Roxane Gay, Author of An Untamed State

Roxane Gay

Photo: Jay Grabiec

Prolific writer of primarily creative nonfiction, Roxane Gay tackles fiction in her debut novel An Untamed State, about a Haitian-American woman, Mireille (Miri) Duval Jameson, who is kidnapped for ransom and brutalized for thirteen days as her diplomat father struggles to get her back at a fair price. The problem is, there is no getting her back—at least not the way she was—and it is she, not her father, who pays the real price. Using literary devices like point of view and figurative language, Gay brings the motifs of survival and resiliency to light through Miri’s struggle. These motifs are at the heart of the narrative; they are the real story.

The book is set up in “the before,” when protagonist Miri has a husband and a baby and a career and confidence and spunk, versus “the after,”when she has nothing because she is nothing—her sense of self, her belief in happily ever after, her notion of her perfect father all die with her in the cage where, for nearly two weeks, she is held. The drama is in the thirteen days of captivity, filled with hunger and brutality and rape and abuse, but also in the aftermath, when she devolves, curling into herself, before she can eventually make sense of her trauma and regain some semblance of a life. 

Gay writes the story in an interesting way, playing with point of view as she switches back and forth from first person narration—Miri’s perspective—to third person omniscient narration. Her doing so allows the reader to enter each character’s psyche and also gives her the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the book’s primary setting, Haiti—a land of contradictions—which, in addition to being beautiful and ugly, familiar and unknowable, filthy and a jewel, is the birthplace of Gay’s own parents.

As readers, we trace Miri’s evolution—a transition Gay meticulously crafts—from headstrong, willful, independent law student and abiding daughter—whole on her own—to a woman who needs her husband to feel whole, who is “inconsolable without him,”to a captive who “need[s] something to fill the gnawing hollow inside”of her, to an entirely un-whole shell, so empty that she can’t bear the thought of anything inside of her, be it food or her husband. 

We also follow Michael Jameson, Miri’s other half, as he goes on a personal journey from determined courter, to faithful life partner and father, to irate husband who will stop at nothing to get his wife back, to meek and terrified man who doesn’t know if he has the strength to put the pieces back together, to supportive lover who chooses his wife always—“today, yesterday, [and] tomorrow”—the kind of man who will be her rock through the “for worse.” 

Finally, there is Miri’s dad Sebastien Duval—a Haitian success story—a self-made man: calm, rational, determined, demanding, serious, disapproving, controlling and in control, hardheaded, obstinate, and ruthless. A man of principals. As readers, we watch as this strong man goes from being Miri’s hero to being a stranger whose sacrifice costs his youngest child everything—whose “impossible choice [to take thirteen days to pay her ransom]…killed all [her] love.” In the after, Sebastian knows that his daughter sees him as “a man who could not love [her] enough to save her when there was still something of her left to save,” and this knowledge slowly eats away at him. He is racked with guilt over making his daughter dead instead, and this contrition softens him and makes him more human.

As readers, we get all of this information either from Miri or from the omniscient third person narrator. This interesting back-and-forth dance jumbles time and perspective, keeps us in suspense, as we gain access to the rich and layered characters, bit by bit. 

Just as artful as Gay’s unique approach to point of view is her use of literary devices. Whether she uses personification—the Haitian air “wraps itself around you,” “The cuts on my back wept angrily,”—or polysyndeton—“I would taste the salt and sun and sea,” the air filled “with the smell of soap and sweat and smoke,”—or antithesis—“We loved Haiti. We hated Haiti,” the country held “so much beauty, so much brutality,” I became the woman “who remembered everything and the one who remembered nothing,”—or simile—The scar “swelled like something serpentine,” “I stayed there…like a prayer,”—or metaphor—“He was a sharp blade, I was a tender wound,”—or repetition—“The smell of his saliva repulsed me. The texture of his tongue repulsed me. The sticky wet sound repulsed me,” “I tasted nothing, felt nothing, was nothing,” “I kissed his forehead. I died. I kissed his cheekbones, sharp. I died…pressed my lips to his chest…I died,”(363), Gay draws the reader in with her beautiful use of figurative language. 

A final gift of Gay’s is her ability to present multi-dimensional characters. Even the most evil of men, Miri’s captors included, are given a depth that makes them somehow human, and this ability to see their humanity is what helps Miri to survive and eventually make herself whole again. She says of the Commander—the mastermind behind her kidnapping—“We were both broken in similar ways.” That she could be so perceptive and kind in her assessment is quite remarkable. Later she writes, “He was rough because he is not a man who knows how to be gentle,” again showing her sympathy toward the character and making him somehow less evil, less black and white. She paints more gray still into this beast when she admits that he carried her “to his room, placed [her] in his bed like he was a good man…covered [her] with a blanket like he was a good man,”treating her “as both lover and enemy—the only way he could.” Of another rapist she describes the “gentleness of his touch” and says, “It would be easy to pretend the man before me was a lover, that our bodies belonged together.” 

Of her father whose “eyes [start] to water”with regret, Miri thinks, “He did not deserve the truth of how I died [inside],”even after his failure to pay quickly. She shows him further compassion by allowing him to pull her “into a loose, awkward hug”for his own emotional well-being.” She even lies to him, feigning forgiveness in order to grant her dad peace, reasoning, “I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him.” 

Gay’s novel is successful because she hones in on a universal theme, survival, something to which we can all relate, and makes us believe it is possible, even under the most unimaginable of circumstances. She shows us that “dirty and broken” people, like countries, can be cleaned, can be healed. That after the darkest of hours, it is still possible to overcome ourselves. That the will to live, to fight, is almost indestructible. This message on resiliency is what Vivian Gornick would call the “so what?”of the narrative; it is the very essence of Gay’s work. 

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Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and her career has never been hotter. Her 2014 debut novel An Untamed State (reviewed above by yours truly) is on the shortlist for the PEN Open Book Award, and her most recent essay collection Bad Feminist, released this past August, was a New York Times bestseller. Gay also works as editor for The Toast’s new sister site The Butter, contributes to Fortune Magazine in a column entitled “Beyond the Workplace,” and has a very active social media presence (no really, check out her Twitter). When she isn’t on book tours or sitting behind her computer screen churning out gems for us to read, she can be found mentoring fiction MFA students at Purdue University, playing competitive Scrabble, and keeping up with all things pop-culture related. We recently caught up with Gay and learned everything from her thoughts on catchy but misogynistic music, how to write the “other,” and whether she still holds a flame for The Hunger Games’ Peeta.

Melissa Greenwood: In your recent article for Fortune “When Mentors Cross the Line,” (about a situation at Stanford where mentoring “went horribly wrong,”) you write, “There is a responsibility attached to being a mentor. Mentors must live up to that responsibility.”

Now that you mentor fiction MFA candidates at Purdue, can you speak a bit more about this responsibility insofar as it relates to you personally? How does this new role compare to teaching a roomful of students?

Roxane Gay: When I am working with my thesis students, I’m hoping to guide them toward the best writing of which they are capable. Sometimes this means helping them find confidence in their voice. Sometimes it means telling them difficult but constructive things about how they can improve their writing. Mostly it’s about being there for that student in the ways they most need me to be there. It’s similar to teaching in the classroom but different because it’s such an intimate and intense and ongoing relationship.

MG: I can imagine that there are a lot of topics that come across your desk in your role as cultural critic. How do you decide what to write about? I noticed, for instance, that you addressed Michael Brown (Ferguson) and not Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”)? Was it simply too much, too close together? Was it an “I just can’t” moment for you?

RG: I try to write about those issues around which I feel the most urgency and that I feel in some way qualified to discuss. I didn’t write explicitly about Eric Garner but I have discussed him in some of my work. Mostly, it was just too much to wrap my mind around yet another unarmed black man murdered by police within such a brief span of time. I also don’t want to be a “hot take” vending machine. I want to consider the world more carefully so that means making the wisest choices I can.

MG: Because you’re a cultural critic, your thoughts and opinions are out in the universe. In your essay “The Danger of Disclosure,” which you shared with Antioch students at the June residency, you write:

I have things I want to say. I know disclosure can be dangerous, but still I want to speak. I want to share my opinions. I want to provoke conversations. I want to leave my mark…And yet, the exposure makes me anxious…I have firm boundaries about what I will or won’t write about…

How do you set those boundaries, and do you find they are ever in flux? Is it safe to assume your method of birth control, which you don’t divulge but say you “kind of swear by,” is an instance where you’re setting a firm don’t-share boundary?

