Snow and Snow, For the Persians, Waiting With the Squirrels

SNOW AND SNOW

It keeps showing up like a complaint
no one has an answer for.

And as it does the flimsy tarps
surrounding the apartment under

construction flap like specters who see
no way out, pitiful in their hopelessness.

A few dogs leap in the whiteness,
their owners looking grim as soldiers

at Stalingrad while I hunker in the study,
a hermit lately every day, every night.

 

FOR THE PERSIANS

+++++I’ve spent my whole life being patient.
+++++I’ll need another life to reap the fruits.
++++++++++++++++++++—Daqiqi

My determination comes late at night—

++I wake my wife, who looks at me

Groggily but beautifully—

++“The hell with it,” I say,

“I’m not being patient anymore.”

++My wife props herself up—

“When exactly have you ever been patient?”

++“Go back to sleep,” I say,

“I’ll confuse you again in the morning.”

 

WAITING WITH THE SQUIRRELS FOR SPRING

We’re all set to discover the golden acorns
under the slush of snow, like seeing out of a mist
an Eldorado rise. Yet again those nuts
will more closely resemble the standard fare
of a cheap Burger Shack along a bad tourist beach—
but they’ll be serviceable and keep us alive,
help us appreciate the yellow of the flowers
in the yellow of the sun, in the fields and cities.
For some they’ll be racing up trees, carrying
the goods to the highest branches—for others
squarely on the ground will have to do, feet under
the outdoor tables and the clear blue sky shining
like it never went away, pleased to have us back.

Tim SuermondtTim Suermondt is the author of two full-length collections: TRYING TO HELP THE ELEPHANT MAN DANCE (The Backwaters Press, 2007), and JUST BEAUTIFUL (New York Quarterly Books, 2010). He has published poems in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Blackbird, Able Muse, Prairie Schooner, PANK, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine (UK), and has poems forthcoming in december magazine, Plume Poetry Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ploughshares. After many years in Queens and Brooklyn, he has moved to Cambridge with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong. Contact him at allampoet[at]earthlink.net

On the Importance of Following Submission Guidelines

Here at Lunch Ticket, we pride ourselves on encouraging emerging writers. It’s part of our social justice mission: we’re looking for pieces that tell new stories, written by authors who are underrepresented in the professional literary world. If you submit to Lunch Ticket, you’ll receive a note that tells you how much we look forward to reading your work, and if we eventually decline your piece, you’ll receive a rejection notice that recognizes how much effort you put into writing and submitting that story. The submission-rejection-submission cycle is often a discouraging process, and we respect any writer who perseveres enough to send his or her work out into the world.

However, respect is a two-way street. We can tell when writers haven’t respected us enough to read and follow our submission guidelines. If you’ve submitted a piece that doesn’t adhere to Lunch Ticket’s guidelines, we’ll give you another chance to resubmit that piece properly—mistakes happen, after all—but not every literary magazine is so forgiving. And rightly so: improperly submitted pieces waste everyone’s time.

Most importantly for you as a writer, submitting a piece that doesn’t follow a journal’s guidelines won’t help your story make it out of the slush pile. Simply put, it’s not professional, and since we folks who edit literary journals are usually writers ourselves—at Lunch Ticket, we’re all MFA students and alumni—we tend to think of writing as a career, not a hobby.

If you want your story to have a better shot at acceptance, ask yourself these questions before you hit that submit button:

Is my piece really and truly ready? If you’re submitting a first or second draft, then the answer is most likely no. If you’re the only person who’s read it—if you haven’t received any outside critiques of your work yet—then again, the answer is most likely no. Good writing takes patience. George Saunders spent years on some of the stories in Tenth of December, coming back to them month after month until he got them right. While your pieces may not take years to perfect, you shouldn’t rush to submit the minute you type The End.

Is my piece a good fit for this publication? Not every story jibes with the ethos and style of every literary journal out there. Be selective in your submissions: know which journals prefer experimental work, which prefer magical realism, which prefer literary submissions, and which are devoted to genre. (If those terms I just listed are unfamiliar to you, then you’re probably not ready to submit—you have some research ahead of you.) Lunch Ticket, for example, prefers pieces that support social justice. No matter how well-written your piece is, if it’s misogynist, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or hateful in any way, we won’t accept it.

How can you tell which publications match your story best? Read. Pick up individual copies of print journals at your local bookstore, or split a subscription with a friend. Buy a copy of whichever annual Best of anthology interests you the most, and see which journals are publishing your favorites. There are also plenty of free online literary journals featuring great content, Lunch Ticket included. If you don’t read the journals you submit to, then they probably won’t accept your work.

Is my piece in an acceptable, professional format? Standard submission format is Times New Roman font, size 12, double-spaced and with one-inch margins. The concept of “creative writing” does not extend to creative use of font type, font size, or formatting style, because fancy fonts and non-standard formatting make stories difficult to read—that’s why professionally published books and magazines feature similar typefaces.

