex sight mechanism that allows them to see in what might be referred to as insect panorama. I can relate to you these points only because the dragonfly that landed on my Moleskine on a warm day in mid-October had an impact on me, and for a short while I wanted to get some specifics. I could also tell you that there are parts of me that feel like I sold out staying at an investment bank for so long. There were very many days when I drank the San Pelligrino with the sliced lemons and laid out my shoes for an immaculate shine and felt out of character there. I have, however, frequently felt very out of character in many places and situations (maybe it runs in my family), which is to say that Goldman Sachs may not have been the issue at all. I can offer that it feels exactly right to be pulling a pen across the page day and night in search of some elusive content that might lead me to a swamp, where I might throw caution to the wind and shake hands with some God. I could tell you that my grandfather had a “streak of the devil in him.” He was known in his late teens and early twenties to tip over outhouses while family members and friends were using them. This was something one did for a thrill at one point in time. He was also the person who would give me a generous check when I needed to go find myself, even though he would not agree with what I was out to find. When he died in 2001, I did not fly back for the funeral because I had just gotten my first job as a writer for a magazine and I did not want to lose the
opportunity. I can tell you that this might not have been the best decision, because whatever our path isâ€”and whether it is a path that we choose or one that is chosen for usâ€”it is the result of all those who came before us. Their journeys and dreams sit inside of us like long acting timerelease capsules. As we grow up and older, we gradually begin to understand and embrace the failed and frail creatures who came before us. We see that we are not so different, after all. We are connected. More in character. We will have to go through our days knowing that we belong and that, my friends, may be the harshest sentence of all.
THE PREGNANCY FROM F---ING HELL
I was in the Target check-out line when the woman behind me asked how many weeks along I was. I told her 27. She nodded and told me she had three kids. “I loved being pregnant so much,” she said, and instantly, I despised her. “Yeah,” I said. She gazed at me. Tears welled in her eyes. “Isn’t it beautiful when the baby moves? Like little butterflies in your tummy?” It felt like a squirrel scrabbling desperately for release from my intestines when the baby moved. It had made me throw up in the bushes outside of IHOP earlier that day. But the woman looked so happy. She had tears in her eyes. “Uh-huh,” I said. “Butterflies.” *** The next morning, I watched an interview during which poet Mark Nepo described the moment he found God. Nepo being a spiritual teacher and all, he of course accomplished this feat kneeling on a hospital room floor retching so intensely he was vomiting blood. His wife, at her wits’ end, cried out, “Where is God now?”, and from the depths of his anguish, he whispered, “Here. God is here.”
The baby kicked the shit out of me then. She knew Mommy had sat in the tub after her Target visit and had gone in a different direction from “God is here.” “Hush up, you little heifer,” I said. The skin across my huge stomach rippled almost supernaturally in response. Then, a McDonald’s commercial came on, and I closed my eyes and muted the television to block out the food sensory information, but it was too late. I bolted as much as one seven months pregnant can bolt to a toilet and heaved up my late morning snack of two granola bars, and then that morning’s breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, and then yellow stomach bile because there was nothing left to puke up, and from the depths of my anguish, I whispered, “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuuck.” When I hoisted myself to my feet, I already knew what I’d see in the mirror. I felt like I was knocking on death’s door with gray, bony fingers, but, by the weirdest twist of irony, I looked like one hot pregnant somebody: skin glowing a sparkling rich caramel, hair African goddessthick and lustrous, breasts implant-level alert, belly high and round as a basketball, ass in pow!pow!-pow! mode. I looked good as hell, I really did, except for the yellow throw-up on the corner of my mouth. I had to eat. An empty stomach induced not just regular nausea, but the kind that made my insides curl up on themselves and scream. But I couldn’t eat. I just couldn’t. The mere sight of food made me throw up. This being a vicious circle, though, eating was the only thing that kept me from throwing up. Tears sprang to my eyes, and Despair’s shroud rustled against my arm. “Go ahead and cry,” she said, “because nobody wants to fool with you anymore. Even the devil told you ‘No, thanks,’ and when you can’t get eventhat yahoo to—” I had to cut her off. Not because she was lying, but because I had to eat, and I had to act fast. So I asked very politely if we could take a rain check and cry after I ate, when I wasn’t feeling quite so sick. She said no, that we had to cry now so that we could lie down together for the rest of the day. I said that crying simulated the vomiting heaving motion and would make things even more awful for me. “I’m all you have left,” she said. Only now, she was squeezing me, and that’s when I told her to get the fuck off me, brushed my teeth very carefully so as not to activate my gag reflex, and lurched to the kitchen to microwave a Hungry Man frozen chicken dinner.
She hadn’t had to bring up the whole devil debacle. That was just mean-spirited. But then, Despair could be like that. Bitch. ***
I was ecstatic to find out I was pregnant. So was Kerry, my partner of four years. We hadn’t planned for a baby, but we both wanted kids, so we weren’t exactly not planning as diligently as we had in the past. When the nausea began in the fifth week, I felt I was part of the club my friends had been talking about for so many years. I Googled the term “five weeks pregnant and nauseous.” The club was huge. The sickness, it seemed, was a rite of passage. Yes, the term “morning sickness” was a misnomer for many, myself included, as the nausea could last all day and strike at any time, but that was okay. It was normal. “Perfectly normal,” the doctor confirmed the following week at our first appointment. “Try some ginger—you can get it in capsules or tea or candies—and it will help. Also, make sure you eat consistently throughout the day.” She paused. “If it gets really bad, though, I can prescribe some medication. Don’t worry, it’s safe for the baby.” “Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” I said, putting a hand over my still-flat stomach. “We want to be as natural as possible.” I glanced at Kerry and he nodded his support. I didn’t take medicine as it was—not for headaches, menstrual cramps, colds, nothing. And what doctors said about drugs not hurting the baby—that was that mainstream crap they were fed in med school. They didn’t really know the effects of drugs on a fetus; half of them were probably Googling shit on their lunch breaks to figure things out like the rest of us. No matter, though, because I was on to the lot of them. I was watching The Business of Being Born, researching midwives, and planning a water birth, maybe even at home. Drugs were not on the program. Not for my baby, they weren’t. *** I tried.
B vitamins. Ginger pills. Ginger tea. Ginger drops. Nausea wristbands. Prenatal yoga. Prenatal massage. Aromatherapy. The Secret. I tried so hard. One night, while taking a bath, I looked up. I said, “Dear God. You know me—I’m good people. And I know You’re good, too. So I’ll tell You what. I’m going to be extra-good. And I’m going to have faith in You to take this nausea away. Because in You, all things are possible, especially for the good people. We all say You don’t play favorites, but let’s be real—how can You not like the people who act right more than the assholes? As a matter of fact, I’m going to thank You in advance for this wonderful work You’re going to do in me because—that’s right, God—I’m down with The Secret. So thank You, God. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You! As a matter of fact, thanks again! Love, Leslie.” *** Six weeks later, I white-knuckled the examination table, struggling not to hurl up the crackers I’d eaten off the nightstand as soon as I woke up as the nurse asked whether I’d tried leaving crackers on the nightstand so I could eat as soon as I woke up. “Yes.” “What about ginger pills?” “I want drugs,” I said. Doctors didn’t go through all those years of medical training for nothing. If they said the baby would be fine, the baby would be fine. “Oh, okay,” the nurse said. “Have you tried nausea wristbands?” “Give her the drugs,” Kerry said. His eyes mirrored mine: red-rimmed with dark circles. I wasn’t sleeping because of the nausea, and we were in this thing together, goddammit, so he wasn’t sleeping, either. “Oh, okay,” the nurse said. “Let’s see, we generally prescribe Reglan or Phenergan—”
“Zofran,” I said. That was the name of the medication I kept reading about on all the pregnancy blogs. “I want the Zofran.” “Oh, okay,” the nurse said. “Just so you know, Zofran is pretty expensive, which is why we recommend trying out the Reglan first, so why don’t we—” “Give her the Zofran,” Kerry said. He shifted in his seat. He’d been anticipating loads of condom-free sex with a horny big-boobed person for all the years we’d been together. Poor thing. He had no idea yet just how much the sex well would dry up. “Oh, okay,” the nurse said. *** How did the nausea feel? Okay. Imagine you’re young and dumb and going out on a Sunday night, which is possible because you live in New York City. You dance-dance-dance with your friends and do a ton of vodka shots on an empty stomach. (Remember, you’re young and dumb. As fuck.). Afterwards, you all head to the nearest 24-hour diner, and your drunk, dumb ass orders raw oysters. They taste a little funny, but your drunk, dumb ass blames it on the alcohol. The next day, you predictably feel like shit. Even though you have no sick days because you just started your first full-time job two weeks ago, you call in sick and lie in bed and pray for death or a miracle as you drift in and out of consciousness, rising only to worship at your new porcelain altar, vowing loudly to never again touch alcohol or oysters and cursing your friends and speaking in tongues in your feverish state of misery. The day after that, you still feel like shit, but you can technically function. Sure, you’ll run to the toilet a couple of times as your guts relieve themselves of the final few stubborn oyster remnants,
and sure, your head hurts from vomiting and dehydration, and of course, you never want to eat again, ever; but you can technically function. So you finger-comb your hair. You pull on some clothes. You dab concealer under your eyes. And you drag your not-quite-as-dumb ass to work. I marinated in this “day after” state for 34 weeks, or 238 days, straight, 24 hours a day. And I had to work. (Actually, I had to work more than normal, because as a self-employed mommy-to-be, I had to create and save for my own maternity leave.) But that’s how the nausea felt. If you want a visual, recall the film “Howard the Duck” and how Dr. Jennings looks as his body is possessed by an alien who calls himself the Dark Overlord of the Universe. As a matter of fact, search Google Images for the term “Howard the Duck villain.” Select any of the gross monster pictures. That’s how the nausea felt.
*** There was one blindingly brilliant bright spot in my misery, and that was hearing the baby’s heartbeat during my checkups. I tend toward lateness as a rule, but I was always on time for those visits. I switched to an OB-GYN practice that employed two truly wonderful midwives, and one of them and an assistant would delight with me in the rapid, whooshing “tuh-CUH, tuhCUH, tuh-CUH” that was Arden’s heartbeat. The sound would fill the room with the authority and majesty of Aslan’s roar in Narnia, drowning out the nausea and rendering Despair impotent. Everybody thought the sound was just Arden’s heartbeat, but really, I knew she was talking to me. The midwife would place the fetal Doppler on my stomach, and I’d close my eyes and swim with my little girl in a cool, shimmering, azure-blue lake and listen. She’d say the same thing every time, but I never tired of it.
“Your best will be enough,” she’d begin. “And when I arrive, I am going to make you happier than you can imagine. We’re gonna be like peas and carrots, you and me, lady. Peas and carrots all day long.”
*** The nurse was right. Zofran was the most expensive anti-nausea medication, but it was also supposed to be the most effective. It didn’t work. Well, that’s not totally true; it just didn’t work for me like I’d read it worked for others. It took my discomfort from a ten down to, maybe, a seven. And that was half the time. The other half of the time, it didn’t work at all. I tried Reglan and Phenergan. Nothing. I may have had a mild version of or variation on hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition that affects .5 to 2 percent of pregnant women. The main symptom is uncontrollable vomiting. Sufferers often must be hospitalized. The cause is unknown, although it is widely accepted that the woman is experiencing an adverse reaction to the hormonal changes occurring in her body. The doctors and midwives didn’t know what to tell me. Every test they ran came back great, and the baby was fine, too. By month five, I thought I was going to implode. One night, while taking a bath, I looked up. I said, “Dear God. You know this is some bullshit, right? Because I’ve been good—extra good, just like I said I would be—and I’ve had faith that You would take this off me. “But I’ll tell You what. I’m going to keep believing. I will, because…” Why was I going to keep believing? “Because You always come through, right? You’re quiet right now, so I’ll answer for You—yes, You do. Of course You do. That’s Your job. So okay, great. Glad we talked. Oh, and amen. Or Amen. Whichever You prefer.” ***
Three weeks later, my best friend, Lesley, called from North Carolina. She asked how I was. I burst into screaming. “I can’t TAKE THIS SHIT ANYMORE!” I know she blinked rapidly a couple of times in alarm. I continued. “I. Have. Been. Cheated. I have been cheated, Lesley! I have been cheated out of the pregnancy I was supposed to have!” I broke down into wild sobs. “All I feel is sick, all the time. This is the worst thing, fucking, EVER, in life!” The baby gut-punched me then. Hard. “This baby doesn’t like me, Lesley—she doesn’t like me, I know she doesn’t!” And why should she? Despair whispered, stroking my arm. “Maybe the sickness will go away,” Lesley tried. She sounded uncomfortable, like she wanted to be the one to go away, but that she’d bear with me for another four minutes before claiming that she had a client waiting or that her break was over or whatever lie she’d create to get off the phone. She was my best friend, after all. “Bitch—we both know it’s not gonna go away,” I sobbed. And true bitch that she was, Lesley said nothing to refute me. There was only silence. (Of course, I would’ve attacked her if she’d refuted my claim, so she was screwed either way, which I knew she knew, but anyway.) “It’s not gonna go away until she comes out, and once she comes out, I’m gonna go from feeling sick all the time to having a real-live baby that’s going to keep me up all hours of the day and night! My whole life is fucked! And I’m never going to sleep again—I-am-RUINED!” “Jesus, Leslie,” Lesley said. “If I could take this on for you, I would. Swear to God, I would.” She meant it. I knew she did. I said, “Lesley. If I could give this to you, I would. I would hand it to you, and then I’d push you down a deep well and put a heavy steel cap over it and run for my life for a long, long time, because I know you’d try to give it back.” I meant it. She knew I did. She got off the phone very quickly after that. ***
It was a Wednesday evening and dark and cold. I was staring at my living room wall, just staring. I was 21 weeks and 1 day pregnant. And just as I had known on a cellular level very early on that I was having a girl, I knew, very quietly, that this thing was not going to go away. I had 19 more weeks of this shit. That was when Despair paid me her first visit. She knocked gently, and she opened the door, and she sat beside me, her robes rustling. God’s not coming. She said it quietly. I put my head on her shoulder. It was so soft. She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. *** So here’s why my unborn child kicked the shit out of me during the Mark Nepo interview. The night before the show, while taking a bath, I’d looked up. I’d said, “Dear God. Why are you doing this to me? Because I’ve been good, I’ve tried so hard to be good…” My voice trailed off. And then, I’d looked down. (Well, I didn’t really look down, but let’s be dramatic.) I’d said, “Hello, Mr. Dark Force person. I’m not sure if you’re listening, but just in case, I’ll tell you what. If you take away this nausea, you can’t have my soul, but I will consider letting you borrow it,” and do you know that I actually got an answer? And immediately, at that. He said, “You mean like a lease agreement?”, and I said, “Yeah, you know, like a car,” and he said, “Give me a minute,” and I did, and exactly one minute later, he said, “Pardon my pun, but hell, no—you got that rotten round-the-clock-but-I-gotta-work nausea. We only deal in the Princess Kate variety—you know, the I’m-wealthy-so-I-can-rest-in-the-hospital-and-lay-downsomewhere-until-the-baby-comes-out kind. So I’m afraid you gonna hafta take your nauseated soul elsewhere, Miss Ma’am,” and I said, “You do know it’s ‘lie down’, not ‘lay down’, right?”, and he said, “You might be right, but at least I’m not about to hurl up that strawberry smoothie right into the tub,” and I couldn’t say anything back, because I surely was just about to hurl up my strawberry smoothie right into the tub. So I kept my soul, and the nausea kept me, and the baby kicked me the next day because even before she was born, she was bossy. *** Lesley called in my eighth month. Well, she called and called and called until I picked up.
“I’m really proud of you,” she said. “For what?” I sucked down some Chick-Fil-A lemonade to wash down the chicken sandwich I’d just choked down. I hated Chick-Fil-A by this point. But to be fair, I also hated every restaurant, every fast food chain, every food, the act of cooking food, every food commercial, every commercial, National Public Radio, every radio station, every phone call I had to return, every email I had to reply to, every email I had to send. I’m trying to think if I missed anything. I did. I also hated lying down, standing up, standing still, standing in the shower, peeing every eight minutes, walking, my Darth Vader breathing, trying on ugly maternity clothes, buying ugly maternity clothes, doing my hair, having my hair done, driving places, being driven places, smiling at people, having people smile at me, all other people, kissing, sex, reading, the vitamin industry, my swollen feet, and all that Law of Attraction crap I’d ingested because it made me feel guilty and fearful for thinking all my hateful thoughts. “You’re doing a great job,” Lesley said. “Not really, but okay,” I said. “I know you feel bad, but you’re doing it. You’re being so brave.” “How is it brave if my only alternative is to die?” “You could always sell your soul to the devil,” she quipped. “Tried that.” “What?”
I slurped a huge amount of lemonade and belched and did not say excuse me. “Nothing, Lesley. It’s nothing.” She paused for a moment. “I think you need to get some help. You sound bad.” Even Kerry, who is without parallel in his black-man resistance to any form of therapy outside of a Goody powder, said I needed help. I’d been thinking the same thing for a while. Because as bad as I felt physically, the worst part was that I couldn’t make sense of why this sickness had happened to me and what good could possibly come of it. It wasn’t like it needed to happen for a baby to be born. Up to this point, I’d been able to make meaning of all my tough experiences, even my first year of teaching, as awful as that had been at times. But this experience—it felt pointless. I could not comprehend pointless suffering. So I got online, found some therapists in my area, left messages for the three I liked most, and resolved to go to the first one who called me back. Miraculously, Dr. Joan returned my call that same day; even more miraculous, she had an opening the very next week. When we met, we shook hands, and I said, “I’m going to start crying as soon as we start, just so you know.” Dr. Joan handed me a tissue box and gestured for me to sit down. She was an older woman with no-nonsense bowl-cut brown hair, a frown for a natural expression, and a librarian-like whisper. If her voice were handwriting, it would be described as spidery. “So what brings you in today?” she asked. “I want to know why I’m having The Pregnancy From Fucking Hell when I’ve done nothing to deserve it,” I said, and I burst into tears. Dr. Joan nodded and waited for me to go on. I didn’t. That was all I wanted to know. She frowned hard in concentration. “The problem is,” she said, “there’s no reason for you not to have…your pregnancy.” She then relayed the story of her daughter-in-law, who had suffered a
miscarriage 14 weeks into her pregnancy. “She was healthy; she was strong; there was no reason for her to miscarry. But she did.” “So you’re saying shit just happens sometimes? For no reason?” “Yes.” “Even if you’ve done nothing to deserve it?” “Yes.” “And you don’t have to learn anything from it or try to make it a valuable experience?” “No.” “And you may not ever understand why it’s happened?” “No.” I thought for a moment. “Did your daughter-in-law ever get a reason for why she lost her baby?” “No.” I sat back on the couch and took that in. I imagined what her daughter-in-law must have felt like. “Well, that’s terrible.” Dr. Joan’s frown was in full force. “That’s life.” We looked at each other for a while. “So that’s it? It’s just life?” I asked. “Yes.”
We looked at each other some more. “Okay,” I said, and I felt better. I continued to see Dr. Joan the last few weeks of my pregnancy, mostly to bitch and whine and wail in the presence of an older woman who listened in pragmatic but caring silence. And the experience was still awful, but I became able to allow it—and myself—to simply be. The weight of trying to understand and learn and analyze and make sense fell away. I was free to hate the experience for being there, and then, I was free to let the hatred go. I wasn’t taking the physical discomfort as personally anymore, so the mental noise around it largely vanished. Or maybe it was the other way around. Who knows? Either way, I now had room to allow the experience to be. Not a lot of room, but some. And with that room came real and lasting compassion for other people feeling sick like I was. When I was gripping my head on the couch because there was nothing else to hold on to in the midst of a particularly rough nausea attack, I imagined that a woman in, say, Cleveland, was doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. Her name was Patty, and she was white, and she had brown hair, and she was wearing shapeless khaki shorts and a dingy Hanes T-shirt over her huge belly, just like I was like, and nobody knew how intensely she was suffering. “But I know,” I said to her softly. “I know what you’re going through. But we can do this, Patty. We can get through this.” And concentrating on this other person and her suffering, even if just in my mind, it helped. There were thousands of us in the US, and probably millions around the world, and I could feel for us—every socioeconomic bracket, every ethnicity, it didn’t matter. We were all going through it. I rolled my eyes on our behalf as some unsuspecting assface cooed that bullshit about us forgetting our misery the second we saw our babies. I knew that we knew better. We’d love our babies, but we would not forget. Knowing I wasn’t alone, it made me feel better. I didn’t know or see these people, but I knew I wasn’t alone. I offered up my suffering to them, with them, and it lessened. One night, while taking a bath, I looked up. I said, “Dear God. I see You’re not going to take away this nausea, which I do think is a bit awful of You, but okay. Anyway, please let another pregnant woman who feels sick know that I’m with her. Please let her and everyone else around the world who wants to jump out the fucking window right now know that I feel them and want to jump, too. Let them feel that they aren’t alone in this moment.” And then, I added, “I know that You are with them. And that You’re with me, too.” ***
Misery loves company, but compassion cherishes the souls of the company one is in. It makes the unanswerable bearable. I imagine now that while Mark Nepo was coughing up blood on that cool linoleum hospital floor, another cancer patient named Phil was doing the exact same thing in a hospital room somewhere in, say, Florida. Or Istanbul. Wherever. But Phil was thinking of the others suffering like him, and in his worst moment, maybe Mark could feel that he wasn’t alone. Where compassion is, God is. The assfaces were right, by the way. When I saw that baby, I did indeed forget everything, at least for a few moments. Her face was squinted like a little golden raisin, and I couldn’t stop kissing her. She was beyond beautiful. But I heard my Arden before I saw her. I ended up having a C-section, and Kerry and I heard this thin wail from beyond the short blue curtain the doctor had erected onto my stomach for the surgery. Everybody thought the baby was crying, but really, I knew she was talking to me. Her bossy little self said, and I quote, “Give me my milk, lady.” And I knew in that moment, before I ever saw her, that everything she’d told me during the precious minutes I’d listened to her heartbeat all those months, every word of it was the truth. My best had been enough. And since she’s arrived, she’s made me happier than I could have imagined. We’ve been just like peas and carrots, you and me, haven’t we, Arden? Peas and carrots all day long.
