THE LITERARY REVIEW AN INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY WRITING FALL 2010 VOL.54 / NO.01
REFRIGERATOR MOTHERS “JUST HAPPENING TO DEFROST ENOUGH TO PRODUCE A CHILD” . . . AND OTHER THINGS WE SAID THAT WE WISH WE COULD TAKE BACK
$8/ £5 / €7/ ¥1,000
R E FR IG E RATOR MOTH E RS COVER ARTIST: ELINOR CARUCCI “MOTHER IS WORRIED,” FROM THE SERIES COMFORT, 2001
I met our cover artist, Israeli photographer Elinor Carucci, about fifteen years ago. I’d been assigned to interview her about her debut series, Closer, by the then new arty high-concept online sex magazine, Nerve.com. Elinor’s pictures weren’t sexy— exactly. There was a lot of nudity in them—Elinor, her husband, her father, mother, and brother in various states of undress. (And she does have a very beautiful family.) But her pictures were about intimacy, not sex, and they were really almost hard to look at. Her work practically decimated the “acceptable,” even artistic, boundaries of voyeurism. Hard to look at, hard to look away from, and unlike so much art photography, almost impossible to project meaning onto. There was no room for subjective interpretation, for empathy, for imagining oneself into the scene. Elinor’s landscape was honest and completely hermetic.
© ELINOR CARUCCI, COURTESY OF JAMES HYMAN GALLERY, LONDON
Our conversation that day was more about secular Judaism and Israeli politics than about sex—much to my editor’s disappointment (I was sternly instructed to repeat the interview and focus more on full-frontal male nudity than yeshiva). But we did end up speaking at great length about the terms of her project. She was trying,
she explained, to get past the mask that everyone puts on when the camera is pointing at them, the involuntary pose, the hardened smile, the self-conscious eyebrow. Her project focused on her family mostly because she had extensive access to them, and her creative strategy was to spend months and months photographing them constantly, to arrive at the point where they didn’t notice her or her camera anymore. In its explication, her technique sounds like a very clever art project. In practice, however, there was no doubt that she’d taken photography past portraiture to some ultra-essential naturalness directly into the intimacy of a family’s life. So, what does Elinor’s lovely portrait have to do with Refrigerator Mothers, the outmoded psychological theory from the 1950s that emotionally frigid mothers caused autism, schizophrenia, and related spectrum disorders in children? The answer to that question lies in the extraordinary complexity of mothers, mothering, being mothered, not being mothered—the trails mothers leave on the psyche. It is intimate material, yet subject to so much protective gray matter, to involuntary muscles, and defensive postures that we don’t even dare dismantle. This picture, “Mother Is Worried,” from a later series entitled Comfort, is more open, more suggestive than Carucci’s earlier work. It is as if the intimacy has become generous; we are allowed to come very close, but also to bring in our own stories. Likewise, our theme came out of my own fascination with my mother—what about me can I blame on her; what about her memory can I worship. And I think that the very seriously considered mid-century theory that mothers can damage neural pathways (or protect them) is simple, irrefutable cultural evidence that from Sophocles to Bruno Bettelheim, we’re all fascinated. We’re all able in some way to intimately recognize and viscerally respond to the phrase “mother is worried.” Obviously our issue has broad and bizarre paths; the subject of the mother is sometimes explicit and often oblique. The conversation between Jenny Offill and Ceridwen Morris (both mothers and writers) is at once a craft discussion and an exploration of the notion of Mother as a literary subject. Mother is perhaps too complex to be a narrative device, too ambiguous even for literature. She is immaculate, primordial. She is Mildred Pierce and Mommy Dearest. She is Medea and Sara too, who, pregnant at a hundred and one, could only laugh. —Minna Proctor
REFRIGERATOR MOTHERS FALL 2010
i learned to live with my soul . now i have to learn to live with my mother ! i ’ ll never again live in a house that she ’s not in . i will attend to her with
more obedience than even a child would .
i won ’ t speak of anything but my mother. and then she ’ ll buy me two new pigeons , and i ’ ll clip their wings so that
they ’ ll never fly away.
the bestiary by federigo tozzi (1888–1920)
R E FR IG E RATOR MOTH E RS
FALL 2010 VOL.54 / NO.1
Rebecca Wolff The Curious Life and Mysterious Death of Peter J. Perry 30–39
Charles Wyatt Variation 11; Variatio 12: Canone alla Quarta; Variation 13; Variatio 18 a 1 Clav.: Canone alla Sesta; Variatio 23 a 2 Clav. 47–52
Leslie Ann Miller From a Balcony Over Rue de la Huchette; Child Asleep in a Bass Case; Relinquishing the Fusional Moment; Boy at the Center, Intervening World 64–69
Susan Rothbard Feeding the Birds; Dear Son; Bitch 77–83
Vida Cross Bodacious; Out in the Ocean 89–94
Lisa Ortiz The Drawer Marked Meats; Medusa in the Kitchen; Cookies
Kelli Russell Agodon She Says What an Amazing Lamp; Large Optimistic Bowl; The Gynecologist Imagines Another Life FICTION
108–124 I N DIA
Buddhadeva Bose Arunava Sinha, translator Makhanlal’s Sad Tale 125–135
Ankur Parikh Three Stories
James Scudamore Feijoada
Jessie van Eerden A Good Day
Neil Boyack Country Junk 70–76
Thomas Bonfiglio Puppies
I NTE RVI EW
Ceridwen Morris and Jenny Offill Is There Anything Literary About Motherhood?
Rebecca Chew Calcutta
DE N MAR K
Line-Maria Lång Thomas E. Kennedy, translator Doll 105–107
Matt Bell Xarles, Xavier, Xenos
Jena Salon Suffering Love 145–147
J.D. Reid Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary 148–150
Anton Leist and Peter Singer, editors J.M Coetzee and Ethics By Charles Berret
Elyse Fenton Clamor By Paul-Victor Winters 154–159
Ruth Franklin A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truths in Holocaust Fiction By Anne Baney 160–162
The Shortlist 163–166
Gustaf Sobin Collected Poems By Mark Hillringhouse 167–170
Leïla Marouane The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris By Deborah Hall 171–172
Benjamin Percy The Wilding By Jody Handerson
Christian Hawkey Ventrakl By Cassie Hay CONTR I B UTORS
Rebecca Wolff The Curious Life and Mysterious Death of Peter J. Perry At the end he was tilted that he might remain in sleep. If he woke he would know just how bad things were, would cough and dislodge the intubation tube. A certainty. Fluids in, fluids out. Tilted his head below his heart, all the rest he never sought pooled in the sunken gates of his eyes, the grate of his jaw. Points of sophistication sophistry the bony knobs of his arthritic knuckles. His Adamâ€™s apple his lungs filled up TLR
he never woke up. * Between the misery of the end and the glory of beginning all the glowing love made flesh time collapses disgorging banalities. Certain are goldmines certain are minefields Time, mind, brain: “collapses.” The body functions that much his sister knows but the ties between the mind and it she will not recognize. He’s dead; she’s eating his leftover painkillers to kill the pain of muscular spasms brought on by the free-floating sadness putting Bozo to sleep. The dog would not eat. In his obituary, in a town paper he never knew, a middle initial he always used. His daddy’s name was Jennings, his middle name was Jennings. It’s irritating when folks don’t spell it out. That’s my hidden voice speaking. If I did not speak you would have to assume I was the one that killed him. * 10
To move through the death back alive a green and gold brightness segmented in the screen door’s squares, stitched with glue where the dog poked through, his loyal claws. Peter sitting there day after day, unbelievable what a being can come to. Coke Rewards in the drawer, he would cash them in at the store but he can’t get there, can’t get anywhere. Twelve years ago or so he had a massive stroke, suffered it, they say, routinely. The things we say routinely, we say “we,” routinely. I dive for these worn phrases, and suddenly it’s all about me again. It’s not all about me. Peter J. Perry was born in West Tennessee. No. He lived in West Tennessee. Peter J. Perry was born in the south of France, to Pat, a motherless drunk from Buffalo, escaped the convent, Jennings a philandering newspaperman, fled Nashville to be Hemingway already. Writing stories for the rags on hounds and fishes. Two escapees, really. Their stories are so much richer for the times they lived in allowed it. * Peter’s time allowed that he die with the television on in his hospital room as it had been on around the clock for twelve years as he sat, bony knees and elbows, bony ass, on a malmy couch in a corner of a living room overrun by kittens and wild dogs TLR
and mice. The kittens ate the mice and the dogs ate the kittens, right in front of his eyes. He had a sweetness, Pete. Sweet on the animals, so he wanted them near, but hard so that he could bear it when they went and did their animal tricks: getting hit by cars in front of the house, at the far end of the lawn, Pete sitting in his wheelchair on the rotting porch. Pissing in a corner of the room where he kept all the important things, his genealogical charts and the albums of photos of Pat and Pop, a shot of the two of them on bicycles in the Sahara. It is said they bicycled across the Sahara desert. Who says it? It is not important that you be convinced of Pete’s importance. What follows is family history, in my voice the way I learned it. Peter was not loved properly by his mother. Pat was tall, bony, elegant, mannish, with a small squared-off mouth, a cigarette jammed in it. A proud nose, a high brow, thin, lank hair, small eyes, long face, the bones of her cheeks high and prominent. You think “Supermodel.” She did do some modeling, for sculptors and photographers. She had big hands, big feet. She posed as a diver, and the Jensen swimming suit company used her bowed form for its logo, a Deco figure. Then she was drunk and dove off a bridge and hit her chest on a log in the river and tore the tissue of her breasts. There was some surgical repair. In France. Peter was not loved properly by his mother; she did not take care of him. He played by himself on the beach down at the bottom of France, tall cliffs behind him, speaking both languages, and felt lost. He did not know where she was and she allowed him to search for her. She infused him and set him on a path down which he loped. Eight abortions between his birth and that of his sister, Pamela. Pop could not, or would not, take certain measures. There was something about Pop like a stud horse, something like a prize bull, though he was not a large man, very dapper, like a squinty Clark Gable. George Clooneyish. Maybe they were “crazy about each other,” maybe the love they felt transmuted into flesh, over and over again, and had to be removed surgically. These are the people who made these people. These are the true stories of their lives, though I am telling them. This is why soap opera is important to my friends. What else is so real: video art? Documentation of a moment, elderly man breathing into a
mirror, yes, but it neglects the span, the span of years, about which I am. It takes years to watch a whole life pass. Days of our lives. So now when he dies, can you feel it? You can’t feel it, and when I say it it’s just the word, and you are permitted to feel nothing but informed. Every time I feel it again I’ll come back to this page for you. * Three points Three reasons Three rules Aggregate of the diameter, the reasons he lived, the reasons he died, the rules by which he lived, the rules by which he died, the point of talking about it now he’s dead. Deterioration of his majesty, his manhood. He was a tall, sexy man, a deep rich voice on a tall, skinny man, not overly nice, long arms and legs, lean, naked ladies tattooed on his forearms. He made them dance by twirling his wrists, and in the first years after the stroke you could still feel his strength and his aggression even in his disability. At first he wanted to speak, and he tried to be understood, with the half of his face that worked. But over the years he lost the power, or he lost the desire, if he couldn’t be understood. Over the years of his abrupt, then gradual decline his patience for visitors grew shorter and shorter. A side effect of the stroke was a mildness, an acceptance, a resignation, even, and he lived for twelve years in an isolation and inactivity that would have made any other man cry out. It is possible that he did cry out, sometimes, alone in that old farmhouse in West Tennessee, on a country road, bordering cotton fields and wild dogs, the tenant farmers dropping by once a week or so to check on him, replenish his stores of buttermilk and TV dinners, the big pint mug of flat Coke he kept on the Plexiglas-topped coffee table next to the couch on which he sat all day long, day in and day out, and lay down on to sleep when the night grew deep enough that he could give up. He watched television all day long, and all night long. I don’t know what he thought about; I don’t know what anyone thinks about. His thinking must have had a flatness to it even before the stroke. He kept a little calendar, and in it he wrote the anniversaries of his parents’ deaths, his
own birthday, doctor’s appointments, when the cats kitted and the dogs pupped, noted his sister’s quarterly visits. When Pam came she brought her hair-cutting scissors, trimmed his beard and the lank, iron-gray hairs on his head. He wore a black Air Force cap every day, and as best she could she would free it of the oils of his hair. She got him onto his plastic chair in the shower, washed him. Scraped the cat shit off the floorboards, vacuumed the rugs, hired a man to patch the porch where it was rotting. Hired another man to mow the lawn, another to come by for emergencies, like the time the pipes froze. For twelve years every three months, leaving behind her more immediate duties and responsibilities, and shored up his attenuated life in the old farmhouse in which their father had been born, and where they played as kids. And what did she get out of it? And did they converse, while she restored order? It was not in their nature to converse. Muted by mother? It was in Pete’s nature to tell stories, discomfiting stories, about hurricanes and suicides, about family dementia, stories of a peculiar grisly glory. But now he could not get far enough in his sentences; would close his mouth on the gob-stopping word and wave his one good hand, long, bony, in front of his own face, like shooing off a lazy fly, a perfunctory rejection, a perfect dismissal—say “F’get it.” And she was not a talker. She came to the farmhouse so that she could not talk to her brother. * Unbelievable what a being * a stage-hand summer stock prop handler in his youth he was loved
by women but he did not love them, it seems. There was no love or talk of love. He married one wealthy woman, a recent divorcee, a new mother of a baby boy named Mikey. Complicated situation. She was not simply wealthy, she was an heiress, they lived in Bohemian grandeur in Patchin Place. Who else lived there? e.e. cummings lived there, a shady doorway. Theodore Dreiser lived there. John Reed lived there. I think Dawn Powell may have lived there, for a time. Deborah paid for Pete, bought him an airplane, a sailboat, an Amagansett getaway where they kept thirty-two cats. Pete raised the boy, and when Deborah threw Pete out he took Mikey and flew off to St. Croix in his little plane. Kept him there for weeks, returned him without a fight. What’s best for the boy. Mikey has been alerted of his death. Mikey sought him out once, a grown man, weak chin, flying in from San Francisco to visit the eviscerated man, bony and dehydrated in his wheelchair. They spent a day, Mikey flew back home, didn’t keep in touch. It’s astonishing how people will abandon will neglect to will abstain will restrict will refrain from will hold themselves away
will deny Pete * Pat and Pop Pop and Pat at the end together. Pat o’ershadowed her children. All three of them in Greenwich Village in shared apartments, swapping beds and walls and jobs sometimes. They had all fled Tennessee. Later on, when her daughter wed and began to breed Pat fled to Athens—seat of civilization? Or maybe that’s Israel—or Baghdad. And then she lived a while and then and then and then and then and then and and and and and and and and when she began to die she began to die she began 16
dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying dying parts of her body failing: retina, kidney, heart, lung. All the systems abused with drink and smoke in final rebellion deported (can you believe that? An old dying woman) ejected. Pam picked her up at the airport in an ambulance. To St. Vincent’s, where others have died (Edna Millay’s named after it for the sanctuary her uncle received) and when it was clear she was dying sent on back to Nashville to die at home with her husband with whom she had not lived for twenty-odd years. But apparently they’d always loved each other. Wrote letters. Thought of one another constantly. Pat just didn’t want to live in Tennessee. But she died there. * TLR
The pint mug was from TGI Fridays. Pete was a bouncer for five years or so while Pop was ill. Pete set himself up in the old bedroom upstairs, piles of porn all around the bed, worked in his spare time on an Austin Healy Mark 3 up on blocks in the yard. Haverford, sounds like a country estate. A small stone house with a coolness, a dimness, a breakfast nook where Pop sang Little Boy Blue and other rather mournful songs. He had Parkinsonâ€™s, and it took him a long time to die. Surrounded in his den by young women. One buxom red-haired nurse took up with Pete and kept up with him for a while, even after Pop died, until Pete bought a houseboat in St. Croix. And then he lived there till the hurricane took everything. He had no insurance, and he came back to stay at the farm, to fix things up. Built a woodshop in the back, started fixing things up. Fixed things up, built shelves for his records and books, fixed up a cat door on the back so the cats could come and go. Pruned the trees, hung his tools on hooks, mowed the lawn, one day woke up on the floor and could not speak, could not use his arm or leg, dragged himself across the floor to the phone and called my mom. No relation. * Who will remember Peter J. Perry his non-representative life, his pointless, ineluctable, singular death? There is no reason that he must be remembered. Everyone deserves to be remembered? For the extraordinary things he did. For his ashes.
Memory: A memoir. A memorial. In memoriam. For the ages. His ashes disseminated. It is my love that draws him out. It is my love you must contend with.
EXCE R PT
James Scudamore Feijoada
We have an epidemic of helicopters now: there are over two hundred helipads in the city, and on Friday nights the skies darken as the wealth takes wing to retreat to its weekend homes. It wasn’t always like this—but Zé was one of the earliest of the very rich to take to the air. And for all the family’s nonchalance, you could tell that the ability to fly never got dull. Sometimes, on Sunday evenings when they left me waving particularly morosely, Zé would get the pilot to recede a little, then come in low and buzz me at high speed. I would feign exhilaration, dust myself off and go inside feeling as if something had been unnecessarily flaunted in my face. I know it was only a helicopter. But I wonder how much it contributed to the state of things that exists now between me and Melissa. Seeing her float away like that week after week, emphatically, according to all the evidence at my disposal, a superior being—how could I fail to raise her on a pedestal? There were practical reasons why it was necessary: first, Zé’s job made time a precious commodity; second, the family didn’t have the time to drive out to the farm every weekend. But there was a third reason why Zé wanted to keep his family safely up in the air. In addition to accounting for that raising of barometric pressure when they left on Sunday evenings, it also explains why they retreated so religiously to the farm every weekend, and why they were so ecstatic on arrival. It happened in the city, on a school day. Only infrequently did the family enter our Excerpted from Heliopolis, to be published this fall by Europa Editions.
lives during the week, so when the kitchen phone rang, and my mother heard Zé on the line, she knew immediately that something was wrong. Rebecca sometimes called her to discuss menus and arrangements for the weekend, but never Zé. I am nine, and sitting in the kitchen licking raw cake mixture from a spoon: dark chocolate thickened with condensed milk. The phone goes, and my mother crosses the room wiping a hand on her apron. She answers normally, tired, bored. Expecting Silvio. But when she hears the voice on the other end, respect stiffens her voice. Then comes the blood-chilling sound of my mother’s prayers, uttered spontaneously in the middle of the conversation. So this is what the end of the world sounds like. There exist hybrid faiths where she came from, and I remain unclear on the specifics of what my mother believed in. All I know is that on the day that Melissa was taken, she made sounds that I had never heard before. Horrified, I asked what was happening, and she told me, using her voice to say that I should not worry, while every other part of her screamed that worrying was exactly the right response. I had a slingshot— a proper one, with a brace that extended to the forearm. It came equipped with lethal ball bearings, which I had soon exhausted missing mice and frogs round the farm buildings. But I had learned how to use it to convert inert objects into deadly projectiles: stones, dried seedpods, stray bits of wood. That afternoon, after the phone call, I took the slingshot into the woods, and spent an hour firing at trees and fruit and birds, imagining every quarry to be the invisible foe I hated so much, and feeling more powerless and angry with each shot I missed. Melissa was ten. The MaxiMarket chain was hitting the headlines for the speed of its expansion, and this financial success, combined with the Public Relations dream represented by Rebecca’s foundation, had made the family newsworthy. A full color spread appeared in a widely read gossip magazine: it included one photo of the three of them posing on the farm with a horse, and another of Melissa chasing around with a butterfly net, her blond tresses perfectly backlit by the sunshine. It got bad people thinking. They grabbed her by the school gates. Class had finished for the day, and Zé’s driver had not yet appeared, so being Melissa she bounded off out of the jurisdiction of the guards to head in the direction she knew her ride would be coming from and wait at the lights. A car door opened, and everything went dark. I can picture her calmly looking around her as the bag came down over her head. She wouldn’t have been scared, so much as interested in this new development—whenever she drew blood on the farm she was always more fascinated than afraid. TLR
She did not scream or shout to begin with—not until she decided to get away, and threw her terrifying seizure. She never said a word against her captors, and refused even to attempt a description of them to the police. All we know is that they were taking her somewhere, presumably to formulate their demands, she faked the fit, and they threw her out of the car. I remember seeing her re-enact what she did to escape: contorted body; guttural sounds; a steady stream of froth emerging from the mouth. It terrified me even though I knew it was an act. When the kidnappers lifted the bag from her face and saw what was happening inside, they panicked. Luckily their car was not traveling at high speed. She got away with a sprained ankle, a black eye, and a deep cut to her left eyebrow. The man who found her and called the police was a young mechanic named José Luís Oliveira, who lived nearby in a small house built by his father. In his gratitude, Zé bought the man a new apartment, and posed for photographers with him and his wife on handing over the keys. Sometimes, before the kidnap, Melissa didn’t come, opting instead to spend her weekends at the beach houses of her city friends, many of whom thought Zé and Rebecca eccentric to retreat at every opportunity to a bug-infested ranch— Ernesto, I later discovered, being the principal offender here. When this happened I would watch in vain for the dart of color and energy that I so wanted to emerge from the helicopter, and Zé would place a hand on my shoulder as he beat down the steps, and say, “Not today, Ludo, I’m sorry. Call of the surf this weekend.” After the kidnap, the farm came into its own, as a one thousand hectare comfort blanket for the entire family—and Melissa’s absence became a rarity. For all their gorgeous Friday evening appearances on the helicopter steps, the predominant emotion inside them was one of relief.
When the children wanted a hug and nothing more practical, she would stand up, smooth down her linens and find a pretext to leave, the impression being that if her kindness were to be widely distributed, it could not be frittered away on single physical encounters.
Not that this was evident in Rebecca’s behavior. On the first weekend back, when Melissa limped down the helicopter steps with a dressing over her injured eye, my mother embraced her so tightly that I wondered whether she would ever let her go, while Rebecca remained her usual disconnected self. All weekend, it was my mother who fussed over Melissa and prepared her favorite dishes, while Rebecca behaved as if she had consciously decided not to treat her differently, or even to refer to the kidnap at all. It was as if Rebecca was almost annoyed with her daughter for getting herself into trouble—that this one child had created an inconvenient distraction from the needs of all the others out there. Zé merely demonstrated his relief by saying much less than usual. I think he so wanted the incident not to have happened that he couldn’t bear to mention it. Money was spent trying to track down the perpetrators, but there was nothing to go on: Melissa couldn’t even tell the police sketch artist whether they were white or black. And I know that this powerlessness would have infuriated Zé. To have control wrested from him so definitively in any situation was unheard of, and would remain unspoken of too. In the weeks that followed, Melissa did not wet the bed, become wary of strangers, or exhibit any other sign of trauma, so everyone believed what they wanted to believe, and the event was buried. My mother found this shocking enough, but when Rebecca took her aside and told her that her continued preferential treatment of Melissa should stop as it might lead her into bad habits, it caused my mother to do something unprecedented: to criticize her savior. “Doña Rebecca should be talking to the child more. She should be holding her tight, and not letting her go,” she said quietly, into the sink, as if even to give voice to such disloyal thoughts was tantamount to blasphemy. And then, so faintly that I wondered whether she had said it at all, she added, “Only an Englishwoman.” Later, when accompanying Rebecca on her orphanage visits, I noticed that when dealing with the kids, she tended to disdain mere affection in favor of problem solving: dressing wounds, taming hair, treating warts. When the children wanted a hug and nothing more practical, she would stand up, smooth down her linens and find a pretext to leave, the impression being that if her kindness were to be widely distributed, it could not be frittered away on single physical encounters. Her husband, by contrast, reserves all his charm and tactility for the person he is talking to, even as he conducts his life with total ruthlessness. But an event like that doesn’t just go away. However unaffected Melissa might
have seemed, an arrow had been fired high in the air by what happened, and it had to come down eventually. That I was the only person to realize this is directly attributable to the fact that it was feijoada day. If cooking feijão is an exercise in loading the beans with whatever flavor you can summon, then feijoada is about overkill: freighting them with everything and seeing what comes out. Every mouthful is different, and the dark, glossy sauce is enriched by every dried, salted, fresh, or smoked cut you throw in. On feijoada day, Zé could spend the afternoon poring over the shuddering, bubbling clay pots my mother brought out, from the “new” cuts which he liked well enough—smoked pork sausages, loin chops, belly, jerked and salted beef, salt pork—to the “old” cuts to which he was devoted, and which for him were the main event—ears, tails, noses, trotters, tripe. Then there were the accompaniments: heaps of finely shredded green kale fried in garlic and oil, toasted cassava flour, pork rinds, plantains, rice, glistening slices of orange. And endless ice-cold jugs of passion fruit, lime, or cajú batida to help it all on its way. On feijoada day my mother could not rest—she was on duty the whole time, keeping everybody topped up with fat and protein and alcohol. An invariable after-effect of this ritual was that it put everyone to sleep for hours, which is the only possible way we could have managed to go missing for a whole afternoon so soon after Melissa’s ordeal. If they’d lunched lightly they would have been scouring the farm for guerrilla kidnappers when we didn’t turn up. Instead, guests reclined on loungers under the eaves of the pool house, some drinking coffee and brandy and watching the rain outside, others groaning or snoring, while Zé browsed the table for any remaining worthwhile morsels. And we disappeared. The storm had been building all morning: clouds heavy with rain massed over the valley; hummingbirds flickered from plant to plant, getting their business out of the way before the onslaught. Rebecca was not enjoying her weekend. Two of her lunch guests were significant donors to the Uproot Foundation who she wanted to impress, and one of them was a high-ranking Church official. Suspecting that her husband and his friends, who invariably got drunk on feijoada day, might let her down, Rebecca decided to compensate by concentrating as much as possible on those elements of the lunch that she could control. She asked my mother to clean down every surface several times in advance of the visit, and to make sure that the feijoada be more spectacular than ever. She was worried enough about her husband behaving like a child without the children weighing in as well. 24
Just before her special guests were due to arrive, Rebecca was on the veranda aligning magazines and setting down dishes of peanuts and pão de queijo when Melissa, who had been quiet since the kidnap but was now starting to recover her energy, came sprinting out of the house and wrapped herself around her mother’s leg, hotly pursued by me and the ice-cube I was intent on putting down her back. “Leave me alone!” shouted Rebecca. “What’s got into you?” Melissa squealed. “Ludo has an ice cube!” “Snap out of it, will you? I’m meeting some very important people today people who are going to help save a lot of children who are much, much less lucky than the two of you. Kids who have the kind of lives you can’t imagine.” Melissa was struggling not to cry. “Come on,” said her mother. “I know you had a horrible time, but you’re okay now, aren’t you?” Melissa nodded, still fighting tears. “And you have to remember that what happened to you is nothing compared to what some of my kids at the orphanage go through, or the ones that live on the street.” “I know that, Mamãe.” “You’re incredibly lucky. Don’t ever forget that.” “I won’t.” Rebecca heard a car arriving, checked her hair in the patio doors and walked into the house. I had been watching the exchange silently from the doorway, and now, wordlessly, I approached Melissa, whose eyes blazed with powerful, childish indignation. “Sorry,” I said, dropping the ice cube and wiping my hand on my shirt. “It wasn’t your fault.” “What shall we do now?” “I don’t want to be here today,” she said. “Let’s take off.” “What about the feijoada?” I had been enjoying the build-up: watching my mother soak the beans and the salt cuts, helping to stoke the fire all afternoon, and getting high in the kitchen on the smells of flesh marinating in lime juice and garlic, on the sight of Silvio arriving with bags of bright pink noses and strings of freshly stuffed sausages. “They’ll be sitting there for hours. And my mother is in a terrible mood. We should escape. Bring your slingshot.” The meal was served under the eaves of the pool house so everyone could watch the storm when it came up the valley, and the main course was just arriving TLR
as we escaped. Roars of approval went up as each new delicacy emerged. Melissa and I were forgotten. Leaving the laughter of the lunch table behind us, we crept into the forest, fine rain soaking our faces. The darkening skies and thickening greenery sapped the light. The rush of the river was only a distant backdrop, and all the noise that mattered seemed to be right beside us: the calm beat of raindrops hitting foliage; the shuffle and scamper of forest creatures. Enraptured by the hot, wet atmosphere, we walked in silence, failing to notice how steadily the rain was intensifying. We came upon a recently fallen tree not far from the outhouse that contained the backup electricity generator. Its rootlessness had left a deep red hollow in the earth, already slick with mud. “Let’s live wild for the day,” said Melissa. “What’s ‘living wild’?” “Living off the land. Killing our food,” she said. This was out of character: it wasn’t all that long since the sight of a dead animal had been enough to upset her for days. But something in the intimacy of the steady, warm rain and the dark green canopy overhead was conducive to strange behavior. We could do anything here, and the world would never know. Soon, the rain was coming down so hard that water gushed down the hill, making a cataract out of the path. “We can’t get back up,” said Melissa. “So we’ll have to stay.” We took off our clothes and hid them behind a rock. Then we covered ourselves in mud and leaves, and daubed onto our bodies what we decided were the markings of Tupi Indians, comparing how they looked on the different shades of our skin. Apart from my mother’s, which I had never scrutinized closely, Melissa’s was the only naked female body I’d seen. There didn’t seem to be anything more or less than I had imagined: a crucial component was missing, which I had expected, and an abrupt vertical fold was there in its place, which I had not. But for a glance at me Melissa didn’t seem interested in the differences between us, so I followed her lead and concentrated on the game instead. We staked our claim on the land. We found berries that Melissa claimed were edible and which I well knew were not, so we only pretended to eat them. We laid branches over the hollow in the ground, and called it our “base.” “Let’s be the first Indians. We’re Adam and Eve, and this is our new world,” said Melissa, her eyes glaring starkly from her blackened face. “Okay,” I said. She gestured at the slingshot hanging from my arm. The river roared somewhere behind her. “Now you have to kill something for us to eat.” 26
“What shall I kill?” “Anything. That bird.” She pointed at a green parakeet minding its business, twittering in a tree. I took aim, and let fly. The bird’s calls stopped abruptly. I saw a flurry and a flash of leaves, and thought it had flown away, but then came a thud as it hit the ground. “Good,” said Melissa. She leapt over to pick up the body. “It isn’t quite dead, so it can be our prisoner. Put it in the hole.” I jumped into the rising orange water to lay down our victim. Slimy, pungent mud slid between my bare toes. I breathed in the smells of rain and steaming earth, enjoying inhabiting this version of myself—a boy who killed things in the jungle, and defended his friend from harm. “Now you get in the hole too,” said Melissa. “Why me?” “Because you’re my prisoner as well.” It didn’t occur to me to do anything other than go along with the game, so I crept into the hollow in the ground, and let her cover it with leafy branches. Crouching in the puddle inside, I started getting cold, and shouted to Melissa asking how long I was supposed to stay down there. Abruptly, she burst through the roof of leaves over my head and landed beside me. She stared in the dripping gloom. “Now you have to lie on me.” I did as requested. Her skin felt warm against mine. She lay rigid, her arms at her sides. “You have to move back and forward.” “This is stupid,” I said. “I know you don’t do it like this.” “How do you know?” “I’ve seen how animals do it.” And suddenly she was screaming, and I felt it too: fire ants, sweeping over our bodies in a red wave of pain. They had been living in the base of the fallen tree, and without the protection of the trunk the rain was drowning them in their nest. “We should get in the river,” I said, my skin alive with them, getting to my feet and ripping away the covering branches. “No,” she said. “This is natural. We have to leave them. Sit down.” The jags of pain in my limbs, my fingers, my genitals, created an all-over heat without losing their individual personalities. I remember crying, but thinking that there was no way I could jump into the river if Melissa did not. I remember the vivid colors, finding the red of the bites shocking against her pig-pink skin, and thinking TLR
that it was somehow more at home on mine for being darker, however intensely it hurt. As the afternoon progressed and the killing began in earnest, I felt that we were taking our revenge with the slingshot for what the ants had done to us. Somehow, the pain made me shoot better, and with every bird I brought down, the bites seemed to glow brighter on my body. I began to appreciate the link between the wounds that nature had inflicted on me, and the revenge I was exacting on it in return. Everything we saw was condemned by Melissa and fired at by me: two thrushes, a kingfisher, and a rat. We even took aim at an infant monkey unlucky enough to come into view. Melissa had a sweet little potbelly at this time. I can see her now, coated in mud, stomach out, jumping around in the undergrowth, pointing her finger at the unfortunate creature I was to kill next. Silvio, the only person not occupied by the feijoada, had set out when the rain started to come down hard. By the time he tracked us down, our naked bodies were shivering and mud-streaked, and broken up by bright sores from the ant bites. Our “base” had become a mortuary of feathered bodies, their plumage limp, their colors muddy. Melissa and I stared at him from the hole. He stared back, smoking, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, as if we did this every afternoon. But his smile was absent, and he spoke calmly, as if he’d found us preparing to leap from a high ledge. “Why don’t you both have a swim in the river, then get dressed before I take you back up to the house,” he said, glancing briefly at the dead animals, at the slingshot hanging from my hand. By the time we had returned from the river—damp, cold, meekly dressed—he had disposed of the birds and filled in the hole. At the house he gave us calamine lotion for our bites, and told Zé and Rebecca, who still lolled round the lunch table watching the rain, that we’d gone for a swim and lost track of time. He never told anyone what he’d seen. Against all common sense, it was Zé’s belief that you had to follow feijoada with a big dinner. “Sometimes,” he would say, “I think I only enjoy eating it so much because of how much room it makes in my stomach for the next meal.” That evening, we ate like monsters; everything the grill could offer, and every one of my mother’s sumptuous side dishes. Smiling sweetly at each other, coasting on the exhilaration generated by the rain, the ant bites, the killing, we snapped at chops, sucked on bones, devoured steaks. I remember competitions: how quickly could we each eat a burger; how many chicken hearts could we fit in our mouths at a time. Our faces
glowed in the lamplight of the veranda, grease on our chins. I lay awake all night, unable to sleep: partly because I was still immersed in the rapture of the afternoon, but mostly because my belly was taut as a barrel, and I was bent double with indigestion, and the still-glowing pain of the ant bites.
