Poetry Editor: Hadley Sorsby-Jones Fiction Editors: Patrick Carey and Paige Morris Nonfiction Editor: William Iffland Illustrator: Sara Dunn Graphic Designer: Maria Ji
Table of Contents
The Engine Room, The Experiment, The Listeners Kristine Ong Muslim
Rosmarinus officinalis Andrew Colpitts
Visiting L.A. Richard King Perkins II
at the woodshop Yousef Hilmy
Beyond the Postmodern Outlook: A Traditional Approach Arthur Schechter
Love and Other Rituals Monica Macansantos
Dead Mom Reprise July Westhale
Captain America Ben Gwin
D.O.A. Neil Carpathios
The Final Show and Tell Jeffrey MacLachlan
Swim Theodore Worozbyt
The Engine Room by Kristine Ong Muslim In the engine room, the boiler chugs its steam. You can hear the pounding, the terrible groaning from six floors up. Someday, this whole building will explode. And the contents of the boiler will scald everyone you know. And the contents of the boiler will taint everything you own. Here in summers, when the engine room is locked from the outside, the maw of the boiler is temporarily silenced. The seasonal calm and the lack of distraction lead you to finally notice that all this time, your floor has been attracting grisly blackbirds with bloody beaks. They have been making their nests from the candy bar wrappers you have licked and discarded. They have been making their nests from the fallen hair strands and nail clippings they gathered from your bedroom floor. Thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s how badly they want a part of you. You bend down to inspect their feathers and realize that what you are looking at are actually scales. You lock eyes with one of them, and you sense that it can smell your fear.
The Experiment by Kristine Ong Muslim A whirring metal stirrer agitates us as we percolate at the bottom of Dr. Fuseli’s temperature-regulated vat. There’s no clambering onto the smooth walls, no way of escaping this container. But if you should someday decant this vat, what do you think would pour out of the vessel’s mouth? Where would its new center of gravity lie? Schooled in phototropism, we talk of summers as if we were afforded the possibility of getting out. We talk about orienting our malformed bodies toward the sun, of raising our nonexistent arms to shield our missing eyes from the sun’s harsh glare. Nightly we dream of walking the streets of your world, of the early-morning fog hiding our swarthy forms. All the while outside this vat, the listeners taunt us, daring us to spill our bright noise.
The Listeners by Kristine Ong Muslim We hear their humming, their incessant wailing come out of Dr. Fuseli’s temperature-regulated vat — a vat that’s loosely lidded, just enough to shutter against the cold weather months. Some of us tread lightly to keep them at ease. Some, of course, stomp around, inciting fear, danger, a will to contain what will someday grow restless, will someday become robust and turn against us. Steeped in growth medium at the bottom of the vat, the malformed ones sometimes weep. Sometimes they don’t say anything at all.
Rosmarinus officinalis by Andrew Colpitts Sunlight saunters upon the rows, stopping. Extending the arabesque Ever so often it bends. Rows side by each,
still peering around this somewhere-else. A young girl in linen (the sun adorns you). but Desert trees were never so determined
to reach up to dig down
I dare not disclose that you are here just now. This somewhere else was not made for you but cast away these premonitions — revel in the day. Sun-bright chases your scrawny limbs. Nourish you — will someday suck you dry. Tied up with white cotton string. A pendulum. You’ll be revered, adorning sweet meats. Grew long and died faster. your arabesque to Handel, myths spoken in your honor. Daughters will bear your name in rows the sun and I dawdle I caress you thrice to carry you with me, hanging like an aerialist, far above our heads. or else a bouquet of flowers from some demoiselle’s hand dangles among Sisters and Brothers you gaze upon this spinning compass, North-Northeast. slammed doors and tickling bells jostle you, indifferent this way and that your Sisters and Brothers will follow next year.
Visiting L.A. by Richard King Perkins II I’m fond of the ones who leave never having said a word — the ones who speak the silent language fluently. We struggle to escape the burning continent. The city remains stoic — the oldest appeals condensed on the shores of La Brea. A convergence of bone burning in ancient sunbeams. Animatronic replicas explain all — wondrous creatures without material needs, the heft of soul.
Beyond the Postmodern Outlook: A Traditional Approach by Arthur Schechter
It is no secret that our lives are ruled by countless diversions. Many of us are severely limited in our inner lives by an inability to sustain or direct our attention. Our focus is constantly broken, drawn back and forth by media that fracture what little silence remains in our world and practically prohibit contemplation. Our slavish devotion to news feeds and content streams has, at the same time, effectively abolished true solitude in an attempt to vaccinate against loneliness. Yet we hardly find ourselves able to relate to one another in person, practically ceasing to function in one another’s company without the constant mediation and displacement our devices offe. This is to say nothing of the despair which befalls no small few when we are alone, off the grid. The world of higher education reflects this dynamic in many ways. Foremost among these is a looming sense of aimlessness which threatens to overtake us. To numb this feeling, we thrust ourselves into ceaseless activity, rely on ever greater specialization in our fields of interest, and draw on the superficial sense of purpose which stems from possible “applications” of our areas of study. Save Philosophy and so-called Pure Mathematics, almost every discipline has been utterly reworked, if not invented, to gear itself toward a practical end. In the event of such disciplines as History and English, the methodologies themselves require of us virtues which likewise spell employability (“critical thinking,” for instance, not far from “problem solving”), and as such are at least friendly to the professional sphere. However, a unifying principle behind the “education” offered us is missing. In the vaguest possible sense, we feel that we are aiding “progress.. What exactly this means is fundamentally unclear, but the notion that we are improving matters in the world is comforting. While we relish the fleeting feeling of usefulness, an open-endedness ultimately predominates both our studies and our leisure. We find ourselves noncommittally approaching what ought to be a crucial, formative process which would involve us completely. We treat what ought to be an inner pursuit as a tentative obligation to society, whose ultimate outcome is uncertain. Without a doubt it is geared to us as such. Unsurprisingly, we pursue selfish gratification in our spare time to numb the sense of dread which plagues the undisciplined in idle moments. Oftentimes, the sincerity with which we pursue pleasure outsrips our thirst for knowledge. There is a precarious balance here; many of us meet a minimum standard of scholastic excellence only to compensate for the guilt we feel at our otherwise shameless indulgence in diversion. Without our 6
studies, we would surely descend into a hedonistic oblivion. Still others among us would be consumed utterly by our research if not for the temporary incapacitation offered us by our personalized chemical and digital escapes. There is a false dichotomy between work and play that hides the truth of the matter from us in plain sight. Both the time in which we receive instruction and the free time afforded us shape our inner lives, and in fact do little else. We are not saving the world or mitigating the stress of doing so when we study or relax. We are always learning how to think and how not to think, whether or not we are being taught. We are becoming who we are in this process, and yet it is not necessary to our success that we keep this in mind. Thus one may become an expert engineer, researcher, analyst, or even educator merely by internalizing certain facts, but never once looking within. Etymologically, the word “school” derives from the Greek schole, meaning “leisure.. Traced back to its Egyptian roots, education was understood classically as a formative process that was all-encompassing. Sacred symbolism, music, mathematics and (to a certain extent) logic formed a cohesive whole. The metaphysical doctrines imparted to the initiate were to be practiced in contemplation and daily life. Self restraint and meditative stillness were paramount, along with the integration of a rich semiotic network of archetypes which reflected both the structure of the universe and the mind. If practiced properly, a transformation in consciousness would take place, liberating the student from the senses which, if left to themselves, testify to a world made of objects separated in space and time. The individual strives to emulate the saints and sages, working tirelessly to master to senses. To succeed is to become like Imhotep, Kaires, Pythagoras, or Plato, incapable of error in word and deed. This is only possible if the senses no longer restrict the heart and the intellect. The two then unite to allow the student to glimpse the face of the divine, both within and without, in waking life from moment to moment. Such education, known as therapeiua, is the origin of Greek philosophia. Though the intended outcome of both was perfection and immortality, it seems likely that this practice (except perhaps in rare cases) entailed lifelong dedication, an unending pursuit of union with all things and with the divine. It seems only natural, examining the origins of philosophia, that instruction and personal exploration should go together. The injunction to know cannot be fulfilled through memorization and the recall of facts. True knowledge is of both the body and the mind. It can be approached in countless ways and requires of the student a tireless search for meaning, both in the world and within themselves; time set aside for teaching merely sets the stage for real learning, for the student to pursue the deepest
possible integration of the truths conveyed to them. On the other hand, the aimless, disorganized transmission of mere information which we are offered today is only half of the picture. We attend class as if “on the clock,” our curricula constructed arbitrarily in order to fit our schedules and meet our interests rather than to balance our lives. Such an education cannot, then, promise to produce anything other than aimless, disorganized individuals armed merely with particular thought patterns. Since we bring the fruits of our “labor” home to our leisure and vice versa, they resemble each other. Compared with what education can do under certain circumstances which might be called “Traditional,” an ethical obligation all but announces itself, for us to rethink our pursuits in terms of a genuine love of knowledge. What is it, then, that prevents us from placing today’s forms of “higher learning” in the context of their origins. Nothing above is exaggerated or invented: primary and secondary sources throughout history illustrate the world of classical Philosophy for us clearly, in no uncertain terms. (For a detailed account of this vibrant lineage of philosophia as sacred quest, equally attested among the ancient Greeks themselves, and their chroniclers writing throughout history until the 18th century, let the reader consult Algis Uzdavinys’ Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth from Ancient Egypt to Neoplatonism) Our affliction is a very selective form of superstition that allows us complete liberty to imagine, reason and argue, so long as our speculations do not contradict a certain sense of uniqueness to which we, as recipients of Liberal Arts educations, have become accustomed. We may diagnose ourselves at this juncture with a case of “false consciousness,” or “ideological thinking.” Borrowing from Marxist theory, “ideology” here refers to a complex network of acceptable axioms and sites of exclusion in thought born of a political situation, which of themselves are completely arbitrary. Perhaps the reader is familiar with the critique which befalls proponents of the “free market.. Here, the notion that “a rising tide lifts all ships” expresses an axiom, however false, which attempts to rationalize the priority placed on the success of private individuals. Ideological thinking, seeking here to preserve the “freedom” of “individuals,” then rejects out of hand otherwise proven means of ensuring economic stability and prosperity if they rely at all on collective ownership or government regulation. For subjects of such an individualistic persuasion, clear thinking about communities becomes impossible. In exactly the same way, many intellectuals cannot seem to think clearly about the past. We tacitly assume that there has never been a finer education available to the human mind than the one we receive today. This assumption, agreeable as it is groundless, is evidence of an enduring belief in progress, and
along with it the fiction of civilization. For our purposes, higher education is thought of as a gift of our “civilization” which has accumulated all the virtues of “past civilizations” by the magic of progress. In this way, the most rational people who live closest to the future are seen to be the most qualified to solve the world’s problems and pull its other, less fortunate inhabitants out of the past. Of course, to state these assumptions explicitly would invite mockery today. Yet, in order to be considered educated, it was once necessary to see the world in this way, until quite recently in fact. Such propositions of course mean nothing; they merely legitimize acts of aggression and exploitation by the “civilized” upon the inhabitants of the rest of the world and our shared natural environment, in the name of “progress.. Yet if we observe our own situation within the halls of academia, it seems that this thinking has not undergone any meaningful change at all, nor has a healthy alternative view of the past (or the people who appear to think and live “primitively”) replaced it: ideology has simply gone underground, as it so often tends to do. The sites of exclusion it establishes still persist: a better world cannot be suggested to exist anywhere but the future. And if the issue is pressed, our instructors proudly inform us that we have surpassed the belief in progress. Such flawed thinking belongs to the past, we are told, now that we know better, and this should strike us as very suspicious indeed. If traced to their roots, “progress” and “civilization” are the watchwords of the conquering West, marking the colonial epoch of world history with a sense of exceptionalist triumphalism. To address this directly is uncomfortable, as the two words still carry positive connotations. If we are permitted an unbiased view, however, it is not long before the Western uniqueness they represent suddenly takes on a very unpleasant appearance. We see two harmful delusions which, alongside physicalist materialism, express a kind of sickness and spiritual instability to which no other human society in history has ever been party. Yet without these notions, we would have to reexamine completely what is meant by “education,” and what we ought to expect from it. For exactly this reason, thinkers who dissent along these lines are marginalized within the academic establishment, to such a degree that any generative contributions their work may offer are dismissed along with them. But such a critique goes hand in hand with a holistic view that affirms instead a sense of unity the world, and enjoins students, as seekers, to cultivate an understanding of the sacred and glimpse this unity within themselves. Proceeding along these lines, we are suddenly permitted to accept the spiritual practices of all tribes and nations as uniquely beautiful human expressions of connectedness with the world, in fact indispensable guidelines for holistic liv7