Mill Town Our mill shut down. They are trying to sell the homes run down from years of the pulp cloud hanging over them. Families move into RV’s and follow their fathers and husbands to Minnesota or another town somewhere. We bought a trailer last year from an old woman. We find the neighbor’s son out back next to the creek staring into the water, out of work. I drive in and out of the city, back and forth. There are sighs as another job rejection arrives. My 35 year old man spends every day applying for $10/hr jobs that never come through. He isn’t where he thought he would be. I work for the wealthy so I’ve been able to hang on. Been able to help get the house, pay for repairs and try not to take it personally that he’s never happy anymore. He’s applying for jobs he did as a teenager, changing oil at the gas station in town. Just something after 2 out of 3 winters out of work. I can tell you from a fly on the wall of the elite, they have no idea what this is like. No idea how absurd it is to drink expensive wine above a city of homeless. They talk politics but the market is up so they sit confidently. That day it dropped 777 points they stopped buying the most
expensive stuff. They pulled me aside and let me know they would be cutting back and living differently, but I’m not really sure how that worked out. I can tell you at home the echo of sighs from the back room and scamper towards the ringing phone has caused me to grow more of what we eat, turn the lights off all the time. It causes a silence at dinner no matter how good the food is. And in the bed between us at night the silence follows. I pour wine at work and listen to the laughter as they drink and eat from the kitchen. Occasionally I have a glass or stuff a whole lamb rack into my mouth and smile around the flavor we can’t afford to have at home. I watch invisibly moving between the guests and drive home alone to a silent dark house where the animals have been watching us through this for years now. Confused, they try to comfort us in ways we don’t seem to do for each other anymore.
Atheists and Trees I wake up at dawn and watch you from the foot of the bed. Your silhouette in the blue, the cat watching me while I try to find my clothes and look away. In the car with the news, on the highway with all the other people in a tide of cars peeling off into rivers and stream. Each of us with our own cages rolling alone with the news, we take it out on each other for no reason. Sad stories that bury you in place for 45 minutes while weaving through other peoples cages thinking about their own problems. And I’m over here listening to what happens to women on the other side of the world. I am almost crying, barely breathing with shock, one story after another of greed, destruction and greed. I tuck into my stomach and bite my lips. How can I sit on this road, into this city, with these people when eight year old girls are forced to marry 50 year old men? How can I wake up in the morning to your face in our quiet world where we found it under the lilacs, next to the fire watching the sunset after dinner? And all the neighbors are saving life for heaven, stuck on their couch watching TV. Atheists aren’t waiting for anything, we see it in the music, in the tragic man on the corner in front of the McDonald’s on Burnside, in the field across the street watching the stars. The coyotes sing and a little girl is whisked into a greedy bedroom across the world. Then society gets around to decide if she can legally divorce her husband. I am in America driving a nice car. I have clean shoes. How did this happen to us? We were all at recess, and they were playing soccer and we were playing in the sand and those girls were sitting on the steps, now we’re all driving into town. Now we wake up at dawn and drive the river into town. I can’t stop watching the trees. What must they think of us, how absurd we must look to them? Just as we can’t imagine sitting in one place all the time, they must see us and think “if I had legs I think I would do more than work and go home to watch TV.” I think if they could walk they would want to be horses. Or elk, or maybe their comrade birds. We are the bacteria gliding on wheels and exponential politics. And the only thing I can do to fix it is not to create another one and even eliminate myself.
Pine Mountain Overthrust Fault D.V. Bentley learned that it runs through Letcher County, the result of eons of pressures within the earth. The property of rock strata to be acted upon by the movement of other rock. How did D.V. know this? How can we be sure he knew this? He owned a copy of The Pattern of the Earth’s Mobile Belts by Walter H. Bucher. Over breakfast once, D.V. told his wife, my great-aunt Nettie, who then told her sister Frances Potter in a moment of sisterly gossip: “Doctor reads an awful lot!” Frances Potter, my maternal grandmother, then told me as if an a priori love of revenant structures wants to flood the eye with fresh ghosts. She said D.V. adored buildings. Preferred limestone to brick. Brick to any sort of wood. He built The Bank of Neon and then Bentley Drugstore. Bentley Hotel. A theater called The Neon. An A & P. It’d be more accurate to say: he paid to have them built. D.V. had soft hands—a doctor’s hands—which meant he let others accomplish the drudgery of quarrying the stones. For years, Stallard’s Barber Shop was one of his tenants. John Stallard cut his hair. Passed the time of day with him. Maybe John listened to D.V. sing the praises of limestone— hair falling to the scissors then the clippers humming softly, low-humming as accompaniment to the words. Maybe he had leukemia by then. Had begun trips to have his blood transfused.
If the hair collected in piles, it took the breeze and was scattered. Maybe the doctor in him had accepted the last layer of Knowing as the property of motion that thrusts a thing up, out of the way, in favor of another. Whatever the case, he left a future hefted by calloused, willing hands on a day like any other. Maybe a crowd had gathered once to see what was taking shape, rising from empty and emptier earth one stone at a time.
Ana Maria Caballero
Bibliografía Entre domingo y domingo, (Poesía), 2014 Nace una hija, sana, se llama Nina.
Mensajes de texto, (Poesía), 2016 Lo que te pasó, (Novela), 2017 Vivimos cerca del mar. Nuestra piel lo refleja.
Campesino atravesado, (Poesía, Ensayos), 2020 Proof of Prufrock, (Novel), 2022 Prueba de Prufrock, (Novela, traducción – realizada por autor), 2023 Ausencia inexplicable. Sofoco de tanto estudiar.
Una década de aceptación, o, Diez años así, (Poesía), 2026 Por las noches como sin hambre. Sin luz.
El último titular, (Novela), 2030 Aléjamete, (Novela), 2032 Sigo joven. Dejo el afán.
THE SUFFERING GAME Mother wins the suffering game She cares for the sick Big Brother is the runner up He pays for the sick and for Mother to live better than sick Only his Mondays count Little Brother plays a private suffering game And is left alone to tend his odds I lose the suffering game My baby is a balloon smile and his father Loves us every day with capable hands As the loser of the game I am given a brick to hang from my face In this small way I help bring life Something closer to fair
wishing you were here or having a great time besides, always having a great time on the back of a postcard in cursive scrawls, smudged inkâ€”everything seems small when I look back at the past. old letters saved, birthday cards, holiday greetings, places Iâ€™ve been a voice I only knew in childhood wishing you were here again, her hand inside my hand, nothing so unchanging as a signature, or a stamp.
The Last Time I walked through the irrigation ditches, troughs, he called them, the sun lay a lazy foot above the line of loblollies, red clay drenched in late afternoon urine light the mud sucking and smacking at our boot-bottoms, the sting of fresh pine sap sinus-deep Daddy and I in our element, whistling to the bobwhites shouldering our rifles crushing sinewy kudzu underfoot, approaching the lingering twang of day-old skunk spray wordlessly, breathing at a heavy pant in dog’s half-time, Lady and Sue tongue-hassling beside us. If we’d been horses we’d have been covered in froth, ready for blankets, a rubdown, the interminable plow, or maybe the gun. But we continued jumping ditches, slogging deeper into the piney dusk toward the slate lake sprawled like a stain against garnet slabs of mud-bank.
Elegy Those of us who’ve rehearsed losing have loss as a sort of perpetually expanding tattoo, once a cross, then a rose, now a rose-eyed skull, each eye a vacant stare in the direction of a future promising more losses than gains Funny how regret can weight your boots just when you think the water’s right and the mud not too thick to wade through. One step more and your foot won’t come up again, and here we are left peering from the window of a farmhouse past the rainfrogs stuck to the glass near the light, and all we can see is not the beauty of the night but the frogs’ machines pulsing inside those slick translucent bodies.
Always Walking Away Iâ€™ve forgotten your face but not the blur of legs, trousers scratching at the ankles, work shoe assaulting concrete sidewalk step after determined step, your eyes always focused on ahead, next, some dot on the horizon only you could see. With unheld hands I clutched the straps of my bag, moved more quickly with long strides to catch you, to keep your pace, not be let behind. The lake is calm today. Through lace curtains I see it glitter gray and white past the elms. Pale overcast skies threaten to crush traffic moving along a county highway, lines of cars like a wooden snake in a childâ€™s hands, pushed in one direction, bending at each articulated point, then pulled back, pushed, pulled, false body undulating in a sort of game. You never turned to pull me back, though I bent, my lithe, painted body a decoy, maybe, for something real. And what is real but what we think we want at the time? Later we look at the object of desire and recognize it as foreign, not what we had thought it was. Years after we stopped sharing sidewalks, the next man loves me. And all I know to do is walk away.
PAPER DOLLS To X test what buried spark she drove to groove in what connects an art graven form all dropped made them heavy felt in there hurt dead rabbits use inside voices softener city line let out vector tremble dips from stick dead lake ham sandwich accident sinks so fast soggy feeling to squishy mulch plumb line can you swim you belly bottom then American green fabric travel nude feet trace a toe Sharpied flower permanent hangs out symbol for to hover taken spaces stone brace corners fast at times though wind goes under gets to lift and below try breathing loam classes support so you could hear yourself think you think this is colors day one alarms to empty amber were you there when I called you were are now or never floors slant above at left down as them windows smack shut sills kiss with a suck girl trembles dayrooms she is more pretty becoming empty just what goes on bachelor father feeling to plug your butt I mean my own sleep-robed synthetic vibrations good put out her page-boy at fast highway miles clowning star-stuck pair of eyes hungering lurch at the light to crane the wrong way a primitive paste bright light slap me itâ€™s the hurt I like
and though the forest do darken I donâ€™t stir you are a desirable person kind and patient I found a grey sock and some underwear looked like you are a narcissistic person who cares little for others turn it over tie it slide it under places turn the freshly framed picture to the wall nimble fingers barely move in spit in drool you are a successful artist a worthy addition to our avant-garde tradition you can disassociate what you to do pay for she is Christmas a fresh tree just screwed at base you are a good friend a loyal person you are generous with friends and strangers you lack empathy and show disregard for othersâ€™ feelings you misrepresent your emotional needs this comes out of my head drips down it and more the work is never the world never your energy too why do you have to listen to where that could get thank you for making this possible it means a lot like teaching me about art and how to make a living around it a split life in which you cordon off a half and disappear
another country -the frog in the fire knows desire ag the rannies are playing skin music again it sounds like a walrus shitting a tuba i carry my soul in a paper sack past the lunch room monitor a grizzled oak of a woman my knees are sweating with the moon available only to the ablest sailors and the price of canned hash skyrocketing i have begun to despair if aging is the art of graceful compromise i am no henry clay half as much is more than plenty how much caviar can one eat? let the geese keep their livers
but circling the drain the air is sweet as cantaloupe flowers shimmer like young trout cactus graze in light rain i am a soldier that has taken a hill against great odds in another country without knowing why or i have forgotten to take out the garbage
toll -bitten by a doggerel early on whatâ€™s your excuse? ag waking to coarse kiss of flesh draws spirit like a hand into a pocket by the snick of old rhymes the polished rails of ease is being knitted to the toll booth of day in the land of bad ideas this body thing ranks up there with flying watermelons and part-time gravity the body expects too much a party in a drop of rain a snowflake in the brain we must stop conjugating it can only lead to uglier children and a shortage of beer with faces of rain marching down broken streets of evening into a land of tents and mimes on such a day it is hard to imagine how long it took for christ to become christ and not bill when we have settled so effortlessly for pizza and beer like tourists waiting for old faithful to explain our lives
things with wings -it wonâ€™t get better till people get betterag enough air to inflate a fool spirit scuffs leaves like a child the body stops here a frog gazing at the ocean dreaming summer things with wings princess kisses camped out in the brain making up the difference drinking timeâ€™s hard wine a starship in a bottle at the bus stop is a girl bobbing like a pigeon all spikey and spanky then over the town a balloon a psalm sailing i may be somewhat out of socket women cauterize as they go
the sky fills with birds gathering air all things point to an early harvest we have as much god as we can hold
When she said the words, that odd phrase, one that Iâ€™d never before heard, I stopped talking, smiled, repeated her words: Slip dream. The sun shone through, hard and bright, bathing the soft/safe earth tones of her office, another scorcher beginning outside, a hot summer, one for the record books. What a fine term: slip dream. She had told me to experiment, try and not drink for a month, see how I felt. Thatâ€™s after going through the family history: drunks going every which way on the tree:
backwards, sideways, forwards, perhaps. Runs in families, she said. And you have it in spades. But you’re not like the falling down alcoholics: just one drink gets you loose, thinking destructive thoughts, not safe things to have in one’s head (I won’t bore you with the specifics: you’ve got your own demons, right?) So, take a month vacation from the drink, she softly suggested, with a smile. Not a big deal, I thought. I only have that one little drink (maybe two) at night, watching the news. So what’s the big deal. But it felt odd. Not having that drink. And on the third night of not having my little treat, I had the dream: There I was, getting ready for work, necktie neatly in place,
shirt crisp and immaculate fresh from the cleaners, and I grab a cold bottle of beer, twist the top open with a hiss, and take a big, wonderful swallow! No, not something I normally would do. I donâ€™t drink in the morning, ever. So, in my dream, I feel stupid, like a fool, and I pour the beer, amber and beautiful, down the drain. Ah! she said, even before I could finish telling my story: A slip dream. She smiled a broad smile. She had studied this long ago in grad school, before getting her license. Classic, she said. Pure textbook. Excellent! And I smiled. What a perfect phrase. Poetic, in its own way. Yes, thatâ€™s what I had the other night. A slip dream. Will I have it again tonight? Will it become my little secret as my wife sleeps soundly by my side?
My small piece of fear, guilt, all to myself?
As my red wagon shook and rattled over the broken, hot sidewalk, the empty bottles bounced and clinked and sang. 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi-Cola and Tab. A&W Rootbeer, Mr. Pibb, Fanta and mamaâ€™s favorite: Fresca. Three blocks to Joeâ€™s Liquor where Sam (I never met Joe) would smile, gold-capped teeth glistening, a mouth worth so much more than my empties. But the nickels he counted out carefully guaranteed that I could walk to the front aisle and grab a pillow-soft loaf of Wonder Bread.
This great transaction (or ritual, if you will), promised to end in bologna sandwiches for lunch under our avocado tree this perfect summer day.
The caretaker great-aunt’s gone to Port Sulphur for the day, and I arrive to sit Great-Grandma, now past ninety-five. She saves up things for when the monitor who interrupts, deflects, shuts down real conversation isn’t around. She has a question for me: “What is the fallen angel?” Why do you want to know? “Because I saw one once, but the priest said No.” She was girl of thirteen, perhaps, playing hopscotch in the street when Father, urgent, commanded her to follow him. But mama told her to come right home.
Father would explain, he said. The cassock led a few blocks on to cracked stoops in front of broken houses. People poorer than her own lived here. Behind even these, a tin-sheet shack held a mother and her infant on a dirty mattress. She handed the baby over. The priest whispered to her something indecipherable, then passed the newborn on to Mae. It wobbled, light in her arms, lay still. Its breath came fast and shallow. “Is this the fallen angel, Father?” Oh no, he said, this baby’s going to Heaven. With chrism, he crossed its forehead, made the sign, the words, poured the water. The baby didn’t cry or shake. It looked so holy and so sad, what could it be if not an angel, fallen to earth, still falling?
â€œSo is that right?â€? I study religion, so she asks me, as if I know the answers to such questions. Should I tell her the fallen angel is something else? Thereâ€™s more than catechetical correctness here to weigh. Yes: it was an angel, and how else could it have come here, for so little time but loved, if not by consenting to fall?
GREEK CHORUS you can see me in the back row two in from your right, yes thatâ€™s me the short one, slightly round actually we all look pretty much alike in our shapeless black dresses masking differences in our bodies some portly, some slender, most of us over sixty, black scarves tight over curls or straight hair tinted brown or blonde to touch up our age to match our mood so please look carefully we speak in one voice no counterpoint or contrasting views lines rehearsed for weeks each syllable in synch we nudge the plot along like ants pushing crumbs explaining a father slit his daughterâ€™s throat, a sacrifice to appease a goddess withholding wind from ships of war we speak of ancient secrets, brazen acts of betrayal,
incest, cannibalismâ€“ a lame man fathers two sons in his motherâ€™s bed a king serves his brotherâ€™s children roasted in garlic tossed with parsley we are not like heroes who loom large center stage perform impossible deeds commit impossible crimes clean stables of a thousand cattle in a single day leave an infant to die on a remote mountainside feet cobbled in pain we sit by the fire and sip our tea slip into bed by ten sleep soundly no nightmares for those paid minimum wage to ease the story along no overtime, no facebook page or You Tube no Herculean tasks to plan no murders to manage sometimes you can hear us sighing, wondering if tomorrow we will speak in our own voices hesitant, stumbling
hoarse from disuse maybe you will see me one day standing alone center stage telling my own story please listen
PRAIRIE BURNING controlled fire rejuvenates a prairie denizens of a muted world stumbling through fields of weeds, woody plants and wretched stalks of betrayal half people wandering without purpose or with a purpose that has no meaning or a meaning they canâ€™t grasp no connection to who they are or were since they are unknown to themselves living past death, too old for death shadow remnants of a past that is only known through semiotic signals cliff notes of suffering anorexia alcoholism cutting cocaine can the field be fertile again can fresh shoots spring up wheat barley corn does the wound devour its victim ghost pain flexing what I need is prairie burning specters vanishing in the haze controlled devastation releasing nutrients removing litter suppressing weeds allowing wheat corn barley seeds to sprout anew can you stand next to me and light the match I canâ€™t do this alone again
UNRAVELED his world unraveled that afternoon in LA period he stepped into a crosswalk comma a car turned left comma the driver texting comma eyes down period his body propelled through a slash in time period sirensâ€™ split LA air period brain damage period he crosswalked out of his life that afternoon comma leaving a brief remnant pasted to the street period no way to pray the world back with prayers flattened by shrieking tires period only a posthumous existence year after damaged year comma scrabbling
on scanty leftovers period no way ever back ever through a hole in time no way ever back ever to that raveled period
CAN TIME RUN BACKWARD? can misdeeds be undone the myriad cruelties we inflict on others especially those we profess to love slicing sarcasm lies and lies of betrayal sodden hate curled in our hearts leaking, leaking does time’s spool not rewind, does it simply wait for Atropos to cut the thread with her fated shears while her sisters look on impassively can’t we go back like Orpheus with the gods’ dispensation softening the heart of Hades with celestial music, can’t we rescue the past and lead it to light like Eurydice or was Eurydice a trick of the gods, an apparition to prove their power over a poet and musician whose mournful songs moved them to weep
whose love moved them to consider for one slim nanosecond the possibility of reversing time the gods speak last Eurydice fades licking up shadows with a final word farewell Cut the thread, Atropos Time is one way.
Backyard Poem #1
I paid too much for the color green. Would you suffer through imitation Kermit voices or bacterial infections? Brown roots stay brown in chia pet grass planters. Your epidermis landscape is a close talker. The lawn gives foot massages after dinner but twigs are like a gangster’s shiv — hard as Legos under toes. Peace should just exist. So many Oms, netty pot cleanses, relaxation stations. Ladybugs are one winged angels flying in circles around Chai tea. Dandelion fuzz blows into future Folgers Coffee commercials from the 90s. Barrier reef sky is not a barrier if your I-pad falls out the window. Birthed through a sink hole, out pops Neil Degrasse Tyson and explains it all. Rabbits know the best edible flowers, their little rabbit fangs massacre the pansies.
Backyard Poem #6
The tallest old tree with the widest trunk has a fairy door nailed to the base and a tiny battery powered lamp hangs over this door. Offerings left at the door: acorns, bits of ribbon, pieces of cheese, clover, flower petals, notes on scraps of used wrapping paper left by a six year old girl’s hands who scribbles write back. Written excuses for why the fairy has never appeared: helping squirrels move into a new oak tree all next week, working on intervention for nicer blue jay behavior, met with mosquitos about not biting you, took vacation to Brazil all winter. Always running outside at dawn to read the notes. This is everything and all things, wanting to catch a glimpse of wings. The adults inside the house learning how to lie.
Backyard Poem #9
I. When I first drew pictures of round bodied dogs and cats and ate raisins after art camp I didn’t know that Sheri, my babysitter, and her daughter Heather were probably evil. It was summer but I was still stuck in Heather’s backyard because dad still had bills to pay. I could see my own backyard, the creek, from Heather’s fenced in, dust bowl one. I was too young to stay home by myself. Freedom so close, yet so far away. Heather’s brother, Jon, was just an onlooker who liked to eat. Jon rough housed with Bruno, their slobbering horse-like Saint Bernhard.
II. I don’t know if it was Sheri who was the ringleader or Heather but they took the dog’s rubber hamburger toy and put it in between bun halves and served it up to me for lunch one day. Even put ketchup and lettuce on it so it looked real. As if in slow motion, I bit into it. Trying to bite through rubber, I pulled the whole slab out of the bread and onto my t-shirt, ketchup falling in a plop onto my lap. I sat there, the rubber toy in my teeth, not understanding.
III. That scene, a Polaroid picture in my brain — me holding the rubber dog toy in my mouth, confused, ketchup on my crotch, Sheri and Heather laughing. Slowly coming to terms with why I still hadn’t taken a proper bite. And that this toy had also been in the Saint Bernard’s huge wet mouth- that we were one and the same. And then, the realization, I was worse.