Again, this goes back to thinking of your writing efforts as a career rather than a hobby. Would you send your boss a memo written in Comic Sans or Papyrus? (You may laugh, but we’ve received both here at Lunch Ticket.) If our editorial eyes can’t handle your story’s appearance, we’ll reject your work by the end of page one.

Does my piece follow submission guidelines? This is not a one-size-fits-all situation: not all literary journals have the same submission guidelines. At Lunch Ticket, we read blind, and so our guidelines state that no identifying information should be visible on your submission. Most journals’ guidelines—ours included—are helpfully posted on their websites, usually under a section titled “Submission Guidelines.” These guidelines are readily available. There’s no excuse for you not to follow them. And if the idea of different guidelines irks you so much that you can’t be bothered to read what journals require in a submission, then the world of literary professionals is probably not for you.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to the fun part: reading your work. Have you walked your piece through this checklist? Is your story a professionally formatted, guideline-following masterpiece that’ll knock our socks off with its magnificent language, narrative arc, and character development? Excellent. Submit it to Lunch Ticket. We’d love to read it.

Related reading: The post Glitter Pen 2014, at the Lunch Ticket blog.

Taking Care of Yourself

Maybe it is because it’s the middle of the semester for us MFAs or maybe it’s because the summer is ending and the fall equinox is about to begin and with anything new, change is inevitable. Whatever it is, it’s happening all around me and now it’s happened to me: stress, sickness, and bad moods seem to be abound. That’s why it is so important—no, it is essential that we learn how to take care of ourselves.

You know, it’s like when you are planning to go on a big trip, and you make a long list of all the things that will be indispensable to you for the big adventure you are about to undergo. So is getting an MFA (or any BIG project or decision), in a way. I would say one of the necessities that should come first on that list is How To Take Care Of Yourself So You Don’t Lose It. By this I mean you should really consider who would take care of you when you get sick, what is crucial for you to attend socially, what you can skip (time is money), and what are healthy ways you can release stress.

If you are still not convinced that taking care of yourself is important, I’m talking to you now, that person who takes care of everyone else first and puts themselves last. Think of it this way, an MFA is like climbing a really big mountain, not a hill, a big ass mountain. It may look like a hill to you in the beginning because you think, Oh, it’s so nice, I get to read books I like as part of school now, oh, and I get to write anything I want, this will be great! No! Step away from that delusional thought. Don’t get me wrong it’ll be the best decision you ever made, but if you really value being an artist, it will also be the hardest thing you have ever done. Because it hurts to be told to do something over and over again (about 20 times), it hurts to be told to scratch out that whole chapter you just knew was awesome and original, and it hurts that people still think you have it easy because they think you hang around in your pajamas at home just, you know, writing.

I’m writing this now because I bring hope. I don’t want to see anyone that has ever had big dreams and is now in the middle of achieving them get stuck halfway up the mountain. Especially because there are a couple of things that have helped me these last couple of days to deal with my heap of work and stress:

1) Healthy food is a must, or else you will eventually fall sick. Surround yourself with people that take care of you through food.

2) Do some sort of exercise alone. When you are running or walking, or doing yoga, you are strengthening your core and learning to breathe.

3) Learn to say no. You can’t be everywhere and do everything.

4) Hang out with people that make you forget you were stressed. Laughing helps.

5) Learning to delegate tasks is a must. You can’t do everything, and most people are willing to help.

6) Spend some time alone.

*This is extra: it helps to have a crazy dog or cat.

Hope that helps and I wish everyone luck this semester!

The Courage it Takes

Sitting under a café umbrella recently, sipping iced tea with an MFA colleague, the conversation naturally, unsurprisingly, turned to writing. We’re both in our second semester of graduate school. As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’m “Creative Nonfiction.” It’s a fact which never ceases to amuse my fiancé who takes it as an existential statement. My tea-sipping friend is “Fiction,” which amuses my fiancé even more.

Regardless of fictive or nonfictive embodiment, my friend and I both agree that the monthly packets we are required to submit to our MFA mentors are very real. Troublingly so. My most recent packet of twenty creative writing pages and two book annotations was due to my mentor in mid-August. For two days afterwards I celebrated its completion by not writing a single word (status updates and margin notes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, of course, aside). On the third day I intended to get back to writing, but—nearly a week earlier than expected—I received my mentor’s return email: a detailed letter, in-line track change comments, and lecture notes on a particular topic she suggested I study.

I was paralyzed for a full week afterward.

Could. Not. Write. Anything.

I sat with my friend at the outdoor café during that time. It was one of those blazing hot Saturday afternoons when everything melts: ice in our drinks, lipstick in my purse, ego. We sat together, pulling our sweat-soaked shirts away from our backs, fanning cigarette smoke from the table next to ours. Inside the café, the A.C. was on full blast but the room was crowded with chatter, and she and I both had some things to get off our chests. She, too, had a hard time getting back to work after sending off her last packet.