Charles Wyatt Variation 11
In this landscape, this music is the swarming of gnats, not the gnats themselves, but their tight and determined meandering. Only in this music is the motion evident, its order and precision, the choices one of its paths leaves to the others. A hawk falls out of its floating watchfulness like a mortar shell. A snake strikes after a careless footfall— direction—trajectory—decision. In a story, a king has three daughters, or a poor man has one. One day, the hunter’s dog turns and speaks to him.
There has been a careless shuffling of seasons, or days. The dog speaks of buried gold. And together, dog and hunter dig into the earth, sending up geysers of soil and dust. Now the shovel and pick and claws strike hard stone. Descending triplets: the dogâ€™s two digging legs, the hunterâ€™s implement. The gold forgotten, they dig. Stars shower down from the night above them. Everything is falling.
Variatio 12 Canone alla Quarta
Imagine a second Hansel choosing always the leftward branch of the woody labyrinth while the first chooses always the right. Save the bread crumbs for survival because the maze is a long one, floating over a free bass at the interval of a fourth. Each Hansel (and his Gretel) will arrive simultaneously at the witch’s cadence in time to hear the Devil preach a swell sermon: Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Or as another misfit counsels, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.” But then, it might have been a dream, a single feather floating down, 32
perhaps a pink ribbon, the forest drained of its chaos and in the distance, faintly, a single bird, wood thrush, singing.
The melody floating over a descending bassâ€” you wake from it and it is forgotten again, but you know you canâ€™t sleep. Bare feet on linoleum, on the hard wood of the library, on cold stones cobbled like a carapace, on moss, and then, rising, on moonlight, owl-lit, the night beneath, mice pausing in their labors, shadow passing, weighty shadows passing, the third sister, left by the sorcerer, inside his splendid house, with a key and an egg and, of course, a forbidden door, frog song filling the low places, a whippoorwill counting its questions, moth patience, the abandoned children shouldering through mushrooms and underbrush, their faint cries sounding oddly like laughter,
there, in the eye of the firefly, everything reflected, understood, repeated, forgotten, the triple-flagged thirty-seconds circling themselves, the E flat in the bass a large round stone, smooth roof over some other world.
Variatio 18 a 1 Clav. Canone alla Sesta
In this world, there is no darkness, no earth, no roots, no hidden tangles of serpents— the bass is free, not planted, not framed, alone in what is not day or night or even air, and over it two voices sail, the second an echo at the sixth of the first. If there were ocean, it would part; if there were forest, it would fade; if there were moon— always this healing, the hacked sisters hidden in a bag of gold, hauled by the ensorcered sorcerer to their own home while the third sister, covered in honey, rolls in the bed’s feathers and becomes Goldberg’s bird—if there were moon, this would be its music, the single creature of the world, its hundred legs working, its
two-winged voices sailingâ€”into itself, through itself, emerging from itself. A time then, and twice upon it, some such music (this precise music following itself) and its end, the end of time.
Variatio 23 a 2 Clav.
Perhaps God is only the left hand, and the right hand has found a keyboard in a world we can neither hear nor imagine and in a variation only unlike this one with respect to the degree of its being imaginable is playing now, and other hands, other hands, as well, playing some part of some music, hands alternating, for example, crossing each otherâ€™s space in the scale (those spinning butterflies), calling to each other, conversing, say there are six bears, or nine bears, and each bear brings a bell to ring for the sleeping child, and perhaps there is no sleeping child or less than a sleeping childâ€” some kind of void that dreams trail into slowly
(for this, despite its flourishes, is a stately music) and then the bell music plays over the sleep of sleeping: bell, says one; another, says another, not yet a bell in the world of the first, and this music mirrors as stars do fireflies, and as dark mirrors itself. Perhaps God . . .
Neil Boyack Country Junk
There’s nothing around this area except my Granddad’s house and the old reservoir, a crooked wishbone forest of coppiced ironbark where the cattle pound used to be. Blunt bones rising from the earth after every rain. The snakes are black, black like ribbons moving on shades of gray, brown, green. At night Granddad’s tin roof is silver with moon and frost and inside he sits on one of the only two chairs in the room, jumping fire the only light. It sees his face. Pocked skin, crushed nose. Jack, my Granddad, dozes in the chair as he does every night, his nose whistling, the fire dying down to an orange coal, allowing cold and crickets to bleed in and fill his wooden home. Dreams. Phantom movements in his ugly boxing fingers. Boxing forty years before. Preston Town Hall, fighting first-generation Italians that had traveled down from their fruit farms in the Mallee, blackfellas from Shepparton and one or two from the Alice. He could move his legs so powerfully his feet were a blur. The newspaper said he had an educated left, at a time when he could hold other men still, by the throat, his tattoos fresh, shining. Granddad wakes and with rehearsed actions he goes to the gas stove to warm the bottle. The one am feed, everything candlelit. Going to the cot he is asking me the questions. Where’s your mum eh? I wonder where she is. He imagines her under a bridge somewhere with long finger-nailed men, taking out-of-date medication to get high. Payday. Thursday. Tomorrow. She’ll be ok for a while after tomorrow wherever she is. Granddad tells me that the drugs draw the company of the hunted men, those who have unknown kids, short fuses, dominating with harsh humor, odors, no good
at closeness. I hope those things aren’t true. Assuming the worst is the best preparation little one, he whispers to me, always assume the worst. In the morning we go for our walk. Granddad carries me in the baby pouch, the dogs are on leads. He tells me that Mum is older now and all she worries about are her men. Your mum’s always been like that . . . she’s always wanting approval from blokes, even when she was a teenager, she’d be moping, coming in after parties late at night asking Grandma when she was gunna’ meet a bloke. Your grandma would say (sleepy gravel voice in the dark) “you don’t know how lucky you are, most of them are heartless.” We reached the paddocks beyond the reservoir. There was no water in the res now, just saplings, a stalling landscape, waiting for flood, kangaroo tracks in the dried mud. Granddad whispered, reading the earth, feathers from the hunting fox, cracks in the ground big enough to swallow me hand. I remember me wet feet, that hot ground, the relief of the soft moss in between the trees on Norris’s hill there. Staying nights up here in this patch of bush with Barb, Jesus, those days were good. Listening to each other breathe. The night animals. The cleanness of those long swims. Jesus that was good. Grandma can’t remember any of that now though. A koala snorted, a pig in a tree, and it took Granddad a while to spot it. A koala! I bet y’never seen a koala before, eh? The man turned around so the baby could see. The koala sat there in the fork of the tree, drugged, looking out over the little creek beds that ran through the paddocks, the empty veins of the land. The kangaroos in the paddock scattered when Granddad let the dogs off their leads. They’ve got a good system girl, those kangas, they just piss off and go when they need to and then get back together later. It’s a good system. The man with the baby stood still for a good few minutes, watching the kangaroos and the dogs, a few bull ants in the dirt between his feet. The baby dozed in the carrier. Norris came out of the patch of bush on the hill with a couple of old rabbit traps and a bow saw in hand. He surprised Granddad, who felt bad about having just let the dogs go in Norris’s paddock. He scanned for the dogs and could see the whippet sprinting pointlessly after kangaroos drawing away at half pace. Hum of corella wings close overhead, like tires on bitumen; the sound hung perfectly while he waited for Norris. TLR
“How are you, Jack?” The rabbit traps clinked between the men. “Yeah . . .” he said, nodding, looking over the paddocks. “I see you got company.” The wrinkled, tanned men looked at the baby who was pink and tight. Norris’s brown hand with missing finger tops met the cheek of the baby. “Geez, she’s-a-cute-little-bugger.” Norris’s wavy hair was untidy, face shaved unevenly.
Where’s your Mum, eh? I wonder where she is. He imagines her under a bridge somewhere with long finger-nailed men, taking out-of-date medication to get high.
“Yeah . . .” “So you got the babysitting job, eh! Where’s Mum?” “Christ knows. She went a fortnight back and I haven’t heard nuthun.” “Geez.” Norris and Granddad stood side by side looking out to the whippet who was jumping through the longer grass way across the paddock. “I thought I saw her hitchhiking the other day . . . going down to Ballarat, couldn’t tell exactly.” “Ballarat, eh?” There was a nod and they continued looking out into the paddocks that were like family. “How’s Barb coming along?” Norris asked this question every time he saw Jack Spears. “She’s not. She’s a blank slate.” The comments
were blunt, wounded. “Jesus . . . what about her cooking . . . does she still cook? She used to make that great slice at the CFA fundraisers, and there was that wallaby and quandong curry at old man Johnstone’s funeral a couple of years back.” “Nope . . . she’s nearly burned down the house a couple of times. She forgets about the hot water on the stove, leaves the oven on and all that.” The old men stood side by side, owning their memories, looking out to the paddocks of yellow grass, the burnt-out stump that looked like a one-eyed panda. Thinking of his wife, Jack Spears wondered after his own memory powers. He wrote lists, lists for everything. It was something all his boxing mates had said was good to do. Every morning he woke, taking a minute to look at his list on the bedside table: kindling, dead trees, baby. Remembering the baby, he ripped away his blankets and thundered into the spare room on tippy toes to see her sleeping soundly. Her cot amidst old blinds rolled up and stacked in a corner, boxes of cassettes, craft maga42
zines, baby goods, a wardrobe along the wall holding his old boxing dressing gowns, medals and gloves, their stink perished, now they were crumbling, the leather cracking and the laces brittle, the seams and embroidery of Ironman Spears faded, eaten by albino silverfish and moths. “So you gonna go after Grace down Ballarat?” Norris asked. “. . . Yeah.” It could have meant yes, or no. When they got back to the house Jack put the baby in the bassinet and pulled out his banjo. He picked a tune with his fat crooked fingers. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” the only thing he could play. Jack watched for reactions in the baby. He saw she had the Spears’s nose and lips. Her eyes zipped around alertly, chasing the tinny sound of the rusty strings. Parrots shot past overhead, morning shadows weak on baby’s face as she reached after them. I’m worried for you, Granddad sang it to the tune, Grandma’s family won’t take yeh . . . your mum’s ripped them off too many times. He kept on singing. Burned a house down. Fractured Grandma’s wrist with a fire poker. Stolen money. Old MacDonald had a farm eeeiii eeeiii ooohhh. Even with the noise and the movement the baby drifted into a sleep and Jack took her inside. She weighed nothing to him and he was extra careful not to wake her when he was walking and breathing and opening the door with the squeaky hinge. Breakfast time was almost gone and Jack spoke to his wife sipping his tea from a chipped white mug. “Take a look at these, love. Remember anyone? Anything? It’s good exercise for the mind.” He started most days with this question to his wife of forty years, relating to the family photos in the shoe box sitting on the dining room table over breakfast. Her memory had been missing for a good year now and all she could do was eat, feed the pets, and water the plants; the same routines that had given her life meaning the previous fifty-six years. It was hard to believe that her family, her past, her wedding, her daughter were all gone from her head. Jack looked into the photos, the shadows of the people in the pictures, their shoes, fingers, necks. This was the Spears’s family story. The babies, his boxing, as well as the long gone faces of his wife’s moonfaced family. Jack wondered who had passed the memory disease onto her, where it started. Like the dog-eared, black-and-white headshot of the pipe smoking man in front of the cypress hedge looking to his left. Isn’t that the man I used to dance with, way back? She touched his hand, an important discovery. TLR
“You remember dancing then?” Jack’s tone was half accusation, like she had been pretending to lose her mind. “There’s something . . . in my head,” she said, tapping her ear with suspicion. Jack leaned closer, willing some detail of their history together might remain. “Wooden floorboards . . . dancing feet, tobacco, dirty farmers, hands like tree roots, nervous around the hips of the women, or was it the fear of getting their clean dresses dirty . . . I’m not sure.” She couldn’t say. She was missing again, fossicking through the photos waiting for another detail to ignite. The day became warmer, birdless, Jack could hear. He thought of wood gathering, and all the other jobs he could do as Barb went through the photos at the dining room table. He moved to the veranda out front hoping she could recall something more of their dancing days, their life together, hoping that she might call out to him and tell him about some of the things they’d done together. They went until dawn sometimes, back in Marston’s shearing shed where there was a fire blazing, fiddle player, harmonica. Between veranda posts Jack found a shaft of late morning sun. It almost stung his neck, but he bowed his head to enjoy it anyway. He closed his eyes and he drifted on his feet, remembering the holes in the floor of Marston’s shed, the way the light of the fire made everyone look good, the way it shone under glinting beer bottles. From Marston’s shed he slid deeper into the purple behind his eyelids and heard the hum of propellers at Point Cook airfield with his father. Collecting mushrooms in old kerosene tins near the runway with his dad, a once-a-year trip; his dad’s hands—a clip over the ear, a warm shield on his cheek. The propeller hum was winding its way closer until its spluttering was a hackneyed muffler Jack hadn’t heard before. In his tile of sun he opened his eyes in annoyance knowing that anyone coming down his road would be coming to his place. Carefully Jack let his father dissolve and go back to where ever he was. He limped, then walked, up the driveway without expectation to see who was coming. A green 1980s Falcon with a couple of white panels. The car brakes locked up and then released, the car creeping to the top of the driveway and stopping. It could have been someone looking for directions. The stirred dust billowed past the car and then fell thin. Jack could see Grace in the front passenger seat getting cigarettes out of her bag; he could hear her raised voice coming from inside the car. She got out and walked to Jack in her chunky high heels and gave him a kiss and a hug. A little dog jumped from the car and ran up to Jack, sniffing him and wagging its tail. “G’day, Dad. How’s the water situation?” Grace lit a smoke and Jack worried about where she might flick her ash. 44
“Yeah, alright.” Jack noted the teeth marks on his daughter’s neck, the thick makeup on her face, and remembered when he caught her putting on lipstick for the first time as a little girl: You’d better clean yourself up before Mum sees, she’ll kill ya. “I haven’t been able to get rid of the dog. Frank don’t like ’em. Do ya reckon you could take her? She’s pretty good, aren’t you girl, yeeessss.” Grace bent down to pat the dog with her smoke hand. “I want you to meet Frank, Dad, he works at the abattoir up Bendigo. Frank, this is Jack; Jack, Frank.” There was a man standing at the open door of the patchwork car, unmoved. He waved at Jack shyly. Jack walked to him to shake his hand, knowing his daughter would have told boxing stories, it always made her boyfriends inanimate. Frank’s face was sun-wrinkled, and his knuckles revealed tattoo scratches, childlike letters. He wore a navy singlet and had a crew cut, kangaroo-colored hair, brown marbles hidden through squinting, soft handshake. “So where are you living?” Jack Spears asked his daughter with his hands folded together. “With Frank. He’s got a place outside o’ Bendigo. I’ll give you my new number because we can’t stay long. We’re just here to pick the baby up. Frank has to go to work in a couple of hours.” When the meaning of the words were clear, a feeling made Jack’s eyes pointless. Dumb cocoons. The muscles next to his shinbones weakened, the legs that had carried him forever unsure. The weakness wormed through his gut hooking his throat, and he needed to swallow, to concentrate on forming his words over his clumsy tongue. He didn’t know if his daughter was talking, or if minutes had elapsed, tingles in his body made him feel like he was made of dots, tingles in his hands, like before a fight, his palms, his cheeks hot. He couldn’t look at his daughter anymore, he didn’t want to know what she was going to do next, so he turned to his home that was surrounded by gum trees. Silent galahs hidden in the leaves preening themselves. He listened to the gravel crunch under his work boots. Every step. Watching his feet. One boot in front of the other. Granddad gave me a big kiss then gave me to my mum whose hands were unsure with something so clean and valuable. Mum looked at Frank who was looking to go, and she began her goodbyes. *
When Grace was gone, she was unreachable on her mobile phone. Unreachable in his mind, as thoughts and pictures tripped over each other. He went to Barb and the photos on the dining-room table, hoping for some understanding from her. He looked down to the floor where the new dog was waiting quietly. He imagined the conversation between Grace and Frank, the complaining muffler, the car ride for the baby. He hoped to Christ they weren’t smoking in the car. Jack looked and sorted and fingered the photos on the table for something new, something he thought might make him feel better. “There’s that bloke again . . . the one I used to dance with,” Barb said, holding up a different photo altogether. Jack didn’t respond. He left his wife there at the table. He moved outside with the dog into the sun and started collecting wood. Then, with his hands, he ripped all the juvenile wattle trees from the ground, the ones that had died the summer before. They were rotted and brittle and would be perfect for kindling. When he couldn’t fit any more wood into the shed he got the fire going inside and the cold came, and the moon and frost filled the corrugated iron roof with silver and gray. The fire in the wood burner was going hard, shuddering, and he sat and looked at it in his chair. He whispered to nothing: Dreams, give me my dreams, please, give me something.
Leslie Adrienne Miller From a Balcony Over Rue de la Huchette
Itâ€™s possible to step into and out of the shadows of walkers with the eye alone, each block an accomplishment, the mindâ€™s claim to more space with less effort, unless you are the boy inclined to experiment with the vagaries of narrative sequence, entirely engaged in the problem of whether to drop the cork in front of the woman or on her. Looking down is a power as long as no one below can find, let alone open, the door he remembers as hidden behind racks of postcards,
behind a giant spindle of lamb shimmering in spotlit grease, the door he remembers leads to a tiny, slow lift and another locked door. Therefore he decides the last drop of wine in mother’s glass might descend differently, might be perceived as rain, which, oddly enough, makes anyone look up, as if there is something other than cloud responsible. There was a father there too, that day, though now that we are in his future, in the simple alteration of tense, he’s not present. You can’t exactly say he’s been erased.
Heâ€™s simply no longer in the mind considering the view over Rue de la Huchette, fixing on the end of the block where the sky arrives differently every time she looks. What to do with the missing agency this change in tense has caused? Who will stop the child from flinging the ruby lozenge of Bordeaux? Who will stop the mother from turning the last sip of wine into rain?
Child Asleep in a Bass Case
He will not wake for Brahms or Elgar, but wind in the minarets is magic, and the low hum of trucks arriving to stock the bar with honey cakes and wine sings in his spine. Temerity too has a voice in the blood that sweeps in from the Istanbul night. Eardrums are actually cheek-bone ascended as we left the water. This velvet is meant to spare the instrument damage in transit, red any way you brush it, soft if your shoulders are burnished wood, but a wrath if you are made of flesh.
Relinquishing the Fusional Moment
The first sign is his rejection of the French lullabies. The second, a predilection for meat, three, standing up to pee. Next I expect, he’ll nix the armada of synthetic fur arrayed in tubs around his room, the turtle knobs, hippo chair, and everything Pooh. I’m becoming another planet fast, a hurtling ball of foreign gases visible only on the darkest of nights. So it’s no surprise that when I take someone else’s infant in my arms, the moist skull delivering scent of cellared apple and worms, I know the garden gate is already locked, and we are in the bloody woods.
Boy at the Center, Intervening World
Dinosaurs gather on his tie, and he turns whole profile self violin blondeness again turns, dinosaurs staying put toward the lens fierce little violin under and pointing increments of left with looking, looking again cheek smeared goldâ€”oat slime? Godâ€™s thumb? cheek going after the profile and gaze going off also left to what might have been face voice stranger or toy not caught except in some neuron the result of which worms in for use in some remote moment turning toward what looms: equal enemy wife parent not even body turning just this angle violin going first toward not even ear simple hope in light not ultimately this but turning a profile like this and larger with new neurons glinting off of this peculiar particular simply because we caught it, we own it. We have it down.
Jessie van Eerden A Good Day love, how the hours accumulate. uncountable. the trees grow tall, some people walk away and diminish forever. the damp pewter days slip around without warning and we cross over one year and one year. —li-young lee
MOR N I NG
My mother’s hands are older than she is, and as rough as the burrs she works loose from the dog’s fur. It is morning. A string of Christmas lights dangles from the door frame in a lopsided U, her task interrupted by the dog’s collapse on the porch. Mom has made a straw bed in the barn and, over the past few days, has carried the dog to the bed, like an infant with legs and arms curled limp from a day’s play. Glossy black fur gone gray, rust-colored tufts around the teats. But the dog crawled back to the porch. Now Mom hurries to put a bucket of water beside the bed of straw in the barn and comes back to scoop up the dog, and it goes slack. Just dies right there in her arms, on the path midway between the house and barn door, liminal, on the path she’s worn into the ground carrying feed buckets and egg baskets and pails of cinders. She strokes the dead dog, snags a burr; she lays the furry body in the straw bed and tries to pet it back to life. Nothing has ever died in her arms before. There was the calf stillborn in the pasture, but she watched from a window in the house. She recalls the Scripture, He breathed his last, and thinks, Now I know what that looks like. She’s not one to speak tenderly of animals, hollering often at the whitetail deer that munch her lettuce; she’s butchered hens with no remorse; she once shot a groundhog with a twelve-gauge. Even so. She has felt, freshly, death’s interruption, and now this dog has interrupted her hanging of the twinkle lights on a day with a dead wind. Her father-in-law C.S. has died, after she and Dad took him in for five months, after she became so sensitive to his movements that she would smooth the wrinkles from the rugs where he walked. TLR
Death separates, Mom writes in her letter to my brothers and sisters and me that morning—it just seems like there’s been a good bit of it. And then, further down on the loose leaf: when the life breath goes out—absent from the body, present with the Lord. It is morning where I am, too, several states west of her. I have hung my laundry and put on lotion, trying to trick my hands into not being like my mother’s. I’m thirtyone now, as old as she was when she birthed me. As yet, I am childless, birthing only manuscripts. I get going on my deskwork. This morning, I will write about her, about her days and the way they have shaped my own, these days that slip, however shaped, through our fingers. She prefers the dawn. She wakes before five and tugs a ratty black sweater over her nightgown, reads the Bible, then dresses and pulls on her Tingley boots. She heads to the garden before the sun can burn off the fog, but she stops at the door, goes to the stove to start a letter on a paper scrap, just a paragraph before she remembers the hot sun rising and quits the letter mid-sentence for the door. She takes walks down Wilson Hill and back, toting her prayer list of names: mostly those dying of cancer, but also my siblings and me and our crises; also the Albright foster sisters who were just split up; also the President and the War. But sometimes, in her rush of uphill movement, she just gives a bit of thanks with no room for anything else during the fifty-minute walk. Some pray the hours; Mom prays the minutes—I am a little girl sticking my head out the back screen door; Aunt Kathy is on the phone and I holler for Mom, but she’s talking loudly to someone else, scraping the chicken manure off her Tingleys. Who are you talking to?—Just God—and how irritated she sounds, the conversation unfinished, or, perhaps, weighted on one side. She leaves off, grabbing the receiver— Kathy? Before his death, C.S. sleeps in the hospital bed in the living room. She still wakes early, reads Psalms at the table within earshot of his breathing. He is a small man-comma curved under the sheets, his oxygen machine a heavy whisper. With his presence in the house, she dresses in the bathroom and sees how very small her eyes are in the mirror, but they enlarge by and by; she picks up Dove soap for her face, cheap lipstick to rouge her cheeks. C.S. dies, and that morning, she has a hair appointment—do I go? She doesn’t know. And her hair—she touches it, apologizes always for its mess and its lack of shape, but then she threads her fingers through it with secret pleasure, for she’s never 54
wanted hair she could pick out of a catalog. She thinks things are clearer when your hair begs a dollop of styling gel, just as they’re clearer when you’ve got under twenty dollars in a checkbook and even less in a wallet but your jeans are nice and snug, line-dried, and the fall air chills your hands till they sting red with the work you have to do today. She throws herself full force into work, alongside Dad: burning brush, covering the chicken house windows with plastic for the winter, liming the garden, ousting the new potatoes. But doing the work is not for the purpose of arriving, finished, ready for a prize and a rose-pinning. It’s immersion. It’s work that’s meant to create a place inside the day for others to come into—come evening—to sit. And that evening light, radiating from the hues of the work itself, will slant onto the porch where the others will sit, and their faces will glow pink and gorgeous. A day, a life, is not a means to an end. What do I think is urgent for her today? That we do not, will not, die alone. I get up from my desk and fiddle with the coffee grinder till it cooperates. It is necessary for me, Thomas Merton says to me from the note card taped to my wall, to see the first point of light which begins to be dawn. It is necessary to be present alone at the resurrection of Day, in the blank silence when the sun appears. In this completely neutral instant I receive from the Eastern woods, the tall oaks, the one word ‘DAY,’ which is never the same. It is never spoken in any known language. The morning light in here ignites the sill so that even the upturned Japanese beetle carcasses look radiant. As the days slip past, how are we to know if they are good days? How to know a path, my own path, like my mother’s between the back screen door and the barn, etched by her years of footfalls into the parted fescue? NOON
Mom naps a noon hour of my girlhood—what a rarity—and I lie with her on the bed. I’m lucky to be beside her with no dad around, no older siblings. I see her with her glasses off: a pretty, naked face with lipstick on her lips, her cheeks and chin dabbed with the tip of the same tube of lipstick that she has rubbed in as rouge. She will not spend the money for the compact with a mirror, icing-pink blush with a soft cosmetic brush. Wet with sweat, her short brown curls sweep up from her forehead and don’t pester her. I realize, maybe for the first time, that she is separate from me, a woman much more powerful and more fragile than I can comprehend. Her eyes are not scrunched, as they sometimes are, with her suspicions so various: suspicion of “implants,” the back-to-the-earth hippies who move to rural West Virginia with, she thinks, some sort of agenda; suspicion of any agenda, of crisp computer-printed TLR
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bulletins in churches with their Order of Worship; suspicion of the false note in a sermon when the preacher’s voice goes shrill then soft, like a fickle radio station, and of the common-law marriage, of versions of the Bible newer than the King James, of any woman preacher, of religious robes, symbolic icons, feminists, sad foreign films and their tedious subtitles, of self-help books, prayer manuals. Of any claims that have no clout for her once the morning fog burns off and what’s left is the day’s work. On the bed, her eyes stay open wide somehow, though her lids are closed like pale, veiny curtains. She must see in her dreams a vision of fire, or of a workless day, or of the dress she lost in a basement flood, her wedding dress with a wide-brimmed hat to match. Then it is autumn, after twenty autumns have passed; it’s a warm spell, so one afternoon she takes her ironing board out to the porch since C.S. likes to sit out there in an easy chair. She plugs the iron into a long extension cord and progresses from simple pillowcases to jeans to blouses with tricky pleats. Nasturtiums trail from her hanging baskets to the porch floor. The hen that escapes the coop each day, with little reprimand, perches on the arm of the porch swing while C.S. chatters like a magpie about his days as county sheriff and about what he’d like for supper. She forgets that the pink blouse she irons will one day dissolve to dust—or else she lives so completely in that knowledge that it makes her love the blouse all the more. What makes us love something? Its finitude? Our blithe, present forgetfulness? Mom irons till dusk. It is one of those days when a person is in love with her life because she is still getting to know it—she later cleans up his diarrhea that gets all over the piano bench and bed sheets and living room floor—and she’s still getting to know it. At my desk, it is almost 3 pm now, a terribly beautiful 3 pm, and I wish it were raining. Then, suddenly, with a humid swell, it is. The rain starts, and, like a fool, I leave my laundry hanging; I keep writing. For the rain slows me. It gives permission for more deskwork. My mother, too, though she propels herself always, forward flung and forceful
She must see in her dreams a vision of fire, or of a workless day, or of the dress she lost in a basement flood, her wedding dress with a wide-brimmed hat to match.
(she shoots the moon in cards, always overbids her hand—bids three on the Ace of Spades alone—overapologizes, overbudgets a trip, overdoes the spread of pork chops and a batch of rolls on the table; underspends only on her underwear and shoes), she loves the rain. When it rains, there is pause, the catching of breath, the permission granted by the hard sure bullets on the tin roof. Permission for her letters. She pulls out the letter that she began in the morning, before the day’s work, and she resumes. Since we, her kids, have left home, Mom handwrites us a letter sometimes twice a week, depending on the volume of news, a letter being borne out of the sensation that life is too voluminous to be embodied by anything more than flyaway stretches of news. She writes them longhand on loose leaf, then drives to town to make photocopies at ten cents per page at the library, then mails them off in envelopes covered in stickers: an oval sticker with lilies and Behold the beauty of the Lord, or a sticker of a squirrel hanging up each of the letters in HELLO THERE on a laundry line. Her letters do feel like embodiment—both hers and ours. Her letters bear her body, an incarnation of her and her voice and the things her hands have touched today; and her letters bear our bodies, or at least our faces as they’re conjured in her mind as she writes. She writes the mundane and the revelation; she writes whether it’s beef roast or beans, whether it’s the cripple’s faith or the apostle’s that really brought healing in the Book of Acts; she reports on C.S.’s health and sketches the layout for this spring’s garden (where the sweet corn and pumpkins will go, the tomatoes and pole beans, and the perimeter of marigolds and zinnias). She writes of how the yellow colt’s feet are popping up along the ditch and how the world is glowing there and she wishes we were there to see it, too. She wishes we were there. October 31, she writes in an update, did ten loads of clothes (electric had been off a week), hung eight out. November 2: Finished the ironing—a coon tried to get in the chicken house—tore one chicken’s leg off before your dad could get out there to shoot it—weighed every bit twenty pounds! Have separated the chicken out—using Vicks, Porters, and Bag Balm—name: Henrietta Mae. In the next line: I’m taking a lot of comfort in Acts 17:26–28. I’m thinking everyone is where they are for good reason and the main one being so that you all would seek God’s face even more. The truth is: He truly is not far from each one of us and it really is that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Sometimes she gets preachy, or plagued with self-doubt, or, most often, both at once. Sometimes she falls asleep as she writes and leaves a smudge of ink, a word half-dream. TLR
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In her weaker moments, she begs us to move back home, clinging to the image of each of our houses sprouting up from the ground all around her like barley. But when she’s stronger, the letters themselves seem to suffice. The letters say with confidence: your day, however spent, is now joined to mine, and it has been a good day. On the loose-leaf from Dollar General, her letters often begin with Well— as though we’d just spoken a moment ago, as though she’s starting the day alongside us and the present tense of the letter is fused with the present of the reading. Dear All, she begins on November 20, Saturday, Well, I had this revelation from the Lord and even though I kind of choked on it, I feel like I have to let you fellas know about it. Another begins: Well, yesterday was a very sad day. Another: Well, we have around six inches of snow. Well, it seems like I can’t get all my thoughts together and at the same time make the trek to town. Well, Ashley is 17 years old today! These letters are her closest thing to a diary. But, for her, a letter is not a record; it is a speaking. A voice without recorder. She tells us not to keep them; they’ll clutter; just put them in the recycling, she says, or use the backs of them for scrap paper, and sometimes I do. But usually I keep her letters. (I have them spread out, now, on my desk.) I keep them in order, I archive; I keep notes on how she makes her meaning, notes which I’ll be ever comparing with my own. For she lives the length of the day while I often feel that I flit, a moth in the world; Mom emanates light, a wick soaked long in kerosene. I cannot help but keep her letters in a folder that documents her winter, details how she cares for C.S., my granddad, her letter, in its saying, a tiny history of her grief and her joy—entrusted to me. To her, the letters are simply a way to draw our faces into her circle of light. In truth, her photocopied print-cursive hybrid can halt my hands from writing manuscripts. Implicit in her letter is the wonderful, dreadful news: I could burn this letter today—and this essay—and be ash with its ash. When C.S. dies and the sympathy cards come in, she loves each of them and tears off their lovely sentimental covers, writes on their undersides, and sends them as postcards. Her letters do not simply blur her present with my present; they blur time with time, the temporal with the eternal. Beloved, she reminds me from a New Testament epistle, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 58
Mom is aging. I notice it the way you notice the sky getting darker earlier in September. I want to be able to let her age, which means I want to let myself age. She’s sixty-two, and I thirty-one. She does not long for her younger self; she is okay with aging, since she believes in resurrection, not as much in heaven’s gates as in an eternity that already grows green and firm like pith inside her aging body. When the time comes to go, she’ll simply slip into a new body, still carrying on the same conversation. She’ll keep going for fifty-minute walks, her litanies strewn all the way down Wilson Hill and back. Well, she begins on October 26th, one more page and hopefully I’ll send this out tomorrow.
