Spiders Are Not People

My long-dead parents’ house is infested with spiders. I’ve spent many sleepless years watching them. They skitter out from under dishes, loose papers, the pillows I kick off the bed in the night. They crouch in corners, tight circles of them, weaving away like old ladies. They swing from the ceiling on shining threads and slink between door jambs and behind picture frames and into the ears of my dusty stuffed animals that huddle on the shelves like refugees from my childhood. Spider tracks leave Sanskrit in the dust.

They only come out at night, but they’re around all the time, sleeping, as I suppose all creatures must. I’ve finally had enough.

“Come out, spiders,” I say. The afternoon is murky, and a gray light creeps in the windows. “I know you’re there. I know you can hear me.”

I say it again and again. I say it until the words no longer have meaning. Finally, a single fat-bodied spider descends on what looks like a strand of spit inches away from my eye and says, “I speak for the spiders.”

I tell the spider that enough is enough. I tell the spider that they are messy, with their abandoned webs and the spackling of their tiny poops under my furniture. I know that they are crawling into my mouth at night, and it must stop. This is my house now. They are not allowed here. I have rights.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger,” the spider says. “Why don’t you tell me about your parents?”

And so I tell the spider. I tell the spider how they stopped seeing me at the end, both of them going down in a mental mist where I was everyone and no one, and that it doesn’t bode well for my own impending old age. How it was supposed to be so sad when the memories of special times with their only child disappeared, only they had none of those to lose. How even before their decline, they never really saw me. How I was an obligation, a chore. How they got me out of the way as quickly as possible so that they could go on to the things that really interested them, like the television or food or sleep. They didn’t keep one thing from my childhood, not one hand-turkey or one crayoned card from a Mother’s or Father’s Day, not one lumpy “World’s Greatest” mug. My name was misspelled on the will, and I suppose I’m lucky that they remembered it at all. And now I live in their house with their money and all these spiders, generations of spiders, and there’s not one spider in the whole house who remembers my parents or what they did to me and didn’t do for me, and the spider hums and nods to itself. A smaller spider drops down on its own silver thread and gives the Spokes-spider a corpse wrapped in silks. The Spokes-spider bites and sucks ruminatively before speaking.

“We may have one who remembers,” the Spokes-spider says. “The Matriarch is very old. If any of the people remember your parents, she will.”

“Spiders are not people,” I say, but the spider does not seem to hear.

“You will have to go to the attic,” it says. “She will speak to you there. She cannot come down here anymore.”

And with that, the spider gathers itself upwards and disappears into a crack in the ceiling, taking its meal with it.

I haven’t been into the attic since my parents died. From what I remember, it is full of the things that made them responsible adults: car manuals, tax records, expired rebate forms, boxes of receipts. All the way up the stairs to the second floor, the spiders are everywhere—more than ever. They swirl around the banister and cling to the ceiling. They cuddle with dust bunnies. I almost crush four or five when I pull down the ladder that leads to the attic. I climb up and wait for my eyes to adjust, listening to rustlings in the dim.

I am expecting a shriveled, decrepit spider in the corner, perhaps with an attendant spider in a tiny nurse’s cap feeding it pureed grasshopper, and other than for the nurse spider, I’m right. Except for the size. The spider is the size of a Volkswagen bug and takes up most of one side of the attic. She is gray and molted, the cruel barbs and joints of her legs festooned in the dusty weavings of her own offspring, as they must be if they call her The Matriarch. Her eight oblong eyes are dull and her mandibles open and close slowly, like fingers beckoning into her maw. The fat-bodied spider from before, or at least a similarly fat-bodied spider, is perched on the largest mandible, whispering earnestly and riding the thick jaw in and out on its slow undulations.

It’s been longer than I realized since I’ve been to the attic. I wonder what she could possibly be eating up here to stay alive this long, but the gloomy shapes I first took to be lumps of fallen insulation, upon closer inspection, turn out to be desiccated squirrel and rat corpses scattered around, each draggled mess honeycombed with cocooned balls of spider eggs.

The Spokes-spider finally speaks from the Matriarch’s mouth. “The Matriarch knew your parents well.”

It looks at me in what I sense is an expectant matter, as does The Matriarch. As do probably thousands of glittering eyes up among the roof beams matted with old insulation and from beneath the flaps of dozens of ancient cardboard boxes.

“Ok, great,” I say.

The Spokes-spider pauses, then speaks again. “So, now you know that someone remembers your parents. They live on.”

“Sure.”

“And she will pass on her stories to the spider children, and they to their children, as is our way in remembering our honored dead.”

“Ah.”

“As a repayment.”

“Ok.”

“For your kindness.”

“Sure.”

“In not destroying us.”

As in, they think that it is out of kindness, and not out of lack of motivation, that I have not fumigated the place. And I realize the only pests I have trouble with are the spiders—no cockroaches, no bats, no mice. Now I see why.

“That’s not really what my problem is,” I say.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

I pull up an ancient rocking chair that might have belonged to one of my great aunts. I hover above the mildewed cushion to let a few dozen spiders run out from under it to new hiding places. When they are gone, I sit. There is so much to tell.

I tell them all the ways my parents failed me, how they didn’t stay for my soccer games or bring cupcakes to school on my birthday. They didn’t force me to take piano or dance lessons. They didn’t take me out for ice cream when my report card was good, didn’t lecture me when it was bad. They didn’t snap pictures of me on prom night or mail me cookies at college. All these things I should have had. All these ways I wanted them to look at me, parent me, but they never did.

The Matriarch and the Spokes-spider never blink. Their eyes glitter into darkness as the sun goes down, until the attic breathes with chill evening air. I run out of things to say. I don’t move.

Finally, the fat-bodied spider speaks again. “I’m hearing a lot of loneliness. But we do not understand. Our children raise themselves. They grow up without aid. They leave and return. It makes no difference. They are not alone. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“You don’t destroy us. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“We could be friends. We could talk to you, bring you gifts. Tell you what you want to hear. If these are the things you truly want.”

“I’m not a spider. It’s not enough.”

“…”

“I’m not a spider.”

“Tell me more.”

And I tell them more. I tell them everything, and the sun appears and disappears across the dirty window at the end of the attic, and I talk until I’m hoarse, until I can’t feel my legs, until the spiders name their children after me, until I’m shrouded in silk, until I tell them to make me forget.

kelsiehahnHoustonKelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, 1/25, NANO Fiction, SpringGun, and others. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, Stephen Cleboski.

Hoarders: Oil & Acrylic Paintings

Homeland

Saskia waits for me at the airport, cup of bijela kava in one hand and a cigarette in the other, yet she seems impatient, unsatisfied. Later, in the warmth of her sheets, this image of her still strikes me as troubling, even as I roll out of her bed and take a piss in the bathroom down the hall. She shares the apartment with Colin, an architect from Ireland. He loves Croatia, especially the city life of Zagreb. The people, he tells me time and time again, share the same spirit of rebellion. He argues both countries are perennial underdogs, always will be. The British were his oppressors; the Serbs for the Croats. As I fetch a glass of water from the kitchen, I want to forget about Colin and his cultural analysis. I want Saskia to live with me in D.C. I have never been happy with her sharing an apartment with a man. He works out and likes to roam the place in his black silk boxers and play his Martin guitar through the night. Saskia joins in, sings “The Bold Fenian Men,” and dances around the living room.

In her bedroom, she opens one eye and looks at me—scanning my potbelly and gray hair at the temples. I feel all of my forty-two years. She’s a decade younger, her body thin and muscular. Her honey-colored skin and natural blond hair appear unaffected by her chain-smoking and short sleeping hours. Sometimes I barely know her at all, and I think this is because of the age difference. We met on a reconstruction project eighteen months after the war. My job was to facilitate the rebuilding of the electrical grid. Several power plants had been crippled by JNA artillery and aerial bombardment. She worked as a translator, coordinating the paperwork and liaising between the Croatian government and the company I worked for. Our meetings blossomed into dates and then a long-distance relationship that has been atrophying for the last seven years.

“Alexander,” she says. She’s the only one who calls me this. To everyone else it is Alex. “Can I have it?”

I pass her the glass and slide back into bed. Her fluency in English has always thrown me, kept me off-guard. She can slip between languages, navigating complex ideas with more insight than I could ever muster. She studied French literature at Sveučilište u Zagrebu and then completed an intensive summer course at the Sorbonne. She worships Voltaire and Sartre and likes to quote from Candide or Huis Clos at dinner or on our walks. For her coursework she wrote long analytical essays on notions of the real in Zola, and she now keeps the papers stacked on her nightstand, pinned by a statuette of Marianne. Saskia has the mind of the philosopher, an existentialist forever questioning meaning. She once told me she learned Italian in her gimnazija in order to claim Dalmatia back. By disentangling the language from the land, she would be able to discover the purity that existed before the invasion. I know she would like to do the same thing for Serbian, but the languages are too similar, and I have seen her say Josip Jović in pain.

“Do you want to go out for breakfast?” she says.

“I have a meeting,” I say. The project I have worked on all these years is coming to an end. Soon there will be no reason for me to be in the country. Saskia knows this, yet has offered no thoughts on me leaving for good.

She snorts and wraps herself in the sheets. “Say hi to Tomislav for me.”

*     *     *

I drive Saskia’s Yugo from her tower block in the east section of Novi Zagreb to the center of the city. In the crisp November light the concrete buildings are thrown into sharp contrast—rectangular outlines flat as monoliths dominate the skyline. Near the river I hear the clanging of the tram and see, as it turns the corner, old women staring out from the dirt-smudged windows. It has been three months since I was last here. My job requires tri-annual visits, each lasting a month at a time. Our relationship is built on these tenuous periods. We eat out a lot, drink pivo and rakija, talk with her friends. They seem enthralled with the new Croatia, a country on the edge of Europe but not allowed in it. They barely mention the fall of Communism, the name Tito a distant memory, a fragment that still scares their parents. They don’t think much of Bush or America, viewing the country as colonizers, slijepi warmongers. Sometimes I reason this is why Saskia has not ventured to D.C. She says her job keeps her busy all of the year. There’s distrust, a sense I am trying to take her away.

In Tomislav’s office, I sit and wait for him to arrive. He has never approved of my and Saskia’s relationship. He was jealous, wanted her for himself. We are of a similar age and he has a wife now, from Karlovac, though I frequently mispronounce her name.

“Alex,” he says, entering. His tone is warm, and, as I stand, he shakes my hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Likewise.”

He looks the same: his dark double-breasted suit, taupe T-shirt, and a gold curb-link chain just visible around the bottom of his neck. When I first met him he took me out to shoot a game of pool, and after I beat him, he challenged me to an arm wrestle. That night he introduced me to Saskia, said she was his assistant. He groped her knee in the darkness of the bar, and she looked away unable to make eye contact with either of us. Then he had children—Marko, Jelena, Renata—and quit drinking. He blamed his past behavior on his youth, on the fact he needed a woman to translate for him.

On my computer I run through charts detailing contingency plans for the electrical grid, but I keep thinking of Saskia in bed and Colin in the room next door. She has told me on several occasions she doesn’t find him attractive, that she finds his near-nakedness funny and his accent engaging—like a lost troubadour finding his way in the world. She rarely speaks about me in those terms, or even says what she thinks of me, what she admires or hates.

“Are you well?” asks Tomislav.

I nod, and carry on, sleepwalking through the PowerPoint. I click through the slides of the latest efficiency improvements at the Peruća dam. The concrete rampart was cracked by JNA explosives and threatened a dozen small villages in the lower valley. It took years for Hrvatska Elektroprivreda to re-start power generation. I talk of the possible future developments and then, after I am finished, he passes me a handful of documents and I check them over and slip them into my briefcase.

“I’ll get these authorized and then we’re set,” I say. “Done.”

“It has been good working with you,” says Tomislav.

“Hard to believe all the years that have passed.”

“What will you do next?”

“There are several projects in India,” I say, standing. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“Good luck,” he says, showing me to the door. “And tell Saskia if she ever wants her job back…”

I block out his words, but the sound of his of voice lingers—even as I exit the building. Saskia confessed in the early days of our dating that she had slept with Tomislav, that she felt forced to in order to keep her job. Neither of us brought it up again. In the car, I rest my head on the steering wheel. The Yugo insignia on the column has been stickered over with a map of France. I peel it off, smell the cheap glue on the reverse, and glance at the two crooked lines that form a Y. I replace the sticker, press it down hard with a flattened palm. On the way back, I stop at a kiosk to buy glossy postcards of the Well of Life and the Ethnographic Museum, cheap versions of my memories. In one of the exhibition halls, as we indulged in the folk costumes, I had given Saskia a chance. Said I would move in with her. She told me to focus on my career, for she was not worth the sacrifice.

*     *     *

Saskia’s on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and eating black cherries. Maria Callas croons from the portable stereo by her feet. I imagine Saskia’s thinking of me, and what she’s going to do once I leave. My flight departs in the morning. No month this time. Soon I am going to living back in my row house in Tenleytown, pacing through the neighborhood, checking my messages, and occasionally gawking at the exchange students at AU, wondering if any of them are from the Balkans.

I press my face against the glass door, trying to get a better view. Colin is resting in a deckchair on the far side of the balcony. He holds a beer and a cellphone in one hand, while he swirls the other in the air to reinforce his joke about Bush’s resemblance to an ape. He delivers an obvious punch line, and she laughs. I tap on the glass.

“Alexander,” she says, turning. “How was the meeting?”

I crack open the door. “I’m about to pack.”

“Stay,” she says, “have a cherry.”

I shake my head and go to her room and toss my shirts into my suitcase. The postcards I sent her are tacked to the dresser drawers. She once said the White House looks funny, like an old plantation house. If she saw it in person, she would say it looks small—like everyone else. I keep the one letter she has written in my medicine cabinet, rolled tight in a plastic sleeve. When I see my reflection, I think of her and what she let slip. She sent me the letter a week after I first left and wrote of a book historicizing the romance of the theologian Abélard and his student Héloïse. In her scrawl I learned that Héloïse’s uncle castrated Abélard for wanting to marry the girl. She became a nun; he a monk. For the rest of their lives they communicated through letters. For two pages Saskia deliberated on the romance and underlined a sentence about unity in distance. She argued our time apart strengthened us, kept us together. I was never convinced and pleaded for a little leeway. She allowed me weekly telephone calls and e-mails, though no other letters. I have flown in for multiple visits, saving my flextime to spend long weekends with her. She used to relish these short stays, but over the last months she told me to save my money and spend it on something else.

Saskia knocks softly on the door and comes in. “Are you all right?” Her brow is wrinkled, and her left hand touches her lips.

“Fine.” I fold my suit in half and throw it into the case.

She steps closer and caresses my shoulder. “What was that back there?”

“Nothing.”

“We should talk about it.”

“Where do we go from here?”

She looks down at the hardwood. “I don’t know.”

This is the first time I have seen self-doubt in her. Usually she’s confident, like nothing can touch her. That every word she says is the way it is.

“I was waiting until you left,” she says, “to see how I really feel.”

I don’t understand why she still is unsure. Saskia is so different from the other women I have known. Anya, the girlfriend prior, was a Peace Corps volunteer. She built a school in Angola and then taught English. I let her go—wanted her to earn her Ph.D. Then there was Elizabeth, my college girlfriend. At William and Mary she was a psychology major who wanted to become a behavioral counselor. We assumed we would marry post-graduation. She changed, or I did, in D.C., the city too much to bear. Sometimes I blame myself, my propensity to romanticize and ignore my own failings. I try to rationalize Saskia’s behavior in my head, relate it to her father killed in the war and her mother drunk on domaća šljivovica. But no. I have met many women over here who want to settle down, start a family, make a life after all the bloodshed.

“O.K.,” I say. “I need to finish packing.”

She slips out of the room, and I sit on the foot of the bed. I am not sure how this situation has come to pass. Over the years, I have worked myself up from an assistant project manager to executive. Yet our roles have reversed. I am consigned to be her inferior. Each action she completes is on a higher order and mysteriously imbued with meaning. She leaves me deciphering, trying to ascertain what to do next.

*     *     *

When Saskia asks me to go with her to the market, I agree. How can I not? It’s located a few streets down from her apartment and we walk, side by side. Her hands are sunk in her woolen overcoat, probably so that she doesn’t have to hold mine. It’s strange, though. I like her clothes. She has an offbeat style: mud-brown corduroys, cork-heeled wedges, a purple scarf loosely wrapped around her neck and over her right shoulder. I rarely break from my dark suits and white cotton shirts. My tie, though, sits squashed in my pocket. I caress the silk as we hook a right onto a concrete plaza jostling with people navigating the stalls. Produce vendors, women from the countryside outside of Zagreb, cry out, encouraging people to buy their homemade cheeses and flatbreads. In the center of the market stands a bronze statue of King Tomislav riding a horse. The marble base is scrawled with graffiti, and a group of teenagers leans against the slab.

“How did your meeting go?” she says.

“The usual,” I note. “He looks good.”

“Really?”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“A while ago,” she says, pointing to one of the stalls. “I want quince.”

“I thought we were getting food for dinner?”

“Fine,” she says, and leads me to a man selling grains pooled in plastic buckets.

I buy five hundred grams of wheat flour to make dumplings.

“Chicken,” she notes. “We need some.”

We head to a stall, find trays of butchered meat, and I pull out my wallet and count my remaining kuna.

“Saskia, what about these?” I turn and she’s gone. I think I see her through the crowd. Sloping away. I shake my head and purchase a handful of chicken thighs, enough to make a rich soup. Her mother taught me the recipe on the second day I met her. I don’t think she remembers the first. A Christmas years ago Saskia coaxed me onto a train heading east to Slavonia, to a rural town close to the Serbian border. The carriages were full of grizzled men smoking and arguing over the exact position where Croatia ends and other places begin. In a taxi to the house, she told me what the men had said and that the men were stupid for fighting over the land. Her mother was in the yard with a tall glass of šljivovica in her hand and standing over a pig roasting on an iron spit. After she kissed me on the cheek and learned my name, saying it slowly three times, she ripped a hunk of bread from a large circular loaf and dipped it in the liquid pig fat caught in the silver foil below the carcass. She handed the sodden bread to me and laughed as I coughed up the salty dough.

In America, I am rarely that daring; I spend my days avoiding new experiences. I focus on my job, the planning of sustainable Third World electrical grids. I rethink the infrastructure, shifting the energy mix from crumbling coal plants to wind farms, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear installations. I demand backup generators in hospitals, and I pilot residential microgrids in the favelas. I help people. I power the homes of families. Makes my life feel it is worth a damn. Perhaps in a small way this makes up for Bush. It is a strange kind of delusion—one that keeps me going. When I am here, with Saskia, her friends treat me like an oddity. They invite me to cafés, encourage me to drink and smoke, to relax and forget about work. They recount stories of sexual misdeeds, and hurl Ti si šupak and Idi u kurac at each other, and in their whispers I hear fragmented critiques of both Communist rule and capitalism. I feel serene, above the words, like a U.N. observer. A stranger who can barely navigate the peculiarities of translation, and yet I hope when the right words can’t be found they see the good in me, the foreigner. And when Saskia’s cold she will remember what I first said to her in the bar and come around. Take me back. I wrestle with my faith in her, in us, on the walk to the apartment. Colin lets me in. He’s wearing an emerald-green kimono, a swirling black dragon embroidered on the back.

“You look like shit,” he says, grins.

I step inside, think at least I don’t sing like it, and begin to put the groceries away. He comes into the kitchen, maneuvers around me, and snatches a beer from the fridge.

“Is Saskia with you?” he asks.

“No.”

“Sounds about right.”

He doesn’t wait for my reply. He goes to the living room, and I follow him to give him a better answer, to show him I am with her and that he isn’t. He sits at the dining table, his laptop displaying the schematics of a modern industrial building.

“What’s that?”

“Designs for a museum,” he says, tapping his fingers on the screen, “to document the Homeland War.”

“When will we see it?”

“I’m not sure it’s going to be built. Bureaucracy is killing the funding.”

“Life of an architect, I suppose.”

Colin laughs. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“Saskia’s at the market.”

“Gotcha,” he says, returning to the designs. “Grab a beer. I want to show you something.”

“I’m good,” I say, sideswiped by his warmth. “What is it?”

He loads up a three-dimensional image of the museum. With his mouse he rotates the building, clicks on the portico entrance, and zooms in. “The thing that kills me is I’ve spent longer on this project than anything else. Fucking years.” He pokes his finger at his initials hidden in a stone recess. “I gave the place my mark.”

“Maybe it’s for the best,” I say. “I mean, the country can move on from the war.”

“Man, you don’t understand Croats at all.”

I don’t want to think Colin’s right, that he understands Saskia better than me. “I know about her father. That he was a police officer who fought the Serbs.”

Colin mumbles a “Yeah.” He’s not looking at his computer anymore. He’s looking at me.

“Killed,” I add.

“And her brother,” he says.

She never told me of a brother. Though, thinking back, I recall seeing a photograph in her room in Slavonia. He had a shock of dark hair and a thin face. I presumed he was an old boyfriend. “What was his name?”

“Stjepan.”

“Stjepan,” I repeat.

*     *     *

Saskia shows up after eight. Crescents underneath her eyes are tinged purple. She sweeps back her hair, wraps it with a blood-red neckerchief, and touches my shoulder. She looks into my eyes, and I question what she’s finding. She wants me to be angry, to chastise her for leaving.

“Hey,” I say.

“I needed some time,” she replies.

“Sure, I understand.”

She guides me to the kitchen. We cook dinner as if nothing has happened. She has walked off before, told me she wanted a cigarette. Knows I don’t like the smoke. But I don’t remember her ever going for this long. Her hands look cold, almost blue. She says they’re fine and boils the dumplings and chops the carrots and cabbage, while I prepare the chicken. I slice the flesh from the bone and cube the meat. As I pan-fry the chicken I think about where she went, who she was with. She has a lot of male friends: Vladan, Ivan, Tomislav. I have met each of them over the years. Hated them all. Stjepan complicates things, makes me search for what else she hasn’t told me. Maybe it’s me, wanting her to open up my life.

I drop the chicken into the pot with the vegetables. I can hear Colin in his room, playing his guitar. I switch on the TV; tell Saskia there’s a news segment I want to watch. She laughs and says my Croatian is terrible, that I will not be able to understand what they are saying. She’s right about my language skills. Being with her meant I didn’t have to pick up that much. Still, I know one or two words. Early on I learnt how to say volim te, and in the first months I told her often. Saskia refused to reciprocate, said our relationship was different to love, transcended it.

We eat the dumplings and soup and drink a whole bottle of red wine. I pour Irish whisky into two tumblers and nudge her to the bedroom. Lying in bed, she unbuttons my shirt and runs her hand through my chest hair. She looks to the ceiling as she curls the black hairs between her fingers. She always liked doing this, calls me her grizzly bear.

“Found a gray,” she says.

“Matches my hair.”

She plucks the strand and rolls to the other side of the bed. “I have it now,” she says.

I rub my chest, feeling the sting of the plucked follicle, and inch over to her. She’s lined up at the edge, staring at her desk, or the college papers, or Marianne. I hook my arm around her waist and ask, “What are you going to do with it?”

“Pass my drink,” she says.

“All right.”

She’s bored with the flirting, with me. We each drain our respective glasses and then, as I take her tumbler, she kisses my cheek.

“Don’t you want to make love to me?”

She used to say fuck. Love is an acquiescence to me—a sign of regret, a mellowing of her sexual desire.

“I don’t think it’s right.”

She whispers words of cryptic Croatian into my ear, her tongue tracing the contour of my lobe, and then she cups my face, angles it toward her. There’s a slow meeting of our bodies. She latches us together with her limbs. They’re limber, strong. Her hips grind mine for what seems like hours. The deep grooves on the inside of her legs bore into my body. I run my fingertips down her back and over the scars. She pushes my hands away and shakes her head. Lifting herself off me, she collapses onto her side of the bed. She has never explained these marks, and really I don’t want to know.

*     *     *

I wake to see dark sky through the parting of loose curtain. Saskia’s still asleep. I think about calling a taxi, not saying goodbye. I need a reason to keep the pain going or end the relationship for good. I nudge her shoulder and kiss her forehead. Her eyes stay closed. She smiles and throws her arm around my neck, kisses me on the lips. Her sour breath tastes of a last time.

She drives me to the airport in the creep of dusk. Her car struggles with the incline, and we can both hear the hum of the trucks as they overtake us. Out of the window the scouring light reveals the jagged gray mountains on the horizon. I turn to her, place my hand on her knee and squeeze it gently. She stares forward with hands unmoved in the two-and-ten position on the wheel. She’s wearing a military overcoat and a pale yellow slip underneath. Her effortless beauty makes me jealous, makes me wonder. I am not sure what she does when I am in D.C., grinding through sixty-hour weeks. She says she translates government documents, goes out with friends to the bars on Tkalčićeva Street, devours the novels of Simone de Beauvoir, calls her mother and tries to understand how they have drifted apart.