“I’m afraid of criticism,” she said.

It was powerful to hear her express what I had been feeling. Of course criticism—particularly at the hands of a knowledgeable and supportive mentor—is meant to be helpful. Indeed, it’s a primary element of why we both came to this program: to receive critical feedback about our work. But the fear we associate with criticism is attached, I think, to shame. Shame that the basket we’ve put our eggs in is full of holes. Shame that we will fail. Shame that there is a right and wrong to writing and that, ultimately, it is just beyond our personal abilities to get it right. Fear that we are not capable of stepping into our highest creative self.

My friend’s reflection of my own fears was enough to remind me of a time, years ago, when I had not allowed my fears to stop me.

After years of studying classical music, sometime in college I ended up with an acoustic guitar and a book of folk songs. Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, etc. I had been raised on these songs by a guitar-strumming dad. My first concerts were folk festivals where my parents spread a blanket and we picnicked on my mom’s cold fried chicken and berry pies. The folk songs in the book hit a deeply personal spot from my earliest childhood memories. It was a place that classical music, as much as I loved it, had never tapped. The book was a doorway, and when I walked through it, I walked away from classical music, stepped onto a path of songs, and, shortly, started writing my own. Right away came the desire to sing for others. A moment later, my stomach clenched with fright.

Stage fright, like fear of criticism, can be debilitating. It can also be exhilarating. I’m not a fan of roller coasters, but I wonder if the draw to them is similar. Do coaster-lovers shake in fear? Do they wonder if they can handle it? Do they get a rush from the courage it takes to ride? This is what it feels like, for me, when I send in my mentor packets. I silently beg, as I hit send, that my mentor’s feedback will be enough to kindly push my edge, an edge just shy of disablement.

Often, to work out fears that arise in my new(ish) writing endeavors, I look back to my life in music. How did I overcome my life-long stage fright so that I could pursue my love of singing and songwriting?

I showed up.

Back then, I was up against all these same fears of failure and shame, but my desire to get better at my craft was larger than my fears. I knew the only way to improve was to do it. Perform. As much as possible. The solution? I joined the busking world. I didn’t have to wait for a club booker to let me in the door. I could pull up a piece of sidewalk and play every night, which I did throughout summer and fall until my fingers froze, and then again the following spring. There was a good community in my Boston busking world days—Amanda Palmer, Guster, Mary Lou Lord, and many others who passed through for a week or for years—but also, I learned to stand up in front of an audience. I learned to show up against my fears.

After a few hours at the café, our iced teas were finished, our conversation spent, our backs sweaty. I drove my friend several blocks to where she had parked.

“I made something for you,” she said as she unlocked her car. From the backseat she pulled out a pale green cotton bag with two wide shoulder straps and a red and white swath of cloth down the center. I can’t sew at all, but I appreciate the craft. Her stitches were perfect. The muted colors were imbued with my friend’s gentle spirit. The kindness was almost overwhelming. Fingering the stitches of my friend’s gift, I remembered something an old teacher used to say: How you do one thing is how you do everything.

I haven’t read my friend’s writing, not yet. Nor has she yet read mine. But I am certain that when the day comes for us to exchange not just our trepidations but our art, we will find in each other’s writing the level of courage, commitment, and care that we bring to our other arts and crafts. As with everything, sometimes fear stops us for a few days or a week. But always, every time, our desire to do this—to explore questions, share stories, to write—leads us through the turnstile and back onto the ride.

 

Grant Snider, an illustrator and cartoonist, draws the New York Times weekly online strip “Incidental Comics.” image from:  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/14/books/review/12snider.html?_r=3&

Grant Snider, an illustrator and cartoonist, draws the New York Times weekly online strip “Incidental Comics.”
image from:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/14/books/review/12snider.html?_r=3&

 

The Least You Can Do

Since it happened, Beverly has been able to talk and think only in imprecise terms. She’s said there was an accident and the baby is gone, but on the third day she wakes up and the first thing in her head is the baby is dead, and this, finally, is something real she can taste in the back of her throat.

Days ago, when she was backing out of the driveway on her way to get a gallon of milk, Beverly heard the crack—a wet sound, a watermelon splitting on concrete—and wondered what she’d backed over. She was angry when she opened the car door. She was ready to yell at her husband for leaving something—a tool, maybe—in the middle of the driveway where anyone could drive over it. But when she rounded the car, she saw a great leaking mess spreading out from underneath the tire. There was blood everywhere, and everything was red, but that wasn’t all—there was so much green, so much grey, so much color that Beverly was sure she was wrong, that it couldn’t be what she was thinking, that it couldn’t be the baby’s tiny head crushed under the tread of her tire.

And then her husband came around the corner of the house, whistling. “Do you have the baby?” he asked.