Implicit in her letter is the wonderful, dreadful news: I could burn this letter today— and this essay—and be ash with its ash.
My laundry is soaked through now, bending the clothesline toward the ground with weight, that gravity and rain. She’s dying, my mother, but so am I. Not soon, but soon. This day will bear fruit, and that fruit will be the death of us, a good death. What makes a day good? Perhaps a good day is a good full death. I hear her insist: You will not die alone. Is that possible—to not be alone in death? Is that what makes a death good? That it be attended? Is what makes for a good death the accumulation of good days? But, again, what makes for a good day? It is sometimes for me: I wrote something true. A good day looms larger than Time, yet a day is so small, perhaps too small a unit to measure and too meager a handful of coinage to squander. I think of Socrates in his last hours, all the women shooed from his room, for they would surely make a fuss while he practiced his earnest dying, drinking his hemlock to die the best death. And often we say it is a good death if bloodless, hardly noticed, dying in your sleep with no faces hovering, no last rites or final words, no disturbance. But, for my mother—for my mother it is different. One day she is swimming all afternoon in the Atlantic; too self-conscious for a bathing suit, she learns from my sister how to get changed from her blouse into a tank top, on a public beach, wondering, amazed, in what context her daughter has learned this skill of changing in public. And there is only my mother and the water’s surface, and then, deep beneath, long colorless tusks of life growing upward toward light—miles through water, her flippering legs. She loves, loves TLR
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to disturb the waters, to slice through with her body, all the while her hospice-heart, her hospice-lips moving with the words of the sick and the dying—catheter, IV, Lacex, colostomy, dressing and undressing and dressing the wounds. In her house, death will not be shut away quietly in a closet. There she is, thrusting between the great shafts of light, among the reefs, troubling the ocean waters. Death is with us, rending us, binding us, and she is with the dying, midway on the path, liminal, a steward of their deaths, a midwife even—can that be possible? To midwife the dead? For C.S., she wipes the celery-seed dressing from his cracked lips; she hears his confessions; and even now her own father’s lungs filling with blood, her own mother falling back from the flowerbed to shatter her wrist, the diabetic neighbor losing toes and limbs pinched off by kidneys failing on dialysis—her face is there, the moon rising above the other’s face that is the moon’s reflection. N IG HT
It’s true she makes the day last long, likes to lengthen and slow it and put off the night, but love of life and fear of death—they are not the same thing. The Bible is all she reads—with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day—but I know of a few exceptions that she brings out at night, such as a few Christian romances; such as her novel she is sometimes writing, hidden in a garbage bag in the closet, the narrative taking place over one single week, the days elongated as though the project itself might slow time with its particulars; such as Harriet Arnow’s novel from the fifties, The Dollmaker (though not Jane Fonda’s feminist film adaptation). Mom doesn’t own Arnow’s book, just keeps checking it out of the library in town, and their only copy is a large-print edition. That last chapter, she reads in bed: Clovis, having moved his family from Kentucky to Detroit for factory work, is on strike, the children know better than to ask for more milk, and Gertie gets an order for fifty dollars’ worth of wooden dolls for a church Christmas bazaar. She needs good wood and has a block of the best cherry that she’s been carving in their dank apartment, letting the shavings snow down to the floor late into the night. Out of the block she’s carved a man with an empty uplifted hand, a head but no face. She takes her boy Amos, pulls her statue in the boy’s wagon to the wood lot, asks the scrap-wood man to saw the statue into boards for the dolls she’s to whittle. The head of the statue must be split apart with an ax first, and the man can’t do it, knowing the soul she’s put into her carving, so she does it herself—and either she or the wood lets out a yelp as the ax splits the blank face right off the head of the carved figure. 60
The scrap-wood man rubs his hand over the blank face and says to Gertie that she meant it to be Christ, didn’t she? But she could find no face? Gertie shakes her head, no, so many faces would have done fine, millions fine enough for him, the faces of neighbors in the alley, any would have done. It’s the large-print edition, huge, a tent over her as she reads in bed till her forearms ache, or till it bends down to rest on her head and Dad gently takes it from her hands. They sleep beside C.S.’s hospital bed in the living room, on the sofa bed. Mom often wakes while C.S. and Dad sleep, as she did when we kids all slept in the house and she rose to tend the beans in the pressure canner that rattled with jittery gunshots. Then, the coming of daybreak never occurred for her alone. Watching the day come was like letting a face come clear, closer and closer, always a face with a signature square jaw or hazel eyes or dry lips moving with breath. It’s a beautiful October when C.S. dies. Mom wants to sleep on the sofa bed one more night, by his empty hospital bed. Dad doesn’t understand, but says okay and holds her. “It’s just for tonight,” she says. “Let the oxygen machine run, just for tonight.” Writing into the night, I’ve drunk half a Killian’s Red, and so much has happened— time is that vast—much good and much bad. (I know she does not like me drinking.) My friend Kevin has emailed that he’s found the poverty harsher in his travels in Cambodia than he has anywhere—Pakistan, Burma. Young women in dirty camisoles proposition him and seem to sprout on the arms of men all over the city. This happened during my swallow: a woman has wrung her hands while a man whom she does not know and who doesn’t ask her name unbuckles his belt. And my mother has wiped celery-seed dressing from C.S.’s chin after supper and has heard the confessional flutters of his dreams. Someone has lit a lamp; someone has burned like a wick; I have put the bottle to my lips and heard a skunk and her babies rustle outside in the trash bins, and have kept writing. We’re different, Mom and I. But not so different. The difference lies in the work we’ve chosen. She stows food in canning jars, bathes the ailing. I stow words in files and those files on a hard drive, and I go untouched by hands for many hours at a time. But my laundry hangs black-wet on the line tonight, and I’m a girl with my sister on a summer night when the day has been long, the length of the burn of the small brushfire by the barn. The loose walnut leaves, which have batted smoke toward the wet cotton of the sheets, have now stilled. And, as though reading their stillness like TLR
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a sign, my mother says she is too tired to take in the sheets from the line, so we leave them to hang overnight. We sleep on our cool bare mattresses then, mine next to my sister’s, covered over top with some sheets from the closet, untucked. It is the gift of something temporary, a night without a made-up bed, a result of not having strength to finish a task. I wrap the closet-sheet around me, because, if I don’t, I might slip off the bed, into the dark. We’ve burnt some brush and trash, and we’ve shelled some of the walnuts, and we’ve half-done the laundry—what work has made of us today is finally allowed to be laid down, cooled and (as we imagined) beautiful. We smell only the old sheets that cover us—blue once, and, I remember now, dotted with tiny flowers—they smell of musty waiting. While our other sheets sleep pinned up outside and break the stillness only once to flap, as if to tell us something through the window screen. Downstairs, Mom finishes with her bath, the powdery scent of her Jean Naté coming close, the porch light switched off. I sleep with the brief world touching my cheek. You see, they are ghosts, these bed sheets on the line, the ghosts of us, hailing our deaths, our brevity. We rest. We are the same. I sometimes fear that I’ll make no mark or I’ll miss the vital thing, or my apartment will be torched and I’ll become ash with its ash. The thought of dying, not soon, but soon. Mom lives with no thought to permanence, but not because she thinks she’ll live forever—there’s no denying the lungs full of fluid and the neighbor’s toes then limbs lost one by one to diabetes. I know (and she knows) that she will cling as everyone clings, with a startled look or a But— on her lips, when she dies. Even so: to be, to love, to work, to set down a bucket and run. Well— and so on goes her conversation with the world. And in the midst of her thick humid days, she is hot and malleable as iron in the fire—ever changing, running out of the bathroom with her hair half-combed, halfdried upside-down by the wall heater, squinting without her glasses—Two things, she writes on her loose leaf, her face glowing from either the revelation or the heat from the heater. Number one: don’t let anything rob you of your joy, and, number two, I’m really sorry for pestering you kids to come home. I will try to do better. And in the midst of her brittle autumn days, she breathes, exhales the name of God, YHWH, with voiceless breath—that name derived from the Hebrew verb to be. YHWH is her I AM, the One who is, the eternal present, pulsing and grinding forward. YHWH is the clutching of the dog gone slack in hands made old and rough by wash water. YHWH made strange with the familiar strangeness of a porch 62
light, Tingley boots, and a nightgown draped with a black sweater. She slips inside the name of God, hushed by the pulse. And inside the name of God, it’s as if we live a thousand years in a day—the day itself an ancient thing. Perhaps we do it without knowing it, the way the weaver of a thousand rugs knows only the reds and blues of this rug she weaves, though her hands ache with the thousands. And the way, for Mom, there is the face right before her, etched with pain or with bruised sleep. There is no other. It’s getting so late and I could burn this, and be ash with its ash. And I might do it, too, or I might send it to Mom who will read it standing by the stove with her lipstickrouged face and tank top dirty with garden soil and, over top of it, my fifth-grade jean jacket she can still wear, sleeves rolled up, and she will call me and say that my work is good, except there’s too much of her in it. Except that she didn’t know someone was watching her. This essay is the kind of thing you do when you’re old and eulogizing, and we’re both but neither of us old, Mom and I. Very late at night, her rough hands are made smooth as she lotions C.S.’s arms, Lubriderm always, making both their ancient skins, finally, child-supple. She has smeared Porters ointment on the sore of the isolated one-legged chicken, has put its food and water out in cottage-cheese containers. She listens, unable to sleep as the moon rises then fades, to a sermon tape from the Bible Believer’s Commentary. It’s a tiny-voiced woman named Edith tracing the Lamb of God throughout the Scriptures. Mom is sleepless over the way the Lamb will come back, with the new worlds, the new heaven and the new earth—what the form, what the voice, what the day—the last day, the day of the Lord. And she’s ardent that the last day is this day, for they blur. What the face but this face? I have stayed up all night writing. And now it is dawn, again.
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Susan Rothbard Feeding the Birds
I wanted them to come. Wanted cardinals, jays, a goldfinchâ€” that yellow most of all. I bought binoculars, Birds of New Jersey, learned to recognize the mourning doves, the black spots they shared, how they got their name. My husband began to look out the window each morning, shouted for me when they came, bought a birdbath because heâ€™d learned that birds get thirsty. Our children laughed at us as they raced out of the house, but I liked all this learning. Then I learned about grackles. I told myself I did not mind them; their iridescent blue heads were beautiful. I did not know they would take over, scare
the other birds away, that I would admit they were ugly, buy seed they wonâ€™t eat. Now the empty suet feeder sways like a hanged man on the branch where the grackles had perched, and I watch from the window. I could not choose my children this way.
As the baby bear must venture out on his own, so we must send you off to forage for your future. We will, of course, miss your great wit at the dinner table, your hearty belch and fart. We will be saddened by the silence when the phone doesnâ€™t ring in the middle of the night. As for your sundry issues, we will feel the loss on Sunday mornings without family therapy and will have to find solace in the crossword puzzle. About the laundry: we will learn to make do with less. Surely, we will long for the days when you finished the carton of milk and left it, empty, in the refrigerator. 66
How you have entertained us with genres of music we never would have known and at such volume! Please, donâ€™t worry about us or the house key you lost; the new locks work just fine.
When my son tells me he hopes I die, last week’s curse—which at the time seemed the worst thing you could say to your mother—fades from my mind along with all the other things he’s said which I know he doesn’t mean. All I see is the look on his face when he hears his wish has come true and he’ll never be able to take it back, the taste still in his mouth and my voice in his head. I move in close, hoping the words I say in return feel as hot to him as they do to me. I rant, my face so near to his I could lean in for a kiss. I don’t. Something ugly sits at the back of my throat
and he sees it, and I want him to see it. Tonight I want to be mean, want to find his softest spot and make it hurt. I don’t want to be his mother—the hardest thought I’ve ever had. But if I’d seen some sign— (no, not tears)—but if his eyes had grown wide, I would have kept us both alive.
Thomas Bonfiglio Puppies
Charles works himself to a sitting position. The room comes into focus and he looks at a chair in the corner buried under an assortment of sweaters and socks and underwear. He reaches over and pats the blank space beside him where Nancy may or may not have slept last night. He gingerly walks down the short hall toward the bathroom. She’s kneeling before the bathtub, scrubbing something submerged under the water. And she’s naked. Is there any coffee left? Charles asks. No. Eggs then, he says. Eggs. She ignores him. Sometimes I think that doctor was right about you, he says. That what he said was right on the money. You think maybe he knew what he was talking about? Nancy’s bare back tightens, her shoulders scrunch inward. Maybe she’ll start crying. She’ll get over it, he thinks. Or maybe not. Marriage is like that. Some things are added to the pile, others are like air, you breathe it in, but it’s nothing to talk about. She keeps scrubbing. He stands, lifts the toilet lid and takes a leak, hitting the water with a horrible gush. Niagara Falls, he shouts. Where are my cigarettes? Maybe they’re wherever you left them, she finally says. You think maybe that’s where they are? Or did they possibly grow legs and go somewhere that only I know about? 70
What about those eggs? he says, now sitting on the toilet lid. You want some eggs? Nancy is allergic to eggs, both kinds, the ones inside of her and those on a plate. Try as she might, she simply cannot hatch a baby. Not for the life of her. She pulls a pair of white panties out from under the suds and stands, hanging them over the curtain rod, and water drips from them. Blood stains, she says. She leans over again, her ass even with his face, and what Charles thinks he sees in her darkest place both frightens and excites him. She pulls a dripping blouse out from the tub and stands to her full height, she’s taller than him, he dislikes her for that, unforgivable really. I’ll stick to cereal, she says, but so nice of you to offer. Her forearms are sleeved in suds and she reaches toward him, leans as if to kiss him, her face, still wearing yesterday’s make-up, hovering a few inches in front of his, but instead she grabs a towel hanging on the rack behind the toilet and struts out. She’s sitting on the kitchen counter when he comes in. She’s wearing a long sweatshirt the color of cardboard. A cereal bowl balances on her bare legs as she flips through a magazine, holding it an inch in front of her face. The room is dim, the blinds shut tightly. Her hair is long and straight and dark, just the way a woman’s hair should be. Charles is glad of that. The table is covered with dishes and empty bottles from the party last night, and a half-eaten chicken carcass floats in a large platter of grease right next to her. What a mess, Charles says, crouching, burying his head in a cupboard, searching for a clean coffee cup. Did you hear me? I said what a mess. It’s from that movie we saw, he says. I know, she says. Never mix, never worry, she says. He finds an old and unused plastic Mickey Mouse cup with ears for handles, the price tag still stuck to it, bought in anticipation of an event that never did and never will take place. He remembers what happened last time he tried to fill this cup with coffee, remembers the words she used against him. There were even more words when he tried to throw it in the trash. He drops the cup back into the cupboard and stands too quickly, the pain in his head rolling in waves. Did you read how this woman left all her money to her dogs? Nancy says, not looking up from the magazine. Thirty million dollars. What a load of shit, he says. It’s like rubbing it in people’s faces. Why not just find a homeless family and piss all over them? If I was poor I’d kill her. If she wasn’t already dead, he says. You aren’t the killing type, she says. He lifts the chicken platter and carries it to the table and searches for a place to TLR
set it. Not finding one, he carries it over and drops the bird, platter and all, into the sink. He grabs a Coke from the fridge and climbs up and on the counter and sits next to her. You gonna keep reading? he says. I’m almost done, she says. No clean cups? I can turn on the light, he says. Or at least open the blinds. You’ll kill your eyes. Just what I need, a wife with a cane.
If I had to hear her call you “Charlie” one more time I might have thrown her through a window. No doubt she’d have landed on her back.
I’m done, she says, setting the magazine down. She crunches her cereal and milk spills down her chin in a dribble. He dislikes cereal and he is beginning to dislike anybody who eats it. He saw on the television how they have a rule as to how many dead bugs are allowed to get mixed in with the grain in each box. This affected him deeply. And starch, he really hates starch, it eventually turns into fat is what he read in the Sunday supplement. A sour bubble opens in his stomach and reveals itself as a burp. Excuse me, he says. I thought you were having eggs, she says. I would if there was a goddamn clean pan around here. So clean one if you’re so hell-bent on it. I’m
going back to bed. What time you get to sleep? he asks. I don’t know, not late, I guess. I didn’t want to wake you so I slept on the couch. I ended up driving, you know, what’s-his-name, home. Oh. He finishes his Coke and tries to crush the can, hurting his fingers in the process. Not late? I was up until three at least. Were you? You must be tired. Should we lie down? That’s what I’m going to do. Lie down. I’m just gonna clean this mess, he says, indicating with a wide sweep of the arm. I can’t sleep with the house like this. I can’t anything. Well, maybe you should have spent a little more time playing the host and clearing glasses and a little less time talking to your girlfriend. My girlfriend? Charles says. How can you even stand her voice? Nancy says. She screeches worse than a car crash. If I had to hear her call you “Charlie” one more time I might have thrown her 72
through a window. No doubt she’d have landed on her back. I’m going to bed. Happy cleaning. Whatever, he says. And why the hell didn’t he take a taxi home or get a ride with someone else, why the hell did you drive him? He could have walked, he only lives three blocks from here, for chrissakes. Five blocks, actually. Goodnight, Charlie. She smiles at him before walking away. Her mouth is imperfect to some but not to him. Not enough gum, too much teeth. He likes this almost as much as he likes her hair. When she smiles it’s like she really means it. That evening, Charles says, I read the dog article you told me about. These people ought to be shot. The kitchen is as clean as he ever gets it. The counters scrubbed, two bags of trash carried down the hall to the chute, the dishwasher filled but not run. That part is her job. He dislikes switches and is afraid of buttons. This dishwasher has both. He hates to do the floors, as does she, so only sweeps the crumbs under the carpet. There are three years’ worth of crumbs gathered there. They sicken me, just plain and simple sicken me, she says, sitting next to him on the couch, the room warmed by the soft glow of the television, an old fight on the classic sports network playing with the sound off. I don’t know why it makes me so mad, but it just does. Dogs, he says. Not just dogs, she says. All animals. All of them. Cats, birds, even fish. But dogs especially. They become their life. All that baby talk. Like a dog has the slightest idea what you are even saying to it. Your girlfriend tell you she has three dogs? Will you get off that? Why do you keep going there? It’s an empty hole. Don’t you get tired of coming up dry? And yes, I know all about her dogs. Not everyone with a dog is a dog person. It’s dog people I can’t stand. These old ladies and their poodles. The gays I can forgive, she says. They can’t help it, he says. It’s as close as they can get to the real thing. They got space to fill. These other people, though. You’re right about them. Between the eyes, Nancy says pointing an imaginary gun at Charles and then turning it on herself. But it isn’t all of them, not everyone with a dog. I like dogs. My father always had dogs, we always had them when we were kids, and we treated them like what they were, dogs. Good dogs, but dogs just the same. We weren’t dog people. After he died we just got rid of them. Nobody had any interest. On the other hand, your girlfriend, that empty hole, as you put it, well . . . TLR
Your father, who aren’t in heaven . . . That is getting so fucking old, Charlie. . . . hollow be his name. Your boyfriend have a dog? Does he? Boyfriend? That might be interesting. Thanks for the hint. I could use some company now and again. Nothing permanent, mind you. Just a hard cock and some idle chatter. I’ll give you some hard cock, he says. Big talk, she says. You know where to find me, she says. She picks up the remote control and clicks through a whole cycle of channels on the television but comes back to the boxing match. The fight seems to have somehow ended while she was surfing; a knockout punch or maybe simply time running out, and the two large and half-naked men embrace like lovers in the middle of a crowded ring. Fakery. They probably really hate each other. What’s for dinner? Nancy asks. You wanna go out? Maybe. Maybe a sandwich, that place with the veal. You think? I was thinking Indian. Or even steak. I could use a steak. A big slab of meat. Hash brown potatoes. The whole shot, he says. You want anything out of the fridge? Something to drink or anything? Are there any apples left? No apples, he says. I ate the last one. Hey, who was that on the phone? The phone? When? Yeah, you know, that thing you talk into. Voices come out of it. It’s called a phone. I thought I heard you talking on it before. It must have been my sister, she says. Or maybe my mother. If I was on the phone, that is. Charles gets up and goes to the fridge and comes back eating an apple. He plops back down on the couch. What do you know, he says, taking a bite. Speaking of dogs, my girlfriend, as you call her, is having puppies. You want one? A little puppy. Big ears, big feet. It’d be a gas. There’s no chance of us becoming like those other people. We understand the difference. A puppy might be nice, she says. They’re awfully cute. Cuddly even. And say what you will about her, she’s got nice dogs. It’s like they’re bordering on being cordial, like if they could talk they’d be one hell of a lot more interesting than that drone. They sound like good dogs, he says. I think maybe she showed me a picture of them once. Good, healthy stock. Pleasant and friendly. Well-mannered. You could tell from the picture. 74
Picture, my ass, Nancy says. I know you’ve been over there and seen those goddamn dogs. Don’t you give me that look, Charles. Besides, if we got a puppy, who’d take care of it? There’s more to it than it looks. You think we could take care of one, feed it and walk it and all that? Get it its shots? I don’t know anything about shots. Me neither. I don’t know. We could learn. Maybe. They’ve got books. They probably even have classes. They have classes for
Why the hell should love be without condition, anyway? Sorry I broke your nose, darling, now blow me.
everything nowadays. There’s always the internet. No sleeping with us in bed, though. Out of the question. She flips through the channels some more and stops at an old movie, a war picture with John Wayne. How about when it rains? she asks. They get afraid of the rain. Really afraid. They whimper. Still no bed? There’s exceptions to everything, he says. There’s always exceptions. Unconditional love, she says. That’s what dogs have. That isn’t love, he says. That’s need. The dog needs to be fed and it’s smart enough to know this clown will feed it. Why the hell should love be without condition, anyway? Sorry I broke your nose, darling, now blow me. Nice world, she says. Lovely people. You really want to bring a puppy into it? What I want to do is eat, that’s what I want. I think a dog might be too much for us. It’d screw up our vacations. None of the good places let you bring animals. So let’s eat. I guess that’ll work, he says. I bet if I tried hard enough I could find another apple around here, that is, if you’re still interested. I think there might be one tucked away somewhere. Or should we just go out now, Indian or the sandwich place? Whichever, he says. Let’s just go. They bundle up with hats and coats and gloves and take the elevator downstairs. They walk through the empty lobby, push open the heavy glass doors and step out into the cold wind. I really hate parties, Nancy says, tightening her scarf. Let’s not have another for a while. It isn’t the parties I hate so much as the people, Charles says. It’s the people I hate. He tries to hip-check her into the street but she threads her arm through his and does not fall. Almost got you, he says. That’s about the closest I’ve ever come. TLR
That wasn’t so close, she says. You’ve come way closer before. You know, Charles says. I’ve been thinking a lot lately. A real lot. You think we should try again someday? Do you think? You think maybe it would turn out different? Maybe it would be different this time, if we tried again. No, Nancy says, shivering hard in the cold. Nothing ever turns out different. Nothing ever does. I’m too afraid to try anymore. It would finally ruin us for good. It could, Charles says, putting an arm around her waist. But it could turn out different if we tried again. But you’re right, it probably wouldn’t. It probably would all turn out exactly the same. Everything else always does. Babies are no different. There’s nothing special about babies. No, Nancy says. I’m afraid there isn’t. They’re just like everything else.
Vida Cross Bodacious for archibald j. motley’s brown girl
She’d walk up and take the sandwich from your hand to feed her kids She’d wear red ’round her rear on Sunday to Sunday service Her lips were painted red Her nails were painted red She made looking away from you look easy and telling you off even easier She boldly walked into church and kissed the preacher’s cheek She laughed loud and folded money into her bra She’s the reason the witch doctor wore rose-scented cologne
The painter had to paint her he said “Nude” and she allowed him to follow her around for days He knew she drank beer and smoked cigarettes He knew she lived in a greystone on St. Lawrence Avenue with her mother Her mother baby-sat her kids She shopped once a month at Marshall Field’s and paid extra to have things delivered The father of two of her three boys was Robert King one of “Big Daddy King’s” sons from the King’s Report The painter painted her by looking into her window 78
He painted her while she undressed in another room and half her body including one butt cheek was exposed He painted her under the light of a shaded lamp wearing only pumps brown skin and milk beneath her pores
Out in the Ocean
My mother said I was born in April I have to trust her on this “You were a colorless unnamed babbling pool of water” She added distinguishing me from my two sisters the wide-eyed owl Marlene and Baby Jesus Asunda “You were a trickle of water “You looked up from a momentary shyness before moving out into the ocean “Asunda” 80
she said boldly “was ideal quiet obedient” My mother waited until Asunda spoke at three At five we searched for her in a park seven acres of flat land houses on the edge quick steps around swings sand pits Marlene scanned the area called “Asunda” a name that didn’t belong to anyone at the time her breath a drop of air added to the breeze TLR
My mother wondered out loud how she’d describe her black child’s dirty blond hair and green eyes to the cops and refused to admit the cops were needed Then Asunda limped away from an opening at the gated edge She simply said “I got lost” I said “How?” under my mother’s loud words meant for the Lord to hear At home I washed Asunda I dripped soap and water over her matted hair 82
Asunda folded her lips together I thought I am nothing like water It cleans then forgets to keep us clean It is gentle but forgets to remain gentle
Rebecca Chew Calcutta
I attend a boy with tousled hair. I give him good-looking sideburns and as I am near his ear, I whisper to tell him how good I am at Tetris. I let pixilated fireworks fill the screen, type my name in capital letters into the high-score chart and I’m on to the next game. I tell him how I nurse blistered thumbs like they are spoils of war. But I don’t tell him that I play a knockoff version of Tetris on a knockdown Gameboy. I don’t tell him he can get that really cheap from the sundry store next door. I don’t tell him how I would sit on the couch for hours, fingering the plastic toy like a kalimba, and send robotic music around my one-bedroom flat. I don’t tell him that the butt-shaped indentation on the couch might be all I will ever leave behind after I die, because even his good-looking sideburns will outgrow into fuzz. I don’t bring up that I would like to have a Gameboy effigy burned at my funeral, along with the other obligatory effigies for an upper-class afterlife. I run the electric shaver down his nape and try not to think about my mother holed up in an urn. God knows I tried to give her the best. I had a mad fire going with all the paper cars I burned for her. I even burned paper hats. And she never wears hats. But I don’t tell the boy that too. The boy’s mother comes over under a turban of wet hair. Stop drooling like a dog, she says, and wipes his gaping mouth with a tea towel. She then turns to me and apologizes for her son’s cerebral palsy as if she’s just stepped on my feet. The mother has been bringing her son Ni Hao for his monthly haircut at Annie’s ever since she moved into the neighborhood. Ni Hao, the sort of routine, meaningless phrase salesgirls toss at you isn’t much of a name, but everyone remem-
bers it. Ni Hao, Ni Hao, I say every time he enters, and throw a futuristic silver cape around his small shoulders. He has two hair whirls. One on the back and one near his forehead, both counterclockwise. He has a few strands of white hair and a cluster of moles on his miraculously smooth cheeks which when you take a marker to connect the dots, you’d discover a constellation. But I wouldn’t recommend doing that, at least not with a marker. He could be eight, eleven, seventeen, or twenty-five. None of us could be sure. The mother holds Ni Hao’s lips with the experienced aptitude of a plumber holding down a leaking pipe. Ni Hao has already drenched his second towel before lunch. Mother Teresa is a dog, my mother once said. She said I should eat more cabbage like Mother Teresa. She also thought I should go out more. Meet horses, tigers, rabbits, and pigs. Don’t be friends with dragons and cows. A sheet of laminated placemat would be brought to my face. You see what you are, she insisted, pointing to the placemat she nicked from a restaurant years ago with its stains of oyster sauce, listing the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Imbued with oracle powers, the greasy sheet had been called upon whenever my mother felt the need to prove a point. It stated that I, a person born under the sign of the dog, would like roses, rocking chairs, novels, and massage therapies as gifts. I didn’t appreciate how aged my mother made me seem. But of course, she never noticed the shoulder pads I removed from my clothes to keep up with the times. She didn’t even react when I handed her a bagful of them as kitchen mittens. How are you going to find a man? That’s another question my mother was fond of proposing, sometimes emphasizing the word how and at other times, the word man. Every week, I arrange the contents of my fridge like a tangram puzzle. Last week I moved things around to fit in a box of prunes. This week is the oyster mushrooms. But a man is much larger than a box of prunes or a tray of oyster mushrooms. How will one ever fit into my life? But I tried. I bought men’s clothes from a thrift store and split my closet into his and hers. I tried sleeping on one side of the bed. I watched my favorite TV show and when the plot got interesting, I switched over to the sports channel. I tried staying awake at badminton finals. I tried sitting on a wet toilet seat and screaming. I may not be a big cabbage eater, but if it’s any consolation to my mother, I could at least stay single like Mother Teresa. If there’s one talent I have, it’s that. Still, when I’m closing up the salon by myself, I get ideas. I’d stand in front of
the hair steamer and squint my eyes until I see the semblance of a man. Maybe this man has a name. Maybe this man has one of those generic and forgettable single-syllable English names like John or James. I’d reach out my arms and wrap them around him. I’d lean my head on his plastic hood and feel his steely frame. Then I would see us reflected again and again in the mirrors, our embrace cloned for an eternity. From the mirror I see Ni Hao’s mother in a chair. Her hair swells up from a cocktail of environmentally destructive chemicals and hairspray. It’s all about balancing out the pH, Annie says. Ni Hao’s mother waves her hand, telling us about their appointment with an exorcist to rid Ni Hao of his cerebral palsy. Cumulonimbus bulges of underarm flesh shake and vibrate as she demonstrates the Taoist priest brandishing his ceremonial sword like an ax. She does a slow-motion lumberjack action over a stack of beauty magazines representing Ni Hao’s head. She tells us of the prescribed diet of prayer paper that gave Ni Hao more than enough fiber to avoid constipation for the rest of his life. Ni Hao stares at the cover of a magazine his mother had placed on his lap. Michael Jackson smiles at him from the magazine. Michael Jackson is a dog too, I say, quoting my mother. Ni Hao doesn’t respond and dips his head lower to the magazine. His lopsided lips droop with the etiquette of wax. He eyes me as I wipe the drool off. I give him a onceover and trim near his forehead, each snip bringing his delicate mane further from his asymmetrical face. His arm hairs stand up when my cold blades touch him. In my years as a hairdresser, which is many, Ni Hao is my best customer, although it is his mother who pays. He doesn’t rattle on like the others and would let you do the talking instead. He doesn’t look at me and see the Tutti Frutti slushies I have every night after dinner from 7-11. He doesn’t take into account my size nor my aversion for swimsuits, or the sixth toe on my right foot, totally visible in my rubber slippers. He doesn’t consider that I am newly orphaned, or that I am still single and would likely remain so for as long as I live, by my will or otherwise. He doesn’t tell me I need to change that fact.
Stop drooling like a dog, she says, and wipes his gaping mouth with a tea towel. She then turns to me and apologizes for her son’s cerebral palsy as if she’s just stepped on my feet.