The terminal comes into view, a large block of concrete and glass. She pulls into the parking lot and finds an empty space. She switches the engine off and unbuckles her seatbelt.

“You don’t have to come in,” I say.

“We should take a coffee,” she replies.

“If you want.”

“Of course I do.”

“Will you tell me about Stjepan?”

She glares at me, trying to piece together how I found out. “Colin told you.”

I nod.

She’s quiet for a moment. Her face is flushed red. “He was shot.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“You’re a fuck.”

“I know.”

“He was five years older than me. He taught me how to ride a horse. He gave me my first cigarette,” she says, clasping the handbag in her lap. “I remember him every day.”

I want to thank her for sharing with me. But I know she would curse me out as American, all touchy-feely—constantly having to express.

She opens her door. “It’s time.”

We head inside the terminal. I show the attendant my passport and collect my ticket. We stop at the bar and get two cups of bijela kava. She lights a cigarette and inhales a long puff of gray smoke. She notices me watching her.

“I’m going to quit,” she says.

I laugh. “Sure you are.”

She squeezes my hand and tells me I should come back. I nod, not sure if I will. She doesn’t seem affected by my response. She’s prone to stoicism, to internalizing her emotions. She would just say she’s being Slavic.

“By the next time you’re here, I’ll be free.”

“Yeah, I know.”

From her handbag she removes a book. She places it on the counter.

“A gift,” she says.

It’s a rare edition of The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse. I can’t tell if this is meant to be symbolic of us parting or that it’s a reminder we are still together.

“I’ll read it onboard.”

“Wait until you are home,” she says.

“O.K.”

We look out the large plate-glass windows and watch a plane land. I check the departure board. See that the numbers are orderly. She starts to talk about the flag on the rudder, what the design means, but I can only focus on the people swarming the gate.

Linforth photoThis is Christopher Linforth’s second appearance in Lunch Ticket. He is based in Virginia and blogs at christopherlinforth.wordpress.com

Luis J. Rodriguez, Author

Luis J. Rodriguez

Photo: D.Zapa Media

Luis J. Rodriguez has emerged as one of the leading Chicano writers in the country with fifteen published books in memoir, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and poetry. Luis’ poetry has won a Poetry Center Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, and a Paterson Poetry Book Prize, among others. His children’s books—America is Her Name and It Doesn’t Have to be This Way: A Barrio Story—have won a Patterson Young Adult Book Award, two Skipping Stones Honor Awards, and a Parent’s Choice Book Award. Luis is best known for the 1993 memoir of gang life, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (paperback by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). His latest book is the long-awaited sequel to Always Running, entitled It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), released in the fall of 2011. Luis is also known for helping start community organizations such as Chicago’s Guild Complex and Tia Chucha Press, one of this country’s premier small presses. He is co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—a bookstore, performance space and workshop center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, which also sponsors the “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung” Literacy and Performance Festival. In addition, Luis is a renowned gang intervention specialist in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities as well as Mexico and Central America.

Jamie Moore: What do you consider to be your driving themes? Are they different between genres and/or who your intended audience is?

Luis J. Rodrgiuez: My themes are primarily the reality and morality of the times, my own grasping at essential truths, and the imaginative/creative impulses. I grew up highly marginalized in America—from Mexican parents, of indigenous descent (Raramuri-Mexikah) – and among the laboring migrant communities of South Central and East Los Angeles (mostly black and brown). This country—as rich and resourceful as it is—has a built-in value system. Men are over women. White skinned over dark skinned. Straight over gay. The rich and powerful over the laboring masses. My books touch on these aspects in one form or another and against the value system but also from in-between them.

Most of the world today, due to the global rule of powerful interests, has similar value systems. But in the United States there has been a long and heroic struggle to bring parity and equity to everyone – to end the value system that is mostly illusion, man-made and based on lies. We as a people have done much to remove these from our laws and land. I continue to pull on that braided and rooted thread.

The different genres tend to tap into different facets of language shaping: poems draw more from voice and the musicality of words, novels and stories from narrative, essays from ideas and issues, scripts and plays work with the visuals and dialogues that stories produce, and on and on. My audiences are both everyone and the particular people I write about, conveying their authenticity, flavors, and circumstances as skillfully and truthfully as possible.

JM: You elaborate on your relationship with your father and your son in your memoir It Calls You Back. How do those experiences inform how your approach fatherhood? Does this parallel with how you approach mentorship with youth?

LR: I had a bad example of a father—he was emotionally detached, uninvolved in the vital needs of his wife and children, but also attracted to status, material things, and, as we found out later, little girls. He was a pedophile. This is an extremely hard thing to admit and write about. Yes, I had a father, unlike most of my friends and homies. But one I wished I didn’t have. His example came to me in the relative way I detached. When I broke up with my first wife after three-and-a-half years of marriage, I pretty much abandoned my son, Ramiro, then two-and-a-half years old, and my daughter, Andrea, 10 months. I loved them, but I didn’t know how to fight for them. I learned the hard way—after both Ramiro and Andrea came to me as teenagers—resentful, troubled. I largely failed, but in time, when they were already young adults, (and my son was in prison), I became the father they couldn’t let go.

Sobering up helped—I now had to face all my demons, responsibilities, fears. I also had two sons with my current wife Trini. For Ruben and Luis, I learned rapidly to be the father they needed. I thought about what my father did or didn’t do, and did the opposite. I never yelled at my boys. I never struck them. I didn’t over-embrace them either. They know me as a stable presence in their life, much as their mother has been in the nurturing, holding way that a mother can be. My oldest kids expressed some feelings about this, but in the end they realized it was right. I’m now in a good place with all my children. And I have five grandchildren and will be a great-grandfather as well. Ruben and Luis are now university students, as is my oldest grandson Ricardo. Andrea is director of a pre-school cooperative and a recent mother (she also has a teenage daughter). And Ramiro, with three kids of his own, did a total of 15 years in prison and is now released and out of parole—gang-free, crime-free, and drug free.

My mentoring work with youth demonstrates much about what I’ve learned about fathering—so that these youngsters have strong, consistent and caring men in their lives. Most of the youth I work with, in gangs or not, have no fathers or bad examples for fathers. A mentor is not a father-substitute, but it does help to show that a man, even with a violent and addictive past, can be trusted, multi-dimensional, emotionally complex and steady.

JM: One of your books, It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way, is the only children’s book I have seen that includes a character that gets shot. What is the feedback you’ve received from this book? Did you have trouble publishing it?

LR: After Always Running, my memoir of gang life, (which has sold around 500,000 copies), It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way is my best-selling book. I believe it has sold more than 40,000 copies. The book was actually requested by the publisher, Children’s Book Press (it’s now with Lee & Low Books)—they wanted a children’s book to deal with gangs. It’s popular in inner city schools where children have witnessed gunfire, domestic abuse, and even death. Yes, it’s hard to fathom that any illustrated children’s book would have a character that is shot, but my books are situational. They thrive in the situations in which these realities need literature to push through healing, mentoring, transformations. This book may not be for all children. I’ve long conceded that students, parents, teachers and administrators should use both books wisely. For one thing, the violence is more prevalent than adults may appreciate. I also give children and youth more credit than most parents, teachers or administrators tend to do. These youngsters are quite capable and resilient. However, everything depends on the conditions, time and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.

JM: You founded a cultural center and bookstore, Tia Chucha’s. How has this organization grown over time? Has anything surprised you about the experience?

LR: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is a blossoming cultural space that I’m convinced should exist in one form or another in every neighborhood. We teach culturally relevant traditions—from Mexikah traditional dance (what is often called Aztec) to Son Jarocho music from the African/native/Spanish state of Veracruz, Mexico to indigenous language (Nahuatl) and cosmology. We provide classes in music, writing, theater, photography, puppetry, and more. Author readings, art exhibits and community dialogues. We also hold several yearly festivals, including the only outdoor annual literacy & arts festival in the San Fernando Valley: “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung.” And we have a youth empowerment project (Young Warriors), a mural collective, and our own publishing house (Tia Chucha Press). In twelve years, we raised more than a million dollars and have received support from government, foundations, and donors, including well known persons like Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Lou Adler, and others.

My thanks to my wife Trini, who has shepherded this space through a dozen years, with many setbacks, but much more triumphs. And her amazing staff, all young people, all people with big hearts, from community, active in the deep soul changes needed in people and in our society. I also thank our board and a ton of volunteers. Tia Chucha’s is more an art project than a nonprofit; an imagination made into a practical reality.

It’s a surprise that we have thrived during these difficult financial times. But I’m also convinced that the arts are indispensable. They can help engender new economies, new politics, and new social relationships. As others have said better than I, a complete human being is a complete artist.

Eeverything depends on the conditions, time, and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.

JM: You also founded Tia Chucha Press and have published with small presses. Can you talk about the importance of independent presses to you—especially considering the consolidation of big publishers and the depersonalization of mainstream publishing?

LR: Publishing in this country is big business. This tends to push many voices and stories outside of the mainstream. Now more books are sold in Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs than in bookstores—and they are oriented toward white audiences. People of color, of varying sexual orientations, or espousing revolutionary ideas are de facto blocked and censored. Small presses always took chances. I was first published in small presses, such as Curbstone Press, but also in Tia Chucha Press that I created for voices like mine. Since my first book, Poems across the Pavement, came out 25 years ago, Tia Chucha Press has published around 60 other poets—including African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Japanese, Native Americans, Jamaican Americans, and others. We are now doing nonfiction books featuring art, photography, interviews, and essays. With the Internet, books can be published by anyone and are also accessible to greater numbers of people. Small presses can still lead the way, even online. We need to move forward incorporating the new technology, but also expanding on the voices, stories, and expressions.

Publishing today is in deep crisis. I’m not sure how it will survive the digital revolution. Perhaps there will come a time when everyone can have their own book. Everyone may end up having their stories, their thoughts, their hopes for others to access. For my part, I continue using Tia Chucha Press to present new and vibrant writers to the world.

JM: How do you believe an organization or institution can fully live up to a social justice mission?

LR: As mentioned above, there’s a thread I follow—the thread of social justice. I grew up in the tumultuous ‘60s when society thundered with cries for equality and fairness. Much of these efforts were attacked, undermined, and/or absorbed. But many changes did occur: civil rights laws for African Americans, Chicanos, Natives and Puerto Ricans; improved labor laws for the working class; a terribly destructive war stopped; greater women’s suffrage and gay consciousness. Nothing was given to any of us. There are people who died from that time. I think of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ruben Salazar, Medgar Evers, Harvey Milk. Also those unjustly imprisoned since then, such as Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera and Mumia Abdul-Jamal. This very government used its powers and our tax dollars to destroy legitimate movements. Then by the 1980s, as production shifted from industry to digital technology, guns, drugs and prisons overwhelmed the poorest communities. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or set up during this time. It has taken billions of dollars to keep people poor and disempowered. The struggle for real justice is not over. We must now align our governance, resources, and relationships toward cooperation, sustainability and equity for all. In 2011, I helped create the Network for Revolutionary Change to bring together thinkers, writers, leaders, organizers, and dreamers so that the illusions established by the capitalist social and economic order (of wages, of mortgages, of borders, of trumped up wars, of drug wars, etc.) can be replaced with essential common agreements. The main thrust of our efforts should be the healthy wellbeing of anyone is dependent on the healthy wellbeing of all.

We are living in a time of completion—not just plans and actions that are piecemeal, band-aid or inadequate. We have to finally go where all our aspirations and visions have been trying to take us. The power source of any social justice organization today is the very community that gave it birth. And in connecting to the revolutionary and inventive energy emerging from the crises and uncertainties. The answers are in the problems.

JM: Do you feel responsible to write about your community/ experiences–as most of your work reflects? Do you think a writer is at their best when they “write what they know?”

LR: My writing, like my life, is keenly conscious that I’m woven into the fabric of other lives, of families, communities, and nations. This connectiveness is why I deal with aspects beyond my own day-to-day dramas. Why my work is intertwined with the issues and concerns of others. There is an ancient Mayan concept called In Lak Ech. This means, “You are the other me.” While the powerful sense of being separate is real, it can also be a dangerous pull away from the greater good. Our culture is aimed in this direction—individuality at the expense of these connections. Organized responses are belittled and even infiltrated. The point is to be independent and interdependent. To find one’s own passions and purposes, and then link these to community, schools, institutions, spiritual practices, and other social entities so that our innate gifts are given meaning, responsibility and legacy.

As for writing from what I know, yes, my community is the main palette from where I get my words, stories, flavors, and images. But what I know is both experiential and imaginative. So re-configuring my world, the people, and lessons in stories are also primary to “writing from what I know.”

JM: Do you feel there is enough space given to minority voices in the publishing industry? Has this changed since you began writing?

LR: Books are geared to, as one publication once said, “white-haired ladies in Iowa.” This may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. Although most books are sold in multi-culturally rich cities like Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago, they tend to still speak to a “middle America” that few can actually point to. In addition, education geared to literary production is much more pronounced in mostly white, upper class communities. Schools in relatively poor working class areas—be they white, black or brown—tend to push reading as a functional exercise: To read a bus schedule or the headlines and words of a newspaper or advertising on billboards. The “standards” that these schools must meet are 7th grade reading level, the exact level which reporters and advertisers are told to write to.

Literary reading is more complex and referential. When writers of color get better educated, they tend to do quite well—winners of major prizes and even high book sales. But they are few and far between. The big publishing world is still about the blockbuster book. And that’s usually not a powerful literary read. They are largely created for a “white” market, which nobody talks about because they use terms like “mainstream,” “middle America,” or “the average reader.” People of color are now more than 25 percent of the population. In books we are probably less than 1 percent. Again, when books are sold in general markets like Wal-Marts they are not including writers of color. My book, Always Running, is doing well in spite of this—in spite of having no more advertising dollars or reviews. It’s word of mouth in America’s inner cities that have contributed to the book’s sales. You’d think publishers would want to know more about this, but they continue to tout their own tired refrain—nobody reads in urban core communities. I helped establish a bookstore in a working class mostly Mexican/Central American community that a major bookstore chain said they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. We took a risk and the bookstore has been around for 12 years and is growing. Again, regardless of stories like ours, the big publishers stay with the narrow and limited parameters. And everyone, including so-called “middle Americans,” is shortchanged.

Let’s have a spectrum of voices, stories, and truths. Literature and books would come alive instead of declining in this day and age. Same for other media—America is where the world meets. Let’s build on that.

JM: I have read that you are planning to run for Governor of California with the Green Party. What do you foresee for the future of California?

LR: California is a crucial state when it comes to the economy, politics and culture. It is the richest state in the union and the world’s eighth largest economy, surpassing Italy and the Russian Federation. It is not, as many people perceive, a totally progressive place. Several retroactive laws have been enacted here over the years, including three strikes and you’re out, anti-gay marriage, anti-bilingual education and against public services for the undocumented, the first national tax rebellion that cut millions out of poor and working class communities. The state is 49th in education funding and dead last in arts funding. Yet it’s number one in prison construction, holding the distinction of housing the world’s second largest prison system (after the U.S. federal prison system). Presently, Democrats dominate the California’s governorship as well as the legislature. But they are continuing devastating austerity cuts and budget crunching, detrimental to key services, programs and resources, especially for those least able to take part in the economy: The Democrats often out-Republican the Republicans.

I’m running for state governor in the June 2014 primary to bring a stronger voice for a clean and green environment; to reform the prison system and address the rehabilitative, restorative and transformative needs of the state’s prison and parolee population; to establish neighborhood arts policies where anyone can have access to books, arts, music, dance, theater, murals, festivals, and more; also to open up the democratic process so candidates are not beholden to corporations and big money as well as to open up the mass media and communities to new ideas and strategies. And I’m committed to ending poverty in California.

I’m seeking the nomination of the Green Party in their state convention later this year. Right now I’m running an independent campaign that should be broader and more encompassing than the Green Party, but should help the Green Party as well. I’d like to work with other progressive candidates like Cindy Sheehan of the Peace & Freedom Party. My aim is to get the issues out to all Californians and give them a wiser and clear choice for equitable and environmental changes.

Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities.

JM: In light of your political involvement, how would you describe the connection between literary arts and politics? How do they intersect in your life and your work?

LR: For the most part, the United States is one of the few countries of the world that tries to push out politics from the academy and from literature, from the mass media and book publishing. Writers are often admonished for delving into political themes and subjects. I see everything I do as political. In fact, politics are chemically bound in everyone’s household, work, and spiritual life. I do agree that skill in knowing how to write and be socially and politically active should always be a consideration. But we cannot really be removed from political matters any more than we can shed our skin.

Rap, for example, started out as an underground political expression, decrying injustices and a class society that used race to divide and conquer. But when commerce and big recording companies got involved, it became about sex, violence, wealth, and personal drama. This is also true for reality TV shows, sit-coms, and movies. Of course, there are exceptions. The point is trying to remove “politics” from popular art and expression is a political act in itself.

I’m upfront about my revolutionary politics, my native spiritual practices, but I am also rigorous about craft and the literary form. Always Running is a memoir of gang life, but it has literary and educational value while also bringing a political perspective to this issue of urban peace, healing, and a fully engaged autonomous life.

That’s a strong political stance. I’m convinced these issues are incompatible with the current political and economic system. That in trying to achieve these, many structural changes will be required. That’s revolutionary.

I’m not advocating for violence or destructive acts. But I know a truly just and equitable world cannot exist within the clutches of the global capitalist reality, which is tied to one primary law: the maximizing of profits. In the fight for change, for clean and green jobs, for ending poverty, for providing resources to everyone so they can thrive, not just survive, we end up strategizing on how to build a new economic/political reality that can hold and sustain the full and adequate development of all.

Poems, art, songs, dance, stories, and more are not enough to get us there, but they can help point the way.

JM: How can we continue to encourage youth, as you do with your work, to support creative expression and community building?

LR: We need cultural storefronts, public arts projects, festivals and block parties, cruising sites, musical events, workshops in all the arts, and independent bookstores everywhere. I call this a neighborhood arts policy. Presently in Los Angeles, the arts are relegated to museum row, in tourist areas, in and around downtown—places like Hollywood, Live L.A., Disneyland, and the beaches. We need to break the concentration of the arts in well-off communities. The city is known as the creative and entertainment capital of the world, yet for miles on end there are vast sections of South Los Angeles, the Harbor, the San Fernando Valley, East L.A. and parts of the Westside where no cultural spaces, art galleries, bookstores, or even movie houses exist.

In L.A., the hotel tourist occupancy tax only gives one percent to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which I understand they have to match on their own accord. There are only $26 million for gang intervention and youth development programs. Yet more than a billion dollars goes to the Los Angeles Police Department. The social energy is being directed toward more incarceration of the poor and working class members of the city. Even schools, which once looked like factories when L.A. had more manufacturing than any other city in the country, now look like prisons (some have metal detectors, police sub-stations, and use terms like “lock down”). Zero tolerance policies have pervaded schools and neighborhoods. Some 40 anti-gang injunctions, where communities are “arrested,” not just persons, now impact around 70 communities. All of these are geared against our youth, and to be clear, our black and brown youth (there are no anti-gang injunctions in white or Asian neighborhoods).

City development today is really about one thing: gentrification. People with money, mostly white, are now re-conquering the urban core. Poor people are forcibly being squeezed out. Laws, police, and developers are in collusion with this process. I say keep our communities intact. Provide educational and job opportunities and allow our youth, our mothers, our fathers, our community members to re-imagine and remake their own neighborhoods. The arts are key to all of this.

Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities. Give them training, mentoring, paintbrushes, sports, intellectual development, and see how a city can get re-seeded and blossom. I’ve taken this message to stark and violent places all over the United States but also to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (most recently called the murder capital of the world), El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, England, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Sarajevo.

The arts work. They save lives. It’s proven over and over again (how more evidence-based can this be). Yet the arts are constantly on the chopping block.

Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, Tia Chucha Press, Young Warriors, Celebrating Words Festivals, my own books… I’m constantly creating (with others, of course) institutions and examples that prove this point over and over again. I won’t stop. It’s time for the rest of the world to align to this truth, to a new imagination. Why not make government an art project, with everyone contributing from their own gifts, passions, dreams, and capacities. That’s a world I want to live in. A world most people need. A world worth fighting for.

Jamie Moore received her MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her fiction can be found in Blackberry: A Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, and Moonshot Magazine. Jamie writes about multicultural literature on her blog, Mixed Reader. Her debut novella, Our Small Faces, was published by ELJ Publications.

Unemployment Diary, Day 16

I hold the remote just
so, it feels like her
indifferent wrist.

Television is the oven
I rest my head inside.

My own tragedy splits
in two when
the TV star’s fiancée is stolen
by his evil twin.

(Same actor, but the evil version
is somehow more handsome)

Our clubbed hero wakes, wanders
the new city of his amnesia.
He doesn’t know
who he is now

—just like me!

His fiancée’s doll eyes (green)
close mechanically when the evil
twin’s crooked smile twists
into its kiss—I can’t

stand it: I want to save her,
want to screw her, I don’t
know her. I click over

to another planet, which reminds me
I also lack the determination of this
indestructible superhero crawling
into the deadly alien radiation,
and the tension rises, until it spills

over into a hand soap demonstration,
making hygiene so piercingly
symbolic, I will never again feel clean,
no matter how many times she claims
what I did doesn’t matter…

I click back to these twins
I’ve become, now locked
in awkward combat. Each fist
strikes its own face, then a clenched
blade quivers between their throats,
and the music crescendos like

a toilet bowl swirl, sanitized bright blue,
giggling synthetic blueberry bubbles—
Good God, I need you.

I hear so vividly my evil
twin scream—sucked into
a fall we don’t see the end of—
and the black swallows him like a lozenge.

 

I am ready for my whiter teeth!
a new and improved
lover! A delicious hamburger!
I am ready for something
else to happen.
Again.
Again.
I keep clicking to find
a responsive sedan
to drive off a moonlit cliff,
into the applauding waves below.

Wheeler_photoVan doesn’t think his educational history should impress you, but he gave them a lot of money, so: he holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. His manuscript won the 2012 Dorothy Brunsman Prize from Bear Star Press and was published as The Accidentalist. Some of his video poems can be seen on vandorenwheeler.com.

Saved: Ultrachrome Prints & Poetry

Artist Jody Servon and poet Lorene Delany-Ullman collaborated to produce Saved, an ongoing photographic and poetic exploration of the human experience of life, death, and memory. The project considers how memories of the dead become rooted in everyday objects, and how objects convey those memories to the living.

All images were made between 2008-2013.

Click images below to enlarge.

Gunga’s Lamps

No harp or finial, no shade or socket, no light: the colonial figurines posed on the dresser in the front bedroom. Because Gunga kept old toys—Colonel Custard, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Rock-em Sock-em Robots—her granddaughter, Blair, liked to make the lamps dance—would press the well-dressed courting couples together—the foursome a frolic in her imagination. She was careful with the glazed porcelain, the hand painted gold gilt accents, their delicate boudoir faces—they had been table lamps, but good for girly play. Everything Gunga touched her family wanted to save—but things had to be divided up before the painful yard sale. On a cloudless weekend, Gunga’s objects were sold: big ticket items, the good stuff, now free of sentiment. So, every Christmas, Blair’s brother prepares Cherries-in-the-Snow, an exclusive Gunga recipe—pound cake, cherries, cherry goo, and cool whip.

Jody Servon, Gunga’s Lamps. Ultrachrome print, 22 x 28 in.

Jody Servon, Gunga’s Lamps. Ultrachrome print, 22 x 28 in.

 

Jody Servon, Mom’s Ring. Ultrachrome print, 14.5 x 18 in.

Jody Servon, Mom’s Ring. Ultrachrome print, 14.5 x 18 in.

Mom’s Ring

It’s become a family comedy, of sorts. Everyone knows of Mom’s ring, but no one knows where it came from. Mom conspired with Dad’s family to get them married. All Dad had to do was show up. So he purchased several rings throughout their marriage because Mom always said, “you never bought me an engagement ring.” Dad remembers that this one must have been inexpensive because he and Mom were broke. Their son Allen has learned that it’s a moonstone, or a Feldspar mineral, a stone the Romans once believed to be formed from moonlight. During Mom’s frequent hospital stays, the ring stayed on her bedside table at home. As a boy, Allen liked to sit in his Mom’s lap with her arms around him. He’d play with her cloudy-blue ring, spin it, and move it from finger to finger. Her hands, like Allen’s, were long and skinny—she was six feet tall and very thin. Allen never minded how his hands appeared because they looked just like his Mom’s. He recalls her hands (and that ring) more than her face.

 

Papa’s Lighter

As steel goes, so goes the nation.