TRAVELS IN THE VORTEX
Stuck in Iquitos K. and I came the hard way: Bus over the Andes on the Fear of God Highway, then bumboat down the Marañon. Nine grueling days only to arrive in Iquitos and find hordes of tourists already there. This isn’t right, we said, we’re in deepest Amazonia, it’s supposed to be more remote than this. We thought we had followed the enlightened path and had earned something for it. But Mick, the hard-ass Aussie we met in a bar, laughed in derision and told us to go suck iguana eggs, Amazonia was long gone by now and the enlightened path was a crock. Cameras at the ready, the tourists drifted by on the river, riding shaded ferries to their ecocamps—Explorama, Tambo Safari, Jungle Lodge—where drugged monkeys dozed in cages, snake skins decorated restaurant walls, and fake Indians blew darts at targets on tree trunks. Three days in what the Explorama brochure called a “designed rain forest” then a flight to Miami, bearing heart-of-darkness souvenirs: shrunken skulls, blowpipes, monkey heads carved from coconuts. K. and I had a different plan: katabasis: Keep heading downriver, following the Amazon to the sea. In Iquitos, the plan hit a snag.
Low on funds (the bank constantly shut down by strikes and holidays), we sweated out a fortnight. Lizards climbed the riverbanks and giant fish rode through the streets on the bare backs of fishermen hauling the catch to market. Then K. found an agency to cash her travelers’ cheques and booked passage for Manaus on a steamer. Beneath the creaking fan, the agent shook his head and pointed out my passport’s missing pages. No go, he said. K. boarded anyway, leaving me behind to work it out for myself, and I discovered the true meaning of panic attack. Visceral. Totalizing. Fear mounting with the thunderheads out over the equator. Entropic dread at the quick. The city slumbered through each day’s heat. For a month the electricity failed nightly, only the shiver of heat lightning to illuminate the mystery of life. I saw the skeleton in every object and, in the trickle of the hostel shower, felt the boils growing on my skin—under the arms, in the waistline—something eating me to the bone. Parasites, said Mick and grinned, no longer derisive. He bought me a beer and with a slap on the back welcomed me to the castaway club. Pura Vida Somewhere along the way we heard about a wild place, a remote beach town where free spirits and all the old hippies had gone, and there was surfing and weed and some native mushroom with potent psilocybin effects. Too good to be true, a vibe we didn’t want to miss. Thanks to Clark (or rather his rich old man) we had a jeep, so we bounded off the Panamerican and followed a rutted track down the coast, four dropouts in search of what the local idiom called la pura vida, the laid-back life, easy, pure, and hassle-free. It was Clark and I, Leech and the Crabman. During the months that followed, we were sure that we had found it, this so-called pura vida. Sun, sand, sea breezes; cops who just grinned at all the gringo antics. Euphoria. Never gave a thought to the lectures we had left behind. Our research now involved cantinas and putting the
local brew to the test: Imperial, Nacional, Tropical, and some wicked aguardiente that had no name. There were experiments with the mushrooms to find the right dosage. The pura vida vision quest, Leech called it. There were bonfires on the beach at night, warm winds off the ocean, heat lightning, the Crabman strumming a guitar. It seemed our lives had burst into bloom or ripened like some voluptuous tropical fruit, the pulp all sticky and sweet. Lovely village girls sauntered by, baskets balanced on their heads, the scent of tortillas and mangoes on their hands and hair. And sometimes there were mission-minded Peace Corps girls on holiday, scornful and aloof, full of haughty purpose, sunhats shading pale skin and skeptical eyes. They heard out our story and scowled, intensifying our belief in the pura vida by denying it. Nothing shook our faith, not even the mysterious departure of Clark and his jeep, leaving me, Leech, and the Crabman behind. How simple it is to let a catchphrase frame your outlook, two words in a foreign tongue that become the touchstone for all youâ€™ve wanted your life to be. Pura vida, man, pura vida. But the placid surface of la pura vida conceals its undertow. Eventually you get pulled out to sea. Gist of story: We were too fucked up to stay afloat for long. Days telescoped. Nights palled. Beer, weed, mushrooms, and those crazed village fiestas, tortured saints in procession, palm fronds crashing down in high winds. Factotums and barkeeps turned hostile, and even the bootblacks laughed at us when we passed out in the sand, jacaranda petals dropping on our heads. Then that weird day when word came we were in deep shit. A frantic search for passports and visas, money for a bribe, the police unimpressed with our feckless Spanish, no way to placate the shakedown. The pure and easy philosophy got us three nights in a rat-infested cell, stomachs revolting from the jail stench, the sounds of torture from a nearby chamber preventing sleep. No forgetting that night when the draconian captain, full of his dictatorial self, hauled us blue and febrile in lightning-shiver out to the wall, cocked the gun, then barked a vulgar threat and threw us on a bus to the border, jittery in the throes of withdrawal, abruptly purified of la pura vida.
Northbound: Veracruz to Houston
One hundred miles from the border I ran smack into the storm’s leading edge, a cold cyclone roiling across the desert floor. The isolated pueblos gripped down, holding tight against the wintry wind. Vultures hunkered over roadside shrines and congregations of blistered cacti cringed in the wasteland. The radio picked up distant stations—staticky prayers and mariachi yelps, sales pitches interrupting apocalyptic news; rosaries for pain relief fading into teary laments over loves long dead and gone; the signal of despair reaching out to deep space. With the sudden temperature drop hundreds of speckled lizards crawled from the cold sands onto asphalt seeking leftover heat. There was no way to avoid them, tires registering each little thud, one more stretch of bad road in what had been for me a series of bad stretches. Then the hailstone lights of Reynosa crystallizing on the horizon. And the border town streets: rag-wrapped men pushing shopping carts, pilfering trash for salvage; slag stoked into bonfires, a toxic smoke blackening the lamplight when I drove through. Despite the icy wind, the border guard brought out a dog to sniff the car. The guard was meticulous: Pen-lighted the wheel rims, poked the exhaust pipe, rifled the duffel bags tied to the roof. “I guess you all are happy to be back in the U. S. of A.,” he shouted above the gale. Foolish grin. “Oh yes, sir, you bet.” He brought down the stamp and waved me through. In Harlingen the radio recited the day’s top story: Storm of the century, polar vortex, coldest temperatures ever recorded. I kept the car churning into the arctic blast, engine wheezing on the last gallons of low-grade gas.
Midnight, 77 North, the Earth as dead as the universe, the road clean and clear. And there was nothing to impede my progressâ€”nothing, nothing at all until I reached the ice-bound freeways of Houston, where it was rush hour, traffic jamming every lane, vehicles skidding into guardrails, panic lights flashing up and down the roadway, the economic engine freezing to a halt, stranding multitudes. Houston: Uncle Samâ€™s town, poised on the cold rim of the spiraling pit.
IN THE TWILIGHT KINGDOM
It was a Saturday, around 11:30 a.m. The year was 2011. Danny and Renaud were drinking coffee in the diner next to the mixed martial arts studio where Renaud had just finished teaching a class on weapon takeaways. A rubber knife, a wooden gun. But still with the feeling of an imminent threat to your life. Of someone actually trying to kill you. Renaud always talked about that when he taught martial arts, about making sure the feeling was real. This was in Albuquerque, a few miles down from the University of New Mexico, where the buildings started to thin out and there were more gas stations and warehouses than anything else. “So. I hope you don’t mind but—Don told me you know where the guy’s living,” Danny said after their plates had been cleared and their coffee topped off. You could tell he’d been working up to the words. “Uh huh.” Renaud settled his hands around his coffee mug. It was summer time and hot outside, not much better under the ceiling fan in the booth, but he liked the warmth of the mug. It grounded him. “What are you going to do?” Danny asked. “I mean, now that he’s out. Are you going after him?” “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I can’t imagine,” Danny said, watching Renaud’s face. “No, you can’t.” Renaud worked his jaw, cracking it. Danny could tell Renaud didn’t want to talk about it, but he plunged ahead. “If it was me, I’d kill him.” Danny made a small dismissive movement with his chin. “I’d hide out in his house. Wait ‘til he got home.” Renaud grunted. He shifted his head around, stretching out his neck. “How did you get his address, anyway?” Danny asked. “Wasn’t hard. Just used the internet.” Renaud reached a finger under his wool beanie to scratch his head. “It’s not like he’s in witness protection or anything.” “Man. Man oh man.” Danny slapped his fist into his palm. “Let me know if you need any help,” he said. “I mean, anything at all. We could go in there togeth—” “That’s not going to happen,” Renaud said. “Sorry to burst your bubble. But it’s not. Listen,” he said. “I got to go.” “Oh sure. Of course. But hey, are you still coming on Tuesday night?” Renaud gazed at Danny, his face inscrutable. “To help out with the open hands class? I told everyone you might come.” Danny began talking more quickly. “But no worries if you can’t. No worries at all. I mean, I know you’re busy.” “No, I’ll be there. No problem.” Renaud put down what he owed and left with Danny still thanking him. As Renaud approached his car—a Subaru hatchback he’d gotten in trade eight years back, in exchange for his brother and sister-in-law’s three aging horses—the Sandia Mountains rose swiftly above the diner. They
were tall, rugged crags, their textured black shadows and sharp grey points visible in minute detail, even from down here. Looking at them distracted Renaud. Made him forget his anger. For a moment, it was just the mountains and nothing else. No cars behind him on Central. No Danny asking stupid questions. No dead brother or released murderer. No Renaud. But when he looked back at the drab olive Subaru everything, the whole world of people and violence and duty, came rushing back like a strong wind blowing over dog shit, and he put a hand to his jaw, trying to stop himself from grinding his teeth together. He started the car and began driving, letting his other self take over. Letting it direct him. He knew the address and location well. Twice already in the eleven days since the killer had been released he’d driven in that direction, taking I-40 West but then turning off at the last moment. He was playing a game of chicken with himself. He knew it was dangerous. If he ended up at the man’s house, if he saw the man’s face, he would probably just do the thing and not even know it had been done until after. There had been a bar fight not long after his brother and sister-in-law were murdered, and it was like that then—returning to himself afterward, broken glass on the floor, crunching under his feet, the sounds of injured men in the dim room, men on the floor holding different parts of themselves, blood on his hands, and then the cops running into the place, shining their flashlights and yelling. Someone had said something while he was waiting to get a beer, made some offhand comment about his sister, and that was the last thing he remembered. Renaud pulled onto I-40. He had the route memorized, could see it in his head like he used to see geography when he memorized recon maps. Part of him liked the idea of blacking out like that, of letting things take their course. Part of him believed he had a justice-taking side to himself, a kind of superhero thing, which would turn on—would activate, he thought, and smiled at the cartoonish image the word evoked—whatever you wanted to call it, but part of him would know exactly what to do when the time came. The problem with guys like Danny was that they only saw that part of him, and this made it hard not to fall into the trap of seeing himself the same way, of forgetting that he had other sides, other parts.
And it looked like he was right about what would happen if he let his other self take over because now, after successfully avoiding it for almost two weeks, he was at the man’s house. It was a beige cookie cutter building with a brown A-framed roof, one story, dead in the center of a cul-de-sac. If he continued driving, he’d plow straight through the front door. Renaud swung around the curve and parked on the far side, where he could stop and watch the house. There was no movement in the windows, no car in front nor in the carport. A wind blew up suddenly and knocked a lid off a trashcan and Renaud jumped at the noise, then settled back into his seat with a red face, as if he’d just lost his tough demeanor in front of an audience. He imagined the layout of the house based on what he could see from the outside and this brought on adrenaline, a happy high. His heart began to beat faster as he saw where he would hide. What he would do. Part of his Ranger training had been in learning how to deal with that onrush of adrenaline. The body will react in certain ways to stress, you can’t change that, they had repeated this constantly. What you can change is how you deal with those reactions. Whether you control them, or let them control you. Looking at the house Renaud remembered the moment he’d gotten the news. He was twentythree and on furlough. He’d sat in his parents’ dim living room in a wooden rocker, bouncing on his toes, moving so quickly that he didn’t notice his mother’s hand on his shoulder, didn’t hear her voice as she tried to calm him. All he could think about, all he could imagine, was how he would one day apply his training to the hunting and killing of this man. But sitting there now, watching the still windows of the killer’s house, there was no rage left. Just an old sense of duty. A strong feeling in him, stronger even than that other side that took over when he was angry. Because that was just about rage, about pushing back against the helplessness of being a person, an unconscious and animal thing, but duty—that was about how he saw himself, and how he wanted the world to see him. Renaud got out of his car and began walking along the sidewalk that curved up to the house. He put his hands nonchalantly in his pockets, as if he was out for a stroll. At the house he looked around to see if anyone was watching, then jumped quickly over the wooden fence into the backyard. He slipped on a pair of leather gloves he had in his pocket, found an open window, and made his way inside.
*** After Renaud had left the diner Danny sat watching him from the booth. Now here was a man, Danny thought. He watched Renaud pause before getting into his hatchback, gazing up at the Sandias, his hands resting on the roof of the car. Danny was small and skinny, but he saw himself as tough. This was how he described himself to friends when they heard he was studying martial arts. “Yeah, I’m little,” he said. “But I’m scrappy.” Try me, he said. Come on. But no one would take him up on the offer. It was too sincere. It was clear he really did want to fight someone, and no one wanted to be that person, regardless of Danny’s size. He’d found the mixed martial arts dojo after searching Albuquerque for a place that claimed it would teach you how to fight—fast. Most of the dojos, when you walked in and asked how long it would be before you could really do some damage, they looked at you like you were an alien. In an Aikido dojo the teacher had looked at him and laughed warmly. “I think you’re in the wrong place,” the teacher said, and Danny had left, the teacher’s laughter sticking in his head, following him outside to the parking lot. The problem was that Rex kept coming to his apartment and stealing from him. If Danny was there, Rex would pound on the door until Danny opened it then force his way inside and demand money. If Danny wasn’t there Rex would break a window, jimmy the lock. Rex was Danny’s old dealer. He didn’t care that Danny was now clean. Rex was going to sell him crystal or he was going to take his money, and if Danny called the cops or complained then Rex was going to go to Danny’s boss, the big shot lawyer, and explain that his favorite paralegal had been smoking meth for most of the two years Danny had been working there. This had been going on since Danny got clean six months before. Danny had been studying at the mixed martial arts studio for almost four months now. He flexed his hand into a fist, watching Renaud in the parking lot. Here was a man, he thought, who was going to handle things on his own. Here was a man who was going to kill a killer.
And now it was Danny’s turn to take care of his own problem. *** Renaud slipped quietly through the window. He felt down with a foot, found himself on carpet. He crept down the hall to the bedroom, all of his senses on high alert, his whole body awake for the slightest noise. The bedroom was empty. It looked like a room from a model home, not meant for living. In the whole space there was just a bed with a queen mattress and a lone nightstand with one picture sitting on it. Nothing on the walls, no furniture. Renaud looked at the picture. It was the killer with his arm around some guy, possibly his brother. They were both smiling. Renaud took the picture in his hands, remembering his brother, remembering a picture he had like that, of him with his arm around his brother, taken right before Renaud had deployed for the first time. They had just married, his brother and Allison, and their house had been like this, one of those cookie-cutter buildings in a new development in Rio Rancho, a sprawl of suburban neighborhoods on the outskirts of Albuquerque. They had been so proud to buy that house. Renaud had helped them move in. While doing his first tour they sent him an email and included a picture of them with the house in the background, the two of them smiling in front with identical houses stretched out behind them down the street. It was just their first one, his brother had said. A starter house. It was just the beginning. And now something came on that Renaud hadn’t been prepared for, not adrenaline but a sudden access of sadness so strong that he could feel it in his stomach like he’d swallowed a stone. It sat there, then moved up to the base of his throat, making his breath come hard and wet. If his brother had lived they would have kids now. Renaud would be an uncle. His own wife wouldn’t have left him. Everything would be different. Renaud sat down on the bed.
Wind blew something outside, a noise that brought him back to where he was, and he stood quickly. He searched the other rooms of the house to confirm that no one was there, then returned to the bedroom and hid in the closet. He leaned against the wall, happy to wait. Waiting was something he knew—the long crouch before the sudden leap. The long quiet before the explosion into action. *** Danny got home a little after noon and sent Rex a text message. Come over, he said. I have something for you. Who knew if Rex would. He was a dealer but he smoked crystal too, and you could never tell where he was going to be, what he was going to be doing. There had been a time when they would get together and smoke all night, telling stories and drinking, telling lies about women and fights. Rex had it bad. He’d lost teeth, a bunch of them, and gotten mean. Until it wasn’t him anymore. There was no Rex there, just a Rex-looking shell. One night Danny had picked a pipe up off the table, held a flame to it, and as he was setting it down, exhaling smoke, Rex came roaring out of the bathroom. He was on him in a second, with a little fold-out knife he kept on his keychain. He poked it into Danny’s throat. “What’re you doing?” Rex asked. But he didn’t give Danny a chance to speak. He pushed the blade further into Danny’s throat, until Danny could feel his throat skin tight around it. The blade was dull. It pushed the skin in, but wouldn’t cut. Rex pushed harder, his body smothering Danny so he couldn’t move. A knock came on Rex’s front door. Rex looked up and Danny pushed him off, scrambling onto the floor and standing up, catching his breath. Someone tried the handle then walked in, some other guy Danny had seen around but didn’t know, and Danny pushed past him and ran outside. What shook him more than anything was the sudden change. Rex was Rex, and then he wasn’t. The next night Danny went to his first meeting in a part of town where no one would know him. It was hard but he did it on his own, without having to tell his parents or his boss or anyone. And he made it through the first month. It was hell and it took hard work, but he made it. Clean and sober every day for one week, two weeks, then finally a month, taking each day as it came just like they said.
And then one day Rex showed up at his front door. *** For the first hour Renaud stood in the closet. He recited poetry in his head, the three poems he could still remember. He used to know a lot more, memorized for the long waits he’d had to make, but they’d faded over the years. The poems kept your brain awake, helped passed the time. He hadn’t told anyone he did it because he knew he’d get shit. Renaud leaned against the wall of the closet. Eyes I dare not meet in dreams In death’s dream kingdom these do not appear: He had a knife in his pocket, but he didn’t want to use it. More satisfying to do it with your hands. There, the eyes are Sunlight on a broken column He set his jaw, finding that part of himself that could kill. It was a physical thing, right there behind his sternum, hard like concrete. There, is a tree swinging And voices are In the wind’s singing He’d waited like this once to kill an important Iraqi official. Waited for days. The official was helping Iranian secret service. Intelligence had found scraps of their marked bills, which had been given to the suspected official, in a bombed-out compound known to be used by the Iranians. Renaud needed to kill the man at a great distance so it couldn’t be traced back to the U.S. Just a stray bullet in a state at war. Who would know where it came from?
More distant and more solemn Than a fading star. He hid on a mountainside for three days with his partner, eating his MREs, shitting in a hole. They didn’t talk at all. They were running out of water, and his partner went out to look for a fresh source. The official was supposed to pass through the village within a four-day window. Intelligence thought it would be day two, but it hadn’t happened yet. Let me be no nearer In death’s dream kingdom Let me also wear Such deliberate disguises He was in a rhythm. He was in disguise, blended perfectly with the landscape. Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves He could do this a while longer alone, ration the water, watch the sky for dust to indicate the approach of a vehicle. Make sure no one knew he was up there, above the village. The poetry was a kind of mantra, a way to meditate. Not just passing the time, but being in it. Experiencing the passage not as a waste but as a thing itself. In a field Behaving as the wind behaves But then a boy appeared, so quietly that Renaud jumped at the sight of him. The boy had a few sticks in his hand. Renaud had him by the throat before he knew what was happening. The boy was about nine years old. The fear in his eyes was tremendous. No nearer— Are there others? Renaud demanded in the simple Arabic he knew. Are you alone? The boy nodded frantically, his eyes wide.
Not that final meeting In the twilight kingdom. What could he do? If he let the boy go, his mission was compromised. Not only the mission, but his life, the life of his partner. If the villagers found out two U.S. soldiers were camped out above them before a chopper could get there, that would be it. They would be killed. And if he didn’t kill the official, more soldiers would die from the support he was giving to the enemy. Good men, men with families back home. He had forgotten, had been able to forget about that day, though it had taken a long time. But now the poem brought back the boy’s eyes—he’d forgotten that he’d been reciting those lines at the exact moment when he turned and saw the boy. Eyes so terrified beneath him. So helpless. Just a child, with a family back at home. Renaud slumped to the ground. The sadness came back, the regret, and it felt like it was turning that hard part of himself, that concrete part that could kill, into just more of the sadness. He could feel all the hardness, all the rage draining out of him, washing away. He pulled his knees to his chest and focused on his breathing, tried to make it come steady again, but the calm, the resolve he’d felt when he first entered the closet, that was gone. *** Danny was at his peephole. Rex was outside. “Just a sec,” Danny said through the door. He went to the kitchen, put a roll of pennies in his hand. He thumped himself on the chest with the hand holding the pennies, felt its new weight, felt the adrenaline coming on but didn’t know what it was, just that he felt jumpy, like he wasn’t sure what he would do next. He felt a little like he used to when he smoked meth. Danny returned to the door, pulled it in, and as Rex stepped over the threshold Danny punched him directly in the eye. Rex went down. Danny was on top of Rex, punching his face like they did in MMA. That’s how he’d been taught: someone gets you in his guard, and you posture and rain down blows. He punched Rex five, six times in a row with the heavier hand and then he stopped. Something was wrong—the body beneath him was still. Rex wasn’t fighting back.