All I do is relieve his tilted head from the burden of unruly hair and sculpt the best haircut there is. I sweep away his dandruff and release them into the air like confetti celebrating a fresh cut. I look at his pale scalp shrinking away as he slumps further down the chair and make a vow. I will prune the split ends. I will be Mother Teresa to each stray follicle. I will cultivate them as a gardener would his flowers. Ni Hao will be my mission, my Calcutta. I will be a hospice of beauty for his bad hair days. Come more than once a month, I will tell his mother, I’m happy to do it for free. And if he comes more often, maybe one day I can tell him everything I could never say before. I have another side that no one knows, I will say. See, I can be as vibrant as a color wheel, I will say, or at least a hair dye chart if that’s more modest. I tell Ni Hao he is the first boy I’ve talked to in a long time. He lets out what sounds like a cross between a nervous giggle and a bird’s shrill mating call. His mother is unalarmed; he does that sometimes. I hold his skinny flailing arms like tree branches, securing them away from my blades. I don’t tell him it is my first time holding a boy’s hand. I dust off the hairs that had fallen on his tee shirt. I lift his collar and sweep my hand under it to dislodge trapped hairs. I brush my hand over his chest and feel his heartbeat. I don’t tell him it is my first time touching a boy’s chest, too. I bend near his ear and whisper I love you, the three words I never attempted. I try my best to mean it without sounding sappy, which is hard especially how normal- looking people are called by the duty of their normalness to dispense compassion and hugs to those who are less normal looking. He looks up from Michael Jackson’s bleached face and moves his slanted lips. He starts to stammer. Far, far, far, he says. And then he coughs. Far-cough, far-cough. He leaves it hanging in midair. He contorts his mouth again. He scrunches his face like a paper ball of rejected ideas. He says the same thing again, unable to continue on from either the lack of vocabulary or in obedience to his disease. He sounds like an enthusiastic parrot. His mother scrambles from her chair and lands her hand across his mouth. Her bright red nails give him the illusion of lipstick. Annie turns off her hairdryer and the monotonous reading of the weather report can now be heard from the radio. Mrs. Tan, who usually closes her eyes meditatively when her hair is being blown, is currently awake. Her frizzy hair looks as if a speeding train had just gone past her. Shut the hell up, the mother orders Ni Hao. She apologizes to me again, this time more profusely. Something is different about Ni Hao’s eyes. The collar of his shirt is dragged and yawning. His arms are pink from handling. It is apparently four degrees in Seoul, minus-six degrees in St. Petersburg, and minus-seven in Oslo. TLR
According to the weatherman, it is thirty-four degrees outside the salon. But inside, under my face, I know it is much warmer. I have a baboonâ€™s ass on my cheeks. Pardon Ni Haoâ€™s dirty mouth, I am told. He likes the f-word.
Lisa Ortiz The Drawer Marked Meats
A bedtime story about Bluebeard all the wives on meat hooks then wake up and the house is dark. Fear is a gift from motherâ€” the way she grabbed our collar bones, said: get inside. We had the house to ourselves, kept our eyes glued to the television set. Our hearts we put in the ice box not like psychopaths but like poets to preserve the crimson imagery the slender metaphor
of love and its chambers. In the middle of the night we open the door, and the light goes on when weâ€™re so hungry and the cold red beating is all there is to eat.
Medusa in the Kitchen
Judge me if you want by my appearance, my hair, my scandalous birth. We all have issues; I’m not defensive. So my Sub-Zero dual door makes you sweat with envy? How, you think, does she have time to keep up with those windows? Mostly it’s a hassle—the snakes that get loose, the way I must avoid my own reflection in the stainless. But I make the time. Not balance but choices. I get headaches. The stress. I dream of Hercules and Perseus, the way I will be found in bed. Other women dream of love and wash away loneliness with wine. Me, I dream of vengeance, scrub my loneliness to the quick with a wire brush.
What we don’t know won’t kill us. In the end, why I keep tapping the meter why I can’t stop saying the lines: in the end a winged horse.
Nothing else and then one in the hand or too much and cookies all the same eaten in the pitch of night from this crinkling package and you are the only thing up but the sorrowful moon and this row of sorrowful cookies. And all those that have come before: cold with warm milk, warm with cold milkâ€”a cookie stolen or won as a prize or given instead of a prize or one frosted and eaten in front of you: rows and rows of spiteful holiday cookiesâ€”and you are above and beyond cookies what you want is a martini or two or a martini with two cookies submerged on a yellow toothpick not soggy but crisp still on the inside TLR
a little bitter on the outside sweetness on your dark parts darkness on your bitter parts and you will be an old woman a husk of yourself on the street or in the corner of your daughterâ€™s house and what is the weight in the end of milk and butter, chocolate and almonds twelve minutes in a hot oven? Oh, dunk it in whatever you find before youâ€” a cup on somebodyâ€™s counter milk dried at the rim: the frosted awe of two sugared hungry lips.
Line-Maria Lång Doll Translated from Danish by Thomas E. Kennedy
Yesterday Britta fell on the asphalt. She was going to look at the little birds and give them some goodies with Barbie. Barbie was never called Barbie. Barbie’s name was Charlotte like another one of Britta’s dolls. It could pee-pee when you gave it something to drink through the little opening of its pouty mouth. Charlotte couldn’t do that, but that was okay. Charlotte had a boyfriend and all that. They fucked when they’d been to a party. Snip snap and her dress was off. She was a bad girl who didn’t wear panties. They were too much fuss. Britta and Charlotte had gotten into some trouble. Britta had cut her knee, and Charlotte twisted her head out of joint. There was already a clot on her knee. Britta liked to nibble on the scab. She was a bit of a cannibal. Charlotte had been taken care of. Her hair was set, and she wore a pink riding suit and rubber helmet and carried a little plastic whip. There was plenty to do. They had to go out to the fold and say hi to the horsies that were corralled in the rubbish room. And there were the tweetie birds to see. They also had to take care of Charlotte’s make-up before she went to the gala with He-man at the Magic Pony Castle. Britta had birdseeds with her, and she squeezed them tight. Mom would soon have dinner ready, and they also needed time to eat. The birds wouldn’t come down and perch on their hands. Charlotte frightened them. She thought she was a bird herself and flew high toward the tops of the trees but fell and landed with a thud in
Original title is “Dukke” from Rat King, Copenhagen: Rosinante Publishers, 2009.
the grass. It tickled in her nostrils. The flowers stretched toward them and the birds could be heard but not seen. Charlotte begged to have her earrings on, but there was no use in that. The earrings were home, and she had to put on her evening dress. This was no good. Charlotte wept heartbreakingly and wound her thin legs around Britta’s arm. Her blond hair-do collapsed, and she began to tear at her riding jacket so the buttons flew open. “I want a white horse!” That’s how it was with Charlotte. There was always something she wanted. At one point it was a baby, so they got hold of pregnant Barbie, but that wasn’t good enough. Charlotte started taking Baby from Barbie’s stomach and was happy for a little while, but then she grew bored with Baby. Now pregnant Barbie and Baby were in the garment bag. Britta hugged Charlotte and they could hear the horsies whinny. That helped. Charlotte was a little bit cross because the other Charlotte’s birthday was today, and Britta had baked a cake for her and everything. Even if cake wasn’t so good for Charlotte, she only liked it on her own birthday. Now they could hear Mother shouting. They hid and giggled. It wasn’t so bad. At home Charlotte had the most beautiful golden stones, which fit perfectly into the holes in her head. They could hear Mother getting closer. Mother was beautiful. Mother was slim and had no wrinkles. She never wore an apron, although she made dinner every day. Mother called Britta honey and sweetheart. But Mother called Mother, Mother, even when she spoke about herself and what Mother did. “You’ve been out long enough today. Dinner is almost ready, honey.” She had seen them. Otherwise she wouldn’t be looking directly at them. She wouldn’t be calm. Mother always got nervous if she didn’t know where you were and shouted “Yoo hoo!” to be heard. Mother reached out, and they walked home hand in hand, the three of them. Mother’s quick-fry vegetables would soon be done, and Charlotte and Britta played hide-and-seek. Mother’s eyes were watching the food and Britta on the floor, but she was calm. She was glad that Britta rarely wanted to hold a birthday for her dolls and bake pear-soy-oatmeal cake. It had also been long since Britta had played her spider web game. That involved all of the furniture being spread around the house and then wound up in yarn, from the chairs in the kitchen to the headboard of Mother’s bed. The princess game hadn’t been played either, where Britta wore the gold-plated candelabra on her head. Then she walked around balancing it like 96
an African water jug. She was also fat because she had dressed in all the clothes she could find. Even Father’s clothes from the basement. Mother had been surprised the first time that happened. She didn’t have any kind of Mother face that quite fit that situation. Father died in the courtyard alongside the washroom at ten minutes after three. The ambulance came too late, and he didn’t have any more breath. Then they bought a washing machine so Mother and Britta never had to go down there. All of Father’s things were placed in the cellar. Britta was allowed to go down there and play, but Mother was quite disturbed and sad when Britta came up with Father’s pants tied around her waist, even if she had them on over ten skirts and her Cinderella costume. Mother was glad that Britta didn’t understand that. Britta had become a big girl, and mother had her one hand free again so she didn’t have to chase Britta through the whole house dragging the frying pan, the laptop, or the toilet paper with her. Britta and Charlotte could eat a lot. They also wanted to have banana sandwiches in their room. They remembered that the children’s shows soon started on TV, but first they had to go to the Ball with He-man who luckily also loved banana sandwiches in the late afternoon. Charlotte was ready to be picked up in the wagon that was pulled by the helpful ponies. First she had taken a swim in the pool, and her hair was still wet. A drop was still in her one eye and rolled down her face. She was moved. He-man received her with his sword drawn as a gesture, and his body-painted clothes were tight on his muscular body. Charlotte was wearing a long, pink satin dress with a tulle skirt and cute matching high heels. The glittering earrings looked beautiful dangling on her shoulders. Her eyes were wide open in anticipation. The badminton pony received her, and from its rump rose small clouds of rackets. He-man embraced her before they sat at the table. The banana sandwiches were served on one of the shining doors that had long ago fallen off. They ate their fill and then they danced. The ponies flew and sprang around them, and He-man wrapped his arm around Charlotte and led her. Then Charlotte had to change into a naughty pink silk nightgown with a single clasp at the throat. He-man wore a cloak he could remove and Charlotte lay right under him. Her breasts were of precisely equal size and the skin was smooth over her whole body. She smiled at him when he began to lift himself up and down over her. It was too bad that the magnetic cover attachment from pregnant Barbie’s stomach had been lost.
Kelli Russell Agodon She Says What an Amazing Lamp
She says her children burn brighter because she reads to them when they are sleeping. Their placemats are laminated craters of the moon, Da Vinci’s Proportions of Man, a map of Mesopotamia. She says even breakfast should be educational, even dinner, even lunch. There isn’t a good reason why every child shouldn’t have a relationship with Mesopotamia; one shekel equals twenty-four chickpeas. Chickpeas, she says. She says stay-at-home moms are happier, having more sex, and happier. She highlights happy
with a yellow pen, a sunlamp, a shimmer. She says what an amazing lamp, amazing you get anything done with all your hobbies, better to be busy than buried, she says. She says her husband likes her spinach lasagna and she likes to please the neighbors with her begonias. She has organized her children by size and weight, organized their toys by IQ level. She says she’s sorry about the miscarriage, the stillbirth, the vasectomy, the tied tubes, the hysterectomy. Sorry about your stilted family or your decision not to
have more—a vanload, a warren of children, a litter of kids. She says there are many stars where the bulbs burn out. She says in Scandinavia, Sirius is known as Loki’s torch, but don’t try to remember that, just that it glows. No lamps, no plugs.
Large Optimistic Bowl
I found it at a flea market, holding words: trust, ripe, faith in green paint. And though it was chipped, the side having lost a small piece of moon, I thought, No matter, nothing is perfect— life, fruit, bowls —and brought it home. On the table, my daughter filled it with Chinese lanterns, my husband dropped in his keys, his iPod, his long lapsed Catholic soul.
And I wondered what else would fit? A bag of oranges, the ashes of my father, Buddha’s hands curling up as if he believed there was nothing more he could hold.
The Gynecologist Imagines Another Life
He says the scenery doesn’t change in the Northwest, all the evergreens lining the roadways and the playgrounds, they’re on every corner. He says, Slide a little lower down the table. There, he says, you’re perfect. He says he’s growing tomatoes, but can’t recognize the Beefsteak from the Boondocks from the Brandywine. Everything looks the same, he says. He says he always wanted to be a gardener, how he loves to put his hands in the soil. He says he always wanted to be a kind of god, creating anything from nothing. He says the clamps are cold, but he’ll warm them up. He says he’s going crazy with this weather—This heat! —But it’s good for the tomatoes, he says. TLR
With his hand inside me, he tilts his head as if he’s elsewhere, tells me he’s always wanted to go to Belize. He says he dreams about his next vacation. He touches my abdomen. Says, Try not to be so tense. He says we should all have adventures in life, see new things. He asks if I’m comfortable then tells me he saw Peru once, A woman on the street gave me a tomato the size of my face. He says the music was haunting. It’s the charango, he says. Then adds, I wished I learned to play the guitar. He’s learned to make salsa with his tomatoes and cilantro from his neighbor’s yard. He says it’s almost perfect when he turns on Spanish radio and watches the satellites through the evergreens. Still, he says, I have regrets.
Matt Bell Xarles, Xavier, Xenos
And all around me, only disappointment: Only my house, slowly sinking into the ever-muddying earth. Only my horses, my one remaining milk-cow, lying together upon their sides, moaning in the swamp of our fields. Only my crops, my huskbarren corn plants unable to grow past my kneecaps. Only my son, with his gray skin and strange skull, his cleft-lisped voice, his useless hands making the arts and crafts his mother taught him as all around us our world sinks into an earth suddenly less solid, less able to keep us above its porous skin. While I spend my days adding new supports to our house, burying new beams in search of solid ground, this son—this boy I no longer wish to claim—he makes portraits of his mother with the cheap watercolors we bought him as a child. He paints her eyes wrong, colors her hair black instead of blond, and so every night I take away his papers and throw them into the puddle of our yard. Every night, I tell him, Again you didn’t paint her right. I say, Nothing better to do all day, and still you can’t remember your mother’s face. I say, All our house surrounded by this new swamp, this mad earth that swallowed our neighbors, that sucked deep your mother, when you would not set down your dolls to save her. This world has taken everything from me, and still there is you, sitting here doing nothing, while I have to farm, to herd, to build the struts and floats keeping our house atop this shivering earth. TLR
I say, What use is a son, if he is a son like you? Oh, and the hurt in his eyes! So unfair he thinks me, so cruel! Perhaps so, but in no less measure than he deserves, when even after this speech he only puts away his paints to pick up his clay, ready to begin another set of misshapen family figurines, another pairing of plump mothers and tiny crack-chested fathers. What tears when I smash them with my fist, when I crush their bodies upon our food-bare table! What good tears, so that he might get them out, so that without them he might become the man I want him to be! For another week, I come in from the fields each night to pull down his construction-paper mobiles, to wreck his finger paintings, his collages cut from our family photo albums. For another week, I indulge his teenage wastefulness, and then I say no more. Then I say, Follow me. With my rifle in my hands, I say this. On our porch—warped atop this land of mud-paths and quick-muck—I put my hand on his shoulder. I put my hand on his shoulder, and then I take it off. I say, I have decided I would rather have no son than have you. I say, I will give you a fifty-yard head start, and then I will shoot just once. If you aren’t killed, then good luck to you. My sensitive son, always he cries! So unfair, he says. So wrong to do this to your own child, no matter what our differences, sending him out into a world unstable and wet, where who knows which paths might lead to safety, and which to sinking death? I say, You don’t know, but I do. I know which paths, because I have tread them every day, growing what crops might grow, caring for what horse and cow might scrape by even now. You have done none of these things, even when asked, even when I wished to teach you to be the man that I am, and so you do not know the world outside our walls, outside the confines of your stupid and strange head. I say, I have never liked you. Not when you were a baby, and not now, when you are less than a man. I say, I do not want to kill you, but I suppose I want a chance at it. Just to see what this thing I have dreamed for so long might feel like. And then I kick him off the porch, and then I tell him to run. I wait until he reaches the sycamore slanted at the edge of my once-yard, slanted 106
as crooked as his own limping run, his body pulled this way and that by his heavy head, and then I raise the rifle. I pull the trigger, glorious despite all this awful world left for me to live in all alone, and then I am no longer disappointed, for at least this moment: the short blaze of a muzzle flash, the uncertain flight of a bullet, the razor-edge of chance between one bad outcome and another.
Buddhadeva Bose Makhanlal’s Sad Tale Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha
Let’s call him Makhanlal. As the name suggests, he was an ordinary, average kind of fellow, but he was held in high esteem at home. For he was the first college graduate in his family. His grandfather had had seven sons, those seven sons had borne another thirty-two, and who knew how many more those thirty-two had produced— it hadn’t quite ended yet. But not one of these tall and able specimens of masculinity had gotten past that barrier of school yet; some had tried and tripped. There was no end to Hiranmayee’s—Makhanlal’s mother’s—unhappiness about this; she needled her plump husband, Raghab, so much about it, at every opportunity, that the man couldn’t say a word in retaliation. Both of her elder brothers had B.A. degrees, she herself had read up to class nine at the Nilfamari Girls’ High School. So the day her first child—and first son—Makhanlal was born, she vowed to ensure that he earned a B.A. Fulfilling her pledge hadn’t been easy. The atmosphere at home was imbued with the somnolence of the orthodox landowning classes. For generations it had not occurred to anyone that they might have to work for a living, so no one was too concerned with drinking from the fount of learning. And while their affluence had certainly diminished, the attitude had prevailed; the menfolk still lazed their way through the day, bathing at two in the afternoon, luxuriously eating their luncheon off plates surrounded by several bowls of delicacies, and then happily, serenely, embracing their bolsters in readiness for their naps. This siesta was a family tradition, Excerpted from My Kind of Girl, to be published this fall by Archipelago Books.
and they had not abandoned it despite their having become paupers. The dearth of money certainly hurt, but the pain of earning it was even more intense. Hiranmayee’s Raghab spent his days in this way, and would have continued to do so, had Hiranmayee not vowed that her son would earn a college degree. Languishing at the family residence in the country wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t. So as soon as Makhanlal passed his school examinations at the village school, she goaded her husband into moving to Calcutta. As agreeing was the easiest option, Raghab acquiesced; in the process, he gradually had to give up his aristocratic habit of indolence. Soon after arriving in Calcutta, he liquidated some capital to set up a small shop in Bhabanipur. Needless to say, this too was at his wife’s advice. Hiranmayee had finally convinced him that they wouldn’t be able to keep body and soul together much longer if they kept reliving the memories of their landowning days. Investing her brains and her jewelry— which was of course her husband’s capital—she provided him with a business to run. It soon became a thriving carpentry shop; Raghab was interested in woodwork, and had even built some furniture with his own hands. So although he started reluctantly, gradually his work became his passion. The one thing he couldn’t give up was his siesta, but barring those two or three hours, the rest of his day was spent at the shop. The goddess of wealth looked upon him favorably because of this diligence, and her favor made him even more hardworking. Within a couple of years, a new establishment was born: the South Calcutta Furnishing House. Raghab had wanted Makhanlal to get involved with the running of the shop from the beginning, to immerse himself, learn the ways of the trade, become familiar with the smell, the touch, the colors of wood. As the workload increased with the growth of his business, he was increasingly eager for his eldest son to begin helping him. Wasn’t the intermediate degree enough—why go further? What good would a college degree do? The business star was in ascendance; if this good fortune wasn’t made use of right now, what if it gave them the slip? Wasted logic! Even if everything was lost, Makhanlal had to get his degree. The day they received news of Makhanlal’s having passed that hallowed B.A. examination, you can imagine Hiranmayee’s joy. Her dream of twenty-one years had finally come true. So pleased was she that her happiness gave birth to an impulsive proposal: she said, “I want to get him married.” Strange, isn’t it? Does anyone believe, today, that a B.A. is the only qualification required for marriage? A mere college graduate, Makhanlal was no more than a boy. How could he get married! But there was nothing strange about it as far as Hiranmayee was concerned. First, this was a family tradition—not one of her uncles or her father had crossed TLR
eighteen without marrying. Even if you were modern when it came to education, you remained traditional where marriage was concerned. Theirs was an affluent household, and a bride would only make their cup of joy brim over. And the boy wasn’t one of those typical, bespectacled midgets—just see how handsome he was. Yes, he was indeed handsome—there was no denying this. I know—knew— Makhanlal very well; at twenty-one he was a burly, powerful giant who looked thirtytwo. Large and ungainly, he had prominent teeth, a manly, hair-covered chest, enormous shoes that caused great consternation when they were sighted lying around. Seeing as he could easily pass for a father of three, it didn’t seem suitable for him not to be married. Moreover, the bride was already at hand: Subhadra-babu was their next-door neighbor, and Hiranmayee had picked his daughter out a while ago. Was the reason her beauty or her father’s wealth, you ask? Neither. Subhadra-babu was a semiimpoverished college professor, and the girl—I heard the details from Makhanlal— was not exactly what you would call beautiful. But the learning! The father was a scholar and Malati—the girl’s name was Malati—was no less of one herself. Having earned three stars in her final school examinations, she was now in college, apparently glued to a book even during her meals. And what an assortment of books all over their house, my God, had anyone ever seen the likes of it? It could be said without the slightest exaggeration that Hiranmayee had never seen so many books with anyone in her own family, that was for certain. Her husband’s ancestral home contained the smallest library in the entire village; no reading habit had taken root. Her Makhanlal followed in this mold; whether he had a college degree or not, he had not cracked a single book. Their family was truly peculiar. Perhaps the idea of choosing a bride on the basis of her collection of books sounds unusual, but as you’ve probably realized, this was where Hiranmayee’s weakness lay. If the family disposition was to change, a bride from a scholarly family was essential—this was Hiranmayee’s reasoning. In other words, just as she had attracted the goddess of wealth through the bait of wood, now she wanted to use the lure of a bookish daughter-in-law to attract the goddess of learning. Their backgrounds were beautifully compatible—why not get it over with in July, she decided. November was still a long way off. Laying out an elaborate meal for her husband, she broached the subject. Raghab was amenable but for a different reason: a big fat dowry would enable him to expand his business. Hiranmayee dismissed the idea at once, saying, “If destiny wills, the money will come on its own—why should you have to beg for it?” 110
“No, no, it’s not a question of begging, just that . . . Avinash-babu was saying the other day . . .” “Who’s Avinash-babu?” “His shop is next door to mine.” “The liquor shop? Ugh—a wine seller’s daughter?” “Not exactly a wine seller, his background is different. Seems interested, too. Maybe you could take a look at the girl—it would make sense all around . . .” “Enough. I’m the one who’s done all the thinking for you—don’t get in the way now.” “As you please. But will a professor’s son-in-law still be interested in running a shop?” “Is that what’s worrying you? My Makhan isn’t like that. I can promise you he will take over the responsibility for our family very soon.” Hiranmayee turned to her son. “Well? I hope you agree?” Makhanlal had been eating next to his father. He paused at this question. He said nothing and, looking very solemn, only lowered his face and started to trace patterns on his plate. The answer was obvious, you could see as much; shoulders that were broad enough to support the entire family were not going to find it troublesome to bear the responsibility of a slender young woman. Are you wondering whether there’s a history to this? Yes, there is. Mother Nature never spares us from her wiles—even he, so powerfully built, with his broad, hair-covered chest, cannot prevent a tiny flower from budding within. The thing is, Makhan ran into Malati virtually every day. “Ran into” is perhaps the wrong way of putting it; he could see her every day. Their neighbors’ inner veranda was visible from his room, and there was hardly a day when a light breeze clad in a sari didn’t lead Makhanlal’s mind to wander. Of course, like a true gentleman—or perhaps in embarrassment—he averted his eyes immediately, though not without stealing a glance or two. Sometimes Malati would bring a cane chair with her to the veranda. She seemed supremely oblivious to the fact that someone close by was watching her, or could be watching her—she sat there and read, laughed, spoke loudly, hummed songs with her brothers and sisters. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to stare at a lady, but if the lady chose to present herself before you all the time, you weren’t expected to gouge out your own eyes, were you? Many a time Makhanalal was not even aware of what he was gazing at, but the moment Malati left the veranda for her room, he realized why his eyes had been roving. And was it just the eyes? Had the heart beneath his wide breast not been beating faster too? TLR
This was the history. Hardly anything—and yet, was it entirely insignificant? Makhanlal, you’ve guessed correctly, was a bit of a simpleton; unlike the quick-witted city boys, he had not acquired a great deal of the knowledge of certain subjects they had learned of at an early age, precocious fellows. He was happy to be able to see Malati, indeed he felt as though he really knew her. Did he know that in Malati’s universe her well-built neighbor did not even exist? Did he think about it? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but when he did think of her, it wasn’t as anyone other than an intimate. Hence he was not very surprised at his mother’s proposal—nor was he overjoyed, accepting it as inevitable. He even drafted out in his mind that first night in bed, how he would talk to her; how he would conduct himself with the occupant of the next-door veranda when she became occupant of his life. His first question would be: did you ever see me from your veranda? What would her reply be? A day or two later, Hiranmayee got down to business. After lunch she changed into a mint-fresh sari with a red border, marked the vermilion on her forehead so it was a little more prominent, popped a paan into her mouth, and headed off to the professor’s home. When she returned, her smile had been wiped out; nor was any other kind of pleasant expression displayed on the mouth that had earlier consumed paan so happily. Raghab was home napping, as it was siesta time. But this day, his age-old habit was broken. From his room, Makhanlal could hear only the sound of his mother’s voice speaking continuously, occasionally interrupted by the sound of his father’s soft comments—but every time she raised her voice, he could hear what she was saying. “What? Shopkeeper! Shopkeeper’s son! And what do they have to be so pompous about? Professor? And how much does he earn, anyway? All our property, all those boats, all those celebrations—have they ever seen anything like that? No. They didn’t even give me a hearing. ‘We’re not thinking of her marriage yet, she’s still a child!’ Child indeed! How much more of a tomboy will they let her become? Like him? My son is as good as anyone else. Hasn’t he got a college degree? Isn’t he a good boy? Does he lack for food and clothing? Where will they find a more suitable boy? She’s so dark, what prince will take her away on his golden steed? They were so fortunate that I . . . oh!” It was the same story over and over again. Raghab probably fell asleep, and Makhanlal gave up trying to listen. But he could still hear his mother speaking, on into the afternoon, for quite a while longer. Hiranmayee smarted under the insult for a few days. The added injury was that as much as she wanted to get her son married, she wanted even more for him to 112
have Malati as his bride. “I told them, ‘If you’d like Malati to continue studying, we’ll take care of it, a daughter-in-law with a B.A. would be a matter of pride, we have no demands by way of dowry,’ but they didn’t even entertain the idea. Oh my God, their arrogance. But why—may I know why? Is it because they eat their pathetic meals at a table?” “Oh, please be quiet, Ma!” Makhanlal protested, in a low voice. “The houses are so close to each other, what if someone hears?” “Let them,” Hiranmayee moved toward the professor’s veranda and raised her voice a few decibels more. “Am I scared of them? Am I going to beg them for this? Huh, I have such a wonderfully eligible boy in my son, what do I have to worry about? Take my word for it, Makhan, a day will come when they will burst with envy when they look at you. I guarantee it.” The storm continued thus for a few more days, then the topic of Makhanlal’s marriage faded gradually. Avinash-babu, the liquor-shop owner, got his daughter married off by July, and many other virgin foreheads were touched by vermilion, but the subject of the marriage of Mr. Makhanlal Ghosh, B.A., and his special ability to shoulder the responsibility of a wife never even came up. Certainly there was no lack of unmarried girls in Bengal that year, but despite all her talk Hiranmayee just didn’t take the initiative. Why not? Couldn’t she have gotten a wonderful bride for her son and astonished the professor’s family? Would that not have been her natural response? Certainly. Just why she behaved to the contrary, I cannot say. Had she really imagined she would be able to wreak some kind of extraordinary revenge on that scholarly family? There was no indication this would ever be realized. A month went by, two months; not out of a sense of courtesy, or even out of mere neighborliness, did the professor’s wife pay Hiranmayee and her family a visit, although Hiranmayee had visited them a few times now. The veranda remained as uncaring as before. There were still gusts of laughter, the flash of a sari, but Makhanlal no longer looked her way. You think it was out of grief? No; Makhanlal possessed that singular virtue of not understanding grief or rejection. The truth was, he had no time. He woke in the morning, ate a frugal breakfast and went off to the shop, came home for lunch and took a brief rest, then went off to the shop again, only returning late in the evening. He had taken most of his father’s responsibilities on his own broad shoulders. Practically all of them, actually. His enthusiasm was matched by his enterprise, and if he lacked for a brain in that great big head of his, he compensated for it with sheer hard work. I saw him back then, working like a horse, shuttling between different TLR
places in town. When did he have the time to think of the talented daughter of the erudite professor? No, he did not have the time for this. Only, he felt a little uncomfortable whenever he passed the professor’s house on his way in and out of his own home. Suddenly he felt he was too tall, too fat; maybe his clothes were dirty, his gait and posture terrible. The pro-
Perhaps it was destiny —or was it his mother’s blessings?— but anything he touched seemed to trigger an avalanche of money.