ing which demand our respect and careful attention. The Traditionalist School is a little known group of thinkers whose work has largely been suppressed for the very ideological reasons outlined above. They claim to represent a primordial wisdom at the core of all the world’s religions, which, for the student seeking guidance and purpose in life, is a very promising notion. Briefly stated, they claim that Truth is one, though its expressions appear separate in creation, and are as many as the world’s languages. In this view, the sole purpose of humanity is the remembrance, celebration and magnification of the sacred, the means to which cannot be reduced to written doctrine, and must be transmitted from master to student, and from generation to generation. Forgetfulness of this fact has ruinous consequences, and Modernity is the product of an unparalleled aberrance from this norm, its focal point the geographical West. René Guénon, a Sufi Master, metaphysician and founder of the Traditionalist School, outlines much of the above in his 1941 East and West. This work narrates the past half millennium as a (European) fit of intellectual devolution whose culminating expression is colonial brutality, made possible only by a radically insensate un-spirituality. Therein, he confidently states that indefinite progress is impossible. Following along, we learn that the word civilization is hardly three hundred years old, its current definition less than two hundred. Moreover, he claims, the West has lost any sense of true “intelligence,” placing value only upon thought which serves as a “means for acting upon matter,” and mistaking the strictures of logic for moral guidelines. Thus we have lost the ability to express any encounters with the “supersensible” world and “supra-rational” wisdom. Modern Westerners then come to view people of the East and Global South as superstitious, barbarous and irrational precisely because their connection to the divine, he claims, is largely intact. The Western inability to interpret the behaviors and practices of those with inner lives less fractured than our own seems to be the chief source of rationalistic intolerance and suspicion. Students familiar with the postmodern canon will notice certain undeniable parallels between Guénon’s argument and that of a certain landmark work of the Post-Colonial school with which they are quite familiar. Namely, the “study” of the East cannot be unbiased because of the political investments which mediate encounters between the West and its Colonies (whether former or current). Orientalism tends toward wholly inaccurate representations of the East as a romanticized or caricatured Other, and this misunderstanding is in part caused by, and in part reinforces, the power relations of colonialism. Finally, various claims on the part of Westerners to 8
know the “essence” of a people are far from neutral, and indirectly legitimize oppression on the grounds of knowledge which is “rational” and therefore supposedly superior. This is the thesis of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, serving as the general model for acceptable critique of Western colonialism, globally conceived. What are we to make of this peculiar accord between authors of diametrically opposed temperament and style, separated by decades at the time of their writing. While it is not the intention of this work to undermine the validity of Orientalism, Guenon’s approach neatly comprises its key claims which appear rather limited by comparison. Said’s conclusion is a fairly meek one: that representations of the East are not politically neutral. As early as 1920, on the other hand, in his Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrine, Guénon accuses his contemporaries of working with no other goal in mind than to “civilize,” studying Hinduism in particular only to gain sufficient “intelligence” to dissuade the people of India from their superstitious ways and convince them to accept superior Western “civilization.” Said, and scholars like him, tend to offer an interpretive scheme of largely abstract relations, without so much as a suggestion as to a root cause of the dehumanizing colonial tendencies of the West. In light of this, many of us are quite skeptical of Postolonial Theory’s ability to address the crises which now beset the “developing” world more than ever. It must be stressed that, while they condemn the actions of colonialist aggressors and lament the consequences, these postmodern intellectuals are unable to openly and roundly critique the Western mentality which stokes the very initiative driving secular globalism. Rather, their humanitarian concern is brought to the fore and their critique ultimately says nothing to contradict the narratives encouraging the eradication of traditional cultures and motivating the domination of the world’s peoples. It is, moreover, quite telling that any line of inquiry which even tentatively suggests a critique of Modernity can only be brought home to the academy by way of deconstructive methodologies which, taken to their conclusion, not only dismiss the validity of metaphysics but question the possibility of meaning itself. It is almost as if the ideology behind Western modernity is so deeply entrenched that its critique cannot take place until the ability of all people to make meaning has been safely belittled. Postcolonial thinkers are not at fault; poststructural and postmodern strains of discourse analysis are the only tools at their disposal. They are beholden to share in the assumptions of such postmodern thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This much many of us share in common with them, as students in the Liberal Arts today.
A very peculiar twist marks the Postmodern outlook. There exists behind it a powerful desire to alter existing power structures, perhaps even to replace them. Yet in all their analyses, critiques, and tentative prescriptions, adherents of this outlook fall quite short of offering even the slightest suggestion as to the practice of such an undertaking, what it might require of “subjects,” or how it would look if it were to occur. Its proponents explicitly articulate a certain connection between knowledge and power on the one hand, and the influence of dominant social structures upon conventions of language and thought on the other. In this, they resemble the garden variety of Frankfurt-inspired Marxist theorists. However, the postmodern vanguard imagine themselves to depart radically from this school of “structuralists” by two key points. It seems unlikely, however, that they actually spell liberation from the delusions of the Modern West. First, by means of post-structuralist critique, students are made to understand that language has no intrinsic stability. In a certain premodern sense, this is true: language is seen to gain its stability from a divine source which, simply put, is not “made of words,” at least in an ordinary sense. We ought to take care here to distinguish between the auspicious potential of speech and the ossifying tendencies of the written word. Speech is one of the many instruments of the Tradition; depending on conditions, the same words spoken may hold power for eons, or prove completely useless from one moment to the next, as in Ch’an (or Zen) Buddhism. The written word, on the other hand, has a mercenary aspect, and can be twisted to motivate or excuse any number of worldly injustices. While speech can doubtless deceive in an instant, the same written words have a unique ability to misrepresent reality time and again throughout history; this is certainly what Jacques Derrida means to address by coining the term “logocentrism.. To level the playing field, he metaphorically equates all manner of creative activities to “writing.. We are enjoined to imagine “the world as text,” and those struggling for liberation as attempting to “write history.. This strikes many of us as a very narrow view indeed, one which nearly forgets that language is evidence of life; one is tempted to believe that language is defined by the manner in which it dies. The opposite of the intended outcome takes hold, and students learn to reduce language to its printable aspects; it is merely a set of rules and definitions which only lead to each other and can be employed strategically, but can never point to “Being” or “Essence.. At our most starry-eyed we think of language as simply a whimsical meta-game, but never a sacred tool. This brings us to the second point, meant to distinguish the so-called postmodern from the modern.
Students from all manner of disciplines under the umbrella of the liberal arts will no doubt be familiar with this aspect of the postmodern condition, namely the “suspicion regarding metanarratives.. We owe this terminology to Jean-François Lyotard, whose work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge provides much of the epistemological background for the training we receive in the humanities, charged as we are to learn the practice of “discourse analysis” and the ways of “critique.” On the face of it, Lyotard appears to have grasped something crucial. He describes a mounting climate of suspicion regarding Science, Enlightenment Reason, and Progress which seems to be overtaking the intellectual landscape. But instead of engaging any of these myths directly, Lyotard instead invents a word to describe their function. A “metanarrative” is a story about stories, and while this description per se is not inaccurate regarding such dominant modern superstitions, Lyotard ends up missing the mark. His potential critique is assimilated to the very spirit of the Modern World that René Guénon describes in East and West. While there is a certain desire evident in Lyotard’s work to directly address the harmful delusions of indefinite progress, and perhaps by analogy, civilization, he is either unwilling or unable to do so sincerely. This failure can be ascribed to the third key feature of Modernity, the limited definition of intelligence. According to Guénon, the modern intellect is seen to do nothing other than hatch schemes to move matter, and no mental activity truly independent of this preoccupation can ever successfully be brought home to the plane of “discourse.. This is relevant to us as participants in discourse when we recognize that, if our ideas are to be admissible, they must appear safely material in their origins, and any implicit notion of perfection they carry with them must be of the social, economic, or otherwise “evolutionary” variety. Even the most abstract, sophisticated expressions remain either thoughts about thoughts about thoughts about physical things, reactions to reactions to reactions to the senses, or some hybrid of these two lineages, some specimen of the false plurality of “knowledges.” Knowledge which cannot be demonstrated to the physical senses, or whose source lies beyond the bounds of reason, is completely inadmissible. This is a patently “civilized” outlook, whose aberrance from the norm in the history of humanity hardly bears addressing at this point. As Lyotard claims, so we as students are taught: there is nothing but storytelling, great and small. This limited view is a materialistic one which, when faced with Religion, sees only attempts to predict, justify, or otherwise account for “things that happen.. The greater the purported scope of such a “story,” we are then told, the more dangerous it becomes, and 9
as a direct result of this lapse in clear thinking, we deprive ourselves of the healing, centering power of religiosity as an inner affair. Simultaneously, we avoid the uncomfortable task of actually addressing the patent falsity of the most prevalent, harmful narratives at work in the modern world. Again, it is nearly as if some unseen Spirit of Modernity itself has compelled us to reject all possible alternatives before we can avail ourselves of one. Instead, we become preoccupied with the rejection of all received wisdom whatever the cost, never pausing to honestly address the consequences which might befall the heart when irony, skepticism, and insincerity are allowed to dominate the campus and the classroom. Those of us who speak in a manner which even implies a belief in essence, reality or truth are frequently beset by ridicule. It is common for those who still cling to even vaguely religious modes of thought to have their concerned, compassionate sentiments dismissed — if not met with accusations of complicity in oppression for the very metaphysical quality of religiosity. To contradict materialism is treated as a flight from reality at best, or an attempt to deceive at worst. To honestly reject that which modern education prescribes in favor of what its ancient counterpart originally promised, is to invite rebuke. This intensively contradictory state of affairs strongly resembles the civilized drive to eradicate “superstition,” however superficially transformed it is. Postmodern theory never actually departs from the artificially restricted view of word and world born in the last few centuries and unique to the West. It is a privileged form of discourse which ultimately reinforces Modern assumptions about knowledge, civilization, and progress. Nevertheless, as students of the liberal arts we are taught that its methodologies of critique and analysis are the only viable ways to think liberation. It is not difficult to empathize with the emancipatory sentiment that drives the efforts of postmodern theorists and historiographers. The recognition that we utilize many of the same offices, lecture halls and seminar rooms once occupied by the architects of colonialism brings about a profound sense of guilt. It is my fear, however, one shared by many, that the desire of an “educated” minority to free the marginalized and oppressed from domination and control has been haphazardly articulated, and has had unintended consequences. Under the auspices of deconstructive suspicion, we tend to become unwilling to accept the real, central role which remembrance of the sacred plays in communities if they are to care for their own without harming or exploiting outsiders, or their environment. Even if we are able to entertain this tentatively, our incredulity towards religion prevents us from accepting that, in order to “function,” religious “stories” 10