RG: I set boundaries based on how much of my personal life I am comfortable with other people knowing. I am often trying to protect the people in my personal life who have signed on to be with me but have not signed on to have their lives scrutinized by thousands and thousands of people. Those boundaries are sometimes in flux in that they evolve but for the most part, I stand my ground about what I will and will not reveal.

MG: You have an active Twitter presence (@rgay), and you were busy, busy on Oscar night. You wrote “Damnit she had to speak backstage,” re: Patricia Arquette’s commentary on equal pay for women that spiraled into something less about all women and more about some women. Your next post was: “I just can’t but I am sure someone will write about intersectionality and these unfortunate remarks tomorrow.” What were your initial thoughts when Arquette made her wage equality comments when accepting her award, and how did your thinking change when she added, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now?”

RG: I loved Arquette’s comments as she accepted her Oscar. My thinking didn’t really change because her frustrating comments later don’t negate what she said about the importance of equal pay. I wanted to believe she was caught up in a moment, the highlight of her career, and I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. In the days after the Oscars, she basically doubled down on her comments, as is her right, but as I said then, her comments continue to demonstrate the importance of feminism that is intersectional. She’s a talented actor who said something I disagree with but I don’t think anything more needs to be said than that. The world keeps on turning.

MG: You mentioned to Antioch MFA students that you wanted to make your novel An Untamed State unreadable—so visceral that the reader should have to look away. What do you say then to readers like my own octogenarian grandmother (perhaps not your ideal demographic) who actually did look away, for good. I loaned her my copy, and her response (via new-agey email, nonetheless) was: “It was too violent, and I couldn’t get past the multiple rapes. There is enough horribleness in the world right now, and reading more [of it]…is not a choice I want to make.”

RG: To those readers, I say I absolutely understand that choice. We all have to take care of ourselves as best as we can. I stand by what I wrote. An Untamed State is not a book about violence. It’s a book about hope.

MG: In “What We Hunger For” (originally published in The Rumpus), you write about your experience with childhood rape using Katniss Everdeen, the fictitious protagonist in The Hunger Games series, to talk about strength and survival. You read this essay (which can now also be found in Bad Feminist) at Antioch, and the reaction from the crowd was a mixture of wonder and reverence. How did you decide that The Hunger Games and The Rumpus would be your platforms for this major disclosure, and how did this parallel with Katniss first occur to you?

RG: I wrote “What We Hunger For” because as I read and re-read The Hunger Games trilogy, I was fascinated by how well Suzanne Collins approached trauma and its effects. That got me thinking about my own trauma and how it has lingered throughout my life so I started writing and that essay came out of me. I published it on The Rumpus because I knew my words would be safe there.

MG: You write about “rape culture,” throughout Bad Feminist, and the phrase got me thinking back to my own college years (circa 2001-2005). I went to UC Berkeley—a university that fancies itself a liberal and politically-active place—but at the fraternity parties, we’d all forget our beliefs and sing along to Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You.”

It’s creepin’ around in your head
Me holdin’ you down in my bed
You don’t have to say a word
I’m convinced you want this

And Snoop Dogg’s “It Aint No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” featuring Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Warren G.

I know the pussy’s mine, I’ma fuck a couple more times
And then I’m through with it, there’s nothing else to do with it
Pass it to the homie, now you hit it
Cause she ain’t nothing but a bitch to me
And y’all know, that bitches ain’t shit to me

And then of course, there was the famous chorus, which we’d belt out at the top of our lungs as though there were no shame in the words: “It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none.”

These songs legitimize and popularize rape, and I’m sure there are a host of more recent ones popping up at college campuses every day. What can we say to our youth about messages as pervasive and insidious as these, when even you have admitted (likely as much to your chagrin as my frat party admission) that “I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along,” (Bad Feminist 187-188)? You even defined some of these “misogynistic” melodies as being “so damn catchy” to Elle, and that’s the problem—they are. So, what to do?

We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture.

RG: We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture, how those messages warp our thinking about gender, sex, and sexual violence, and how we must steel ourselves against those messages. We also have to urge them to create pop culture that is “so damn catchy” without being so fucked up. It is possible. And at some point, we have to lead by example and we have to forego the temporary pleasure of a catchy song for the lasting pleasure of taking a stand against such cultural misogyny.

MG: Writing the “other” is a big topic at Antioch, and you address it in your essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods…” in which you say, “I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know;” yet, you have not been pleased with many attempts you’ve read or watched on the screen, at least on the part of white people writing (or directing) the other. “I know that I have work to do,” you admit in the same essay insofar as your tolerance of “white writers working through racial difference.” What is your suggestion then to those who wish to tackle this “complicated” work that “requires a delicate balance,” as well as a whole lot of what I consider to be your favorite word—nuance?

RG: It’s not that complicated. We have to stop treating difference as a monumental obstacle. We have more in common than we don’t. As long as writers approach difference in good faith, there is room for trial and error. The examples I cite in the aforementioned essay were not created in good faith. They were lazy and diminishing and that is the problem.

MG: How do you strike the balance between research and personal admission in your essays, and what is your advice to those of us who aren’t yet as badass as you when it comes to seamlessly blending the two?

RG: I include as much research as a reader will need to have the proper context for considering a given argument. I don’t want it to be too much so that an essay reads like an encyclopedia and I don’t want it to be too little so that an essay reads as poorly conceived.

MG: You have said, “I want to believe writing can be a catalyst for action, for demanding change…I want my writing to do something more than just satisfy my love of writing. I want it to reach people.” What causes are most important to you now, and who specifically are you hoping to reach?

RG: I’m going to skip this question. I feel like this is pretty clear in my writing.

MG: I see that you have a book of essays due out in 2016 entitled Hunger, as well an adult novel Nice Man, and a short story collection Strange Gods. What can you tell us inquiring minds about these upcoming projects?

RG: Hunger is a memoir about obesity and living in this world in an unruly body. Strange Gods is a short story collection I’ve wanted to see out in the world for many years so I am thrilled it will happen. My editor Amy Hundley and I are working on edits right now. Most of the stories are about women dealing with the way this world makes it difficult to be a woman. Nice Man, well, that’s a secret but it involves surrogacy, a marriage of convenience, and a fierce fight.

MG: Last question: you can meet your favorite character from a book (Jessica from Sweet Valley High or Peeta from The Hunger Games come to mind), or spend the afternoon with Channing Tatum. Go!

RG: I would meet Peeta.

Melissa GreenwoodAside from being a huge Roxane Gay fan, Los Angeles native Melissa Greenwood is a nonfiction MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is entering her fourth and final term. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store. Now, Melissa resides in Toronto, Canada with her fabulous roommates (one of whom is not yet two), where she teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, and tries to sneak time with said roommates for a guilty pleasure they share with Ms. Gay—Law & Order SVU and Criminal Minds viewing parties. Let the record show that the roommate who is not yet two does not attend said parties. Nor does Melissa’s boyfriend.

Susan Straight, Author

Susan Straight

Photo: Skye Moorhead

I recently interviewed Susan Straight on the telephone. During the first session, my recording software failed just as my two-year-old son woke up howling from an unusually short nap. A tired and hungry toddler is like an escaped rhinoceros; I have not quite worked out the glitches of single motherhood. Graciously, Susan allowed me to reschedule, understanding first-hand the difficulties of being a single parent, a difficulty she never allowed to impede her aspirations and accomplishments. Based on our conversation, her fiction and essays, various speeches I found on YouTube, and the seminar she taught at Antioch’s Winter MFA residency, I was left with an impression of Susan’s clarity of purpose, as well as her no-nonsense perspective on hard work and dedication.

The award-winning author of eight novels, countless essays and short stories, Susan Straight is also a well-loved professor at UC Riverside’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, which she co-founded. She was a finalist for the National Book Award for Highwire Moon and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for A Million Nightingales. She has won the Edgar Award and the O. Henry Award for her short stories and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Robert Kirsch Award. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope, McSweeneys, The Ontario Review, The Oxford American, The Sun, Black Clock, and others. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Harpers, The Nation, and other magazines. She was born, raised, and still resides in Riverside, California.

Diana Greenwood: This past December, you taught a seminar at Antioch entitled, “Is Regional Fiction Some of the Best in American Fiction?” where you stressed the importance of landscape in story. Can you speak to the function and importance of landscape in your novels?

Susan Straight: Some of the writers I brought up in the presentation, like Alistair Macleod who writes about Cape Breton and William Gay who writes about a small rural place in Tennessee, writers like us use landscape as a major character.