“Just do it,” Rex was mumbling. “Just do it man.” He didn’t even have his hands up. “No. No, get up.” Danny reached out his leg, still on top of Rex, and kicked the door closed. “Get up and fight me.” “I can’t man. I can’t. You’re right.” Rex was nodding, blood coming out of his mouth, blood flowing out of a cut over his eye where it had been caught by the edge of the roll of pennies. “Just go ahead.” He stopped nodding and locked eyes with Danny. “It’s OK man. Just get it over with. Really man. I want you too.” Danny got off Rex. “Get up,” he said. Rex pushed himself into a seated position on the ground, scooted over and leaned against the wall. He’d lost weight since the last time Danny had seen him. He looked small, like a boy. Rex began rocking forward and back. “It’s OK,” he said, staring into the space in front of him, nodding and repeating the words that Danny felt he should have been saying, if anyone was going to say them. “It’s OK,” Rex said again. *** After three hours of waiting in the closet Renaud heard the front door open. He stood up, shook his arms out, did a few shallow squats. He could hear the killer walk down the hall, turn away into the kitchen. Renaud could see the kitchen in his head, the cheap linoleum, the painted cedar cabinets. He heard footsteps creak across the floor, heard the refrigerator suction release as it opened, sigh closed. A drawer slid out, slammed shut. Death’s dream kingdom was where all of humanity lived. This was how Renaud saw it. As a soldier, he’d seen that the possibility of death was everywhere. Which was why the poem gave death two kingdoms. Every living person dwelled in death’s dream kingdom, where what they did was important, had meaning, living in the eternal present where they were aware of death as an idea but willfully ignorant of its personal certainty for them, everyone dwelling deeply in that
amnesiac dream of their self-importance before passing, suddenly and forever, into the eternal quiet of death’s other kingdom. He reminded himself of this, that we were all in that dream kingdom, every one of us, as he slid the closet door back ever so slightly and stepped to the side, out of sight of the opening. He shook his hands out, the adrenaline coming back. The footsteps were in the hall. The killer was headed toward the bedroom. Renaud tensed himself. He saw the man enter the room, just the motion of it happening, and he was on him. He crossed the few feet of carpeted floor in an instant and grabbed the man from behind in a chokehold, squeezing his body close so there was no room to struggle. The killer kicked out behind him, stomped down on Renaud’s foot, and Renaud lost his grip. The killer threw an elbow back, trying to turn and face him, and Renaud encouraged that circular motion, pulling on the killer’s shoulder to turn him all the way around so they were facing each other as he threw the man onto the bed and dug his fingers into the murderer’s throat, pushing into his windpipe. And there was his face. The man’s eyes were red. He looked different from how he’d looked on the news, how he’d looked in court with the strain of the audience, so cool with all those eyes on him as he was tried and sentenced to 25 to life. So cool he must have looked when his conviction was overturned on a technicality after only eight years, some clerical error forcing Renaud to be here today, to mete justice since justice had to be meted. But the man beneath him was not cool. His red eyes opened wide, bulged out beneath Renaud’s weight. Renaud dug his hands in, feeling the terror in the man’s body. The man’s eyes opened wider than it would have seemed possible and there was a fleeting feeling of power, of the hunter who has caught his prey—of the great assertion of action, of something accomplished that is unique, done as a war cry against the implacable certainty of death. But then it was gone and there was just the body beneath him, struggling impotently under Renaud’s brute strength.
The time seemed to drag out. There was no reprieve of a black out, of waking suddenly to find that he had done the thing. He was painfully awake, just him and the dying man, the face so human that he had to look away as he continued the work of killing him. Renaud pressed down, using his body more than his hands. He felt weak. His eyes were drawn back to the face and when he looked down he saw not the killer’s red eyes but the eyes of the little boy. He released the man suddenly, jumping back off the bed. The man made wet gasping noises, his fingers grasping at his throat, the life returning to his body as Renaud fled down the hall, out the window, over the fence and back to his car. *** Danny got to class early on Tuesday so he could wrap his injured hand. A new student, a skinny guy about Danny’s height who’d started just a week before, came over to watch. “Wow,” the guy said when he saw Danny’s swollen knuckles. “You really beat the crap out of somebody, huh?” “Shut the fuck up,” Danny said. He could see Rex’s face, covered in blood. Could hear his tired voice asking Danny to finish what he’d started. “That’s awesome,” the new guy said. “What, was he talking shit or something?” Danny finished wrapping his hand, stood, and moved toward the guy, crowding him so he was forced to step back. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Danny said. “But isn’t that, like, why we come here? So we can beat the crap out of people?” The guy laughed and Danny had to walk away so he wouldn’t punch him. He’d already driven Rex home after beating him bloody. He’d already tried to take Rex to his first meeting, only to be stood up. He didn’t need anything else making him feel bad like that.
Fifteen minutes later Renaud still hadn’t shown up. The time to start class had come and gone. “Let’s get on the mat,” Danny said, de facto instructor since he’d been a member of the dojo the longest of everyone in the room. There was a more advanced class after this one, but most of those guys didn’t come early for the basics class. As they were warming up Renaud walked in. He looked emptied out—disoriented somehow. Renaud already had his gi pants on, and he slipped his shirt off, changing quickly into his gi top on the side of the mat. As Renaud walked across the mat to take his place at the front of the group, Danny could see something change in him. His head straightened. His eyes took on a certain light, and his footsteps seemed more sure. “OK,” Renaud said, clapping his hands twice as Danny joined the others. “Everyone warm?” And all the men sat down, training their eyes on him, watching to see what he would do next.
**All lines of poetry that appear in this story have been taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men
He stares out at me. From wherever he is now. Moving his lips. Lifting an eyebrow—was that intentional? I grin, saying the nurse will be back soon, Dad, does anything hurt? Do you need suction? Want the TV on? * * * Hard to imagine what it’s like, locked in like that. Able to move your arms and legs only in little jerks. Can’t sit up by yourself or control your shitting. Food poured through a tube in the stomach. Dad always wanted to be in charge. Plus, he had that tinge of claustrophobia. So when his eyes get large, round, tight at the edges—is he mad? frantic? terrified? The first few times I saw that look, I ran for a nurse. But all they do is adjust his pillow, wipe his mouth, say he’s doing fine. * * * Question of how much he understands. Some days he’s a zombie, but other times, like today, he’s alert, watching all visitors, responsive, even “talking” at length—letting out unintelligible whispers that sound almost like sentences.
There’s definite progress since the first weeks after the heart attack. But they say the eight minutes without oxygen destroyed billions of brain cells. “Plateauing,” they call it when they suppose he won’t improve. Doctors more pessimistic than the nurses: “His age is against him.” I didn’t think 78 was so old these days. His hands and forearms a crusty blue-black from hundreds of needles. They put a clear film bandage on top that makes the arm feel like plastic. Today one spot of natural pallor is peeking through and the nurse says his skin looks “better.” When he does that whispering to me, maybe he’s saying I should get him out of this. Take him away. Or cut the oxygen tube. I never had a choice. Once the EEG showed a trickle of activity, there was no option to disconnect. But how can I explain that to him? “Gee, sorry, Dad, they didn’t give me the chance to put you down”? After whispering awhile he gives up, turns his head away and squeezes his eyes shut. * * * One of them keeps calling for help. “I’m falling!” she yells. “Get me out of the street! He stole my purse!” Everybody ignores her till a nurse comes along and wheels her back in her room, clicks the door shut. Today, sitting in this chair across from his bed, I wish I hadn’t let Vicki talk me into moving back here when she got the job offer. If we were still 1800 miles away, Jo would be the one visiting him every day. She couldn’t pretend her 54-mile trek from the outer burbs is too far. She’s only his stepdaughter but I think she’d tolerate this better than I do. She actually seems to like him. He’s watching as I write this, his right hand clutching at the sheet. “Hey, Dad,” I say, “I’m typing on my laptop. Getting a bit of work done!” What I think is: Stop staring at me that way, dammit. It’s not my fault. * * *
It’s a decent place. Patterned carpets everywhere, including the patients’ rooms. Wallpapered halls. Plenty of windows. They don’t like to call the place a nursing home, just The Jenkins Center—Jenkins presumably some rich guy who wanted the honor of having decrepit folk housed in his name. They encourage you to put up family pictures, which we’ve done: Dad on an anniversary cruise with Marge; Jo and her husband; me and Vicki; all our children. (We left out my mother and the other two wives he doesn’t like to remember.) The nurses so professionally cheerful. Nursing 101 must be “How to Permanent-Press Your Smile.” Yet when these women coax him, tease him, jolly him along, it sounds like they enjoy it. “Dr. McIlhenny, Alan, quit possuming on me, I know you’re awake. It’s time to clean your teeth—you like that, remember? Oh there you are, I see you looking! Can’t fool me! Gimme your big smile. . . . Not gonna smile today? You’re punishing me, aren’t you, ’cause I gave you shots this morning. But you have to open up a little for me. That’s it. Don’t bite, no, just open, this feels good, doesn’t it? Oh yes it does, you like this!” * * * Suction every hour or so. The gurgling in his throat worsens, like he’s pulling dregs of a milkshake through a straw. His right hand fumbles around his neck. Nurse comes in, washes her hands, takes out a trache kit, draws on the sterile gloves, stretches the tube, hooks it to the little blue machine, detaches the oxygen line, uncovers the trache. Before using the machine, she squirts in some saline, which loosens the gunk and makes him choke on it. She holds gauze over the hole and encourages him to cough: “That’s the way, let’s get all the nasty stuff out, good, good . . .” For long long seconds he strains and goggles like a drowning horse. Then she switches on the motor, pokes the tube in and wiggles it around, draws it out, listens, swabs around the area, listens some more, maybe suctions again, changes the pad around the trache, replaces the cover and the oxygen line and adjusts the strap on his neck, strips and disposes of the gloves, rearranges his head on the pillow, etc. etc. etc. Again and again and again the whole day long and the night too.
They try to make it part of their cheery routine. But just writing it down feels like a 50-pound weight on the chest. And that moment after the saline goes in, when he thinks he’s suffocating— when he is suffocating . . . The wonders of medical technology. Without the EMT crew and their fancy equipment he’d have been dead on his kitchen floor six months ago. Without the trache surgery he’d have died the second or third week. Without the suction machine he’d choke to death in a few hours. Any of which outcomes might’ve been better for everyone. * * * Yank on a weighted rope—he’ll do that a few times if I lock his fingers on the grip, bend over the wheelchair and coax. “C’mon, Dad, you can do it. You pulled it three times last week, let’s try for five! Like this, see?” Sometimes he tries to do what I urge. Others times he gives me this stunned gape like I’m trying to kill him. Or he completely spaces out and I get annoyed. That’s what we do in the physical therapy room. Or else I put his feet on electric-powered pedals that exercise his legs. Maybe he’ll try to hold an inflated ball in his lap. Or we’ll watch the old woman who patiently stacks plastic cubes and I’ll tell him he can do that if he keeps working on his hand control. Typically he goes to therapy in the morning before I arrive, but on days when there’s a logjam they let me wheel him there after lunchtime. A break in the monotony. Back here in his room, I put on the TV (Bonanza reruns) or play a CD he used to like (Tommy Dorsey, Peggy Lee, tunes I didn’t mind the first 15 times but that pitch me now into instant gloom). After a few minutes he zonks out, so I pull this laptop from my backpack and try to work. Distractions when they come in to suction his trache or change the sheets he’s shat on or check his blood pressure or empty the trash. Otherwise it’s just the murmur of nurses’ voices from the hall. Empty hooo-aw-oosh of the air conditioner. Urine-colored sun soaking through the blinds. If I cut my usual three hours short and sneak out early, who’ll know? On Saturdays, when Vicki comes with me, he perks up. Vibrates his arms, jiggles his legs. Blinks at her and makes a goofy clown grin, which is about the limit of what he can do with his
facial muscles. Same on Sunday, when Jo drives in. Last time she brought a huge balloon, which he gawped and smiled at like he’d never seen such a thing before. It’s kind of upsetting that I’m here every day but they’re the ones he acts happy to see. A number of years ago he joked as Vicki left the dinner table, “She’s a fine girl, Ben. I never thought you’d do so well.” A remark I didn’t appreciate. * * * I remember the time I threw a punch. I was about 12—no, 10 maybe? A Saturday. Mom said she’d take me shopping for the white shirt and dark pants I needed for a school orchestra concert featuring my first-ever clarinet solo. She told Dad our plans in the morning but he decided to fix the distributor in the Pontiac. He wasn’t going to let “those jackasses at the garage” mess it up again. He said he’d be done in a couple hours. I stayed in my room reading, practicing the clarinet. Peering out to the driveway once in a while to see if the car’s hood was still up. Morning passed, then lunchtime, and I wandered outside. “Dad, how long do you think it—” A wrench fell with a clang. “Dammit!” he griped. “Where’d that go? God damn son of a bitch!” He slammed his fist into the fender. “What is it, Ben?” I retreated to my bedroom. Around 4:30 he came inside and washed up, digging grease out of his fingernails. Mom said nothing about the shopping plans. At dinner she chirped, “The clarinet sounds really good, Ben. Improving a lot.” I muttered that I didn’t have much time left to improve with the concert coming up on Thursday night. “Thursday? Oh my gosh, I thought it was the weekend. It’s not on the calendar, is it?”
“Yes it is,” I said. “I wrote it when they told us the date. Thursday at 7:00.” “We’ll need to eat right on time then. Alan, can you be home by 5:30 that night?” “What? When?” “Thursday evening. Come home by 5:30.” “Why?” he said around a mouthful of potatoes. “For Ben’s concert at school. The piece he was practicing so hard today.” Dad focused at last on the conversation. “Oh,” he said, “that was the clarinet I heard? And all along I thought the neighbors’ cat had a stomachache.” He grinned. “It’s Debussy,” I huffed, pushing green beans around my plate. (It was an extract watered down for our school orchestra.) “Debbie who?” Dad teased. Most guys with doctorates, even in mechanical engineering, wouldn’t take such pleasure in feigning ignorance. But Dad’s from a small town, thinks anything artsy is bullshit, and he doesn’t mind letting people know. I seethed. He frowned at Mom, “You really need to give me more notice about these things.” After the meal, while clearing dishes, I snatched the kitchen calendar from its hook and took it to Mom, at the sink, to jab at the entry for Thursday. “See? It’s why I needed to get the clothes today.” She squinted at the ballpoint scrawl. “Oh. Well, the stores are open Wednesday night— Don’t you have some dark trousers in your closet?”
“They’re too short!” I slammed the calendar on the drain board. “What’re you doing?” Dad gruffed behind me. “I’m clearing the table.” “No you’re not, you’re heaving things around.” “I just wanted to prove—” “Hang that calendar back up, will you—or give it here.” He came up to grab the calendar but I swept it behind me with my left hand and used my right to aim a punch at his stomach. This impulse surprised me more than him—he caught my hand midair and locked it between the two of his. “My, my,” he smirked. “Temper, temper. What’s wrong with you tonight?” As I raged incoherently he took the calendar away, and soon I slunk to my room. Mom stirred her scrubber in the dishwater. I forget what clothes I wore to the concert. The solo went poorly—uncontrolled scrawks and screeks with Mom and Dad both in the audience—and it wasn’t long before I gave up the clarinet. But I kept my anger hidden. By the time I reached college I blamed him for everything. Driving Mom away at last. Undercutting what little self-confidence I had. This is what I told the college shrink. Yeah, well. Time passes, and you realize there’s plenty of blame for everyone. You end up missing your own kids’ soccer games, doing a nuclear meltdown in the supermarket, whatever, and you get a new perspective. Today they removed the oxygen line, he can breathe without it. Yay, I guess.
* * * My latest client is highly impressed, Dad. See this email? Best copy they’ve ever received from a freelancer; they believe I “really understand the project.” Maybe I should print this out in large type for you. As if you could read it in any size. But I think you do know, you always knew, I’m a success in my own way, even if I don’t have a swank corporate title. Observe how I answer the email, modest but exuding control of the matter. Brilliant. * * * “Why stop?” I griped. “He’s improving. The other day he pulled the rope five times. And you know he’s off the oxygen now.” This was my big argument with the physiatrist, Dr. McNabb, the one who’s most pessimistic. I demanded to meet with her when they discontinued his physical therapy. She shook her head, dismissing his small accomplishments. He’s still unable to support weight on his legs, she pointed out, can’t hold himself in a sitting position, doesn’t respond to the speech therapist, etc. etc. (as if I need a list of what he can’t do). And the clincher: The insurance won’t keep paying for therapy if he doesn’t show sufficient progress. I argued about the definition of “sufficient”; she must have some room for judgment. Also I offered to pay for therapy from our own funds. He’s got money, I said, and Jo and I have court papers making us guardians—we can write checks ourselves if we need to. No, she wouldn’t consider that. We should keep our money, she said, in case we need it later. I stared at her, this willowy, 40-ish, graying-blonde specialist who manages an elegantly drab look in her white coat. She has this tiny smile on her thin lips like she is ever so much wiser than mere human beings. “Won’t he get worse if we stop pushing him?” I challenged. “The nurses will do bedside therapy every day.”
“That standard range-of-motion stuff? It doesn’t help much.” She contradicted me. “Those exercises accomplish a great deal, and they’re exactly what he needs right now. If we feel he can benefit from more aggressive therapy at a later date, we can start him on a new program.” Her narrow smile again, victorious. Now I’m back in his room and I want to thrash the bitch. What if I’d insisted? Either you give him physical therapy, which we’re offering to pay for, or we’ll take him someplace else. Or we’ll bring in a private therapist. Or we’ll sue your goddamn pants off, Dr. McDrab, and let the world see your pale little ass. Who are you to say his progress isn’t good enough? He’s goggling at me while I type, like he knows I failed him. Shit, Dad, I didn’t ask for this job. And nobody at all asked you to outlive your last wife. * * * It’s funny how, in his old age, especially after his retirement, he got so much mellower, even stopped arguing with Marge. Jo once remarked that her mother and he made “a nice couple.” Vicki and I would visit, go out to dinner with him and Marge, watch football on TV. It was tolerable. And Marge always claimed he was fond of me, which I tried to believe. When Marge died he refused to move closer to Jo or me, but we made certain he wasn’t alone on holidays. I saw him at least once a month. I had grown out of hating him. * * * They’ve been trying to have him “up” when I arrive. Dressed, that is, and in a wheelchair, ready for a roll down the hall. We pass other patients parked outside their rooms in their own chairs, nodding or sleeping or pointing at something. “I’m in the street, they’re gonna run me down!” the one lady yells. We have two main hallways to choose from. One heads toward the cafeteria and the physical therapy room, a direction I avoid because I’m still mad they canceled him.
The other hall goes to the front door and a bright lobby with a huge wood-and-glass birdcage—a “habitat,” they call it. About 8 feet high and 10 feet wide with dozens of colorful birds preening on the branches, flitting about, darting in and out of hidey-holes. The first time we went there he eyed the birds for five minutes or so. Puzzled? Interested? The mind awakening? Lately, though, it’s been like this afternoon: “Dad, here we are, at the birds you like. Remember you watched them the other day? Wonder what they’re up to now. Hey, look at the little blue ones in the cubbyholes. One’s poking his head out, can you see him? Like he’s checking out what the neighbors are doing, then he goes back in to watch TV.” I grin at my lame joke, but Dad twists his face away. No matter how long I leave the chair facing the cage, he refuses to look. Times like this, when he’s so plain about his boredom and irritation, it seems his brain really is working. I want to believe that. But if that’s true, he knows how trapped he is. In the worst kind of jail. A prison where you can’t sit or stand or crawl, you can’t scream, you can’t clear the slime from your own throat. I wonder if the administration sees those caged birds as a lesson—how to make the most of your captivity. Sorry, we’re not buying it. * * * Woke around 4 a.m. gasping, smothered. Jerked bolt upright in bed. Throat clogged. Right arm dangling on the mattress, useless—it had fallen asleep, and my left arm was almost as dead. Had to bob from the shoulders to bring back sensation, trailing my floppy arms like tentacles. Panicked, I couldn’t lie down again. Afraid I’d suffocate or get paralyzed like him. Left Vicki asleep, went to sit on the sofa in the family room, a sheet over my legs. Stared at the blank screen of the TV, listening to myself breathe.
* * * I’ve started, for a few minutes anyway, cleaning out his house. Tedious, painful job that Jo wants no part of, though some of the junk is her mother’s. Found his old slide rule in its leather case: a wonderful instrument, long, finely balanced, dozens of detailed scales that I can’t fathom. In the days before calculators he could do a complex computation to several decimal places within seconds. When I brought it to his room, his eyes opened wide, he jiggled his arms. The bed was cranked to a sitting position, so I helped him hold the slide rule across his lap. He gawked at it, worked his lips. Jerked his hand back and forth like he wanted to point something out. “Yeah,” I said, “go on, show me how you used it.” Abruptly he lost interest. Closed his eyes, let the instrument slip away. Soon his hand went back to its habitual clutching at the sheet. I switched on the CD player and Peggy Lee crooned, “It’s a good day for singing a song.” Later he did some of his soundless whispering. Probably saying that if I was fetching things from the house, I ought to bring the .38 pistol from his bedstand. * * * Ridiculous that he’s in my head even more than before. In college he was attached to me like a thought balloon in the comics—commenting, critiquing, so that sometimes I acted wild or stupid just to see what he’d say. I’d show him stuff—watch this, Dad—and when he commented I’d argue back. We had a wonderful loud fight, entirely in my brain, the one time I tripped out on acid. For years I’ve kept that tendency under control, but lately I’ve been at it again, sitting at home, driving round the neighborhood, any hour of the day: Dad, down this block on the left, that’s the new investment property Vicki and I bought. It needs some work on the plumbing and furnace; rehab’s gonna set us back ten thousand but should be worth it—we can rent the place for enough to cover the mortgage payments. I know you were always dubious about real estate, but we know what we’re doing, see?