must be placed beyond the reach of critique. Their inner transformative power cannot be unleashed if the “freedom” to “think another way” is forced upon their participants. Similarly, their ability to inspire generative activity cannot be tapped if we constantly seek “better” or “more efficient” strategies, made to answer to some quantitative standard which knows nothing of the aspirations in the hearts of the downtrodden. The assumption seems to be that, if political and economic injustices are addressed without delay, matters of the heart will resolve themselves. This could not be a more confused notion. It is clear that the essence of this urgent call is fundamentally a compassionate one which seeks to alleviate suffering--but it is also an ignorant one, one which seeks to console the guilty conscience stoked among the heirs to civilization by the atrocities committed on its behalf. Proponents of Tradition submit, instead, that lasting stability and prosperity cannot come possibly about in the world if its people forget the inner peace and inner wealth which is their right by birth. As soon as they are made to overlook this simple fact, people will begin to put worldly pursuits and material power first. And it is irrelevant whether they seek their own benefit or that of others: if the pursuit is undertaken in ignorance, the only guaranteed outcome is suffering. If there is a single truth to which all the world’s religions mutually attest, it is this. Repeated attempts at “corrective adjustments” to the status quo, or even radical upheaval, so long as they are conceived materialistically, have as much success as attempts to clear the mind using thoughts. To paraphrase the Zen Master Bankei, this is like trying to wash away blood with blood. My purpose here has not been to evaluate the validity of the Traditionalist school as a single entity, as if such a thing were possible. Nor do I care to address every viewpoint of every author dubbed Traditionalist, placing some above critique and dismissing others. Rather, I have meant to highlight its status as a complete Other to the dominant secular paradigm, despite its comparable if not superior ability to address some of the same issues with which emancipatory postmodern discourse busies itself. In so doing, the reason for its exclusion has become clear, namely the ability to demonstrate the essence of Modernity, and Postmodernism’s inseparability from it. It bears repeating: progress cannot go on indefinitely; “civilization” is a completely novel, not to mention deeply problematic, concept untranslatable into any cultural context unaffected by it; and a supra-rational intelligence which is not bound by the senses is the source of all legitimate uses of reason and language. A basic understanding in accord with the above effectively unites all people of non-modern, archaic or traditional ways of life against the dominant Western knowledge paradigm. All people
who either retain or manage to reclaim even a shred of uncolonized being have at least this much in common. This last claim cannot be demonstrated to the satisfaction of a critical mentality, and to do so would be a futile exercise. Instead, the goal has been to reawaken a broader epistemic scope, and to subject the guiding assumptions of this deconstructive mentality itself to a fairly unforgiving, but not unreasonable, critique. This critique is immanent, and once latent inconsistencies in Postmodern “emancipatory” thinking have been brought out and addressed, no substantial argument remains, only a largely compassionate sentiment. This much can easily be assimilated to Traditional thinking, and provides a welcome supplement. I wish to close by suggesting that Traditionalism is the only specimen of intellectual history in the Modern era which stands a chance at true ecological thinking, and that this above all is what unites it with the very non-Western societies and worldviews which it recognizes and esteems as properly Traditional. Human interests of any kind are ultimately overshadowed by the great, troublesome fact of our era, that of ecological catastrophe. It has already been clearly established that if economic growth does not cease, untold further consequences for life on this planet will come to pass irreversibly. Our ability to reconcile with one another will mean little if great new swaths of our planet are to become uninhabitable. The environmental crisis is a Modern phenomenon for which the West is uniquely to thank with its attempts to civilize, modernize, and develop the globe. What conversely unites colonized, diasporic, and indigenous peoples the world over, more than any lack of modern myopia, is a positive shared heritage of comparatively harmless, if not outright harmonious, relations with their respective ancestral soil. Countless First Nations and their African, Eurasian, and Pacific counterparts recognize the fundamental interconnectedness of life. The notion that every action has consequences for life as a whole is foreign only to those living in the so-called “Developed” world. No degree of intellectual “sophistication” can compensate for such a radical deficit in the basic understanding of what it means to be human. The thinkers of the Traditionalist School, then, set themselves apart from their secular Western contemporaries by professing Unity and encouraging holistic thinking. We are indebted to Lord Northbourne, one such believer, for coining the term “organic farming.. In his 1940 manifesto Look to the Land, Northbourne implores his British audience to rediscover the wholeness of life in a practice of agriculture which treats the farm itself as a living thing. In this
manner he anticipates many disparate scientific insights made by ecology and systems theory. But such phrasing is itself misleading: these are nothing but reinvented wheels for the secular mind which is predisposed to see a world in pieces. Native American historian Vine Deloria writes in his 1972 work God is Red: White America and Western industrial societies have not heard the call of either the lands or the aboriginal peoples… The lands of the planet call to humankind for redemption. But it is a redemption of sanity, not a supernatural reclamation project at the end of history. The planet itself calls to the other living species for relief. Religion cannot be kept within the bounds of sermons and scriptures. It is a force in and of itself and it calls for the integration of lands and peoples in harmonious unity. The Traditionalist School’s most vital insight is that of Traditional Society, which René Guénon defines as a normative state of existence, in which social conventions reflect divine attributes and the human connection with the natural and the celestial realms remain unbroken and intertwined. Deloria’s expression finds accord with Guénon’s proposition, and if indeed Traditionalist thinking manages to grasp a real Edenic potential in the unique essence of every human community, this is too promising a notion to reject. For once, all praise will not be due to a white man for “discovering” such a fact. Rather, the western intellectual community at large will have an opportunity to reclaim its place within a fellowship of the spirit as old as the human race, one which respects and preserves the conditions necessary for life, placing gratitude and humility above grasping and hubris. If only we are allowed to think as if a better world is possible, and that in many ways it is a state to which we must return, we may in fact begin to act in ways that help bring one about. But we cannot possibly accomplish this if secular delusions of promethean grandeur continue to cloud our thinking completely unchecked. The occasion is long overdue for all “people of learning” to finally reject the bizarre notion, that the demons of oppression and ignorance which beset the inhabitants of this world can be bested in a race to the future. It is in Western academies where this dangerous confusion first took hold, and it is among scholars of the same lineage that a return to sound principles must take place if terrestrial humanity as a whole is to have any hope of stability and prosperity. And if there is any significance to Tradition whatsoever, it is as plain evidence that care for future generations is the example set by the past for the present to emulate. It is only with this understanding that we stand a chance of seeing peace restored in our lifetimes, or at least secured for our children. 11
Love and Other Rituals by Monica Macansantos
The sun was setting when Kardo slid from Rene’s arms and lifted a pair of threadbare jeans from the hook on the door. “I have to go home,” Kardo said as he pulled on his pants. As it always was whenever he was about to leave, his back was turned to Rene. “Don’t you want dinner? There’s beef caldereta on the stove,” Rene said. He let out a sigh as the sweat of their lovemaking sank into his skin. “It’s getting dark. I have to go home,” Kardo said as he pulled his pants on. “Stay for a while. You’ve only been here for thirty minutes. I’ll heat the caldereta. It’s my mother’s recipe.” Rene got up and plucked a T-shirt and a crumpled pair of boxer shorts from his metal bedpost. Kardo drew the curtains and looked out the window, his gaze far away. “Elena shouldn’t already be back, should she?” Rene put a hand on Kardo’s shoulder. Kardo placed his hand on Rene’s and fixed his eyes on the corrugated iron roofs of the neighbor’s houses. “It depends. She could be delivering laundry at this hour. The kids are at home by now, though.” “Oh, they know how to take care of themselves. Don’t worry.” Rene wanted to stroke Kardo’s hair, to plant a kiss on his warm, moist nape, but Kardo’s mind was somewhere else. Kardo set the table as Rene switched on the stove and stirred the caldereta in its aluminum pot. When it was time to eat, Kardo sat facing the TV screen. He laughed with his mouth full when a girl in a fuchsia-colored bikini slipped into a tub of bubbling water and a gangly game show host did an awkward jig. Rene had moved his television set to the dining room, noticing that Kardo hovered around it like a moth whenever he paid Rene a visit. “Dance, Nene, dance,” Kardo sang as he clapped. “Have more ulam. You must be hungry,” Rene said. Kardo nodded, got up, and piled another mountain of rice and caldereta onto his plate. He sat down, mixing the orange-red sauce into his rice and hunching over. “I have a question,” Kardo said. “What is it?” Kardo put down his fork and spoon and leaned back in his chair. “One of the boards on our wall was blown off by the last typhoon, and we’ve been using a sack to cover the hole. Elena’s working extra to have it patched up but we don’t have enough money to buy plywood to cover it. My children sleep near that hole at night and I’m worried they’ll get sick.” “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would’ve given you money for repairs.” “Well, you know po, it’s so shameful. We ask for 12
money from you all the time.” Rene tossed his head and struck the air with his palm. “Hay naku stop saying that. You say that all the time and ask for money anyway.” He reached for his wallet, opened it, counted his money, and handed Kardo a wad of bills. “Here’s one thousand pesos. If there’s anything left over, buy your family a good meal.” “Thank you.” Kardo took the bills, counted them, and pushed them into jeans pocket. “Kardo, I just gave you money. Why do you look so sad?” Kardo shrugged and smiled. “You’re cute when you’re being shy, but it can get annoying too.” “You naman, don’t be such a drama queen.” Kardo’s voice melted into a whine and he got up, approached Rene’s chair, put his arms around Rene’s shoulders and dabbed his lips on Rene’s cheek. “That kiss costs one thousand pesos,” Rene said, fingering Kardo’s arm. “You know that’s not true.” Rene closed his eyes as Kardo’s fingers curled against his chest. During moments such as these, Kardo’s callused hands could feel so warm and promising. Then the hands fell away and Kardo returned to his seat. Rene stared at Kardo’s bowed head. I would’ve given you the money anyway, even if you didn’t ask, he wished he could say. It was easier on the tongue than “I love you”, and less cloying too. But he was ashamed of sounding petulant, and Kardo was too busy feeding himself to listen. + Whenever a boy’s beauty caught Rene’s attention in the introductory Calculus class he taught, he’d recall a conversation that he’d overheard in the office years ago. As the years passed, it would come back to him in snippets. “I heard he invites them to his apartment.” “And these kids allow him to do whatever he wants with them?” “Fuentes, don’t tell me you didn’t know anyone in college who sold themselves for tuition money.” “Or for grades.” “So you can do anything you want when you’re tenured.” “Why, you’re thinking about it too?” He would’ve wanted the other details of that afternoon to slip away from his memory, but they lingered in him like the ghosts of physical pain: the conspiratorial snickers that emerged from the office kitchen; the silence he walked into when he entered the tiled room and saw three of his colleagues gathered near the water cooler. They were young and untenured, just like him, and when they saw him, they lowered their eyes. As he smiled at them, pretending he’d
heard nothing, he slid his hands in his pockets, clenching and unclenching them. He struggled to squeeze out the mannerisms he knew his colleagues couldn’t wait to encircle and dissect: the telltale softness of his wrists, the suspiciously delicate touch he used to pluck pieces of chalk from the blackboard tray in front of his wide-eyed students or to comfort a distraught colleague. He felt the months, then years, pass before he could say with some certainty that they weren’t waiting for him to provide them with juicy morsels of scandalous behavior. It wasn’t that he lacked desire — it was just that he didn’t want his yearnings to be laid out on the faculty kitchen table to be examined, trivialized, joked about. Despite their suspicions, he wasn’t one to compromise the efficient, sanitized relationship he maintained with his students. He was working in his garden on a cold afternoon in January when he heard a tapping at his gate. Strangers often knocked as he worked in his garden, selling fruit, rice cakes, and sometimes labor. He bought their fruit and ate their rice cakes, but he rarely hired people to clean his house or trim the hedges of his garden. He was afraid of the questions they’d ask once he allowed them to step foot in his house: why he lived alone, whether he had more money to spare. “What is it?” he called out. “Do you want to have your garden fence fixed?” It was a male voice, and a stodgy, sunburned hand emerged from behind the gate to point at the wooden fence that separated the garden from the driveway. Rene turned to look at it, and noticed the holes that riddled the graying planks, the old nails that bled rust into the wood. A carpenter whose name and face he had long forgotten hammered it together years ago, and it took a stranger to spot these symptoms of neglect. Rene returned to his work. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said, gripping the stalk of a stubborn weed with his gloved hands. “It doesn’t match the beauty of your garden, that’s what’s wrong with it.” Rene sensed a teasing lilt in the man’s voice, and he raised his head to look at the face that peered at him from behind the gate. It was a young man who smiled, revealing a set of crooked teeth. He had the dark, round eyes of a child and the calloused hands of a working man. Rene remembered the hands of his father, a man who never wore gloves when he plowed his field. Rene’s parents never left the farm where he grew up. He sent money to them whenever he could, even after his father stopped speaking to him years ago. Rene could never be the son that his father wanted, no matter how persistently he wrote checks. He still hoped that they’d show up at his gate one day, if only to ask for money.