One of the last great American men, Papa donned his red cap, carried a metal lunch box to the steel mills every morning. When steel bars dropped on his feet, he recovered. Then returned to the mill. Nights, he’d sit in his chair, face streaked with hard days worked. Done right. He gardened a little plot, grew cucumbers, cured his famous pickles in the cellar. Sitting on the porch, he’d drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, share apples with his grandson, Troy, while they listened to the Detroit Tigers on the transistor radio. Not a word between them, they’d watch the world go by. The whole family smoked. That inevitable click, vapor sweet—it was too good—Papa kept the lighter in the box, displayed atop his bedroom dresser. His shirt pocket held an old Zippo—one from his drawer full of lighters. Troy swore he’d never use Papa’s lighter. It’s just to keep.

Jody Servon, Papa’s Lighter, Ultrachrome print. 21.5 x 18 in.

Jody Servon, Papa’s Lighter, Ultrachrome print. 21.5 x 18 in.

 

Jody Servon, Elaine’s Star, Ultrachrome print, 22 x 17 in.

Jody Servon, Elaine’s Star, Ultrachrome print, 22 x 17 in.

Elaine’s Star

On her first workday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Elaine wore her vintage full-length mink coat. Her lips red, hair bright blonde, she liked the company art kept. After her husband was killed early one morning while riding his bike in Central Park, she sewed stars and other ornaments. Sold them retail. Tim didn’t know any of this; he was drawn to the way Elaine looked that first day. As friends, they’d share a drink at the local bar or go to her Upper East Side apartment and drink too much wine. Those nights he’d ride the subway home to Bay Ridge, asleep on the train. This gold star is one of the only gifts Tim received from Elaine. She didn’t tell her friends—not even Tim—that she married again. Her new husband was a handsome man from Honduras who probably needed a green card. He stabbed and beat her to death when she asked him to leave.

 

PoPop Sam’s Scraper

It’s not an especially good scraper. Plastic, without a retractable blade, it was a Stanley and PoPop Sam’s favorite. His garage workshop held a trove of tools—with them, his grandson thought, you could fix most anything. He taught kids how to carve bows from local trees; he could nock an arrow, then shoot it with a freshly hewn weapon of his own. On the Gulf of Mexico, he’d take his grandson fishing. For bait, they’d hook live crabs, cast into the currents, and catch sharks. (He knew all the best spots.) PoPop Sam beat a shark to death with a baseball bat—his grandson and fellow adventurer, remembers this fondly. No wonder his bedtime stories were the best you’d ever heard.

Jody Servon, PoPop Sam’s Scraper, Ultrachrome print, 14 x 18 in.

Jody Servon, PoPop Sam’s Scraper, Ultrachrome print, 14 x 18 in.

 

Jody Servon, Kitty’s Pinecone, Ultrachrome print, 22 x 17 in.

Jody Servon, Kitty’s Pinecone, Ultrachrome print, 22 x 17 in.

Kitty’s Pinecone

Because she was Westward, and swayed by its grandeur, Kitty brought home a pinecone for her friends, Mark and Jen. (The winged seeds are still visible.) Kitty was an artist—she kept dead animals in her freezer so she could draw them. Her hair, long, curly, sometimes frizzy, seemed to want to jump off her head; her hair had a life of its own. Like her smile. In Radford, Virginia, it was big news when Kitty’s teenage daughter, Tara Rose, didn’t come home after work and was found sixteen days later in a ditch, shot four times. Mark remembers the timing—Kitty grew ill with breast cancer—the same spot where Tara Rose had been shot. Mark didn’t know quite what to say or do; he and Jen had moved to Maryland. They keep the pinecone in their living room and love the impossible size of it.

 

 

Lorene Delany-Ullman, poet

Lorene Delany-Ullman

The prose poems, based on the interviewees’ responses, are meant to evoke the relationships between the objects, the relatives and friends who saved them, and the original owners. We ask the new object-owners to describe their relationship with the deceased loved one, any distinguishing characteristics of that person, a memorable occasion or event shared between them, and what it is that makes the object special. Often the language of the owners is directly incorporated into the poem.

Saved is a collaborative work not only between Jody and me, but also between the new owners and us. As collaborators, the new owners lend their objects to be photographed and tell us the intimate, provocative, and sometimes embarrassing stories about themselves and their departed loved ones that we then preserve along with the images.

Lorene Delany-Ullman’s book of prose poems, Camouflage for the Neighborhood, was the winner of the 2011 Sentence Award, and published by Firewheel Editions (December 2012). She most recently published her poetry and creative nonfiction in Stymie, AGNI 74, Cimarron Review, Zócalo Public Square, Naugatuck River Review, and Chaparral. Her poems have been included in anthologies such as Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Kent State University Press, 2009) and Alternatives to Surrender (Plain View Press, 2007). She teaches composition at the University of California, Irvine.

 

Jody Servon, artist

Jody_Servon

Saved was conceived after my father and three friends died in a single year. I was affected by how friends and colleagues bearing similar loss openly shared stories of their own deceased loved ones with me. Many felt prompted to tell me about things they held onto after the death of a loved one.

The depth of connection I’d made with the bereaved, led me to borrow and photograph objects that people held onto after the death of a family member or friend. The items are individually photographed on a seamless white background with close attention on the wear apparent of each surface. Most of the images are larger than actual size to reveal intimate details, such as the grime embedded in a plastic scraper or the hairs tangled in the spines of a brush.

Together, Lorene and I composed interview questions for the owners of the objects I’d borrowed to photograph. By email and in person, I interviewed those who had loaned an object to the project, and then forwarded their answers to Lorene.

Jody Servon’s projects include installations, drawings, photographs, sculptures, video and social experiments that have appeared in exhibitions, screenings and as public projects in the U.S., Canada, and China. Her work has been published in AGNI 74, New American Painting, and Artful Dodge and has been reviewed in The New York Times, Miami Herald, and Arizona Daily Star among others. Servon currently lives and works as an artist, curator and professor in North Carolina. Her work is online at www.jodyservon.com.

Catherine M. Wilson, Author of the Trilogy When Women Were Warriors

Catherine Wilson, When Women Were Warriors—Book I: The Warrior's Path

Book I: The Warrior’s Path

It’s not often that I write a book review and start it with a food suggestion, but I’m doing it here: begin the When Women Were Warriors trilogy with a mug of the best tea you can find in your city or the thickest stew to be had, something like what Wilson’s young warrior Tamras would have enjoyed after a long day in the fields. Wrap yourself in the warmest blanket you can find and settle in to your armchair or bed. Get comfortable; you’re going away with Catherine M. Wilson for a while, as long as you want. I promise—you’ll want to go (and you’ll be in good company: Grammy Award winner Janis Ian is also a fan, and she’ll soon be narrating the first book, The Warrior’s Path).

When Women Were Warriors is an epic trilogy set in Bronze Age Britain. Young Tamras leaves behind the loving shelter of her warrior mother’s house to become an apprentice in the house of Lady Merin. Tamras is put in service to the mysterious warrior Maara and a careful friendship eventually grows into love. There’s Sparrow, the slave turned apprentice, who knows the pain of loss, and the wise woman Namet who has watched, and been partially responsible, for war in the name of love.

While love is a main theme in the books and the developing relationship between Tamras and Maara is at the core of the novels, the When Women Were Warriors series is not, at its heart, a romance. Make no mistake, this is an epic tale of a hero’s journey, dividing Tamras’ quest to become a warrior into three books: The Warrior’s Path, A Journey of the Heart, and A Hero’s Tale. No, these books aren’t exactly romances, but in Wilson’s world, the true warrior’s heart is one that is able to feel and experience love—of lover and friends, of self, and of the world itself: “The survival of love in the world is entirely our responsibility,” and it makes perfect sense that the warrior Tamras, who fights to be true to her heart, speaks those lines in the final book A Hero’s Tale, reminding us that all is connected.

Catherine Wilson, When Women Were Warriors—Book II: A Journey of the Heart

Book II: A Journey of the Heart

Catherine M. Wilson’s writing is both epic and elegant. She spins a tale that I would have devoured as an adventure-starved teenager longing for stories of complex and philosophical female warriors. For example, in the second book, A Journey of the Heart, Lady Merin’s warriors defend their land from the northern tribes. Tamras, new to battle and trained, not with a sword, but in the use of a bow and arrow, saves Maara by shooting and killing an enemy chieftain. Of course, in any hero’s tale, the first kill is a chance for greater knowledge about the enemy and about oneself, but in Wilson’s capable hands, the knowledge gained by Tamras comes through the awareness of personal power. “He will come to you in dreams,” Maara tells Tamras of the man she killed, “and when you meet him face to face, don’t be afraid to speak to him. Tell him that though you are young and strong, your spirit is large and powerful. Tell him it was no disgrace to be defeated by someone so powerful. Then, tell him to leave you in peace.” Tamras’ lesson is in personal power, in trusting her connection to her own honest self and inner wisdom. Again and again in the books, she struggles to hear herself clearly and to do what her inner self dictates.

Tamras is a clearly written character, often utterly self-aware, innocent yet brave, and we’re treated to her growth; with apologies to James Joyce, this is Portrait of the Warrior as a Young Woman. Wilson gives us intense battle scenes and heartbreaking betrayal, but she also treats us to what any avid reader longs for: experiencing everyday life with a trusted character. Through Tamras, we learn the rhythms of days in Lady Merin’s house and, we can see the fine details, like needlework running through this brilliant tapestry of story: the smell of freshly baked bread from the kitchen, the green of the willow tree under which one can make love, the heft of a carved bow and arrow against one’s back.

Catherine Wilson, When Women Were Warriors—Book III: A Hero's Tale

Book III: A Hero’s Tale

The women, as the title of the series suggests, are entirely front and center in Wilson’s gorgeous, well-constructed series. They are queens, warriors, apprentices, wise women and mothers. Above all, they are fully human—complex and flawed and philosophical. Set in a matrilineal society, the women in the books move in a world made up almost entirely of female power and female relationships: Tamras’ mother was a warrior, as was her mother before her; at several times in The Warrior’s Path, Tamras retells her mother’s tales to Maara and, as readers, we’re treated to what would have been an oral tradition within the narrative; the myths and legends in the first book begin with, not, once upon a time, but instead an opening that hints at change: when women were warriors. The language suggests that there will one day come a time when that power will shift and women will no longer be warriors in a matrilineal society.

Wonderfully feminist, unabashedly lesbian, and beautifully epic, the When Women Were Warriors books are precious gems that should be on the bookshelves of every thinking woman. They remind us of our strength, power, and courage—and of course, the depths of our honest hearts. 

– Marissa Cohen, author of CancerLand

Lise Quintana, Editor in Chief of Lunch Ticket, spoke to Catherine at her home deep in the woods of Northern California.

Catherine M. Wilson

Catherine M. Wilson  photo by Carolyn Donaldson

Lise Quintana: First, run down your list of professional careers for me.

Catherine M. Wilson: I was a professional student for many years, although, not managing to complete a degree until I was almost fifty.

LQ: What did you take your degree in?

CMW: Computer science. Smartest thing I ever did. Before that I was an anti-war protester, a civil-rights-movement person, women’s movement, gay pride, of course. My first career, I was a broadcast engineer—I was the third woman hired by a major market in San Francisco. That was in the 1970s. I did that because I wanted a job where they would have to pay me and promote me according to my job title and seniority. That was the only thing that mattered in a union job.

After three years of that, I quit to go into the motorcycle business with a partner, and then my partner and I split up. So then I got another broadcast engineering job in Monterey, during which time I started buying and rehabbing old houses. And I had a mobile detail business myself, and I got to be in my 40s and realized that my body was not going to hold up working three jobs doing heavy construction, so I went back to college at UC Santa Cruz. Got a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in computer science.

I was recruited right out of school by a startup in Scotts Valley called NetCarta in 1996, the very early days of the Internet. The guy who had founded the company was working on viral networking, on spiders: he was Google before Google existed. But the crazy venture capitalists wanted their money and they sold it after two years for $1 million.

But I had already started writing my book. So I thought that I would just take six months or a year off and finish the book, then go back to work. Ten years later, I finished the book.

LQ: Did you always want to be an author?

CMW: Absolutely. I knew I was going to be an author, because of my mother. My mother was a book person. Writers were the most important people in the world. That was the most important job in the world. You can keep your doctors and your lawyers. Writers, that was where it was at.

Writers were the most important people in the world. That was the most important job in the world.

LQ: Who were your favorite writers growing up?

CMW: I liked the classics, I liked the Brontës, I liked Jane Austen. When my mother died, I couldn’t count the number of books in her house. I had access to a very large library. One book that I read when I was a teenager that profoundly influenced me was Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, a British writer who lived through World War I and lost most of the men in her family, including her fiancé. So that’s what I was reading when I was a kid.

LQ: What sparked the story of When Women Were Warriors

CMW: My mother was a Greek major. I was not brought up on fairy tales; I was brought up on the Greek myths. My mother’s family was from Maryland, and her father’s best friend had a wife who was the daughter of a plantation owner in Virginia. And this woman had been given a slave when they were both five years old. The slave girl, whose name was Margaret Gibson, sat next to her mistress while she was being tutored. She was privately tutored, given a classical education. As a result, this Ms. Gibson was fluent in classical Greek, Latin, French and English, because she sat next to this woman. When my mother and her family would go and visit, children and servants sat in the kitchen, so my mother sat in the kitchen with Ms. Gibson and she was told the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey and all the myths from a servant, who was able to read it to her in the original Greek. Needless to say, I grew up hearing the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

As I grew up in the 1950s, I kept looking for the story that said, “Once upon a time, a woman went out to seek her fortune” and there weren’t any. I always knew that the first book I ever wrote was going to be about that.

LQ: How long did it take you to get from the first germ of the story to when you started writing?

CMW: I started writing first. Oddly enough, I started writing fan fiction. It’s a wonderful way to find out if you have any talent whatsoever, because in fan fiction, you already have characters, you have your setting, and you can work with that and see if you have a story in you. I started posting Xena fan fiction. Two people were attracted by it: one was a woman who had been traditionally published and who thought that I showed promise, and another would later become my friend and editor, who also thought my writing was quite good. I wrote it from the point of view of the Xena characters. And then I started to think that they would go on from there and something would happen. But I realized that they were two different people. And I had to go back and start from the beginning because I had started in the middle. So I joined a writers’ group, and I took about 20 to 25 runs at it. Once I had done that—once I actually got the story started—then things seemed to go of themselves.

LQ: You chose to self-publish the books and to make them a trilogy rather then one very long book. Tell me about that choice and what led up to it.

CMW: I thought I was going to take six months to finish the book and it kept getting longer and longer. I was starting to get worried because I have studied traditional publishing. The ideal book by a new author is something that is a hot topic right now, is under 200 pages, and has some kind of platform. I had none of those things.

Several of the people in the writers’ group said, “You could make a trilogy out of it.” I could, except that I didn’t have three separate arcs. This is a classic hero’s journey, and you don’t rip a story like that into three pieces. But then I remembered Lord of the Rings. However, I was not about to publish the first book by itself, because you just piss people off. They come to the end of the book, and they go, “Where’s the rest of the story?” In fact, if you read the reviews of Book I (The Warrior’s Path), that’s what people complain of. Ripping it into three pieces was completely a marketing decision. I just received Hild by Nicola Griffith who’s been a published author for 20 years. She could get away with a 600-page novel.

When I was about five or six years into the process, I started to get worried because, for one thing, I was financing this myself; I wasn’t working a day job. I had retirement money saved up and I had money left over from my inheritance. I could envision myself at the end of this process having an unpublishable book and no visible means of support. I had been subscribing to a blog by a woman who used to review for The Chronicle. I sent her the first 100 pages, and her response was, “Take the sex out of the first part and market it to 10-year-olds.” She also told me that no editor, publisher or agent would ask to see a manuscript like this. Well, it was true. I queried 88 agents, and no one asked for the manuscript. I was honest with them. I wasn’t going to sell them the first book and then say, “Oh, by the way, you have to publish the next two as well.” When I got that bit of news about no agent or publisher wanting to see it, I was pretty much blown into the weeds by it, but this is useful information.

This woman’s business was to give the author an idea of what sort of things they should put in their query. She wasn’t a book doctor. Well, needless to say, what I got back was not very helpful, and it stopped me dead for two years. But during that time, I came to the conclusion that it was the work that was important and that if no one ever saw it—if I simply printed it out and threw it down the bit bucket—it was worth doing. And that gave me a kind of freedom that I don’t think you get any other way. The world isn’t ready for this? I’m going to make it anyway. So I did a lot of things in the second half of that book that I wouldn’t have done if I’d been thinking about traditional publishing. I lived for that last four years or so with the reality that I was making something that nobody would ever see. That was tremendously freeing. I still hate that woman for what she did, but she did me a favor by delaying me until self-publishing was as easy as it is now. So I went back and finished the book in 2006. And then I thought that I would take a year and query agents. I did all the things you’re supposed to do: I went and found a book that was similar to mine, found the agent and said, “This is like so and so’s book.” There were agents who would let you send them 50 pages and I would send them the 50 pages. I followed all the rules absolutely. And I gave up counting at 88. After that I just started blasting stuff to whomever I could find. But the whole time that I was doing that, I was studying up on self publishing. I started with the Dan Poynter books, and his paradigm was: “you find a printer, you get plates made, you print 5,000 copies offset, you warehouse them somewhere, you find someone to distribute them somehow,” but there was no distribution, there was no system to do this.

But in 2006, the latest edition said there was this place called Lightning Source and they did this digital printing, and then you could get your book listed on Amazon. I took the next year to learn the skills I needed. I learned InDesign to do the typesetting, Photoshop to do the covers. I learned Dreamweaver to do the websites. I got the paperback out on October 1, 2008. I had my books on Kindle in December 2008 and that’s when I started to see sales. If I had had Lightning Source print it as a single book, it would have run to probably 1,000 pages. It would have cost $50 or more to make a decent profit and give Amazon their cut. How do I get someone to take a chance on that? So I ripped the thing into three pieces and that way I could have normal-size books with a normal-size price, and, since ebooks don’t cost me anything to produce, I could give them away. I started out emailing Book I to people. And then somebody said why don’t you just have it as a download from your website?

When you’re self-published, you don’t have anybody beating the drum for you.

When you’re self-published, you don’t have anybody beating the drum for you. When your wife does it, or your publisher does it, it’s different. So I started just by going onto forums with people who are into ebooks, and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a free ebook.” Now if you go into a forum of readers and say, “Buy my book,” they’ll go, “spam, spam, spam.” But if you go in and “Free book,” they’ll go, “Where?” So that turned out to be the key to marketing this thing. And as it happens, I also subscribe to many, many, many Yahoo groups, listservs, about self publishing, indie publishing, traditional publishing, pod publishing, epub publishing and I found out that Amazon would price match any other price they found. So I set the book up on Smashwords, set the price for The Warrior’s Path to zero, and Amazon price matched it and we were off and running.

And about ten minutes after it went free on Amazon, Janis Ian found it and wrote and asked me for my autograph, and wrote a five-star review of it on Amazon (!!!). So when I saw her in concert last March, I brought her signed copies of the books. As I handed her the books, she said, “Are you going to do an audio book?” I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I just signed with a company that produces audio books.” And she says, “I’d love to narrate it.” And we were off and running. So that’s going to be out in late November.

LQ: That soon?

CMW: That soon. We indies are speedy. We need those Christmas sales, man. No screwing around.

LQ: You’re really involved with your fan base. You respond frequently on Goodreads and Amazon, etc. What is the most common criticism that you receive about your trilogy?

CMW: I don’t receive criticism from my fans. But what I get is bad reviews, and generally, they are complaining about two things: One of them is that there’s lesbians in it. The other is that they have to pay ten dollars each for books two and three. So, they’re either bigots or cheapskates, that’s kind of how I look at it.

LQ: Well, all-righty then. That’s great though. That’s great that you’ve never had anyone tell you that you’re a terrible writer.

CMW: Oh, I get those. I just ignore it because it’s not true.

LQ: Good for you! Talk about the process of Janis recording your audio book. 

Catherine M. Wilson at home. Photo: Lise Quintana

Photo: Lise Quintana

CMW: The company producing the book is called Dog Ear Audio. It’s owned and run by Karen Wolfer, and she’s from Guffey, Colorado, and she has a studio, but Janis has allergies, so we went to Nashville. You know, Nashville is just like San Jose. They have the same mini malls, the same Targets, the same Lowe’s. We were right at home. So Janis has a friend Randy Leago who’s an engineer and utility musician. He has a recording studio, and rents himself out as the engineer.

Janis would come in around 10 in the morning. There was a little closet all hung up with quilts, and Randy, bless his heart, bought a brand new $1,000 microphone. She would go in there and she would get started. Randy was sitting monitoring levels and stuff, Karen was watching the script and listening—she’s got better hearing than a dog—she could hear airplanes that were in the next state, motorcycles, cars idling at the stop sign outside; she’d stop everything until the noise was gone. And Janis would just go in to read until she got tired, and then she’d take a break. We funded this thing through Kickstarter, and on Wednesday our big money supporters came, and they got to sit in. They were supposed to get a morning session, and then we would all have lunch with Janis and Randy and everybody, but they were so polite and good and so well behaved that Janis invited them for the rest of the day. And they were just over the moon. After that, Karen and I took them all out to dinner.

Here you have fans of Janis, fans of the book, who get to participate. Even if I could have afforded to finance the entire thing—basically, the Kickstarter campaign paid Janis and Randy, and Karen and I had to cover all our own travel expenses—the marketing potential of Kickstarter is phenomenal. You get all the people who are the most enthusiastic about your work, and about Janis’s work and all of a sudden, you’ve got them shouting to everybody they know, “Go, come support this great project.”

LQ: Have you gotten more people because of the Kickstarter campaign? Have a lot of Janis Ian’s fans now discovered your book?

CMW: Janis sends me emails that she gets from these people. A lot of them know she’s gay, but they don’t think they would find anything interesting in a gay book. Well, it’s not a gay book. It’s a book that has gay people in it, but it’s not a “gay” book. I think it was Janis’s publicist who said “I wasn’t going to read this because I’m not gay and I didn’t think there’d be anything in it for me, but it was fabulous!” Janis has a large mainstream audience, a non-gay audience, who are reading this book. So we’re just getting into the mainstream thing where people are talking about it.

LQ: I have heard that if you write genre fiction well enough, it is no longer genre fiction. It becomes mainstream fiction, literary fiction. So do you see yourself more as a literary fiction person?

CMW: I would call myself literary fiction if it wasn’t for the way people think about literary fiction.

LQ: Which is how?

CMW: I think of genre fiction as fiction that has a certain premise and you know what you’re going to get. You know you’re going to have a certain experience when you read this book. You are not looking for great insights into the meaning of life. You want to see a problem solved, or a puzzle unraveled, or something. However, there are people who write those genres literarily. I think of literary fiction as simply writing that has achieved a level of perfection, a level of polish. But genre fiction adheres to a standard. There’s a way these things are written and that’s how people expect to have them read. But people are thinking “I just want to really pull some of this genre into my mystery, but my editor wouldn’t let me because they wouldn’t know where to put it. They don’t know where to shelve it or how to market it or how to deal with it.” Well, now we’ve got these indies that were just doing it how they please where you can have a love story in a mystery or you can have a mystery in a love story or you can have people go to the moon and have a mystery. You don’t have to adhere to all these strict conventions. And this is the stuff I threw out of my head when I realized I was not going to be traditionally published.

And this is the stuff I threw out of my head when I realized I was not going to be traditionally published.

LQ: So do you think the publishing industry has changed radically since you started writing?

CMW: I think the publishing industry has had its pants scared off it, frankly. I just went to a conference in which Amanda Kyle Williams was the keynote speaker. She’s traditionally published, she’s a lesbian, she had a lesbian small press series in the ’90s and now she’s published by Random House. Her third book is coming out next year in which she’s got an adopted Chinese-American woman raised in Georgia who was an FBI profiler, an alcoholic who lost her job and becomes a private investigator and who lives in a very quirky area of Atlanta with a lot of very strange people. Now this is a lesbian author who has taken a lot of crap from the lesbian community for not making her hero a lesbian. But as she said at the conference, if her hero were lesbian, she would not have a contract with Random House. So what are you going to do with that? But her books are perfect for traditional publishing. She is perfect for traditional publishing. I’m not. They can’t publish people like me. One of the things that the woman who suggested that I take the sex out of the first part and market it to 10-year-olds said was, “You need to have a bestseller about something else.” And I thought, “I’m fifty-something. Am I going to live long enough to write the bestseller that gets me the open door?” There are a lot of people now who are selling millions of books as indies who are turning down traditional publishing.

LQ: So what did your sales look like? The first year, how many books did you sell, and how many are you selling now?