On the third day after the baby was zipped into a small black bag and driven to the funeral home, where his head would be reconstructed so it did not appear deflated, empty of brain and blood, Beverly stays in bed until noon and comes downstairs only when she feels a tug in her center and remembers she hasn’t eaten anything in forty-eight hours. She goes to the kitchen, and that is where she finds her husband. He is frying bacon and drinking bourbon. The radio is on, and it’s playing something low and sad.

“What is this?” Beverly asks.

Robert shrugs. “College radio, I think,” he says. “I don’t know.”

Hanging in the arch between the living and dining rooms is her husband’s favorite suit. It is charcoal gray—appropriate for somber occasions. It has just come from the dry-cleaner and is still wrapped in plastic.

“Your mother called an hour ago,” Robert says. “She demanded I wake you up, and I told her to fuck herself.” He pokes the bacon with a fork. “I said, ‘No, Joyce, I don’t think I will. Go fuck yourself.’”

In moments of crisis, Beverly’s mother cannot be counted on to do much more than instruct a person on what to wear. She has already left three messages asking what Beverly plans to put on for the funeral. “You better not be wearing a pantsuit,” she told the machine. “And wear something gray. Black is too harsh for your coloring.”

“She’ll be over at three,” Robert says. “I’m just giving you a heads-up.”

Beverly sits down at the table.  It shines and smells of bleach. Robert has cleaned the entire house even though Beverly has told him there will be no funeral dinner. She doesn’t want a single casserole in her house.

“Is my mother driving us?” Beverly asks. “I think we need a plan.”

“What do you mean we need a plan?” Robert says, “I’m driving us. Of course I’m driving us.”

Beverly looks at his bourbon.

“This is my last drink,” he says. He holds the glass up and stares through the crystal. “Not just for tonight, either. I mean forever.”

“Why?” Beverly asks. “What good is it possibly going to do?”

He shrugs. “It’s just something I can do,” he says. “It’s the least I can do.”

“The least you can do,” Beverly repeats. She almost used that phrase after the accident, when everyone had gone and it was just the two of them sitting on the front steps. She’d wanted to say, The least you could’ve done is watch him while I ran for some milk. But, in the end, she didn’t say it. She didn’t say anything.

And the whole situation was so completely like him, too. The first week the baby was home from the hospital, Robert had taken him on a walk to the park down the street, and when he came home he didn’t have the stroller or the baby.  He’d gotten distracted—he was an architect and always had blueprints sketching in his head—and walked the whole way home figuring measurements.

Beverly’s mother had delighted in that one. “Both of you are rotten parents,” she told Beverly when Beverly, who was cradling a crying baby while crying herself, called to tell her what Robert had done. “I told you you weren’t ready. Didn’t I tell you that?”

And now it’s true. They were awful parents. They were not fit. They will lay their son out tonight underneath the dim lighting of the funeral home, and they will watch their friends and family coo sweet things into an ear that has been stitched back on with flesh-colored thread.

Robert finishes his bacon. He turns off the burner and piles the strips onto a plate before sitting across from Beverly. He swallows each piece with bourbon. He doesn’t offer any to Beverly, but she isn’t hungry anymore. Watching him, she realizes that what she’d like most is to find some way to blame this all on him. She’d like there to be some kind of hard evidence, some fact that makes him the sole guilty party. She wishes moments before she’d gotten into the car he had come into the room with the baby in his arms and said, “We’re going to play in the sandbox.”

But there is nothing like that, and Beverly was the one who ended up on the concrete, trying to push the baby’s blood back into his body. There is no one to blame but herself.

*     *     *

Beverly’s mother arrives early. She comes through the door at two-thirty, carrying a fruit basket and a suitcase. Beverly leans around the corner from the kitchen where she’s brewing coffee and sees her mother face Robert, who, moments before, had been sleeping off his bourbon on the couch.

“I’ll wait,” she says to him.

Robert yawns and stretches. “For what?” he asks.

Beverly’s mother sets down the suitcase. She balances the fruit basket on top of it. “For an apology,” she says. “You swore at me this morning, Robert, and I did not appreciate it.”

Robert looks at her for a long minute, then fluffs the couch pillow and lies back down to sleep.

Beverly’s mother tugs at the hem of her jacket. She steps out of her shoes. “Unbelievable,” she says, and she leans down to push the suitcase and basket toward the kitchen. “BEVERLY!” she shouts, loud enough to startle Robert back into a sitting position.

Beverly steps fully into the room to block her mother’s way into the kitchen. She doesn’t like the looks of the suitcase—it implies a length of stay Beverly is not comfortable with—and if she can keep her out of the important rooms, then maybe she’ll get the hint and reconsider staying in a house with two awful parents, two awful people—people who tell mothers to fuck themselves and don’t apologize for it.

Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.

“Right here, Mother,” she says.

Beverly’s mother stops and lifts the fruit basket, transferring it to her daughter’s arms. “From Mrs. Wilkinson. She sends her sympathies, but she has a wedding to attend tonight.”