They had nothing to be afraid of. Instead, a stranger stood at his gate, grinning. Rene walked through the arched gateway of his garden and approached the front gate. He took note of the man’s crooked nose, the scar under his left eye, the smile that could easily be mistaken for a sneer. “Or maybe you need help digging. Or cleaning your house.” “I’m not looking for a houseboy.” “Please, sir. I just lost my job and my wife is pregnant.” Rene took another look at the man’s face. Looks like he’s been in a couple of fights, Rene said to himself. And yet there was a youthful glow in the man’s fine, unwrinkled skin, and a warm, almost cheerful look in his eyes. “Why should I trust you?” “I’ve never stolen from any of my bosses, ever.” The man looked at Rene’s bungalow as though he knew what lay beyond its clapboard cerulean façade. Rene sighed. “I have to think of what you can do for me.” “We could start with your garden fence.” Rene looked at the broken fence and saw the weeds that sprouted around it. He was growing old, and even this young man noticed. Could others assume, then, that he could easily be swayed by their sob stories? He remembered the young man he once was, a man who needed help but was too ashamed to show it. He pulled off the gloves from his hands, lifted the latch of his gate, and ushered the young man in. The man showed up at eight in the morning the next day and Rene gave him money to buy wooden planks and nails. When he returned from the hardware store, the man handed back Rene’s change before he dismantled the old fence. Rene insisted that the man dine with him at noon. When he gave in and sat with Rene at the kitchen table, he ate the food spread before him in silence. His name was Kardo, he said when he was asked. Rene could tell he was hungry by the heaps of rice he piled on his plate, but he slowly worked through his food as though he were ashamed of his own hunger. “Do you also have a garden at home?” Rene asked. “Our land’s just big enough for our small house,” Kardo said. He told Kardo to come for work on Saturday mornings. He couldn’t leave the new boy unsupervised, he told himself, and Saturday was the only time of the week Rene could be at home the entire day. One never knew what could happen if one’s back was turned. . On Kardo’s next visit, Rene sipped his morning coffee as he watched Kardo lower the roots of a tree sapling into a hole in the ground. Rene cooked lunch for two people, coaxed the young man into his house at lunchtime, and sat by the living room window 13
when Kardo returned to work. Having a stranger touch the leaves of his plants, water their roots, pull out the weeds that sucked the earth dry, was easier than Rene thought it would be. Once, Kardo glanced at the window and caught Rene’s eye, and when he waved, Rene nodded back. Later that afternoon, he handed Kardo a five-hundred peso bill and watched him walk through the gate, wondering how a day slipped away whenever he wanted it to trickle slowly through his fingers. When Kardo came to work again, they sat at Rene’s kitchen table at noon, finishing a pot of fish sinigang Rene had cooked that morning as Kardo worked. Rene opened the kitchen windows to let in a warm wind, and their hinges rattled as he filled Kardo’s bowl with soup. “How is your wife?” Rene asked, taking his seat. “She’s all right, but she gets tired a lot these days. I guess I have to look for a full-time job so that she won’t have to work too much.” His wife was a laundry woman and was sometimes hired to clean the homes of the families she worked for. “You could come here on a weekday, if you need extra work.” Rene didn’t have much more to give, but Kardo’s husky, timid voice coaxed forth his pity. “What else do you need me to do?” “I’ll have to think about that,” Rene said, drowning the rice on his plate with spoonfuls of soup. “You could scrub and wax my floor. Or dust the knick knacks in the living room.” “Come on, I know you want more than that.” When Rene raised his head, he thought he sensed a sneer flicker across Kardo’s face. The young man’s insensitivity struck him cold — Rene had expected him to respect his quiet admiration, to exercise tact. He stood, walked around the table, and slapped Kardo’s face. Stunned, Kardo cupped his reddening cheek in his hand. “Sorry, I just thought you were—“ “Get out of my house,” Rene said, pointing to the front door. Kardo stood and brushed past Rene, leaving a faint trail of warmth on Rene’s skin. “You’d understand if you were in my place,” Kardo said before closing the door behind him. Rene threw Kardo’s unfinished meal in the trash, cleared the table, and ran water over the dirty dishes. In the days that followed, he had nothing else to look forward to after work beyond the solitude he had once treasured. When Saturday came and Kardo didn’t show up, he found himself working alone in his garden and eating a meal meant for two people in his empty kitchen. He heard a rapping at the gate, and when he rushed to his window to see who it was, a woman with a fruit basket on her head pointed a wrinkled finger at her produce and asked, “Would you want to buy fruit?” There was too much food in his refrigerator for him as it was, and he waved the 14
old woman away. His nights were filled with a vacuum-like silence. In one dream he shared a bowl of wonton soup with Kardo, licking clean the spot where Kardo’s lips left a mark of sour moisture. One night, he dreamt that they lay side by side in bed, a cold wind whipping their bare skin. The next Saturday afternoon came, and he jumped from his kitchen seat when he heard a knocking at his gate. He spotted Kardo standing behind the locked gate. Kardo had never seemed so small to him before: this time Kardo slouched, avoided Rene’s eye. “I’m sorry,” Kardo mumbled, when Rene came to the gate. Rene straightened himself and folded his arms. “Is that all you can say for yourself?” “It was a misunderstanding. I’m sorry.” “Is that what you think of us baklas? That we’re all Miss Moneybags?” “It’s not like that. I just thought that you were about to make an offer. My other bosses have done it before.” Kardo scratched his head. Rene looked into Kardo’s eyes. Was his restraint so uncommon, so farcical? He was punishing himself, holding himself back when there seemed to be no reason to do so. He knew this man wouldn’t give him what he truly wanted. But what he needed right now, as he stood behind his closed gate, was a temporary balm for an ache that lingered. Children walked home in groups that afternoon, dribbling basketballs down the road, jostling with each other, soaking themselves in their own petty rivalries. Elderly women tapped the ends of their umbrellas against the pavement as they inched down the street, and Rene ducked as they passed. When the last gray-haired woman disappeared beyond the bend of the road, he unbolted the gate. “Come in.” Kardo stepped inside and stood before Rene, waiting, as always, to be told what to do. “What kind of work do you expect me to give you? I watered and weeded my garden. I’ve had enough time to clean my house. Don’t tell me you’re going to cook for me this time.” “I don’t know where else to go, Sir Rene.” “Come to my bedroom, then.” “What?” Kardo’s face fell, as though he had come unprepared for this. “Isn’t this what you wanted to do?” Rene opened his front door and held it open for Kardo. Kardo hesitated, but then followed Rene inside. “Second door to your left. Go inside and sit on my bed.” When Kardo disappeared into Rene’s room, Rene hurried to his kitchen, opened his cupboard, and took down a bottle of virgin olive oil he had received as a gift from a colleague at an office Christmas party. Sweat gathered in his palm as he clutched the neck of
the bottle, and in his mind he went over the notes he had picked up from movies, from the magazines he had read in quiet, private moments. Kardo was in his briefs when Rene walked in, sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes averted, rubbing his arms as the cold settled inside the room. Rene placed the bottle of oil on his nightstand and turned his back to Kardo as he pulled off his T-shirt, wriggled out of his boxer shorts. “If I could help you with that by showing you a Tanduay girl calendar, I would,” Rene said, shivering as he eased his naked body under his sheets. Staring at the floorboards, Kardo pulled down his briefs and tossed them to the floor. Rene got up as Kardo turned to face him, and felt an ache between his legs when his eyes fell on Kardo’s exposed protuberance: an ugly, veined, and vulnerable thing. “Come closer,” he whispered, picking up the bottle and unscrewing its cap. Coated in virgin olive oil, it tasted a little less revolting when his tongue fluttered around its tip, ushering forth a faint moan from Kardo’s lips. Rene patted Kardo’s chin when it was over. As they were leaving the bedroom, Kardo’s face tensed when Rene’s lips came in contact with his skin. They had dinner in silence afterwards, and before Kardo left, Rene handed him a one thousand peso note. Rene knew Kardo needed much more money than that, but he needed Kardo to come back for more. When Kardo left, Rene sat down to watch the evening news, more aware of the strange tingling in his body than the images of scam artists, Senate hearings, and traffic-clogged Manila streets that formed a colorful, unending blur. Had he known it could happen so fast, he wouldn’t have rehearsed the event in his mind as though it were some fearful, life-changing experience. There was shame that accompanied the act, but that only came afterwards. In the thick of it, he’d forgotten everything else, and allowed his pleasure to take over him. He’d never had a man inside him before, and he’d never expected to take joy in his own breaking, his own humiliation. Kardo visited Rene, unannounced, on weekday afternoons, appearing at the gate after Rene parked his car in the driveway. Rene took Kardo’s hand as he led him into his bedroom, and drew the satin curtains before they unbuttoned their clothes and made love on his bed. Rene gulped down his moans so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear, and covered Kardo’s mouth if a grunt escaped from his lips. In the privacy of his bedroom, this young man took him back to the earth, to the rankness of his own body, and his heart soared. + When Rene opened his front door, a girl with sun-darkened skin stood wide-eyed next to Kardo's
lanky figure. It had taken Kardo a week to visit him since their last meeting, and Rene was about to give Kardo a proper scolding when he spotted the girl. “I had to pick up my daughter from school today. Elena’s still cleaning Mrs. Cornejo’s house. Can we come in?” Kardo asked. “I guess,” Rene said, pulling the door open. He had never expected Kardo to deliver a part of his life, much less a daughter, to his doorstep. As she entered the house, the girl turned to look at the olive green curtains, the cabinet of fine china, the high ceiling, the angel figurines displayed on the divider. “And what would your name be?” Rene asked, looking at the girl. “Her name’s Cecile,” Kardo muttered, letting go of his daughter’s hand. “Is there food? I’m hungry.” “I was about to make tinola. Can you wait?” Kardo winced. “Can I have a sandwich first?” The frayed hem of Cecile’s sleeve caught Rene’s eye. “Yeah, there’s bread in the bread box. There’s leftover hotdogs in the fridge, if you’re really hungry.” Kardo strode to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Your uncle Rene is a rich man. He has a lot of food in his house,” Kardo called out from the kitchen. “You’re my uncle?” Cecile asked. “If you can wait, I can cook tinola for you two. You might want something hot,” he called out to Kardo. “You’re my uncle?” Cecile repeated. “Ah, yes, I’m your Uncle Rene. You must be hungry too.” Rene took her hand, which fit snugly in his, and led her to the kitchen. Kardo sat at the head of the table, legs spread, munching on a hotdog wrapped in a slice of white bread. He pulled up a chair and Cecile sank into it, staring at the plate of cold, wrinkled hot dogs and the bag of bread set before her. “What do you want to drink?” Rene asked. “What I want to drink?” Cecile asked, puzzled. Kardo pierced another hotdog with his fork and dropped it on his plate. “He means juice, soft drinks.” “Do you have Royal Tru-Orange?” He didn’t, and he wished he did. “What about orange juice?” “Okay.” Cecile watched as he walked to his refrigerator at the corner of the kitchen, opened it, and pulled out a box of Fontana. He took a glass from the dish rack, uncapped the box of juice, poured the juice into the glass, and set it beside Cecile’s plate. Cecile took the glass with her two hands and tilted it until the juice inside touched her lips. After taking a few sips, she lifted the glass from her lips and smiled at Rene. She had a thin moustache of orange that Rene patted away with a napkin. “I would’ve licked that off,” she said, giggling and kicking her legs. “You don’t use saliva to clean your face, darling,” 15