He doesn’t answer. * * * Today the bed next to him got an occupant. Till now we’ve been lucky to have a double room to ourselves. They were preparing all afternoon and the guy arrived around 4:30, shortly before I left. Lots of bustle, yanking of the privacy curtains, wheeling of a respirator and other machinery, seemed like 100 people to put one man in bed. When they cleared out for a moment I had a peek. Not too old, late 60s maybe, frail. Cheekbones protruding. Tufts of gray-white hair. Hello, I said, and he gazed past me at the wall. There were some unfamiliar visitors around the nurses’ desk. Guessing who they were, I stopped on my way out, introduced myself. Yes, he’s their husband/father/grandfather. Chuck is his name. The daughter, I suppose it was, said this was the third stroke in two months and he’s got a lung infection he can’t shake, so finally they agreed to put him on hospice. I commiserated as best I could. Only when the automatic front doors wheezed shut behind me did I realize what this meant. He’s been stuck in Dad’s room to die. * * * Of course the administrators have multiple needs to balance, insurance to finesse, budgets to keep. I see why they can’t let a bed stand empty. But today Chuck coughed so hard I thought bits of lung would fly out. How can such a weak person rack his insides like that? Though the curtain was drawn between the beds we heard every convulsion. I went to the nurses’ station to report it. When I came back Dad was agitated, wobbling his head, jerking his hand, one finger angled toward Chuck. Yes I know, I said, the nurse is coming, Chuck has a lung problem so he’s going to cough till it improves, try not to listen. I turned on the TV and raised the volume. In five minutes or so a nurse rushed in, swished around behind the curtain and the coughing stopped. Must’ve zapped him with a needle.
* * * Should I complain? They admit Dad is prone to infections and his roommate coughs constantly. How much of a problem is this, I asked the night nurse, Marie, on the phone. Don’t worry, he’s on plenty of antibiotics. Who is, Dad or Chuck? Both of them. Of course I wouldn’t wish a proto-corpse on somebody else. Chuck can’t last long, and Dad may not even notice when he goes—unlike a roommate who’s more aware. Still, there may be options. I talked to Vicki. She listened carefully, then said it’s my decision whether to protest. I got angry that she wasn’t helping, stomped out of the bedroom. * * * Last night Vicki claimed I was taking things out on her, being cranky all the time. I snapped. I went to the car, started driving. I was headed to the mountains, somewhere they couldn’t find me. But I stopped at a roadside Denny’s for a hot fudge brownie à la mode, then felt exhausted and turned back. Fell asleep on the couch. * * * Chuck’s been quiet today, even less lively than Dad. I chatted with his daughter for relief from the tedium. Her name is Helen. About ten years younger than me—43, 45—dressed in a yellow T-shirt and blue jeans a bit too tight for her. Seems bright, compassionate. During gaps in our talk I thought about inviting her to the bathroom to have sex on our knees on the white tile floor. More and more, that’s what my brain does in this place. Skitters away. I think about baseball scores, 160-pound nurses without their uniforms, hot fudge brownies. Anything but what’s in front of me. If I did suggest it, would she be outraged, repulsed, merely amused? * * *
Bed already made up, machines vanished. Chuck’s gone. Crisis during the night, he passed early this morning. Sad I won’t see Helen again. I’m picturing the minutes when Chuck rasped out his last froth of bacteria. Was Dad awake? Did he get what was happening? Did anyone have time to notice? * * * The kids both managed to squeeze in a stop home before the fall semester. I’ve told Dad how they’re doing in their graduate programs, and sometimes he seems to pay attention. Yesterday when we came in, though, I wasn’t sure he recognized them. Each was treated to a bout of whispers, but he does that whenever a different face appears. It’s like he thinks a new person might help him—understand his mouthings, intervene with the authorities, plot a jailbreak, whatever. Neither grandchild had any idea what he was saying, and in a few minutes he gave up the attempt, shut his eyes and folded his mouth in a disgusted grimace. * * * They shave him daily, trim his hair and nails. But his nose hair’s been getting long and he was always particular about that kind of thing, so I stopped at the drugstore for one of those little personal groomers. When I got here I loaded the battery, showed it to him, switched it on and ran it inside one nostril. It’s like a tiny weed-whacker. His head recoiled. Eyes bugged out. “It’s just clipping your nose hair,” I assured him, but he made a terrible scrunched-up face, jammed his lids down, pouted his lips. I was exasperated. “C’mon, Dad, you want to look good, don’t you? I use one of these at home.” Ignoring his expression I scoured the other nostril. “There,” I said, “it didn’t hurt, see? And you look great now.”
He’s refused to meet my gaze ever since. Stayed asleep the whole afternoon, or pretended to be. It occurs to me, from his position, it was like a mini-rape. Other things I do: swabbing the mouth, exercising the fingers, rubbing ointment on hands and arms, putting drops in his eyes. My reward: ugly faces. He doesn’t realize what it costs me, this time I spend with him. Freelancing, when you’re lucky enough to get a project, means the liberty to choose which 80 hours you work each week. If I’m up till 3 a.m. to meet a deadline, what does he care? Gimme some credit for being here every fucking day, will you? * * * Yesterday I went over his financial status again. As court-appointed guardians we could make some moves, sell securities that aren’t doing well, buy others. But Jo leaves the decisions to me, and I’ve merely filed insurance claims, paid expenses. Why am I so terrified of making a mistake? He’ll never be well enough to judge. I’ve decided to put his car up for sale, assuming I can find the title. Bold move there, Ben. * * * Problem in the night, Marie called about 2:30. Temperature spiked, apparent infection. Sputum yellowish, difficulty breathing, they think he aspirated some secretions. Ambulanced him to the hospital. I got there at 3:10 to wait with him in a cubicle for 3 hours and 27 minutes before he was assigned a room. He was unconscious the whole time. I watched the numbers on the screen, blood pressure, oxygen level, pulse. There’s a DNR order if his heart stops—no resuscitation allowed—but his ticker kept on steady. Ironic that since his heart attack that organ has been fine.
They had the respirator attached again, set for minimal assist. (I’ve learned to read those numbers too.) Pulmonologist said he hopes it’s temporary, but the pattern is, they get infections repeatedly and each one makes them weaker. Ten days after the heart attack the doctors said he needed a trache because the temporary oxygen line would break down the tissue, causing infections. But now they tell me the trache itself promotes contamination. After all, it’s a hole in the throat—a freeway for bugs. This is medical science. I’m more and more certain about his whispers. If his “talk” makes any sense at all, there’s only one sense it could make. * * * Back in the Jenkins Center after three days in hospital. “Stabilized.” But less alert than before. Wakes for a couple minutes then conks out. No respirator but they’ve got an oxygen line connected to the trache again. * * * Another roommate. George. Not “hospice” but in bad shape. I marched to the administrator’s office and griped because he’s just over the last infection. She said if we wanted a private room she’d give him priority on the waiting list. Naturally it costs more, insurance won’t cover it. I said we’ll make up the difference—get him his own room as soon as possible. In the meantime I insisted the nurses monitor him constantly and call a doctor if there’s the slightest change. “Of course, that’s our job.” Not reassuring. Afterward I felt I’d stood up to the system. Vicki says I’ve done all I can. Yet I’ve been rearguing the case in my head all night. * * * George gone after two days. Back in the hospital with a “relapse.” I never learned what’s wrong with him.
Dad somewhat more awake today. I put Bonanza on TV and talked to him about it. “There’s Hoss, the big goofy one you always liked.” Dad nodded, seemed to smile a bit, acknowledging he’d seen those cowboys before. We watched pretty much a whole episode, and Dad had his eyes on the TV, or toward the TV, most of the time. At the end the father and three brothers rode down the valley into the sunset. What a metaphor— all those actors are dead now. Sometimes I think it’s nuts, this whole idea of trying to comfort patients with old music and pictures, ancient TV shows, an obsolete slide rule. Who are we kidding? * * * So it happens. Just like that. After months of torture, so easy. Like a finger brushing the air. * * * Groggy. Been asleep 10 hours. She was late in calling last night. Marie, the night nurse. Wanted to be sure the transport was arranged before she woke me up, and then in the commotion she didn’t get to the phone right away. He looked dead when I arrived. But I was there, technically, for the finish. A green-curtained cubicle. Clacking of heels in the corridor, tiny buzz of fluorescent bulbs. Hoo-whuff-clud of the respirator. No sign of consciousness underneath the hoses and plastic tubes. I didn’t notice when it happened. Nurse asked me to step out while they did the ritual exam, made their notations. Official time of death 4:27 a.m. Me standing in the hall like I’d wandered onto the wrong movie set.
Then they said I could go in again. I did because they expected it. Stood a moment, looking; sat a couple minutes in the chair beside him; came home and passed out. * * * Amazing that I never considered the funeral. Vicki’s checking the options. Dignified but not fancy, there’s no point. She and Jo are splitting the list of relatives to call. She was just speaking to Dad’s cousin in Florida. Don’t know what comes next. Should we write an obituary? Vicki made tuna sandwiches for dinner. “Why don’t you take another nap?” she says. “You look wasted.” The will makes me executor—ironic because I haven’t the faintest idea how to begin. This afternoon I woke around the time I always went to Jenkins, and I realized there was nowhere to go. I do want another nap. Funny, it feels like he’s already found his permanent resting place. I can sense him behind my right shoulder. Is he watching or turning away? Or whispering?
THE SPECTRUM OF THE SUCTION BUS
The technician spoke very slowly, very clearly, as he attached the electrodes. After tonight, I would wait two weeks. They would call me. I would return there for the results. I nodded my head. He told me, rather sternly, not to move. Taking what looked like a red pencil crayon, he drew three crosses on my forehead. The electrodes, which looked like tiny silver suction cups, sat in neat little rows on a platter next to three equally neat rows of half-inch rips of surgical tape with wads of grey putty balled in the centre. The technician carefully placed each electrode over its allotted cross, then the surgical tape and putty went over top, anchoring it in place. To make sure each sensor stuck, he pushed on both sides of my head. The first electrode was for eye movement, he explained. When I dreamt, in REM sleep, my eyes would move. The next one was for my heart, the next for leg movement, brainwaves, and so on. By the time he finished, there were strips of tape on my shins, tape on my pyjama pants, straps around my belly and chest, sensors on my collarbone, my temples, my chin, my cheeks, my forehead, four sensors glued into my hair, two behind my ears, tubes up my nose, a microphone by my Adamâ€™s apple and a small red light clamped to the tip of my index finger. Wires cascaded off of me. I looked like a robot, spilled open. With a great deal of patience (a requisite for the job, Iâ€™m sure), he helped me waddle over to bed, pulled the covers back and held them up for me as I wiggled under. After tucking me in (a particularly awkward experience: a grown man being tucked in by a soft-spoken med-student type wearing latex gloves and full institutional scrubs), he gathered my wires together and plugged each one into a box like a small switchboard sitting on the nightstand. (The electrodes and other gizmos attached to me all appeared to use the same wire, a wire somewhat like those colour-coded cables on the backs of televisions pre-HDMI, all essentially interchangeable, but if you ran one from a green output to a yellow input (on the
television, I mean), the left audio would come out the right speaker or vice versa, meaning in this case if the wires got crossed they’d read my lungs as my feet, my feet as my heartbeat, etc.) The switchboard then plugged into a large cable that disappeared into the wall behind my head, the same cable – or the same connection anyway – that printers use, the same connection that monitors use too, come to think of it: the plug with the two or three rows of pins like a tiny bed of nails, or one of those Pin Art executive toy things you see next to Newton’s Cradles on the desks of psychotherapists. If I needed the washroom, the technician told me, I would call for him. I would say, hello, this is room four. Just like this: hello, this is room four. He would hear me through the intercom. He was going to the observation room now so they could run some tests. He would talk to me from there. I nodded carefully, trying not to dislodge anything. He turned the lights off and stepped out of the room. The bed was comfortable, at least. The big fluffy pillows, the flat-screen TV (only a 24”, but still), the filing cabinet that was like a stand-in for a dresser, etc.: these were their attempts to make the room feel somewhat like a hotel room. However the home decor magazines on the windowsill, the thin walls that reminded one of cubicle dividers, the ceiling panels with the fluorescent lights: these details gave the room the unshakeable feeling of a clinic. I’d forgotten to check for those yellow asbestos warning triangles you see beneath ceiling panels in office buildings built in the fifties and sixties (a habit of mine, checking for those, being just a touch hypochondriacal), but it was too late to look now. In the darkness, the only thing you could see was the ring of tiny red lights around the infrared camera in the ceiling. (The television was mounted suspiciously high on the wall, just beneath the camera, presumably to make you feel guilty for watching TV when you should have been sleeping, which I did briefly consider when I couldn’t sleep, but I’d forgotten to make a note of where the remote was, and I was petrified of fumbling around on the nightstand and possibly knocking the switchboard thing off.) Through the thin walls I could hear a technician wiring up another patient. I could hear muffled bits of an explanatory monologue that, from what I could make out – muffle muffle movement, muffle muffle REM - was roughly the same monologue my technician had used with me. They worked from a script, perhaps, or they wired up so many patients, their explanations began to take the form of a script. I’d arrived at the clinic early, and on the long walk to my room I hadn’t seen anyone else—hadn’t seen any other patients, I mean. I’d seen technicians, of course, some of them sitting at computers in an involved control-room-looking type of setup that I came to understand was the observation room, the room where my technician was heading now, another
one or two readying some of the ‘bedrooms’ I guess you could call them, of which there appeared to be enough for twenty sleep studies a night, maybe twenty five, though it was hard to tell, the hallways being circuitous, maze-like. When I got to my room, which I believe was in the North-east corner of the clinic, though again it was hard to tell with the convoluted hallways and absence of windows, they asked me what time I typically went to bed. I told them typically around two, which they didn’t find funny, but I said I could possibly try to sleep around ten, ten thirty, maybe, which they deemed acceptable. They would be back at nine-thirty, then. They handed me a stack of questionnaires and closed the door behind me. Slowly, over the next hour or so, as I filled out the various forms, I could hear the other studies start to trickle in, hear them negotiate a bedtime with the technicians, hear the door close behind them. I was curious about the other patients, and what they thought of some of the more curious items on the questionnaires. Do you eat during sleep? I wished. That would save so much time. Have you ever initiated sex during sleep? I shared my bed with my cat. So no. Has your partner ever initiated sex during sleep? Meowington? Etc. I tried to catch more details from the monologue in the adjacent room, thinking if I could pick up any deviations from the spiel I’d heard in here, I might get a clue as to the malady of my neighbour. By extension, I might get a clue as to the general makeup of the other patients: their age, their weight, etc. (I assumed old and fat. I wanted to be proved wrong.) I heard about as much as muffle muffle washroom when the technician’s voice came over the intercom. He said hello, and could I move my eyes up down, up down?
I complied. Could I move them left right? Could I keep my eyes open? Could I close them? Could I flex my feet? (Flex?) Could I grind my teeth? Could I make snoring noises? (I made pig noises, pretty much. It was humiliating.) Could I hold my breath and move my stomach in out, in out? Could I take a deep breath and let it out slowly? Could I breathe through my nose? Could I breathe through my mouth? There was a pause after the mouth-breathing request. Then he thanked me and said goodnight. The intercom clicked off. I waited a minute or two, expecting something else. Nothing. The monologue in the next room had ended. A minute or two later, they would run through the checklist with him/her as well, but from what I could hear, the study didn’t make any audible responses. Perhaps they’d fitted them with a breathing apparatus of some sort that prevented them from speaking. They’d have to communicate using hand signals or something, or foot flexes. I at least had the freedom to call out if I needed to whiz or if I’d just plain had enough and wanted all these wires and crap off of me pronto, dammit. It could have been worse, then, I supposed, though not much worse. At least one of the weirder parts was over, the wiring up and all that. I just had to lie still now and
somehow forget they were back there, behind the iris in the ceiling, cracking jokes about farts and night wood, watching me toss and turn and scratch and sigh and curse. I just had to forget all that, and fall asleep. Easy as– The intercom clicked back on. The technician apologized, but could I breathe through my nose again? I breathed through my nose. A minute went by, a minute and a half, maybe. The door opened. The technician apologized, but he had to make an adjustment. He flicked the fluorescent lights back on, went to the switchboard, switched a few wires, apologized again, turned the lights back off, stepped outside. I waited a few minutes, expecting more commands, but the intercom stayed quiet this time. I was wide awake, probably more awake than I’d been in a long time. This made me nervous, which made my heart rate increase, which I’m sure they noticed, which made me even more nervous, and so on and so on. I wondered how well they could see me from that eye with the red pin-hole lights. I wondered how many times they’d watched someone lie in bed with their eyes wide open the whole night. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months, but I feared that tonight of all nights I might sleep right through. I would look like a full-on hypochondriac, or some sort of elaborate exhibitionist. For the next hour I tried different tricks to take my mind off the whole business. I tried picturing my brainwaves decreasing in activity, hoping to will them from alpha to theta, from rocky crags to rolling foothills. This actually had the opposite effect (no doubt noted by the technician). I became acutely aware of my surroundings, acutely aware of being observed, and as my awareness increased, so did my indignation at the whole situation. I felt more and more that this observation (which objectively wasn’t all thatterrible, really) was an intrusion upon nothing less than the most private thing imaginable i.e. my very thoughts themselves, and the notion that all this was supposedly for my benefit seemed a fairly transparent justification for what was actually an enormous, medically sanctioned perversion (inter-cranial voyeurism, being my diagnosis). This riled me to such an extent that I knew it would be impossible to sleep should I carry on with this line of thought, and while the idea of being watched while I slept was indeed
troubling, the thought of staying awake for the entirety of the session was almost unendurable. I tried reasoning with myself, so that I might calm down a bit and maybe within an hour or two I might be able to try to sleep, that whatever the personal motivation of the observers, it wasn’t my actual thoughts being read in the observation room. The representations that reached the technicians through the printer cable were akin to those animated visualizations that bounce and churn along with the music on your computer. They are able to depict the tempo and intensity of the music, but they aren’t the music. Still though. It was my music. I thought screw you for a while, hoping the form of the readout might match the content. (It didn’t, apparently. During my follow-up I enquired into the details of my vital signs or whatever you’d call the squiggles and spikes on the polysomnogram, specifically the ones early in the night, but the doctor would only say there was nothing abnormal during the first hour, meaning either there was no difference between my thinking screw you and thinking something else, or every one of their sleep studies thinks screw you during the first hour.) My first relaxation technique having failed, I tried focusing instead on my breathing. This was an old trick of mine from when I was a young insomniac (I’m talking seven, eight years old). I would envision my body as a tiny, gaseous organism, feeding off the surrounding room, the comforting, enclosing space which became in my mind a kind of airy, fragrant womb. After a while the electrodes and wires and various accoutrements that for the longest time felt as though they were leeching off of me became seen almost as neural and/or umbilical extensions of my nervous and circulatory systems, connecting me first to the building, then, through the innumerable asbestos-dusted wires tucked above the ceiling panels (telephone, electrical, whatever), connecting me to the surrounding city, countryside, continent, etc. This image reminded me of (or was perhaps subconsciously inspired by) a clip I’d seen a few years earlier in my Intro to Psychology lecture that showed the movement of neural signals through the brain (in incredible slow-motion: a fraction of fraction of a second stretched to two, three seconds, then looped like a gif). In the clip, the brain stood seemingly inert for a moment, then, after being instructed to think, presumably, it shimmered like the night side of the earth when photographed from the ISS, 370 km up. I don’t recall if it was an animation of some sort, or if it was a rapid succession of images from one of those scans when they insert your head into a metal tunnel filled with magnets or some such wizardry, though I don’t think those scans have the ability to image neural interconnectivity with that sort of detail, but I might be wrong. The important thing was the shimmering effect I came to associate with neural activity. After seeing that clip,
whenever I thought of Thought, I pictured sheet lightning, which might be an unsettling association for some, but I found it comforting, though I’m not sure why. Lying in bed that night at the clinic, picturing my thoughts storming out into the world, I actually started to relax a little bit. I started to feel not quite so claustrophobic under all the wires and the tape. I started to feel peaceful, almost. Then I realized I’d stopped breathing. I sputtered and coughed, panting for twenty, thirty seconds, until my pulse started to slow. (I wanted to shout see. See I wasn’timagining things. But I realized how that might come across. Plus I was short of breath.) Well it had happened once, anyway, the breathing thing (or notbreathing thing, I guess), though that had been a mild one, comparatively, mild enough that it hadn’t sent me pacing around the room to catch my breath, but strong enough to give them something to sift through, data-wise. I had a theory about why these lapses in breathing occurred (a theory that was refuted during my follow-up appointment). It felt as though I simply forgot to breath. At least half the time it happened just as I was about to fall asleep. It was almost the same feeling as that jolt awake when your brain thinks you’re falling (a sensation about which I’ll say more in a second). These pre-sleep jars and starts were troubling, but you could get used to them after a while and their frequency diminished if you slept on your side for some reason. The other half of the time I would start awake from a deep, deep sleep. That was much worse than the little gasps when I was dozing off. The jolt was so bad sometimes I would stagger out of bed, gasping for air, my vision all fuzzy and black like right before you faint (if you’ve ever fainted), my chest and throat burning, my heart racing. It made me afraid to go to sleep, understandably. I had problems with insomnia to begin with (I suppose my overindulgence in coffee didn’t help this affliction, but this indulgence was partly to counteract the lethargy that resulted from not sleeping at night), and now, even when Iwas tired enough to sleep, I was incredibly wary of turning in for the night, knowing for sure I’d get jolted awake like that two or three times at least, though the thought of the jolts didn’t scare me nearly as much as the thought that one of these times there might not be a jolt, that my body would simply forget to start breathing again, or worse still: it would remember, but it would remember too late, my cells and muscles too deprived of oxygen to resume their normal functions, the brain too starved to wake the aching, deflated lungs. I would have to lie there, paralysed, conscious too, of course (I couldn’t just drift off peacefully in my sleep), looking like the freshly drowned, those limp, dripping lugs who, rising from frigid waters, blue lipped and brain-damaged (at least in the movies), reach the air too late, unable to
take that great shuddering gasp despite the frantic cheek-puffing mouth-to-mouth and chest thumping and exhortations to breathe, breathe. My theory about these lapses had to do with a biological mechanism called REM atonia. I knew about this mechanism from pop science videos and Wikipedia articles admittedly, though that doesn’t necessarily discredit the theory (the doctor at the follow-up did – discredit it, that is). The basic idea of REM atonia is that in order to keep you from strutting about and humping things in your sleep (I’m speaking for myself, of course), your brain shuts down all but the most essential communications between your locomotive bits and the part or parts of the brain where dreaming occurs, ensuring that if on the not-so-off chance your arms mistake the assassin in you nightmare for real life flesh and blood, you don’t wake up throttling the cat. What happens sometimes however is when the communications are severed, the muscles start to relax (which they are supposed to do), but the part of the brain that handles balance – I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment, but I assume atonia is a process orchestrated between the brainstem and the cerebellum and balance is mostly managed by whichever bit is in direct communication with the inner ear – this portion, being slightly out of the loop on the whole muscle shutdown procedure, doesn’t realize the shutdown is for the purposes of sleep, and it interprets the sudden slackening of muscle tension not as relaxation, but as falling. In an act of misplaced heroism, it springs you awake to save you from this terrible danger, scaring you half to goddamn death in the process. If this hasn’t happened to you, or if it doesn’t happen to you all that frequently, then you are a truly blessed individual. My brain did (and still does) this to me constantly. To make the whole experience worse, my brain also liked to toss vitally important autonomic processes into the atonia shutdown procedure seemingly higgeldy-piggeldy (the basic thesis of my theory). The most vital of these processes was breathing, a process which should probably continue during sleep, one would think, though my brain didn’t agree apparently, because as I fell asleep, my dim-witted diaphragm, wrongly assuming itself to be a muscle of the same order as those in my legs, would settle into a state of anomiac inactivity, remaining inert, suffocating me with its passivity, until it was either jump-started by alarm bells in the part of the brain that detects impending death, or woken by the panic-stricken balance bit that, out of the neural loop as usual, thought I was falling into some dark, airless pit. The effect upon waking was one of both surfacing from the bottom of a lake or a loch, and plummeting from a great height into one. But now that one instance of this gasping and sputtering business had been recorded, I hoped that if anything came of this awkward evening they could at least tell me why such gasping and sputtering occurred. Curing me would be nice, certainly, but if it was some neurological thing causing these lapses then god knows what meds they might have to prescribe me, and I’d have to
deal with the plethora of side-effects those things always have, not to mention the cost of them, an arm and a leg sort of thing, if you’ve never had the pleasure. At least understanding the damn attacks or whatever you’d call them might alleviate the fear of dying in my sleep (or reinforce it, if death turned out to be a possibility), and as an added benefit, by understanding the primary ailment I might also gain some insight into the additional, lesser, but nevertheless bothersome secondary problem I experienced in tandem with the attacks. This problem or difficulty (which was happening now) was that for some time after one of these jolts, I had to consciously inhale and exhale. If this has ever happened to you, you know it’s a hard pattern to break. (I remember seeing a t-shirt once, hanging in a joke-shop type place next to a tshirt that told you not to think about pink elephants, that said ‘automatic breathing activated.’ I was plagued all afternoon.) Apparently the managerial part of my brain, having lost confidence in the autonomic’s ability to monitor and maintain breathing, shifted respiratory responsibilities to the somatic branch of management, which is well and good when you want to catch your breath, but when you want to get on with things like sleeping, say, the moment you stop thinking about breathing, you stop breathing, so once again, just as you start to drift off to sleep, you stop breathing and jolt awake. The only way to break this pattern is to ignore your breathing, which will cause several lapses in breathing, but ignoring these as best you could, you can eventually shift the breathing responsibility back to its rightful autonomic home. So, working with this strategy, no doubt drawing their attention in the observation room, I decided not to inhale. If I thought about something else, my body would start me breathing again. I just needed to trust it, to let it do its thing (as uncomfortable as this made me, knowing what it would in all likelihood do to me later, should I actually manage to fall asleep). My electrodes were getting sore. I was itchy in thirteen places, itchy spots that alternated in intensity, but that I’d decided I shouldn’t really dig in and scratch lest I pop a sensor or tangle some wires. I opted instead to gently rub against the sheets and bed just enough to alleviate the itch without satisfying it properly, which must have appeared curious, though I suppose the technicians had seen it all, hence the freaky bits on the questionnaires. I would sleep beautifully when I got home in the morning, I was sure of it. They would have cured me for one sleep, at least. I could hear other patients down the hall snoring so badly I could feel the vibrations through the floor. My neighbour though, was as silent as I was. Maybe sir or madame couldn’t sleep either. I considered tapping on the wall, seeing if they tapped back. We could work out a code, start a prisoner revolt. Though I guess I had volunteered to come here, so ‘prisoner’ might be stretching it a touch, but had they told me the extent of the ‘monitoring’ they would be doing I might have considered saving my pennies and doing it the rich person way, paying to take home the whole rigamarole and wiring myself up, which would have been a damn difficult feat, unless they came by the house themselves and wired you up (binding your wrists and rifling through
your cupboards, I suspected). The data gathered from home would certainly be more representative. As though the information gathered here could be in any way reflect a normal night. The only thing they were going to observe was eight hours of fully conscious brainwaves, brainwaves inflamed by their excessively uncomfortable practices. I was going to tell them that in the morning. Or something like that. I had time to work on it. It was midnight, at best. There would be six more hours of this, at least. There was a soft knock at the door. It opened before I could answer. I could only see her silhouette, at first. She apologized, but she needed to enter. My technician had requested additional apparati. Mercifully, she left the light in the room off. There was light enough from the hallway. The cart she wheeled over to the bed reminded me of the carts the housekeeping staff wheel around hotels, but instead of towels and stain removers, her cart had electronics and various medical supplies like bandages and such spilling off of it. She apologized again, but she needed to run some cables over here. Could I hold this? Could I hold this as well? And this? When my hands were full, she started resting things on my chest. She didn’t move like the technician. His hands reminded me of an acupuncturist. She was more slapdash. She was a trainee, perhaps, a student of some sort. I had visions of her plugging me into a wall socket. I was having trouble sleeping, wasn’t I? I tried to nod, but the weight of the wires and gadgets made it difficult. I was trying too hard, she explained. Excess pressure inhibited pheremonin reuptakers. It was best to relax. She attached something on the wall above the bed which I couldn’t quite make out, something the same shape as a censer, roughly. It would aid in sleep, she told me. It would alleviate neurodisalignment.