“Fruit,” Beverly says. “Just what we need.”

“Don’t be flip,” Beverly’s mother says. “You and your husband—both of you are so damned flip.”

“Yes.”

“It’s inappropriate,” her mother says. “This is no time to be clever.”

“Of course you’re right,” Beverly says.

“Or sarcastic,” her mother continues. “Don’t test me, Beverly.”

Beverly’s mother lays her suitcase out on the floor. She unzips it and shakes out two skirts and a few blouses from her wardrobe, “I brought these for you,” she says. “There are a few other choices in here, too.”

Beverly’s mother is three or four sizes bigger than Beverly is, and the clothes—already frumpy and ugly—would look even worse hanging off Beverly’s bones. “Mother,” she says, “no. I have my own clothes. I can dress myself.”

“You don’t have a single thing that’s appropriate for this occasion,” her mother says. She presses a skirt to Beverly’s waist, and its polyester folds unfurl down to her ankles. “You can’t show knees or décolletage at a funeral.”

“It would be a lot more festive if you could,” Robert says from the couch.

Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.

Her mother notices, and her own cheeks burn bright red. Before Beverly can stop it, her mother is sobbing. She melts to the floor and sits next to the heap of clothes she’s packed for herself and Beverly.

“You’re cruel!” she says. “How could you do this? How could you?”

She cries into her suitcase. She buries her face deep in the clothes, and Beverly, now so tired she can barely hold herself up, walks over to the couch opposite Robert and lies down. She faces him, and the two of them stare at each other, listening to Beverly’s mother until she cries herself to sleep. When her crying turns into a series of small snores, Beverly and Robert close their eyes and fall asleep, too, their breathing matched even if they are separated by a wide ocean of room.

*     *     *

They wake only half an hour before the ceremony is set to begin. Beverly’s mother bolts up from her suitcase and pats at her hair, which has been flattened.

“What time is it?” she asks quietly, but then, panicked at hearing no response, she raises her voice. “WHAT TIME IS IT?” she yells.

Beverly gasps awake. She had been dreaming the baby was still alive, that he was still a baby—bald, shirtless, diapered—but adult-size and sitting in a chair at the dining room table, smoking a cigar and reading the real-estate section of the newspaper. When she walked in the room to serve dinner, he set aside the paper and cigar and said, “Thank you, Mother,” in a British accent.

“We’re going to be late!” her mother says, and pushes up to her feet. She grabs a handful of the clothes in her suitcase and takes off for the first floor bathroom.

Robert sits up and rubs his chin. He needs to shave. “What if I skipped it?” he asks, plucking at his stubble.

In the other room, Beverly’s mother is running a blow dryer—probably at fingers she has hastily painted—and yelling out to them over the noise. “Late to my own grandson’s funeral!” she says. “There’s probably a special place in hell for people who are late to their own grandsons’ funerals!” The blow dryer shuts off and she leans out the door. “Robert,” she says, “you get upstairs and start shaving. You can’t go to your son’s funeral looking like a homeless man.”

Robert touches his chin again.

“Don’t shave,” Beverly whispers.

Robert looks at her.

“Don’t shave,” Beverly says, louder this time. “If you don’t want to shave, don’t shave.”

Robert nods, slowly, like he’s hearing the words but having a hard time comprehending them, like maybe there’s a loud noise inside his head, something he’s having trouble hearing through. “I’d rather not,” he says finally.

“Then don’t,” Beverly says. She stands and smoothes down her shirt. “I’m going to get dressed upstairs. Do you want me to bring you some socks?”

“Socks,” Robert says, not affirming or denying a want for them. He stares down at the pillow. “I think,” he says, “I am going to have another bourbon.”

Beverly’s mother swings the bathroom door wide. “You will not have one more ounce of liquor!” she says. “It’s one thing to take the edge off in private, at home, when you’re not doing anything of importance, but it’s a whole other thing to go to your son’s funeral three sheets to the wind.”

“This will be my second bourbon,” Robert says.

“Right,” Beverly says. “He’ll only be two sheets to the wind.” She ticks them off on her hand. One bourbon, two bourbon.

Beverly’s mother’s lip trembles again, and, before she can dissolve into another mess of tears, she slams the bathroom door and starts the blow dryer again. Robert goes into the kitchen to get his suit, and Beverly climbs the stairs to the second floor, goes into their room, and sits on the edge of their bed. The room is cloudy with gray light that has made its way through the curtains. Beverly can see every bit of dust in the light, and she stops breathing. She’s never before stopped to consider it, but most of what she breathes in every day is dirt. She holds her breath as long as she can. She is already black inside, already as filthy as she can get.