Rene said. It was a long time since he met a child who could be so easily pleased. As long as this little girl was fed and entertained, she wouldn’t ask questions. Perhaps she would even come to like him. He wrapped a slice of bread around a wrinkled hotdog and set it on her plate. She took the sandwich and closed her eyes as she bit into it and chewed. Inside, Rene breathed a sigh of relief. After Rene changed into his house clothes, he worked near the kitchen sink, dressing chicken, plucking malunggay leaves from their spindly stalks, peeling the green, watery sayote fruit he had harvested from his backyard. He watched Cecile as she wandered to the parlor and stared at the angel figurines displayed on the divider. She found a plastic stool and placed it at the foot of the divider, stood on it, and took a blushing cherub from a dusty shelf. Kardo’s eyes were glued to the TV set, its sound a curtain he drew around himself. “Kardo!” Rene hissed. Kardo gave a start, and looked at Rene. “What’s wrong?” Rene eyed Cecile, who had sat, Indian-style, on the floor, and was cradling the angel in her palms as though it were a tiny baby. He had wanted to tell Kardo to keep an eye on Cecile, but on second thought, it seemed better to let her be. “Did you get that hole in your wall fixed?” Rene asked, turning back to Kardo. The alarm on Kardo’s face receded, and he smiled. “Yeah, I patched it up yesterday. Thanks for the money.” “And is your family eating well?” “Actually, that was what I was about to tell you. We’re running out of rice.” “Sige, I still have lots of rice in the dispenser over there. You can get as much as you want,” Rene said. He pointed with his mouth to the plastic box at the corner of the kitchen. “There are bags in the cupboard. Whenever you need rice, you just get here ha?” Kardo grinned. “Sus, you’re so kind,” he said as he got up from his chair. Rene was afraid that Kardo would make the mistake of kissing him on the cheek in full view of Cecile. But when Kardo walked straight to the cupboard and pulled it open, Rene glanced in her direction and was relieved to see her playing with the cherub in the next room, too self-absorbed to notice them. The cherub danced in circles as Cecile balanced it on her hand, and Rene was about to shout, “Careful!” when the cherub rolled off her palm, shattering on the floor. Kardo sprung from his seat and peered through the doorframe that led to the living room. “Naku Cecile, look what you’ve done! How shameful you are!” Kardo yelled, storming into the living room and grabbing Cecile’s hand. Rene dried his hands and ran to the parlor, watch16
ing a frightened Cecile as her father tugged her arm. “Don’t worry, Sir Rene, I’ll take care of this,” he said as Rene approached them. He took off his rubber slipper, lifted Cecile’s uniform skirt, and gave her buttocks a quick, forceful slap. “Please, stop!” Rene yelled. Kardo paused, letting the hem of his daughter’s skirt fall. Rene stared at his fallen angel. Its wings had fallen off and its body had split in half, exposing its hollow insides. Cecile’s head was bowed, and she used the worn sleeve of her blouse to wipe her eyes. Rene approached her, took a handkerchief from his pants pocket, and patted her cheeks dry. She avoided his eyes. He rubbed her back. “Don’t cry, dear. We can easily replace it.” Kardo scratched his head. “Well, I thought you were angry,” he said. Rene looked up at him, and said, “She’s just a child.” + After a silent, awkward dinner, Rene handed Kardo a wad of bills, “to buy more rice, and to have a new school uniform sewn for Cecile.” Kardo clutched the bills in one hand and the bag of rice in the other. Whether he had given these out of pity, or because he wanted Kardo to come back, Rene wasn’t so sure. While shopping at the Chinese bazaar, he bought two angel figurines: a female angel with flowing blond hair, silvery blue robe, and large, gold wings, and a pink-skinned cherub that held a harp in its fat arms. The adult angel took the place of the cherub that had been broken, while the new cherub was to be Cecile’s. Her hot tears emerged from Rene’s memory as he wrapped the gift. He could not protect her. It wasn’t his right. When Rene had bought his first car, he’d found a shortcut to work that skirted past an open field dotted with sunflowers and squat banana trees. As the years fled past him and Rene grew older, immigrants from the countryside gradually invaded it, building rust-colored shanty homes that seemed to sprout from the land like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Smoke from their aluminum chimneys mingled with car exhaust from an increasingly busy street. Wet underwear hung like heavy flags from their window grills, reminding Rene that modesty was one of the many luxuries not everyone could enjoy. This was where Kardo lived. It was a familiar eyesore that grew in size every year, and the people emerging from its closed doors were indistinct in their squalor. Rene expected it to be a neighborhood where gossip, like the smell of sweat and fried fish, spread quickly. These thoughts filled Rene’s mind as he sat at his front porch in the afternoon, waiting for Kardo’s
return. A week, then two, passed. As monsoon rains saturated the soil in his yard, he paced from one end of his now dusty porch to the other, wringing his hands, wondering if he had been too harsh in rebuking Kardo. He knew Kardo couldn’t possibly love him, but he missed the way Kardo announced his presence at the dinner table by switching on the television, the way he laughed when Rene brushed against him, complimenting him for the way he made his garden — their garden — flourish. Kardo had no reason to be ashamed of his ardor — he had a daughter, yes, but did that matter? He was beginning to grow fond of the girl too. He began to picture how Kardo went through the motions of life inside this shantytown. Kardo babysitting his children as his wife went to work. Kardo coming home at night in a crisp white uniform, setting down a bag of roast chicken on a plastic kitchen table. Kardo was good-looking enough to be a salesperson in the newly opened mall downtown. Even if the pay wasn’t good, at least his wife wouldn’t need to worry about sharing her husband with another man. Maybe it was only right for Rene to give Kardo back to her. Like a tenant in a boarding house who had overstayed his lease, it was now time for Rene to return his key to the tiny, cheap room his money had once afforded him. The sun came out after another week of rain, and as he drove home from work, his eyes fell on the familiar cluster of shanties, and he clutched at the steering wheel, unable to drive any further. Rene parked his car by the curb and stared at the shantytown, wondering if it really had to come to this. He then got out of the car, and his own reflection in the car window caught his eye. His hair was slicked back, his white polo shirt was rolled up at the sleeves, his shirttails were tucked beneath the waistband of his slacks, and his leather belt hoisted up his growing belly. He took out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped away the sweat on his forehead and nape. What would Kardo’s neighbors think if they saw an older man looking for him? Regaining his composure, he turned and began walking. Two girls in school uniform leaned against the walls of an alleyway, sucking popsicles encased in plastic. “Sir, what are you looking for?” one of the girls asked, revealing her crooked, yellowing teeth. “Do you live here, hija?” Rene asked, doubting she’d appreciate his politeness. “No, we live in that mansion at the top of the hill!” The other girl exclaimed. The girls exchanged looks, and burst into a harsh fit of cackling. “We live here. Why?” the girl with crooked teeth asked, regaining her breath. Rene hesitated, but since he’d already been ribbed by these girls, he felt he had nothing left to lose. “Does Kardo live here?”
“Kuya Kardo? Yeah. Why, are you his boss?” She was making it easier for him now, and yet he stuttered. “Yes, I, I am.” “My dad says he’s sick. Are you looking for him?” If she were an older woman, he would have found her tone accusatory. If she were his daughter, he would’ve scolded her for her impoliteness. “Yes, I have to talk to him.” She turned her back to him and walked away, and her friend followed her, looking at Rene and shrugging her shoulders. Just when Rene was beginning to think they were pulling his leg, the crooked-toothed girl looked over her shoulder and wiggled a finger at him, as though she were beckoning a small child to follow her lead. The ground underneath them was muddy and uneven. Rene stepped around the rocks that littered their path, careful not to scratch his leather shoes. Wet T-shirts and blankets hung from flimsy plywood windows and flapped in the wind. Women squatted in the alleyways as they scrubbed their soiled clothing in plastic tubs, while shirtless, potbellied men sat on wooden benches outside their houses and smoked. The smell of damp and sewerage was everywhere, and he resisted the urge to cover his nose, for he was afraid of what these people could do to him when slighted. A troupe of chickens crossed Rene’s path, and they flapped their wings and cackled when a young man in basketball shorts stepped out of his house and chased them away with a stick. He spotted Rene and, stunned, straightened himself. “Are you looking for anyone, sir?” The young man asked. “He’s looking for Kuya Kardo,” the crooked-toothed girl said. “Are you his boss? He had to be rushed to the hospital two weeks ago.” Rene felt relief wash over him — Kardo hadn’t abandoned him, he had just gotten sick. Who wouldn’t fall ill in a dump like this? he thought. It was as though he were learning, for the first time, that Kardo’s body could succumb to illness. “What happened?” he asked. “Typhoid fever. But he returned from the hospital yesterday. He’s still in bed I think,” he said. “Elena!” he yelled, walking past two houses before pounding on the door of a two-story shack. “What’s that?” A woman’s head emerged from a window on the second floor. A pink plastic clamp held together her long, straight hair, and she brushed away the stray wisps that fell across her oily cheeks. She had the face of a teenager, and Rene felt sorry that her figure had to be framed by rotting wooden planks. “Is Kardo in there?” The man yelled. The two girls wandered away, throwing glances at Rene as they sucked their popsicle sticks. “Where else do you think he is?” Her harsh, 17