She explained that the technician thought it best to gather additional feedback concerning my condition. This would require more electrodes. This first one, for instance, was for pupil rheumatism. This one was for occipital luminescence. During REM sleep, it determined the carat of eye glint, the sparkle in iris. This one was for moose knuckle. And this – pardon me – this was for cockles. She lifted one leg awkwardly onto the bed. It was a tough angle, she explained. Her nurse skirt slid up slightly. Back-lit by the fluorescent light from the hall, her under numbers looked like a mess of power cables and baler twine. Would sir avert his eyes? There was hosiery apparent. I apologized. She leaned in close and sort of cradled my head with her strange-smelling hands. The next part might be slightly uncomfortable, she explained. These wires, she said, these were for Suction Bus. She began winding them around my neck. Upon visitation, the beast in bus form would suck my cockles and become ensnared within the capturing apparati. We would then splay the intruder upon the rack, and analyze its spectrum. Her eyes were glittering red rings. Irradiated, she explained. Then she pulled the wires tight and my throat closed. I woke up choking. The room was dark still. I held the little red light on my finger up to my watch. It was ten to two. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
The post-sleep questionnaire given to me at five-thirty AM didn’t have any sex or food questions on it. I read it out of the corner of my eye while the technician pulled the tape off impatiently, taking a hair or two (it felt like) with each piece. His face was puffy and his eyes were bloodshot, which I found endearing. Quickly, efficiently, he bunched the wires together in his fist and yanked all the electrodes off at once. On a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being very typical to one being abnormal, how would you classify your sleep? 5. How many hours would you say you slept? 2 or 3. Etc. In the space provided for additional comments, I scrawled a couple sentences praising the high quality succubi at their establishment. This struck me as very funny, though you know how strange and stupid things can strike you as hilarious when you are very tired, then after some rest they seem not really funny at all. (The succubus comment went suspiciously unacknowledged during the follow-up, which added to my theory that I was only diagnosed with ‘mild’ apnoea out of vindictiveness. I felt my barely sleeping had been interpreted as obstinacy rather than inability, and had I actually managed to sleep more they might have observed attacks of increasing severity, and my condition might not have been shrugged off the way I felt it had. Mild though my case had been deemed, there are basically only two treatments for apnoea of any sort: an operation to widen your throat, or a six hundred dollar breathing machine that makes you look like Frank Booth, the rapist in Blue Velvet. So since the treatment was the same either way, I felt the label ‘mild’ simply dismissed and downplayed my concerns while still allowing me access to treatment, if I wished. How patronizing.) When I finished the questionnaire, I tip-toed to the door (I’m not sure why I tip-toed) and poked my head into the hallway. There was a lineup for the washroom. Their heads all rose at the same time to look at me. I was reminded of cows, which I admit is a pretty callous comparison, but at six in the morning our internal censors aren’t working as well as they would during the day when
we’ve had time to caffeinate and humanize ourselves, and I’m trying to be honest about my thoughts during this experience, ugly though these thoughts might have been. There were indeed some old and fat studies standing in the line, (I couldn’t tell which one was my silent neighbour) but the whole gamut was represented, to my surprise, from endomorph to ectomorph. However, as curious as I had been about my fellow sleep-studies during the night, now that the experience was so excruciatingly close to being over, I saw them as a sluggish, discomforting obstacle. I, along with everyone else, needed the washroom sink to wash off the red crosses and the electrode crap. I hadn’t thought to bring a hat. My hair, which had had the electrode putty mashed into it for eight hours or so, looked like a bird’s nest made from dryer lint and chewing gum. I briefly considered skipping the bird-bath in the washroom and just throwing my clothes on and bolting out of there, pompadour intact, but I didn’t have money for a cab and it was a long subway ride home. While normally I wouldn’t have cared all that much what people thought of my appearance, I couldn’t recall ever having looked quite that bad. So, lowering my perma-bedhead, I made my way to the back of the line and joined the weird procession of snorers and somnambulists and insomniacs, and we just stood there, waiting, for what seemed like a goddamn half-hour or something, swaying from foot to foot, in dumpy pyjamas, with big red X’s on our foreheads and silly-putty cow-licks.
THICKER THAN WATER
I come to, tied up. All tied up. I’m fucking tied to my chair. I’m a short man. I’m a fat man. I’m a dumb man tied to his chair. I’m the thin man staring at himself in a funhouse mirror and realizing I’m so far from the carnival, so far from my weapon. The pretty girl eating ice cream smiles at me like she knows me, like she can deliver me from evil. The old man, the same son of a bitch who tied me up, is over me. He’s old, but the fucker is strong. “If you take the body, you owe the soul.” He talks to me like I’m his one-man congregation, says I can be on my own underground or I can be with them above. He sells it like having that choice is a good thing but my eyes tell him I defer. “You may think we ain’t natural, but that don’t mean we ain’t got law,” he says. The girl makes it hard to concentrate on the old man. She makes noises somewhere in between a moan and a laugh. She either really likes ice cream or she likes my condition. I’d like to know exactly what that condition is, but I suppose people like me don’t deserve facts. I just know I’m the one fucking tied to a chair. I’m the one pretending to have choices. Still, I think I might be able to steal a dream. I think if you grab it right as you know what it is, just before it slips away, you can make it real. Some things come back to me: the wife that’s long checked out; the wife’s cousin with those damn eyes, the river of green I always knew would take me in the current. Even though the wife is gone and the cousin is now across from me, I can still hear their words from the past.
The wife in my left ear, “Trust me, you don’t want to meet them. You don’t even want to know.” I swear I can still feel her whisper in my ear, feel my hair move, feel my heart retreat. “Don’t worry about them, baby. Quit being such a pussy,” from the cousin in my right ear. Yes, I do feel the tickle of saliva delivered by her emphasis on the word, ‘pussy.’ Back to the left ear from the wife, “I swear, you’ll never change.” When she first levied that charge, I had nothing to refute it and I still can’t say it’s a lie. “Change? What the fuck are you talking about?” asks a right-eared whisper from the cousin and, just like they did the first time, her legs make her questions rhetorical. Done with ice cream, she stretches and sends those long legs to the wall. The ‘How It Could Have Been’ or ‘How It Should Have Been’ are no longer things. “You did take the body,” she says and hides her hands between the legs. “Oh god, did you take it.” The trick is the old man’s quizzes don’t even have questions. His riddle of new life is me with them. Feeling like them. Like I love to but might never feel again. The old man stares at me as if I’m his child. As if it’s his right to create or destroy me. My curse is when those two are equals. He lights a match and holds it to my face so I feel the heat without being burned. It goes down to his fingers and then he flicks it off my chest. “You might think that smell is sulfur, but it ain’t that. It’s your weakness dying. It’s a good thing.” He starts another to ignite the whole book and throws the flame onto my lap. I try to move my hips and flip it off, but I can’t do it, so I tip the whole chair and myself to the ground. Behind the burning matches, the cousin lies on the floor and blows me a kiss. “It’s time to pay,” the old man says. “Make no mistake: Everyone has to pay.” Just before I let everything slip away—before I kill the idea of myself—I realize what I have to do. I have to delay the end. I have to steal dreams, work their carnival, be their killer. I have to stay above ground. I have to be untied. I have to be with her. I do.
My brother made a gun out of a stapler. You know those big staplers that contractor’s use? The ones you have to squeeze real hard to fire? He fashioned thin sheet metal into a barrel. When the barrel part was still flat it looked like it had wings on one end. He rolled the metal into a barrel then folded those wings down and used screws to attach it to the part where the staples would shoot out. It worked just like any staple gun only it spit out bullets instead of staples. Betty Craver, our next-door neighbor, thought it was horrible. “What kind of child makes a gun out of a stapler?” she said, shaking her head back and forth. In his defense, he wasn’t a child. He was nearly 17. I didn’t much have any opinion at first. It wasn’t until mom had him use the gun that I decided Betty Craver had a point. The zip gun was on the table in the living room, surrounded by coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. My brother was sitting beside me on the couch. Mom came into the room screeching about “that Goddamn dog” again. Shauna was a jet-black cocker spaniel that my parents decided to buy after a night of heavy drinking. I’m sure mom’s intentions were good at the time but, well, let’s just say she didn’t really think it through. She had eight kids, a mostly absent husband and a house that was falling in on itself. Adding a high maintenance dog to the mix wasn’t a great idea, no doubt about it. We’d had Shauna for a couple years and she still wasn’t house trained, although she had progressed to consistently peeing and pooping on a pile of newspapers by the side door. Her coat hung in dull, chunky mats and her eyes were rheumy and inflamed. She spent her days wandering around the house and sleeping in the cool dirt under the front porch. Mom walked over to the coffee table, stubbed out her cigarette and looked at my brother. “Why don’t you put that dog out of its misery for me?” she said. My brother smiled while he leaned
forward and reached his hand across the table to pick up the gun. It made me sick to my stomach that he was so excited. He called Shauna. They walked through the living room and around the corner to the side door, my brother stepping over the pee stained newspapers. Shauna followed him down the steps, across the sidewalk and over to the truck. He picked her up, putting her in the seat beside him, shut the door and drove off. Late that night, after everyone was asleep, I went out to the truck. I found his zip gun under the front seat. I was pretty scared because Iâ€™d never touched a gun before. I made sure to carry it so the barrel was pointed away from me. I ran through the back yards, setting off a chorus of dogs in house after house barking into the night. When I got to the bottom of the hill I crossed the street and threw the gun into the sewer that ran along the road on the other side.
We were in my office, its large ceiling fan spinning silently over our heads. Her divorce had come through. She had dropped by to thank me and take me out for a drink. She said, “I didn’t tell you this before, but you look a lot like Jimmy Stewart.” “Really?” “Around the eyes, the nose.” “That’s not the first time I heard that. When I turned thirty-seven something about my face must’ve changed. People started saying I looked like Jimmy Stewart. Not very many, but enough to make me think it might be partially true.” “What happened at thirty-seven?” “I got older.” “Did you look like anyone before?” “A lot of people but no one in particular, I guess.” She drove us in her white SUV to a bar on Madison and because it was pleasant out the patio was crowded. Men and women in suits, a few groups in denim, a young man with floppy hair
speaking earnestly to a woman with tattoos along her collarbones, both lanky and loose-limbed as abstract human sculptures. Camille said, “We weren’t enemies, and I’m glad we didn’t become enemies during this process. It would’ve been so easy to end up hating him.” “You didn’t have children. That makes it easier.” “You’ve told me that before. You told me that the first time I met you.” “Just imagine how it would’ve played out if you did have kids.” “I’d rather not.” Camille was drinking orange juice with a shot of Campari. It looked beautiful in her glass, a rich galactic hue, the color of Mars. I knew little about her despite having fought on her side during the divorce. She was born in Baton Rouge and had moved here, to Memphis, as a teenager, when she went to Rhodes College to study art history, specializing in Gothic architecture. Rhodes had given us something in common. I had gone there also, though a few years after her. Then to Vanderbilt, where I earned the law degree. Today she co-owned a gallery on Main Street, near a trolley stop. “Do you like being a lawyer?” she asked. “You consider it your life’s calling?” “I did it out of obligation. Out of genetic habit. My father, his father’s father: all lawyers. The first lawyer in the family started in Richmond, around nineteen hundred. He eventually wound up a judge.” “Really?” “He was terrible. Can you imagine the sentences your common judge in Virginia handed down back then?” “I can.” “He handed those down. I did some research about him in my twenties.” “And that’s the kind of profession you wanted to go into yourself?”
“When I started law school, Clinton had just been elected his second term. It sounds stupid now, but I wanted to be like him. A lawyer like him, I mean.” “He’s not bad compared to what came after.” “You’re right. But I guess back then I thought of the law as this humane place, capable of humane values. But mainly it’s paper work and details.” “Like almost everything else.” Camille finished her drink and ordered another. I asked for another beer. Evening was gathering and splotching the sky with purples and pinks and the traffic along Madison had thinned, the commuters from downtown home now, or soon to arrive home. In her SUV we kissed a few times. I could smell her sweat, her perfume. In front of us stood a brick wall with ugly graffiti scrawled across it. Not the jubilant, block-lettered graffiti you used to see in Memphis in the eighties, but words sprayed with no highlights or playful colors, just red blunt letters. FUCK THE WORLD AND THE WORLD FUCKS BACK. I said, “This isn’t right.” “I think it’s okay.” “There’s some weird transference thing going on. I helped you get disentangled from your husband. I can’t help but think that’s playing into this.” Camille laughed. “You don’t think that’s a slightly condescending thing to say? The male lawyer speaks truth to the woman art gallery owner.” She said the last sentence in a hearty, mockmasculine voice. “I don’t mean it that way. I’m sorry.” “I like you for many reasons. You’re considerate. You dress well. You wear watches with a leather band instead of with a gold one. You look like you might be mildly athletic. Plus, I used
to have a crush on Jimmy Stewart as a kid. I wanted the guy inVertigo to fall in love with me. I wanted to wear gray outfits for him and walk around in my heels.” At the steakhouse downtown, near Beale Street, we sat under a painting of a child holding a pet monkey. Both child and creature had huge eyes. The painting looked like it had been done by a dissolute artist who sought out the rich and eccentric near the end of the nineteenth century. She said, “I was twenty-one. It was my third year at Rhodes. You know how it is there, the ivy on the stone buildings, the stained glass windows, with a porn theater and pawnshops blocks away. A place of enclosure surrounded by poverty and sadness. I was on my dorm bed, staring at the ceiling, and wondering how it was that God could see it all, everything, every moment, all the roofs and the walls of the world invisible to Him, all those old people dying, those couples fucking, those lonely people darning their socks like that minister in Eleanor Rigby, and I remember thinking God created us for the same reason a painter paints or a director directs, because it’s amazing to watch all those stories and passions side by side, each in counterpoint to another, an entire Gregorian chant of experience, cold sweat and warm sweat, orgasms and solitude and old people eating in front of loud TVs and even kids like that one in the painting, holding on to their pet monkey.” “So He created us for entertainment?” “He created us to understand His own passions.” “I don’t think He cares about us at all.” She stared at me, chewing on the steak. “I don’t think He even remembers He made us.” She swallowed, drank a sip of wine. “Not true,” she said quietly. Around midnight, we went to a party. It was on Central Avenue, in a high-gabled Tudor house that sat on a yard with thick, luxuriant grass. We walked up the circular drive, our knuckles sometimes grazing. Gravel under our feet and wind in the boughs over our heads, like breath.
Inside, guitars and drums clashed and sounded. None of the faces were familiar. These were her friends. A local video artist was throwing the party. The living room had been cleared of its furniture, its carpet, all of it piled into the dining room. The band played on the bare floorboards of the living room. There were four members, two men and two women, and the men wore white underpants and the women two-piece bathing suits. Their heads were covered by ski masks. Their bodies were painted with polka dots. “What are they called?” I asked Camille. “I’ve never seen them before. They don’t sound like a real group.” “You mean they’re a hoax?” “I mean I think they’re a doing a performance of what a rock group might do. I don’t think they’re an actual group.” Camille might have been right. The woman on guitar struck the chords furiously, with little attempt at sending out clear, recognizable notes. The man on drums, with snug driving gloves on his hands, beat his equipment with a manic energy that had little to do with song, with rise and fall, undertows, crosscurrents. It was both sonic smudge and a bonfire in erratic wind. The intention here was not music, but rage and dumb-founded ecstasy. The singer was a tall woman with brown skin bouncing around on dirty feet. Her bathing suit was red, her forearms crosshatched with dark down. Through the ski mask she sang of oil slicks and melting glaciers, extinct species and rising tides. At first I thought it was a protest song. Then the chorus came, calling for higher tides, hotter deserts, icier polar vortexes. For all of it, right now. For it to crash, blowing away the world we’ve made dollar-by-dollar, deal by fucking deal. In the gazebo in the backyard, Camille introduced me to her friend Samuel, who was hosting the party. “In honor of the summer solstice,” he said. “It’s still a few weeks away,” I told him. He was a big man in a flowing red shirt. His black curls draped down his scalp, to his shoulders. “I know,” he said, smiling and offering no further explanation.