CMW: I think in terms of dollars. I don’t think in terms of numbers because first of all, Book I is free. There are millions of them out there. The copyright page says if you have a friend out there who would like to read this, send it to them. It’s free for everybody—come and get it. So numbers is pretty meaningless for that. The first year, I was only out three months for paperback sales, and I think I only made $300. The second year, I made a couple thousand of dollars. Kind of nice. I did a total of $20,000 for 2011. In 2012, I did $53,000.

LQ: That’s amazing.

CMW: That’s from having the book free and the fact that every day, I market.

LQ: Talk about your marketing efforts. What does marketing look like for you? 

CMW: I have so many marketing ideas. I have a towering pile of marketing ideas. The thing that I started with first was that I found people who were looking for ebooks and I gave the first book out free. If you read it and like it then books two and three—I don’t have to force them down your throat, do I? Then, I found places where I could let people know about Book I. There are three or four Yahoo groups that are all about lesbian fiction. When you go back to the bad old days of the 1990s, every lesbian I knew owned every book and every movie that had lesbians in it because there weren’t that many. Now you can’t begin to scratch the surface on it. There’s one particular group where they hated ebooks because they were elitist because you have to buy the reader. Well, you have to buy a DVD player too, but are DVDs elitist? Are records elitist because I had to buy a record player? But they soon got over that because, once you spent your $79 on your Kindle, there are all kinds of free ebooks. But then they started in on quality, and every indie book was a piece of crap. They were just into the books published by the niche publishers who were probably running a little bit scared of the indies.

I found a website called AwesomeIndies.net that will vet your independently published book. First you have to have a certain number of five-star reviews on Amazon, then you have be reviewed by one of their approved reviewers. And if their reviewer gives you four or five stars, you’re in. Because of that, I was able to advertise then on BookBub.com because BookBub is very picky. Then the Historical Novel Society, which wouldn’t review anything independently published, finally figured out that since historical fiction is the ugly stepchild of the publishing industry, publishers do not promote historical fiction. It’s why the Society exists in the first place: because no one was reviewing it. They finally figured out that there were a lot of independents who were publishing historical fiction, and so they just opened up to indies, and because I had received the vetting from AwesomeIndies, they were willing to look at this book. A reviewer emailed me back and said, “Ordinarily I would balk at reviewing a work that’s five years old. But I took the liberty of actually reading it and now there’s no way I’d turn it away.” So I’ve got a stunning five-star review from the Historical Novel Society. But every one of these things is scratch and claw, scratch and claw. I finally got onto BookBub, and the first time—this is the thing about having a free book—the first ad got me 23,000 downloads of book one. 23,000 books. How many books do most people hope to sell a year? 5,000? 10,000? That is an astonishing number and it boosted my sales that month by two or three thousand dollars.

LQ: Impressive. And you won an award for your trilogy.

CMW: I did. I won the Epic Ebook award in the mainstream category. My friend said, “You have to win an award because when you do your blurb, it has to say ‘award-winning.’” So I entered just about anything I could enter, I got my award and I quit entering.

LQ: So, do you plan on continuing writing this story? 

CMW: Not this story. Something that writers are doing that I might actually do—it depends on if there’s a story to tell there—my editor thinks that I should write a Thanksgiving dinner story, because of the very convoluted relationships. I mean, they say that in the lesbian community, there’s like two degrees of separation. You either slept with her or you slept with someone who has. There’s a lot of that going on in this story. It’s everybody and their exes sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

LQ: Isn’t this 3rd-century Ireland?

CMW: Actually, it’s more like 1000 BCE. I know that people want to read another book, but there isn’t more to say about it. Plus, I have another story telling itself in my head and it’s set in the ’70s. That’ll be the thing I sit down to write, if I write anything.

LQ: What advice do you have for writers who are trying to self-publish?

CMW: I would say first write a good book. That’s the hard part. I’ve gone through all the stages of writer. The part where you’d just die to see your name on the front of a book. You would pay a million dollars to see that. Well, now you can, and pay much less than that. But once you get there, you’ve gotten over wanting to be there. My friend asked, “But wasn’t it a real charge the first time you saw your book?” And it was good for about 10 minutes of “Oooh, wow.”

Second of all, have somebody edit it who knows what the hell they’re doing. I had it edited by a professional copyeditor who introduced more errors than there were in the first place. I was one of those kids who marked the errors in printed books.

LQ: I was too.

CMW: I knew you’d relate to that. I fell back on my own knowledge of the English language, and my ability to peruse the Chicago Manual of Style. But edit the shit out of your book. Have somebody who knows what they’re doing typeset it. I learned InDesign. I just had someone email me who was a friend of someone I’ve actually done typesetting for and she showed me her .pdf that had no top margin in the first six pages, and it was rejected by CreateSpace. And I told her, “Well, you’re going to have to adjust the margin down.” And she said, “Can you do that?” and I go, “No.” “Can you just do a little quick fix?” “No. I’ll typeset it for you in InDesign at $1 a page.”

LQ: Which is cheap, actually.

CMW: That’s very cheap. Book designers are $5 a page. I will do a basic typeset, properly kerned, properly set up, proper copyright page for a buck a page. And then with that, you get a properly produced .pdf file to upload to CreateSpace or Lightning Source. But how many years do you spend writing a piece of work? Do you really want to scrawl it on a piece of bark and throw it out the door? I mean, come on, make a professional product. Put together $1,000—you can make a beautiful print and ebook for $1,000. Most of my clients pay me $500 or $600.

LQ: I didn’t realize how really inexpensive it is to make something really professional.

CMW: Well, you don’t have to go back and forth with me a million times on it. That’s what designers do. That’s why they charge $5 a page. I come up with a basic setup, put a couple of chapters in, and send them the sample. If there’s anything you totally don’t like, I’ll fix it. Generally speaking, they’re happy to get a professionally produced product. And the same thing with covers. Have an artist do the artwork, and I’ll stick it on. I’ll get a template from CreateSpace of LightningSource and I’ll stick all the blurb shit on there for $200. $200 bucks gets you a Kindle or an epub. So a 300-page book, $600. And it’s a professional job. And it’s going to work and it’s not going to get kicked back to you and it’s going to look good. So if your work’s not worth spending $600, then you deserve to be laughed out of the publishing business.

LQ: You are not the first person from whom I’ve heard, “Spend a little money. Make sure that your work looks good.”

You can find Catherine M. Wilson’s trilogy, and get a free download of Book I, The Warrior’s Path, from Shield Maiden Press.

Marissa CohenThe late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s (www.marissacohen.com) work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.

 

 

2012-02-19 20.06.21Lise Quintana is the Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. Her fiction has appeared in such places as The Weekenders and Willow Review. She is within spitting distance of receiving her MFA from Antioch University, LA, and lives in the woods in Northern California.

My Shelf Life

The Bronx is under siege. The smell of sulfur is everywhere. A cherry bomb goes off. And then another. With each mini-bomb, I edge closer to Moises until the noise melts away. But not too close.

“This is crazy,” I say.

Fear is a funny emotion. It can stop you dead in your tracks, all plans squashed before they are fulfilled. Or fear can put you on a path you had no intention in taking. I made a huge mistake reaching out to Moises. No doubt about it. But once I pressed the send button there was no turning back. Actually, pressing the button was easy. It was the seconds following, waiting for his response that made me increasingly aware that I made the wrong choice.

I didn’t even consult Serena and Camille. They would have advised me to play the good girl, but I’m on some dumb rebellion tip. Papi thinks I’m fucking around with a titere, then I’ll fuck a titere. It made complete sense to me at the time but now that I’m actually walking the streets with him, I’m not so sure.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

“C’mon,” he says as we find refuge at a bodega.

He picks out two mangos out of a pile of mostly bruised fruit and two large bottles of water. I have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. I step over a crowd setting off bottle rockets and pray that they don’t throw one my way. They don’t but one little boy tosses a firecracker in front of me. The little boy is shirtless, proud even, as he struts towards me again, about to light up another. I glare but his smile is much too wide. We need to get out of this madness.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“It’s not far. Just up the block,” Moises says.

He hasn’t said much since I met him at the other side of the park. Maybe Moises’s silence is his way of trying to figure me out. He stops in front of an apartment building with black iron gates on every window and rusty fire escapes draped with clothes hung to dry. It’s rundown. Pungent smells of curry, fried food and weed permeates the hallway. As we pass by each apartment, I can hear a novela playing loudly on a television, a radio tuned to reggae music, and a couple talking. Or, are they arguing? I can’t tell.

“This is it,” he says.

The door has a Jesus sticker with the words “God Bless this House” written underneath. Like most of the other apartments, the door looks battered, like someone used a ram to try to get in. He swings the door open and I’m greeted with a framed portrait of the Pope, President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. To the right, there’s a long passageway with several doors on each side. To the left, a large gilded mirror leans atop a matching table. A vase brimming with fake flowers sits in the center of the table. The flowers are encrusted with dust. Everything seems old and cheap. Really cheap.

I wait by the entrance. This isn’t what I’m used to. I’m not that bold. I take a deep breath. This is only a dare, I say to myself, an adventure.

“Don’t worry. She’s at a church retreat,” he says. “She won’t be back until late.”

My actions are hitting me hard. An invitation to hang out means chilling at his apartment. Alone. This is how the night will go down. What was that thing Papi said? “Open your legs and you’re just like those other pendejas.” Will I see this thing through? I step inside.

Sweat tickles my neck. The air is stifling. The tiny living room is so cluttered with furniture that there’s barely any room to stand. There are small statues of Jesus, a tiny little pig that might be a piggy bank, and a bunch of wedding souvenirs displayed like trophies. As much as I want to, I don’t touch a thing. Whoever “she” is would notice.

“She likes to collect shit,” he says.

“Your mom?”

“No. I live with my aunt. My Dad is somewhere in Puerto Rico. Mom is out of commission.”

“What do you mean out of commission?’” He pauses. “The last I heard she was smoking crack with some guy. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years.”

“Oh. That would definitely put you out of commission,” I chuckle but there’s nothing to laugh about.

He turns to me.

“So, now that you’ve heard my shiny background, you still want to hang?”

“Why?” I say. “Am I suppose to be scared or something?”

“You’re probably used to hanging out with guys who come from money, two parents, a nice house.”

I shake my head although everything he’s saying is absolutely true. He’s judging. Again. Using that tone of voice I’ve heard before.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“Seventeen.”

“Well, for someone who is a year older, you sure say some dumb, immature crap.”

He tucks his chin in a bit and keeps his gaze fixed on me. I try to hold his stare but quickly surrender, feeling the heat bounce off my cheeks. Things were a lot easier outside when all I had to do was dodge some firecrackers. But now that we are inside, doubt circles around me.

We walk down the corridor and into another room. Unlike the living room, this room is bare, minus a flimsy white sheet covering a solitary mattress on the floor and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Posters of Bob Marley, Malcolm X and a bunch of other old but serious people cover the dingy wall. The room smells of dirty socks.

“Take a seat.”

He removes a stack of books from atop a crate and lights a stick of incense. A small breeze enters the room but not enough to make a difference. I keep my arms and legs crossed. I try not to move at all.

“Do you, um, sleep here?” I ask.

“Yeah.” He sounds a little apologetic. “It’s just a place to crash until I can afford my own.”

“Oh.”

I bite my fingernail. There are so many voices in my head telling me to run. This isn’t for me. Neither is Moises. What must he think of me when the only place he takes me to is his room?

I walk over to a mirror where various snapshots are pressed against the frame. Moises names each person in the picture as if I’ll remember.

“This is my crew, my panas,” he says. “After things went down with my brother, they held me together. They steered me away from some wild shit I was getting down with.”

He’s speaking but all I can think is that he’s standing way too close. This too is a challenge so I stay where I am and nod as he explains how important his friends are to him. How a bunch of suspicious-looking chicks saved his life. He smells of musk and sweat. Can I be like those girls in the picture with their tank tops and cutoffs? They seem to know what to do, unafraid, grins flashing, curves showing. One hand firmly placed on their waist, hips popped to the side. They’re so sure of themselves. But me, all I know is that I’m completely lost here.

A blast from a cherry bomb startles me. This isn’t going to work.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He runs out and I hear him opening and slamming doors, rummaging for something. I pray he’s getting ready to leave. Instead, he comes back and tosses me a sleeping bag.

“Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?”

“Trust me.”

I don’t know him from shit but here I am following him up a few flights of stairs. He pulls out another set of keys, opens the door and a cool soft breeze sweeps over us. We’re on the roof. From up here, I can really see the fireworks. It’s as if small communities are communicating through loud bangs and sparkly lights.

“This is awesome,” I say as I peer down at the people on the streets scrambling to get into firework position. We can even see some stars twinkling in the sky.

“No one else is allowed up here. I help the landlord around the building so he gives me access.”

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it. He cuts open the mangos and we eat while watching the light show. Then he lays on his back, tapping his side for me to join him. I find myself holding my breath, anticipating his next move. My heart is racing. I suck at this. I turn to him and notice a long scratch on his arm.

He grabs the sleeping bag and opens it.

“Where did you get that?” I ask.

“My aunt’s cat.”

He points at a small scar on my hand. “What about you? Where’s that from?”

“I got that when I fell off my bike. I think I was ten.” I point to my knee. “I got this one in Hawaii. I slipped off of a rock. Your turn.”

“I think that’s it,” he says.

“What are you talking about? What about that large scar on the side of your neck.” I run my fingers lightly across it.

He flinches.

I regret being so bold.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

He hesitates. “Naw, it’s cool.”

He takes a sip of water.

“I must have been around eleven. My brother used to time me whenever I would go to the store for him. One time I ran into my friend and started fooling around. When I got back, Orlando told me the next time I took a detour; he would tie me up by my neck. He showed me how he would do it. I was never late after that. Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.”

Moises is trying to be a man about this story, to act as if what his brother did to him was okay but there’s no cause to. It’s only us up here and the popping firecrackers. For the first time all night, I’m the one staring at him and I’m not looking away.

He slowly inches towards me. Very slowly. So close that I feel his breath on my cheek, on my lips, until his lips are on mine and I’m forced to close my eyes.

His lips are soft and tangy from the mango. He guides me back down to the sleeping bag. His hand trails the side of my neck, down to my back and inching its way underneath my blouse.

“I can’t,” I blurt out.

“We can take it slow. I want to be with you and if that means holding hands, I’m cool with that. If it means more, I’m cool with that too. You feel me?”

I’m not supposed to feel anything for Moises. Not this kiss. Not emotions. Not a thing. He’s not part of my summer equation so this moment right now is just a silly act. Moises doesn’t hold anything good for me. He’s just a dare.

I get up and take in his serious face glowing against the flashes of the fireworks. The kiss that tasted like mango still lingers on my lips.

No. Moises is not for me.

LilliamNov2013Lilliam Rivera is a James Kirkwood Literary Prize nominee and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus.net, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Latina magazine. Lilliam is completing a contemporary young adult novel. “My Shelf Life” is an excerpt from that novel.

Dan Smetanka, Editor

Dan Smetanka has worked in publishing for two decades, as an Executive Editor at Ballantine/Random House, and at Maria B. Campbell Associates, an agency that facilitates placement of American authors in international markets. He is currently an Executive Editor for Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press where his recent projects include Rockaway by Tara Ison, All the Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova, Rake by Scott Phillips, and The Last Animal by Abby Geni.

Dan Smetanka

Photo: Aydin Bengisu

Smetanka lectured at Antioch University, Los Angeles in June on the business of publishing, and shared the fruits of his experience as an editor with MFA students looking to break into the sometimes-confusing world of publishing.

Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana spoke to Smetanka by phone recently about his views on the current state of the publishing industry.

Lise Quintana: How long have you been an editor? To someone new to the publishing industry, how would you describe your role?

Dan Smetanka: I’ve been in publishing since the early 90s. Back then, as a California native, one didn’t have much choice. You kind of had to go where the work was, which of course was New York City. After a summer internship with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I came back to Los Angeles and finished up my last year at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) and then made the plunge and moved to New York, where I was for about 13 years, most of that time as an executive editor at Random House, which is one of the largest book publishers now in the world, with all the mergers.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

LQ: How much is your individual opinion responsible for getting a book into the publishing pipeline, and how much of it is the judgment of a committee/group at the publisher?

DS: It’s different at every publisher. At a very large corporate house, there are a lot of approvals you need to get in order to move forward with a book, and those decrease a little as you get to a smaller house. In the best scenarios, you’ll find houses that are really guided by the tastes and the expertise of the individual editors who make up that house. Historically, that was always true in New York. I don’t think it’s so true there anymore, but if you go to some of the smaller houses – Norton, Grove Atlantic, Counterpoint, and then some of the even smaller ones – Milkweed, Akashic, Two Dollar Radio – you’ll find that the lists are very much guided by the tastes of the people who are there.

LQ: You moved from Random House to Counterpoint.

DS: I left New York in 2005 and had some other positions before I joined Counterpoint about three and a half years ago. I felt in sync with what they were doing. They are one of the largest independent presses in the country, but they are also located on the West Coast. So that was, of the many changes that have happened in the American publishing scene, very interesting to me – that an independent on the West Coast could thrive and maintain a national profile in terms of the kind of writers they were working with, in terms of review attention, and of their outreach into the author community

LQ: When editors change houses, is that more about the house looking for a skill set or contacts that the editor has, or are both looking for an editor/house that represents a body of work with which each can relate or feels well versed in, so it’s a good match?

DS: I would say all of the above. The reasons for leaving a house can be many, and the reasons for joining a house, similarly, can be many. As an editor, you want to align your individual tastes and whatever you feel is your mission with the house you’re joining. If what you want to do isn’t the same as what the house wants to do, you’re probably not going to have a really good time there. An editor with really commercial sensibilities who wants to do big, commercial fiction and nonfiction, you don’t see a lot of those kinds of editors at the smaller, more independent houses. The smaller indie houses tend to be author-driven, tend to be focused on the makeup of an author, their language or their style, their intent, what they want to do, as opposed to at the large corporate houses, where it can sometimes become more of a numbers game.

LQ: Are there any houses that were started by editors or agents who said “Look, I’m not seeing the thing that I like to read represented in the marketplace, and I feel like I should make a place for that”?

DS: I don’t know if they started them, but I think you definitely see a split right now where you have the big houses getting bigger – because of this marketplace and because of some of the retailers they have to contend with, and some of the terms of business they have to contend with – and the small are getting a bit more savvy and a little bit bigger. And what I mean by that is that you have some really great independents that are filling the gap in terms of their literary presence and their ability to get their books into many different places. That wasn’t always true in the past. The biggest challenge for independent presses in the past was how they were going to get on the same stage with the big houses. They’re really good at doing that now, so you’ll find [Counterpoint’s] books, as well as the books of other independents, at stores all across the country. Of course, the technology and the digital revolution have completely leveled the playing field because our books can be on all of the online bookstores just as easily as the big houses’. And then you see the exodus of writers who did not have a great experience or were no longer wanted and desired by the large houses, you see them coming to [independent publishers] in droves. Many of my authors from Random House have joined me at Counterpoint because they like that experience of being at a smaller, boutique house where they know the people that are working on their books and they have access to the people who are working with them.

LQ: You’ve mentioned that about 350,000 books are published each year, and another 350,000 are self-published. Of the first 350,000, how many of those are published by the Big Five versus published by indie publishers?

DS: Those are estimates, but I don’t really know. I doubt anyone has counted them. The big houses are the big houses because they’re the lion’s share of the market. But new publishers are popping up every day, and I’m probably not aware of all of them. At a place like Counterpoint, which is one of the largest independents, we’re doing about twenty-five original books per list, so that’s anywhere from 70 to 80 originals a year, which is a lot. Multiply that out.

The self-published figures came from Bowker, the company that gives you the ISBN numbers. There are probably a lot of self-published authors who don’t go through that process and don’t worry about getting an ISBN number, so that number is probably even greater than we think.

LQ: But without an ISBN number, distribution becomes a little bit tougher.

DS: A little bit tougher, yeah.

LQ: You’ve worked in and around the publishing industry for quite a while. What would you say is the single biggest change e-books have made to the industry?

DS: Power to the people. Absolutely. Ease of distribution and access would be a very close second, but there is no longer an island of people dictating what is published in America today. And that’s what it’s been in the past, right? You had to go to New York, you had to have some sort of entree in, you had to know somebody who knew somebody, you needed some sort of access to that very concentrated hold that scene had on what was published in America, and that isn’t true anymore. The digital revolution, all of this decentralization of American publishing has meant that many, many more people have access to it, whether that’s through technology or a stronger regional publishing scene in many places around the country, it’s decentralized, and by that definition, more people have access to it.

LQ: Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

DS: It’s probably both. There are really good parts to it and there are probably some more challenging parts to it. One of the more challenging parts is that the field is now really crowded. I can make a traffic analogy, since we’re both in California. Using those rough estimates of 350,000 books published a year is a lot to contend with. Double that, that’s really a lot to contend with. So what do these retailers do, what do the brick-and-mortar stores do, what do the reviewers do? That’s a huge issue for them, because if review space is shrinking, we’re losing a lot of our review spaces in newspapers and other places around the country, where do you go to hear about these books? And where can these books go to get some attention? I think that’s the single biggest issue that everybody contends with.

LQ: Right. You’ve said that “self publishing makes traditional publishing more difficult.” Is that part of it?

DS: That is absolutely part of it. But take away the “I’m a publisher in America” lament and just look at the concept of intellectual property. If I’m a writer and I’ve had some success and I’ve been traditionally published by large houses and I’m trying to sell my books and I’m trying to make a living, and there’s an influx of people with no real knowledge of the market and no publishing history and they’re putting their stuff out online for free or for a very low price, which may be a great marketing strategy for them, but at some point, we have to contend with the idea of the price of intellectual property. Why do we pay 99¢ for a song? It’s because Apple told us to. And then they told us that we had to pay $1.29. We were somewhat trained to do so. At some point, it’s the leaders in the field training the consumers for what they pay. If e-books now, thanks to the Department of Justice, are going to cost a certain amount, what does that mean for all of the other people just giving it away for free or for 99¢, or for $1.99, or for $2.99? At some point, all of this will have an impact for every writer in America.

The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable.

LQ: But don’t you think that those people who are selling their own e-books, giving them away for free, selling them for practically nothing, are kind of doing themselves a disservice?

DS: I don’t know. If that’s the way they get their foot in the door. Some people just have to take the long view. If I’m a writer and I don’t know what to do and I’m just selling my stuff for 99¢, and that works for the first couple books and I have a following of 30-, 40-, 50,000 people and a publisher notices that and gives me a traditional deal for a million dollars, then no, it didn’t hurt me. There are so many different experiences a writer can have, that it gets hard to make any kind of proclamation. That’s what it means to be decentralized. We’re all living in the Wild West right now because of all these changes and all these different ways to go. In the past, there was a path to publication. I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. I think there are five or ten or twenty paths now. It just depends on what you want. I stressed that point in my talk at Antioch. The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable. If I’m writing really cool zombie books and I want to get a really fast mass following, the self-published model might speak to me. But if I’m a literary writer with an MFA and good relationships and a beautiful piece of work and I want to be taken very seriously by the best reviewers in the land, I don’t know if the self-publishing model is going to help me. You need the curation and you need the support and the relationships and the legitimacy of a traditional publisher behind you.

LQ: Should a writer have an agent before submitting to a publisher? What does an agent provide you, the editor?

DS: Yes, yes, capital Y Yes! Especially for fiction. There are some publishers, probably very small publishers, who will still read what we call “unsolicited” material – material that is not agented – but to get to any of the big houses, to get to any of the bigger independents in this country, you still need a literary agent. There’s just too much material, and there’s no way that any kind of house can get through that if it was unagented. From a business point of view, you want an agent involved. You want them to negotiate your deal, you want them to deal with the contracts, you just want that service, so you don’t have to deal with it as a writer. It’s kind of like real estate. Whenever you see a sign that says “For Sale By Owner,” you think “Oh no. I wonder why.” Can you sell your own house? Sure you can. Absolutely. Do you want to do that? I don’t know – it’s probably easier to have an agent to handle all that for you. That’s what we counsel writers. Again, every single publisher has a website and they all have submission guidelines on their websites. Any writer looking to submit directly should check the submission guidelines. At Counterpoint, we cannot. We simply cannot, for fiction, take unsolicited material because we are getting a couple thousand fiction submissions a year that are agented and we try to read everything that comes in. We need agents involved to help with the curation and submission process.

LQ: So that’s what agents provide for you—that curation?

DS: Yes. And it’s also a partner in crime. The best thing an agent does is to be a matchmaker. It was true when I was in New York and it’s true today. An agent’s job is to guide the writer, to be the matchmaker, to say “I love your book and I love your style and I know five editors who also love this kind of style of writing, so I’m going to send it to them.”

An agent will also help protect your interests, defend your intellectual property and help guide you through the process too. Publishers both big and small are very busy. Having an agent there to help the process along is a really good thing.