fessor’s drawing room was on the ground floor, by the road—try as he might, Makhanlal could not resist stealing a glance every once in a while. Did he see anything? Nothing, only a blurred hint of something behind the curtains. Sometimes the curtains would part by chance, and then he could see . . . an unknown world. In the house Makhanlal had known since birth, everything was unkempt; even clean meant half dirty. But here was a well-decorated room, in it a gracious welcome: paintings on the walls, rows of books. A different world altogether. Laughter, snatches of conversation, perhaps the flash of a sari. Some days it would so happen that Makhanlal’s feet refused to move, at that moment. The heart within his muscular chest beat a little faster; suddenly the carpentry shop, that hand-run printing, all felt as dry as wood, as anemic as paper. But whenever he felt that way, he lengthened his stride, ran to catch his tram, and forgot everything in the rush of work. It was the middle of the second year of the Second World War. There was a feast of money in the interiors of the supply offices, you could smell it in the air. Like many others, Makhanlal headed toward it—maybe a little apprehensively, but the returns were undoubtedly beyond his wildest expectations. It helped that he looked older than his years; maybe his powerful frame evoked trust, or perhaps he had more staying power. Whatever the reason, he succeeded in getting a lot of quick orders through contacts and persuasion. And then when Japan joined the war in winter, it simply—but all of you know what happened . . . . It was an amazing time. There were no people in Calcutta, you couldn’t add another person to Calcutta, Calcutta bombed, thousands of people dying on the pavement. The two-paise stuff cost twelve annas; neither rice nor sugar, coal nor salt was to be found; all you could get was khaki, jobs, and a bounty of easy cash. It seems 114
amazing to think about it now, and it seemed as amazing back then to Makhanlal. Perhaps it was destiny—or was it his mother’s blessings?—but anything he touched seemed to trigger an avalanche of money. A fortune in quick cash was to be made by supplying material to the armed forces. He used to get practically a porter’s load of cash, he couldn’t fit it into his pocket; the notes were bundled up in newspapers and deposited in the bank. Every day he’d deposit more money, write out fat checks, and somehow the days, weeks, months, and years went by. He had lost track of day and night when one morning he discovered he had become a millionaire. Really. Where there used to be a small shop in a lane, there was now a huge factory, a showroom on the main road. Makhanlal was now the provenance of a hundred people’s bread and butter. Both his younger brothers quit college to join him at work, and this time Hiranmayee raised no objections. As for Raghab, he was now retired, retired on full pay! His landowner’s spirit soared and thrived on the vast current of his son’s accomplishments; every morning he would buy enormous quantities of food for the day’s meals, then gossip with his wife, enjoy a leisurely lunch sitting on the doorstep of the kitchen, spend the afternoon sleeping and, sometimes, discuss the accounts in detail with Makhanlal at night. Since his son had taken on the responsibility of earning, he had returned to the responsibility of spending. Of both spending and not spending, actually—in other words, how much to spend, how to spend it, how much to save. Raghab was involved in resolving these complex issues, and Hiranmayee’s approval of his participation in their financial planning was so assured that Makhanlal didn’t have to do anything at all in this respect. He didn’t have the time, nor the inclination; brimming over with the impulse of the work itself, he was actually relieved to leave everything to them. Food and clothes were plentiful now— the food even more than the clothes—but even when food prices were going through the roof how much could you eat, and the burden of having a lot of money caused no less worry than the anxiety of not having enough. Appearances remained unchanged, however, still stamped with the untidiness of poverty: no one would have realized that the family’s earnings had not just doubled or quadrupled, but grown tenfold. You think it was self-discipline? Not exactly, though perhaps they had not indulged in small luxuries, preserving their riches for large-scale displays of affluence. For securities held their faith! Raghab kept buying up land, not to mention Hiranmayee’s gold and jewelry purchases. Soon, it was time to arrange the daughters’ marriages. Very soon for the elder one, if traditional norms were to be applied, though as for the younger girl, Hiranmayee’s second vow was to get her through college as well. She would be the mother of not just a son with a B.A. degree, but also TLR
a daughter with a B.A. degree. “Let them see, let them realize we’re no less when it comes to academics.” Them, of course, referred to the next-door neighbors, and mostly to the vain wife of the professor. Learned your lesson? If only you had agreed to the marriage, your daughter would have lived like a queen, my son’s a millionaire now. Hiranmayee had been going so far as to send news of their good fortune through the shared domestic help; she didn’t once forget to inform them of her family’s wealth. Certainly not on the day Raghab purchased a half-finished house in Ballygunge. Her messages reached their recipients, but the professor’s family never broke its silence. Their obliviousness to their neighbors equaled Hiranmayee’s inability to forget about hers. Strange was her competitiveness, extraordinary her desire for vengeance. It was now said that the professor’s household could no longer afford meals. Perhaps this is what happens when the gods smile on you; even Hiranmayee’s desire to lay waste to her neighbors’ self-sufficiency was almost fulfilled. Very pleased to hear this, she recounted the story to her son in great detail. It was certainly a story to be recounted. The professor had apparently not received his salary for six months; his obscure college had never paid salaries properly. They’d pay eighty and extract a receipt for two fifty. So never mind the airs and graces now, the professor’s family was actually bankrupt. He’d survived on private tuitions and writing guidebooks. Now that there was a shortage of paper, nobody was publishing guidebooks anymore, and with everyone getting jobs left, right, and center, who needed a private tutor? Apparently things had come to such a pass that . . . Having listened silently till this point, Makhanlal asked, “How did you come to know all this?” “Well, Harimati does the dishes at their home too. Yesterday she was saying she can’t continue there—after all, these poor people all do this work for a living, if they don’t get paid . . . Never mind servants, apparently they don’t even get provisions every day—and the girl is supposed to take her exams this year, the fees have to be paid . . .” Here the dutiful son Makhanlal may have said something to the effect of, why discuss other people’s affairs; maybe he made an even softer protest. Hiranmayee changed her tune immediately, “You’re right, of course, what business is it of mine— just that I was thinking of the girl, she couldn’t get married and now she can’t take her exams, so what I’m saying is, enough of educational lessons, if you agree I can organize a different kind of lesson!” 116
Thickheaded Makhanlal was unable to read between the lines of this subtle proposition, so she elaborated. “Should I sound out the professor’s wife? I’m sure they’ll be gratified if we so much as throw a bone their way!” Her face suffused with a victorious smile, she looked at her son; but Makhanlal’s normally grave face looked almost stern, and he left without saying a word, only muttering “Ridiculous!” under his breath as he left. It wasn’t entirely clear for whom the comment was intended. He was late getting home that night. As he passed the professor’s house he suddenly remembered what his mother had said. Pausing, he raised his head to look at the house. Dark—except for a light in a first-floor room where a fan whirred, its huge, dark shadow moving around the wall at regular intervals. This was all that could be seen—nothing else. His mother was probably wrong on all counts, they seemed just fine. At least, this was what Makhanlal tried to believe. But how much could you make out looking into a first-floor window from the street? A small thorn embedded itself in Makhanlal’s breast. It would prick him every now and then. Were the neighbors really in such a bad way? No, no, all this was his mother’s imagination! She loved to think they were in trouble, she was troubled by needless envy—so she exaggerated and dreamed things up. But what if she were right? She could be, couldn’t she? But what business was it of his, what could he do, what was there for him to do—nothing, nothing. There was nothing for him to do, even if, right next door, they were—assuming his mother was right—short of food and clothing; he would not be able to do anything despite his largesse, which exceeded all needs or expectations. Makhanlal’s thoughts pained him in a strange way and made him angry with himself—am I like my mother, am I not able to forget about them either? Meanwhile the turmoil of the war continued, day after day, month after month. It seemed the war wouldn’t end during this lifetime. But where was the hurry: how many times did people get the opportunity to make money, especially Bengalis! And meanwhile, Raghab plunged himself heart and soul into the Ballygunge house: raw material was bought at controlled prices, and the contractor assured him that the work would be completed in four months. The ungainly appearance of their home, the lack of striking furniture—Hiranmayee wanted revenge three times over for all of this too. Brand new beds, tables, chairs, and wardrobes, made to measure according to the dimensions of each of the rooms, were being built at their own factory. Makhanlal bought teak at sky-high prices, and poached craftsmen from Park Street TLR
pledging double wages. Yes, Makhanlal joined his parents’ enthusiasm, their “conspiracy” against what they had been—not exactly out of choice, what option did he have? The good thing was that his workload increased. Come hither, O work! You’re the savior of the hapless soul who has nothing else in his life, who has gathered no riches of the mind. Makhanlal was now in such a state that he was relieved only when he had pushed through the train of actions and thoughts that made up the day to the deep sleep of midnight. All he wanted from the day was that it should go by. Some days passed without a bath or a meal—he neither noticed nor cared. But Hiranmayee noticed, and rebuked her son in a suitably affectionate manner. How long would his health last like this, how could someone who needed to move around so much not get himself a car? Hadn’t Tarapada down the street spoken of a car? “Couldn’t get it, Ma.” “Hah! Not get it once you’ve decided you want it?” “Never mind, I’m doing all right without one.” “This is a terrible habit of yours, get others all they want, but be a miser when it comes to yourself. How can people take those crowded buses these days!” “Everyone does, Ma! Even girls.” “Girls! Don’t talk to me about girls. They’re not girls anymore—every last one of them has become male. Bags slung across their shoulders—they’re a sight, each of them. Oh, by the way, the professor’s daughter has got her B.A. and found herself a job. The father is going to live off his daughter now.” As soon as this subject came up, Makhanlal sidled away, and started shaving before the mirror. But Hiranmayee followed him and said, almost to herself, “How does it feel? It’s hurting now—oh, if only I’d agreed to her marriage then—if only I’d known—so why not come out and say it?” Hiranmayee inevitably found her way back to the same issue over and over again. A few days later, Makhanlal was on his way back from Dum Dum in a taxi when he stopped at a red light by the governor’s residence. It was nearly evening, closing time at offices; even looking at the buses made you afraid. Three or four girls stood on the pavement, on their way home from their offices. How could they take a tram—would they even be able to? Why worry about all this, they did it every day, they were used to it. But Makhanlal glanced at them again. This time it seemed—perhaps it had earlier too—one of the faces was familiar. Yes, it was she—the professor’s daughter. The taxi had stopped close to the curb and Makhanlal could see her clearly; 118
he had never seen her so close. Malati was looking at the road hopelessly. Her face wore the gracefulness of fatigue: weariness seemed to suit her beautifully. Makhanlal glanced at her, then at the empty space on the seat beside him—twice or thrice her glance came his way, but never once did their eyes meet. Should he call her? But how would he address her? And would . . . would it be right? What if she was offended, what if she said . . . What if she said nothing . . . But . . . While he vacillated, the red light turned to green, the taxi started moving; that hopeless anticipation Malati and those other girls had, of taking a tram, was left behind. Makhanlal had been headed home, but he suddenly changed his route and went off to Chitpur, to pick out a mirror for their dressing table, for their new home. Several months went by. Raghab had almost finished building the house, the furniture was ready; all that remained was to choose an auspicious day to move in. Hiranmayee was busy inspecting everything they owned, selling off useless stuff, trading in old saris for aluminum utensils, distributing worn-out clothes to the needy. Still, there were all these ancient trunks from her father-in-law’s time, the paint had worn off, some of the locks had broken, but they were very strong. One morning she was wondering what to do with them, when her youngest daughter Lakshmi ran up and told her the police had surrounded their neighbor’s house. “What?” “Yes, Ma, the police—and lots of people. Come and take a look!” Lakshmi tugged at her mother’s hand, but this was unnecessary. This was, after all, something everyone had to witness, not just children but also adults. Especially Hiranmayee. Her first stop was at her veranda facing the road. There was a small crowd outside the professor’s house, and the policemen’s red headgear was glittering in the sun. The downstairs door was wide open—it appeared to have been smashed in from the outside; some people rushed in, while another man hammered at the professor’s brass nameplate and took it off the wall, throwing it on the road. Hiranmayee looked on, hypnotized. Four porters brought out the professor’s yellow upholstered sofa and put it on the pavement; then came the chairs, then the center table . . . Passersby stopped in their tracks; the balconies and windows of all the nearby houses bore eyes that blazed with curiosity and fearful amusement, perhaps accompanied by a little pity. Hiranmayee’s gaze moved to the veranda inside the professor’s house. From here you could see their veranda too, and images of daily life; you could hear floating snatches of laughter, of music, of the tinkling of the joys of life, all of them oblivious to the neighbors’ existence. TLR
That veranda was now empty and silent. The doors and windows were shut, there didn’t appear to be anyone inside. Harimati had revealed everything to her: the professor’s family owed months and months of rent, and the landlord had now asked for their belongings to be taken by the court. Everything would be dragged away. And then? Would they be dragged out on the roads too—the professor, his wife, their two young children, and that officegoing, graduate daughter? Would the professor be handcuffed in full view of everyone and taken away? Oh dear—really? Poor fellow, how sad, what a scene! “What a scene!” Hiranmayee ran off to tell Makhanlal. “They handcuffed the professor and took him away.” “What!” Calculations of wood, steel, nails, and bolts swirling in his head, Makhanlal was preparing to go to the office when Hiranmayee flew in and gave him details of what had happened. Makhanlal was late leaving for work that day. What he thought when he heard the news, what he felt, I have no idea. As for what happened afterwards, I will recount it the way I heard it from him, with my imagination filling in the gaps. By then, he discovered as he went out to the veranda, many more of the neighbors’ possessions had been dragged out onto the pavement: bookcases stuffed with books, the dining table, a radio, a gramophone, large, framed paintings. Makhanlal took one look and returned to his room. Hiranmayee arrived to continue her litany: “Oh dear, how sad for them, but then how will our worrying about it help, it was fate, and then again, why call it fate if you don’t keep your spending within your limits”—but Makhanlal neither responded to any of this nor looked his mother in the eye. “It’s very odd,” she continued, “there isn’t a trace of anyone at home, have they run away? But then they’ve been living in the neighborhood for so long, they must be embarrassed to be seen . . .” Et cetera, et cetera. When none of this could get her son to break his silence, Hiranmayee asked, hoping for an answer, “Aren’t you going out today?” Makhanlal said, “Hm,” but kept sitting. So Hiranmayee had no choice but to go away, returning to the veranda to continue observing the goings-on. By then it had all become stale. The fresh excitement of the morning had vanished; the curious eyes had disappeared from nearby balconies; the busy morning was under way. Everyone was in a rush to get to work, to get the cooking done; staring with your mouth open at someone else’s affairs wouldn’t get you to the office, and how long could you gape, anyway. Besides, this would obviously take a lot more time to wrap up. On the pave-
ment, under the sun, lay the professor’s impotent furniture—the bed with bedclothes still in place, his writing desk, cups and saucers, the electric fan. More was on its way, households didn’t survive on just a handful of things. Hiranmayee decided not to tarry any longer, asking Lakshmi to man the observation post and going off to the kitchen to supervise the cooking. When sympathetic neighbors went back to their own lives, when curiosity was buried under sizzling sounds from kitchens, when the buzz around these sensational events had almost been reduced to the level of daily mundanity, this was when a door in the house opened and a girl emerged—the same girl whose fluttering sari on the next-door veranda had once so touched the thick-skinned Makhanlal. He hadn’t set eyes on her for a long time now, but that day, sitting in his room, Makhanlal saw her, seemed to recognize her, definitely recognized her. He leaned on the railing for a bit, raised his hand to sweep his hair off his forehead, and then suddenly returned to his room, the door shut again. What he did then was a little strange, perhaps you will laugh at it. Why he did what he did was something even he didn’t grasp, but at that moment, he told me later, it “came upon him,” everything seemed to happen on its own. Makhanlal refused to delay any longer, slipping his feet hurriedly into his sandals. His ungainly frame emerged onto the street. The heap of furniture on the pavement had almost reached their own home, and the varnish on it was glittering in the eleven o’clock sun. He wended his way through all of it and stood before the house next door. The wide-open door posed no obstacle before him, and discovering the staircase—without hesitation or doubt—he went directly upstairs. The drawing room was like a new widow, only a picture hung on the wall, like a blood-red memory of a long life. In the next room a few blackened, perspiring laborers were tugging at the family’s belongings; Makhanlal went past them in long strides. There was just one more room, in the corner, its door closed. Was the family in there? He knocked on the door—no response. Another knock, and then a light push on the door got it to swing open; the scene inside no longer remained hidden from his eyes. It was a small room. There was nothing in it except the four white walls, though the marks on the floor where the furniture had stood had not yet been erased. Huddled on the floor were the inhabitants of the house: the professor, his wife and daughter, and the other two children curled up on the floor, asleep, one’s legs on the other’s body. Having seen these people only from a distance, suddenly seeing them up close in these unusual conditions jolted Makhanlal into realizing how distant, how remote they actually were. Why was he here? What could he do?
They were silent, too. The professor raised his eyes only to lower them immediately, and his wife didn’t raise hers at all. The only one who stood up, briskly, was Malati—of course Makhanlal hadn’t forgotten her name in all these months. She came to the door quickly and said, “You? Why are you here?” Her tone was rough, without a trace of welcome in it, and yet Makhanlal heard music. “You? Why are you here?” could only mean that she had recognized him, that she knew who he was. His uncertainty fell away, boldness suffused his soul. He spoke without effort, “I had to come. Something needs to be done.” Malati was probably about to say something, to utter some protest born of strong self-respect, but Makhanlal left immediately. The landlord’s people were on hand, and he spoke to them and resolved everything within the hour. The professor joined them, speaking in a feeble voice, even objecting as much as he could in the circumstances to Makhanlal’s intervention. Eventually, when everything was settled, when those same perspiring laborers returned everything to its place and proceeded to arrange things properly, then—by then—the professor was so exhausted he couldn’t even utter conventional words of gratitude, for which Makhanlal was extremely thankful. The rest of the day passed in flight for him. How lovely the day seemed, his work, the people, Calcutta—possibly he loved the entire world that day. And the kindness of the world too seemed limitless; whatever he asked for was being granted with one word, there seemed to be no obstacles at all, anything he wished for seemed to materialize before him instantly. His journey back home after his day’s work was different too. Every day, he returned because he had to, because even exhaustion set its limit—but that day it felt as though someone or something was awaiting his return. The night and the breeze seemed to suggest as much. His feet slowed down naturally before the professor’s house. The rooms were lit up, the shadows of the fan blades were whirling as usual on the first-floor wall. Surely everything was fine, there could not have been any other problems, but still, he thought, let me check. Was it pure philanthropy? Didn’t he have an ulterior motive? Just as this question occurs to you now, it occurred to someone else too. And that is where this story ended. As soon as he knocked softly, the downstairs door opened, and it was Malati who Makhanlal saw standing before him. He would have been happier had it been someone else, but it was too late to retreat now. “I just came . . .”
A completely unnecessary announcement, and when the person he’d addressed said nothing in response, even the dim-witted Makhanlal realized its redundancy. “. . . find out if everything’s all right . . .” “Please come in.” She spoke like a doctor inviting a patient in. “Yes, everything’s all right.” Makhanlal entered. When he looked around
How lovely the day seemed, his work, the people, Calcutta—possibly he loved the entire world that day. And the kindness of the world too seemed limitless; whatever he asked for was being granted.
everything seemed fine: the pictures on the walls, the books on the shelves, the radio in the corner, all just as he had seen on his way to and fro past the house. Once upon a time he had imagined a lot of joy in this room, but now, finally here in this beautifully arranged setting, his daylong happiness seemed to fizzle out, to have no basis, no meaning. “Please take a seat.” He didn’t want to at all, but something seemed to compel Makhanlal. Malati sat at a distance and said, “I knew you’d come. I was waiting for you.” Makhanlal felt a tremor run across his stout body at these words. “There’s something I want to ask you.” “Yes?” “Why did you do this? Don’t be silent, answer my question.” Makhanlal looked into his interrogator’s eyes and realized he had erred. “Why did I do this? I have no idea.” “You have no idea? Then let me tell you. The self-satisfaction of philanthropy is no mean thing. It feels wonderful to be given a chance to help the poor. The gratitude of other people is delicious, isn’t it?” Every word tumbled out of this modern, educated woman’s shapely lips with lucid articulation. On hearing so many obscure words all at once, thickheaded Makhanlal became even more stupid. He could say nothing in response. “And besides, you have your own motive too. You decided that you would bring us under your control and take revenge on us.”
Makhanlal could hear nothing but meaningless sounds in words like motive and revenge. He groped for words, just as a person gropes in the darkness, but could find nothing to say, nothing that he could say. “But what you think will not happen, it can never happen.” Now Makhanlal stood up and said, “I thought nothing, maybe I have created difficulties for you, those difficulties . . . please forget them.” “Only after your money’s returned can we forget. But get it back you will. Maybe it will take time, but we will definitely return it.” “All right.” “Another thing. Do not come to this house again—never, not for anything.” Makhanlal turned near the door and said softly, “No, I will not come.” Back on the road, Makhanlal walked past his house. He walked around for hours that night, with that awkward gait of his indecently proportioned body. The thoughtful darkness of the blackout was sympathetic, if uninquisitive.
Ankur Parikh Three Stories
We sat by the pole of the basketball hoop at recess. Six courts symmetrically arranged in groups of three on the far side of the playground and we always played in the back corner, away from most of the other kids, where no one would beat on us, and where I looked like a decent player. Eight years old, and in a year I’d never had one opportunity to sit on the ball between games, the way we decided winners would get to. The concrete was littered with a thin film of shattered glass shards, the kind that didn’t stick or cut, but pinched your ass if you didn’t shift your weight from time to time. There were four of us on every day but Tuesday (Sharad did some religious eating stuff on Tuesday, and his mom got permission to pull him out of school for lunch) and Matt and I were always on the same team. He had a great jump shot when he saw the rim right. But his skin and hair were white as the part of your eyes no one talks about, the part where I always thought the real answer to the mystery was, the place we all looked the same. And he had shaky pupils too, a hell-bent red, the other kids said when they laughed at him, el diablo, they might have called him in the Bronx, where I used to live, until last year, when Hemendra Uncle was found killed with a pole in a basement by a black man. The place we moved to was called Levittown, a town made by some guy named Levitt, who got bored after a house or two and made every home look just like the one before it. I could never understand how people could be equally scared of hell and compare that to the color of shivering frightful eyes. I think I even asked my mom that once in the kitchen where I usually ask her questions and she just said, “Beta, we don’t believe in hell in our house.” It
wasn’t good enough for me though, because our house looked exactly like all of their houses. But I took her word for it anyway. Devil eyes and I, Matt I mean, were pretty much what you’d call best friends back then. Like his lack of, and my excessive, melanin combined us into one acceptable kind of person. It was cool actually, he lived only a few blocks away in a cul de sac where there was little traffic besides the ice
They said they had to call in at least three different teams to clean the blood because each group left more terrified than the next. It was his eyes, they insisted.
cream truck. And his dad was the kind of guy who actually bought ice cream and other things for us. McDonald’s on some nights, packs of the long bubble-tape stuff we couldn’t get enough of and loads of fresh fortune cookies. I’m not sure where he got them all, but I saved every one of those little slips of white paper. He wasn’t married anymore and when I once asked Matt’s older brother why, he told us that his mom was a cheating whore and he hoped she had syphilis somewhere. Luckily, I knew what whore meant because when I was six and in the Bronx one of my older cousins, Deepen, who lived just a floor up, asked me if I knew what all the curses were. Fuck, dick, reject, whore, shit, he told me, then went on to give me a daily visual lesson, one word a day, while pointing to people so I knew how to use them right. Another cousin of ours, Sapna, he told me, was the whore. She had this secret spic boyfriend for three weeks now, he said, and they smoked cigarettes together. Deepen even stole one once for proof but became curious and smoked it instead. Stuff was nasty, he concluded. I thought I could have told him that and I was only six, but in the end his talks paid off because now I knew that Matt’s mom left his dad for a spic and some cigarettes. Syphilis was another story though. I’d have to ask my mom about that later. We’d box on some afternoons, Matt and I. We were both pretty obsessed with Rocky IV at the time and when I hung out with this other guy on my block named Kevin, he’d always make me play Drago and graciously give the Rocky role to himself. Matt and I traded off pretty evenly, in fact, I think I may even have got to play Rocky a couple of times more. It was weird though, moving your feet and waving your fists while looking into his dancing eyes. I’d feel bad and go easy on him sometimes, but the moment I’d do that he’d get lucky and land a punch so devastating 126
I’d have to sit down for a bit. He was bigger than I was, so I had to use whatever advantages I had. In the end we just called a truce and resolved to train like they did in the movie. Heavy running, lifting things around the house; a wooden chair, escalating numbers of Britannica encyclopedias, an old dusty desk lamp, with our arms, our legs. We promised to fight after the training period was done but knew that time wouldn’t come and I think we were both okay with that. Sometimes on weekend nights we’d convince our parents to let us have sleepovers. We’d always invite Kevin and Alan and a couple of other neighborhood kids but everyone knew they’d never show so it’d just be Matt and me. My mom would cook up two meals on those nights, macaroni and cheese for us, with spaghetti sauce on top for Matt because he liked it that way; dal and shak for her, Dad, and my baby brother. The house smelled like the house always did but Matt sneezed too much so mom would break out her best potpourri instead of opening windows to the slow cleanse of fresh air. It was weird but worth it. Dad would engage us with stories about war heroes, General Douglas MacArthur usually, sometimes the Battle of Midway and on nights he was in the best mood, D-Day. After they all went to bed, we’d be up all night, Matt and I. I had this room in the corner of the house upstairs that the lamppost on the street illuminated, like dimmed moonlight stuck in a basket. Three-D images emerged out of the rings and patterns nature and history had etched into my dark wooden walls. Animated imaginary stories were born overnight, lost kingdoms of Atlantis, blind carnivorous elephants, all to the soundtrack of the creaky wood that made up the floors and stairs of our home. It was nice to not be alone. Sometimes though, when we ran out of things to say I’d bring up Hemendra uncle and how when they found his body in the basement there was a huge pool of bright red blood that had what looked like a frozen reflection of his face afraid of death; spattered palm prints wallpapered the room, desperately reaching. For dignity, imprinting identity, establishing legacy. They said they had to call in at least three different teams to clean the blood because each group left more terrified than the next. It was his eyes, they insisted. The moment they’d put a mop into the corner of the pool, a ripple would circle around itself, in perfect symmetry, creating just the slightest vibration along his timeless, fearful face; but then, just when harmony and peace were again established, his pupils would flicker like a persevering light bulb, pivot, and penetrate their disbelieving eyes. In the end, the guys who finally cleaned it needed to be blindfolded, or else he’d still be awake in that concrete basement room. Restless waiting. I’d draw it out for Matt and his red eyes always stopped shaking. The only time I can ever remember stillness in his eyes was when he cried. I’d TLR
comfort him then, urge him to stop worrying about it. I was assured by everyone that things like that happen mostly where ‘kalus’, black people, live. That’s what they all told me. So there was nothing to worry about here, stuff like that we were safe from. It was careful restraint. Sixty to ninety seconds of silence followed by awkward sounds ranging from steady conscious breaths to clearings of throats and for the first time all week I heard the sounds in the room around me. It resonated like ear deafening phony music and for an instant, I was grateful to have been listening to genuine laughter, albeit based in madness. “diego,” I said. “diego,” I repeated, “listen, I want to know something.” I’d been working as a telemarketer for three days now, three long days, and was supposed to be selling home-alarm-system upgrades. Instead, I’d spent two of three days trying to convince a man I never wanted to know, never should have known, not to kill himself. Today was the last he’d given me. Today or—. I should have skipped his name on the list, but I couldn’t, I didn’t. I hadn’t slept in days now, my body slouched, my voice weary. It was the feeling of an arranged marriage gone wrong, with no choices and no escapes, fatigued under the weight of eternity. “Arite, arite, okay son. What is it you need to know?” He sounded like he was chewing, clearing his throat, and coughing while he swallowed. “How’d you get that name diego, diego shah?” I think my voice was high pitched when I asked, the way I talked to Mom and Dadaji when they were mad. I asked again, deeper this time. “How’d you get it, I’m really curious.” He laughed the way he does and finished chewing. “Named myself two years ago son, picked that name out myself.” “What was your original name?” Abruptly multiple questions descended simultaneously to my tongue. I needed restraint today. I needed closure. “My original name? All of a sudden you asking some tough questions aren’t you, some tough questions.” “You don’t remember your real name? I don’t understand how you don’t know your own name. And why’s your name in all lowercase letters anyway?” I paused. Too much, I scolded myself, too much. Be more careful. He sounded like a growl. “Son, I think I was having a much better time yesterday listening to your sorry ass whine, bitch, and moan all afternoon. Yeah, I was having a good time listening to that.” He laughed again, interrupted only by my interjection. 128
“But you said yesterday it was all about you; you said I needed to focus on you.” It was reflexive, uncalled for and unavoidable, but didn’t feel the least bit bold, just like clean flowing water. “I did, didn’t I, you got me,” he said while I imagined him waving his gun around, wondering if he sat by the phone all day waiting, if he was disfigured, if he was a lefty. “Ok, son, ok, so you wanna know about diego. You wanna know about my crazy name and explain to you why your printer fucked up and printed out my name in lowercase letters. See how easy that shit gets fucked up? Sometimes the answers are as simple as that.” “But you chose that name, didn’t you? I mean where’s the accident in that?” “Son I lost track of myself years ago, I’m not even sure I know who I was when I was first born, I’m not sure anyone does. If I had to say, it started when I stole a pack of chewing gum from a store and told myself it was nothing but a pack of gum from a store that didn’t need any more money, especially from a little kid. Then I started lying about.” He paused and I imagined him shifting in his seat, fixing his posture, maybe needing a breath. I wondered if he smoked cigarettes. “You sure you wanna hear this son? Cause I got no problem telling you but it sure as hell ain’t gonna make me put this gun down any quicker. Actually maybe it’ll just make me flip the switch faster. Yeah, I may just end it mid-sentence and then what you gonna do? Live with all these questions about diego and have my death on your head? You sure?” “You were talking about lying about something?” He chuckled insincerely. “Arite, arite. Yea son, I’d be lying about girlfriends to friends who I made up to impress other friends. Meeting women telling them about songs I’d play them on instruments I didn’t know how to hold, countries I’d been to, languages I’d picked up along the way. I was even in the army son, ducked out of combat as a cook who made boneless chicken filled with bones, telling folks that no war’s a good war and I gotta stick to my principles when truth is, I don’t really have any that I can speak of. On second thought, I can’t even remember if I was in the damn war or not. “I hurt some folks son, once led an old blind man halfway across town holding his hand, left him in the middle of an asymmetric square, took his keys, and robbed his place silly even taking picture frames thinking he couldn’t see them anyway so what was the harm in all that. Funny thing is though, now, when I think back to that poor blind fella, half the time it plays back in my head like I actually did help him, TLR
and he gave me all that shit like some sort of reward. How fucked is that? See son? You tell yourself shit to get through a life and it all happens so fast and the next thing you know, you can’t remember your own fucking name. So I went with diego shah and I painted it in black block letters over my bed so I’d never forget. It’s a pretty good name ain’t it? I really think it’s a pretty good name. Don’t you?” “Yeah,” I said, “yeah.” I was afraid to imagine anything after all that. “You know though, why can’t you pull yourself out of it, you even know what your problem is.” His laugh made me feel small and I felt like I deserved it. “Son can I tell you? One time I even got myself up, walked over to the police station, and stood right in front of that counter in front of all the policemen and whoever else was hanging around there. And I told them all I did it, admitted to a crime I never even committed. Because I knew I was guilty and guiltier about not remembering why. Hell, I made up a whole crime down to the very last detail and in the end they somehow sent me home innocent with apologies.” I was struck by a memory of a shopping mall once as a child. My mother and I had just left a large department store and were arrested by two security guards. I didn’t know why, but they led us to this small plain square room in the back where they rummaged through her purse and found two pairs of sunglasses. I’d seen her trying them on earlier and just figured she’d bought them, but looking back, I know she didn’t. I can’t remember seeing shame in her face. In fact, all I can remember is that she acted confused, like a woman without any brains, or maybe a woman from another world, unaware of the conventions of this land. Somehow, though, it worked, and they let us go, contrite. Stirred, I felt a funny feeling somewhere between butterflies and an eruption occupying my insides, the kind of exposure that only talking has the power to delay. “But why the gun, I don’t know why you have to do this with a gun.” I was trying. “It’s like glasses,” he started up again. It felt like scribbled scratches against my face. “You could just be walking around one day and you get a little careless, maybe you put your glasses in your shirt pocket because a cute woman walks by and you wanna show her your beautiful face. It’s like reflex, and you walk a few more blocks with them in your pocket before you realize what you did. But when you do? Bam, you discover one of the lenses has just gone missing. It popped out and fell somewhere son and you got two big problems now. Numero uno, that lens is clear, it’s crystal clear and it’s somewhere on the ground. And number two, you don’t have your glasses to help you look for it so there you go searching for something half blind. See what I’m sayin?” 130
“Yeah,” I responded, “ I think I do.” I meant it, suddenly surrounded, suffocated by a barrage of floating soap bubbles, each containing a visual story, you know, the kind that appears when you shake one of those crystal Christmas balls and snow goes everywhere, alive. Like when I was ten and my brother and I traded off sitting in a wheelchair at Disney World. Mom told them our legs were injured at birth and we never stood on line for any rides. Or when my little brother didn’t get into that honors track in the seventh grade because he didn’t get the score he needed for admission but she told them about what had happened that week with grandma, even though what happened with grandma happened two years earlier. It all felt like eyes with pins coming out of pupils, probing just under the top layer of the skin, so there was no blood; no scabbed memories. “Some folks, they just go looking for God when shit’s not right.” He kept going in my silence. “Others, others just say fuck it and keep on doing what they were doing. You gonna have to make that choice too aren’t you son? Yes you definitely are. Me? Well I don’t have much of a past to walk barefeet on so I just gotta go around living for today. It’s like you’re on a vacation that just hasn’t gone right. Shit’s just been messed up from the start, some of it’s your fault, some of it’s not. But those last couple days before you come home, those last couple days will always be amazing because you know it’s almost over.” He paused momentarily and took a sip of something that set me free for a moment because it sounded refreshing. I imagined he was in a cubicle much like myself, except with a refrigerator and microwave and anything else he needed at arm’s length. Or a joystick. “So these days, these days I wake up every morning and just know, know that this is gonna be the day that I die. And I feel some kind of peace. Hasn’t happened yet, but it will, maybe today. So tell me son, what you gonna do?” I imagined the gun now, cold black steel in sturdy fearless hands; bullets, brains, and blood, until I found myself looking calmly at diego through the lens of a fishbowl. A world that lacked symmetry but exaggerated color, smeared pastels carried to and fro by rocking waves in the self-contained environment that he himself had created. I wondered, what, if anything, in his world, in any world has the same, but opposite effect as a bullet. It would be a small, transient, yet supremely powerful effect, one that would enliven, not just momentarily, but with the scope of infinity. I wanted something to latch on to, something sturdy, something to hold my back up. “You know my dad used to tell me this story when I was younger, actually he TLR
told us all these Indian mythology stories at night before we’d go to bed. He’s got this really soothing voice that’s hard for me to sound like, but—.” I started then stopped to collect images not created for waking moments while remembering my dad wore green pants too high, an equally toned green shirt, and green tie to work today. I smiled I think. “It’s a story about the lord Indra, who had this trouble in his life as a god if that even sounds possible.” I waited for a laugh but didn’t get one. “He was a man who loved beautiful women, especially ones he couldn’t have, a bit of a trouble maker. He had this habit of disguising himself as the husbands of the wives he desired. Usually he got away with it, but one time, he got caught. He tried to mess with this guy called Gautama who had a wife named Ahalya except Gautama was a smart sort of dude and caught him in the act. In those days you could lay a curse on someone if you really meant it and Gautama had the advantage that he was friends with a lord who was even more important than Indra named Brahma. So he cursed Indra by putting eyes of the universe all over his skin, eyes that would always be watching him and that everyone could see. So he could be found anywhere.” diego was silent but I could hear steady, hungry breathing. “The funny thing is though, the thing I found out years later after hearing that story all those nights, was that it wasn’t eyes he put all over Indra’s body. The way he cursed him was to put big vaginas all over his body. Vagina lips. Can you imagine that?” I laughed a little, caught my breath and listened for his. “In the end though, Indra still ended up with eyes all over his body, but the way he got them was by begging Brahma for forgiveness. Eyes over vaginas. Makes sense though right? That my dad left out that whole part of the story?” I waited silently as I finished. At least five minutes. For a laugh. A comment. A gunshot. Once the time between us dissipated, all that remained was the truth of space. There was nothing left to say. There were many times in my life after this that I’d forget to recognize it but at this moment, I could not. I hung up the phone gently. Mr. and Mrs. Silkovic were next on the list. The lines on her hands were fastidiously carved by barely visibles, wrinkled with lingering memories, and worn by the burden of poetry and stories she was always a step behind, too young to know. They were aged hands, meditating upon a plastic glass of Coke at the table across from me, a glass penetrated by a bendy straw that connected it to innocent young lips decorating clear, soft skin. I sat just inside the window of a taco joint on a blue stool, resting my elbows upon a wooden planked 132
table, knowing I’d seen those very hands before, creases harshly shaded in with the side of a soft pencil, crossing lines, creating new ones, with the overwhelming texture of self-awareness. I had been running from hands just like those for three weeks now, heavy hands, with fingers that gently run through your hair and simultaneously carve instructions into your scalp. The girl finished half her taco, forgot to pay, and walked past me out the door, hands thrust in blue jean pockets. It all started as if in a cemetery. A grave feeling tickled the under-surface of my fingernails ever so slightly, levitating them from bed. I was in a rectangle room surrounded by freshly painted white walls and an array of frames placed in order of size and importance directly in front of me. Portraits of surgeons, liver-transplant surgeons to be specific, hairlines receding to provide perspective, I was picking out the ones who didn’t know how to tie a double Windsor. Most of them. I was supposed to stay involved, secure a positive impression. The woman next to me was a psychiatrist of some sort, arguing for a man she thought deserved the next available liver, even though the surgeon with the crossed legs and dignified way of grasping and clicking his pen disagreed. The patient was seventy-five, looked sixty-two, was doing well post chemotherapy for liver cancer. The choices were something like, get a new liver today, never worry about getting cancer again but take serious, mind-numbing types of medications the rest of his life; or, hope they’d killed the cancers, live in clarity, but in uncertainty. Someone nudged my right arm, urging me to contribute, but a man empowered with choices doesn’t need the opinions of the dithering. I was actually jealous that he looked sixty-two when he was seventyfive. I leaned my head back and wanted to close my eyes, but I’m the kind of daydreamer whose eyes never fully close and if you squint, you can see vivid thoughts playing on my curved white screens.