“John is my lawyer,” Camille told him. “The divorce went through today.” “Should I congratulate you?” Samuel asked. He turned to me. “Is congratulations in order for this sort of thing?” I said, “It depends on the marriage and it depends on the divorce.” He looked at Camille. “It’s done,” she said. “I don’t need any congratulations and I don’t need any pity.” I asked Samuel, “The band. Are they real?” “How exactly would they be fake?” “If they picked up the guitar yesterday and plan on putting it down tomorrow,” Camille told him. “They’d still be a band,” he said. I don’t see why the time question would factor into it. So yeah, they’re real. They even have a name. White Nights. White Nights, as in the far north, with its long, endless days. White Nights, as in going to bed with the sun still shinning. White Nights.” He took a puff from his cigar, seeming to continue contemplating the name in silence. Inside the kitchen a man with the beard of a Greek Orthodox priest handed out bowls of fiery jambalaya and plates of jerk chicken. I talked to a woman who worked as a nurse but spent her free time making experimental videos and a man who wrote about the Memphis art scene on his blog. I lost track of Camille. I sat in the garden next to the gazebo, playing with my black tie and drinking another bourbon. Around three in the morning I removed my shoes, my socks, and paced in the cool grass, the singer in the band silently joining me. She had put on a robe, though she continued to wear the ski mask. We walked in a circle, sometimes glancing at one another. Neither of us spoke: it was as if any word would lessen the sensation of feeling grass against bare feet. Another bowl of jambalaya, another glass of bourbon. I ate and drank at a picnic table near a couple discussing the CIA and its relationship to the Abstract Expressionists. Did the same agency that covertly helped bring Pinochet to power also help make Jackson Pollack a superhero
among artists? Did it matter? The woman was huge, at least three hundred pounds, and very beautiful. She wore her fat like a velvet gown, her posture was calmly regal. I ate and drank and listened. At five o’clock, I wandered around upstairs. I carried my folded suit coat across my arm. There was a bedroom with a partially open door at the end of the hall. I heard them inside, Samuel and Camille. There was sudden heat in my belly, my entrails. I looked in and saw her on top of him. They were on a narrow bed. The creak of the door must have alerted her. She turned, looked in the cheval mirror. She saw me, and our eyes locked. It was as if we were saying many things, a night’s worth of talk, in those seconds. Samuel had his eyes covered with a camouflage cloth, his hands on the bedpost knobs. The kitchen was empty except for the drummer. He’d pulled his ski mask up, wearing it like a cap. His driving gloves remained on his hands. He was perched on the table, drinking from a carton of milk. “You like the performance?” he asked. “I thought the music was fucking terrible,” I admitted. He looked at my tie, my suit coat. I could imagine his thoughts. “I did like the masks,” I said. He smiled, his mouth rimmed with milk. “Me too. A mask can be a wonderful thing. I never step out of bed without one.” The backyard was strewn with plates, beer bottles, and wineglasses. A few people walked around, talking quietly in the violet light. I put my socks and shoes back on. I glanced at my watch. I instantly forgot what it read. Camille walked out, she came over to me. She said it was time to go. I nodded, not looking at her face. Once we were in the car, driving casually along Central, I said, “Is he your boyfriend?” “No. I would’ve told you if that was the case. I would’ve said, hey, let’s go to my boyfriend’s party. Don’t you think I would’ve said that?”
“Is he your boyfriend now?” “He has a wife. He has three kids. They’re in San Diego.” She turned to me. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night. How about you?” “It’s been a while. More than a decade.” She shook her head, as if agreeing. We rode in silence for many minutes. Then she said, “I’m not going to apologize.” “Okay. Don’t apologize.” “I asked you to the party because I wanted you to be at the party. I like you.” “I’m glad you invited me. I like you too.” I was floating, I did not know where too. The night that was ending was pulling me back and the day that was arriving was drawing me forward. I felt like a wad of cotton candy being gently stretched apart in a child’s hands. “Next week, you should come by the office,” I said. “There’s still the matter with the other car.” “Yes. Of course. And we could get another drink afterwards. I like the idea of hanging out with a divorce lawyer who looks like Jimmy Stewart.” In the parking lot at my office, we awkwardly embraced, laughed, awkwardly embraced again. I squeezed her shoulder. She pinched my earlobe. I got into my Saturn and heard her drive away. Birds chirped in the early light. Dew covered the grass near the office: hair fresh from a shower. I thought about my mother as I slid the key into the ignition. I imagined her in her nursing home a few miles away. She would be opening her eyes and hearing the morning staff tread up and down the hall.
Rosemarie, Margaret, Annabel, and I were preparing the noon meal when Simon and James came running in, bursting with news. “English!” they said. “Neighbors?” I asked. “No. Never seen them before. Young ones. Beardless,” Simon said. “Well, of course they’re beardless, dummy,” Rosemarie said, as if no English face could ever grow a proper beard. I heard a knock at the door. I wiped my hands and went to answer. There before the threshold stood a band of English youths strange to me. At first I felt alarm. Were they a gang? But their faces were soft, eager, almost penitent I thought. I counted eleven of them, and saw there were four girls among them, two with short hair like boys. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” one of the boys said. He was wearing a baseball cap and jeans and a bright t-shirt. “We walked here from the bus station. We — ” “The station in Millersburg? But that’s twelve miles!”
“Yes, ma’am. We don’t have a buggy.”This drew me up short. “No…no…I expect you wouldn’t have a buggy. And how would you all fit?” I teased. “You must be tired and hungry. Come in, sit down, and we’ll see what we can scrounge up for you.” “Thank you,” all of them said or mumbled. They filed in and stood looking around uncertainly. One of the young women came forward. “Can us girls help in the kitchen?” “Oh, no, you must be exhausted from your travels. Please sit down.” She obeyed and rejoined the others. They filled up chairs and benches and some sprawled on the floor. I bustled back into the kitchen, scattering the children who stood gawking in the doorway. I shooed the boys back outside and herded the girls before me. “What do they want?” asked Rosemarie, my eldest still at home. “I expect they’d like to eat and rest, but I don’t know after that.” “Tourists?” Margaret suggested. “But where are their parents?” I asked. We set about doubling the dishes we were preparing and I sent Annabel out with pitchers of lemonade and tumblers. She came back and whispered, “They’re just sitting there, hardly talking. They’re polite, though.” “Lost,” mused Rosemarie, scorn coloring her tone. Then she exclaimed, “I hope they’re not here to try to join us!” I put finger to my lips to shush her, but as soon as she said the words, I knew they must be true. I shook my head in wonder.
I had known of single men who tried to join the Amish. They were odd and fervent, and fit in no better here than they did outside. Rarely, a man arrived who fell in with us like he was one of our lost sons, and he would join the church and learn our language, and one would never know but for his English name that he had not been born to us. But most of them struggled with us for a while, then left to go and struggle elsewhere. Sometimes they came to spy, meaning to write books about us later. Those ones were easy to spot, as they asked too many prying questions. But we tolerated them, so long as they willingly adopted our dress and codes, and let them stay until they finished their adventure and moved on. But I had never heard of adolescents coming to us, and never of single women or girls. “Well, if they are, then we will welcome them. After we talk to their parents, of course.” Surely their parents would take them back straightaway, and leave us to our peaceful lives. Soon the menfolk came in from the fields and sat down at the long table. Davie came to me in the kitchen, a question on his face. “I don’t know. They say they walked here from the station in Millersburg.” “Really? Must be tough, then. Maybe useful in the fields,” he said, grinning. I glanced out doubtfully at their pimpled faces, some scrawny, some frighteningly obese, most fixed intently on their cell phones. They looked none too tough to me. “Psssh,” said Rosemarie. “They won’t know a harness from a hacksaw!” “Now Rosemarie,” Davie soothed. “The Lord would have us welcome strangers, and if they wish to learn, then we shall teach them.” “But Davie,” I said. “Their parents need to know.” “Of course, of course.” The girls and I took out the platters and the boys set up extra chairs. We invited the English to squeeze in with us. They pressed their palms together and bowed their heads in imitation of us
while Davie said grace. Then he introduced himself, and we all said our names, and the English said theirs. Some were good biblical names, like Jacob and Joshua, some unfamiliar, like Madison and Kayla. “So you walked here from Millersburg, then,” said Davie. “Yes, sir,” said the boy named Caleb. “A long haul,” said Davie. “My feet hurt,” one of the fat boys said. “I need a shower, bad,” a girl said, then sniffed the air and looked shamefaced and said no more. “You’re welcome to stay. You mightn’t all fit at this house, but our married ‘uns can help to take you in.” He saw my look of distress and added, “What do your parents think of this?” “We all told our parents, at least the ones we could find. My dad didn’t seem to mind.” “My mom never heard of the Amish,” a boy said. “But she said as long as I was out of her hair and she didn’t have to feed me, she didn’t care.” “My dad was playing video games and he didn’t really hear me,” one said. “My mom was stoned when I told her. But I couldn’t find a time when she wasn’t stoned. She has a prescription for it, though.” Each of them assured us that they had told their parents, or parent, or had tried, and that none had any objection. Davie smiled and nodded at their explanations, so that was that. It was settled in his mind that they would stay if they would stay, and so I resolved to make the best of it. “So,” the girl named Caitlyn said timidly, “we can stay?”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Davie reassured her, “but you’ll need to earn your keep. I expect it’ll be more work than you’re used to.” “We want to work! But are there any forms we need to fill out? Like, waivers or anything?” Davie, teasing, looked in his pockets and under his plate, but found no papers for her to sign. She blushed and joined the others in eating heartily. I noticed that a few of them did not take any meat. “Help yourself to the pork. You’ll need meat for strengthening, after all that walking,” I said. One of the girls squirmed a bit and said, “I’m sorry. I’m a vegetarian.” An English boy said to her, a bit roughly, “If you want to join the Amish, you’ll have to eat Amish food.” “I don’t eat animals,” she shrilled. “It’s wrong.” “The Lord gave us animals for our food. We eat of their flesh to sustain ourselves. It’s not wrong,” Davie said kindly. After a red-faced pause she said,”I’m not hungry. The potatoes and beans were very good.” We let the matter drop. After lunch the English girls helped clear the table, but the boys sat around listlessly. “Naps,” I declared. Some nodded their heads in agreement, while others nodded off. We set up what cots and guest beds we had, and put fresh sheets on the children’s beds to accommodate them all. We didn’t see them again until supper.
I thought it impossible that they could adapt to our way of life, but bless them, they tried. The boys worked in the fields and the girls worked at home with me. They were sore fatigued by the end of day but gamely tried again the next. Worse even than hard work for them was church — three hours sitting up on backless benches with naught to do but listen could be a trial even for those born to our slow pace of life. The English would try to pay attention, but soon each would pull a hand out of a pocket and stare at it, unable to believe it didn’t hold a phone. Sometimes one would jab at a palm, half-hoping it would light up and connect them to the outside world. The first two days, the English had been at their phones nonstop, but soon the batteries ran down. For a while they still carried them around, pulling them out every few minutes, poking and stroking them longingly, perplexed that the gadgets did not respond to their loving caresses. Davie and I gently suggested that breaking away from the phones would be easier if they gave them up. One day at supper I passed around a basket, and the youngsters solemnly deposited their gadgets, as an offering to a new way of life. Then there was the matter of clothes. The boys were so stylish and colorful that their dress felt an affront to us, but the girls! They were each like unto Salome, their dress and manner, their entire beings, seemed an intention to provoke lustful feeling in the men and horror in the women. On the third day Rosemarie, while kneading dough, began to punch it hard and harder until she picked the whole lump up and threw it furiously down into the bowl. She whirled on the girls and hissed, “Why do you dress like prostitutes?” Caitlyn burst into tears and grabbed an apron to cover her thighs, the entire length of which were exposed by her denim shorts. The three others ran from the kitchen. One came back wearing shorts that extended a whole inch below her crotch, saying those were what she wore when her grandmother came to visit, and would they be okay? I decided it was time for a sewing lesson and spent the whole day with the girls, teaching them to fashion dresses, caps and bonnets. Within a week they all were dressed respectfully, although they looked as ashamed to wear the long, covering garments as we would be to dress in the costumes they preferred. They kept at the sewing and made shirts and pants for their brethren, and soon all the English were attired modestly. It was perhaps a great misfortune that the English arrived that summer, the summer of Ernest’s sixteenth year. He was a broody boy and I had long dreaded the arrival of his rumspringa years, anticipating rebellion, and fearing deep down the unthinkable. His elder siblings had all gotten through their teenaged years without much running loose, and Davie and I had considered ourselves blessed, since there had been a rash of leavings and broken-hearted parents over the past ten years.
The first sign of trouble was when Ernest began trading clothes with the English boys, who were eager for some better-made garments than the English girls could muster. One day I spotted the decal of a t-shirt through the fabric of Ernest’s thin summer shirt. I said nothing, it seeming a trifle not worthy of an argument, and hoped things would get no worse. But a few days later I saw that he had replaced his galluses with patterned, store-bought suspenders. “There’s a fashion statement,” I remarked. He nodded resolutely. “These are my new galluses,” he said. “Not in my house, they aren’t!” He stood facing me, my quiet, sensitive boy trying to transform himself into a rock of manhood. But he crumbled first and turned and left, and when I saw him again he was in his plain galluses. But a week later he arrived at supper dressed in jeans, t-shirt, athletic shoes, and baseball cap. He took his usual place at table. We and the English all stared at him, amazed. I glanced at Davie and could see that my mild-mannered husband was summoning his sternness. All were silent. “Ernest,” Davie said. “That costume does not become you. If you wish to eat at this table, you will dress for it.” Ernest sat still, clenching his fists around his flatware, staring down at his plate. Then he got up silently, carrying his plate and walking for the door. “Young man,” Davie said sharply. “If you wish to eat the food your mother and sisters have prepared, you will change your dress.” Ernest stopped, his back to us, thinking. He walked to me, set his plate before me, and left the house. Caleb, a boy whose build resembled Ernest’s, began to stutter an apology. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We traded clothes. I didn’t know…” Some of the other English boys shifted nervously.
“That’s all right,” Davie said. “If he wants English clothes, he’ll find a way to get them anyhow.” Although Ernest resumed wearing plain clothes, his manner changed. He walked faster and with a slight swagger. He treated me with a hint of exaggerated politeness, as if I were his maid. He’d always been a quiet boy, but watchful. Now he seemed less alert, more lost in daydreams. One day Davie spotted him sitting in the hay loft, holding one of the English phones against his ear and speaking. Davie crept up behind him to hear what he was saying. “Yeah. Book me a flight to L.A. The red-eye if it’s the only non-stop. Uh-huh. And sell those stocks when they’re high. Okay, I’ve got a meeting and this traffic is a nightmare.” He paused, held two fingers to his lips, blew out pretend smoke, then draped his arm along an imaginary steering wheel. “Make me an appointment with the tailor, I want a new suit. And I’m going to need the latest laptop model; this one is too slow. I need more gigarems. Or whatever. And–” Davie sprang out before him. Ernest tried to hide the phone, but Davie held his hand out silently and Ernest gave it up. Davie scoured the house and barn until he found the source of Ernest’s fantasy, a burlap sack of paperbacks with lurid covers. He built a fire out back one warm evening and tossed the books in one by one. Ernest pretended not to notice. Meanwhile, the English were settling into our way of life. The boys either bulked up or slimmed down from all the work. The girls took delight in their domestic tasks. They volunteered for extra baking or sewing projects, and we politely tolerated the results, pleasing them greatly and boosting their confidence. All of their complexions cleared up from the healthy food, hard work, and sunshine. But in the evenings they betrayed their restlessness with Amish ways. Mostly they lay around, tired from the day’s work, while we played checkers or did the mending. They would arouse themselves only to strike up conversations with each other, always beginning with “You know that one movie…” or “Did you ever see that YouTube video where…” or “Remember that episode of…” until our pursed lips and sidelong glances recalled them to their surroundings and they humbly resumed their dreamy silences.
We would speak in Amish when we talked about them, the way we used English as a secret language around the children too young to go to the schoolhouse. The English did seem like children to us, although they were all sixteen or seventeen. Annabel was nine and she would say to me, “Mamm, why don’t the English know anything? They’re dumber than Esther Gingrich,” the half-witted child who went to the schoolhouse but only sat and rocked or crumpled up balls of paper all day long. They didn’t know the names of any of the trees or flowers or birds. They couldn’t tell from the clouds whether it was going to rain next day. They never knew what lunar phase we were in; they couldn’t even guess what part of the sky would reveal the first sight of the new crescent moon. They were forever picking unripe beans and berries. What made the English feel themselves grown-up — their sexuality, which oozed out of their pores, which long dresses and plain clothes could not hide — only confirmed our view of their tribe as unworthy of God’s grace, as Sodomites. In church I would see the English girls’ eyes roving over the faces and bodies of the beardless men. The word “Jezebel” would come into my mind, although I felt it wrong to think such harsh thoughts in church. In any intercourse they had with any man, it seemed to me they made a game of tempting him with their coy smiles, lilting giggles, and bold postures. I thought it strange the English had come to us, but it was hardly a thing to talk about. I imagined they had felt an inclination to go live with the Amish, and so they did. I remember once when I went to feed the pigs, instead of throwing the slops in their trough I threw them just outside the pen, under some bushes where no one would see. But the pigs saw, and they smelt, and they gathered at the edge of the pen grunting hungrily and straining to push their snouts far enough through the slats to get at the feed. I suppose I had my reasons for doing that. But if someone had asked me why, I wouldn’t have known what to say. People have their reasons; and besides, how could a person ever make the changing weather inside their head seem real to someone else? But they wanted to explain themselves. One day at supper, after Davie had told about a repair he’d made to the baler and a silence had fallen, Caleb, the boy who had acted as their leader when they first arrived, cleared his throat. “Um. So. You all must be wondering why we came here.” I smiled sympathetically, but not so encouragingly as to make him think he needed to keep going.
“Well. We were looking for a more…authentic way of life.” The word “authentic” came awkwardly from his lips, as if he was quoting something he’d read. He looked around expectantly, and we nodded politely. “Authentic. And…and everyone, Americans, just seem so messed up! You know?” At that, my embarrassment grew. Of course our views of English people and their culture were not favorable, but you could hardly say it to English faces. “And I mean, like what’s the point? You know? You go to high school, then you might go to college, then you get some crappy job you hate and get drunk on the weekends? I mean, like what’s the point? And people are running around shooting people all the time now? It’s, like, totally crazy!” I looked at Ernest to see how he was taking this. He was staring at Caleb, his face flushed. Ernest saw me watching him and his face turned hard. “But,” Ernest said to Caleb, “you have so much freedom.” Caitlyn, the quietest of the girls, said, “I think there’s such a thing as too much freedom. A lot of people use their freedom to take drugs and act like idiots. My mom uses her freedom to sleep around, so there’s a different guy living with us every month. My dad used his freedom to rob a 7-11. So now he doesn’t have any freedom.” Davie drummed the table with his fingers. “Perhaps we could all come back to the farm?” After a few moments of silence, he began to talk about the new minister, Alvin Miller’s eldest son, and how he was rising to the challenge of his calling and giving such sound sermons, and never going on too long. On church Sundays Ernest and Rosemarie, my two of courting age, went in the evenings to the singings. At first the English stayed home with the rest of us. But one Sunday Caitlyn and Caleb asked if they could go.
In Dutch I said to Davie, “They won’t stay to marry. Why go to the singings? It can only cause trouble.” In English he said to them, “If you want to be part of the community, then you should take part in the singings,” and so they, and all the other English, went to the Miller’s barn to learn the songs and meet the other youth. Rosemarie kept me informed about the goings-on. She said Ernest would sit in the back and barely open his mouth. And she said Caitlyn and the Barnes boy would eye each other and linger after, chatting. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he asks to bring her home,” she said. “It would be a mistake. No English girl will marry an Amish boy. She’ll only break his heart.” But my real concern was that she would lead him astray, and I prayed the Barnes boy would take an interest in an Amish girl instead. “Joseph’s an able lad, and handsome. Do you ever talk with him?” “Joseph Barnes! Moon-faced bumbling donkey!” I sighed and wondered if any man would ever tame Rosemarie. Sure enough, Joseph showed up at our door one evening and asked to speak to Davie. Davie came into the kitchen and asked me, “Are we to give permission?” “No! She is not our daughter. Joseph must ask her real parents.” I felt a bit giddy and wasn’t sure of the words that came out of my mouth. “Well, that seems unlikely. Why don’t we ask her what she wants?” “Davie, I don’t think…” But his will was over mine, and if he didn’t already share my fears, I hardly knew how to speak of them.
He called Caitlyn into the kitchen. “Joseph Barnes would like to bring you home after the next singing. We are not your parents, so I don’t know what to say.” Caitlyn blushed so modestly that for a moment she seemed like one of ours to me. “Yes, I would like that,” she said. “Then I will tell him,” Davie said. And so began the courtship between Joseph and the English girl. Davie began to weave daydreams that all the English would stay to join the church and marry. And then the day came that shattered all my peace. We woke one morning and found that Ernest had left us in the night. He had written a note: “Dear Mamm and Datt, I am going to town to find work and to live. Please do not try to follow me. I will write when I am settled. Love, Ernest.”