LQ: It used to be that a writer would find an agent, hook up with a publisher and the three would co-exist in harmony until somebody died, but it seems now that publishing houses don’t have the same loyalty to their writers that they used to. I know writers who have an agent, they’re producing work, but every book is put out by a different publisher. Is that normal now?

DS: Maybe it’s the new normal. Again, there are so many different kinds of experiences; I don’t think we can make big, broad statements. Of course publishers are loyal to their authors, of course editors are loyal to their authors. If that wasn’t your first impetus, you probably wouldn’t be an editor. Yet, things happen. The makeup of houses change, what they can and can’t publish changes, so that’s probably where you see the movement. It’s difficult for writers today because at some of the larger houses it can be a numbers game, and what I mean by that is that if you’re a writer and you have a first book and it does okay, and you have a second book and it doesn’t do so great, it’s going to be really hard to make a case for why a publisher should continue with your third book. Of course numbers are important, they’re always going to be important. This is a for-profit venture, we’re all trying to run a business and keep everybody happy. At some point, you do have to have that numbers conversation. I wouldn’t say it’s a mark of disloyalty or some kind of mustache-twisting evil; it’s just that it becomes a complicated scenario. Any author who has a contract is the luckiest author in the world, and any author who has a good relationship with their editor and their agent and sees their book published well is the luckiest person in the world, because that doesn’t always happen.

LQ: You don’t even have a mustache.

DS: Not today, no.

LQ: Let’s talk for a minute about finding an agent. Every writer has been told to find an agent or a publisher by finding work that is like their own, but what does that mean? “Like” in terms of subject matter? Genre? Style? Voice?

DS: All of the above. Yes, it’s harder and yes, it’s complicated and crowded, but writers today, this generation of writers today has more information at their fingertips than any generation of writers that ever existed. Flannery O’Connor and all of those people, they couldn’t go online and Google and find access to agents and publishers. A big part of that is just the prospective writer being smart and savvy and doing their homework. I find prospective writers today don’t do that, and you need to. If my desire is to publish a collection of short stories, I need to know what are the five most successful collections from last year. You don’t need to go out and buy them, but you can go to your library or go online and read a little bit about them and read the actual stories and you can see what publishers were publishing. Who’s had success with that particular genre. All the publishers are there, available, because you can see who’s publishing the book; look in the acknowledgement sections of these books because very often the editor and the agent are thanked. That’s how you begin figuring out where you, the prospective writer, are going to fit on the bookshelf.

LQ: What do you do if the person that you most write like is either dead or publishing in another country?

DS: You should find better touchstones closer to home. If you think “most writers have never written anything like me,” that’s probably not true, sorry to say. Put your feet on the ground and do some really cold, hard searching, because you need some business savvy. The days when a writer could just lay on the fainting couch and work on their beautiful prose are long gone. Sorry, but they are. Get some real-world knowledge under your belt, because you’re going to need it if you want to publish your work.

LQ: When I interviewed Peter Riva, he said that there are no more editors like Bob Loomis (late of Random House). How has the role of editor changed since the heyday of big-house publishing?

DS: See the comment I just made about the fainting couch. Back in the day, you would find your editor, you perhaps might be in the middle of Central Park, clutching your beautiful pages in your ink-stained hands and an editor would appear in a handsome suit with an ascot and they would recognize your genius and they would whisk you away and take care of you and plan your career and you would be published by them forever. There was a great bit about that in a recent review of Boris Kachka’s book Hothouse, about Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where back in the day, Roger Straus and his minions would look after Susan Sontag’s apartment and they would pay her rent while she was out of the country and that kind of stuff, which is a little bit egregious. I don’t think that happens at any company in any industry anymore. Pensions are shrinking or falling by the wayside and you just don’t see that in American business anymore.

The role of the editor has expanded because the market is more complicated. There are more things pressing on us, there are more things we need to get done, there are more stresses on our time than ever before. All of that changes the role of the editor. My job is not only pen and paper, working on the author’s text. Of course that’s important, but there are other things we have to get done now to bring a book to the marketplace, in order for me to protect my author and protect our interests and do the best job publishing the work that we possibly can. So a lot of the complaints that “editors don’t edit anymore” come from that fact. I get nervous when people say that because your first impetus, why you got into it in the first place, is because you wanted to work with writers and you wanted to work on the prose and the style and all of that. And again, every experience can be so different. I can say that independent presses like Counterpoint pride themselves on the fact that authors still get that kind of old-school editorial experience – that’s why authors come to us. They don’t come to us because they want a huge advance so they can buy Porsches. Now, there are many wonderful editors at really big houses who still do that too, you just have to luck into finding them, and that’s what a good agent will do. If you’re the kind of writer who really, really wants that, then an agent is going to try to find that kind of editor for you.

LQ: A more handholding editor.

DS: Yes. A more hands-on, a more old-fashioned editor.

LQ: You talked about all of the other things that editors are doing now that they didn’t used to do. What should writers be doing right now, before their book is even finished, to give themselves a better chance of success?

DS: Learn about the marketplace. This is not a difficult thing to do. There is so much information online. There are free newsletters given by Publisher’s Weekly, which is the industry magazine; and Publisher’s Marketplace, that’ll send you Publisher’s Lunch; GalleyCat is a blog run by MediaBistro. All of these have free daily newsletters. They’ll send them to you; they’ll be waiting for you in your inbox. And you can just read something, because we’re all reading online now anyway, while you’re at lunch or on hold with a phone call, rather than read about celebrities or Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards. You should be reading about this.

LQ: What should we be reading for? What are we looking for in this?

DS: You’re reading about the business. What are publishers doing? What are the major online retailers doing? What does the Department of Justice ruling mean to your royalties. Just learning and, through osmosis, familiarizing yourself with the structure of the business. Then you start to read things like “Little, Brown just bought this.” “Harper Collins is doing this.” “There’s a new imprint here.” Just kind of general-knowledge learning. Don’t stress yourself out. Just read it as if you were reading about another planet that was just discovered–just begin there. There is no successful writer that is not also a successful reader. You need to read everything you can get your hands on. You don’t need to bankrupt yourself by buying books (although that would be a fine thing to do), read it online, check it out from the library–you need to know. So many times I go and visit MFA programs or I give talks where, inevitably, someone will stand up and say, “I’ve got a first novel. Do people care about first novels anymore?” And I’ll say, “Of course they do. Can you name me five successful first novels that were published last year?” “No, I can’t.” And that always dumbfounds me because if you want to participate in this business, how come you’re not reading about people who have succeeded at what you want to do? You absolutely should be doing that. You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

LQ: In addition to not doing basic market research, what other mistakes do you see writers making over and over?

DS: Going to the wrong people for help, which ties into not doing your homework. Time and time again, I will get queries from writers directly trying to get me interested in their fiction. It very clearly states on our website “We do not take unsolicited material for fiction.” They’ve wasted their time in writing to me, because I can’t help them. The company guidelines won’t let me help them. And I find that time and time again, new writers are going to people expecting help, and the person they’re trying to get to can’t help them. Similarly, when they query agents. If I’m writing a romance novel, I need to go to agents who represent romance novels and who have had success in that field. A constant complaint I hear from agents is “Why are they querying me for this? I don’t represent this kind of book.” Again, all the agencies have websites, and all agents on those websites put up submission guidelines for what they represent, and, more importantly, what they don’t represent. If I’m writing a cookbook, I’m not going to query agents who’ve never sold a cookbook before. That’s where so much of this traffic comes in. There are so many people doing that, and doing it wrong, and it just makes everything more crowded.

LQ: How important is it for a writer to be able to nail down what genre they’re writing in, because fiction is broad, and usually you want to narrow it down a little more. How narrow do you have to get that, or is the pitch about the story itself more important?

DS: I think they’re both important. It’s not like you need to become king of market research for publishing in order to start querying agents. But you need to have some sense of where you’re going to fit in on the bookshelf. Of course there are crossovers and of course there are breakouts, and a good agent and a good publisher will help you throughout the process refine your pitch, but you need to have a very basic awareness of that. If you’re writing a thriller about the FBI, you don’t need to go to the agent who just got three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize who are working with super literary material. You want to go to that great agent who just sold three FBI thrillers. This particularly becomes important with certain genres–mysteries or fantasy or sci-fi or romance or erotica. Agents are very clear about what kind of genres they will represent and what they won’t represent. By getting these agent names in books that are similar to yours, by doing some online research and going to these agent websites and reading their submission guidelines and seeing their client lists, you will start to get a sense of that. Say that, for example, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is your favorite book and you went on a solo canoe ride for three weeks and you want to write about it and what you learned from that experience. You go to Wild, you look in the acknowledgements, you see Cheryl’s agent is Jane, you go to Jane’s website and you see that she’s accepting submissions. There–you have a name. So then you send Jane a query. “Dear Jane, I’m a huge fan of Wild, the book really spoke to me. I’m working on a similar book.” That kind of tailored query means a lot more to her than if you said “Dear agent, I have a nonfiction book. Can you look at it?” No agent’s going to respond to that. Taking the time to tailor your query will set yours apart from the rest, and that’s what you want.

LQ: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

DS: In the immortal words of Captain Peter Quincy Taggart: Never give up, never surrender.

2012-02-19 20.06.21Lise Quintana is Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. She’s a current MFA student at Antioch University, LA, and her fiction has appeared in The Weekenders, Children, Churches & Daddies, and Willow Review. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel, so that she can have that person send it to Dan, which she obviously can’t do herself.

Too Old for War

Old Makatiku looked wearily upon the young Katanuku. A pillar of youth he was, standing more than two meters in height, with broad shoulders, a head full of shiny black hair, skin that was taunt and clear, and muscles that rippled like the palms in a tree. His shadow stretched out on the African earth like that of a giraffe. And from his position seated below in his thatched throne, Makatiku knew he looked old and weak and worn from a life lived fully.

That was me, Makatiku thought, staring up at the young shujaa warrior, forty years past. But I was taller, and even stronger, and I did not have this look of pity in my eyes.

“You must answer,” demanded Kantaku.

The council sat anxiously waiting. Makatiku glanced over at them. Among them were the elders and friends, and the many brave warriors he had fought alongside of in the internecine wars, all in their colorful ceremonial tunics.

If only there were a graceful way out, Makatiku thought.

He glanced back at the towering young Kantaku.

But there was none.

Every spear has two edges, and each side cuts with equal depth, he knew. If he agreed to the challenge, he would face a humiliating defeat. He was no match for a man one-third his age. After all his wonderful years ruling with dignity and judicious benevolence, having his face rubbed in the dirt now was something he could not bear. Is this a fit way to end it? The thought of it offended his soul. Yet if he refused, he would have to abdicate the throne. It was law.

Kantaku stood waiting. And behind him was his entourage of young Maasai warriors.

“Are you sleeping?” Kantaku asked impatiently.

“I am thinking.”

And then a pleasant thought came into Makatiku’s head, and small grin formed on his face. Could young arrogance be so foolish?

And when Makatiku did speak, everyone seemed a bit mystified by his confidence and by the cleverness in his eyes.

“I accept the challenge,” he spoke loudly. “It is a great tradition and it is the people’s right to see the challenge answered. Although I doubt that you are up to the task. I doubt that you or any of your young followers have the strength or the will, or the intelligence, to win such a match.”

A sigh came from the council, as well as all the villagers who were gathered around. Kantaku, too, seemed a bit surprised by Makatiku’s willingness to accept the challenge, but welcomed his words nonetheless.

“Okay then, let’s get on with it,” he said.

“There is one condition, however,” Makatiku added.

“Yes?”

“I would like to choose my own weapon.”

“Weapon?” Kantaku asked.

The young Maasai warriors standing behind Kantaku exchanged curious glances.

“Yes, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon in this case.”

Kantaku looked over at the council. It had been more that fifty years since a challenge for the throne had been decided by a fight with weapons, a fight to the death. The Kenyan and Tanzanian governments had long since outlawed the practice and tribal leaders throughout the Maasai Mara had come to accept the notion of a bloodless succession.

“Do you accept my request?” Makatiku asked.

“A request for weapons is evidence of your antiquity. You are an old man, stuck in old ways.”

“Nevertheless,” Makatiku said calmly. “It is in the book of laws, and has never been distorted. Though foreign governments have tried to rid us of our ways, the rules have never changed. It is the challenger’s choice of weapons. But in this case, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon.”

Kantaku glanced over at the council, expecting some form of intervention from them, but there was none.

“I know tradition,” he replied.

“Only women and politicians desire weaponless fights,” Makatiku said. “Though it is the warrior who chooses peace over war, it is also the warrior who chooses bloodshed over defeat and humiliation. Yes?” As Makatiku said this, he ran his eyes through the crowd of villagers. “And it is the warrior who accepts death over dishonor, even from a foe.”

“I know tradition,” he replied.

Kantaku remained silent. For nearly a minute he remained silent, and then he looked over at the council members and raised his chest high. “I accept, old man,” he said confidently.

Makatiku nodded his head, pleased.

And then there was the issue of an aged body, Makatiku thought. What an abomination it would be if no animal sought his meat! In all his years, he had seen it less than a dozen times. There was the remembrance of Old Nampushi, who had died of some terrible Western disease and had been left in the sun for the buzzards, but no buzzards came. And how a spotted hyena came by, sniffed his dead body and walked past it without even taking a simple bite. This will never do. A corpse rejected by scavengers was seen as having something wrong with it and was cause for great social disgrace.

He dropped his eyes down to the red dirt beneath him.

Nor was burial an option, he knew. It was harmful to the earth. To place a rotting corpse in the ground was to defile the earth!

“Also,” he then spoke, “I will need five kilos of ox fat and blood, placed in the care of my good friend Jakaya.”

Makatiku turned and looked over at his old friend who sat with the other elders on the high council.

Jakaya nodded his head.

Kantaku looked at Makatiku curiously.

“It is not for me,” Makatiku said.

Kantaku chuckled. “We will see who it is for, old man. Anything else?”

“Nothing.”

Kantaku signaled two young boys, who hurried away to the butchery to gather the five kilos of fat and blood.

“And the weapon you will choose?” Kantaku asked, his voice now conveying disgust.

“I would like to know the weapon you choose first. If that’s acceptable?”

“If it is your wish,” Kantaku said.

He looked around at all the villagers, knowing the anticipation was building.

“A long spear,” he said boldly.

The young warriors exchanged spirited words, voicing their pleasure at his choice.

A long spear was the ideal weapon for mortal combat between two men. Its long shaft enables a thrust from a great distance. Its barbed headpiece, once in, could not be retrieved, at least not without causing substantial additional damage. And when thrown properly, it could pierce the stretched cowhide of a Maasai shield.

“And you?”

“A simi.”

“A simi?”

“Yes, a simi,” Makatiku said firmly.

A lively discussion erupted, not only among the young warriors, but among the council members as well. A simi was not a weapon designed for warfare. It was a simple tribal knife with a blade not more than fifteen inches, used ritualistically or for skinning animals.

“This is silliness,” Kantaku said.

“It is the weapon I choose,” Makatiku replied.

Kantaku looked back at the warriors behind him. Then he glanced over at the council members. Makatiku sat quietly, joking with the idea of it in his head.

What form of trickery is this? Kantaku thought.

All his life he had been taught to be suspicious of gifts from adversaries, and he was wary of Makatiku now, of his deception and cunning. Weapon, a simi was not; yet skillful Makatiku was in the art of combat and killing. Kantaku’s father had told him all the stories: how Makatiku had overcome a group of five Kaputiei warriors by hiding in the dead, rotting corpse of a water buffalo, and how he sprung from the corpse with bow and arrows and had killed all of them. How he had once been chased into a steep canyon by a herd of crazed elephants, only to start an avalanche that crushed and killed most of them. His feats of bravery were legendary and his acts of cunning, something to be weary of. For Makatiku to choose a simi now, in a fight that would determine the end of his reign and perhaps the end of his life, surely there was some form of trickery behind it.

And he could throw a knife, Kantaku thought, further than the length of any long spear. And its two-sided blade was perfect for finding a place to stick after sailing end over end through the air.

Makatiku sat quietly in his rickety throne, waiting.

“And I will take a tall shield,” Kantaku said, unflinchingly, “along with my long spear.”

Again the warriors nodded their heads and voiced their approval.

“It is a wise choice,” was all Makatiku said.

A tall shield, two-thirds the length of one’s body, was capable of deflecting a barrage of arrows. It could easily deflect a single hand-thrown knife.

Despite his arrogance, that which comes along with youth, Makatiku was fond of Kantaku and tolerated his youthful ambitions. Of this new generation of warriors, a generation that Makatiku did not like or understand, with cell phones and a desire to live in cities, Kantaku stood apart. It was he who most cherished the traditional ways. And he who was most clever. The others were merely ‘warriors’ in name and appearance, Makatiku thought, who posed for photographs and dressed the part only to satisfy the expectations of the safari lodges.

It is not an easy thing, Makatiku thought, to make way for a new generation of warriors, some of whom had exchanged their spears for cricket bats and text books. It was a contradiction, he thought, to accept the new; a contradiction of all he was and all he knew, and of all that his father and grandfathers were and all that they knew.

But this one, perhaps, has a chance, he thought, watching Kantaku’s eyes, if he were forced to eat hyena. He noticed a digital watch on the wrist of one of the warriors. Ah! The New World! It is a pity that life must evolve, and change, and end. And that the flames of youth burn out so quickly. And standing way in the back was another young warrior wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, no doubt given to him by one of the safari tourists. He quickly removed the cap when he caught Makatiku’s eyes upon him.

Yes, too many changes have passed, Makatiku thought.

He had seen it all, the erosion of customs over many years, from one governmental program to another, each designed to strip his people of their traditional ways. And the unstoppable inflow of technology, like a giant dust storm of locusts that he could not keep out. Commercial cotton and synthetic clothing had long since replaced the traditional calf hide and sheep skin, and the beadwork was no longer made of stone or wood or ivory, but was now made of glass or plastic. He glanced down at the feet of the warriors and realized that half of them wore sandals soled with pieces of motorcycle tires, and one even wore a pair of Nikes.

And then came the digital age. It was all too much, this new world that invaded his land and swept through his people like a foreign disease. He recalled the electric pumps brought in by the new government to filter their water, and what happened when they broke and they had no water for three days because the unfiltered water now made them sick. How the doctors poisoned their children with injected medicines, making them ill for one week when they were otherwise well; how lion hunting was banned by the Kenyan government. What kind of obscenity is that! And yet fee-paying trophy hunters were granted permits to hunt lions under a new government plan to create a ‘wildlife corridor,’ which essentially evicted the tribes of his flesh in northern Tanzania. We cannot kill the lions to protect our herds, yet foreigners can hunt them for trophies? It was not a world that Makatiku liked, or wanted to be in.

“Bring two tall shields,” Kantaku said, motioning to a junior warrior.

The young warrior, a boy not more than fifteen years old, went off to gather the weapons, but Makatiku stopped him.

“Wait,” he said. “It is not my desire.”

Kantaku looked on, waiting.

“I would like a short shield,” Makatiku said.

The sound of snickering came from the villagers. Again he mocks me! Kantaku thought. He ran his eyes through the crowd, tightening his upper lip.

“Follow his wishes,” he said with disgust, and the boy hurried off to gather the weapons and shields.

“Anything else?”

“No. It is quite enough.”

Nothing more was said; the boy returned quickly with the simi, the long spear, and the two shields. And then it was time for Makatiku to rise from his thatched throne and face his young challenger. And he did so gloriously, but slowly, feeling the pains of his arthritic joints. He rose to a height equal to that of Kantaku, and despite his nearly sixty-two years, his shoulders were still broad and his muscles still lean and well-defined. He wore a kunga of red and blue, and pink cotton, which wrapped loosely around his trim waist and angled down over one shoulder, across his large, protruding chest. Everything about him symbolized tradition, the customs of old, the seniority of his rank, and the success of his reign; from his graying, long hair, woven in thinly braided strands that fell to the middle of his back to his many brightly-colored anklets, which numbered no less than ten. His earlobes were pierced and stretched in a manner reserved only for royalty, and then there was the symbolic beadwork that embellished his body, which told of his meritorious past, of a life lived long and fully.

The boy handed Makatiku the short knife and the small shield. Makatiku examined the knife, running his finger along the edge of it. It had a finely-honed metal blade and a wooden handle with a cowhide grip. Then he studied the small shield, flipping it over and looking at the face of it. It is correct, he thought. It bore the sirata of a red badge which signified great bravery in battle and was only permitted to be painted on the shields of the highest of chiefs. Still, it was a decorative piece at best, meant only to be hung outside one’s door to indicate one’s presence. Less than twenty inches in diameter, it was not designed for warfare.

The boy gave the long spear and the tall shield to Kantaku. The shield, made of stretched and hardened buffalo hide sewn to a wooden frame nearly cloaked his entire frame. The spear, made from the finest dark ebony wood, rose more than a meter above his head.

There was laughter among the villagers, and Kantaku realized how ridiculous it must have looked.

Makatiku smiled broadly and ran his eyes through the crowd. His considerable stature dwarfed the small shield and simi in scale, he knew; even more so than their actual size. He glanced over at the council members and nodded his head appreciatively. Then he raised the shield and knife high above his head to the applause of the villagers.

Kantaku waited for the applause to subside.

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

Makatiku stared at him. Could young arrogance really be so foolish? he thought. Then seeing the muscles on Kantaku’s chest tighten and his shoulders flex, Makatiku’s face became gaunt and serious. It is time!

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

He quickly squatted down into a combat stance, holding the small shield firmly in front of his chest and the short knife high and aggressively above his head.

Kantaku likewise firmed his stance, ducking low behind his large shield, raising his spear into a throwing position.

The two men stood there momentarily, opposite one another on a small mound of earth, the old and the new. The time for talk had ended. The differences between the traditional and modern were past them now, and Kantaku did not wait. He was certain Makatiku had a plan and would spring it upon him quickly if he gave him the chance.

He wielded his spear way back, holding it cocked high to the side of his head, and with perfect aim, not wanting to give Makatiku time to strike first, he thrust it forward with all his might.

At the same moment Kantaku released it, Makatiku dropped his shield and short knife to his side and pushed his chest forward. He stood there, poised and relaxed with his chest exposed, as if it were impenetrable to the spear.

The blade of the barred spearhead flashed in the morning sunlight. All the villagers looked on in wonderment as the spear soared through the air and hit him squarely in the chest, slicing through his flesh and bone before coming out his back.

For a perceptible instant, Makatiku remained upright, impaled by the spear. It was as though his body defied gravity, held high by the soul and the pride of a great chief. Then he dropped to the ground, dead.

The dazed villagers looked on in disbelief, as did Kantaku. The suddenness of it was shocking. Their great king, the fierce warrior who had fought and won so many battles had not even lifted a finger to fight. His natural ability to dodge and deflect, and to counterstrike, failed at the time he needed it most. Though he had out-maneuvered all enemies in the past, he had left them now, strangely, without a strategic plan.

Jakaya summoned the young warriors.

Mnakamata!” he said. “Take him.”

The spearhead was quickly removed. The shaft had snapped when Makatiku fell to the ground, making it easy to extract. The warriors gathered him up, and on Jakaya’s directions, carried him to a place outside the village, down near where the river flowed out onto the savannah. The five kilos of ox fat and blood were also brought down and set beside the chief’s body.

Enda!” Jakaya shouted to the young warriors. “Go! Go away!” And they did so, solemnly, without looking back.

Jakaya knelt down and took a moment to look over his fallen friend. Makatiku’s face was sullen and had the dark lines that come from oldness. His face was gray with all the signs of death, but his expression still revealed a regal presence. He was king, once more, Jakaya thought. And now has cut the umbilical cord between Heaven and Earth.

With a wooden ladle, Jakaya covered Makatiku’s body with the ox fat and blood. He covered every inch of it; making sure no place was left exposed. Then he sprinkled the body with beads of black, green, red, yellow and white, which mimicked the colour sequence seen in the animal life cycle. He added more white for the decade of peace he had brought to his tribe; blue for the colors of the waters which ran clean and fresh until the machines of government destroyed it; and more red for the warrior’s blood and bravery, which Makatiku had witnessed many times. A good death is its own reward.

“Come feast, little Oln’gojine,” Jakaya said. “Come taste the meat of a great warrior.”

Jakaya left, back to the village, to the cluster of mud houses where he hung Makatiku’s small red shield and his simi, outside his inkajijik. Then he went to join the others in the celebration of the new chief.

Though Katanuku sat in the thatched throne in full ceremonial dress, he found no joy in his heart. He had achieved the throne, but had not won a victory. Even in death, Makatiku mocked him. He laughs now, he thought. There, down by the river of life, he revels in laughter!

The coronation was quite subdued. Though all the villagers gathered for the festival, it was not full of song and dance like the great celebrations of the past.