For me, the landscape of fictional Rio Seco but also just Southern California in general, that’s always a major character in anything I write. From the very beginning, when I was sixteen or seventeen and writing my first short stories, I wanted to write about the way pepper trees looked and the way their branches drooped. I described them variously as dusty rooster tails or if there’s a Santa Ana wind and you’re under a pepper tree, it feels like seaweed swaying all around you. Even the very last thing I wrote, which was an op-ed piece for the LA Times about the bookmobile, I went back to the pepper tree and realized that I’d been writing about the same landscape for my whole life. Everything from what blooms here, to how the ground looks at the end of August, to how the sky looks, that’s very important to my fiction.

DG: I have heard you say that two things, originally that there are two types of people: those who leave and those who stay, and then later, you added a third categorythose who leave and come back. After toying with the idea of being a Brooklyn writer, you returned to Riverside. What is it about your childhood, your memories, and your life in Riverside that creates a need for storytelling?

SS: I wasn’t a Brooklyn writer because I didn’t even know what Brooklyn was back then. But when I was younger and read stories and novels set in New York City, I wanted to live someplace where there was a fire escape and tall buildings. I wanted to have an apartment and be able to sit out on the fire escape and read. That was my romantic vision of New York.

I was speaking at Rancho Los Alamitos, a historic place near Long Beach, and I was giving a talk. And a woman came up after me and she said there’s a third kind, “those who come back.” She had come back to Southern California after having been gone. We were trying to figure out if that made us sentimental or whether it made us losers.

For me, I left for USC and then I left for two years to go to Massachusetts for graduate school. When I was in Massachusetts, it was winter and it was twenty-seven below zero and there was snow. I still kept writing about palm trees and graffiti and chain-link fences and bougainvillea and realized again that the landscape of Riverside was what was calling me. But also I think I knew back then that no one else had really written about Riverside. People had written about inland Southern California. Laura Kalpakian writes about a fictional San Bernadino landscape and some people had written about the desert. But there was really no one who had written about a place like Riverside so that’s why I ended up doing it.

DG: Your novels illuminate communities, cultures, and people that exist in a very real sense in the United States, but that have often remained unexamined. As an author writing these intimate stories, some of which are culled from your own neighborhood, what is your responsibility in regard to the communities you are writing about?

SS: Since I still live in exactly the same place where I was born, I don’t know if I feel a responsibility about it. People tell me stories every day and I think it’s important for fiction to tell a good story. I’m telling stories about people for the most part no one hangs out with or no one ever hears about.

For example, a guy that came over this morning, Louie Lozano, who’s a Chicano guy born in Corona whose parents are from Mexico. I’ve known him for probably fifteen years. When we talk about old Corona or working in the lemon groves or my brother and his orange grove, he’s a natural storyteller. I don’t know if I feel responsibility towards anybody. Because he doesn’t care. He would never read anything I wrote anyway.

The responsibility is more to the reader to tell a great story that somebody is not going to put down. That’s the best way I can think of honoring a community is by making sure people actually read about them and don’t put the book down.

DG: To push that idea of community a little further, what sort of impact does what happened in Ferguson or is happening in Baltimore have on our artistic responsibility towards social justice? Does this affect you as a writer?

SS: Ferguson and Baltimore are examples that have gotten national attention. But as you know, we’ve been having police shootings and other shootings in Southern California for fifty years. I’ve been writing about that for my whole life. In fact, I published a story, “Angel Wings,” about a police shooting in 2010 that was just taught in Romania and Turkey and several other places. Because I just got an email from Romania, from someone who taught the story to her class and they were crying. There is plenty of social justice to write about here in our area. I haven’t thought about Ferguson and Baltimore because we have so much to write about here. I think I’ve written about twenty short stories and essays about black men and violence in this area.

DG: In an interview with the LA Times last year, you spoke about where you have written your novels: at a gas station counter, in cars, on your porch, on legal pads, and small notebooks. Many new writers are overly concerned with finding the perfect setting or time for writing. What advice do you give to your MFA students about getting over these limitations and fears?

SS: If you always have to wait for the muse to come, it’s going to take a long time. Especially if you have kids, you know how that goes. It’s good to be resilient and be able to write wherever you can and not to think about yourself and think about the imperative nature of the stories you want to tell.

If you look at professional basketball players or actors, they’re working all the time. Basketball players, they’ll play at the park, they’ll shoot free throws wherever. Actors and actresses are working all the time. Some of my best friends have always been hair stylists. It’s really funny. They’ll look at your hair wherever. When I’m in church, my friend, Tracy, will look at my hair and be like, “You need to come in tomorrow.” I’ll say, “I know.” And she’s like, “If you don’t come in pretty soon, I’m going to bring scissors to church. I’m just gonna do your hair here.” I always thought that was funny because writers, we’re workers like anyone else. Even though we are making art, it is funny to say I can only write at this time or I can only write under these conditions. I think a lot of people feel this way but I never have. I’ve been too desperate.

DG: In the same article, you dispel some misconceptions about being a mother and a writer, namely that we cannot find inspiration amidst the chaos of motherhood. You wrote in your car waiting for your girls’ practices to be over. Did you ever feel like you were not writing enough or getting enough on paper amidst all the time constraints of being a mother, a young mother, a single mother?

SS: I worked as hard as could and I had all these kids and I was teaching. I always wanted more time to write. That never changed. I never felt guilty that I wasn’t getting enough down on paper. I was writing pretty much every minute that I wasn’t with my kids or working. I didn’t watch a lot of TV during that time. I watch more TV now, that’s for sure. I published a novel every two years for a while. My last kid was born in 1995 and I published Highwire Moon in 2001. Then it was more like five years between books because the kids were in junior high and high school. They played a lot of sports and I did a lot of driving. But that was also a trilogy that just took more time to think about. I never feel guilt because I’m always working.

DG: Your Rio Seco trilogy began with the historical fiction, A Million Nightingales, then was followed by Take One Candle Light a Room, and ended with the prequel, Between Heaven and Here. It took fifteen years for you to complete these three books. Can you speak to the conception and development of this trilogy? How did you know when it was completed?

SS: Interestingly enough, it started out with several images: there was the young woman who was killed and her body left in a shopping cart; then this boy I met in my middle daughter’s kindergarten class, having seen cigarette burns on him; and then the woman I found during slavery. I found her by accident in the stacks at the UC Riverside library while looking for something else and there was a story about a mixed race slave woman named Manon Baldwin. She was freed after saving her master’s wife but she had to buy her son from him. Then she owned her son and couldn’t free him.

I had started the present day story about the woman killed in the alley and her body left in a shopping cart. Then I thought about the mothers. Somehow there was this relationship between the mothers and daughters that was based on a lot of sternness and fear because that had been passed down from slavery. And that’s why I ended up starting with A Million Nightingales. The idea of mothers and daughters separated when the daughter is sold away and then this daughter having to buy her own son. After that, I went back to Between Heaven and Here but I couldn’t quite finish it yet because I wasn’t sure about the son, the boy that had been burned.

So I ended up writing Take One Candle Light a Room, which is about Fantine, a travel writer. She was a little easier to focus on then and she’s the one who hears, “There’s two kinds of people, people who leave and people who stay.” She hears that from her own mother. So I was still trying to write about mothers and daughters and that relationship, which is: we want you to stay home yet we want you to be successful. But there are some mothers that just want you to stay home and that was Fantine’s mom. I was finally able to come back at the very end and finish Between Heaven and Here.

I still am writing about Victor. He shows up in a book I’m working on right now. So I don’t know that I’m done. I’ve finished that trilogy which is about that family. But the one character who is still showing up now and then is Victor and a little bit of Glorette.

DG: What are you working on now?

SS: I’m finishing a novel that’s set in Prince Edward Island, which is a completely different landscape. Maritime Canada, that’s the landscape of my stepdad. I’m finishing that now. There’s a section that takes place in Southern California and Victor is in that. But this one is in the land of Anne of Green Gables. And it’s two cousins whose mothers were sisters and their mothers both left the island. So it’s also about leaving and staying home.

Then the other project I have is a group of linked short stories all set around different freeways of Southern California. That’s called Take the Golden State. I just finished two more of the stories in that one. I think there are ten stories in that now. Maybe two more to go.

DG: A lot of your characters range in ethnicity, age, class, education, time period, and even to a certain extent, geographical location. How do you approach writing these varied voices?

SS: It’s just all fun. They are all great voices. Like you said, everything from Louie Lozano telling his story, to me meeting somebody down on the river bottom and while I’m walking the talk, they tell me the story of their life. As long as it’s an interesting story in a distinctive voice, I think they’re all fun. I guess I don’t ever think about myself. I just think how to tell the story right so it doesn’t bother me if they’re all different. Although I don’t know much about rich people, I will confess.