high-pitched voice did not match the softness of her features. “His boss is here.” The man pointed at Rene with his thumb, slapped the door, and sauntered back to his shack. Elena stared at Rene as though he were an apparition. “You’re Sir Rene, right?” Elena asked. “That’s me.” Her face twitched in panic. “Kardo’s been sick and couldn’t go to your house. We’re so sorry. Please don’t fire him.” “Hija, I won’t,” he said, hesitating. Seeing the doubt on her face, he smiled, tried to regain his composure, and asked, “Is there anything you need?” “You don’t have to worry about us. Have you eaten yet, sir?” It was an offer he hadn’t expected, and he didn’t know how to politely decline it. “Please come inside. You came all the way here to visit us and you won’t even have anything to eat? How shameful of us to let you go.” She shut the window, clambered downstairs, and opened her front door. “Please come in, Sir. Our children aren’t home yet from school.” She stepped back to make way for him as he entered her house. It was surprisingly clean—the linoleum floor had been mopped and swept, and the plastic table at the center of the room smelled of Lysol and boiled rice. A poster of a bikini-clad woman caressing a bottle of Tanduay Rum hung from one of the plywood walls, next to a plastic reproduction of The Last Supper. Shutting the door, she said in an embarrassed voice, “Our humble home.” When he turned to look at her, she gripped the plastic door handle, bit her lip, and giggled. There was a crib at the corner of the room, next to a long plastic bench, and as soon as Rene sat down, a cry emerged from the crib’s netted walls. Elena rushed to the crib and took the baby in her arms. She bounced on her heels, patted its back, and cooed into its ear. The baby turned to look at Rene and grimaced, as though it had read his thoughts, before letting out another pained cry. “If you want to see Kardo, he’s in our bedroom on the second floor. But he’s still asleep.” The baby’s cries slowly ebbed, and when it fell asleep, she lowered it into the crib. “Is it a boy, or a girl?” “A girl. Didn’t Kardo tell you?” Elena walked to the kitchenette at the other side of the room and opened a sideboard. Rene waited for her to speak as she emptied a pack of instant noodles into a pot, filled it with water, and set it on the stove. “You don’t have to make anything for me,” he said, as she turned to face him. “No, it’s fine. You’re our guest.” She smiled to her18
self as though amused by what she had just said, and then sank into a chair near the kitchen table. “I’m sorry that we couldn’t tell you what happened. You were probably worried sick.” “I wasn’t worried sick,” he said, the annoyance in his voice becoming too sharp for polite conversation. “I was just worried.” She had to stop apologizing, for it was hard for him to maintain his calm. She seemed so sincere in her generosity; to take anything more from her would be criminal. “But then you came all the way here to visit us,” she said. “Do you think he’s the only reason why I’m here?” He couldn’t admit to her that he hadn’t been generous with his love, that he given all of it to her husband without knowing that she’d expect something from him, too. “What else would bring you here?” she asked, her voice faltering. Then, avoiding his gaze, she got up and glanced at the pot on the stove. “I’m sorry if I have nothing better to serve,” she said, lifting the pot cover and stirring the soup with a small fork. “When Kardo was well enough to work for you, we had fried chicken for dinner almost every day. We were eating three times a day.” Rene got up and pulled out his wallet from his back pocket. He took out four, five-hundred peso bills and placed them on the kitchen table. “You’ll probably need more than this. I’ll come back tomorrow and give you more.” He felt trapped by this woman’s unflinching hospitality, and he prepared to leave. Elena stared at the money. “We haven’t done anything to earn that much. I could clean your house or do your laundry.” “You’ve done enough for me, Elena. Enough is enough.” “All right. Kardo will be well enough to work next week.” She nodded, as though she could read his thoughts and was giving him permission to have them. He stared at her, not knowing if he was supposed to apologize or to mention the unmentionable. The front door opened and Cecile walked in. Her face lit up when she saw him. “Uncle Rene!” she exclaimed, skipping towards him. He found himself laughing in relief as he bent down and caught Cecile in his arms. “I have a gift for you, but I left it at my house,” Rene said, stroking Cecile’s hair. “Sir Rene, you shouldn’t have,” Elena said Rene turned to Elena. “And why not?” A boy, smaller than Cecile, walked through the front door and took a step back when he spotted the unfamiliar guest. “Nicolas, this is your Uncle Rene, a friend of your father’s. Ask for his blessing. You too, Cecile.” Rene got up and the two children pressed the back of his hand to their sweaty foreheads. Nicolas ran up
the stairs right after letting go of Rene’s hand, while Cecile skipped away. “Don’t be noisy! Your father’s still asleep!” Elena yelled. She laughed, and looked at Rene. When her children had disappeared upstairs, she said, “There was this rich couple who came by the other day. They were offering me ten thousand pesos for Cecile and the baby. They said they’d raise the children as their own and send them to a good school.” Rene was shocked. “What did you tell them?” “I told them I couldn’t do it. It’s not as if I haven’t thought about it. I just don’t know these people. Who knows what they’d do to my babies?” Elena switched off the stove, took a chipped bowl from the cupboard, and poured out the noodle soup. “I didn’t want so many babies when I got married, but I keep on getting pregnant. Sometimes you have no other choice but to love what the Lord gives you.” She set the bowl at the center of the table, slipped in a spoon, and drew a chair. “Let’s eat, Sir Rene,” she said, nodding at him. “I could feed Kardo if he’s awake. I have so much food at home. You’re making me feel guilty,” he said. Elena shrugged. “All right, if that’s what you want. I’ll come with you upstairs.” He cupped his hands around the bowl. It wasn’t within his powers to do what was right — to walk away from this woman’s husband, to stop exploiting this woman’s desperation. It seemed that Elena
depended on him to not walk away from them. He had offered to feed her husband, and now she was waiting for him to do it. “You’re very concerned about him,” she said, her head bowed. The soup’s steam warmed his face. It felt heavy in his hands, and he put it down on the table. He couldn’t look at her. Closing his eyes, he said, “Hija, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said, “But I understand.” He picked up the bowl with his two hands and followed Elena upstairs, to the bed she shared with her husband, knowing there was no turning back. This was probably what Rene had wanted all along.
Dead Mom Reprise by July Westhale "Oh, sometimes it is as if desire itself had been given form, and acreage, and I'd been left for lost there" -Carl Philips Dead mom is many things, but always dead. Nothing kills a conversation like a dead mom. What are you, dead mom? Whatever is left of you is what I pray to. Dead mom makes lunches. Dead mom is the man on the corner with two cigarettes. Dead mom wanders the hallways at night, eating pickles from a jar. I call out for you by your rightful name, dead mom, every time you die. Dead mom, you die every day. You move, and bury yourself next to me. Dead mom, you would sleep if you could, but dead moms don’t sleep, they burn. Dead mom, I eat ashes to know what heaven does to the body. Nobody reads poetry, especially not dead moms, but dead moms hand out tickets at theaters, they bag groceries, they turn their heads just so, so in the right light they reflect off of everything. The marquee is always showing dead mom. Let me live, dead mom. Forget roses. Forget forget-me-nots. Forget bulbs that wait forever to finally shoot into recognition months later. Plant rows and rows of dead mom, because it will seed like crazy, and you will never be able to kill it.
at the woodshop by Yousef Hilmy covered in sawdust she heaves with the bandsaw thinking about her indexfinger (its silence) shaved off after some time in the shop —
seldom did a whirr, hung in the air, seize the thought held with others ; milling around in the warmvessel a kind of comingling —
but when it took shape, amid the others, she made sure to separate and mark. caught in the din’s oddly tender clutch, the sense of a reckoning I by them.
Captain America by Ben Gwin
I met Nancy Farmer on a muggy night in August when she caught me spying on her mom. Back then, the Farmers’ lived in a three-story house with wide front windows and no blinds, and Mrs. Farmer made a habit of walking around naked. Some days she wore a towel wrapped around her hair or her waist, others she was stark nude watering the plants or dusting right there in the living room. I hid between the trees and the fence on the edge of their lawn and watched for as long as I could stand it. Then I’d cross the Route 26, head to the river and collect rocks until dark. For weeks this went on without a hassle until one evening I was watching Mrs. Farmer redecorate, and Nancy came bounding down the front steps. I laid flat on my back and covered myself with sticks and grass clippings, thinking she might pass by if I kept still and closed my eyes. Nancy dug her foot into my ribs. “Quit creeping on my mom.” She wore cutoffs over a red bathing suit. Her hair was wet. A piece of red ribbon shot through one of her braids. “Don’t encourage her,” she said. I stood and brushed myself off, picked up my bucket. Nancy ran her thumb under her bathing suit strap. The dark around her eyes was so deep it looked like she hadn’t slept the night through in her whole life. “What’s your deal?” “I’m Roy. Just moved down the street. I’m on my way to the river.” I backpedaled a few steps and stopped when I felt the wind from passing cars on 26. “You always carry a bucket?” “It’s for rocks.” “Well, Roy, I’m going to the river,” Nancy said. “If you want to meet some people.” I tried to spin the bucket between my palms, but it pinched my skin and I dropped it. She reached out and brushed a leaf from my hair. “Maybe if you make some friends you’ll stop jerking off in my lawn.” We walked to the road and stood in the shoulder, waiting for a break in traffic. Before we crossed, I looked back at the house and saw only empty windows. The path along the river was slanted and narrow and the air smelled like mold. I took deliberate steps, following Nancy while she filled me in on how things worked—laid it out as if she were telling me how to balance the register or record my tips. Nancy and her older brother, Mitch, ran with the crowd you thought had it made in high school. Kids with new cars and fake IDs. Blue jeans you could pay rent with. If the world was right I’d have been just another seventh grader trying to stay out of their way. But that sum-
mer nothing seemed to work with any kind of logic. Whatever I was going to find that night with Nancy, I needed it. Even now I see how I needed it. Farther along we came to a spot where the river ate into the path. Low hanging branches reached out over the water and broke the moon into pieces. We hopped from rock to slick rock and found the trail again. The woods split open around a clearing all the way down across from the tire factory. There were maybe six kids, all older and bigger than me, pulling beers from a trashcan full of ice. A torn up couch held a pile of shoes. “Look what I found.” Nancy presented me like a prize on a game show. Overhead a girl’s legs dangled from the mouth of a three-sided tree house. A fire cracked in a circle of cinder blocks while Nancy rattled off a list of names I had trouble keeping straight. Erin was the girl hanging off Mitch. “What are you into?” she asked. A piece of hard candy clunked in her mouth. “Rocks and comic books,” I said, and she laughed. “Don’t be a bitch.” Nancy undid her braids, pulled the ribbon out of her hair and twisted it between her fingers. “He’s with me,” she said. “He’s adorable,” Erin said. Mitch lifted Erin’s arm off his neck. He smiled, and his teeth were blinding, so white they looked fake—like you could wind them up and watch them chatter. “Cool shirt, Roy,” Mitch said. It was my best t-shirt. On the front was the cover of Iron Man #149 where he fights Dr. Doom. I drew a circle in the dirt with my foot. “Thanks,” I said. “Relax.” Mitch tossed me a beer. They made a big deal of getting me to drink. A boy and a girl who looked like twins showed up with a bottle of vodka, and I was about to hit it when Nancy pulled me away. We sat on a big flat rock jutting into the river. “I don’t want them to get you all pukey,” Nancy said. She opened the two beers she brought out and gave one to me. “I bet the factory runoff and the widening of the canal for the old barges created some awesome mineral deposits,” I said. “There could be crystals.” Nancy dipped her hand in the river and made a palm print between us on the rock. “Do you have cigarettes?” she asked. “No.” One of the twins flew off the rope swing into the water. “Watch this,” Nancy said, and with a snap of her fingers expertly flicked a bottle cap into the fire. “How’d you do that?” I asked. She said, “I’ll show you,” and we spent that night collecting bottle caps and flicking them at the fire pit while the lights on the far side of the valley popped on and poured their reflection over the water. It got 21