“It was Makatiku who threw the spear,” one of the villagers said.

Katanuku looked down at him and quietly hung his head.

“Makatiku is still King,” another villager said.

Down by the river, Makatiku’s body lay in the hot African sun. All day it lay there; by late afternoon the tsetse flies had gathered, and the smell of the fermenting ox blood rose across the savannah. Before the sun had completely set, three spotted hyenas came across him. They encircled him and sniffed the earth around him, and the kunga that wrapped him. Their nostrils filled with the scent of human, but there was also the smell of the ox blood and fat. When they tasted the meat, they found it to be unique and flavorful. On through the night they feasted, gnawing down on the bone and flesh and stealing chunks from one another. By morning when the villagers returned, nothing remained of Makatiku but a stain on the earth.

Frank111Scozzari’s fiction has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Folio, The Nassau Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and The MacGuffin. Writing awards include National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three Pushcart Prize nominations.

The Call

Tonight I lie here, mostly awake, sometimes half-asleep, praying the phone doesn’t ring.

It’s the early ’90s. In my second year of college, I’m volunteering with the local women’s shelter. Tonight I’m covering the sexual assault help line. I usually cover domestic violence and have received a few calls on that line, but never on this one. I’ve been trained extensively and supposedly know what to do, but I never sleep on these nights. I just wait.

I don’t kid myself. I know that just because the phone doesn’t ring, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in trouble—it just means they aren’t calling for help, at least not on the phone. I lie here awake, staring at my digital clock, which now reads 12:15 a.m., two hours since I crawled into bed. The burning smell of kerosene still stings my nostrils from the space heater I shut off before feigning sleep.

I wonder how many girls or women are out there who at this moment should call, need to call, but can’t because they’re ashamed or feel unworthy of help. Then I doubt and demean myself with each thought: How can I help them? What can I say or do that will make a difference? I know the words I’m supposed to say by heart, I know the forms to fill out, the procedures to follow. How can I help them when I couldn’t help myself?

So I lie here and tremble, trying to convince myself it’s only the cold. But that’s not it. Yes, it is winter in Iowa and my piss-poorly insulated bedroom is directly above our garage. But it’s the fear and doubt contracting every muscle that’s making me shake, not the cold.

3:34 a.m. The phone rings, and it wakes me from the place where my mind has crept, that day almost ten years ago when I was sixteen, the place it goes on these nights, on many nights, even when I’m not on call. I answer on the first ring because I know it’s not a wrong number, even though I hope it is. I know the longer I lie here, the more time I have to remember my own call.

*     *     *

At the doctor’s office, the one where my mom worked and I would work a few years later while in college, I sat in the worn, orange polyester chair opposite the doctor’s composite-wood desk. The desk and I were surrounded by paneled walls and bookcases filled with medical textbooks and various anatomy models. I stared at the family photo on his desk: his slightly obese, mousy brown-haired housewife and his two dark-haired kids, all of them smiling. The boy looked exactly like his dark-haired, bespectacled father who sat across from me. All four looked so happy.

“Please call them—they can help you,” he said as he slid a piece of paper across his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They’re trained for just this kind of thing. You don’t have to press charges, but you need to have evidence in case you decide to take action against him at some point.”

Evidence? The good doctor obviously didn’t get it. There aren’t any bruises, at least none that can be seen. He didn’t have to drag me to his room; I went willingly. There may be fingerprints, but they’re in all the places I let him touch me. My clothes aren’t torn; they came off mostly by my own hand. There is no evidence.

I stared at the piece of paper, not touching it. The corner was oil-stained, probably from the sandwich he had eaten at lunch; there was the sharp odor of onions coming from a garbage can I couldn’t see.

I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to have to explain, again, what happened. I just wanted to go home and pretend everything was okay. Something I told myself I could do until I had to see him at school the next day.

The doctor reached across the desk, slid the paper back to his side and dialed the number (the one I would know by heart some day). He told the person who answered that there was a girl in trouble who needed their help.

Trouble. That’s exactly what it was. I had done something bad and now I would be punished.

“They’ll have someone waiting for you at the hospital. Good luck,” he said, as he guided me out his office door and down the hall toward the waiting room.

My mom, with her curly, dyed-red hair and big round glasses, was perched on the edge of her chair behind the glass pane of the reception office. I had called her from my friend’s house where I’d gone after leaving the boy’s house. She had told me to come to the office right away.

“Do you want me to go with you? I will. They can handle all this by themselves,” she said with a sweep of her arm over various insurance forms and patient charts.

“No. I’ll just go by myself.”

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move. She pounced on the pause.

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move.

“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m coming with you,” the tone of her voice insisted an argument would not be had. She was never a large woman, only about 5’4’’ and 120 pounds, but she looked massive to me at that moment, ready to take charge even though she was plunging into an unfamiliar world. She used to work at the hospital we were going to, so the location was familiar. But I was her only daughter and the only person she’d known in this “situation.”

As we got ready to go to the hospital, I watched her striding toward me from behind her glass-enclosed office, her big purse and white sweater secured over her arm like a shield and sword, I felt safe for the first time that afternoon.

She would tell me, years later in an email when I ask her about that day, “I wish I had been better with you, and I will always regret that.” But on that day when I was sixteen I didn’t know how much better she could possibly be.

*     *     *

“They have someone waiting down at Mercy,” the woman on the other end of the sexual assault line says to me. “I don’t know if she’ll talk to you or not. Call me when you get back.”

I put on the clothes I laid out especially for this (jeans and a sweater), as if they were a fancy dress and corsage for senior prom, and creep out my door, trying not to wake my brother in the next room. I tiptoe into my parents’ room and gently nudge my mom into a semi-state of consciousness.

“I got a call,” I say.

“Be careful,” she mutters, “and wake me when you get home.”

I put on my coat and gloves, and head out the front door, locking it behind me. The cold January night, or maybe rising panic, pulls the breath from my lungs. I get into my car and turn the key in the ignition, praying it won’t start. It does, so I sit there waiting for the car to warm up. (“Never drive a car with a cold engine,” my dad’s frequent admonishment resounds in my ears.) But the car is just fine—I’m the one stalling.

As I wait for the frost to melt from the windshield, I think about where I’m going and the girl waiting for me at the hospital.

I pull out of the driveway and inch up the street, convinced it’s because I’m a cautious driver. But what I want to do is race over every icy patch on the road and never make it to the hospital.

What am I going to say to her? I mean I know what I’m supposed to say to her, what I’ve been trained to say: “It will be all right. It wasn’t your fault. You aren’t to blame.” That doesn’t mean anything, and I know it.

I know she feels like shit already. I know she thinks it will never be all right. I know she thinks it was completely her fault and that she’s the only one to blame. What can I possibly say to her that will help? What can I tell her to make her believe that what matters most is that she survived, at least initially?

What did the woman say to me?

*     *     *

The rape crisis counselor was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. As she walked toward us, I could see she was a little younger than my mom and had short brownish hair, not unlike the color and style of my own. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved, yellow polo with the collar turned up.

When she reached us, she grasped my hands and looked into my eyes. We stood there for a moment, staring at each other.

“Are you okay?” she asked me in a near-whisper.

She didn’t ask the question like you’d ask a person you hadn’t seen in a while and could care less if you ever saw again (“Hi! How are you?”). She asked as if this obligatory question was more for my mom’s benefit than mine, like she already knew the answer but had to start somewhere.

Instead of saying “Yeah, I’m fine,” the standard reply, instead of telling her what I thought she wanted to hear because we were strangers and what do you say to someone when this has happened, I said “No” and started to cry.

I glanced up at her and saw that her brows were furrowed and her eyes squeezed shut. She stayed like that for a second or two, like she was preparing herself, and then she opened her eyes. She was crying too and pulled me into her arms, wrapping them around my bony teenage frame while my mine hung limp at my sides. And then, almost imperceptibly, she started rocking from side to side. Her gesture didn’t just comfort me—it gave me a sense that this embrace, this coming together of two strangers, was as much for her as it was for me.

A nurse approached us, a blur of white through my watery eyes. “It’s time. Come with me,” she said as she directed us into an exam room. She followed us in and shut the door.

“Have a seat on the table.”

She grabbed a clipboard and pen from the desk near the door. And then she began to ask the questions:

What happened?

Do you know him?

Did you have these clothes on?

Did he hit you or physically abuse you in any way?

Was there full penetration?

Was he wearing a condom?

Did he ejaculate?

Are you using any kind of birth control?

Did you urinate immediately after?

Did you wash, shower, bathe or douche?

 And with each answer I gave, she checked off the appropriate box on her form, never looking at me, apparently not even curious or concerned if I was the one giving the answers. I wanted to punch her in the face.

“Now you need to completely undress, put this gown on and lie down on the table. We’ll do the exam as soon as the doctor gets here.” I did as I was told.

A few minutes later there was a soft knock at the door and the doctor walked in. He glanced in my direction and gave a slight smile, the corners of his mouth flicking up. He reached into a drawer and grabbed paper bags, labels and a sealed package of sliver instruments.

“OK, miss, please lie back on the table and put your feet in the stirrups,” he said. “We’ll be done soon.”

And then he raped me all over again.

*     *     *

At the hospital, I walk through the emergency-room doors. There is a nurse sitting at the triage desk; she appears to be the only one here tonight. I can’t see her face—her head is drooping and all I can see is the top of her white, double-pointed cap reminding me of the ears of an albino cat. I clear my throat and she slowly lifts her head, her lazy eyelids look like raised roller shades.

“Hi. I’m from the women’s shelter. I’m here to see the girl who was brought in a little while ago.”

“They just started the exam. It shouldn’t be much longer, and then you can go in and talk to her,” she says as she lowers her head to stare at the paperwork on the desk.

“Does she have anyone in there with her now, a friend or a relative?”

“No. She came in alone—she’s by herself.”

“Can you please let her know I’m here and ask her if she’d like me to be with her?”

She slowly raises her head again and glares at me. I want to punch this nurse, too. I open my mouth to repeat what I said, just in case she didn’t hear me. Then she pushes away from the desk, the wheels of her chair squeaking as they roll across the pristine white floor. She stands and plods off in the direction of the exam room.

As I wait for her to come back, two police officers walk down the hall toward me. I stare at the ground as they pass. They pause a few feet from me and I hear a bit of their conversation.

“She came in here ’bout half an hour ago saying someone raped her. I think it was her boyfriend or some guy she’s dating. She didn’t seem too upset, though. She wasn’t crying or anything.”

“Yeah, kinda makes you wonder. You know, you push a guy too far, get him all worked up, and you’re just asking for trouble. God, I hope we’re not here all night.”

“Yeah, me too.”

*     *     *

“Lady, I understand you’re with the sexual assault place and all that, but we really need to question her alone. We tend to get more truthful answers when there aren’t a bunch of people standing around listening to the alleged victim’s responses,” the officer said to the woman.

“Officer, you get the answers you want from these ‘alleged victims’ because there is no one in the room with them. You either question her while I’m here or you don’t question her at all,” the counselor retorted, her arms bound tight across her chest.

After what just happened at the hands of the doctor, I couldn’t imagine anything worse was possible. While I laid there with my legs spread open, he pulled out strands of my pubic hair and used a huge plastic syringe to collect the boy’s cum. He bagged and marked my clothes as evidence and drew blood to test for STDs and pregnancy.

But worse was possible.

But worse was possible.

While I sat there wearing nothing but a crinkled paper hospital gown and a starched sheet tossed across my battered bottom half, these officers made me regurgitate every detail of the afternoon. They asked me the same questions the nurse had, only they weren’t as sympathetic. Instead of the nurse’s indifference, they flung the questions at me with an accusatory tone and a fixed idea of who did what. They didn’t see me as someone’s daughter or girlfriend, but as a girl who led a guy on, a girl who asked for trouble.

“I’m sorry young lady, but you’re going to have to try and stop crying. I’m having a hard time understanding you,” one of the cops said a few minutes into questioning. I’m going to have to stop crying. When? When is that supposed to happen? After I can’t see his familiar face looming over me anymore, his eyes and mind shut tight to what he was doing to me? After I can longer hear him telling me how sorry he was, but he couldn’t stand me talking about his best friend anymore? After I can no longer see his smug smile as he asked me through the open window of my car if he can call me later, while I frantically try to get the key in the ignition? Just when am I supposed to stop crying?

*     *     *

I’m sitting in the lobby of the emergency room watching some stupid late-night talk show when the nurse comes out of the exam room and walks over to me.

“She doesn’t want anyone in there with her, now or later,” she says, her hands fixed defiantly on her wide, white hips. “She doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else. She just wants to be left alone.”

I look at her face, void of any care or sympathy, the product of years of seeing broken, bloody bodies represented only by a name on a chart or a tag on a toe. An angry blush rises to my face as I ball my fists.

“Please give her this information…it has the crisis line number in it,” I say, as I shove a pamphlet toward her. “Tell her if she needs to talk, anytime, to give me a call.”

She swipes the pamphlet from my hands, turns and stomps away. I walk out the door and drive home. Once there, I slip into my parents’ room.

“I’m back,” I whisper to my mom.

“Mmm, good, honey. Everything go OK?” she asks, her voice syrupy with sleep, my dad snuffling beside her.

“Yeah, just fine. ’Night.”

“’Night, honey. See you in the morning.”

Back in my room, I call the crisis line coordinator and tell her about my unsuccessful trip. I change into my sweats and collapse on the bed, wrenching the blankets up around my neck.

Random, angry thoughts careen through my head holding back the ones I know are waiting to take their place, like eager understudies: It still smells like goddamn kerosene in here—it’s probably in the curtains and sheets. Why do I have to be stuck in the room above the freezing garage? Why can’t I change the stupid purple-flowered wallpaper? I’m not twelve years old anymore. I’m a grown woman in college, and I’m still living with my parents. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here. Only two more semesters, and I’m gone.

And then I start to cry. I cry because I couldn’t do anything for the girl tonight and because she wouldn’t let me. I cry for the woman at the hospital who held me together and helped me walk forward into the world of “after.” I cry for all the other women who can’t find the courage to dial the phone, tell a friend, or forgive themselves. And then I close my eyes and wait for another call.

*     *     *

People say girls and women (and boys and men) are “survivors” of rape. But years after the “incident” happened, I had convinced myself it wasn’t that bad because I knew the person who did it to me—it wasn’t a stranger who jumped out of the bushes on a dark night. It wasn’t that bad because he didn’t really hurt me; I didn’t have any visible injuries. It wasn’t that bad because I wasn’t a virgin at the time. What was there to “survive”? People survived a lot worse.

But then I remembered what it was like to see him at school after it happened. Every day.

I remembered what it was like to hear from other girls that he’d done the same thing to them and to hear from my best friend that he’d tried the same thing with her—when we were in 6th grade, years before what he did to me.

I remembered feeling like I was the bad, dirty one and having that confirmed every day in school when people would whisper “slut” as I walked by.

I remembered having to see him at our five-year class reunion, trying to avoid him later at the ten and fifteen-years and the conscious choice I made never to attend another reunion.

I remembered what happened with my first husband. One time when we were wrestling around on the floor of my bedroom, he pinned my arms above my head. I started screaming and crying, telling him to stop, to get off me. I curled up in a ball and sobbed. I stayed that way for more than an hour. He walked out because he didn’t know what to do.

And after all that remembering, “survival” didn’t seem like such a strong word any more.

There was another day in my senior year of high school, when I was riding the bus to a choir performance. The boy was sitting directly behind me with his hand resting on the back of my seat. When the bus went over a bump, his hand would “accidentally” brush up against my shoulder. I had just heard from another person what he had done to them. I turned around in my seat, looked directly at him and said, “I know what you did. I know how many people you did it to. If I ever hear that you’ve done it to anyone else, I’ll go to the police.” His normally pale face went even paler, almost translucent. That was quickly replaced by a tomato color that started from his nose and seeped out to the edges of his hairline and under his jaw. He swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

And when I thought about that day and how victorious I felt even though I knew then that I would probably never go to the police, I knew I had survived something.

*     *     *

Years later in my early forties, I was sorting through books on the shelves in my home library and I thought about him again. Normally when he came to my mind it was in flashes—his fleecy blond hair and blank blue eyes; the way he sauntered down the halls at school; how the window above his bed funneled a broad blade of sunlight down the length of his half-naked body, smothering mine. And all I’d feel was rage, at what he did and what I didn’t do. But this time, something different came to my mind.

His dad.

Physically, they were complete opposites: The boy was about 6’2’’ and 200 pounds, all muscle, more like a man than a high school kid. His dad was barely 5’9’’ and had a dense, mangy beard and the gut of a woman about to give birth. But what I remembered most was how he treated his son.

His son played many sports and played them well. But no matter how well the son did, he could never please his dad. I remembered his dad would regularly stand on the sidelines and bellow at him, calling him horrible things I couldn’t imagine hearing in my own home. One time the boy drifted off the football field after the night’s defeat with his head hanging almost as low as the helmet in his hand. His dad barreled toward him and struck him hard on the top of his head. The boy cowered.

He didn’t look so powerful then.

Through this memory, I saw him as I never had. Remembering him in this new way way, I accepted one, plain fact: He was as much a victim as he’d made me into, on that afternoon years ago. And as victims often do, he fixated on the smaller, silent ones, snatching power however he could—just never in his own home.

Until the day I was there.

Kelly RobertsKelly Roberts received a BA in English from the University of Iowa. After years of writing creative nonfiction, she’s decided to give fiction a go. Kelly lives in Waukee, Iowa with her adoring husband Chris, clever daughter Amelia and rescued wire fox terrier Maisy. By day she works in Human Resources, which provides her with more writing material than she could ever hope for. Cooking, reading and popping bubble wrap—one bubble, one row at a time—are her passions. This is her first published piece, and she is grateful.

Tongues, speaking in

In our house, I wake to the random rolling of R’s
in a sing-song voice, mom’s voice, a terse
and rapid repetition of th-th-th-th.

In our house, for her, this is prayer
and if I go to see about breakfast
and her eyes are closed and she’s wailing
the answer is cereal. Do not worry.
I can tell which box says Cheerios
though I can’t yet read. Holy O’s
from mom and the brief chorus of dry
cereal in a ceramic bowl. She’s asking for surreal.

In our house, dad is gone for weeks practicing war
and when he comes home, he lets me unlace
his heavy black army boots, lines the living room
rug with empty brown beer bottles by morning.

In our house, dad stays in bed on Sundays,
is angry with me for letting Jesus save me.
Mom will want me to pray soon with tongues
nonsensical to all but God, syllables that make

noise like words. But I know for what she is praying.
It’s something like the small life preserver
floating in the milk of my spoon.

Holm_photoMelissa Holm holds an MFA in poetry from The University of Mississippi. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia where she works as the Research Project Coordinator for The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett Project at Emory University. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Journal, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. II: Mississippi and she read her poetic tweet on NPR’s Tell Me More. Melissa is also an avid runner and enjoys racing in several road races a year with her husband, Matt.

 

Heart of the City

Cliff’s meaty fingers hunt and jab through his report on Arthur Ashe—eyes darting between computer screen and handwritten paper—while Starship’s We Built This City plays on 106.7.

“Yes, sir,” Cliff says in his gravelly voice, tapping his foot. He jabs a letter, glances at the screen, jabs another, double-checks to make sure this machine isn’t on a coffee break. The letters appear as commanded, but Cliff is skeptical. He mutters something about “a white’s man’s contraption.”

“Playing the race card while listening to Starship?” I ask.

He shoots me a quick look, then stabs two more letters like stray peas on a plate.

“Damn right,” he says. “Damn right. But don’t matter anyhow. All comes back to us. We laid the foundation for this shit.”

Who counts the money
underneath the bar?
Who rides the wrecking ball
into our guitars?

“You must be very proud, Cliff.”

He shakes his head and continues typing. Slowly, surely, letter by letter, he finishes the first sentence: Can you imagine being born down south and wanting to be a tennis player—that’s crazy!

“I like this station,” he says. “Songs that won’t embarrass you in front of your boss.” He repeats the station’s catch phrase nearly every time we meet, even on days when we don’t listen to the radio. Each time he laughs, an inside joke he has with himself. Maybe he’s thinking about his old bosses, big white foremen in orange reflector vests pointing down at the asphalt, Cliff following them with a jackhammer. Or perhaps he’s chuckling over the idea of having any boss at all, something he finds very amusing now that he’s retired.

The door creaks open and an officer pokes his well-manicured head into the room.

“Count time, gentlemen.”

I nod and smile. “Thanks.” Cliff searches for the “F” key. He takes his time.

“Save this for me, huh?” He exhales, slaps the tops of his thighs and stands up. “Okay. I’ll be seeing ya.”

He walks out of the room, the officer behind him whistling the song’s final bars.

*     *     *

The first time I asked Cliff if he wanted to take my class, he didn’t know what to make of me.

“I’m sixty-five years old, man.”

“Never too old to read, Cliff.” I was new, and sometimes I felt like I was reciting motivational phrases I’d read on posters.

He glanced down at my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“This the one with Jack Nicholson?”

“Well,” I said, smiling. “Sort of.”

He exhaled. “Either it is or it ain’t.”

“No, yeah. It is.”

He nodded and looked around the room. Up at the ceiling, followed the white cinderblocks down to the floor and scuffed his sneakers on the linoleum. He glanced at the paper snowflakes the previous teacher hung above the dry erase board and grinned.

“All right. Sign me up.”

*     *     *

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too, as if he alone walked up to an abandoned lot with a canvas bag of tools in one hand, lunchbox in the other. Sometimes in the middle of class I’ll see him look around the room and nod. Or he’ll run his hands over the cinderblocks, fingertips reading history in the bumpy lead paint.

After forty-six years as a construction worker, Cliff sees the world as his job site. A place where things need doing. Plans designed and executed. He’s methodical and precise and despises laziness. His body is permanent muscle. Calluses shaped like hands. A round protrusion on his bald head that other students call his “devil horn.”  Piss off C and he’ll sic his devil horn on ya. He looks ridiculous crammed into the wooden chair with the desk attached—all the students do, but especially Cliff—his hulking frame and thick legs engulfing the chair so it looks like he’s squatting in the center of the room, a comma-shaped slice of wood pressed to his side. He holds a book as if it were just another tool, something to swat a fly or level a shaky workbench.

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too

“I built this fuckin’ place,” he tells William, a new student.

“We know, Killa. We know,” says Carlos, Cliff’s sidekick.

“Yeah, but he don’t know.”

“Well, now he knows.”

“Shiiit,” William says. “This one job you no need to finish, brotha.”

*     *     *

I don’t ask Cliff why he’s here. I never ask any of my students about their crimes. It’s not so much off limits as it is bad taste. Like talking about the cause of death at a funeral. What difference does it make? We’re here now.

He alludes to domestic abuse, his wife that just would not shut up, and the other students nod in agreement. One day a crazy wife, next a crazy girlfriend. First the wife is cheating, then a prostitute steals Cliff’s wallet at a Motel 6.  He tells me I couldn’t handle a black woman. Too much work. You ain’t got the skills for the job.

Cliff also tells me stories about buried treasure he dug up on job sites all around Boston. Gold coins, pearls, rubies, diamonds. Secret riches everywhere. When we watch a documentary on Ancient Rome, camera panning across crumbling columns, Cliff stands up and shouts: It’s right there, man! Underneath all that shit. The narrator describes a sharp tool called a dolabra, which workers used to carve out blocks for the city’s defensive wall. A foreman once drove a dolabra into the chest of one of his workers for sleeping on the job. But Cliff doesn’t seem to hear any of this. He leans in close to the screen, still squinting for gold.

Cliff had to turn over all his treasure to the foremen. The way he describes them, his foremen were loony old prospectors with scraggly beards and short cigars. Beneath Emerson College, he tells me, while they were constructing the new freshman dormitories, they found pirate bones.

“No bullshit. You wouldn’t believe what’s buried underneath this city.”

*     *     *

The House of Correction is a ten-story building crowned in concertina wire and an American flag that, on windy days, clangs and pops like a docked sailboat. The HOC is on the edge of the South End, a rich part of town where young couples sleep in piano factories converted into luxury lofts. Construction began in the late 1980s and finished on Christmas Day, 1991. The old House of Correction was on Deer Island in the Boston Harbor—a looming Shawshank of a building that seemed to have always been there, as if it rose from the ocean like volcanic rock. Though the facility on Deer Island wasn’t built until the early 1800s, the island has been home to prisoners since the 1600s, when the Colonial government shipped thousands of Native Americans off the mainland and onto the Harbor Islands. Many remained there until their death.

So when Cliff tells me Deer Island was haunted because it was built on an Indian burial ground—that some nights the snow drifting through his barred window formed an angry white face—I start thinking about college students sleeping above pirate bones.