DG: What does a recommended reading list look like in one of your classes?

SS: That depends on what class it is. I teach seminars for graduate students. I teach the mixed race novel class for three hundred undergraduates. For that, we do books with narrators who are mixed race. So we’ve done Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr, Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Heidi Durrow, Everything I’ve Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, and Highwire Moon, which is mine. So that’s four books with young mixed race narrators.

I’ve taught a class called “Road Trip Novels.” And then we did Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. We did Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines. We did Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontesand we did Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

DG: Obviously your students learn a great deal from you. What have you learned from them?

SS: They tell great stories. I just had a publishing roundtable at UCR last week. I had two agents and two editors come and talk about the business of publishing and the way it works and what they’re interesting in. I had two alumni come. One is Minh Pham. He finished a memoir about growing up as the immigrant son of a Vietnamese woman who works in a nail salon. His essays are about what it’s like to grow up in this landscape of the nail salon, which is a hidden landscape in America.

Then I have another student, Paula Tang, who is half Korean and half Chinese. She’s almost done with this really funny collection of stories about growing up in this small mostly white community where there’s only one Chinese restaurant. And how all the people only want specific Chinese food that has nothing to do with the character who knows how to cook. With my students, there’s always a joy in hearing a different story that no one has ever told before. I never get tired of that.

DG: Thank you, I appreciate your time.

SS: Well, hang in there with the kids.

DG: I have two and I’m a single mom now so it’s a bit nuts. But it is funny how the less time I have the more I’ve actually gotten done.  It’s sort of what you talk about—a bit of a misconception. But I think a lot of young writers are paralyzed by those fears. I really appreciate what you’ve shared, in the seminar and the articles I’ve read, about your experience being a mother and working writer.

SS: Isn’t it funny? Whether someone’s a painter or anything else, you always hear about someone who is just morosely sitting around waiting for that moment to come. But I don’t think we have that luxury when we are single parents, when we are parents at all, but especially single parents.

And it’s not about whether trying to earn money either, it’s more like, “What are you going to leave behind in the world?” I would always say I want to leave behind three great kids and a bunch of great books. So if that’s what I want to leave behind, then there’s way less time to sit around feeling sorry for myself. But it’s true there’s less shopping. I don’t even care about clothes. I just wear whatever I wear. I don’t care so much about how my house looks or my car or any of that stuff. That’s the stuff that’s less important to me. But every single moment that I could be reading and writing, that’s what I want to do.

Diana GreenwoodDiana Greenwood is currently an MFA student at Antioch University of Los Angeles and Fiction Assistant Editor for Lunch Ticket. She has translated texts from French to English (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written blogs for the Huffington Post. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys, husband, and an unstable Boston Terrier named Oliver.

Ayesha’s Dream

Listen. . .

On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.

In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.

So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.

“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.

“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.

“Do you know which way to go?”

“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.

The rat hopped into the air, then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.

“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk.  Is that bread for your journey?”

“Yes.”

“Not just any bread will do, you know? Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”

Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”

The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be. . .very white, because if it were not, it would be. . .dark.  And my oh my, dark bread, you”―the rat stopped, then leaped into the air―”you would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”

Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.

“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.”  In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.

“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.

“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba.  “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”

“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”

“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”

Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”

Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.

“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk. . .”

“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.”  Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.

*     *     *

The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.

“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”

“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”

“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”

The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.

“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”

*  *  *

In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”

Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream.  Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.

As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.

“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”

It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.

“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig.  What will we do?”

The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”

“How do you know where the water is?”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”

“Hear what?”

“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”

The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort.  After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”

“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.

“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.

“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.

One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”

“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.

“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it.  Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.

“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”

“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.

Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”

*     *    *

At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until―”

“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”

“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well.  First, let’s go…that way.”

Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.

Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side―at this the line of rats hopped in the air, but then kept walking.

Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”

The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.

“Yes, I hear it.”

“Me, too.”

“My, the water sighs loudly.”

But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.

“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”

Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.

“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”

Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.

“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”

*     *     *

When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.

“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”

Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”

No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.

And she had an idea.

Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole.  Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.

Then she giggled.

*     *     *

Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement.  But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well diggers!”

The well diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.

“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.

*     *     *

Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.

“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”

“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”

“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”

“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”

The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”

“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”

Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”

Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.

*     *     *

Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.

Ed Taylor

Ed Taylor is the author of the novel Theo (Old Street), the poetry collection Idiogest (BlazeVox) and the chapbook The Rubaiyat of Hazmat (BlazeVox). His fiction, poetry, and essays have most recently appeared in New World Writing, Louisville Review, Great Lakes Review, and Gargoyle. He received a fiction writing MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles.

Myth: Mixed Media

The House on Tator Hill

All night the wind strummed the shingles,
while I slept with my jaw like a fist.
She wanted sex first thing in the morning
to the rhythm of the percolator’s clicks.

Her aunt had a real Chagall hanging over the piano.
She stocked the freezer with Grey Goose, then traveled for months.
We claimed the guest room, the basement, the patio.
We warmed the Veuve on our tongues.

I watched it snow through the window in the spare room
that winter––little nobody’s window, hardly-used, hardly-seen––
and felt the ecstatic twinge of a poem.
Then April lent March a mouthful of green:

two chocolate meringues and those daffodils, double-busted;
all the times I tripped across the overlapping rugs.
She melted butter in pans while the garden trellis rusted.
Every now and again, my knees bled in the tub.

The pond smelled sour even after we smoked pot
and a doe pranced down and sipped from its edge.
I didn’t belong in that house, or in any of its portraits,
but we tried to make a home of its four-poster bed.

Cassie PruynCassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She earned her MFA through the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems and reviews can be found in AGNI Online, ENTROPY, and The Double Dealer, with work forthcoming from The Normal School, 32 Poems, and Blue Lyra Review. She was a finalist in the 2013 and 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and a finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize.

Secrets from the Underworld

The living room is bleached with a raw November light. I sidestep along a pristine white wall, past three perfectly aligned matted prints of geometric shapes, to the gleaming bookcase and consider the alphabetically organized books, all nonfiction. I keep my hands to myself.

On Tuesday, Dad’s friend, Brett, lost his uncle, and fifteen minutes ago, my parents dropped me off here before heading to Pittsburgh for the funeral. No need to drag a fourteen-year-old to a funeral. That’s the story they’re telling each other and probably anyone asking, “Where’s Stephanie? ”They’re not going to mention the truth which has more to do with thieving and secrets and extraordinary deliciousness.

I’m here to learn how to make my grandmother’s apple strudel.

Grandma Mahr—not the plump, smiling, bedtime-story sort of grandmother but more of a thin, handsome, what’s-on-sale-at-Boden.com woman—selects a card out of her recipe box, rises from the sofa, and cuts to the chase with, “So your mom wants to know how to make my apple strudel?”

I stick my hands in my pockets and shrug.

“Don’t slouch.”

I straighten my back and, since she’s still frowning at me, remove my hands from my pockets, hesitate, then gingerly fold them in front of me. I look like I’m praying. “I also want to learn.”

“Hmm.” She leads the way into the kitchen, pausing to ease off her shoes outside the doorway.

Walking past the covered sofa, I hear the muffled tune of a familiar commercial. Granddad’s watching television in the basement. That’s where he lives. Literally. He’s lived down there ever since he and Grandma divorced. This doesn’t strike me as a weird arrangement. For as long as I’ve been around, it’s always been this way.

I slip behind the covered armchair and remove my shoes, too. My sneakers are sad, dirty disappointments next to her shiny, black loafers.

“I’ll show you, but it’s not something you just watch and learn.” She perches the recipe card on the windowsill between a pot of basil and a pot of rosemary, unbuttons her cuffs, rolls up the sleeves of her white blouse, and heads for the sink. As she washes her hands, she adds, “Strudel’s something you do, over and over again. When you’ve made it many times, you might make it correctly.” She grabs the towel off the oven bar to dry her hands and eyes me critically. “But I guess you have to start somewhere. You’re the only one to pass this on to.”

“Ah…thanks.” I shuffle to the sink to wash my hands.

Then she orders me to the pantry and begins to rap out ingredients. As I struggle to keep up, fumbling the flour (“Not cake flour.”), salt (“Put the kosher back. Get the table salt.”), cinnamon (“That’s the cheap stuff. The Korintje is better.”), and sugar (“White, please.”), I alternately cringe and remember to stand up straight, so that I practically undulate like a tortured snake.