When Beverly finally runs out of held breath, she gasps for air, sucks in all the silt that is always, every second, falling down on her. She gets up and pulls things out of her closet—things that don’t even match. It’s not that she isn’t capable of finding a matching outfit; now it’s about doing things to displease her mother, who is in the kitchen telling Robert to put down that bourbon and put it down fast. Then, weeping, she says, “You couldn’t have watched him for ten minutes? Ten lousy minutes? You’re a waste, Robert, a real waste of flesh and blood.” She raises her voice so it will carry up the stairs. “And so is my daughter! A waste!”

Beverly says nothing. She slips into a red pencil skirt and navy heels. She ties one of Robert’s white dress shirts at her waist the way that was fashionable when she was in middle school.

When they walk into the funeral home, her husband will be drunk and unshaven; she will be an American flag. The sight of them will repulse her mother, and she will no doubt be forced to circle the room, telling their guests that everything has been hard, just so hard on Robert and Beverly, and that’s why they look so hopeless, so unkempt, so much like just the type of people you’d expect to kill a baby.

That her mother will be so uncomfortable and busy cheers Beverly. With other people to worry over, her mother will spend very little time with her and Robert, and they will be able to sit in the front of the service, silent, with everything that is left of them bleeding out their mouths, their noses, their ears.

Beverly leaves the bedroom without a pair of socks for Robert, and the three of them get into Beverly’s mother’s car without noticing. It is only when they are parked in the lot at the funeral home that Beverly looks down and sees the white knot of ankle poking out from under the hem of her husband’s pants. In that moment she realizes she has never loved him as much as she does now, and that she will never love him this much again. It isn’t a thought that lasts long because now there are more pressing issues at hand, but the thought is still there, Beverly recognizes it, and it doesn’t sadden her; instead, as she stands there on the sun-warmed asphalt she feels a rush of gratitude that she was able to find that kind of feeling in the middle of so much sadness.

*     *     *

The service goes exactly like people might’ve expected it to. Beverly’s mother cries in a polite, reserved way, and produces an antique handkerchief, which she presses into the moist corners of her eyes.

Robert, sockless and disoriented from the bourbon he swallowed before walking out the door, lurches to his feet in the middle of the service, just when the funeral director is launching into a poem about angels being called to heaven. Robert walks up to the raised platform where the baby, who has been done up to be pink-cheeked and waxen, is resting in a silk-lined box. Robert’s ankles flap out from under the hem of his trousers as he lowers himself and rests his head against the casket. In that position, there is no hiding it. Everyone in the room can now see that Robert has slipped his bare feet into expensive Italian shoes.

Behind them, everyone stops breathing. Robert is crying and touching the side of the baby’s face, which has been hitched up tight. The baby looks like he went in for plastic surgery, a little nip and tuck.

When Beverly first saw him like this—when her mother marched her up the aisle to stand in front of the narrow casket—she’d recoiled so visibly that her mother had to put a hand on her back to keep her from running.

Beverly could hardly stand to be near him, much less touch him. That her husband is doing so stuns her. And it stuns her mother, too, and she reaches over to take Beverly’s hand in her own. She squeezes it. “Go get him,” she says, but Beverly doesn’t move. Her mother gives her a shove toward Robert.

Beverly turns to face the room and for the first time sees their faces, which are unbearably sad. She can’t stand to look at them for long, so she puts her hands on Robert’s shoulders and guides him back to the seat. Once they are settled, she nods to the funeral director, and he picks back up with the reading like nothing had ever happened, like no scene had ever been made, and the rest of the service passes without incident.

*     *     *

Afterward, when everyone is milling about, unsure what to do—after all, there is usually a church dinner or coffee and donuts, some sort of gathering—Beverly’s mother puts her hand in Robert’s armpit and hauls him to his feet. “No more sitting,” she says. “People can see that you’re not wearing socks when you’re sitting.”

Robert is sweating, and his sweat smells sour and dark, like bourbon mash. “I think,” he says, “the cat is out of the bag.”

“Just stand very still,” her mother insists, and then reaches out a hand to greet some friends. She steps in front of Beverly and Robert, blocking them, taking the sympathy and well-wishes for her own.

“I’m sorry,” Robert whispers to Beverly as her mother leans her head into her friends’ shoulders. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Beverly’s mother’s friends move on and head toward the door without saying a single word to Robert or Beverly. Her mother receives the next people in line: old neighbors.

“It’s okay,” Beverly says. “You’re okay.”

In front of them, Beverly’s mother is saying, “They’re beside themselves. They’re absolutely mad with grief.”

The old neighbors peek around Beverly’s mother’s shoulders. They lower their eyes to Robert’s ankles.

“Best not to say anything,” Beverly’s mother tells them. “I’ll pass along your well-wishes.”

The old neighbors leave as quickly as they have come. They, like most of the other guests, having overheard Beverly’s mother’s command, slip toward the door. A few stay on, talking in quiet voices while they inch toward the front, toward Robert and Beverly and Beverly’s mother. But each group that makes it to the platform gets diverted by Beverly’s mother, who says things like, They appreciate your being here or They’re really not themselves right now or They’re not at their best.