so you couldn’t tell where the hill stopped and the river began. The last weeks of summer dragged on in days made heavy by sweat and unpacked boxes. The air conditioner broke and drought sucked all the green from our lawn. Silk worms infested the trees out front. Dad was gone for work before I woke up and didn’t come home until after dark. Mom put our stuff away in strange places, so I went from room to room reordering what I could. I pulled a vase from the freezer and set it on the mantle, lugged Dad’s tools from the dining room into the shed out back. I hunted stereo system components floating between four different rooms on two different floors. When I was younger, and we lived in the city, Mom and I spent summers painting together. While I made a swirly gray mess on my paper and the kitchen table, she painted pictures of photographs she’d taken of abandoned factories and crumbling row houses, train track trestles that stopped halfway between mountains. People who shot dope under highway overpasses. She clipped the pictures to her easel with a clothespin. Sunlight through the windows turned her hair the color of pennies. Those times are tough to think about, after the move, watching Mom talk to herself while she stuffed winter coats into the cabinets. Every day I ran away to the river. Nobody ever came looking. + I didn’t make it back to Nancy’s house until October. Mr. and Mrs. Farmer invited my family to their Halloween party. “They have kids around your age,” Dad said. “It’ll be fun.” He sucked ice cubes from his glass, while I cleared the table. Mom was on the porch, pulling the phone cord through the crack in the screen door. “Dad, it’s like my last chance to go trick-or-treating,” I said, and was about to further support my position when Mom ripped the phone from the wall and fired it into the lawn. She stumbled and knocked over the table. Dad went to help her up. I took my plates to the sink. The Farmers’ kitchen smelled like caramel and bleach. My homemade costume itched around my neck. I carried my shield, a garbage can lid painted red-white-and-blue, to the dining room table. They had the big candy bars. So I stuffed my face and tried to see how long I could stare at the chandelier without blinking, while the adults mingled by the piano in the living room. The whole town was there and then some. Dad was the only one who didn’t dress up. Mitch was David Bowie—full Ziggy Stardust makeup and everything. He stood by the front door. As guests arrived, he took their coats. My vision was almost blurred when Nancy came down stairs all in red. “My Roy,” she said, “what big 22
ears you have.” I tore open a Kit Kat and watched the run in her stockings stretch as she walked. “What’s in the basket?” I asked. “The Big Bad Wolf,” she said. She opened the basket. Inside was a wolf’s head that looked so real, I gagged and spit chocolate down the front of my shirt. I tried to wipe it off and smeared it everywhere. Mitch crept up behind Nancy and rested his chin on top of her head. His fingers draped over her shoulders. “Poor wolf,” Mitch said, “didn’t stand a chance.” Nancy snapped shut the basket. “Let me get you some soda water for that,” she told me and ducked into the kitchen. Mitch grabbed a handful of candy corn and shook them like dice. “That costume is boss.” “Yeah, I was gonna go as Iron Man, but I already had these awesome blue sweatpants so I was like, ‘fuck it, I’m going as Captain America.’” “Oh,” Mitch said. “You need anything? Want a real drink?” I dipped my finger in the syrupy red stuff pooling under Nancy’s basket and licked it. “No thank you,” I said. One-at-a-time Mitch tossed candy corn into his mouth, and we bullshitted about comics until Mr. Farmer came in from the living room, waving a drink and wearing a loin cloth. “Mitch, we’re ready for you, buddy,” he said. “Come on, Dad. Really?” Mr. Farmer set his glass on the banister and took a step towards us. He said, “Mitchel,” in a way that ended the discussion. After a lengthy introduction and some clapping, Mitch sat at the piano and flubbed a couple notes, started and stopped the same tune over and again. Then he closed his eyes and ripped into a song I knew from a movie set in the sixties full of big American cars and kids with slick hair. I picked dead leaves off a plant by the window and watched Mitch go at it under the glow of jack-o-lanterns and plastic ghosts. A nurse and a demon started dancing. Soon the whole room full of movie stars and monsters swarmed around Mitch. Even Mom and Dad joined in. Nancy pulled up my shirt and rolled a cold soda can over my back. She whispered, “Dance with me.” I said, “I don’t know how,” and she said, “I’ll show you.” And I turned and reached for her but she backed away towards the stairs. Up in Nancy’s room she led me around in small circles between the dresser and the window. Notes from the piano rose through the floor. Her makeup ran and it looked like the black in her eyes was crawling across her face. When she pulled me close I pressed into her hard. Her hair smelled like the
flowers Mom used to grow on the roof of our old apartment. “You dance fine,” she said. “I’m dizzy,” I said and stood on my tiptoes. Nancy ducked under my arm and whirled across the room. She took a big drink from the soda can, shook it by her ear and gave me the last sip. I tasted metal and vodka and cherry lip gloss. I pulled the tab off the can and put it in my pocket. From her desk Nancy grabbed a battered pack of Winston’s. She opened the window and climbed out onto the roof. “Coming?” she asked. “Out there?” “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s Halloween. Tonight you’re someone else and so am I.” On the roof we got stoned and made plans to meet later at the spot by the river. “The air feels good,” I said, “feels like cold water tastes. Like I could swallow it.” Nancy ripped off a piece of shingle and flung it into the yard. “How’d it feel in the city?” “Some other way.” The stars started to wobble. They glowed so bright it hurt my eyes. Back inside Nancy hung up her hoodie and sat on the bed. “These things usually go pretty late.” She rubbed the edge of her comforter between her forefinger and thumb. "I'm hungry," I said. “You’re such a boy.” “I’m Captain America.” Nancy took off her shirt. She tied back her hair and patted the spot next to her on the bed. “Well come sit with me, Captain America,” she said. So I sat with her. The party ended around midnight. At home my parents dove into a deep sleep, anchored down by the blue pills they kept in their bathroom and didn’t think I knew about. I snuck out still in costume. Cold air sobered me up. When I got to the clearing, the fire was burning but no one was there. From where I stood the tire factory looked like the skyline of an exotic city way off in the distance. But I knew better. I lit one of Mom’s cigarettes and heard a muffled noise up in the tree house. I climbed inside to see what it was. Inside Nancy was tied up and hanging by her wrists, stripped to her underwear. She banged her feet against the back wall, her toes barely sweeping the floor. A blood-stained pillowcase covered her face; I pulled it off, and her nose was split open and dripping. She screamed when I took the gag from her mouth. “Keep your hands off me.” “Quit kicking. I’m trying to help.” “Don’t fucking touch me.” I tried to wipe the blood and snot off her face but she turned away.
“If you’re gonna help, then help.” “I’m trying.” “Hurry up,” Nancy said. “They’re coming back.” “I can’t reach.” She clenched and unclenched her fists. Her hands were blue. “Fucking do something,” she said. Her hair got in my mouth, her sweat on my cheek. I couldn’t get my fingers to work the knots. “Lift up your feet,” I said. I got on my hands and knees, and Nancy stepped on my back. She lifted her hands up and over the hook, stumbled to the floor and flattened me. My chin bounced off the plywood. Nancy slid down the rope swing and took off up river without looking back. I lay flat, breathing hard. Below me I heard footsteps getting closer. Voices rising. Blood poured from my chin. I hung over the edge and dropped. I landed on my stomach in the mud. When I got up I tasted blood and dirt and wasn’t alone. Still dressed like Bowie, Mitch swung a bottle of vodka by its neck, his other hand held Erin’s hip. Walking around the fire came Drake and Vern and then the twins; they filled the trashcan with bags of ice and cans of beer. “Thank God, you guys are here,” I said, cupping my chin. “Nancy is all fucked up.” “Jesus, you look like shit,” Mitch said and passed me the bottle. “Erin, help him with that cut.” I took a drink and passed the bottle to Erin. “Nancy’s fucked up bad,” I said. “Her nose.” Erin pulled a bandanna from her pocket, soaked it in vodka and wiped my face with it. “Hold this to your chin,” she said. I nodded thanks and did like she told me. “Where’s Nancy?” Mitch asked. “I untied her. She ran,” I said. Mitch took the cigarette from Erin’s mouth, dragged on it and put it back between her lips. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Roy,” he said. “Done what?” I said. “That’s not how it works, Roy,” Erin said. “It was her turn.” I could hear the river running past as they surrounded me and pulled my arms behind my back. “Quit fucking around,” I said. “Nothing personal,” Mitch said. “This isn’t funny,” I said. “No, it’s not,” said Erin. Someone tied my hands. Mitch pulled a pillowcase over my head. They dragged me to the river, hit me in the ribs till I quit struggling. I pictured Erin smoking those stupid long cigarettes while someone dunked my head under and held it. Six sets of hands on my head one after another and each time I went under longer, the time to breathe between got shorter. Everyone took a turn, tried to see how close to drowned they could get me. 23
When they were done, they dumped me under the tree house and pulled off my clothes. Erin tied the rope swing around my neck. “If you misbehave,” she said, “you get the hood again.” Mitch cracked a beer. Tied up like a dog, I sat shivering in my boxers and watched them drink by the river late into the night. I came to at the sound of Nancy’s voice, certain I was dead and had fucked up so bad my afterlife was forever a view of the tire factory. “Roy, get dressed. Hurry.” “I can’t. I’m dead.” She put her forehead to my ear. “No, you’re not,” she said. “Let’s go.” Under first light we walked along 26 back to my house. We sat on the porch and watched the sun rise over the moth-gutted trees at the end of the lawn. From the ashtray on the table I pulled a half-smoked cigarette and tried to light it with the fireplace lighter by the grill. The lighter clicked and clicked. + The following spring the river flooded and tore out chunks off the shore before it subsided, giving way to another brutally hot summer. That summer the
water level sank so low, you could see the bottom of the river from up on the bridge. In some spots you could walk right across it. Mitch graduated along with the rest of his friends, and in the fall they all left for colleges in New England or California where their families had donated money. Once Mitch was out of the house, Nancy never brought him up and I never asked. When Nancy and I had the chance to leave ourselves, neither of us managed to get very far or stay gone for very long, and it was impossible to stay away from each other. I was still in high school when she and I shared a warm six pack and smoked half a joint while we walked across the bridge on the far side of the tire factory so we could watch the fireworks from the top of the hill. We saw smoke in the distance. A kid flew into the water off the rope swing. “It’ll never stop,” Nancy said, and she scrunched up her nose and asked for a cigarette. After the fireworks display, we walked along on the riverbank and tried to count the lights on the hill. Our blood buzzing in the July heat, we got a room for the night and collapsed on the bed. I kissed her belly while the TV’s glow washed over us like chlorine in a swimming pool, and I wondered if that was the kind of water you could drown in.