While I make a mess of finding the pantry ingredients, she pulls items from the fridge. Milk gets poured into a small saucepan. She lets it heat for a few minutes before shutting off the flame. In a separate pan, she melts a stick of butter then turns and organizes the collection on the kitchen table, pausing to grimace at the all-purpose flour. “Nothing’s as fine as Hungarian flour.”

I have no idea if that’s true, but I nod anyway. Though Grandma Mahr’s parents grew up in Hungary, close to the Austrian border, she never lived there herself. But I’ve heard her slam American television, American politics, and American eating habits enough times to conclude her parents must have passed down a certainty of the motherland’s superiority in all things. Including all-purpose flour, apparently.

I pick up a bottle of apple cider vinegar. “What’s this for?”

“Ah. That’s one of the secrets.” She takes the vinegar from me and returns it to the table.

I can’t help it: I give her a disbelieving look. I’m not about to steal the vinegar.

Her mouth quirks, but she merely says, “We need to work the dough to make it elastic, but a few drops of vinegar will keep it from toughening.”

“How do you work it?”

“Kneading. Have you ever tried to knead?”

I shake my head.

She seizes the sifter and begins snowing flour and a bit of salt directly onto the table. No bowl. No measuring cups. She pokes the center of the mound, swirls it open, cracks an egg, and empties it into the well. The pile looks like a miniature volcano about to erupt. “Your mother—with her homemade baguettes and homemade ciabattas—she probably uses her KitchenAid, right?”

I nod slowly, worried I’m somehow betraying my mother. Grandma Mahr spat the name of the appliance like a curse.

“Using a mixer—” She stops talking to splash a tiny amount of vinegar on top of the yolk, pour the warmed milk into the well, yank a fork out of the silverware drawer, and start whipping the murky liquid. “That’s cheating.”

“Her breads taste good, though.”

She dismisses this with a grunt. “Watch.” Under her swift hands, the volcano collapses in on itself and blurs into a lumpy mass. She lifts the bag of flour and pours, swipes some across part of the table, and moves the jagged ball to the white center. She begins to knead, drawing in the extra flour from time to time. “As soon as the dough starts sticking, you need more flour.” This continues—mashing, collecting, turning, mashing, collecting, turning. The heels of her hands squashing the dough and her fingers jerking it back with a quick, whirling, hauling sort of slap.

As I stand there doing nothing, the lumpy ball slowly smoothes and takes on a gloss. The transformation impresses but doesn’t surprise me. This is Grandma Mahr. I imagine my father’s childhood. His ball-throwing, running, yelling, and jumping systematically vanquished from the house, and his unruliness kneaded out of him, leaving him entirely pliable, neat, and obedient. I see my mother. A managing woman herself, when she occupies her own turf but, on Christmas Eve, in this kitchen’s doorway, a cowering subordinate, holding protectively at her breasts her prized blue Dutch oven or the red snowman platter, certain the best recipe she discovered during the course of the year will fail to impress her mother-in-law and, every winter, absolutely right on this account. I think of Granddad. A broke boozer banished to the basement and doomed to perpetual humiliation, literally under Grandma Mahr’s foot. And then there’s me: a mumbling, bumbling sloucher whenever I step foot in this small ranch on the hill at the edge of Coraopolis.

Straightening my back, I glance down at my t-shirt and jeans. I’ve hardly done a lick of work, but I’m smudged with flour. Grandma Mahr, with the exception of her hands, is perfectly clean.

“Good. Done.”

When she takes her floury hands away, the dough gleams like a pearl. But it’s small, about the size of her fist. “Not very big, is it?”

[blockquote align=left]“Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ”

She washes and dries her hands. “Big enough. You’ll see.” After transferring it to a mixing bowl, she brushes the dough with some of the melted butter and covers it with a cloth. “Now we talk apples.”

She sits on one of the stools by the door but, before I can do the same, jerks her chin in the direction of the sink. “You can wipe down the table. ” She taps her fingertips together. “Apples, Stephanie,” she says. “Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ” She crosses her long legs, slowly bobs her foot while I wipe the table then abruptly leans forward. “What kind of apple does your mother use?”

I return to the sink with a washcloth full of white crumbs. “Well, I guess she likes a little peanut butter on slices of Gala for breakfast some morn—”

“Not to eat. For baking.”

“Oh.” I start rinsing the washcloth, watching in alarm as the dough particles turn gummy and adhere to the fibers. I twist the cloth and return to the table to wipe it again, hoping she doesn’t notice the sticky white strands. “I don’t know for sure. They’re a bright green…”

“Ah-ha!” Her expression turns menacingly satisfied. “Granny Smith, no doubt. Americans are utterly infatuated with Granny Smith apples.”

Grandma Mahr’s American, too. You’d never know it.

Why?” She barks a harsh, mean laugh. “Grannies are sour and hard.”

I peek up from my table scrubbing. Does she hear the irony? No.

I rinse out the cloth, and as soon as I return it to its post between the purple one and the red one (What’s the red washcloth for?), my grandmother rises. “Come with me. I’ll introduce you to some better options than your mother’s Granny Smith.” I trail her into the living room. She halts at the door leading to the basement and yanks it open. “Hank?”

No one answers, but I hear the soft sounds of a televised game: cheering crowds, the excited announcer. Sounds like hockey, but it’s a Saturday morning. Granddad must have saved a Penguins game on his DVR.

“Hank!”

Still no answer, but the volume on the television noticeably increases.

Grandma Mahr huffs and peers into the gloom. “Hank, would you answer me please? What are you doing down there?”

The sound of the game disappears. I hear a muttered curse and a clang, perhaps the remote getting slapped onto the side table. “What do you think I’m doing, Liz? I’m working in my meth lab.” His voice is growing closer. He blows a sigh then begins stomping up the stairs, continuing with, “I’m starting up my bookie business. I’m entertaining sexy strip—oh, um. Hello, Stephanie.”

Grandma Mahr observes his startled face with narrowed eyes. “Your granddaughter’s visiting for the morning.”

“So I see.”

“Hi, Granddad.”

After his rant, I don’t know where to look. He doesn’t know where to look. We blindly find each other for a hug.

My grandmother smiles slightly during this awkward exchange, one of her eyebrows levitating in evil delight. “It’s always ‘poor Granddad, poor Hank, poor, pathetic sap forced to live under the wicked witch,’ but now, Stephanie, now you see a little glimpse into his true nature. Don’t feel so sorry for the prisoner. He’s in prison for a reason.”

Granddad scowls. Though Grandma Mahr’s tall, he’s taller, and when he stares down at her, he looks a little like Clint Eastwood in the old movies my father watches Friday nights, the kind where problems get solved with fast-moving guns in silent, dusty streets. “What do you want?” he asks.

“Baking apples.”

The irritation vanishes from his face. “You’re making strudel?”

“With our granddaughter’s help.”

He looks at me, and I shrug. Help exaggerates my role. So far, I’m nothing but a pantry item finder and table washer.

Grandma says, “We’ll need a Winesap, two Braeburns, a Jonagold, and a Gala. Make that two Galas if they’re small.”

He nods and, as Grandma returns to the kitchen, smiles at me. “Want to come with?”

“Sure.”

He waves me ahead, but when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I pause. I’ve been down here dozens, even hundreds of times but don’t recall seeing apples.

“This way.”

He trudges through his makeshift living room area, and I follow, past the Steelers blanket that sprawls over half of his brown chair, past the breaker box, and past the golf ball collection arranged in a wooden case that looks like a spice rack. The chest freezer clicks on and hums. He pulls a string overhead to turn on a naked light bulb then opens a door to a room I’ve never entered.

The basement’s mustiness sharpens and sweetens. In the dim space, an entire wall of shelves houses Ball jars: quarts, pints, and half-pints. I make out my grandmother’s sauerkraut, pickled beets, grape juice, tomato juice, whole tomatoes, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, peaches, and pears. On another wall, two shelves hold sparkling jams: bright red strawberry, seed-speckled raspberry, golden peach, and blackish Concord. On another wall, butternut and buttercup squashes share shelves with potatoes and onions. But the apples take up the rest of the room, and it’s the apples that scent it, too. As he bends over the bushel baskets, Granddad mutters under his breath, “Winesap, Jonagold, a couple Galas…what was the last one? Honeycrisp?”

“Braeburns, I think.”

He selects two brightly colored apples and passes them to me. His big hands easily hold the others. Straightening, he glances around. “Which jam’s your favorite?”

“Um…strawberry?”

He shuffles the apples into one arm and grabs a pint-sized jar. “Here.”

“Thanks, Granddad.”

He nods and widens the door for me.