“What is she doing?” Robert asks.

Beverly knows what she’s up to. This is about capitalizing on a moment. This is about seeing a chance to soak up warm pools of pity and sympathy and pretending to do something for the good of a daughter and a son-in-law.

Beverly turns to look behind them. She examines the corners of the room and sees a small placard that announces the path to the emergency exit. When she turns back around, she sees her mother’s purse, and in it her keys, sitting on the high-backed couch.

“Do you want to go?” Beverly whispers.

Robert has a hand over his face. He looks like he is smelling his palm. “What?” he asks.

“Do you want to go?” She gestures to her mother’s purse and the emergency exit.

Robert nods. He takes a small step forward and hooks a finger into the purse’s handle. It’s off the couch and passed to Beverly before anyone is the wiser, and she and Robert duck behind the burgundy velvet curtains that hide the fire door. They step outside and suck their first breath of air that isn’t stale, that isn’t saturated with the smell of whatever makeup they flaked over the baby’s body, and they don’t even care when the emergency bell sounds—ringing and ringing and ringing as they run to Beverly’s mother’s car.

Beverly has the car in gear and out the driveway before anyone can see where they’ve gone.

*     *     *

They don’t hide. They don’t drive around town. They just go home.

Beverly parks her mother’s car at the end of the driveway, as close to the road as she can get it: a hint. She and Robert go inside and take off their clothes and sit in their underwear on the living room floor. They put the bottle of bourbon between them. They are drunk in half an hour.

“I’m a really rotten father,” Robert says. “I said I was going to do one thing for him—the least I could do—and here I am going back on that promise.”

“He wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about your drinking,” Beverly says. “He was ten months old.”

“I’m glad my parents are dead,” Robert says. “They would never speak to me again.” He drinks and wipes his mouth on his bare arm. “I didn’t think you would ever speak to me again, either. Once the cops left, you went upstairs and that was it for a long time.”

Beverly nods.

“You blame this all on me?”

When Beverly doesn’t say anything, he passes her the bottle. He pantomimes drinking, tipping his head back. “I think this is a good time for honesty,” he says.

“I wanted to,” she says finally, taking a swallow and holding it in the back of her throat, where it warms her. “I really wanted to,” she says. “I wanted to hold it over your head for the rest of our lives. I wanted to be able to point to you and say, ‘This is who ruined my life.’”

Robert stares down at the carpet and drags his fingers through its thick braid. The carpet parts for his fingers and stays that way, combed into shallow moats, as Beverly goes on.

“But that wasn’t fair,” Beverly says. “We’re both to blame. We both did this.”

Robert stops combing the carpet. He looks up. “The worst parents ever,” he says. “Half that room thought we should go straight to hell. I saw it in their eyes.”

Beverly hadn’t, and she doesn’t think Robert had, either. She thinks that when he turned his face on the crowd of their friends and neighbors and coworkers, his own eyes got reflected in everyone else’s, and he saw what he really thought he was: nothing good. In that moment, it was probably easy to misinterpret, easy to think that everyone felt he deserved a punishment worse than grief.

But what the two of them had done wasn’t malicious. What they’d done was careless. They were stupid to have the baby in the first place. They were young and self-involved and unsure of how to be good people. Beverly had grown up hearing that she was nothing, that she would never do anything right, and so she went on believing it. It was not the best foundation on which to base her own ideas of motherhood.

She is about to explain this to Robert, but the front door swings open and there, framed by the arch, is her mother. Out at the curb a taxi is idling.

Beverly’s mother has two floral arrangements tucked under her arms. She is sprouting lilies and tulips. She sets them down on the floor and wipes her forehead. She looks battered. She looks like she has walked the distance between the funeral home and the house instead of just the length of the driveway. “Someone better get up and get me some money for the cab,” she says.

Neither Robert nor Beverly move, even though Beverly’s mother looks pitiful. It’s clear she’s been crying again, and this time she hasn’t bothered to clean up the mascara on her cheeks. She breathes heavily. She looks like a woman who has just unbuttoned her skin and peeled it back to reveal something horribly real.

“You’re drunk,” she says.

“Your purse is in the kitchen,” Beverly says.

Beverly’s mother goes to find it. Once she is in the other room, she starts crying again.

Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time.

“Your mother needs a drink,” Robert says. “I think I’m going to pour her a little something.”

Robert gets up and moves unsteadily toward the bar. He looks ridiculous standing there in only his boxer shorts, but he approaches his task with diligence. He selects a crystal glass and cracks a few ice cubes into its bottom before filling it with gin, which is Beverly’s mother’s drink of choice, the liquor she rolls out in bulk at the holidays.

When Beverly’s mother comes back into the living room, clutching a pair of twenties to her chest, Robert thrusts the drink in her direction. “Here,” he says, too loudly.