All I know about my grandma is that story Mom used to tell. Some days on a beach in Mumbai they’d look up at airplanes. My grandma would point and say, “One day you’ll go on one of those and I’ll never see you again.”
My mother’s on a bus home right now, the kind she took on her honeymoon when they went to Mahabaleshwar. They were robbed on that trip, and couldn’t go home until Dad won enough money playing poker on the side of a road. Buses were exciting then, but now when she looks out the window, the rain dribbling down it looks more like a mirror. I’m thinking about this now because my brother texted me two hours ago saying “kill me now” and, “don’t get married,” which means that my mom and her daughter-in-law got into another fight. She’d been up in Syracuse for the weekend, helping them move into a new home, their first home, and I knew this was going to happen. My mother is a collector of things, pairs of things actually, things she bought years in advance for our wives whenever the time came to get married. Blenders with fruit-shake recipes, yoga videos for grandkids, jewelry and stones given to her that she’d never worn. The basement was cluttered with these things, and on some days when we were younger we’d hear her downstairs singing lonely Radha Krishna songs, her hands sifting through, groping for the future. I was convinced that the time she spent down there made her hands age faster than they should have, but Swati, my brother’s wife, wasn’t that kind of girl. Her hands were gifted with undying youth, the kind to which scars wouldn’t stick, gloves became infatuated with, and shifting boxes wouldn’t disturb. She liked to dress up and dance late at night, the type who talked about what she did for my brother before she ever did it because then, she could take some shortcut or another. I saw her with my mom in the kitchen once, their hands intertwined momentarily on the countertop while trading positions, and I knew that half the stuff in the basement was destined to stay right there. She does love my brother though, Swati does, I wish my mom could see how he looks when she calls him by nicknames like Bummy and makes him laugh harder than anyone I’ve seen make him laugh before, except maybe me. But my mom’s in an ocean now, it’s hard for me to reach her and I’m not sure I want to. She’s probably talking to God anyway, telling him to take her away from what she’s going through. Either that, or she’s talking to her mom, and honestly, I’m not sure the two are all that different to her. All I know about my grandma is that story Mom used to tell me, about some days on a beach in Mumbai where they’d look up at airplanes while my grandma would point and say, “One day you’ll go on one of those and I’ll never see you again.” I can’t remember too much about that week her mom died, but I know for sure I’ve never seen a person cry and scream for seven days. All she did was work around the house, polish, broom, and cook things until you felt scared to walk on anything but your tippy toes with hands in pockets to make sure 134
you didn’t tip or stain anything. Swati coming into our lives was the first time since then I’d seen her go that crazy, even though I knew it was in her. I’m sure some of the other passengers are staring at her on the bus now, some wondering how to reach out to a silent sobbing woman in purple Indian clothes and elderly hands, while some actually try. Thing is, I can see her tell them everything. I guess part of me does think it’s better she find a way to float on her own for a little while. I need to get out on my own too, I think, though I’m afraid of being afraid to come home. I think it’s because she loves with parts of her that are most empty, a black hole of love, though I feel bad because I know this is a pretty shitty thing to say. I walked out of the room after the meeting that day, spoke to no one, neatly folded my white coat before shoving it into my locker, packed a single suitcase, and booked a trip to a magical place called Oaxaca for no other reason but the rhythm of its name. Three weeks later I’m still here, now night, pacing along meandering cobblestone streets inebriated on Mezcal made to dance with chapulines and lime. I’m standing on a corner. The sky is pitch black, dense, almost hollow, as if there’s no sky at all. I think I’m alone but am struck by the image of a young girl on the street in front of me, the same girl as before, sitting just beneath a dimming streetlight, long blowing hair, wearing a sea-shelled beaded necklace, overalls. She holds a bright orange crayon in her left hand, one whose shadow even appears wrinkled. She draws a mural, or graffiti, whatever you want to call it, on the street. I notice that she bites her lower lip slightly while she draws only because I do sometimes, and everyone tells me to stop. She doesn’t notice me, but I’m sure I’m there and I arch my neck to see her work. It’s of a cowboy, who is a clown, who holds a kite, and instead of a horse, rides a tiger. The clown is serious and the tiger is hungry. I reach for my camera at this moment, engrossed, but just as I’m about to snap it, out of nowhere, two thieves in masks come running out of the alley, full speed, stealing my camera, and incidentally, the crayon from this little girl’s hand. I’m panicked, terrified, useless, and it all feels like arms flailing that no one could see and yelling help that no one could give. The girl from the taco joint just sits calmly though, patient as a tree, her eyes still fixated on the clown and her left hand in the exact position it was in when the crayon was taken. And, as if she were able to predict the future, just minutes later, one of the two thieves returns, his mask removed, with a blazing head of hair as orange as the clown. He gives back the crayon to the girl’s hand with a gentle kiss, runs off with obvious fear, and she just goes on to finish her drawing like nothing ever happened. It gave me butterflies, it really did, and I guess it all makes sense in the end. The way it is when you look for Bengal tigers after being born in a butterfly den. TLR
Jena Salon Suffering Love
It was six months, almost to the day, from the time I finished chemo treatments, that my husband and I decided to try to get pregnant with our second child. Six months is the requisite time needed to allow the chemo to get out of your system, for all the traces and leftover hidden poisons to disappear. When we saw the plus sign on the test only nine days later we were excited but cautious; we’d had a hard year. At the twelve-week ultrasound we were supposed to find out that everything was fine, and afterward we were going to pop the cork on the champagne bottle, and tell everyone the news. But it turned out that the baby was anencephalic—meaning it had a neural tube defect—which in our case caused the skull to not form properly to cover the brain. These babies, it turns out, don’t self-terminate, but are also not viable at birth. We chose to terminate instead of carrying the baby to term. We had gotten pregnant blindly, believing the only health risk was to me, not to the baby. The next time we got pregnant, months later, we went into the process with the impending idea that we might have to terminate a baby again. Mothers who conceive one baby with anencephaly have a higher risk of conceiving another. And this choice, to get pregnant knowing full well you have a high likelihood of having to terminate the baby, is the topic of Bonnie J. Rough’s memoir, Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. Rough’s family members are carriers of a rare disorder called Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie J. Rough, New York, Counterpoint, 2010. Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977–September 15, 1979 by Roland Barthes. Text established and annotated by Nathalie Leger and translated by Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt, New York, Ecco, 2010. TLR
“hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia,” or HED. The main physical symptoms are “sparse hair, peg- or cone-shaped teeth, and the inability to sweat” with secondary symptoms of “dark circles around the eyes and a saddle-nose deformity.” The disorder is “carried invisibly by mothers and passed to sons,” thus weaving a pattern of motherly guilt through the narrative of Rough’s family tree. We see her grandmother feeling “guilty of something . . . [my grandfather’s] little wisp of a body daily broke his mother’s heart” and her mother sitting beside Rough’s brother crying, “I’m so sorry.” All this could make having a baby harrowing, knowing they were at high risk for HED, but what sets Rough on her journey to decide whether or not to become a biological mother, and by what means, is even more difficult: a test is developed during her lifetime that can tell her whether or not she is a carrier (she is) and a test is developed that can say whether or not a baby in utero is actually affected. I cannot picture the loss of my children for more than a moment without my mind going blank, the possible pain of that situation seeming overly gratuitous even for my self-torturing imagination. It is a similar aversion, I suspect, that leads Rough to frame the question of whether she should have a baby with HED not in terms of: is my brother (who is afflicted with HED) worth it? Would I delete his life? But rather, would I terminate a baby with the affliction so that a different, healthy baby can come into the world? The ethical vagaries, of course, are numerous, and this is the meat of her book. How is it possible to decide whose life is worth what? The ghost of her HEDafflicted grandfather haunts the family, and so she explores his life as a brilliant inventor “everybody liked” who falls into drugs, lying, bankruptcy, addiction. She reconstructs the narrative of his life, and in a way tries to determine if his fate was predicated on the disease or only a coincidental, exacerbating misery. She flies state to state “to interview [her] mother and [her] Grandmother Esta at the same table, to task them to tell and retell stories that, in one way or another, opened into [her] own.” Her grandmother “pulled out stacks of photographs . . . Her sister [Bonnie’s greataunt] mailed more from Canada.” She writes that when her grandfather speaks to her through his life story, “Maybe he would tell me not, for any reason, to have a baby with the disorder. Maybe he would tell me to decide for myself; that every life begins untainted, despite lineage, despite flesh, despite the backward glances of parents.” In many ways, though, the reconstruction of his life is not about the detective work of figuring out if her potential child could end up like her grandfather, if that child’s life would be totally miserable, because she has her HED-afflicted brother who is “smart, scrappy” and a “tender, practical soul.” She loves him, and he has said, 138
“Bonnie, please. I wouldn’t want your kids to have this.” If the choice is to have a baby with HED or one without, even if it means aborting the first so the second can live, everyone who has seen the disease up close says, No HED. Of course, for the child you would choose less misery. She writes, “Dan and I knew that having a son with HED would mean we chose it for him.” When I terminated my pregnancy I knew that the child would not live very long if born, but we chose no breaths over a couple days of labored breathing. We chose it for our child, but more, we chose it for us. I hadn’t realized that so starkly until reading Rough’s careful questioning. What the book really seems to be contending with deep down is whether or not you can choose this—a healthy child—as a mother, for yourself. Are you allowed to say, I am bringing a baby into the world, but it may not be this one. This one will suffer, and I don’t want to watch my child suffer. Weaving in the narratives of her mother’s life (in her mother’s voice from interviews) we begin to see the obsession with her grandfather’s life not only as a sadness for him but as a determining factor in constructing the narrative of her family’s lives. “It seemed each person in the family held a few pieces of the larger story and welcomed the chance to unburden themselves.” The book, in fact, begins and ends with the image of Bonnie being lain in her grandfather’s arms for the first time, with the joy and nervousness that he experiences holding a new, healthy child. The story from her mother is a transcription of interviews, Rough’s own narrative is a work of memoir, but her grandfather’s story— when it is not told from these other perspectives—is told from the first person. These fictional accounts are a way for Rough to get into his head, to try to understand his life not just for its effect on others, but on himself. We see him as “a real child, not a research project.” As her mother says, “You are part artist and part scientist. Maybe you were meant to show us what happened.” It removes our prejudices and allows us (and Rough) to evaluate his life as a human being. This, along with all the other perspectives, are important for everyone’s stories, because they are all interlinked. They are a family: like it or not. However, as she explores her grandfather’s life and paints his misdeeds she does not seem like she is saying, Earl Hickman was a liar and an addict and so too, would be my son. She is saying, this happened to him, and it was painful for everyone around him. Her mother, toward the end of her own teenage years, realizes that all her classmates were thinking: “Paula Hickman has a totally messed up dad. A psycho. A druggie.” What is most interesting is that when she exposes the horrors of his life and its TLR
effects on everyone and we begin to see that this is not necessarily the work of the HED, and that a child born with this could be as fabulous as her brother, she still allows herself to say, I do not choose this for me or for the child. I understand this, having chosen a healthy baby. Of course, my baby would have died and hers would have lived, but now, seeing my second child grow and laugh and become a person, how could I not be thrilled with the choice? He is who I brought into this world and I love him. Which is much of Rough’s point: we love our children no matter what. The question is how much misery should you knowingly force on them? And on you? You do your best to choose healthiness and happiness for your child, but the control isn’t always where you think it is. At my post-termination visit the doctor said, Well, the tests are back and it was anencephaly. Which meant, I realized for the first time, that the pre-termination diagnosis had not been definite. I felt careless with a life. I felt like I had made the decision all for myself. In a way, it was about getting rid of the proof that my body had failed, that I, cancer-free, was not yet normal. Just as Rough thinks, standing in front of a mirror looking at her own body once she finds out she is a carrier, I, too, felt “defective.” The six months during which I had to wait before trying to get pregnant was also the time when I was at the highest risk of the cancer coming back. The risk is only slightly diminished in the next year and a half, and so one of the things we need to decide is, If I am going to get cancer and die, do I want my daughter to have a sibling? Does my husband want two children to raise on his own? And then only in the very far reaches in a completely selfish and self-important way do I think: do I want to leave two children saddened, grief-stricken that they don’t have a mother anymore? I forgot, until reading Roland Barthes Mourning Diary, the destruction the death of a parent can cause. This diary, translated from the French by Richard Howard (who also wrote the afterword), chronicles Barthes’s life after his mother dies. It’s taken from notes written on scraps of paper, small thoughts and philosophies, never intended to be published. But it was published, along with some photographs of Henriette Barthes, partially as a way to erect a memorial of the sort Barthes sought for her, and partially to illuminate Barthes’s works from the rest of his life. What makes the diary so moving, and so claustrophobic, is that the diary is not a recording of life with thoughts of death thrown in, but rather only a record of his thoughts about his mother’s death. We may know where he is and the date from the header, and we may get some scene information such as “Emilio’s dinner with FM 140
Banier,” but the rest is Barthes trying to wrap his head around death. He recorded the small, crushing thoughts that pop into our heads when we lose someone. With only a date on an otherwise blank page, there is the sting of grief. This was written a few days after her death, “Every morning, around 6:30, in the darkness outside, the metallic racket of the garbage cans. / She would say with relief: the night is finally over (she suffered during the night, alone, a cruel business).” Or November 11: “Horrible day. More and more wretched. Crying.” Death, therefore, becomes much the influence we believe it to be, wrecking everything about life, numbing even the most pleasant moments, so that even these become about the death. He notes, “The desires I had before her death (while she was sick) can no longer be fulfilled, for that would mean it is her death that allows me to fulfill them . . . I no longer desire what I used to desire.” Barthes is a philosopher, obsessed with the nature of language and words, and therefore tries to understand maman’s death not just emotionally, but linguistically. He parses the meaning of terms like “never again,” “she’s no longer suffering,” and “duration,” concluding: “And then one day it is no longer an event [death], it is another duration, compressed insignificant, not narrated, grim without recourse: true mourning not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.” He’s clearly trying to create emotional distance, even going so far as to diagnose whether he is experiencing things emotionally or psychologically. He notes, “It is said that Time soothes mourning—No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.” Even he recognizes that “what is remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being a victim of presence of mind.” In other words, he knows what he’s doing is a way of coping. And this could seem cold and more selfobsessed than mourning oriented. But he tells us that “the most painful point [is at] the most abstract moment.” Meaning, when all the analyzing and thinking fails. This is inherent in the form of the diary, which is solely dedicated to thoughts of the death of maman. The juxtaposition of this form and his attempts and failures of analyzing soon create a “monument” to his mother. Somehow the pathetic attempt to understand the pain of loss so academically magnifies the pain itself and makes it more emotional. He writes: “Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises from within me, like a bursting bubble: the realization that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival—dizzying because meaningless (without possible interpretation).” He tells us, like Rough does, “[I]t’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted [by bereavement].” But it is safe to TLR
say that Barthes seems rocked to the bone by his mother’s death. Even in moments of relief he says, “Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment—a kind of numbness— which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.” And later, on November 28: “Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought?” In many ways it seems that he does not want to move on. This is a constant, unrelenting pain that you do not wish for your child. When you are told you have a disease that can kill you, and you have an overactive imagination, you—at least I did—struggle with this possible-death. When I was first diagnosed, I spent time picturing my motherless child, imagining her watching video clips of me so that she could understand her own facial expressions and hear the echo of my voice in hers. I imagined not just her pain—in Barthes’s way—but her asking again and again for stories about me. I pictured her going to kindergarten without me. I wondered who would know how she likes her peanut butter and jelly. I wanted to know, I guess, who would care for her. I anxiously searched for answers in Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir Making Toast—a book detailing the loss of his daughter Amy when she was only thirty-eight years old and his move (with his wife) to Amy’s house to help her husband, Harris, raise their three children, Jessie, Sammy, and James. I hoped it could tell me how my family would exist without me. Who would bring them to school? Who would be their mom? Rosenblatt writes in restrained, almost unemotional prose about the months after Amy’s death. Even in moments of sadness he pulls back. He writes, “Road rage was a danger in those early weeks. I picked fights with store clerks for no reason.” This is exactly the right mood for the book, which is dripping with sadness by its very subject matter. Sometimes he piles stories about Amy one on top of the next without even a paragraph break, just simply sentences telling us of her life. On one page stories appear about Amy’s jealousy at catching her mother “with another child in her lap,” a “dwarf rabbit” Amy had as a pet, a Mother’s Day breakfast in bed Amy prepared for Ginny. It reminds us that the moments of life are piled atop each other and there are thousands of stories that can be told about any given life. This reporting of moments, both happy and sad, is also what gives the book its strength. This is all just life, Rosenblatt reminds us: taking the kids to school, making them toast, reminiscing about a dead mother, teaching the children a made-up anthem called “Boppo the Great.” Once someone has died that is a fact of your life. As their psychologist tells Rosenblatt, “One of the delusions of people in grief is that once a year passes, things 142
will start to look up.” She says, “You, Ginny, and Harris are now realizing the hard truth that this is how life will be from now on. One year is no time at all.” But he doesn’t harp on the idea that the children are motherless or that they don’t have someone to sing them the same songs. He tells of learning to lock the doors and how to operate the dishwasher and thermostat. Then he simply says, “Ginny handles most of the essentials. She lays out the children’s outfits for the day, supervises the brushing of teeth, braids Jessie’s hair, and checks the backpacks. There is hardly a moment when she is not on call.” He reminds us that “something about the momentum of our lives is good for us, keeps us from sinking. Given the choice between confessions of sorrow, however cathartic, and the simplest act of getting on with it, we’ll get on with it.” This isn’t meant as nasty, of course, it is more about keeping busy, not drowning in sorrow. And as the book progresses it begins to allow in more and more moments of sadness, both from the present and right after the death, showing us, perhaps, how you have to keep moving, sometimes, before you can take the time to be sad. I was particularly interested to see how Amy’s youngest child, James (called Bubbie), who was not even two at the time of her death, would react, how he would even remember her. After all, if the cancer comes back, I have a one-year-old. But Rosenblatt doesn’t give me the satisfaction. He has created the picture of a loving, sly, witty daughter with a lovely marriage that was “like a solid tennis doubles team. Neither one had to look where the other was standing.” I fall in love with Amy, hearing stories from her friends, her relatives. What I begin to see is the mourning experienced at the loss of an adult child. He writes, “The trouble with a close family is that it suffers closely, too. I stood with my two sons in the cold and put my arms around them, feeling the shoulders of men.” Here he uses the strength of his grown children to mourn the loss of another. The shock of losing an adult child is that it happens when you have taken a deep breath and think all your hard work is finished. I wanted to know who my children would replace me with, and instead I realized how horrible it would be for my parents to lose me now, or how painful it would be to lose my children in the future. Rosenblatt writes about visiting Amy’s grave with his wife two days before the anniversary of his daughter’s death. He says, “We say nothing, and remain standing for five minutes, perhaps ten. ‘Tell me when you are ready to leave,’ I say. Ginny turns away and says, ‘Now.’” There is nothing in this moment but pain. “While there may be strategies that help Ginny and me feel a little better rather than a little worse, we will never feel right again.” For days after reading the book I shut my eyes to sleep thinking of two-year-old TLR
Bubbie asking “‘When is Mommy coming home?’ He has never said such a thing. He was just starting to talk when Amy died. All this time, has he been thinking she was simply away?” I wonder, too, if my one-year-old would remember me. It unnerves me to think that he might not. And so this moment, in all its dramatic sadness, is a bit heartwarming. It’s not just those of us who have had cancer who fear losing our children. I am only three-and-a-half years cancer free, but I don’t believe Hodgkin’s will get me in the end. I think it might be another cancer later in life. Or a car hitting me as I cross the street, or a murderer breaking into my house. I imagine my death constantly, no longer as I did as a child on long car trips, staring out the window, sobbing at the thought of my own funeral, but now thinking, And who will take Gray to preschool? And who will know how to talk to Thatcher? And who will tell them about me, so that they’ll know me? I find some comfort reading that “few things make Jessie and Sammy happier than stories of Amy as a girl.” When I’m honest I think: but I love them, and I’ll miss them. I don’t want my children to feel pain, but as a person I want to be mourned, and as someone who has given in to defining herself with motherhood—at least so far as I’ve given up my single-minded focus on myself as I raise my children—I want someone to remember me as their mother. Motherhood is about loving your children, raising your children, and about raising them to love you and eventually others. It’s about wishing the best for your children even when it pains you. At least to me. Not all the time, but most of the time. As Bonnie Rough spares her unborn child a life of pain, as Maman brought her child happiness and devotion, as Roger and Ginny Rosenblatt give up their late, child-free lives to take care of their grandchildren for their daughter. The question all parents want to know the answer to is: which pain is the worst? Can we quantify pain? Losing a parent early or late? Never living at all? Should I have let my child—the anencephalic one who would not self-terminate—take a few days of breaths, or should I have spared it the pain? Barthes says, “Maman taught me you cannot make someone you love suffer.”
Hans Keilson Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary By J.D. Reid
The occasionally comic Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” If you’re the type to think this observation funny, or even “right on the nose,” then you’ve certainly found comedy in unpopular places. But think about it: Is there any reason we shouldn’t laugh at the horror of our existence? The funniest literature, to me, comes from wit subverted by the narrative themes. I’ve been down at the old watering hole, telling people how funny Moby-Dick is for years, but no one believes me. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” Now that’s funny. Just after World War II, Hans Keilson released Comedy in a Minor Key, an uncomfortable story from the start, set during the German occupation of the Netherlands. This hits close to home. Keilson played a part in the Dutch resistance. For perspective, this means that Keilson is fresh out of an appalling experience, if fresh is ever a good way to describe it. His parents died in Auschwitz. While his hands were in many philanthropic projects, he started writing his book during the war. That being said, Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of a Dutch couple who Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. Translated by Damion Searls. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson. Translated by Ivo Jarosy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. TLR
volunteers to house a Jew during the occupation. I personally have never hidden someone in my house, and I have not read The Diary of Anne Frank since I was about twelve, but I get the feeling that the situation would be awkward at best, terrifying and deadly at worst. There are a couple of things here that are funny. One, deciding to hide a Jew takes Wim and Marie, the Dutch couple, a really long time. They are a quiet pair, allowing topics to come to the forefront when good and ready. Second, the Jew they take in is not a family, where the puppy-dog eyes of the children really make the good deed obvious. Nico, the nickname of their new boarder, is tall, fortyish, “A Spanish type!”—whatever that means. He comes into their house: “The stranger stepped silently over the threshold. He carried his suitcase and briefcase as though he were used to keeping them with him. He had his hat in his left hand as well.” He does not talk much, kind of hangs around. He is not comic relief, like the wacky roommate, nor is he particularly poignant. He is just some guy, like the person you sit next to on the bus, a human being whose presence you have to deal with until the trip is over. This couple—Marie especially, since Wim goes to work—has to spend time in awkward, fairly boring small talk, hoping that no one notices him, otherwise the three of them will take a bullet to the head. The elephant in the room keeps the conversation irrelevant, and that elephant, of course, is World War II. Each day, these three have to drink tea and chitchat, while outside their doors “the droning sound of the night squadron flying” rattles the windows, topped off with the pants-soiling, “dull, thudding pops” of Nazi war action. Nico gets pneumonia and dies. This seems like it would be the end of a very tragic tale. But there is a catch in Keilson’s book. The book more or less starts here, asking the question, What do you do with a dead person? If you were Joe Pesci, you would bury him in a cornfield, but this is Nazi territory. You cannot leave him upstairs for obvious sanitary reasons. The best this couple can come up with is to wait until dark, drag his dead body out to a park bench, leave it, then run home, hoping nobody sees them. They actually litter a Jew. But what’s really funny is that the next morning, Marie realizes that Nico was wearing Wim’s pajamas, and like any nerd, Wim has his name stitched on the inside. Now it is the two of them who have to go into hiding. This is the minor key of the comedy. It is not ha-ha funny, but rather you can only react by saying, “Oh, crap.” But I too spend much time avoiding death; I am not going to war; I do not want to get shot. I will wait patiently for the inevitable unrolling of the death scroll, which has my name written all over it. The Death of the Adversary, Keilson’s book written in hiding during the War, is a waiting book. “For days and weeks now I have thought 146
of nothing but death,” the book begins. The narrator watches Hitler (referred to here as B.) rise to power. He tries to understand Hitler’s motives: “he incited people . . . by providing them with an adversary.” The narrator is Hitler’s adversary (being Jewish), and therefore Hitler is his. We know how this ends: Hitler jamming a Walther PP to his own head. “Someone should have killed him,” remarks the narrator. Without the benefit of hindsight, this narrator gets to show us how easy it is to be incredulous of impending doom. Sixty years away from it, War World II does seem like a movie. There are clear bad guys—anyone who has a stamp mustache and, more or less, anyone requiring subtitles. But what Keilson can do to our archetype of evil is strange and, yes, kind of funny. You can watch Hitler become our archetype of evil. So, why do these two books come to us now? They were written and published sixty years ago (The Death of the Adversary did fairly well, then disappeared, while Comedy in a Minor Key is just now getting its first English translation from the German—extremely tightly wound by Damion Searls). My guess is that we need the nervous chuckle after the hard gulp of twentieth-century terror. For Keilson— who’s still kicking at a hundred-plus—at the time, everything probably did feel like Melville’s vast practical joke. The unraveling of what would become the worst war in history is absurd, but what else could you take it for? In these two books, life is a terrible black comedy, because its plot is borderline insanity.
Anton Leist and Peter Singer, editors J.M. Coetzee and Ethics By Charles Berret
The first time I read the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, I recoiled. After sixty pages, I set down my copy of Disgrace and withdrew to my balcony overlooking the streets of Cairo, but my imagination stayed in Coetzee’s troubled country on the other edge of Africa. I puzzled over my reaction. I could not grasp why I was so deeply affected by the plight of the contemptible narrator, David Lurie, who had just capitulated to his own downfall, unapologetically, when confronted with the charge that he had sexually assaulted one of his students. Most of all, I wondered how this story could create such a visceral response while, at the time, I was working as a journalist in a country as troubled as Egypt. It is a dictatorship held under martial law, a culture of staggering inequality, a destination for the United States to outsource “interrogations”—in other words, it is very much like a Coetzee novel. Yet a newsroom tends to create emotional distance. I would not be surprised if even South African journalists appeared professionally dispassionate amid the horrors of Apartheid, which prompted much of Coetzee’s work. Yet for Coetzee to portray one man’s personal darkness in the opening of Disgrace felt immediately present somehow, and for me it was unbearable. This is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Coetzee’s novels: they evoke a graphic and complicated sense of human brutality, especially crimes such as torture and rape that are rightly called unspeakable. This quality has made his work a matter of interest within philosophy as much as literary scholarship, bridging two New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
disciplines that are often divided by their concerns as much as their methods. J.M. Coetzee and Ethics is a collection of essays at this junction, where both critics and philosophers frame the author’s work within the discourse of human morals. But despite the cross-disciplinary setup, the partnership has often fallen short of camaraderie. Coeditor Anton Leist introduces a fairly contentious theme that runs throughout the collection: the seeming failure of philosophy to address matters of moral concern to the degree that literature does. Coetzee himself has not only said that he lacks “the philosophical equipment,” but also that philosophers are “unduly handicapped” by their methods. Leist drives the wedge deeper: he argues that philosophy, with its “naïve and complaisant views,” is either unwilling or insufficiently prepared to confront moral matters outside the theoretical. Leist writes: “Philosophers are not (to put it starkly) open to experience outside ideas, whereas writers, as devoted to human life, have a chance to pierce through the shell of ideas.” Leist takes as examples The Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians, two novels that draw graphic associations between Western rationality and the great Western crimes. Similarly, the philosopher Robert Pippin’s essay suggests, via Horkheimer and Adorno, that Coetzee presents the Western model of pursuing knowledge as unsuitable for reaching self-knowledge. As in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, many of Coetzee’s intellectual characters, including Lurie, submit to the Siren of instrumental reason and are not only entranced, but morally anesthetized. This is what I found most chilling on first reading Disgrace: I had no faith in Lurie’s humanity, and that realization profoundly injured me. In fact, while living in Berlin, I gave away my own copy to a flatmate who had split his youth between Cologne and Cape Town, where the first half of Disgrace takes place. He insisted that I inscribe the inside cover. I did, and I don’t recall what I wrote, but I know I avoided mentioning why I thought the book remarkable, as well as why I did not want it anymore. When I finally returned to Disgrace years later, I found that Lurie is redeemed in the end. He begins to develop a sense of empathy and humility after suffering a brutal attack and witnessing the rape of his daughter. After facing such horror, Lurie seems to reach a state of grace, ascending like Saint Paul from a blinding strike to find clarity and virtue. That night in Cairo I had faltered short of the cathartic payoff, and remained frozen in the moment of Lurie’s deepest wretchedness. What Coetzee’s novels offer, as many of the essays in this collection acknowledge, is the opportunity to follow his characters through their ethical development, to struggle in tandem through their crisis, so that it is possible, in the end, to share in their redemptive TLR
transformation. I was particularly taken with Samantha Vice’s account of what a reader stands to learn from Coetzee: “While complete understanding of situations and people may elude our grasp, we can still strive to attend to them in the receptive and vulnerable way that Coetzee’s fiction suggests is ethically required, where this ‘attending’ is at once intellectual and emotional and changes the way we perceive the world.”