Upstairs, he heads for the kitchen with the apples, but I veer toward the closet and slip the jar into my coat pocket, just in case Grandma Mahr doesn’t approve of me taking her jam. When I get into the kitchen, Granddad’s sitting on the same stool she occupied a few minutes ago, and my grandmother’s at the sink washing apples.

She takes mine, washes those, too, then dries her hands. “Let’s chop them up.”

We sit at the table and peel and dice. Every so often, she hands me a small slice with an instruction: “Give that a sniff. Braeburns smell wonderful.” “Winesaps are juicy; aren’t they?” “Jonagolds will balance all the sweetness with a little sour.” And the last one: “Galas are good cooking apples. Ignorant people think they’re just for eating.” The condescension in her tone clarifies that by “ignorant people,” she means my mother. “But Galas have a beautiful texture after baking. They’ll hold their shape until they melt in your mouth.”

Half of the time, however, she talks to Granddad. Drills might be a better word. She wants to know if he called back someone named Suds, asks him if he remembered to shut off the water to the hose out back, reminds him he’s due for a colonoscopy, and tells him Save-a-Bunch has a sale on turkeys, sixty-three cents a pound.

He responds with grunts and grimaces and leans forward from time to time to select a peel and eat it.

Things happen quickly after that. She plucks a thick slice of bread out of the toaster and hands it to me. “Dice it as fine as you can.” And while Granddad holds the remaining peels in his hands and keeps munching, Grandma Mahr wipes the table again and plunges into a long complaint about Germany and austerity cuts and poor people freezing to death in Greece because they can’t afford to pay their electric bills.

I don’t understand the topic, so it doesn’t distract me from the things she’s doing—chopping almonds and pecans, toasting them in a frying pan, running a lemon against a zester over a bowl, tossing the fragrant yellow threads with my finished breadcrumbs and a heaping spoonful of cinnamon, draping a fresh cloth over the entire surface of the cleared table, and liberally showering and rubbing it with flour.

I’ve never seen my mother do anything like this with flour and a tablecloth, but when I glance at Granddad, he obviously misinterprets my curious expression because he pauses in his apple peel chewing to explain, “Germany’s important because she thinks she’s European.”

Grandma Mahr flicks him a dirty look but doesn’t say anything. She has the gleaming ball of dough in the center of the floured, covered table now. At first, she spreads it with a rolling pin, just like anyone making apple pie, but then she sets the pin in the sink, returns to the circle of dough, and slips her fingers under it.

Hands clenched, palms down, she starts in the center and begins to stretch the dough. I see her knuckles travel under the round. They find the center and gently tug toward the edge then slip back to the center and tug again, coaxing the dough wider and thinner. She repeats this, circling the table, working quickly but precisely, with long, even draws. “Play it out carefully,” she murmurs. “In the best Hungarian kitchens, you have to start over if you rip it.”

The dough grows and grows and grows some more, thinning to transparency. It stretches to two feet square then three then four then five. And her hands beneath it make it look alive, organic—a prehistoric creature caught in metamorphosis, a prenatal ripple under skin, a landmass shifting and expanding.

I’m astonished. It almost covers the entire kitchen table now and is sheer enough for me to see the tablecloth’s faded print of roses.

Grandma Mahr glances up, and my expression must please her because she smiles and says, “The story goes, you’re done when you can read a love letter through it.”

I check to see if Granddad is as awed as I am, but he’s frowning at my grandmother. He leans against the wall. “Aren’t you going to let Stephanie help?”

What? I shake my head, but he’s not watching me.

She stops. “Now?

“How’s she going to learn?”

“At this point, by watching.”

“And yet you always say a person can’t figure out strudel unless she makes it herself. You, Liz. You,” he points at her with his last peel, “are a control freak.”

I take a step back. “Really, Granddad, that’s okay.” I’m fourteen. I pour cereal in a bowl for a snack. I know how to cook a frozen pizza. I’m decent at decorating cut-outs, as long as I don’t have to get fancy. I understand my limitations. What Grandma Mahr’s doing requires expertise. Possibly alchemy. I possess neither.

“And you, Hank,” Grandma responds, ignoring me to glare at him, “are a bum.”

“I’d rather be a bum than a bitch.”

I hear her exhale then her gaze descends on me. “Come here, Stephanie.”

I take another step back. “I’m good with watching.”

[blockquote align=right]My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin.

“No, no. I can’t have Hank going around telling everyone I’ve neglected and abused you.” She waves an impatient hand, and I inch closer. Maybe to offer moral support, Granddad rises and walks to my side. More gently, my grandmother says, “Only the edge has anything to give now. Just ease your hands under it and slowly bring the thickness toward you.”

My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin. Yes: skin. I remember an eighth grade science class, when we learned human skin was actually an organ: the body’s first guard, protecting what’s inside, keeping a world of sickness and cold at bay.

I hold my breath and, after imitating how my grandmother closed her hands, try to maneuver the ridged edge a millimeter toward me.

Immediately, the dough tears. I freeze and blink at the slit, an inch from my clumsy knuckles. Then I remove my hands and clench them under my chin. I want to swear. I ought to apologize. But a horrible impulse to cry keeps me from speaking. Instead I raise my miserable gaze to my grandmother.

She’s not looking at me. She’s staring straight at Granddad—not with anger or even annoyance but with smugness. Behind me, Granddad mutters something under his breath and returns to the stool.

I swallow. “I’m sorry. ” Exhaustion makes me slump. I glance at the clock by the window. “Does this mean we have to start over?”

Grandma finally focuses on me, surprise in her face. “Heavens, no.”

Granddad shakes his head. “See? You scare the shit out of your own granddaughter.”

She scowls at him. “No, I don’t.” Then peering closely at my face, she asks, “Do I?” I shake my head but probably don’t come across as convincingly fearless because she gives my back a little pat. “Not to worry. We’ll patch it with a trimming.” Then she’s moving, pulling a paring knife out of the butcher block, circling the table, and slicing off long lengths of the quarter-inch rim. She covers the rip with a tiny piece. “We have to work quickly. If the dough dries too much, it’ll shatter when we roll it.” I hurry back a few feet but she points to her side. “Where are you going?” She hands me the saucepan with the melted butter. “Trickle half of this over the entire surface. Go ahead. Take it.”

I hold my breath again, certain I’ll screw up this job, too, but she doesn’t even watch me. She’s giving the cinnamon, crumbs, and lemon zest another toss with her hands. As soon as I’m finished, she scoops a cup of sugar out of a bin on the counter, turns, and scatters it over the butter-speckled surface. She does the same with the cinnamon mixture and orders me to follow her with the apples. Then she’s fast on my heels with the toasted nuts.

“Okay, Stephanie.” She plucks up an edge of the tablecloth. “You take that side.” Standing at her left, I pick up the adjacent corner. “We lift the cloth to make the dough roll. Carefully now. Keep the tumble loose. The dough will expand in the oven.” She doesn’t give me a chance to freak out but immediately begins rolling so that I only have time to imitate her speed and rhythm: flump, flump, flump, flump, flump, flump. And it’s over.

She carefully folds the edges of the rolled mass, as if she’s enclosing the sides of a half-wrapped present. After transferring a parchment-lined baking sheet to the table, she slides it next to the long, fat roll. “You take that side. Ready?” I hesitate and want to shake my head, but she says, “I can’t do this alone. It’s too big.” And because I have to, I run my hands under the roll, lift it when she does, and shift it to the pan, acutely aware, in the three seconds the strudel rests in my hands, of its weight and strange lumpiness and everything it encloses: yards of wound dough separating layers of spice and tartness and crunchy things and sweetness.

I exhale when I’m done and smile at Granddad.

He winks.

She shifts the roll into a horseshoe shape and brushes it with the last of the butter then runs her hands under the faucet at the sink, turns, and flicks water over the dough, like she’s baptizing it. “Good. Now we bake it.”

Before I can relax, she puts me on dishwashing duty, pointing out the permissible sponge and tapping the purple washcloth. Behind me, she winds up the tablecloth and returns containers to the fridge and cupboard. She occasionally adds dirty utensils, bowls, and pans to the sink. I take extra care with the dishes, scrubbing longer and rinsing more thoroughly than I would at home. And while Grandma Mahr works, she talks.

I’m surprised Granddad sticks around to listen. And now that I’ve survived the strudel challenge and can note what’s going on around me, the fact that he entered her kitchen in the first place strikes me as strange. Grandma Mahr and Granddad: they don’t usually overlap. But here he’s still sitting on the stool, angling it on its back legs, resting his head on the wall, and eating the dough trimmings. And just like my mother when she’s got my father cornered, Grandma Mahr’s barraging him, alternately complaining about politics and something Granddad did or didn’t do. With the warm water rushing over my hands and the baking cinnamon and apples beginning to perfume the air and my grandmother’s scolding comments about entitlement reform and sequester cuts and my grandfather’s blood pressure, I start to feel downright cozy.