Beverly’s mother hides the twenties behind her back, as if she thinks Robert might rob her. “What is that?” she asks.

Robert tips it toward her nose so she can smell. “Gin,” he says.

Beverly’s mother swats it away, and the gin and the glass and the ice cubes fall from Robert’s unsteady hand and crack onto the carpet. They hit with just enough force that not even the thick carpeting can save the crystal, and it opens into a bloom of shards at their feet.

“Jesus,” she says. “Who are you people?”

She shuts the door behind her, and she runs back down to the curb flapping the twenties in the air.

Robert starts crying. “I broke it,” he says. He sinks to his knees and starts gathering the shards into a pile. He cuts his hands on the smallest slivers of glass, which make him bleed. He pats the floor around him. He is desperate to find every last piece of glass, to get everything back together, and the blood from his palms presses into the beige carpet. If someone looked at those stains quickly enough, she might think a person standing at the bar had unleashed a handful of confetti, let it fly into the air and back down again.

Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time. It becomes evident that Beverly’s mother is not coming back.

“This isn’t healthy,” Robert says. He holds his palms up to the light, examines all the gashes, then wipes his bloodied hands on the carpet.

Beverly isn’t sure what he means. It could be their drunkenness, their nudity, their irreverence on the night of their son’s wake. It could be the way they spoke to Beverly’s mother or they way they ran from the funeral home like spooked children in a fairytale. It could be the broken glass and the blood.

She shakes her head but says nothing. She stands, finds an old towel behind the bar, and brings it to Robert. She wraps his hands tightly together—it looks like he is praying—and then presses her own hands over the wrapped fingers. Now it seems as though they are both praying, praying together, but they aren’t and they won’t, never.

Beverly wonders briefly about her mother, wonders where she’s gone and how she’s making her way across the edges of this sadness now that she is far from the people who have caused it. She can see her mother—tired, wet, crying into a handkerchief stitched with flowers—and in that moment Beverly feels the smallest bit sorry for the way things have gone, and it occurs to her that this, this right here—this moment when she’s holding her husband’s bloody hands in her own, this moment when she’s wondering about her mother, this moment when she’s missing something she had so briefly it now feels like a trick of light and memory—this is the most maternal moment of her life.

Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York (which explains her eternal love for chicken wings and bleu cheese), and has lived and taught in Minnesota and Maine. She currently teaches writing and literature at Central Maine Community College and has had work published in Ruminate, The Louisville Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Portland Review, and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place.

 

Bad Grammar

Let’s face it: many of us were spaced out during grade school English classes. I know I was more concerned if I had pizza stuck in my braces after lunch than whether or not I knew what an “unclear antecedent” was.

Now, we all have a Grammar Nazi in our lives. I’m talking about the people who are perhaps teachers, or mentors, or friends, or colleagues, who can’t help but correct any grammar mistake you make.

I came upon GN’s when I began my MFA program in Creative Writing. If a Grammar Nazi would correct a misused semicolon, I would graciously smile and thank them, even though their faces displayed disgust; I am not exaggerating. People who make grammatical errors are the worst scum of the earth—according to the GN’s. Because of this ugly behavior, I decided to ignore them, and hire an editor. Editors are mostly nice GN’s, if they are getting paid. They gently tell you that you keep putting a comma after the word “but,” instead of before. However, there are always those damn exceptions to the rules.

Lately, I have been siding with the GN’s because they have many valid points, and I am running out of money for the editors.

For example:
1) A writer should have command of how to correctly punctuate because, well, they are writers!
2) They should want their words to come across as clearly as they intended. A misplaced word or incorrect punctuation mark can change the meaning of your work.
3) If you call yourself a writer, then have the correct tools. An electrician would not show up at your house with a fork instead of a screwdriver. Not only would he look stupid, but someone might get hurt.
4) When a writer works on revisions, how can he revise if he doesn’t know what needs revising?

And now, even though I still believe the idea and the message in a piece of creative writing are of the utmost importance, I see the value in investing in a book like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or, at the very least, Grammar for Dummies. Nevertheless, I want to thank the GN’s because I no longer mistake “then” for “than,” or write “effect” when I mean “affect,” or forget it’s a contraction when I write “your” and mean “you’re.”

By the way, an “unclear antecedent” is a noun that existed before, but now you are replacing it with a pronoun, and you are not being clear about it. Clear about the noun, that is. Here is an example of an unclear antecedent: He said he liked it, but my editor wanted to clarify a few things. Who is he? It is unclear. If it is the editor, then write: The editor liked it, but he asked me to clarify a few things.

My editor asked me to clarify if I agreed that a writer must care about grammar. Yes, I agreed, a writer must care. However, if you are a Grammar Nazi, and you correct a fellow writer’s bad grammar, be nice. Would you, please? We had enough trauma and suffering during middle school.

there-their-theyre-peanuts

http://koshersamurai.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/there-their-theyre-peanuts.jpg