*     *     *

Cliff also built Pine Street Inn, the homeless shelter around the corner from the HOC, where, in a few months, he’ll stand in line for a room. At night, he’ll buy a blowjob in the alley, lean back against the stone wall, calf muscles flexing against the chipped foundation.

“Unless the wife takes me back.”

He built the methadone clinic. The Food Bank. The Prudential Building. The Copley Mall. The Gucci and French Connection stores on Newbury Street. Hynes Convention Center. The parking garage beneath the Common. The Hancock Building. The Tobin Bridge.

He was part of the Big Dig, which re-routed Interstate 93, Boston’s central artery, into a four-mile tunnel through the heart of the city. Cliff is reluctant to give details about the job, a blemish on his resume. If he could do it all over again, he never would have worked on such a costly, incompetent, crooked site. Never would have used substandard materials—shoddy concrete, cheap rebar.

“And for the record, I was in prison when the tunnel collapsed on that broad.” He wipes his hands together then holds his palms up by his sides. “That’s one thing the city can’t pin on me.”

*     *     *

When Cliff blames the White Man, somehow it’s clear he’s not talking about me. It’s more like all his problems—his wife and back aches and court cases—were hollow outlines in his mind and needed a color. Other times, when we’re listening to the radio and working on the computer, his tough facade falls, brick by brick, letter by letter, and he talks about his life in no color at all.

Two dozen years ago, his breakfast of champions was a hardboiled egg and a glass of Wild Irish Rose. Narragansett tallboys rattled in his lunchbox. As he walked to work, he sipped a flask of Jack Daniels. After lunch, his eyelids heavy, he scaled the HOC’s iron skeleton. He stood on the fifth floor beam, hardhat tucked under one arm, swaying with the breeze. The city stretched out below. He watched the traffic stream down Massachusetts Avenue until the cars and trucks vanished behind the buildings. He crammed his hardhat between his knees and put his palms on either side of The Prudential Building. Like a vise, he slowly pressed his palms together until the building disappeared.

And then he was on his back, in a giant pile of sand, blinking up at an empty sky.

*     *     *

For a few weeks after the fall, he didn’t drink. He didn’t visit prostitutes. He came home early to his wife. He tells me this one day when we’re alone, his back to the computer screen’s blinking cursor, radio off. He talks in a slow, gruff voice like a statue learning to speak. A droplet of sweat lingers on his bald head, then rolls over the lump above his temple.

“I was even cookin’ her dinner, man. Baked macaroni with ham. Steak and mashed potatoes. Pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and corn on the cob. From scratch.”

He describes his wife as a tall, lean woman, sharp features like carved mahogany. A tennis player from the projects. Cliff was hypnotized by her side-to-side movements, her little white skirt, how she waved her racket like a wand. They met when Cliff was eighteen, a year before his first construction job. She was sixteen. They made love for the first time in an abandoned lot between two vacant buildings. Cliff tucked a paint-splattered drop cloth underneath his arm and when they came to the lot’s chained link fence, he peeled back a loose section and guided her inside. A year later, they married.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had to work on her. Wear her down some. ‘Member what I told you ‘bout black women.”

*     *     *

The Friday before Christmas, we watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I always have perfect attendance on movie days; the room is full of men all shapes and sizes, ages and races in baggy tan jumpsuits. Cliff sits in the front row, legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, hands behind his head. He snaps his fingers and calls me “maestro” and asks if he could trouble me for a large popcorn. And a root beer.

“Can it, Killa,” Carlos says. “Chief’s about to bust loose.”

Cliff stares at Carlos as the music swells, then turns to watch Chief raise the marble water fountain over his head. Higher. Higher. The first uncertain step and the fountain tips forward and Chief’s huge body and the momentum of the heavy fountain and the iron screen and glass burst onto an open field and in the end it’s gravity that flings man and marble back into the world. The other patients bolt up in their beds and cheer and holler and pound clenched fists against the air.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says.

A slow drum beat guides Chief toward Canada. Carlos leans forward and squeezes Cliff’s bicep.

“Damn, yo. You been liftin’ water fountains or what?”

The class laughs as the credits roll.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says. He leans over and gives the white cinderblocks two solid smacks. “Like to see him try that here.”

“You proud’a this place, Killa?” Carlos asks, eyes narrowing. The clock ticks behind its metal cage.

Cliff leans back in his seat, points his copy of Cuckoo’s Nest at Carlos. “Damn right.” He paints a long arc in the air with his book. “All of it.”

The officer pokes his head into the silent room and shouts “Count time, gentleman!” The students quickly file out, whispering “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” Cliff stands and stretches, lingers in a wide, Papa-Bear yawn, then struts up to my desk. He glances at my folder, peeks under a few stray papers. I take out the picture of Arthur Ashe I printed to hang up with his report.

“There he is,” Cliff says, grinning.

I stand up on a chair with a thumbtack in my hand and hold the picture above the dry-erase board, where the paper snowflakes once were.

“That ain’t straight,” Cliff says.

I reach higher and adjust the paper. “How’s that?”

Cliff shakes his head. “Little to the left.”

The officer shouts Cliff’s name from the hallway.

“Good?”

“To the right.”

I turn to see him holding his thumbs and pointer fingers like a field goal post.

“Perfect, maestro.”

Daries photoAnthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN/New England Discovery Prize in Nonfiction and was recently awarded a gold medal at Foreword Magazine’s 2012 Book of the Year Awards. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Solstice, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He has taught literacy and creative writing in the Massachusetts Correctional System and is currently the Director of the Writing Program at Regis College.

Nix

the sky rolls by
acres & acres

of blue
wind swept
sheets

dappled by
skeletal wisp
teased cotton
clouds

clumsy footed
down here I
collect the teeth
lost on
my last bet

never was a good gambler
golden days behind me

the cold whistles
through dark pines

brooding on my ass

gumming
old wounds

in my nest of
orchids
racing forms
& glass

Menesini_photoJohn Thomas Menesini is the author of The Last Great Glass Meat Million (Six Gallery Press 2003), e pit ap h (Six Gallery Press 2007) and endo: Poems and Sketches 2007 – 2011 (Six Gallery Press 2011). He also appeared in the anthology Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House 2006). John lives among the filth and throng of Manhattan.

Spotlight: Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown / Anne Boleyn’s Cravings / Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Anne Boleyn’s Purple Gown

The first time Henry left a purple bruise,
I sent a message to the velvet merchant.
His hands, the king’s, had touched me tenderly
at the start, although his fingers were always rough.
The calluses from riding brushed across
my cheek, my wrists, the hollow of my throat.
He stroked my fingers, called me sweetheart, tugged
my kirtle’s laces, begged to pull them loose
that he might kiss my pair of pretty doves.
I played the maiden, pushed him away with no,
it is a sin, my lord, till we are wed.
I said this between gasps, as my own hands
clutched like hooks at Henry’s doublet and sleeves.
Those early years were full yes and no.

Then Henry grew furious with no.
Impatient with Wolsey, the Pope, and woman’s virtue,
he seized whatever must belong to him,
and his fingers, heavy with jeweled rings, left marks
like violet half-moons on my olive skin.
I studied these new constellations, saw
the shape of Millie Blount in treason’s flames,
and ordered a velvet gown of Tyrian purple.
So expensive was the cloth—dyed
from tiny Byzantine snails, crushed
by thousands to color a foresleeve’s silken trim—
that it was said to be the shade of kings.
And queens. Katherine still lived, and I
was thirty and not yet crowned, but I wore the gown
with bell-shaped sleeves embroidered in golden thread.
Let them grumble. The court and King would learn
to value true purple, its mortal cost.


Anne Boleyn’s Cravings

When Wolsey wanted needling, I sighed
and said how pleasant it would be
to have, at Lent, some fresh carp
or trout from the Cardinal’s famous ponds
at York Place. A fortnight later,
I dined on fishes stuffed with parsley.

Later, when Wolsey was fallen and dead
and I was married to the king,
I cupped my belly and bragged to the court
that I had a terrible craving for apples.

In Whitehall Palace, that once was York Place,
I sat in Henry’s lap and begged
for cherries, grapes, roasted boar
to help our quickening sons grow strong.
I was a hungry woman then.
The world knew my appetites.


Anne Boleyn’s Coronation

Hideous and beautiful, the dragon
reared its copper head above the Thames,
like St. George’s foe breaching the lake
to gobble up the sacrificial maid.
The serpent’s golden scales shone like oil.
Children cried for their mothers, who lay fainting
at its horrid belching flames, its wings that beat
the brimstone-reeking smoke, its ruby eyes
that glittered like the very coals of hell.

Or so they told me. I did not see the dragon,
leading the water procession on its wherry.
My royal barge, that once was Katherine’s,
floated at the rear, behind the engines
and costumed wild men, behind the mayor
and fireworks, slow as dripping honey.
A wind raised gooseflesh on my pale chest,
though it was May, and nearly provoked tears
from blowing smoke. Finally, at the Tower,
the king, swollen with pride, escorted me
to our private rooms. From those lush apartments
he’d watched the pageant, which he described to me
as rich beyond compare, the cheering crowds
overjoyed to welcome their new queen.
There we briefly rested, briefly kissed
before another gout of ceremony—
banquets, dances, dubbing a herd of knights,
more tableaux vivant of gods and muses,
the Virgin Mary cradling her son.
On Whit Sunday, my belly big before me,
I strode barefoot into Westminster.
St. Edward’s crown, overburdened with jewels,
weighed nearly seven pounds upon my head.
Those lovely Tower rooms, done up so well
in tapestries and freshly shining paint,
I occupied again not three years later.
I wept to see again those velvet cushions,
the colored glass, the feather bed that seemed
it had awaited my return, knowing
I would sleep there just a little longer.
I hated each expensive mockery
my eyes fell upon, until I closed them.
And yet, a golden dragon in the Thames.
That miracle, I wish I could have seen.

A Little Give

Adele buried her nose right below his armpit and inhaled deeply. She never liked someone so much that she wanted to know them by smell, but with James she wanted him in every sense.

“Guess what?” he asked her.

“What?”

“I found a house for us.”

As soon as Adele got pregnant, she moved into his studio, a converted one car garage. The kitchen and bedroom were marked only by lines on the floor. It was small, but there was enough room for her to lie down on the ground to do back exercises. Everything in the house was made of wood, so it felt like a cabin. It had vaulted ceilings with skylights, track lighting and hardwood floors.

“You did?”

“Yeah—it’s amazing. You’ve got to see it.”

“How many rooms?”

James sat up and pulled a T-shirt on.

“Let’s go see it.”

Adele tucked the covers up around her body. Recently, her routine had been go to work, come home, throw up, eat dinner, have sex, and go to bed.

“I’m ready for bed now,” she admitted.

“It’s eight o’clock,” he moaned. “The fresh air will be good for you.”

It probably wasn’t healthy to spend so much time inside. All the pregnancy books asserted that expectant mothers should get plenty of exercise. Adele’s work didn’t allow for much exercise or fresh air. She didn’t like answering phones at the title company where she worked. Ever since she became pregnant, the halogen lights and the smell of the air conditioning, or something in the carpet at the office, or the overly sterile smell, the that-doesn’t-smell-clean-but- actually-smells-like-dirty-toxic-bleach kind of smell, had started to bother her.

From nine to five, the air in the office entered her nostrils. It filled her lungs, altering her cellular structure, and infecting her blood. When she first got to work it wasn’t bad. It was a little tic in her nose. As the day wore on, the feeling intensified, and around 11 a.m., the first wave of nausea hit, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the air simultaneously crushed her lungs and expanded all of her internal organs. Once home, she would rush to the bathroom and vomit, expelling the toxins consumed all day long in the building.

She hoped the title company would move, or maybe when she had the baby, the feeling would go away. It was definitely some type of gestational allergy. She hadn’t told James about this allergic reaction to work because she didn’t want to worry him. She didn’t want him to suggest that she quit her job. James was a caterer, and she knew his income was not enough for her to stay at home, but he was also very protective of the baby, and Adele knew he would have opinions about it. When in truth, the baby was fine. She was probably just being paranoid.

Adele acquiesced, and although it felt late, she spotted the “For Sale” sign by 8:30 p.m., when they arrived at the lot.

“For sale?”

“Yeah, it’s incredible. Just wait till you see it,” he said.

“We can’t just go in. Is it empty?”

“No one lives there. I was just here earlier today.”

“You just went in?”

“Yep.”

James opened the door and jumped out of the car. He ran around to the other side and before Adele could think about what they were doing, he was taking her hand, leading her out into the dark night. There was a petite chain link fence around the yard. About 100 yards back was an enormous tree that was lit by the half-moon in the sky.

“I was here earlier. It’s really fine,” James reassured her. “I met the seller.”

Adele knew from work how complicated these things could be with agents and showings. Buying a house was a serious legal agreement, which was why it was considered unethical for a seller to bring in their own buyer. It disrupts the character of the deal if people start making promises they can’t keep.

“What did he say?”

“He just showed me the place.”

James opened the small gate to the yard. There was a path that made a gentle bend toward the center where the tree stood, silhouetted in the dark night.

“Is the house way back here?”

“Up,” he said.

“What?”

“Up here.”

As they reached the end of the path, he pointed up, and perched in the tree was a house. Not a child’s tree house, but a real house with stucco and windows and a roof, right in the middle of the tree. Rising along the trunk was a thick wooden ladder. James reached under one of the steps, flipped an unseen switch, and suddenly the ladder and the front of the house burst into light.

James was glowing.

“Isn’t this amazing!”

“What is this?”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

“Amazing.”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

James laughed. “You are going to love it!”

Then he started climbing up the ladder.

“Is it safe?”

“Of course it’s safe, don’t be ridiculous,” he called down to her.

Adele watched as James quickly ascended the ladder. She was nervous to go up while she was pregnant. She set her hand on the step in front of her and tested the bottom step with her foot. She bounced up and down on it for a bit, took a deep breath and looked up to James who had just entered the top and turned the lights on in the house. He stared down at her from a perfect square in the bottom of the house at the top of the ladder. His face was at the heart of the secret entrance.

“You’ve got to see this, babe.”

Adele put all her weight down, and pushed herself up. Each step sent her heart racing. She hadn’t been up a tree since she was a kid, and she couldn’t remember the last time she was on a ladder. It seemed like there were at least 50 rungs. As she took each step, she gripped the edges harder with her hands.

When she made it up and inside, she was panting. She looked around the room and saw wall to wall carpeting. Everything was painted a soft buttercup color. The entrance opened into the living room, and there was a couch and a TV. It looked like a normal living room, only in the center there was an enormous tree trunk and the ceiling had a hole where a sturdy branch broke out toward the unseen sky.

“This is crazy.”

“Isn’t it awesome? “

“Unbelievable.”

“He’s only asking $65,000 because they don’t have permits for any of this!”

“Is it safe?”

“Yeah, it’s totally safe,” he said, and to prove it he started jumping. The entire house shook. The floorboards went up and down, the windows rattled against the pressure. Adele’s stomach dropped, and a pain seized in her chest, she screamed sharply. Tears sprung to her eyes when she fell to the floor.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried.

“Holy shit, babe,” James said.

He dropped down next to her and gathered her in his arms.

“I want to get down. I need to get out of here.”

James tightened his grip on her.

“I’m sorry. No, no, no. That was stupid. We’re totally safe. The house has a little give—that’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? This is not safe!”

“This is totally safe.”

“We’re in a fucking tree. This is not safe.”

“We’re in a tree and it is totally fucking safe.”

Adele pulled away from him. James’ stare was ardent and unrelenting. She looked around the room. There were cracks in the walls, but all the furniture and décor were definitely from Ikea. She took a deep breath and felt the floorboards under her legs. She rocked her weight back and forth from hip to hip. The floor did not give with her weight.

“I’m okay.”

“I won’t jump like that again.”

Adele laughed. Then James laughed. She collapsed against him. They sat holding each other, and for the moment, Adele forgot she was in a tree. It felt like she was on the floor of any old little house with cute furniture.

“This place is really amazing.”

“There are no permits so basically, we could get this place—“

“You’re kidding right?”

“I’m totally serious.”

“You want us to live in a tree?” Adele looked around at the retro furniture. “You want us to live here—with a baby?”

James nodded his head with the most expectant optimism she had ever seen on his face.

“This is a once in a life time opportunity.”

“I could barely get up the ladder. How will I get up here with a baby?”

“We’ll make a real staircase.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs of an apartment. Plenty of families live in apartments.”

“Um…this is a tree.”

“I know.”

“It’s growing, right now. Right as we sit here. What if that branch keeps growing and pulls the wall apart?” she asked, gesturing to the tree branching out of the ceiling.

“Then we’d fix it.”

“There’s no laundry and dryer. How will I get the groceries up with a baby?”

“We’ll make a pulley system. It’s going to be great!”

“Like the Swiss Family Robinson.”

“Isn’t it great?”

“I can’t do this. I cannot do this.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

James sighed, loudly, but he didn’t take his arms away from her. She wondered what she would do if he released her. Would she leave without him? She really wanted to.

“How would we pay for this?”

“Your tax return money!”

“That’s money we are going to use for when the baby’s born. That’s my money.”

“Oh that’s your money?”

Adele nodded her head.

“What does that mean, ‘that’s my money’?”

“I mean that’s my money, and I’m not going to use it to have my baby in a tree house. I want to take off of work to be with the baby. And I don’t want to be with the baby here, in a tree.”

“If we live here, you could quit your job. Our payment will be less, and we’ll have more room. We’ll have a yard and everything.”

James pressed his body against her. “I’m telling you that this can work, just like this. Us in here. It is different, but not really. It’s really the same. It’s the same as being down there.”

“It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe. There’s ground and things are built on it, and they don’t bounce, and they don’t move around or shake or rattle. It’s not the same.”

It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe.

James pushed her up lightly so they were facing each other on the thick carpet. Adele could see the entrance just a few feet away. It seemed so far and so close at the same time. She wanted to relax and just be in the house on the floor with James, but she could not. She kept staring at the square exit, dreading how difficult it was going to be to get down the ladder. She imagined dangling her legs over the edge, searching for the first step. She pictured clinging to the rungs as she moved her heavy weight downward, wondering at each new step if something would snap. Coming up was hard enough, but getting down was going to be much more difficult.

“I want to go to bed,” she said.

“There’s a bedroom here.”

“I want to go to our bed.”

“Okay. You hate it. Let’s go,” James said, and pushed away from her to stand up. He held his hands out to her briskly and didn’t look at her as he helped her up.

“I’ll help you down,” he said, as though he had been privy to her thoughts. “Do you want to check out the bedroom before we go?”

Adele shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine,” he relented. “Let’s just go.”

She had never seen James look like that before. His shoulders slumped over a little, and he hung his head low.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s look at it.”

He lifted his head to her with a smile.

“It’s really cute,” he said.

They walked through the narrow hallway that wrapped around the tree trunk, and on the other side were two small bedrooms. One room was painted pale blue. Stenciled on the walls were purple animals and monster sketches. The master bedroom was painted a dark gray. There was even a master bath attached to it with a claw foot tub, and around it the walls were made of polished corrugated steel.

There was a queen sized bed that had a black frame and a red comforter that was neatly tucked into place. The pillow cases were gray and black.

“Does the house come with all this furniture?”

“I don’t know. We can ask.”

Adele walked over to the bed. She sat on the edge and bounced up and down on it. James went to the window and opened it. Outside the branches of the trees framed the glass, but the stars were still visible through the breaks in the leaves. A breeze immediately filled the room, and like a dried leaf Adele fell over on the bed.

James sat down and put his hand on her back. The pressure was something different than when he touched her before. She buried her face into the mattress and let the warmth of his hand soften the tense muscles along her spine. She liked the bedroom better. There was no center hole. No entrance that reminded her that at any moment they could fall through the floor. Everything was stylish and closed in tight. It looked secure. It was almost romantic, suspended in the night’s sky. But she couldn’t stop the thought that kept rising like a bubble in her mind, again and again, over and over. She couldn’t stop picturing and planning exactly how she was going to get back down.

Hilary LTHilary Tellesen is a writer, dramaturg and performer. Her work has been published in Watershed, Educational Insights, and in a collaborative publication in re:home from the 1078 Art Gallery. She teaches a variety of writing classes at Butte-Glenn Community College and California State University, Chico.

An Axe to Grind

I held no illusions about my place or function in this world. I relished routine because it was order and order was perfection. Repetition was perfection. Every day I got better and better at what I did. I took comfort in that steady swing—the to and fro in the day-to-day travel from home to the woods and back again. I was content. Perhaps I was too content.

I began most days sharp, with an edge so fine that any knife would envy me. A quick sojourn into the woods found me chopping down all manner of trees: sequoias, redwoods, oak, and ash if I was lucky, though there wasn’t much of that around these days, thanks to the man’s clear cutting. I welcomed a sapling or two to pick my teeth. The afternoon was spent hewing these fallen trunks, taking off branches and bark. I did what I could until the evening came. I rested on the grindstone, was polished, and then tucked into my corner to await the morning. I was ever steady, ever sharp, and ever ready for the calloused hand that passed me down from grandfather to father to son. The work was constant, and I was perfect for the job.

The work of cutting trees has always suited me. Trees are tough, but I’m much tougher. There is nothing quite like that first bite when the combined shock of two opposing forces connect –my energy against a tree’s inertia. Waves pulsate through my entire being and though my handle, a ripple of strength uniting me with the man’s flesh in the reverberation. I absorbed the impact; the hands gripped around me tightened. I could feel the latent throb of his pulse against my side; hear his teeth grinding together as I sliced through the bark into the heart of the tree. We struggled as one. I shaped his will and guided his purpose. It may have been a bit grand to consider, but I challenge anyone to argue the possibilities of what can be done when the right tool for the job is found. Maybe now you can begin to imagine my horror when this all changed—when the order of my existence splintered into chaos. Better to have been abandoned and left to rust into uselessness.

The light that day through the cabin windows was pale, scanty across the plank floor and hardwood table. The shadows arched away as my owner walked from his room. He made breakfast: black coffee, toast with butter, bacon and eggs, as usual. The smell of bacon grease teased around me as the cast-iron pan sizzled and steamed in its efforts. Show off. Most kitchen pans are. He packed a lunch of ham and cheese on wheat bread. I was lifted from my quiet nook, slung across his shoulder, and we picked our way across the trails on a particularly cloudy day. We had not gone far—about a hundred strides or so—when a shrill scream pierced through the copse of trees. It was a tortured, high-pitched wail that made the man halt in his tracks. He hurried from our intended destination, running along a new trail toward the other human settlements. He carried me away with him, despite my attempts to slip from his sweating fingers.

We sloughed through the mud and pushed through trees and bushes to an old woman’s house, his nearest neighbor for some miles. I’d seen her once or twice when the man saw fit for me to chop wood for her. She had tried several times to marry the man to her granddaughter. The man called out to her with no response. He tried the door of her log cabin, but it was locked. For a moment I was intrigued, and maybe even excited, as he lifted me. I’d never tried chopping down a house, but it looked to be made from sturdy enough wood. It wasn’t so different from a tree. The shape was a challenge, flat and tall; thin by comparison to what I usually fell into. It was too easy. One or two lunges and I was through. Not much of a meal. After the door, I wondered if we would start on the frame and walls—those looked to be more of a challenge.

I was sickened when we entered instead. Forged for the open woods and used to the sunlight bouncing off my silvery edges—I had nothing in sight to chop now. It was dank inside and smelled of sweat and old candy—like the kind crusted under someone’s boot. The wood underneath the blue paint was even rotted in some spots. My skills were already wasted on that door. Now what purpose could I serve? I could tell the man was distressed. He was breathing faster, swinging me around uselessly, and calling out to the old woman. The man walked through the upended furniture. I noticed the toppled table had some burl veneers. That could be interesting; but I was pulled away as he went into the back bedroom.

There was a big wolf with a distended belly writhing on the ground. He was dressed a little oddly for a wolf, wearing a printed dress. Honestly, I didn’t often care to socialize with the animate. I did once take an interest in a spatula, but it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, yellow is a trying color, but more so when up against gray fur and trimmed in lace like a doily. No one asked me what I thought of the situation. The man at my handle felt I was once again the right tool for the job, and with one great swing, my steel crossed the wolf’s stomach. I felt the immediate warmth of blood tarnish my face as I sliced through fur and skin, muscle to sinew and finally through bone, propelled by the strength of that one swing. I hit the floor, my entire body subsumed into the mass of oozing wolf. The creature’s limbs flopped away uselessly. As I was hefted once more, I could see the path of destruction I had wrought so effortlessly, severing the soft half of its lower body. Only one swing and I did all that destruction? It was so easy! In the midst of my cut was an exposed gelatinous bubble with hands pushing against it. I’m not going back in there! I protested. I was dirty enough but the man swung anyway, though not as hard as before and—splash. Digestive juices covered me and my polished wooden handle. It was abhorrent and interesting.