Elyse Fenton Clamor By Paul-Victor Winters
I teach at a public high school. And I have “cafeteria duty.” Every year. For eight years. It’s a world of disturbing wonder. Of all the phenomena I encounter while monitoring the cafeteria, one that still takes me aback is that of military recruitment. Law, of course, requires schools to allow recruitment. Recruiters, sometimes former students, returned to us, polished, more grown, more refined, set up tables in the center of the cafeteria. Sometimes they will remain at their booths, distributing information as at an expo. Other times, they will wander the crowds of teenagers. Most, of course, do nothing that might seem nefarious, but there are times when I’m either outraged or, at least, nervously concerned. Some of the goodies on the recruiters’ tables are free—pencils, key chains, and whatnot. More coveted items—footballs, tee shirts—might come at a cost. Sometimes students are grouped together and the one who can do the most push-ups wins the prize. Sometimes a kid must fill out a “survey,” listing his or her contact information. It sometimes looks quite a bit like the strong preying upon the weak. And the kids in question are kids I care about. This line of thinking makes me hate the pushy recruitment I see at my school. Aimless teenagers are promised college tuition, a goodie bag. They’re given the promise of pride and purpose. I worry that they are not asked to consider the dangers, the rationale behind our wars, and the effects their deployments will have on their loved ones. I would ask each student considering enlisting to take a look at Clamor, the Cleveland, OH: CSU Poetry Series, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010.
debut collection of poems by Elyse Fenton and winner of The Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Not “war poetry,” per se, this collection is by a military spouse. The speaker in the poems is the same throughout and it seems fair to label the poems autobiographical. I may be cynical and overly suspicious, but an autobiographical speaker puts me on edge. Too often, such speakers seem more married to their own stories than to their obligations as storytellers. That said, Fenton seems wholly aware of her audience and seems to write for us, her readers, and not for herself. You might call this genre “war-bride poetry,” but its subjects are a bit more broad and its scope more all inclusive; while it does offer a sort of insider’s view into the life of a spouse of a deployed military medic, Clamor is actually a collection of poems at once trying to lift the brutal from its lowly state via lyricism and also a collection trying to shake impossible and overwhelming nightmares. Can the lyric moment in a poem elevate a reader from gritty subject matter? I’d say not. What’s grim is grim. Fenton seems to examine this, the desire to utilize lyricism and “the poetic” as a means to save what cannot be saved. Something as ugly as war cannot be turned into something lovely. And the hope that poignancy might exist in lyricism is bound to fail. The speaker in these poems occasionally looks toward the realm of dreams, a place where one might hope to find freedom from brutality. “The Dreams,” one of the most powerful poems of the collection, showcases brutality’s knack for enveloping the whole self: “The Dreams have gatekeepers / in trench coats woven from tire shavings and thorn.” Here, the sleeper cannot sleep; the speaker is ruined to the core. “Infidelity” deals with the guilt of dreaming horrible fates for her deployed lover. “Metal Sandwich” is a frightening dream sequence in which the speaker finally wakes “to a morning full of consequence and holes.” Dreams provide no escape. Perhaps because the speaker wishes to display the consistency of love in a harsh environment, she seems also to want the beauty of language to transcend the coarseness of her subject matter. In “North Coast”: “Low tide unscrolls a surfy bricolage of shell / and carapace and kelp and finally we’re prepared to see.” Similarly, the poem “Charon” seeks a saving musicality: There was sun and slough. There was shin-deep in the quick waters and places where the mayflies’ wing-drag filigreed the air, where my own hook-flash
wracked the mud-skinned surface and a hundred violent mouths rose up to feed.
Sure, the lyrical can point to poignancy in the mundane, but, consistently, this speaker is undone by the gruesome. That’s what the gruesome does. It shakes us in a way that no well-turned phrase can unshake. For nine years, Americans have been asked to support our troops. On one hand, that’s quite easy to do; the sacrifices made by our military personnel and the immense risk they undertake are outrageous. For those of us who feel that we should never have gone to war in the first place, there are some complications. Surely, we can’t blame the troops, who, arguably, are fighting for our benefit. What better way to support them but by ending the war entirely and reuniting them with their families? The phrase itself—support our troops—becomes an empty rhetorical gesture with less power than even a yellow-ribbon car magnet. When I think again of my students filling out their contact information in exchange for free “Army of One” frisbees, I think of the characters in Clamor, counting bodies, recounting tales of wreckage and carnage, longing, and shuddering from the menace of the unknown. Sometimes, the mere act of telling a troubling story is troubling. Sometimes language doesn’t serve to organize, save, or heal. “After the Blast” presents the lingering image “snagging like fabric on barbed fence.” The speaker of “Love in Wartime” explains: I have to believe in more than signifiers— that the world cannot be dismantled by the word alone. That language is not an uncoupling dance or the sparkless grinding of meaning’s worn flint, a caravan of phosphorous tails burning up the breathable air.
In that poem, meaning is only found in a faraway lover’s “mouth & its live wetness, [his] tongue / & its intimate knowledge of flesh.” By way of serving as example, Clamor forces us to consider the ways in which we use language to help us see more clearly that which is difficult to face, while also forcing us to accept the ultimate inability of language to save us from the nightmarish. More than just an urbane examination of language, however, Clamor is a sort of field guide to a difficult, stark psychic land.
Ruth Franklin A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truths in Holocaust Fiction By Anne Baney
The moment the credits flashed on the screen, even before I was able to dash to the back of the classroom and flip on the lights, students’ hands shot up in the air and their questions began. “But how much of it was true?” “Did he really eat pickles?” “Can I go on Wikipedia and find out what really happened?” As an English teacher, my frustration boiled. We had just finished watching The Pianist, the 2002 film based on the true story of musician Władysław Szpilman’s struggle in the Warsaw ghetto, his rescue, and his strange, removed observation of the uprising. I find the film almost unbearably beautiful. Sweeping shots of a city in complete devastation are juxtaposed with Chopin. For me, it is one of the few Holocaust films that captures hunger. As Adrien Brody disappears into a skeletal version of himself, my own stomach turns with disgust and disbelief. And yet, the truth, not the emotion or storytelling or horror of it all, but the word-by-word, scene-by-scene accounting, what actually happened, was all that concerned my students. They had missed the whole thing. Just a few weeks later I was walking back from the teachers’ cafeteria with my coworker, Styrofoam tray in hand, complaining about how terrible my Holocaust unit was going. After the fiasco with The Pianist I began teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night, a standard in English curriculums across the country, and was met by surprising disinterest. She recommended a wonderful new Holocaust book she had recently read. She began telling me a story of a woman in hiding and letters that were written. Before I could stop myself, the question popped out: “Is it true?” My cheeks burned New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
before I finished saying it. I hated myself for asking what I knew was not important. Obviously literary merit is not based on historical truth. She faltered a moment before answering that it was fiction and then jumped immediately into a defense that I remember included the phrase “exquisitely written.” I had tuned out, though. I was busy berating myself, but at the same time, I knew that I would never read it. It wasn’t even a true story. As a lover of fiction, my double standard doesn’t make sense. Neither does my understanding of truth when it comes to storytelling. I readily accept that not all memoir is literally true. Perspective and memory are fluid. The essence of truth is all that is essential for me as a reader. But somehow Holocaust literature is held to a different standard. I watched the James Frey debacle with interest and amusement, but felt rage at the exposure of Misha Defonseca and Herman Rosenblat for their fraudulent recollections. The sanctity of the Holocaust changes how I read, view, and teach literature. That is why literary critic Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction was almost embarrassingly illuminating for me. It called into question far more than my simplistic view of what is a true story. It probes into shades of truth that I never even thought to explore. She explains, “If fiction could ever be a complete invention, then it wouldn’t be able to teach us what we know, or think we know about life . . . The historian’s anvil and the novelist’s crucible perform different functions, but they are made out of the same material.” Franklin, senior editor at The New Republic, expertly examines the complexity of witnessing and in turn raises far more universal questions about why we create and consume art, how authority is gained within literature, and why, despite Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” it is also essential. I’ve taught English for the past twelve years and have explored some piece of Holocaust writing, be it from Anne Frank, Simon Wiesenthal, Primo Levi, or Elie Wiesel, during almost every one of them. While I love these texts, they are also a constant source of dread for me. I am not a history teacher, and to examine the writings of a witness for theme, symbolism, irony, and language, as I would with other works seems a bit sacrilegious. I am especially insecure about my purpose when teaching Night to twelfth-graders. By that point in their education they know the facts of the Holocaust well and yet to look at it as a work of art or to question any of its sentiments seems just wrong. Franklin understands this and acknowledges my, and the world’s, hesitation, but delves right in, asserting:
No book—not even Borowski’s, bound in the relics of concentration-camp clothing—should be treated as a hallowed object, to be worshiped and obeyed rather than analyzed. If a novel about Auschwitz is either ‘not a novel or not about Auschwitz [as Wiesel once famously pronounced],’ then what are we to do with Night? Such an approach, which equates questioning with denial, runs explicitly counter to the love of dialectic that Wiesel himself displays in his memoir, with its enigmatic stories inviting many possibilities for interpretation. For the purpose of a commentary, as Wiesel knows well, is to explicate—but also to invite discussion, argument, further commentary. And as even the young kabbalist in the death camps knows, the union of question and answer will take place only in eternity.
In her chapter on Wiesel she challenges his declaration that imaginative representations insult the dead and that we should instead limit ourselves to testimonies and documentaries. Franklin meticulously analyzes the changes made in the new 2007 edition of Night, compares the events in Night with those in Wiesel’s All Rivers Run to the Sea (his other memoir), and examines the literary techniques used in both, proving that Wiesel himself has taken some artistic license. This analysis was startling. I had taught the older edition of Night in a previous school, but when I moved to my current school only had access to the newer edition. Lines and scenes I thought I had remembered I managed to convince myself that I had invented. I even said to a colleague one day, “Wasn’t there something about Zionism in Night? I can’t find it now.” When she didn’t recall, I blamed it on my own jumbled memory. The printed word, particularly that of Eli Wiesel, held stronger powers of truth than my own mind. However, instead of harvesting doubt or skepticism about him or his experiences throughout this study, Franklin manages to reaffirm my awe of Wiesel and belief in the importance of Night. Does it matter that Wiesel’s simple, deliberate style is truly journalistic in every sense when “[t]o read it is to lose one’s own innocence about the Holocaust all over again”? Her critique inspired a fresh look at a book I thought I knew well and a new level of understanding for the difficulty of classifying a book as autobiography, nonfiction, memoir, novel, or any blending of these genres. What was most astounding to me was how deeply multifaceted Franklin shows truth to be. The question of accuracy and reality is far more complicated than Wiesel’s editing or the fuzzy memories of survivors. The publishing world and perspective of the readers interfere dramatically. Tadeusz Borowski’s writings included in the volume We Were in Auschwitz (1946) were originally bound in black-andwhite prisoner stripes—some versions in the actual cloth of prisoners’ clothing—and published with concentration-camp numbers as bylines. These details of authenticity on top of Borowski’s clear, detached documentary style would give the impression
that the text is indisputable, however “despite the apparently confessional tone of these stories, despite the apparent identity of the author and narrator, a haze persists regarding the matter of their genre. How can we account for their double publication: first as ‘fragments of what the authors themselves experienced and saw with their own eyes,’ then in the Polish press as short stories? It is up to the reader to decide to which category they belong: nonfiction or fiction, neither or both.” The publishing world complicates our understanding of authenticity in an even more bizarre way with Jakob Littner’s My Journey through the Night, an autobiography that made its way through the strange currents of editing, ghost writing, and publishing until it gained fame as Wolfgang Koeppen’s novel Jakob Littner’s Notes from a Hole in the Ground. Franklin reveals that this “appears to be the first time that a text believed to be fiction turned out to be based on fact.” What a shocking and delightful surprise in a time when Oprah and the best-sellers’ list is saturated with fiction posing as memoir. Franklin is particularly astute in evaluating why the grayness of truth is important in a Holocaust work. In her chapter on Primo Levi she analyzes an invented detail from The Periodic Table. Levi imagined dialogue and attributed it to Gabriella Garda. Franklin writes that “Garda asked him to remove it, but he refused, telling her that it revealed her nature better than anything that actually took place.” This idea of the importance of lies in order to really make the audience comprehend the truth becomes even more important in the chapter about Schindler’s List. With his documentaries through the Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg lets us “feel only the presence of the witnesses; watching Schindler, rightly or wrongly, we feel that we ourselves are in the thick of it.” She points out that the Germans kept records; we know the facts. Documentary footage cannot quite tap the same emotional connection. It calls to mind so many of the other texts I teach and love. Every year I spend time pulling apart Tim O’Brien’s rules on “How to Write a True War Story,” from The Things They Carried, and watch students smile and nod with excitement as they begin to agree that fiction can be true. Their eyes go wide with amazement when I hand out the original article that inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood and as a result create New Journalism. But most of all, I am reminded of when I used to teach the play The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, to eighth-graders. Despite my bringing in excerpts from the actual diary, which to me is much more literary and moving, and showing the film Anne Frank Remembered, it was only those last lines of the play where Anne reads “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart,” and Mr. Frank responds “She puts me to shame,” that consistently would induce watery TLR
eyes and sniffles in my middle-schoolers. A work of fiction taught them true empathy. In my classes I constantly focus on perspective and its role in truth—you know, all that English-class stuff like the unreliable narrator and dramatic irony. Franklin’s book makes the idea of perspective infinitely more interesting, complicated, and deep. Her chapter on Piotr Rawicz made my head spin with its layers of perspective and authentication. Rawicz spent a year in hiding before his imprisonment in Auschwitz and Leitmeritz. However, his book Blood from the Sky: absolutely refuses to conform to standard notions about what a Holocaust novel should be . . . Rawicz’s novel, though it tells the story of a catastrophe, is not a novel of witness. In fact, the persona of the writer that emerges from the cobbledtogether sketches, poems, and reports that constitute the book is a kind of antiwitness—a man who deliberately omits or alters dates, place names, and names of people; who mistakes human heads for cabbages; who introduces another chronicler to fill in a missing piece in of his story; and who even implies that he took part in one of the incidents of violence on which he reports.
Blood from the Sky is framed with an unnamed narrator who receives documents from a man named Boris. The narrator translates Boris’s story for the reader, openly choosing which facts and documents to share and adding his own details and deleting Boris’s at will. Franklin’s navigation through this blurry story of a survivor writing fiction that is based on false documents that feel real is thoroughly enjoyable in that mind-boggling way. Her twisting journey questions the importance of authenticity for both the reader and writer. The question of authority within Holocaust writing struck me as particularly fascinating. My own egocentric mind kept coming back to my insecurities as a teacher of the Holocaust. Day one of every Holocaust unit includes a terrible moment where a student raises a hand and asks “Are you Jewish?” No. Always on the tip of my tongue is the awful phrase “but I have Jewish friends.” I don’t know how to legitimize my authority. Even worse, my colleague, my friend with whom I eat lunch and depend on for teaching advice, is the daughter of a survivor. Her father was saved by Simon Wiesenthal, her mother-in-law was in the camps. She has the right to speak about the Holocaust, not me. Franklin delves into this question of authority in new and varied ways. Borowski was criticized as “distasteful and even immoral” because of the “utterly unforgiving way in which they (the authors of We Were in Auschwitz) portray the behavior of the prisoners toward each other.” Do Holocaust writers only obtain authority through being heroic? In her chapter on Steven Spielberg she acknowledges the conundrum of our urge to hear about heroism but that “the happy 158
ending of Schindler’s story is permissible only because it is true. If it were fictitious then [Thomas] Keneally becomes the manipulator of emotions, a cynical sower of false hopes, lining his pockets with gold spun from the dross of the Holocaust.” Most interesting is Franklin’s analysis of writings by children of Holocaust survivors, the second generation, and the idea of inherited trauma, shared history, and the desire to view all Jews as survivors since Hitler meant to eliminate them. She writes “they have convinced themselves, often by means of complicated maneuverings in postmodernism and trauma theory, that they are in some essential way primary in this dark story—the second generation’s ‘memories’ of the Holocaust are as valid as those of survivors.” I was curious about her choice to reveal her own connection—her grandparents are survivors and her mother was born in a displaced-persons camp shortly after the war. Does it make her more of an expert than her previous 200 pages of beautiful and scholarly writing? My current Netflix queue has four Holocaust films in it. My husband has never seen Schindler’s List. I have never seen Europa, Europa. We feel guilty about it. As these movies make their way to the top of the list, we consistently bump them back down. We are never in the mood for a Holocaust flick. And yet Franklin’s book suddenly makes me want to run to the library and read the tales she’s so beautifully explicated. While she acknowledges the perverse urge to bear witness to tragedy and the moral dilemma of never being able to truly understand the horror, she also rekindled my need to honor those who suffered and explore the darker side of humanity. In her conclusion Franklin implores her readers that Holocaust writings must teach us something more universal, something for the future, “for a novel about Auschwitz can never only be a novel about Auschwitz: it is a novel also about Armenia, about Siberia, about Cambodia, about Sarajevo, about Darfur.” Likewise, a book about lies and truth in Holocaust fiction is not merely about the Holocaust, but about why we study history, why we read, and why we tell stories.
Robert Lopez Asunder Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2010 Robert Lopez doesn’t care about you, reader. Though he may not be entirely at fault: perhaps he’s been the victim of eavesdropping—tapped through his head, all of his thoughts transcribed onto the page. He indulges in monologues, daydreams, and narrative meanderings, the sentences firing off and ending like flash messages between synapses (or the neurotic admissions that a self-conscious person would likely be too self-aware to admit). In fact, the entire time I read Asunder, I’m sure the text was completely unaware of me. And that’s why it was such a thrill and a pleasure to read. —Matt Ryan
Barbara Hamby and David Kirby, eds. Seriously Funny: Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010 Not just the usual suspects—but a happy mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. The intelligent, (lowercase c) catholic editors have chosen poems that “feature a central self . . . who is creating a reality through language rather than describing what already exists”—a superb guideline for poems period! Arranged by theme, Seriously 160
is a vast and mostly exciting terrain of aesthetics and humors. Surely the editors had the brilliant “Praying Drunk,” by Andrew Hudgins, in mind throughout its compilation: “Dear Lord,” Hudgins says, “we lurch from metaphor to metaphor, / which is—let it be so—a form of praying.” Seriously Funny is a prayerbook for every reader. —Renée Ashley
Thomas E. Kennedy Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down Fort Collins, CO: New American Press, 2010 The episodes of this novel-in-essays take a self-designated “old dude” on a series of unfulfilled encounters with a number of desirable Danish women. Their “pretty eyes sparkle mischievously”; but that glitter is all he gets. Newly sixty-five and suddenly bereft of a companion, he seeks immediate sex and hopes for eventual love. While the old dude experiences one frustration after another, the reader is continually satisfied by the energy of the telling. Will there be a physical consummation to match the aesthetic? —Walter Cummins
Adam Phillips On Balance New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010 “Nothing makes people more excessive,” Phillips’s new psychological treatise about balance proclaims in the first line, “than talking about excess.” And from there I am hooked. I read and read trying to determine where my excesses lie, and why, even more interestingly, I am riled so much by the excesses of others. Phillips challenges the idea that we are controllable, calm beings and instead asks us, Why do we want to be so in control, what does it gain us, what does it lose us? In a way, it’s totally liberating to read something that says, You are going to fail at this “rational” life, so try, be the best you can, but understand that it’s the trying that counts. It feels so good to succeed. —JS
Hiromi Kawakami Manazuru Translated by Michael Emmerich; Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010 This is the most compelling book about emptiness I have ever read. “Emptiness” isn’t quite right, because although Kei’s husband vanished twelve years earlier, the book is full of a rich—even lavish—evocation of that loss. Kei seeks a narrative to give shape to her misfortune, sparring with ghosts, or perhaps herself. Finally, though, through writing a novel (this one?) and giving up on a married lover, something shifts in her, and the same exquisitely noted details of everyday life that had once evoked such bleakness become suffused with light, life, and humor. The transformation creates a balanced human story from an existential nightmare. —Karen A. Smyers
Shane Book Ceiling of Sticks Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010 This debut poetry collection invokes a dazzlingly emotional variety of textual life. Shane Book moves from highly personal metaphysical ruminations on language to Proustian leapfrogging of past and present experience to stunningly empathetic moments of political witness (“With his stunted machine / gun the checkpoint soldier waves / us down, stilling the drum and creak / of the tro-tro bus”). The phases between poems, between poetic modes (sometimes even in the same poem) seem almost impossibly natural, for his vision is figuratively crisp (“The past is a loan shark. It lends to anyone / And you can never pay it back.”), and lets the reader pulse with the electric continuity between here and there, between then and now, with a profound immediacy and a sorrow that is somehow joyously vivid in its offering. —John King
Gustaf Sobin Collected Poems By Mark Hillringhouse
I am grateful to Talisman House Publishing and to Ed Foster, its publisher, for collecting the eight books of Gustaf Sobin’s previously published poetry, along with some newer poems from 2004–2005, into one volume. Most Americans will be unfamiliar with this native Bostonian who left the United States in 1962 and spent most of the rest of his life in Goult, in Provence. The French influence on his writing is palpable, but it is the influence of his being an expatriate living in linguistic isolation that shapes his language consciousness. And as the editors, Andrew Joron and Andrew Zawacki, point out in their introduction, Sobin’s influences range from Wordsworth to Mallarmé along with René Char, whom Sobin grew close to and befriended and who became a mentor and introduced him to a range of French and European poets and intellectuals. It is through Char that Sobin was able to meet Heidegger during the several occasions that Heidegger came to visit Char in the French countryside. Stylistically Sobin resembles the more contemporary American poet Robert Creeley rather than the older French poet Char. Sobin writes in verbal fragments, sonic chunks of speech. Words are divided and enjambed in odd places and sometimes stand alone or they are broken into syllables and they are given lots of visual space on the page where the line picks up further down. He wants us to pay attention to each word, to the way the words are inflected, and to the sounds of each syllable. By visually isolating words and parts of speech, he makes the reader conscious of this liminal realm between what language brings to consciousness and our ability to proNew York: Talisman House, 2010.
cess the phenomenon of our being—this is the language of “Dasein.” And “Dasein” is simply the act of being in the moment, and the language of poetry for expressing this being-in-time is a language that is authentic and engages us with the world we inhabit. This is Sobin’s strength, finding this language and using it to pull him into his surroundings. There are examples throughout his work, but one in particular struck me as being emblematic. His use of language here creates what the French call: “un alliage des mots dans le creuset de l’expérience de la vie.” It is in the opening poem titled “Prelude I” in the book The Places as Preludes: do the distances ever end? does the air, at last, resonate at its own according? work, then, those scuttled expanses
Sobin isn’t exactly conjuring Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquility,” even though there is something of Wordsworth in Sobin’s belief that nature is a spiritual realm for the lonely wanderer. And probably no poet escapes that Romantic quality, especially not one who lived so close to nature, as Sobin did in the South of France. Sobin’s first book, Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle, published in 1973, pays homage to Hopkins (his other great influence after Wordsworth) in the opening poem titled “Dominion,” which takes its handoff from Hopkins, and like any good jazz musician, Sobin riffs and takes the Hopkins line as far out as he can roll it: not light. not even
the seeds of
dreaming through the flesh,
the breath still numb, its shimmering globe still wordless, imminent: an opal trolling falcons!
But Sobin’s focus in this first book is not on paying homage to God’s grandeur, but to the earth itself, as in these lines from “The Turban,” also from his first book: earth, asleep, in the music of its spores, 164
earth, asleep, in the music of its spores, the body is blown through the tongue into a perfect turban of bees and deep thunder.
Even in these early poems, Sobin’s direction as a poet was clearly formed. “The body is blown through the tongue” is his nonbiblical way of saying “the word became flesh.” Roland Barthes would have referred to Sobin’s poetry as a form of “white writing,” where language has become the focus. In reading him, I could tell how very sensitive he is to the polar tensions in language, that binary balance of opposites inherent in the presence of words and their absences. His poetry is a tantalizing mix of meditative and philosophical investigations on the nature of being. His poems seem structured around the notion that our perception of reality is processed through language. There are many examples, but one poem in particular, “Garde Fou,” from his book Towards the Blanched Alphabets, published in 1998, gave me pleasure in its use of verbal play aimed at trying to pry meaning out of verbal experience: deserted stations. has the heart edges? clouds, a lost architecture of their own? was there a “where,” a “where-house,” a world that we hadn’t yet invested? had you worked finally, past your last definitions? here, you’d say: here, here’s a shed, all tin, clapboard, asbestos: a hovel at the outskirts
It is poetic ontology—repeating its round logic in each stanza. Sobin also offers an “ars poetica” in this poem as he does in many of his poems, where the poet uses an inner monologue about his very presence in the poem as a poet. And from that early book to his last book, The Places as Preludes, published in 2005 before he died, his poems frequently return to his obsession—the phenomenology of existence. Here is the beginning of “Prelude I,” quoted earlier:
would begin anywhere, wouldnâ€™t you, as if there were still there, and you still yourself in this phenomenological drift to wards some all-but il lusory absolution . . .
The importance Heidegger placed on the linguistic value of poetry is evident hereâ€” that poetry lends credence and meaning to how we live, and that it is deeply rooted in our authentic experience. Sobin takes up this existential challenge in every poem.
Leïla Marouane The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris By Deborah Hall
I finished The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leїla Marouane, on a night when it was raining in Tallahassee, and the café where I had been reading was a warm balm effusing a yellow light of calm against a stormy sky. I closed the page and looked out the window to a steady drizzle dampening the deck of Blackdog Café. Beyond the deck, beyond the grassy yard where local farmers set up every Wednesday to sell soap, cheese, and vegetables, past the sidewalk and a slanted shoreline of rocks, Lake Ella’s broad gray body was swelling and threatening to flood. Even the rowdy ducks were nesting quietly in defense of the weather. I was stunned, not by ducks or rain, but by narrative. I stared across this wet dismal landscape, blinking and squinting, wondering if Marouane had just pulled off what I thought she had. I blushed at my naivété and rushed back to the beginning. Marouane embraces a complicated, mysterious narrative in The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, her fifth novel. The first line of the novel begins with a point-ofview shift that is unsettling as it defies narrative logic by switching perspective within a single sentence: “It came over me [italics mine] all of a sudden, he said. I was at my desk,” and the rest of the chapter continues in first person. Each chapter begins this way (for one sentence) with a mysterious third-person reference to the first-person narrator. I wondered what Marouane meant by this point of view shift, but then I was pulled into the larger narrative, ensconced in the world of a wealthy AlgerianFrench banker named Momo (short for Mohamed), whose narcissism and obsessive Translated from French by Alison Anderson. New York: Europa Editions, 2010.
tendencies to fantasize sexual encounters rather than act them out was driving him to a mental, cultural, and familial split. In Part One of this three-part novel, Momo extracts himself from his family, acquiring his own expensive apartment in an old and exclusive French neighborhood (on rue Saint-Placide), but he takes 113 pages to finally admit the move to his devoted Islamic mother. When asked if he is coming home for dinner, he lies and obfuscates. He ignores her calls. He says he is and doesn’t. I kept thinking, What is the big deal? And there, Marouane had exposed my Western cultural bias just as she intended. Trying to comprehend the title “Dissidence” from Part One, I busily scribbled in the margins that in this section “an eldest forty-year-old brother in an Arab family living in Paris moves out of his mother’s apartment as a tremendous act of disobedience to both family and culture,” not truly understanding the significance of this act until the end of the novel, in Part Three, where our narrator’s mind splits because of the pressure of a dual cultural existence. It permeates his brain so deeply that he cannot function and, by the end, this mundane setup has exemplified Momo’s spiral away from reality. His mind makes its final break on that last page: “A moment later, I entered a world of fire and ice. Where wolves howl and men are silent.” My mistake was that I assumed the narrator was sane and similar to me. I had been reading as an American, a Westerner, who could not fathom the significance of separation from one’s family as a dissident act. In America, leaving one’s parents is a mark of being an adult; it’s expected. Living with one’s mother, especially for a man in his forties, is a specific reason to cast suspicion on his ability to be an independent and responsible partner. In some kind of intercultural critique, Marouane is also criticizing this aspect of her own culture, demonstrating how the children of the immigrant families are torn culturally—and thus mentally—when their parents impose a cultural standard that grows obsolete in new cultural surroundings: “My freedom had no price, and I had ample means to live the way I intended to live from now on.” Having acquired a separate apartment, our narrator assures himself that he will not have to entertain his mother there: My mother, perpetually clinging. My mother, sticky as a makrout. My mother, sticking to her son. However, just as in the old days, when the women in the Kasbah never ventured into the European quarters, my mother never came to the center of Paris.
One would think my experience dating a French-Arab man and visiting his family in Paris would have equipped me culturally to see and understand these differences—for example, how it is for an elder Arab male or how one brother might forgo marriage out of respect for an elder unmarried brother as Momo’s younger brother does—but it didn’t. Memories of cultural misunderstandings came flooding back from my time in France. In one, my boyfriend Khalil wanted me to attend a family wedding, but I had to be escorted by his sisters. I assumed this meant he really didn’t want me to go and didn’t want to offend me, so we argued. “I’d rather stay at the apartment,” I said. When his explanation made no sense, I concluded he was hiding something, so I stayed home. I felt crazy. As the rain hit the café window and slid down the pane in crooked lines, I was patting my own back thinking about The Yellow Wallpaper and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s demonstration of the slippery slope of the mind and all the ways I’d connect the two, but I couldn’t figure out why the novel in my hands, the one whose orange cover might look like a little fire in my lap from across the room, was an unsolved puzzle, and I wondered why the female Algerian novelist in Part Two who plays such a strange role in Momo’s life kept turning up loaning Momo books or listening to his sexual woes. How did she fit into the whole picture? When I reached the end, it hit me so hard I had to turn back, start at the beginning, and shoot through again, telling myself this is how it must have been for Gilman’s first audience. But Gilman’s mental unraveling is only one layer. Marouane accomplishes several more. In Part Two, Marouane turns up the narrative magic. The Algerian novelist who is dubbed “Loubna Minbar” is likely an insertion of the author “Leïla Marouane” (same initials), who is also a novelist living in Paris. Loubna is connected to all the women for whom Momo fantasizes, as all seem to describe the same girl. The strange third-person reference at the beginning of each chapter is the signal that someone else is telling Momo’s story or that Momo’s telling of it is part of Loubna’s novel that Maroune is—of course—really writing. We find out that Momo also wants to write a novel, and Loubna is there to help him. Then Momo, in his paranoia, suspects that Loubna is stealing his lines, stealing his life, and writing a novel about him, and if you’re unsuspecting, as I was, you might miss the fact that the unreliable narrator is not just paranoid here. Our narrator has been throwing plot crumbs, planting them all along. For instance, Part Three opens with a quote from Loubna Minbar, “No books are committed without a motive,” and I should have been doinking my forehead and focusing. Marouane is writing with a motive! At times, I wondered if an Arab man reading this male-narrated novel would TLR
cringe with incredulity or if the comically described sexual fantasies for French women were purposely designed to be irritating to a male reader or to purposely point to the true narrator, an Arab woman either teasing men or warning Arab men of European women: “Sure of her charm, or so I believed at first, this white woman with her malevolent gaze, who scorned my race and my little curls but revered my pay stubs and my Hugo Boss jacket, aspired to only one thing—to tie the knot, around my neck.” This made me wonder if the motive was to demonize or sexualize French women the way Arab women have sometimes been exoticized. Marouane could have several motives. One possible hint to motive comes from Loubna, revealing how a male novelist had taken petty revenge on her when she criticized him in a review for using a female pseudonym when writing his crime fiction. Was Marouane demonstrating how she could take revenge in a novel? Was she demonstrating how irritating it was when male novelists wrote the sexual fantasies of women? Or when female novelists imagined how men coveted their penises, as in this example: “‘Oh really?’ I said, looking at my sleeping cock, which was enormous, it’s true, but absolutely immaculate, unburdened of its hair.” I wondered if Marouane inserted these lines as some kind of coded revenge, an act that warns, “We women can play this game too.” Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris ends with the realization that someone else has been telling Momo’s story all along, because the closing line uses third person like the opening lines: “A place where, he said to me, you have come to listen to me at last.” Momo has been telling his story to Loubna Minbar, who has, indeed, been writing about him. There is every indication that he has lost his mind. Here is his behavior near the end: “Through the spy-hole I saw the concierge, and with her my sister, the blessed one, and my heart skipped a beat. They have come to inform me of something inconceivable, I thought, struggling not to pass out. My mother in the hospital. Alone. Of sorrow. Already in the morgue.” With the arrival of his sister, we get a perspective that clarifies that everything is not as Momo says it is. He lies to himself, to us, to his family, and to the concierge. So with my brain doing flippy flops, I looked up from the novel and out to the gloom of a swollen gray lake, and I felt warmed, even sad, by the thought that inspires Momo to make his first fire in his fireplace after looking across the Parisian skyline and seeing “blueish plumes” rising above the roofs. Momo is living in a metaphoric hell, but hell can be many things. Independence, even from one’s own mind, is sometimes the only freedom one can take. That we all have in common. This hell, the novel seems to say, is the price that Momo will pay. 170
Benjamin Percy The Wilding By Jody Handerson
I’m not a big fan of scary; movies, books, amusement–park rides, I just don’t get it. It seemed to me—especially after I stepped across the no-returns, no-refunds line into adulthood—that life in general is pretty damn frightening. Why seek out that experience when it is more than willing to join you at the least expected moments? I am that woman who put the Stephen King novel in the freezer at night, shut her eyes when Linda Blair’s head spun around and pea soup came out. I am the one standing off to the side, holding all the bags and souvenirs while everyone else falls fifteen stories in the Tower of Terror. So when Benjamin Percy’s debut novel, The Wilding, arrived on my doorstep and I began leafing through it, reading a page here and a page there, I thought, oh dear—scary, time to clear some space in the freezer. While this novel is robustly literary, it tingles with tension. From the first page to the last there is a constant and escalating sense of apprehension—no rest, no release, just build. It’s one of those novels you start out reading in small manageable bites and end up finishing in one big gulp at two in the morning, mostly because you are bug-eyed scared and can’t possibly put it down. Besides, if you got out of bed to head for the freezer, whatever is lurking under the bed would have you by the ankles in a heartbeat. Percy has chosen a limited group of main characters. Around these complex and often uncomfortably familiar individuals, Percy builds a story about violence— in particular, the violence of the hunt. Everybody is stalking somebody and in turn Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2010.
being stalked themselves; a brutally realistic portrayal of physical, emotional, and mental wilderness. In alternating chapters, the author gives us Justin, a compellingly average highschool English teacher who embarks on a hunting trip with his father and young son, and Brian, a somewhat disturbed war veteran/locksmith/fur trapper who is stalking Justin’s wife while husband, son, and grandfather are both hunting and being hunted (grizzly bear—oh my) in the woods. No spoiler here, I’m not going to tell you who gets munched, shot, knocked off a cliff, or knifed in the end. Percy has an appreciation and respect for the Oregon wilderness that permeates his novel. The author even claims Oregon as a “muse” in his description of his book: “I want to carve out a place for myself here, as Hawthorne did in New England and Faulkner did in the South.” It’s an ambitious undertaking. Yet he has a gift for imagery that keeps a nervous woman turning the pages even as the story builds toward those inevitable, terrifying moments of confrontation. His light touch with language is present, evocative and expressive: His darkened ribs look like the legs of a dead spider, curled upon itself. Crab grass grows through his knuckles and around his skull like hair. He seems to have grown out of the soil and is now receding into it. A moth lands on the skull, flexing its wings and tasting from the black pool of an eye socket, before taking flight.