But when she starts in on his cholesterol, Granddad growls, and the stool legs hit the floor. He rises with a groan and makes for the living room.

Grandma pauses to scan the kitchen. I’ve finished the dishes, and she’s cleaned up everything else. She nods. “Let’s pick out our plates.”

She trails Granddad, moving so quickly, it’s almost like she’s chasing him. To his back, she says, “You think, just because you’re thin, you don’t have to worry about your health. Plenty of skinny men have heart attacks and strokes, you know. It’s the cholesterol you’ve got to check. And you’re ignoring your choles—”

Granddad glares at her over his shoulder. “You wear me out.” He stomps past the bookcase, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m taking a nap. Call me when the strudel’s ready.”

“Yes, go take a nap,” Grandma grumbles, now directing her frown at the china cabinet where she stands with the upper glass doors opened, before rows of artfully stacked bowls and plates. “Go take a nap, like a bad little boy, all worn out from fooling around and eating whatever he wants, drinking whatever he wants, never thinking about what’s good for him.”

I hardly register what she’s saying because I’m watching Granddad and wondering where the hell he’s going.

Instead of wrenching open the basement door and stomping down the stairs, he heads down the hallway and kicks open the door to Grandma Mahr’s room. The hinges creak. The sound seems to stir him from his grumpy distraction because he halts. The sound arrests my grandmother’s attention, too.

His gaze flies our way. He shuffles at the threshold, moving back a step and forward a step and back again. “Shit.”

I look over my shoulder. My grandmother’s face is suspiciously red, her eyes now militantly averted.

Then down the hallway, Granddad suddenly snaps, “Screw it.” And the next thing I know, he’s in her room.

He shuts the door, hard enough to send askew the first of the three matted prints by the bookcase. The slant has turned the layered, dull-colored squares into diamonds.

Grandma Mahr selects three dessert plates, bordered with violets. “We’ll use the fine china.” She turns stiffly and heads for the kitchen, not even pausing to straighten the tilted print.

I don’t either. A little crookedness doesn’t bother me.

Melissa OstromMelissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York with her husband and children. She serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her four-year-old and six-year-old let her. Her fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Oblong, Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and elsewhere.

What can I tell you (an Ars Poetica)

What can I tell you?

I confess
from you I learned
sweat is poison as well as nectar,

& there is no good word
for how I linger as you exhale.

I confess
I am a cracked mirror,
& you are a stone, a bird,
starlight tickling the fractures.

From you I learned jilting
doesn’t require stepping away.

I confess
I drink your furious glow
like the color black,
like a poet

whose mouth is a bucket,
whose head is an ocean of roses.

Roberto GarciaRoberto Carlos Garcia’s published works include the chapbook amores gitano (gypsy loves) (Červená Barva Press, 2013), his poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, Bold As Love Magazine, Entropy, PLUCK!: The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, The Rumpus, 5 AM Magazine, Wilderness House, Connotation PressAn Online Artifact, Poets/Artists, Levure Litteraire, and others. His translation of Pablo Neruda’s Heights of Macchu Picchu & Other Poems is forthcoming from Červená Barva Press in 2016. A native New Yorker, Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry Translation from Drew University and is Instructor of English at Union County College.

Some Lines of Feeling 

“Autumnthat season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tendernessthat season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

The oppressive, heavy, humid heat of another climate change Ohio Valley River summer makes way for fall. Makes way for winds that blow away lingering dew drops in the morning grass. Makes way for skies that do not lighten until I’m almost home from working the night shift. This is my favorite time of year, the time of year that makes me stop and think, pause and reflect on change as green leaves turn fiery before drying up and blowing away. As the wind blows goosebumps along the patches of skin left bare between my scarf and cardigan, and as pumpkins and Indian corn overtake berries and peaches at the farmer’s market down the street, I always think of the past—how different things are now, how many people are missing from my life. More than anything, fall makes me think about academia. As wool and double-knit takes the place of summer dresses in my wardrobe, I think about dry leaves crunching underfoot as I make my way along sidewalks between classes. This is my new year, much more than January 1.

And most of all, I think about Ralph.

In my early twenties, after a failed first attempt at college and several years spent aimlessly drifting from job to job, I enrolled at a community college in downtown Louisville. The buildings housing the classrooms where gifted professors rekindled my love for literature and creative writing—and kindled my love for philosophy and social justice—were sandwiched between high rises, fast food joints, and subtly-labeled services for the invisible: homeless shelters, rehab centers, food closets, and soup kitchens. Their clientele stood on the sidewalks between the main campus building and the languages building four blocks away, men and women who had seen better days and who now spent their days asking for spare change. I gave what I could, but didn’t often carry cash.

I spent most of my lunch breaks at the Taco Bell across Broadway from the liberal arts building. Fast, cheap, and convenient, it was the perfect college meal. Taco Bell is where I met Ralph.

Weathered, beaten down, clad in so many layers of ripped and soiled jackets and pants that he could have weighed anywhere from 150 to 450 pounds, Ralph towered over my 5’1 frame. With his dusky skin darkened even more by car exhaust and street soil, he was like any number of the homeless I passed during my school days; except he wasn’t a number, he was Ralph.

I still can’t tell you how we clicked, the homeless Army vet alcoholic and the drifting, artsy-district dwelling, nerdy white girl. Maybe we were both drifting. Maybe we were both seeking what we’d lost—him to napalm and bomb-wired boys blowing themselves apart in Vietnam and protesters spitting in his face when he got back home, me to years under a lover’s controlling fists—but we did. Maybe it was the softness in his gaze under his wind-hardened face. But whatever it was, instead of walking past him with an “I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash” explanation when he asked for “just enough change for a taco, please, ma’am,” I gestured with my head to the door, saying “I have extra on my card. C’mon. I’ll buy you some lunch.”

It was awkward at first. I didn’t know how to eat without a book in front of me, and he hadn’t really eaten anywhere but soup kitchens and church basements in “Oh, ‘bout twenty years,” but we found ourselves in a booth by the window, a tray of tacos between us. He tried to grab a taco and leave, but I asked him to stay. I don’t know what spawned that—I don’t like eating with other people; I never know what to do with my hands if they don’t have a book in them, and can never figure out how many bites it’s polite to take in between words, but it seemed right. Not “right” as in “Oh, the right thing to do” charity line, but right as in “the right thing to do at the moment.”

“Do you go to that college?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Whatya studying?”

“Everything,” I shrugged. “I’m an English major, but I keep taking classes I don’t need. Philosophy and the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, mostly.”

He laughed, bits of lettuce falling in his lap from the taco. “I wanted to go to college. Thought I’d teach math.”

“I’m awful at math!”

“Well, I am now, too.” He pointed to a scar under the tight gray curls along his temple. “Uncle Sam took learning from me. I can’t remember much no more, can’t read no more, either.” He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Do you want to teach? Or write your own books like them you’re carrying in that heavy backpack?” he asked, pointing.

“I want to teach, yes, but more than anything, I want to write. Seeing my name on the spine of a book in the library—that would be heaven.”

He nodded. “You will. And I’ll buy it. You seem like a smart young lady. Stay in school. Don’t be like me. These streets—they’ll kill ya.”

I smiled. “I will.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I nodded. “I know.”

[blockquote align=left]He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

 

I don’t think either of us expected it to, but that lunch became routine. Once or twice a week—any time I got sick of packing sandwiches from home—I crossed the street to Taco Bell, and, more often than not, he’d be outside. “The manager, he’s a good man,” he told me. “He lets me sit out here, so long as I don’t bother nobody.” Over tacos, we exchanged stories. He told me about growing up in a coal mining town in Eastern Kentucky and going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and how he “never could read past kid books, but numbers—man oh man, I loved me some numbers. They was the most beautiful thing.” He dropped out, though, because he couldn’t pass English. He told me how a boy who’d never gotten in so much as a fist fight—Mama, she’d’ve kilt me”—could still be drafted to Vietnam, and how that same boy could watch his buddies get blown apart by bombs wired to the local boy who’d visited them every day for weeks. That blast, he told me, “shot something into my skull. I don’t know what, but I ain’t been right since.” After recuperating in a field hospital, he was flown home where he was greeted by protesters spitting in his face and the news that his high school sweetheart had married someone else. I told him about growing up an honor’s student who passed math because my little sister did my homework, and being in love with language and words, and being diagnosed with dyscalculia and A.D.D. in college, and about dropping out to take care of a man who wound up abusing me. There was a lot of head shaking over both stories.