D.O.A. by Neil Carpathios
“When I saw the amputee I thought she was dying in pieces. She was the lady behind the counter using one arm to work the register. I wondered if next her other arm would fall off like an apple from a branch, ripe and heavy, or if a leg or ear or maybe her nose would drop right in front of us, my mother and me, any second. That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept wondering when my pieces would start falling like flower petals. I imagined walking to school leaving a trail of fingers, toes, arms, legs, lying on the sidewalk unable to go further, a torso and head, then the torso gone, finally just my head, flies nesting in nostrils, a group of boys deciding to play soccer telling me to shut up every time they kicked and I screamed. I wondered if a new disease was spreading: I started to notice people every day missing parts—bus driver with an eye patch, TV repairman minus fingers, man with no legs on a piece of wood wheeling through the alley. I pictured a lost-and-found heaven of piled-up human scraps, but how would we ever find our own pieces among the millions, the ones that matched, fit and clicked back into place? Finally I asked my mother who only said those people had accidents, that’s why she always scolded me to be careful. But I knew none of us were put together very well, I knew this whole living thing was just a matter of time.” I look out at the faces all looking back at me, some nodding in recognition, some smiling. I walk back to my chair and as I do, one or two people shake my hand. When I sit down, someone behind me puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. Now it’s my turn to listen. A mousy-looking, fortyish woman with glasses that nine out of ten people, including me, would guess is a librarian, stands at the front of the room and starts explaining how she could never, and still can’t, step on an ant. It makes her feel as if she’s some angry god and reminds her how some giant invisible shoe is above her head somewhere every second ready to come down. She even says she thinks that’s what cloudy days are: the giant sole of that shoe is closer than usual casting a big shadow over the world. This is D.O.A—Death-Obsessed Anonymous. Of course, the daily joke is that the letters of our little group also mean Dead On Arrival. We come together to share our tales of woe, our fears, our madness once a week, every Sunday night. About twenty of us sit on folding chairs in a small rec room in the basement of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, West Virginia. We sip coffee from Styrofoam cups, take turns talking, and at the end pick at cookies or pretzels spread out on a card table. One guy, a face like John Travolta, heavier, with black hair greased back, Italian-looking, dark beard
stubble, gets up and blames it on his father who was a surgeon. He even starts by saying he can relate to my story because as a kid he, too, let his imagination run wild. He says his father used to reupholster people, stitching them back together like torn pillows made new. He earned a living holding lungs like water balloons and cutting them open to find mushrooming tumors. He strummed ribs and watched the heart like a chick in a shell spasm, quiver. As a kid, knowing this, Travolta developed x-ray vision, could see through everyone like a window, or more like a fish tank, all their stuffing swimming inside them. “This dude’s got a way with words,” Clyde, a black postal worker I usually sit next to, whispers with a smirk. “Looks like you might have some competition.” I smile and nod. Clyde knows I’m a poet and professor at the local community college. “Shit, what kind of people really talk like that anyway?” Clyde mumbles, shifts on his chair. The guy continues: “How much alike we are, I kept discovering — pancreas, liver, intestines, all pretty much in the same spots, same colors and shapes, not to mention chunks of food in every stomach sloshing. In school I’d sit distracted, watching kids’ digestive juices emulsifying their lunches. I’d nibble my sandwich, look down at my own belly.” He looks down at his own belly to show us how. “We all have these gears inside us, all these whirligigs spinning.” His voice speeds up, he’s excited, he makes weird circular motions with his hands. “But one day a bolt comes loose, a wire short-circuits, the inner factory shuts down production. It might happen mid-slurp, eating soup. I mean, think about it.” He scoops imaginary soup from an imaginary bowl with an imaginary spoon. “You’re sitting there and before you can bring the spoon to your lips, it’s over. Yeah, I remember how my father would come home from work, how he’d ask about my day, not sharing his of all the bodies fixed and some beyond repair. I’d tell him I got an A or how at recess I hit the winning homer. He’d hug me then change clothes, then lie on the couch as I watched him doze, as I tried to locate the thing we call love like an exotic, bright fish never really spotted swimming inside us.” “Wow,” I think. That dude does have a way with words. I wonder if he rehearsed, wanted to impress us. The truth is, you can sense a little bit of pressure, some slight competition to entertain better than the next person. It has been increasing week-to-week. More metaphors, more similes. I’ve been guilty too. Everybody claps. Fat Travolta sits back down. He’s the winner tonight. “Anybody else?” Robert, our group leader, says. He looks like Mister Rogers but always in a Western brown leather vest. It must be his weekly D.O.A. uniform, along with the snakeskin boots. Nobody volunteers so we rise and head for the snacks. 25
“Powerful stuff tonight,” I say to Fat Travolta who stuffs a brownie into his mouth. He swallows. “Thanks, man. Yours too. It all starts young, doesn’t it?” “I guess so. Maybe some people are just better at shaking it off as they grow up.” He nods but is more interested in the big angel food cake with pink icing someone brought. “Well, time for me to head out,” I say. Clyde comes over, says he’s got an early day too. Time to leave. We pour onto the sidewalk. It’s dark out. We walk to our cars. Wave our goodbyes. + I’ve been in D.O.A. for six months now. I heard about it on campus. One of the other instructors mentioned something about a club or group that talked about death, ordinary people who are so distracted with the notion of life ending that it affects their daily lives. At first I thought he was joking, but a few days later I saw a flier posted on a bulletin board in the hall: Is the fact of death too much for you? Do you find yourself consumed with morbid thoughts? Would you like to share with others? Join D.O.A. — Death Obsessed Anonymous. Every Sunday, 7:00 p.m. in the basement of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, 724 Lansing Street, Huntington, WV. I moved to southern Ohio fifteen years ago after graduate school. I almost didn’t apply for the teaching job at Southern State University since, ironically, it’s just twenty miles from the town my father fled to after divorcing my mother in upstate New York, and where he killed himself lying on railroad tracks. It would be too weird, I thought, but the job market was pretty tough. I had been rejected from several previous job applications. Maybe it was strangely meant to be. I was hired, later married, had kids, then divorced. Then remarried. Then divorced again. Now I teach at Huntington Community College across the river in West Virginia. Whenever I hear a train, I cringe. I could attribute my death obsession to my father’s suicide, but it goes deeper than that. Even as a kid I couldn’t help seeing the death all around me. Frogs as flat as paper on the street, run over by cars. What were their last thoughts? Raccoons, dogs, cats. Other roadkill. Mrs. Spangler, who I saw collapse by her mailbox with a heart attack. And of course, all those body parts missing, like I described at D.O.A. I actually know the exact spot where my father ended his life. Morbid as I am, I researched it with the police department. Since I am his son, they gave me the information. I went there once. Railroad tracks like any other. Trees on each side. Gravel. Dirt. The smell of pavement and weeds. I guess I was hoping I’d feel something there, maybe connect with 26
his ghost. Shit like that. There was nothing. So I went to D.O.A. one Sunday night. I liked it. Got to know a few folks, although there are new faces every week too. Clyde and I sort of hit if off. He says that he thinks of God as a mysterious postal worker who delivers mail every day to us in the form of life experiences we try to make sense of. Some envelopes carry the news, in secret code, that today is the last day you will live. Most people can’t decipher the code and think the day is like any other but it really is the last. Every time he puts envelopes in mailboxes, he imagines that God does the same thing each day the sun rises. God hands out another day to us, maybe the last one. Clyde says he can’t get that scenario out of his head. + Death: A Great Invention People are a lot nicer when they’re dead. They don’t get impatient waiting in line at the license bureau. They don’t turn red and flip you the finger in traffic and they don’t tear pages out of magazines in waiting rooms. They don’t fart in elevators or fake orgasms. You can say whatever you want and they won’t fire back a sarcastic remark; in fact, they are great listeners and will not squirm or rush you through the boring account of your day. They don’t invent interrogation devices to electrocute your genitals. They don’t place X’s on a map where bombs will be dropped. They don’t make speeches sprinkled with promises they’ll never keep. They are much like old furniture sitting silently, unthreatening, docile, stored in an attic — or like an imaginary friend from childhood you could tell anything to and boss around. And best of all about the dead is you don’t have to wonder if they really love you or are being dutiful or if they still think sadly about that time after the spat when you said you wished they were dead.
I fold the paper and slip it back into my jacket pocket. Everybody claps. Some stand and clap. I wanted to give them something special, a little humor, this poem. I explain. My gift to them for six months of real sharing. Clyde fist-bumps me when I sit back down. Fat Travolta’s face looks sour. After everyone’s done sharing, we head for the snack table. “Nice poem, man,” Fat Travolta says, as he dips a tortilla chip in salsa. “Thanks. Hell, just trying to lighten things up a bit. For myself too.” “Yeah, yeah, but you know, death is okay and all, like you say in your poem, when it involves other people. When they’re gone it’s a great invention. But when it’s you, it’s a different story. Not so great.” He looks at me, waiting to see what I’ll say. He’s jealous. I’m the real poet of death around here. “Can’t argue with that philosophy,” I say, pouring coffee into my cup from a plastic carafe. Clyde winks at me. “Maybe I’ll write a poem for next time too,” Fat Travolta says. “A poem death-match! Awesome idea!” Clyde puts up his fists in a boxing pose. “No, no, none of that. This group is serious,” I say. “Right, right. The others might not appreciate it, turning this group into something it’s not,” Fat Travolta agrees. “Aw, you dudes is just chicken. Death deserves poetry,” Clyde says. “Why don’t you write a poem, then,” I say. Fat Travolta picks up another chip and says, “Yeah, man, why don’t you join the fray?” “I never pretended to be no poet. You guys are the ones always talking like Shakespeare.” Fat Travolta and I look at each other. “I guess we should take that as a compliment,” I say. “A couple of Shakespeares.” Fat Travolta laughs, dips his chip, shoves it in his mouth. “Thither to my car shalt I now proceed,” I say. “Aye, thou art correct. The time dwindles and my eyes grow weary,” Fat Travolta chimes. Clyde shakes his head. Robert and two others wander over. One is an ex-student who says he’s been writing a lot recently too. More compliments about my poem. Fat Travolta leaves. Then Clyde and I head for the door. + He lived inside a raindrop. He enjoyed the windows, looking out at the clouds, the trees, as he tumbled through space. It seemed like a normal life. He knew no other. Others would say how tragic a life so brief. When he hit the windshield and his world exploded, it was no different than any death. Just before impact he took one last peek.
How beautiful it all had been. How lucky he had kept his eyes open. I look at the computer screen, sitting at my kitchen table. I am thinking about my father. I like to believe that he kept his eyes open for most of his days. I hope that I am. I give what I’ve written a title, trying to think positive: no regrets. Months pass. I go about my business, teaching, eating, trying to sleep through a goddamn night. Everywhere I go, more and more, I feel like I’m looking out the transparent walls of a bubble. I don’t mention this to anyone, even at the D.O.A., but faces seem to swim, blurry, as through liquid glass. Now it’s a Sunday night, but the D.O.A. no longer exists. I guess people lost interest, it faded. The church underwent renovations after the roof collapsed due to heavy snow and rain. Old church. The rec room was dismantled. We all promised each other to start things up again as soon as the church was fixed. We never did. I haven’t seen Fat Travolta or Robert or Clyde or any of the others since. Maybe the secret of living is to carry a miniature D.O.A. group inside wherever you go. I picture a room inside my chest. Folding chairs. A card table with snacks. I am always invited. Today I share some of the tricks I’ve been using so that surviving is almost a game: • Make faces at the one who stamps invisible expiration dates on foreheads. • Set your alarm clock each night for the time you were born so waking up becomes a historical reenactment. • Take off your clothes, which are your flesh heaped on the floor, so when you redress you’re reborn, rewrapped all over again. • Sit in the dark while voices of others through the wall seem like your father and mother, almost underwater, muffled, discussing what to name you when you come out. Then come out. • Peel a blister, not stopping until you discover your body contains infinite replicas of itself, each enclosing a smaller one, each hollow, except for the last, your innermost self you kneel before, praying, because buried under all those layers you thought were you, you are a god. Whatever it takes. Until sunlight through a window turns toast crumbs into diamonds. Until the croak of a crabby neighbor is a winning lottery ticket of sound. Until every step is like that first time again, when you wobbled but didn’t fall down, and your heart laughed because you knew you belonged. Everybody claps. Some of them stand and clap. I sit back down and somebody puts a soft hand on my shoulder. 27
The Final Show and Tell by Jeffrey MacLachlan The teacher said that small pets were allowed, so I brought my dad’s tombstone. It was modest in size, and surprisingly light. I taught it some tricks after checking out a library tape. If I doubletapped the top, it made a revving engine sound. Dad scattered his brains like jacks in a motorcycle crash down Seminary. My mom couldn’t make it. I wanted to show her the turntable trick (the cheap stone really sounds vinyl and I could even get his name to scratch Timo-jigga-thy, Cr-reeeear-umb! Left us alone in 91!) but she spends most of her days off with her face steaming in the dishwasher because “that’s where filthy tears go, hon.” The next week white Mikey brought his mother’s urn and trained it to levitate by impersonating Saint Peter and jangling keys. Someone said an abyss boiling with volcano soup opened in the caf and a lunch lady was yanked down by her hairnet. Show & Tell is canceled until they find a replacement.
Swim by Theodore Worozbyt Nico is four, his father is teaching him to swim. An island of pines rides high above the grass, hulled by a wall of mortared granite, and the tall thin trunks point toward cirrus clouds like the masts of a ship getting ready to sail under good weather. Nico has a ship book in his room. It is impolite to point, even at yourself. Ice-water from an orange plastic cup made to look like an orange with its hat cut off and stamped with a design of dimples and leafy vines makes a thick thunkle when he jiggles it back and forth; sweat beads of condensation drip on his thighs. His father’s shadow crosses over his hornrimmed glasses. He looks up. Nico is smiling in the shadow his father casts. He is looking up at his father. His father is darkly tanned, his hair is black, the hair on his chest is very black and tightly curled, his eyes are clear and green as chips of Coke glass, his teeth are brilliant. He scoops Nico up in a smooth motion. The pool is the color of the August sky, and the waving water throws a net of light onto the bottom. When the water rises whash around him a ringing darkens his ears. He sinks through the deep end, curiously. 28