The Wilding is tense and compelling, described as a possible “eco-novel,” yet never didactic. It is, rather, a persuasive and terrifying peek into the nature of violence, well worth the risk of a sleepless night. I’d lend you my copy, but I’ll have to defrost it first.
Christian Hawkey Ventrakl By Cassie Hay
B E R LI N, J U LY 30, 2010
The ticket-taker wears a black tuxedo with red silk cummerbund. He has a ruddy face and his body is round and broad like a bear. He tears our tickets gruffly, exactly how I expect a German would tear tickets. I don’t know why I think that, but I do. It could be too much television. I see him curl his fat pink lips into a Wuh. Wilkommen. My sister and I have been in Berlin for three days and I’ve come to find Wilkommen comforting: foreign yet familiar. The ringing upward sound of the Wil heralds the start of the greeting, and kommen rolls down softly after. Wilkommen often sounds to me like the tinkling bell on a beauty-salon door. I wait for the word, watch for it, but the ticket-taker closes his mouth. He looks at me strangely, sweetly, then purses his lips and kisses the tickets loudly. He presses the saliva-covered tickets firmly into my palm, and smiles. He emits a long string of German phonemes that I do not understand and stretches his arms wide, a circus-master flourish, motioning us to walk through the door. It is such a funny, meaningless scene, one of many, like looking at a movie sequence on the cutting-room floor, seemingly unconnected to my own personal narrative. Still, on the playback I sometimes wonder, had I spoken German, would we have exchanged pleasantries? Wilkommen in Clärchens Ballhaus. Vielen Dank, gute Nacht. We said nothing. His spit was in my hand. The torn tickets are still in my purse zipper pocket, the edges curled from his saliva. Could I have bridged that language barrier or was my interaction even more vivid, forced into my imagination? Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010.
This scene came back to me abruptly when reading Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, a brilliant new book that is part prose, part poetry, part biography, and part photographic essay. Loosely speaking, Ventrakl is a conversation between two real-life writers, one living and one dead. Living is the poet, Hawkey, and dead is Georg Trakl, an Austrian poet who has been called one of the forebears of German Expressionism. Hawkey’s preoccupation here is with the very nature of translation, which he thinks of not as a retelling of story but as “a conversation or dialogue—and this means one is already entering a constructed, communal space.” Hawkey’s translations do not adhere strictly to Trakl’s text nor are his “interviews” taken from any recording device, but a richer atmosphere is achieved through homophonic translations, photographic analysis, and even white space. Hawkey gives life to the world between himself and Trakl and the relationship between literature and living. At one point, upon analyzing a photograph of Trakl as a young boy, Hawkey muses, “It is the viewer, then, who looks back, who must translate the photograph against itself, translate time against itself, put the image back in time, back into a century, a country, a culture, back into the camera, the lens, the moment the shutter clicked and the location of the shutter when it clicked. There is nothing special about this photograph.” There may be nothing special about the photograph of Trakl, but photography, like Hawkey’s writing, forces us to look at what we might otherwise overlook. The casual expression, the sound of foreign words rolling off the tongue, the multiple meanings that may be parsed out of a single phrase translated, and the juxtaposition of those meanings: all are Hawkey’s playground. The poet gleefully moves between ideas and pictures, the present and the past, grabbing pieces of each, the end result being that Hawkey is able to capture the cultural preoccupations of the two languages, German and English. The traces of pornography, the entertainment industry, and war mongering are rooted out. The reader experience is akin to something expressed by Roland Barthes, who is not coincidentally often referenced in Ventrakl, that “language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words.” The same night I met the ticket-taker I danced for hours in Clarchen Ballhaus. Around two in the morning, exhausted and happy from spinning, I saw him chatting with a waiter at the door. I only paused a moment to look and he did not look back this time. He remains that photograph for me.
Ceridwen Morris Jenny Offill Is There Anything Literary About Motherhood? Discussions about motherhood are cluttered with logistics, dark nuances, and commiseration. They are frequently conducted under the punch-drunk fog of sleeplessness, grammar-addling distraction, and amazement. Discussions about creativity and motherhood are even more fraught—almost a matter of creativity versus motherhood, and the enduring shock of a total paradigm shift. In this conversation, novelist Jenny Offill (Lost Things), aptly describes the exhilarating dark tunnel that swallowed her writing life with the blunt explanation: “I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I’ve been a mother.” Given all of the language of creativity and technique available to writers, and the equivalent mass of advice and instructions on pregnancy and parenting, there’s hardly a narrative bridge between creation and creativity. Offill and “mothering expert” Ceridwen Morris, author of From the Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Uncensored, Totally Honest Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, and Becoming a Parent, take up the stormy challenge of trying to explore and contain the experience of motherhood in a literary framework. Because there is, in fact, so much more than soggy diapers left to be explained. JENNY OFFILL: We all have a strange conception of life and what it’s going to be like. I wasn’t one of those people who always thought I was going to get married and have kids. In fact, I have a much clearer vision of the life I was going to have without kids. I would write, teach, and have affairs with unsuitable men who were jerks, but it wouldn’t matter because I was just going to end up using it as material in a novel anyway. I would have a crappy but okay ramshackle house with dogs and books. I was TLR
going to have acres of time to do what I wanted to do. I was going to be lonely, but I was going to have time. Instead, the equation is completely reversed. The radiant hours I imagined, where I get to be by myself and in my thoughts, that uninterrupted writing time, almost never occurs. But then the loneliness, which was a condition of my life certainly all through my twenties, is gone—or has been replaced by a different form of loneliness, which is more akin to a sense of alienation from the larger role that I’m supposed to be playing. Alienation from what it supposedly is to be a mother versus how I actually experience it. CERIDWEN MORRIS: Before you had a child, did you use all those vast amounts of time or did you still feel like you never had time? JO: The problem in those years was money. I always had a lot of jobs in order to buy myself time to write. I would work jobs for a while and then go away, usually to an artist’s colony or on a trip. I wrote in spurts. There would be three months when I wrote all the time, and then I would have to come back and do some stupid fact-checking job, or ghostwrite something—those cobbled-together jobs that I had before I finished my first book. I found all these notebooks when we moved. I started paging through them hoping there’d be some deathless prose I could save, and of course I can’t even read my own handwriting. But the thing I noticed was that every other page was filled with calculations—when checks were coming in, how much things cost. My best friend, the poet Joshua Beckman, and I used to trade the same two hundred dollars back and forth. CM: Do you think that loneliness you were talking about pushed you to write? Without the loneliness, would you have had the same . . . launch? JO: I do think the loneliness pushed me. My whole first novel is about longing, this thing that’s half glimpsed that you can see your way to sometimes and sometimes can’t. It’s about a doomed love between a mother and a child. I certainly used some of my own doomed romantic experiences for that book and transposed them into another kind of story. What has been stranger about this period in my life is that when my daughter was really little, I didn’t feel like I was allowed to have any space in my own head. The demands of a small child are directly opposed to the state of mind you need to write. When Faulkner talked about how a writer becomes a serious novelist, he said, “An artist is a creature driven by demons. He is completely immoral 176
in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. The writer’s only responsibility is to his art.” He goes on to say that Ode on a Grecian Urn is “worth any number of old ladies.” I call people like that—half in jealousy and half in horror—art monsters. But I understand art monsters. When I was young I was sure I would be one. The thing is, I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I have been a mother, so I understand wanting to write almost more than anything else. To be a writer in America where it’s not particularly valued, you have to be driven. And yet, once I had a kid, I was no longer allowed to work as obsessively as I once did. CM: It’s funny you say that you don’t feel “allowed.” Is that because there’s a cultural idea that you can’t hog that time? Or is it because we’re in such a physiological state of giving birth and nurturing, being physically and emotionally attached to a tiny creature who’s basically helpless, for much longer than we were told we’re going to be attached to them? Everyone refers to “once you get the baby out,” but there is no “out.” There’s a line in Rachel Zucker’s book of poems Museum of Accidents that just stopped me short when I read it: “Even the day my first-born son broke me open and split-shocked-shattered that quaint notion of before.” I always think about that quaint notion of before, because once it’s over it’s over. JO: But there is no You there anymore. That’s the “old you.” And you’re only a shade of it. CM: And that’s depressing, because it makes it seem that motherhood isn’t meaningful in itself, and that after it you’re less of a person than when you were just an individual. Do you feel like there’s resistance, among other mothers or the culture in general, to dealing with those emotions? Does the world give the impression that it’s something to get over? Just a stage and then you’ll get back to who you were? Or should you even try to regain your identity? It seems to me that there’s a quality in the general attitude informed by the women’s movement and second-wave feminism: you’ve got to get back to You and shake off this kid. JO: I did time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when my kid was little and that was where I first had the feeling that motherhood was some kind of higher calling for many people—as in, the most creative, fulfilling thing they’ve ever done. But then there’s the whole other world of people who pass around this book by Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, which is an amazing memoir about the very early years with her baby. TLR
CM: I loved it. JO: It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read about motherhood because when I was reading it I could feel the intensity of Cusk pushing back: All this is happening, but I refuse to be turned into a mother. Just a mother. If I have to sit at a Mommy & Me thing and sing idiotic songs for hours or talk about the relative merits of various hand-sanitizers, or compare nursing bras on the playground, I am going to wonder where my life went. That’s a world you’re not even supposed to talk about. You’re supposed to give yourself over to this avalanche of minutae, not ever be bothered by the tedium of it or by the way you go from having many roles that matter—writer, wife, friend, daughter—to suddenly only one: Mother. People who don’t have children will respond to stories like that by saying, “Well, you didn’t have to have a kid.” As if that’s the point. As if there’s any other similar huge experience that an over-talking, overanalyzing person like me, wouldn’t get to talk about. But motherhood, God forbid. Still, I understand it. Because there’s a primal fear with other mothers—and I have it too—that if you ever say things about wishing your life wasn’t the way it was, or that your kid didn’t do this or that difficult thing—there is some terrible god who will say “Okay, done. I’ll take her away. Here’s your old life back.” It’s such a terrifying thought that I feel afraid to even put it into words. I wanted to read you this passage from Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life because it speaks to this strange combination of fear and love we all feel: Nowadays those few who continued to see Dorrie at all registered her as a gloomy timid woman who had grown rather fat and overprotective of her three infants. They sighed with impatient pity to observe how easily small anxieties took possession of her, how her sense of proportion appeared to have receded along with her horizons. She was never still, she was always available, a conciliatory twittering fusspot. Since the arrival of the children, one, two, and then three, in the space of four years, she had broken herself into little pieces like a biscuit and was now scattered all over the place. The urge—indeed, the necessity—to give everything, to throw herself on the bonfire, had been shocking, but now it was starting to wear off.
CM: It’s brilliant. JO: It was odd to observe that urge to “throw yourself on the bonfire” in myself, because I never felt as though I was naturally maternal. I used to joke that I could have been a good dad, because I thought I was all about distance. And yet, it was there. Even in the moments when I had time and space to myself, I couldn’t switch out of that sacrificial mode very easily. I’d want to concentrate and write something
fantastic and instead I’d be thinking: Remember to pick up baby wipes. We need applesauce. She needs a shot next week. Tinfoil, toilet paper, teething medicine. CM: If you’re going to be able to hold a big idea in your head for a long period of time, there’s no way you can do twenty things at once. You can blog, but most mommy bloggers don’t get paid; they may do it for free, possibly just to be able to do something other than take care of their baby. Sometimes it pays a little, it’s a flexible part-time job, you can be home for the kids—but then we’ve created a whole world of women sitting at home in living rooms, kids in the bouncy chairs, reading each others’ blogs and trying to drag traffic to each other’s sites—hounded by this feeling that there’s a lot of interesting things that could be said, but you have to say it fast. JO: A lot of the mommy blogs strike false notes to me: “It sure is crazy and hard. Kid’s running around with diaper on his head while I’m typing! The pot’s boiling over on the stove—but isn’t that just life!” Of course but there’s also a lot more going on in people’s lives than that, but I do sometimes feel like the only level of discourse mothers are allowed to share is about the hardness of parenting. They’re allowed to talk about how chaotic and nutty it is. But not about how lonely it is? Or how strange or how sublime even. I feel like a lot of the conversations stay at the level of how logistically hard it is but don’t really touch on how emotionally or intellectually hard it is. In the essay I wrote for Moistworks about when my daughter had colic, I discussed how my own life had become unrecognizeable to me. The image I used was of astronauts, who have to do all these make-work tasks that fill the day that are supposed to be done immediately and in a certain way, so that they don’t suddenly look around and realize they are in outer space, thousands of miles from other human beings. I compare motherhood to that, because it’s the same thing—you’re not supposed to look around and say I don’t recognize where I am. Sometimes I’m exhilarated, but I’m also sometimes terrified. My relationship with this man I love has completely changed, my relationships with my friends have changed, my relationship with my work has changed, and I’m supposed to turn it into a story about a messy diaper? That’s not all there is. CM: Your story about the astronaut feeling and finding yourself in a new world—I feel like that’s where the conflict comes in. This is something your kids are doing to you. The battle lines are drawn. Even during pregnancy. Look closely at the language of medical advice to women; there’s a total separation between mother
and baby. Sometimes you get the feeling that the whole culture is looking down at pregnancy and saying, You’re lucky to have that in there. It’s a time of great risk. The placenta is basically a joke. There’s nothing preventing that baby from getting hurt. But you get it; you don’t want to screw up your baby. The cultural dynamic is stronger than you. And it’s all fed by different, terrible parenting cultures. JO: They’re pernicious. They all make me feel like I’m being subtly coerced into something that’s meant to cut off one part of my actual experience. One side says, walk away from your own life, it’s all about your child now, and the other says it’s about getting back your own life and going on as before. But neither makes sense to me. One is horribly self-sacrificing and the other is asking you to ignore the part of your life that is more enriched and complicated and profound. I don’t want to go back to what it was before. I came across a great line the other day in a poem by Barbara Guest that captured it for me. It says: “I am closer to you than land but in a stranger sea than I wished.” But what about you? When did you become so interested in childbirth education? Was it before you had kids? CM: I can see now that it predates the kids. I’ve been interested in this stuff, in pregnancy, weirdly, since childhood. I was the oldest of four, and my mom had her babies at home. I grew up around it. I wasn’t romantic about it but I was incredibly curious and not squeamish at all. I was interested in the anatomy and the guts of it. My dad was a journalist, and I remember the early photographs inside the womb being in magazines around the house from when I was little. JO: That was a very seventies thing, to be able to see the womb and actual childbirth pictures. CM: And then I did Women’s Studies in college and got interested in the weird way Simone de Beauvoir talked about motherhood. JO: Was she even a mother? Her writing was so interesting to me before I had a kid, and now . . . well? CM: I know. I keep wanting to revisit the whole “woman as womb” thing, because I think there’s a little bit of truth in it. Those Frenchies were very into the idea that motherhood was not something we need to resist and fight against, but an interesting part of a woman that made her different from men though not necessarily less important. 180
JO: They were on to something. And if you actually live there, it’s a very different experience to be a mother in France. CM: I’m sure it is. I read all this stuff but couldn’t find much about American women and motherhood. Adrienne Rich wrote the great Of Woman Born. When I was pregnant I couldn’t stop thinking about all my Women’s Studies reading from college. The same questions were coming back to me. I started to see in childbirth and new motherhood an opportunity—where women are really open again. You’re vulnerable and you’re asking others what they think. You’re not locked down. It’s an interesting time to talk with women. It also got me wondering what had happened to feminism. JO: People certainly don’t talk about it in a complex way anymore. Feminism got shoehorned into the little issues, rather than the big philosophical questions—the ones you find in the Greeks, too: “How, then, shall we live?” There’s a book I first read, strangely enough, when I was in my twenties. So I was anticipating problems instead of living them, which as a bookish person, is how I lived much of my life. The book is Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson. It’s fascinating because it’s all about women’s lives and the different accommodations and choices they’ve made as their life has not gone on the path they’ve imagined. She profiles a very rarified selection—scientists, academics—but even given that the book is about “the question of discontinuity. What do people do when they’re broken away from what they know.” People who were somehow able to make a story of continuity between their lives—even if they were doing something very different than before, as you might have been an engineer in your home country and a cab driver in this one—had an approach to life that helped you handle the vicissitudes. You can end the game of “I was supposed to have a second novel out ten years ago.” Which is the sort of thing I tortured myself with for a while. Because I thought I as supposed to have a certain career trajectory. I published my first novel at thirty and things seemed like they were going one way but then pregnancy, motherhood, chronic illness—in short, Life, with a capital L—derailed me and for a long time I stopped writing. And during that period I watched all of my writer friends, including Sam, move steadily forward. I felt very much like I’d run into the station to use the bathroom and then the train left, and ever since I’ve been living in a small, strange town trying to learn the language. CM: So you should write a novel about the bathroom. JO: I am writing about the bathroom instead of the trip. And maybe starting to imagTLR
ine the train ride again. Because once you’re past “How do I nurse?” “My baby’s not sleeping!” and “Will I ever have sex again?”—questions that cut deep, you’re not in it anymore and you forget. And part of me wants to remember, to get it on the page. I see women all the time—pushing a stroller, the baby strapped to their chest—they look like a bomb went off in their lives. I want to go up to them and say “I’ve been there,” especially if they’ve got a crying, screaming baby in their arms, because I did. But I don’t know how to cross that bridge. The same way I can’t say to the woman on the subway platform wearing tall, black boots and a really cute dress, heading out at eleven o’clock on a Friday night—“I remember your life. You don’t know mine yet.” I wish that someone, when I used to walk five hours a day with her to try to keep her from crying, had stopped me and instead of saying, “Put a hat on that baby!” or “What have you been feeding her?” had said, “Yes, it’s worth it. It gets better.” But of course, they couldn’t just say that. They’d have to be careful to say, “Don’t get me wrong. I always loved my children.” CM: You have to add the “I love my children.” JO: For me that ruins conversations I have with other mothers. Because the minute you get into anything real about motherhood, this anxiety begins to fill the conversation—about not speaking appropriately. People try to manage and control the uncontrollable emotion of love that is so ferocious once you are a mother—like no other. It really isn’t comparable to anything that came before, no matter how desperately in love with someone I thought I was. And in fact that despair from the early days doesn’t just transform neatly into “but it’s all so rewarding.” It becomes: “You get up every day and do what you need to be a mother.” CM: You were saying that as a mother, people become afraid of anything that hints at ambivalence. What’s missing is the tension, and the nuance. It’s not that I hate my kids and I wish I could be someone else. JO: No, it’s not like that at all. CM: It’s that I love my kids and my work and my husband, but I have to earn money. We have all these things going on at the same time, and it’s almost like they’re at war with each other, but it’s not that simple. It’s not you can choose a side. It’s about the tension. I really like this one story by Paula Bomer called “The Mother of His Children” where tension is so beautifully described. He’s leaving on a business trip, and she’s at home with the kids saying goodbye. They don’t hate it, 182
but they don’t love it either. It’s just a marriage, and the book cracks it open, and gets into what’s lost, what’s gained, and what might be left to imagine. JO: If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of. CM: When I first met Heidi Julavits, a writer, and a good friend, we’d both just had kids and she was writing her novel, The Uses of Enchantment, which came out when her daughter was only two. It’s a crazy book, with all these interwoven parts, but it’s so tight and complete I asked her how she’d done it. She said she was able to write, while dealing with being a new mother, because the book is broken up into dinstinct parts. I recently read that when Jennifer Egan was working on her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, with young children, she took a leap of faith and just kept writing—like hanging onto this fragile thread, hoping that somehow it would all add up. And amazingly, it does. JO: For me, I had to change my own writing style. Every new mother told me, Don’t worry about your writing style, just write and get it down. But I write line by line. I don’t even know the story, until it’s revealed by the language. I need to get back in that level and think, What word follows this word? What small emotional moment or impression am I trying to capture here? Motherhood changes what you think about, what you write about. I’m trying to capture that now. CM: It’s not like you were asking whether motherhood was good or bad? JO: That would be like asking if it’s worth it to be a writer. It’s a miserable, miserable profession to have chosen, and it’s horrible most of the time. But it’s the only thing that I’ve ever felt meant to do. And now I feel like I was meant to be Thea’s mother. CM: There are so many different phases with kids and motherhood. With my first baby I spent time asking myself who I was—a mother, woman, wife, thinker? By the second baby, I let myself just be an animal for a while. I knew I’d be bleeding for weeks and there’d be milk squirting across the room. I wouldn’t be able to complete a thought because I was flooded with prolactin. I knew that element of the experience would eventually end. But do you think now that you have a slightly older child, it’s easier to write? Was it the animal part that made things more difficult? If we’re going with animal versus mental? TLR
JO: No matter what happens to you, it informs your writing. Art and life are not separate in my mind. Now I feel like spending time with her is satisfying on many levels. I love her and want to be with her, and I’m very intellectually engaged by her. But for a while it wasn’t like that. The animal was ascendant. For a long time I couldn’t stand on the subway platform without swaying. I could feel her in my arms even when she wasn’t there. CM: I swayed forever. JO: I still sway. Though she’s five now, and that life is gone, I still feel a little bit like I know that whole world of not writing well, gaining weight, not fitting into clothes, not getting a haircut. Not looking into the mirror for days at a time. This is the animal phase. Ultimately, it’s not just about there not being enough time to write. It’s also that you lose a very stimulating world. For me it was the loss of a more intellectual life. I kept thinking, Why do I even live in New York? I could be living in the suburbs; nothing is ever said to me that I can think about. And I’m sure I was equally tedious to other moms. We were all somehow stuck on this surface level. But my ideal of what life should be has changed. It’s no long that I’m off working alone in some perfect space. My ideal now is that I’m sitting around the table with six fascinating people, and we’re talking while our kids are running around behind us, old enough to play together. CM: It’s not really mother against kid. It’s mother against culture. JO: It’s against a culture that is just so repressive and so anti-intellectual and so joykilling. It is a joy-kill to be a mother in America. Most of the time, at least. CM: For a while I think I was in the research phase of motherhood. And parents are supposed to be boring and preoccupied with the logistics of “parenting.” But now that I have so little time for an intellectual life, I’m quite demanding. If I’m at a bar with a friend and I have two hours, I don’t want to waste time. I want to get right to the big stuff—the meaning of life. JO: I feel like you could go back to writers like Montaigne—he used to wear this medallion that had, “What do I know?” written on it. His whole intellectual mission in life was to examine every situation he found himself in and ask, “What do I think I know, and what do I actually know?” I feel there’s a lot in our culture we think we know about motherhood—such as, being a mother will cause you to rethink your priorities, or being a mother will make you less ambitious, or being a mother will cause problems between a husband and wife. There’s truth in all of that, but it’s so small compared to the lived life of it. 184
Jenny Offill A Motherhood Reading List The Collected Stories of Grace Paley Taking Care by Joy Williams Getting a Life by Helen Simpson Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, and more importantly her amazing memoir, A Life’s Work Ghosts by Eva Figes Because I Was Flesh by Edward Dahlberg Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath Baby and Other Stories by Paula Bomer Women Writers at Work: Paris Review Interviews Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson My Happy Life by Lydia Millet The Complete Essays of Montaigne Key Short Stories “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing “The Lover” by Joy Williams “People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore “The Used Boy Raisers” by Grace Paley
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R E FR IG E RATOR MOTH E RS
Kelli Russell Agodon (poems 98) is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. She is also the editor of Crab Creek Review. Renée Ashley (books 160) is the poetry editor of The Literary Review and author of Basic Heart. Anne Baney (books 154) lives and teaches in Montclair, New Jersey. Matt Bell (“Xarles, Xavier, Xenos” 105) is the author of the story collection How They Were Found. His fiction has been included in in Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is also the editor of The Collagist. Charles Berret (books 148) is the books editor for TriQuarterly Online and was formerly an editor for Egypt Today magazine in Cairo. He lives in Chicago. Thomas Bonfiglio’s stories (“Puppies” 70) have appeared in Flatmancrooked, Fiction, Northwest Review, The Florida Review, Lake Effect, and Rumble Magazine. He won the Robert C. Martindale Prize in Long Fiction, and has received Special Mention in the Pushcart Prizes: Best of the Small Presses. He teaches writing at Arizona State University. Buddhadeva Bose (“Makhanlal’s Sad Tale” 108) was one of the most celebrated Bengali writers of the twentieth century. A central figure in the Bengali modernist movement, he wrote novels, short story collections, plays, essays, translations, and books of verse. He died in 1974. Neil Boyack (“Country Junk” 40) Neil Boyack’s stories and poems have appeared in many different journals and magazines, and have been translated into Chinese and French. His three collections of stories have been critically acclaimed, and damned. Married in Las Vegas, he lives in the Victorian central goldfields on solar power and water tanks. He has 2 kids and is the creator and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo. 186
Rebecca Chew (“Calcutta” 84) is a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives in Malaysia. Vida Cross (poems 77). Her work has appeared in Reverie Journal, Reed Magazine, Make Magazine, WarpLand, Mochila Review, and the Journal of Film and Video. In 2008, she received an Illinois Arts Council Special Assistance Grant for Bronzeville at Night: 1949. Cross is a recipient of scholarships from Cave Canem, The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Voices of Our Nation writers’ retreat. Walter Cummins (books 161) is editor emeritus of The Literary Review and publisher of Serving House Books. Deborah Hall (books 167) is author of The Anatomy of Narrative: Analyzing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. She is prose editor of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies. She teaches writing and literature at Valdosa State University in Georgia. Jody Handerson (books 171) has a widely varied background in the visual and performing arts. She applies her literary talent as a technical writer and editor for an environmental consulting company. She is a TLR contributing editor. Cassie Hay (books 173) is an essayist and former editorial assistant for The Literary Review. She resides in Jersey City. Mark Hillringhouse (books 163) is the founding editor of the American Book Review and a contributing editor for the New York Arts Journal. Thomas E. Kennedy’s (translator 95) Copenhagen Quartet is being published by Bloomsbury worldwide: the first novel of the set, In the Company of Angels, was published last spring. Kennedy has translated many Danish writers into English, most recently Dan Turèll and Henrik Nordbrandt. He is a TLR advisory editor. John King (books 162) is an adjunct professor of English and writing and rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. His fiction has appeared in Gargoyle, Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, Turnrow, and Pearl. Born in 1982, Line-Maria Lång (“Doll” 95) is half Swedish, half Danish, and lives in Copenhagen. Her debut collection, Rat King (Rottekong), came out in 2009. Other translations from this work will appear soon in Southern Review and elsewhere. Leslie Adrienne Miller (poems 47) is the author of six volumes of poetry including Y, forthcoming from Graywolf Press, The Resurrection Trade, and Eat Quite Everything You See. Ceridwen Morris (interview 175) is a writer, mother, and childbirth educator. She is co-author of It’s All Your Fault and From the Hips as well as screenplays for Miramax and HBO. She lives in New York City with her husband, the novelist Sam Lipsyte, and their two children. Jenny Offill (interview 175) is the author of the novel Last Things. She teaches in the writing programs at Brooklyn College and Columbia University.
Lisa Ortiz’s poems (89) have appeared in Zyzzyva, Comstock Review, Crab Creek Review, and on Verse Daily. She received Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry prizes in 2006 and 2007. Ankur Parikh (“Three Stories” 125) is a multi-borough New Yorker who is grateful to have stumbled upon, and then embraced, the written word as part of his life. J.D. Reid (books 145) is co-founder of Wide Array. He can be found physically in Texas and spiritually haunting the halls of Wroxton Abbey. Susan Rothbard’s poetry (64) has appeared in Comstock Review, Dogwood, the Paterson Literary Review, and Pif Magazine. She earned her MFA degree in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Matt Ryan (books 160) is the social media editor for The Literary Review. Jena Salon (books 137, 161) is the books editor for The Literary Review. James Scudamore (“Feijoada” 20) grew up in Japan, Brazil, and the UK. His first novel, The Amnesia Clinic, won the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Heliopolis was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Arunava Sinha (translator 108) is the translator from Bengali of Sankar’s Chowringhee and The Middleman and Moti Nandy’s Striker Stopper. He is currently translating Buddhadeva Bose’s magnum opus, Tithidore. Karen A. Smyers (books 162) is a former associate professor at Wesleyan and a Jungian analyst in Hadley, MA. Jessie van Eerden (“A Good Day” 53) teaches at the Oregon Extension in Ashland, OR. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, and other publications. Paul-Victor Winters (books 151) is a teacher and writer in southern New Jersey. Poems and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in New York Quarterly and Scythe. Rebecca Wolff (poem 9) is the author of three books of poems, including The King. Her novel, The Beginners, is forthcoming next summer. She is the editor of Fence and Fence Books and lives in Athens, NY. Charles Wyatt (poems 30) teaches in the low-residency MFA Program of the University of Nebraska. Before this incarnation, he was principal flutist of the Nashville Symphony for twenty-five years. He has poems in the current edition of Alaska Quarterly Review.
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20–29: James Scudamore’s “Feijoada” is excerpted from Heliopolis, forthcoming from Europa Editions. It appears here with the permission of the publisher. 108–124: Buddhadeva Bose’s “Makhanlal’s Sad Tale” is part of the collection My Kind of Girl, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, to be published by Archipelago Books this fall. Used by permission. Errata: On page 205 of the last issue, the title of the book being reviewed was misprinted. It should have read Wings without Birds by Brian Henry (Salt Publishing, UK, 2010). We apologize for the error.