Just that, but what more was there to say? I could not believe that he would really go, or could even know how to go, and kept looking for him walking up the drive. I watched for him two weeks, then a letter arrived from Canton: “Dear Mamm and Datt, brothers and sisters,
I am well. I have gotten a job at a convenience store. I am renting a room from my boss. The work is not very hard, but the English are strange. Love, Ernest.” This letter sent me into a terror. What kind of man was his boss? What strange things were the English doing to him? I could scarcely imagine how it must feel to him to be cooped up inside a tawdry, plastic place with harsh electric lights, he who had grown up outdoors and was used to the sun and wind and cold on his skin and to the sweet smell of farm air. And now he had to breathe the stink of cigarette smokers all day long. And Ernest was quiet; how could he manage to talk to strangers from behind a counter all day long? I lost much sleep from worry. I would imagine English girls, dressed as our English were when they arrived and worse, strutting into this store, buying liquor and cigarettes and leering lustily at my beautiful boy. And the men, who would make offers to Ernest to get involved in English schemes, in thieving and drug dealing. Would he be able to resist? My imagination conjured up details of his new circumstances. But I could not bear a peek at what mattered most: the condition of his soul. For I knew that if he did not return to us then he was surely bound for Hell, and demons, and eternal torment. And what was he eating? Davie would wake and find me watchful. He would tell me Ernest was a smart boy who could take care of himself, and that he would soon realize city life was no great shakes. Davie would rub my feet or bring me a cookie, or do other things, anything to get my thoughts out of my head. Then he would fall asleep, and I would lie still until my imaginings at last changed into fearful dreams. In my dreams I would wander the streets of the dirty city, calling for Ernest, looking behind trash cans, lifting the blankets off figures huddled in doorsteps, searching for my boy. The English were stunned by Ernest’s leaving. I overheard Caitlyn and Caleb talking: “It never occurred to me that the Amish could just quit,” said Caitlyn.
“It’s like a guy deciding to stop being a guy. Although, I guess that happens sometimes.” “No, it’s like an Amazon tribesman becoming a Japanese stockbroker. It just doesn’t happen, not even with surgery.” They came to me and stammered out an incoherent speech, half apology, half insisting it was not their fault. Caitlyn began to work harder and asked about joining the church. She treated me more like I was her mother, asking my opinion, confiding private thoughts, but always avoiding saying Ernest’s name. At times she would blend in my mind with my other children, and I would forget where she had come from. A few weeks after Ernest left, a Brady boy too left. His mother fainted in dismay when she learned he had gone, but he was back within a week, shaken, chastened, begging for forgiveness. And then the other families looked at us and wondered, why did not our boy come back? I heard whisperings that the English were a corruption, that we could not remain true Amish in their midst, that they had poisoned Ernest’s mind. And I myself began to wonder if it wasn’t true, forgetting I had feared for Ernest long before the English had arrived. And now I must admit it was no brood of youths that had come to our door; it was only Caleb and Caitlyn, brother and sister from a broken home, who had run away, determined to find a wholesome, godly life. Why did I fib? I can say only that their presence in our home seemed much larger than the two of them, their arrival more momentous than anything that had occurred since Joseph Trowell’s youngest drowned. Why eleven, and not six or fifteen? I cannot say. Months passed. I lost weight, for I could not enjoy my meals worrying about Ernest and the unhealthy English food he must be eating. Davie became cross with me at times, telling me I must bear up, assuring me that Ernest would return. I wrote to him; he had given us an address, just a post office box, afraid we would come to get him if we knew where he was staying. I told him I feared for his soul, that he would lose himself if he did not return, but that we would welcome him home as the prodigal son and forgive him all the hurt he was causing us. He wrote to us but showed no signs of remorse. “Dear Mamm and Datt, brothers and sisters,
I am well. I am studying for the GED. It is hard work but my boss’s husband helps me study. I bought a guitar but I cannot play it yet. Please do not worry about me. It is better for me here. I am learning so much. Love, Ernest.” I prayed the glitz of modern life would wear off soon for him and he would begin to feel the soul-ache that must come from living a life empty of God and family. “Dear Ernest, It breaks my heart to hear you say you are better off where you are, out in the cold world where Satan is tempting you with all the distractions of English life. You were born a plain boy and you will come to no good out in the world. Please come home. We love you and miss you and we will forgive you. Love, Mamm.” Meanwhile, Joseph Barnes proposed to Caitlyn. Although she now gave the appearance of a good Amish girl, I could not in my heart accept that she truly embraced our way of life. I believed that soon her memories of the easyness and entertainments of English life would overmaster her and she would go. I prayed she would leave and Ernest would reappear in her stead. But she accepted Joseph’s hand and began to sew her dress and prepare to join the church. If the other nine English youths had ever been, around this time surely they would have started to break. They would shirk their chores to loiter at the diner, drinking coffee and talking with their own people. They would come home late at night after carousing and riding around in cars. Faced with the prospect of one of their number making a commitment to an Amish life, they would turn away from us and look toward the world even while she, her vision clouded with romance, rushed headlong into a life she could not fully comprehend.
We received a letter from Ernest that, I thought, showed signs of strain. “Dear Mamm and Datt, brothers and sisters, How are you all? It would be nice to see you. But I am afraid that if I came for a visit, you would spend all our time together trying to convince me to return and I don’t want that. My studies are going well. There is so much to learn and I am making new friends. I cannot come back to live with you for I wish to go to college and play in a music group. But sometimes I am missing our life on the farm together. Love, Ernest.” I wrote him right away, begging him to come home, saying we would be so happy just to see him. But he did not come, and his letters became less frequent. After some months, a letter arrived from Columbus. “Dear Mamm and Datt, brothers and sisters, I have moved to Columbus with some friends. There is a lot to do in the big city. I am playing guitar in a band. My friends say I am a natural musician and I only wish I had begun to study music at a younger age. We live in a house together and we have chickens out back, so it reminds me a little of home. Love, Ernest.” Caleb too began to come further into Amish life. Once when Davie dowsed for the well-driller, Caleb went along. He came back all amazed, asking if he could learn to dowse. “Dowsing’s a gift and can’t be taught,” I said.
“You could learn, but it won’t be as easy for you as for an Amish,” Davie said. “You are too educated. You would need to unlearn many things.” “That’s what I want,” said Caleb. “I always hated school anyway. I would like to get the school out of my head. How do I do that?” Davie and I looked at each other, perplexed. “I don’t rightly know, son, but I’ll ask around,” Davie said. He went and spoke to the bishop, who said he had never heard of anyone uneducating himself, but if the boy was sincere, he was sure the Lord would guide him. We asked all our neighbors for ideas. “Hard work will get the book-learnin’ out of him,” Mr. Weaver said. “Can’t be done,” Mr. Barnes said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Mrs. Miller said. “He has to study on it in his mind and ask the Lord for help.” Caleb decided to go off into the woods for a few days. When he came back he said, “I think I’ve lost it, or am starting to lose it. In the woods, after a couple days, things started to look different somehow. Glowing, like.” Pshaw, I thought to myself. He hadn’t eaten properly on his sojourn, and that explained it all. But Davie took him out and had him select a birch branch, one that seemed to call to him, and Davie chose his own. “Hold it lightly in your palms and keep a light mind. Put your mind into the stick, but not too forcefully, see. And keep a good connection to the earth with your feet. Probably best to do it barefoot until you get the hang of it,” Davie said, and had Caleb take off his boots.
They walked through the meadow, Davie behind Caleb so as not to influence him. Every now and then Davie’s rod would jerk and tremble and then dive toward the earth. Caleb traipsed around the field, holding his stick eagerly but gingerly. It pointed straight before him and never wavered. After half an hour or so, Davie stopped him. “Well, son, you’ve done your best today. Perhaps you should spend some more time in the woods.” Caleb began to spend his in-between Sundays fasting and praying in the woods. On the following day, Davie would take him out for a dowsing lesson. But try as he might, Caleb never felt the slightest tug of water on his dowsing rod. “It’s all right, son,” Davie told him. “Most Amish don’t have the dowsing touch. If you want to be one of us, the best thing to do is just to join the church and find yourself a nice Amish girl, and settle down to start a family.” Davie promised him that if he did these things, he would reward him with a buggy and some land to build a house. At this, the other English youths would surely have begun to leave. In twos and threes, first they would leave at night as Ernest had, then boldly they would leave by day. Perhaps a few would leave a note:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ammon and family, We are sorry, but we cannot stay. You have been so good to us and have given us such a wonderful opportunity for a better life in Christ. But we are not worthy. Our worldly upbringings have left us hollow-hearted, unable to live pure and saintly lives. Our best regards, which aren’t worth much, The Children of Satan.” A letter arrived from Ernest that perplexed and fretted me:
“Dear Mamm and Datt, brothers and sisters, My friends and I are moving to the country. We want to live off the land and live closer to Christ than we can in the city. We have a Christian rock band and are planning a tour. We will come to see you then. Love, Ernest P.S. I passed my GED with top scores.” I felt a great relief, knowing we would see him soon, but I could not understand the rest. If he was rejecting city life, why did he not come back to live at home? Why would he choose these worldly friends over his own family? Davie assured me that Ernest was moving closer to returning home for good. Caitlyn married Joseph and they set up their homestead not half-a-mile off. Caleb began to date the Weaver’s eldest, who had seemed destined for old maidship. Disappointed with his failure at dowsing, he told us many times that, nevertheless, he wanted “a relationship with wood.” His eyes were wide and unblinking when he said this, and I worried that his interest in wood was somehow improper. He begged the nearest carpenters to take him on, and finally one accepted him for apprentice. Then came the day when a rusty van pulled up to the house and my boy, grown into manhood, knocked at our door. It was hard for me to reconcile my memory of him with this lanky, rawboned man. His black, curly hair fell to his shoulders and he wore a close, shaped mustache and beard. “Ernest! A mustache?” I regret that these were the first words I said to him in two years, but I could not help myself. He did not reply to this, but wrapped me in a hug and laughed. I felt glad to hold my son again. Then I sat him down and fed him.
“Where’s Datt?” he asked. “Gone to town to buy parts. He’ll be back in a few hours; you’ll see him then.” My hurt lay heavy on my mind that he had returned to rural life and yet would not come back to us, but I could not think how to say it, so great was my bewilderment. “Ernest, we will take you back. The church will take you back if you repent.” Anger flashed across his face. “Mamm, I am happy in my new life. Can’t you be happy for me? I’m going to go to college.” “How can I be happy, knowing what will happen to your soul if you do not repent?” He stood up. “My faith in Christ is stronger now, and I know I am saved, and I know I don’t have to live an Amish life to be saved. There are good people out in the world, and God will not send them to Hell for not being Amish.” “But Ernest, that’s not right. That’s what the devil wants you to believe.” He started walking for the door. “Don’t leave!” “Mamm, I love you, but I can’t confine my mind the way you confine yours. If this is all we have to talk about, then I am going.” We looked at each other. I saw only hardness in his face. I know not what he saw in mine, but he turned and walked out. I called to him but he did not look back.
I believe Ernest was killed in a car crash driving away from our home. Any more letters that arrived must have been written by his friends. It is a pity, but although I lost one son, I gained another and a daughter, who turned out better Amish than Ernest ever would have.
This all happened the year the tornado wiped out the entire northeast side of town, the same year Mel Karsten’s Volkswagen hit and killed Mike’s older brother as he skateboarded across Austin Avenue on his way to the Palace Theater for play tryouts. It was the year we would celebrate our eleventh birthdays, and the first of us to do so had been Joe, who, back then, still went by Joey. The invitations arrived in the mail like early Valentines, red envelopes unveiling a single sheet of glossy paper decorated with the cartoon characters the rest of us had already begun to lose interest in. The party less than a week away, we had no time to come up with adequate excuses to avoid it, and come late Friday afternoon we all found ourselves stuffing overnight backpacks and lugging sleeping bags up the long walkway to Joey’s house, our whispered protests falling upon the deaf ears of our parents. There was pizza, enough that two boxes went into the refrigerator as Saturday morning breakfast, a half dozen three-liter bottles of soda, and a chocolate ice cream cake decorated as a football field with green coconut shavings and yard lines of white icing, the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOEY spread across both end zones. Unlike the rest of us, Joey had yet to fall in love with the game we were all destined to play from seventh grade through senior year of high school, but we all knew the cake had been paid for and delivered by Joey’s father, Joe Sr., absent Joe, the immortal Joe Doe. And we all knew that the things Joe Sr. wanted for Joey were not necessarily what Joey wanted, that such a divide was part of the reason we didn’t see much of Joe Sr. anymore. When Joey’s mother positioned the candles along the sideline and instructed Joey to make a wish, we all saw the gloom in his face, the gentle, solitary hand of his mother at his shoulder.
This was back when the idea of not having a mother and a father living under the same roof was still unfamiliar to us, and while we would one day discover just how such turns of events could happen in one way or another, at Joey’s birthday party we jostled around the table, our hands grabbing pizza slices and sloshing plastic cups of soda, never paying much attention to Joey’s mother as she directed us as best she could. Despite everything else that must’ve occupied her mind, she kept a smile on her face and managed as the only adult in the house to keep us entertained and Joey as happy as possible. At one point, after joining us in laughing at Paul’s impression of a math teacher none us liked, she’d added one of her own, a dead-on impersonation of Principal Olsen that went so far to even emulate the stiff-legged limp we’d all secretly laughed at. Of course, at that point none of us had yet to have a serious run-in with the principal, but our opportunity would come a few short years later, as would the rumors we’d hear about Joey’s mother and Paul, the ones about them feeding hamburgers and fries to one another at the Sonic next to the swimming pool on Williams Drive. But those things would come later, when our memories of Joey’s eleventh birthday had been stuffed far enough away that another fifteen or twenty years would pass before any of us would care to recall what took place that night. After we’d eaten, sung Happy Birthday, and stuffed our faces with too much cake and ice cream, we sat in the living room facing the giant big-screen television that Joe Sr. hadn’t been allowed to take with him and watched, some of us for the first time, an R-rated movie. We laughed at some of the crude language, attempted to understand the more adult jokes, tried not to glare too much during the scenes of adult situations. “Y’all shouldn’t be watching this,” Joey’s mother said, but she’d gone ahead and settled herself on the couch between Paul and Joey with a big bowl of popcorn, dropping the whole parental act by the time the female lead had tricked yet another man into bed. Eventually, we’d grown tired, and after Joey’s mother had disappeared upstairs and left us to the living room, we changed into our pajamas, spread out our sleeping bags, and dimmed the lights. We laid on top of our bags, and in between Paul’s jokes and our talk of girls from school, none of us noticed when Joey fell asleep. Truth be told, we were all a little thankful for this, relieved that he wouldn’t add anything to our discussion or make us broach the subjects none of us wanted to deal with. We’d come to notice something in Joey since the beginning of school last fall, something beyond our different hobbies or the way the rest of us had slowly begun to make our way out of childhood. Joey was becoming less and less like the rest of us, a development we were all aware of yet, at our age, not quite sure how to react to.
It had been Paul, always the prankster of the group, who’d snuck into the kitchen for the bowl. We fought back laughter as we heard him turn on the faucet, but when he returned with a full bowl of warm water, none of made a sound as Paul sat beside Joey and slowly lifted the birthday boy’s hand from where it lay on his chest. We watched as that still, small hand was submerged into water, and we waited. And nothing happened. We tried the other hand, we tried both hands at once, we tried cold water. Nothing. And the more we tried, our eyes waiting for a wet spot to bloom in the crotch of his pajama pants, the more humiliated we began to feel. None of us would ever admit to it, especially not at that very moment, but as we lost interest in the prank and some of us began to loathe Paul for involving us in the first place, that feeling in the pit of our stomachs, that thing each of us would recognize over the years to be our conscience, began to burden us, and for the first time, many of us began to understand what guilt really felt like. But that’s not the end of the story. Once Paul emptied the bowl, we retreated to our individual sleeping bags to close our eyes and begin the process of forgetting what we’d done. It must’ve been an hour or two later—after all of us had gone to sleep—when the crying started because none of us can recall the look on each other’s faces. None of us can remember how we responded to the low murmur coming from Joey’s sleeping bag that just got louder and louder. We can only remember what we did as individuals. Each one of us just laid there, our eyes glued to the ceiling, listening to those wet, desperate screams, none of us moving, none of us saying a word or reaching out to wake our friend. Not even his mother, stationed in her bedroom upstairs, made an effort to do anything. She must’ve heard him so frequently that she no longer awoke to the sound of her son crying in his sleep. And so all of us, Joey’s supposed best friends, simply waited until that eleven-year-old boy was quiet once again. Mike would lose his older brother a few short months later, and less than a month after that, Neal’s family would lose their house and all the possessions within. Seven years later, Paul would lose four months of freedom because he couldn’t keep sixty feet between him and the front door of Joey’s mother’s house. The rest of us lost other things, important things, but it all started by losing sleep the night of Joey’s eleventh birthday party, and as much as we’d like to think otherwise, we wonder if that was when all of our losses began to accumulate. And since then, we’ve all been trying to recoup what we can no longer get back.
Brittany Baldwin has cooked professionally for 20 years and runs a small catering company and farm near Portland, Oregon. * Charles Bane, Jr is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems (Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by the Huffington Post as “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida and at work on a new collection, The Ends Of The Earth. * Roy Bentley has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Blackbird, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Books include Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama, 1986), Any One Man (Bottom Dog, 1992), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine, 2006), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House 2013). Listen to Bentley read at RSR’s audio series. * Ana Maria Caballero worked in finance, journalism, wine importation and even for the Colombian government before recently becoming a mom. Now, she writes poetry and book thoughts, which can be read at thedrugstorenotebook.co. She lives in Bogotá with her husband and son. Her work has appeared in Smoking Glue Gun Magazine, Big River Poetry Review, CutBank, Elephant Journal, Silver Birch Press, Aviary Review, Ghost House Review, Dagda Publishing, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, among others. It is forthcoming on Pea River Review. She also writes a weekly poetry post for Zeteo Journal’s “Zeteo is Reading” section. *
Chris Campanioni has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he currently teaches literature and creative writing at the City University of New York. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize at Lincoln Center in 2013, and his novel, Going Down was selected as Best Debut Novel for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. Find him in space here: chriscampanioni.com.
After kicking around the West for a while (with stops in Spokane, Flagstaff, and Sedona), Stephen Cloud has settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he’s fixing up an old adobe, working on poems, and pondering the official New Mexico state question: “Red or green?” Recent publications include work in Valparaiso Poetry Review, High Plains Journal, New Madrid and Shenandoah (forthcoming).
Zacc Dukowitz holds a BA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida. His fiction has appeared in the Fine Flu Journal, Every Writer’s Resource, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and is forthcoming in the American Literary Review. He currently lives on Lake Atitlan in rural Guatemala with his wife Spenser and his two dogs, Scout and Boo Radley. *
James Gallant has received from Jeffrey Kripal, chaired professor of religion and philosophy at Rice, the highest compliment he pays a writer: “an author of the impossible.” Gallant’s “The Humiliating UFOs,” a cousin to “The Meaningful Senselessness of Wonders” published by Raritan, is available online at EBSCOhost.
Sam Gridley’s published work includes a novel, The Shame of What We Are, as well as stories and satire in more than forty magazines and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog. *
Originally from Perth, Ontario, James Guthrie moved to Toronto in 2005. He is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, where he studied English and Philosophy.
Trish Harris is an independent curator, writer, and artist teaching in Michigan. She curates and designed the Remaking MobyDick project. Her poems, stories, and micromemoirs have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cortland Review, and Brevity. At Twitter, she is @trishlet.
Michael Hess is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Toronto. His films have played at the NYU Directorâ€™s Series, NewFest, the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles, the Kansas International Film Festival and the Beloit International Film Festival. Hessâ€™ writing has appeared in Shenandoah, Glassworks, The Outrider Review, AlleyCat News, Glitterwolf Magazine and in the upcoming anthology Creativity and Constraint (Wising Up Press). He worked previously for Goldman Sachs. For more information, please visit: http://hessstudios.wordpress.com.
Chris Hosea is a graduate of Harvard College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst MFA. John Ashbery selected his first book, Put Your Hands In (LSU Press, 2014) for the Walt Whitman Award. He lives in Brooklyn. See chrishosea.com for more.
Al Kratz is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to previously being in Red Savina Review, his work has been in Gravel, 1000words, the British Fantasy Society Journal, Apeiron Review, and the Daily Palette. He is also an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.
When Jackie Lantry is not working, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, taking care of kids (yes, at 58 she still has two at home-long story and not fiction) or caring for her 91-year-old aunt who lives with her, sheâ€™s writing stories-which, of course, she thinks are amazing. Most have been rejected at least twice. *
Tom McCoy is old and cranky. He believes humans should be limited to 500 words per day. Damn, wasted 21 already. He resides in Silver City, New Mexico.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books including the novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press). Widely anthologized, he has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Fairy Tale Review, Superstition Review, Codex, Exquisite Corpse, La Bloga, PANK(online), and Pilgrimage.
James Pate grew up in Memphis, holds an MFA from the Writersâ€™ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and currently teaches in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His fiction has appeared in storySouth, the Black Warrior Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Blue Mesa Review, among other places.
Leslie Quigless received a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and holds two master-level degrees in education from New York University and Harvard University. She is the executive director of the Atlanta Young Writers Institute and is working on her second novel. She lives in Atlanta with her daughter.
Rebecca Raphael is a poet, professor, and cat lady. Her poetry has appeared in Stirring, The Lyric, The Neovictorian/Cochlea, New Laurel Review, Able Muse, Di-ver-city (Anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival), and the New Orleans anthology From a Bend in the River. A native of New Orleans, she lives in Austin and teaches religious studies at Texas State University. Listen to her read at RSRâ€™s audio series.
Claire Scott is an award winning poet who has published poetry in numerous literary magazines. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. Rubin is a winner of the Arizona State Poetry Society 2013 Annual Poetry Contest. Listen to her read at RSRâ€™s audio series.
* Lisa Sagratiâ€™s fiction and essays have appeared in Poydras Review, Nerve, and Taking the Lane. She is writing a novel set in Portland, Oregon. *
Brian Seemann has most recently been published in the anthology Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53),REAL, Forge, and The Mix Tape: A Flash Fiction Anthology (Flash Forward Press). Seemann is the 2011 winner of the William J. Stuckey Memorial Prize for fiction, a 2014 Southern Writers Symposium: Emerging Writers Contest Finalist, and an MA and MFA graduate of Wichita State. He currently lives in Austin, Texas. *
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of three chapbooks: Every Her Dies (ELJ Publications,) Clotheshorse (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming, 2014,) and Backyard Poems (Dancing Girl Press, forthcoming 2015.) Recent work can be seen / is forthcoming at Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Golden Walkman, Split Rock Review, Toad Suck Review, Menacing Hedge, and Hobart. For a complete list of publications and other odds and ends visit: jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com.