The man seemed well pleased, and helped the naked old woman and her equally naked granddaughter out of the stomach that had trapped them. I’m happy they’re alive—I’m an axe with some sensitivity, but frankly, at that moment, I would have much rather been cleaned. And I was, eventually, after some talk and muffins, sewing stones into the wolf, and rolling him into the pond. Events I had no part in. The man settled to sleep easily enough when we returned home, but I was fitful. Not even the grindstone had calmed my nerves. I was awake, retracing the events of the day, again and again. I thought I was powerful felling trees. It was a cleaner business by comparison, but there was something about that wolf. It may have been its softness. The man had those soft bits, too. I’d never plunged into something so quick, so readily. The wolf had pulsed and beat with life. I felt it when I cleaved its wet heart in two. There was no resistance to my edge. The same swing, to and fro; home and back again. I wasn’t so sure anymore. In the moment it had all been rather traumatic, but now it felt liberating. I wasn’t some one-trick tool! I could chop other things, and I could chop them well.

So you see, the next day, I had another problem.

I woke up and should have been ready for the forest and wood, but I found my tastes had changed. The man can’t understand, as my edges are as sharp as ever, if not sharper. I turned from the bark and the trunk. I turned from his hand, pulling him this time toward the village and his neighbors with new strength. I don’t want the heartwood of the trees. I’ve grown a taste for different hearts.

Jm HeadshotJ.M. Venturini received an MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design in 2006 and earned a BFA in Classics and Classical Civilizations in 2004 from Loyola Marymount University. Her book reviews have been published in the New Review of Literature. She currently teaches English and Semiotics in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department at Otis College of Art and Design.

Renaming the Roads

The unit we replaced had named the roads in our AO after porn stars. We enjoyed those first mission briefings probably a little too much: So we’ll turn on Ariel, the lieutenant would say, then go down on Jenna… We came to know every curve and blind spot and pothole of Jasmine, Paige, Britney and the rest. Months passed before the regimental commander caught wind of our beloved roads, renamed them for colors and created new map overlays. Toward the end of our tour, some of us got to remembering Hemi and that medic from Dragon Company who died when an IED took off the back of the Bradley clean, leaving the tracks intact, emptiness where the crew compartment had been. It was here, Bennett said, tapping the map, right here on Yellow. Chief cursed and walked off lighting a Miami. He came back after a while having dug up one of the old porn star-laden overlays, oriented it correctly over Bennett’s map and the argument was finally settled: It may be Yellow to yous, Chief said before sucking on his cigarette, but it’s Olivia to me.

photo 2-2

Brock Jones holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Wyoming and is currently a PhD candidate in the Literature and Creative Writing program at the University of Utah. He served three tours of duty in Iraq for the U.S. Army. Brock lives in Kaysville, Utah, with his wife and daughter.

Anchor Bright

If only there were more people, you think.

There are plenty of people, actually. But they aren’t here. They’re back on the ground, back on Earth. Back where everything used to be; back in the time before. Back where everything is dead, gone—almost forgotten.

This is your new home now, you know.

*     *     *

Your father had been a general. Not only a general—he had been a government representative, an authority figure. Back when everything had been normal, he had had power and you were blessed with everything good and you knew that you should be proud of your father, because you were.

You remember the time it ended. The time it all went to hell, fires everywhere. Poison, repugnant odors, and toxins filling your nostrils. Your mother: screaming. Your own face was hot, stinging. Your father: silent.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

Your father had been the one who protected you, who protected everyone. He had led you, at the age of eight, and all other Survivors to an underground compound. He had shown them the hovercraft that had been made in emergency of an international crisis, where enough food was supplied to last forever, and there were so many resources here that the country’s national debt suddenly made sense. He had brought you and everyone else in, shielded you from the world, made sure you were safe.

Your father had protected you. But now he is gone.

*     *     *

You’re shocked when he says your name like he cares about you, like he wants you. Why should he want you? He hates you. He said that he hates you.

Thomas, he says, like he loves you.

You try to glare and try to fight his gaze, even though you know you are breaking down on the inside. Gabriel, you say back, what do you think you’re doing?

Come on, he says. You know I’m right.

And you think he might be talking about this, talking about the way all of you are living, the way all of you go day by day, in and out. But you know that there is more to his words than he says, and he knows that you know.

*     *     *

You are God.

You may as well be. After your father had guided everyone to safety, he had been the leader, in charge of everyone and everything. But you had seen how much damage he had taken before he realized that it was hopeless to try and rescue your mother. You knew that he would not last long.

Eight years pass and he moves on. You are their new leader.

You have not been held with such responsibility before. But your father had told you, told you before he left that you would be taking his power. And you had told him, but no, Daddy,

I can’t take this from you! He had laughed and said, yes you can, son, Thomas. I know you can.

And since then, you have tried your best. You have enforced new regulations, made new protocols, because since you had come into power, some of the Survivors thought you were too young, too weak, couldn’t control them, and couldn’t control anything.

You want to prove them wrong, so everything becomes stricter, and though you are not on Earth, this is your new home for now. This is everyone’s new home.

And you rule them.

*     *     *

You’re frustrated when he grabs your hand and takes you away. You ignore the tingles on your wrist from where his skin is touching yours, and you ignore the way he seems so confident.

His frame is tall and thin but he has muscle, you see—probably from rounds at the makeshift gym—and you’re sort of struck in awe, even though you don’t want to be, even though you don’t want to be hypnotized. Not by him. He is a Rebel, you remind yourself, he is not worth your time, you are in charge here, you created all of this—this world—this place—him.

He leads you to a small dark room of guns and swords and knives and you open your mouth to ask him about it but he turns before you can speak.

Thomas, he says to you. I know what you’re doing is wrong. You know what you’re doing is wrong.

You think that he may try to be scolding you, but he’s not, because he’s right. You stick your chin out and refuse to have shame.

I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you snarl. Stop it with this nonsense. Take me back before I’m forced to imprison you.

You won’t do that, Gabriel says to you, and this time you have to bow your head down because no, you would not. You can’t imprison Gabriel. Even if he’s a Rebel, even if he’s horribly corrupted, even if everything he says and does and thinks is wrong. He is Gabriel. You cannot limit him.

Come on,Thomas, he says, and you refuse to think.

*     *     *

The Scientists had been Survivors as well. They had been normal scientists before, doctors back on Earth, and in these twenty-five years not all of them had fared well. Many of them suffered from the chemicals that had destroyed all the living things, and everyone knew that their time was coming soon, if it had not come yet.

The women here have struggled to reproduce, because there aren’t as many women as there are men, and the only ones who can help them with childbirth are the Scientists. But most are too busy with their research and the experiments that only a few have had the time to assist the women. Many have died in child labor and the population is weaning down.

The role of the Scientists is to figure out the state of the Earth below. Since many are starting to crumble away, there are new Scientists being trained, those who had survived and those who had been born here have never known life outside of this giant metal contraption.

You feel sorry for anyone who is born here, because they may never know anything other than control, daily life, structure. They will never know freedom.

*     *     *

And so it doesn’t take you by surprise when he pulls you in and presses his lips against yours, and you pull away immediately, disgusted. You try to see him in the dark.

What the fuck was that, you spit. You wipe your mouth on your sleeve, even though you know it’s rude.

Gabriel doesn’t seem bothered at all. In fact, he’s smiling, one of those smiles that you don’t want to know what’s behind it. You know exactly what that is, he says, and then he adds, you know it was inevitable.

N-No, it fucking wasn’t! you say. How horrible, you think, if anyone were to find out.

If anyone were to discover that the Leader is having an affair with a Rebel.

You knew he had been looking at you like that for a while now, since you had associated with each other, since that day in the Dining Hall when you had wrenched him out of the fight because he had been an idiot and you scolded him and shouted at him and punished him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since he said he hated you, and you hated him, but you let him go because you could not bring yourself to punish him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since, when he tried to pick fights and get himself into more trouble because he wanted to see you.

You knew you had been looking at him like that whenever you pushed him into your office and yelled at him and threatened him and kissed him—

*     *     *

The world had disappeared because of poison.

It had been a toxic gas, residue of flames that had been entwined with nuclear waste. Even when the fires had died out, the chemicals were still roaming the Earth, burning everything in its path, lingering there like cockroaches on a territory that was never theirs. Now there’s nothing, nothing left of the past, not a single vestige of what had been.

The world had disappeared because of poison.

You can’t remember anything anymore. You can’t remember the greenness of grass, or the changing colors of the leaves. You can’t remember the warm baked bread, or the cold sweet popsicles that you’d eat by the dozen on hot summer days. You can’t remember the soft, cold snow, or the lights that had been strewn up in holiday celebrations (there are no holidays anymore.) You can’t remember the rain falling from the sky, because there is no rain anymore, there is no ceiling. There is only metal, and there is only temperature.

The Scientists are trying to find a way to live again, to coexist with the poison. But they never go outside. They stay in the weapons room (where no one goes anyways) and do their tests from here, because otherwise they will disintegrate. You would know. You have seen it happen multiple times, before your very eyes.

*     *     *

Your mouth collides with his and your teeth clack horribly together, but you don’t care. He pushes you against the cold hard wall, his fingers between your lapels and to the bottom of your shirt.

Fuck, you say. Gabriel, fuck you.

I know, he whispers. You can almost see the grin in his eyes, not on his face.

Clothes shred and he groans, you groan, and you both swear as he slides up against you. You can feel every inch of his skin, all the heat in his body, in this closed cramped up space, and you’d be distracted if he wasn’t touching you in certain places, as if he knows all your weakness, as if he knows all your strengths, as he knows all of you—

You shudder and he whispers, Thomas, Thomas, into your ear and you shudder again and cry out and he is so hot, so hot against you. You wish you weren’t enjoying this, but you are.

*     *     *

You hate yourself. You know you are ruthless, you are cruel, and sometimes you are even stupid. You know that what you’re doing is wrong, but it is right, to do what is wrong. It is what has been given over to you, like a ticking time bomb gift. You can’t take it back. You have to keep it.

You have to do what is expected of you. What your father expected of you.

You hadn’t hated it really, at first. You may have even enjoyed it. You may have been awed at the way people stared at you, watched you as if you were something divine. You may have made quite silly, cruel rules to see if they would work, and you were delighted when they did (you never took those rules back.) You may have exercised your authority on others by calling them out on things that didn’t matter, on things they never did, on things that were your fault—

You had been young and you made mistakes.

But as you became older, you realized the responsibility that your power has and you stopped. You tried to be reasonable. You tried to make everything better. You tried to make the Survivors love you. You tried to make the Born love you. But it was too late.

*     *     *

He leans in to kiss you again, and you’ve always hated that word, kiss, because it implies more than what it does. It is only the meeting of lips, you think, of mouths, or of lips on other parts, like the cheek or the forehead. And you don’t think there’s anything special about kissing, significant, because you’ve had women before and you’ve kissed them, kissed them in places that aren’t supposed to be kissed, you’ve done things with them just because you can—

But this is Gabriel and this doesn’t feel like kissing. This feels like coming together. This feels like becoming. This feels like becoming one.

He knocks you over, a little, as you continue on with your little torrid affair that not even your best General knows about. He’s over your body and his hands are on either side of your torso and you’re giving in now, like you’re always giving in, because you always protest and he always wins you over and you both go on your ways after this as Leader and Rebel, but right now you are Gabriel and Thomas.

He leans against you a little bit harder and you feel something underneath your thigh.

*     *     *

You still make mistakes, and even though you try to make up for your mistakes in the past, it is too late. Not long after seven years of your reign, the Rebellions have started and some of the Survivors and some of the Born too, despite being children, rise up and try to go against you. Try to overthrow you.

You refuse it, though, because you know all the secrets, and they know you know all the secrets, so they can’t put anything against you. But they can protest. They can shout. They can scream. They can cause riots. They can turn over tables and ruin everything in this compound hovercraft.

But when they do, you just punish them, let them go back to their measly little lives, and all the Guards and Generals watch them, waiting for them to step another toe out of line. And they will. They’ll do all they can to stop your authority, to try to make everything perfect in their own hands, even if it is at their own mortal expense, even if you know everything they say, they plan, they want, because you have more than enough ears everywhere.

So you know they cannot rebel without you, take over without you. They have to find a way to use you, to control you.

And you try to refuse it.

*     *     *

If only there were more people, you think.

You don’t need to be told the population demographics to know that everything is wearing away. That one day, you will all perish. That one day, you will all be gone. That one day, there will be nothing, nothing but gas and land and emptiness.

But there is no hope.

You have never believed in a God, but you wish you could right now. You wish that somehow this will last. You wish that somehow, everything will turn out to be okay, to be perfect.

If only there were more people, life would go on. But there is no hope. You, your Generals, and your Scientists know this.

And one day, so will everyone else.

*     *     *

You wish that somehow, you and Gabriel would—

*     *     *

Men burst in at the wrong time and they look wide-eyed at you and Gabriel and you think, Oh no, and not a proper amount of curse words can describe how you’re feeling right now. You and Gabriel look up, and it’s like you can hear his thoughts. Your heart and his are one because you’re both thinking the same thing, that you’re fucked, you’re completely and utterly fucked and they came in here just to find you, and—

The floor slides beneath you and you realize you’re falling, you’re falling and the darkness suddenly becomes lighter at the bottom. There’s a gap that’s getting bigger and bigger, like a white bright square hole at the bottom of the ocean—

There are hands beneath your armpits and they pluck you up without strain because you are their leader, you are supposed to live—but you’re not aware of it anymore because you see Gabriel still sliding, sliding down the floor like it’s a ramp and he’s struggling, struggling to get up—

Close the door! one of your Generals shouts, and you snap back into reality. Close the door, goddammit! He’s yelling to one of the other Generals, who runs to the entrance of the weapons room and is about to press a button—

No! Gabriel shouts, and you see that he’s reaching out to you—is the floor forever, is it never stopping?—and he shouts at you, Thomas, Thomas, come on!—Come—!

Your breath hitches in your throat and you want to yell back, Gabriel, Gabriel, GABRIEL! and just keep going on, keep going on like a mantra of his name will stop him from sliding, will stop him from bringing you back. And the Generals stop suddenly, because they’re looking at you, and you’re looking at Gabriel and Gabriel is looking at you, waiting in the last seconds of his life for you to make a decision. You do nothing. You say nothing.

And his body burns into nothing.

*     *     *

A General clears his throat. Well then, he says, that was dramatic. They close the floor door and it rises back up, and you see the button on it which you had accidentally sat upon.

They lead you out, help you out of the weapons room, and you pretend that your shirt isn’t clumsily buttoned, that your collar isn’t half open, and that you don’t look like a disheveled mess, from fear or shock or love. You pretend that you are not weak. You pretend that you have not lost.

*     *     *

When the Generals and the Scientists and everyone asks you about what happened, you tell them that Gabriel assaulted you, and you had purposefully stepped on the button that would open to the burning world. You tell them that he had been a Rebel, that there was no way you would have had an affair with him, loved him.

The Rebellions die down after that; you suppose they are afraid of you. You suppose that they realize that you are more ruthless and heartless than you had been before. You suppose that Gabriel, to them, like he was to you, had been a beacon, a light, a fire.

*     *     *

And for you, everything ends.

Alice Zhu attends the University of Iowa. She enjoys the smell of clean clothes, perfect games of Solitaire, and the occasional tickle fight. Too many tickle fights will make her angry.

Up Ahead

Asphalt meets gravel like
a mountain birthing a river,
an alarm clock. A truck
lugs shaking crates,
the bed secure as boulders
smoothed from running
engine parts across three
states: mountains, desert,
water. The path plays
a georgic game, plows
mud divots. A recent storm
set traps for anyone who slows
emboldened into pastures
long wizened and settles
down to watch the restless
cattle lift their heads, stuck
like a dusk-sun on a canvas,
wet rust in the Arizona distance.

PetrieMark Petrie’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackheart Magazine, Winter Tangerine Review, Geist, SNReview, Booth and other journals. He is the winner of the Academy of American Poets/Andrea Saunders Gereighty 2012 Poetry Award, as well as the 2nd Annual Geist Erasure Poetry Contest. He lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he is a doctoral student and University Fellow in English Literature/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana. You can find links to his work and he can be reached at markpoetrie.wordpress.com.

Halve This

Since a man in a car over a
centerline changed what
we mean by sister

your eyes are ashes in my palm.

I can only think of your
hair now, the red of our father

as a girl I wanted to put
my hands in its clouds.

That man we shared, half sister
you knew a father of him, I knew
he loved Popov,

and when I toast you
tonight, something
cloudless in the good glass
I’ll think how

when cut, you and me,
we run clear.

Glazier1Stephanie Glazier’s poems appear in the Iraq Literary Review, Calyx and Foothill. She was a semi-finalist in the 2012 “Discovery” Boston Review Poetry Contest and a 2011 Lambda Fellow in poetry. She is the host of “Public Poetry Announcements,” a weekly poetry segment on WKAR in East Lansing, MI. She holds an MFA from Antioch University LA.

birdie fly, birdie stay

when voices hush, the night lies down,
tucks itself under a bulky plaid quilt.

you’re wrapped in sleep, snoring lightly,
as coco saunters in from the rain, meows,

disappears behind an armchair.
i get up from bed, move hastily about the

room like a thief, stuffing a sweater, a scarf,
two nectarines into a rucksack.

5:56 a.m., a cab beeps impatiently outside.

my hand on the doorknob, my legs straddling
the doorway, i pause to hear you sleep-talk:

birdie fly, birdie stay… birdie, don’t leave…

there are reasons to why we all come and go.

i’m not the best version of myself.

the commotion in my head loses epic battles.

the broken in my body needs repair.

i’ve been searching for nutrient and light—
a nest to escape from the november rain.

sorry for shutting the door, for leaving the key
under the welcome mat, for not saying goodbye,

for coming and going like those women who
talk of michelangelo.

Chau_photoHa Kiet Chau is a Chinese-Vietnamese American writer from Northern California. She teaches art and literature in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poems have appeared in Sierra Nevada Review, Off the Coast, Third Wednesday and Columbia College Literary Journal. She was also nominated for Best New Poets (Ploughshares 2011) and Best of the Net (Flutter Poetry Journal 2012). Her chapbook, Woman, Come Undone, is forthcoming from Mouthfeel Press. http://hapoetryblog.tumblr.com/

 

Dear Melody

The stage too can be a disguise. The light catches
the glittered bow in your hair and the auditorium

is all sparkle, no shadow. But everyone knows that
shadow is where the living happens. Where loss cuts

its teeth on our lungs. The acupuncturist who lives
down the street says our lungs are organs of grief:

If we slice them open we will find years of damp
growth, fiddleheads rooting themselves around

the bronchioles. Is this why we find it so difficult
to breathe when bad news comes: your mother

disappeared like a nightlight snapping off; the air
thickened around you. Now you curl up each night

under a quilt she loved, sneak a length of flannel
from beneath the mattress. This is the first secret

you’ve ever kept, her favorite pajama pants slipped
out of the dresser before your dad forced himself

to take inventory of his sadness. Her scent is long
gone but you are still grateful. Tonight your mouth

opens on stage, one more set of crooked teeth.
You sing a pop song with everyone else but inside

your lungs are dark rooms filled with ferns.

Bunting PhotoRachel Bunting lives and writes in Southern New Jersey between the Delaware River and the Pine Barrens. Her poems can be found in online and print journals including Weave Magazine, PANK and Linebreak. She is currently at work on a full-length manuscript. Her roller derby name, if she played, would be The Hammer Fist.

Translate Me to Another World

“With strangers in your line?”
– Marina Tsvetaeva, from “New Year’s Letter”

I.
Into and across
my words must travel,
yet they stop, then mix up
within each other. I want
a spare, clean line – I am
so warm and so thirsty.

II.
You come from a place
that is different from my place.
Something I slip on my tongue
makes me realize this. Words, yes,
but deeper than tongue.
Non-words inside tissue traveling
to synapses that are soft
and bulbous and pinkish-grey.
I let them loose
and then they stall: clouds
surrounding spines, ice
on the eyes, electricity
in the hands. I feel it
but can’t make it green.

III.
You traced the forbidden
with your stolen quills
and glass bubbles. Your soldiers
laughed when camels hauled the snow,
never walking across or into
the pine trees. My soldiers wrote
“Fuck Hitler” in German
in the same snow, sleeping under
the earth, not side-by-side.
In their eyes are your ears,
where you found God over God
over God. And the echo,
your echo, my echo: a bell tower
placed in my mouth.

IV.
In the town you grew up in,
I fed bread to the seagulls
when I was 13. Now I only want
a desk where keys are not notes
but branches that play music.
You know German, Italian, French,
and Russian. You were born
a childhood poet. You walked
in cherry trees before you died.
I try the words in my mouth: I am
so warm and so thirsty. You have eaten me
like an olive or a pickle and only
the sounds remain.

V.
Bravery and intimacy
and inadequacy. The notes
in the margin. A comet
that breathes dashes, gulps
syntax in notebooks. I recite
your words in unison. But to name
them would be to separate
myself from them. The sounds
again: you are moaning consonants
that won’t open.

VI.
I hear your spit with my ear
on your chest. Between
shoulders broader than any
shoulders. I throw back my head
and my neck spasms. I want
sugar for your dead daughters.
Another desk for our elbows. I go
by voice across the riverbed.
Where there is
no water, I will lick the sky.

Barbara Berg earned an MFA in Creative Writing in poetry from Antioch University Los Angeles. She won first place for her short story “Waiting for Forgiveness” at Northern Virginia Community College and published “Close Box before Striking” in the prose poem edition of the online journal In Posse Review. She uses speech recognition software where she lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and two goofy Maine Coon cats. They are currently fighting an invasion of fleas.

On the Road

Through blue highways and heads hung in shame
we wisped away and whisked history down the drain
with whiskey to make us feel okay, maybe flush us numb
until our lips were pale and we couldn’t stop from falling down
and our tents were soaked through and through in the morning
fried steak and eggs were the meals, every day, all day
as we flew across the stars in our little blue suburban
as far away as we could, from teenager pop-punk suburbia
get me the hell out of this hellish little town

We relished the diners and the people who all shook our hands
the napkins we wrote on from lack of notebook paper
on the back of stationary, a leftover lawyer’s pad
we composed poems and songs and sang them with our guitars
we rode horses and pretended we were cowboys in cars
cadillacs and mustangs and pontiacs and ponies, rev up your engine
you’re only as good as your last grease-job, you tooth-puller, you
and don’t think we can’t smell you from a mile away
you’re all the same, escaping and evading
but never ending up anywhere new

We pioneered the land already-pioneered
we peed behind bushes and wiped with our compositions
smearing ink and feelings on our unspeakable vestigials
laying down and holding hands, holding hearts as well
our parents, we knew, didn’t know about this at all
and through blue highways and heads hung in shame
we yelled and hollered loud for the entire world to hear
golden with beer and fireworks, we could be sneered at
but the world would never know, so we couldn’t care anyway.

Swofford_photoRyan Swofford is a young writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Sunshine Liar, as well as the young adult novel The Ducks, both expected in 2014. He edits The Weekenders Magazine at theweekendersmag.com and has written for a variety of publications, both online and in print.

Quiet

[two_third]ТИХО

Няма ги нашите майки –
излезли да купят
нещо вкусно
и не се върнали

Няма ги нашите бащи –
отишли на гробовете
на бащите си
и там останали

Няма ги братята
и сестрите ни –
хукнали да намерят
майките и бащите си
и се загубили

Няма ги
и децата ни –
убити на тръгване
от собствените си мечти

Затова
тази приспивна песен
сега
е за нас

лека нощ
лека нощ
лека нощ
[/two_third]
[one_third_last]Quiet

Our mothers are missing –
went out to buy
something delicious
and haven’t come back

Our fathers are missing –
went out to visit
their fathers’ graves
and stayed there

Our brothers
and sisters are missing too –
rushed out to find
their parents
and lost their way

Our children
are missing also –
killed on their way out
by their own dreams

That’s why
this lullaby
now
is for us

good night
good night
good night
[/one_third_last]


Stoykova-KlemerTranslator’s Bio:

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is the author of three poetry books, most recently The Porcupine of Mind (Broadstone Books, 2012). She is the founder of poetry and prose groups in Lexington, Kentucky. Katerina hosts “Accents” – a radio show for literature, art and culture on WRFL, 88.1 FM, Lexington. In January 2010 she launched Accents Publishing.

 

Original Author’s Bio:

Born in Sofia, Bulgaria on June 23, 1961, Petar Tchouhov holds degrees in Library Science and Sociology from St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia. He is the author of 11 books of poetry, most recently When Unicorns Return (2011) and his work has been translated into many languages. Petar has received international recognition for his Haiku, including the 2007 Basho Museum award in Japan and his lyrical poetry has garnered many other international awards. Petar also writes music and performs in several bands.