Some weeks, I didn’t make it, especially during exams, but any time I did, Ralph was waiting for me. The last week before winter break, we ordered, same as always—ten soft tacos, four without lettuce for me, and two large sodas—but before I could dig my wallet out of my backpack to pay, he stopped me. “I been saving the change I get,” he said. “For Christmas.” The cashier rolled her eyes at the mound of quarters and dimes he plunked down, but to me the change sparkled like new snow. When I thanked him, he shrugged. “I always wanted a little girl. If I’d’ve had one, she’d be about your age.”

 

Louisville comes alive during Derby. Something about horseracing and bourbon brings in celebrities and inspires local women to dress in outrageous hats and fancy dresses. I’ve never understood the draw—in fact, I spend most Derbies passing out leaflets about the horses who didn’t run fast enough to qualify and wound up glue or dog food—but after meeting Ralph, the horses stopped seeming like the biggest casualty.

Derby brings in celebrities, like I said, and celebrities bring in glitz and glamour. Louisville rolls out the red carpet—trash-lined streets are suddenly swept clean, empty lots are planted with flowers, and artists are commissioned to turn horse statues into works of art. The homeless—of which we have nearly 10,000—are not sparkly, and so shelters are paid extra to put out more beds, and churches line their basements with cots, all to get the homeless out of sight and out of mind. I used to think this was a good thing; regardless of the motivation, any extra beds were a blessing. That is, until I realized that there are some people, like Ralph, who don’t want a borrowed bed.

Before that Derby, Ralph had never told me where or how he lived, just saying “I get by, same as everybody else.” On one of our lunches, Ralph was unusually quiet, mumbling short answers and looking at his lap and not at me.

“Is something wrong?”

“I ain’t got my home,” he responded.

I looked at him, trying to figure out a polite way to say “I know you’re homeless,” when he continued.

“The cops, they didn’t think tent city was the right place for us to sleep. So they took their bowie knives, like the one I used in the army, and sliced up the tents. They said we needed to sleep inside at the shelter for our own health.”

I touched his hand, not knowing what to say.

“So, I’m at a shelter. But it ain’t home.”

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

 

Who we are comes from what we do in a crisis. Do we remain calm and collected, or do we panic and freak out? Or, shamefully, do we run away and hide? If this is true, I don’t like who I am. Or at least, I don’t like who I was then. The moment I should have stood strong, I backed down and ran the other way.

If this was a movie, some feel-good Lifetime movie of the week, I’d end this telling you about how Ralph grew to like the shelter, got sober, and went back to school. There, he’d have a Good Will Hunting worthy moment where untapped gifts were brought to light, and he’d go on to MIT or Harvard. But this is real life, where happy endings are not guaranteed.

Around the same time tent city was being sliced up, Taco Bell went through a management change. The old manager, who let Ralph sit outside, quit. The new manager, a younger, hipper guy who wanted the restaurant to draw more students, papered the entrance door with event fliers and signs, offered a student discount…and put up a “No Loitering” sign. I don’t think he was malicious; I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing.

[blockquote align=right]I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

The week before Derby, I was walking across the street to meet Ralph. I only had a week left of classes before I transferred to a four-year university across the river in New Albany, and had a parting gift—a new jacket—in my bag for Ralph. The wind was warm, promising summer, and my feet skipped as I neared the Taco Bell. Just as I was about to wave hello, a cop car pulled in and rolled to a stop next to Ralph. Ralph looked up, expressionless, as two officers exited the cruiser. The younger put his hand on his gun when he realized how tall Ralph was, then pulled out his cuffs. “You have the right to remain silent…”

“What’d I do?” Ralph asked.

“Loitering. You can’t sit here. It ain’t safe.” In my memory, the officer sneered this, but I’m not certain if it’s my own rage darkening the exchange or if he was that callous.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, hurrying over. “He wasn’t loitering. He was waiting for me.”

“For you?” He looked me up and down, taking in my skirt and sweater, probably wondering why a clean-cut, obviously nerdy college girl was hanging out with a homeless man who smelled of yesterday’s booze and the desperation of the shelter.

“Yes.” I tried to ignore the trembling in my voice. “We eat lunch together every week.”

“Well, the manager, he called, said he’s been out here every day for hours.”

“He sits here all the time.”

The second officer walked over. “Welp, not anymore. See that sign? It says ‘No Loitering,’ so I’m going to need you to step away and let us do our job.”

“I can’t read that, sir,” Ralph said.

“Why? You blind?”

Ralph shook his head, defeated.

“He can’t read. That isn’t a crime,” I said.

“Look,” the first officer said, “you can either walk away or be arrested, too.”

“For what?”

“For being an accessory to a crime.”

“An accessory to loitering?” I asked in disbelief.

I wish I could say I stood my ground, that I was cuffed and put in the back seat behind that metal grille with Ralph, that I’d been with him as he was taken downtown. I wish I’d raised a fuss, called the media. But I didn’t. Ralph shook his head at me and got in the car. I raised a hand in farewell, but I don’t know if he saw me. I hope he did. I wish I didn’t remember how defeated he looked, a big man reduced to a scared little boy.

 

I never saw Ralph again. A soldier haunted by brain damage and the ghosts of alcoholism and long-dead friends, a man who saved his change to buy me lunch for Christmas because he always wanted a little girl, was reduced to a number, another victim of a system that measures success in beds filled and ignores lives lost.

I used to ache every spring at the memory of my friend in the backseat of that cruiser, but I stopped letting myself remember. Now, though, it’s fall, and like every fall, the leaves crisp and change colors, and I remember Ralph. Not the goodbye, but the “hello,” the budding of a new friendship and all the missed chances and opportunities.

“Write a book,” he told me when I told him I wanted to be a writer. “And I’ll buy it, and have someone read it to me.”

It isn’t a book, my friend, but a memory. Wherever you are, I hope you know I remember.

Karyl Anne GearyKaryl Anne Geary is an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College and works on a children’s psychiatric unit. She is the founder of the Rojong Yoin Writing Community in Louisville and is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University. Her essays and poetry have been published in Lunch Ticket, Sweet, New Southerner, so to speak, Stonecoast Review, IUSoutheast Review, and Barbaric Yawp. She is currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in Kentucky, and a segmented memoir about healing from personal trauma while simultaneously working with child trauma victims, and blogs at karylannewrites.wordpress.com.

I’m Beautiful

[flash fiction]

Darkness slow and deep, quiet, still, unmoving, unbreathing in a dark, sugary sleep: no pain, no joy, no sight, no sound, no taste, I remain floating, distant. I shall not wake up. I shall stay in this cotton-wool world, its soft-sleepy music lifting me up through the roof, through the banisters, the rooms up above, through the entire weight of the building, its steeple. I shall keep rising, like a froth of cloud.

I want to see my face, my not-face, my face he’s snatched from me. I want to know how much damage a cup of liquid can do, a Venti-sized, green-and-white plastic cup of liquid, all that burning afterward, the hot needles of burning in each pore of my cheek, my forehead, my throat, breasts, stomach. I thrash and snatch at the bandages, so they tie my hands, for my own good, they tell me, and put me upon this cloud. I’ll stay here in this cotton-wool cloud, see them when I can open my eyes better. The important thing is, they say, you still have eyes, we can save your eyes. Now, sleep.

I shall not face it, I have no face to face it with. He’ll come and finish me, I want to tell them, no use these tubes and covers and kindly voices. He has erased me, I don’t exist.

*     *     *

Two months since I lost my face.

You’re doing well, they say, you’ll go home next week. And don’t worry about him, he’s in jail, you’re far out of his reach.

I have seen it. I’ve seen the black mask. I’ve seen one eye glued shut, and the other, unblinking pupil. I have seen my teeth, no lips, two gaping holes instead of my nose. The head, peeling strips of skin. All the golden hair, gone. Nothing a wig and some make-up can’t fix, they say, you’ll see. I throw things at them. I throw words. Bad words. I want to throw the bed at them, the room.

Shush, honey, they say, hush, we’ll bring you back your face. Promise. They pat my face with creams and oils, with words and smiles, with soft looks, with the love of my parents. They bring me my dog, who knows me. Licks my face. Tickles me. Makes me laugh. Laugh. Laughter.

*     *     *

Look! How beautiful you look, Frieda, darling, they say, holding a mirror. Two years gone, but I have a face.

I look as they bid, and I see their hands, their laughter, their love, their tears, their sleepless nights, their hands holding mine, their starched white uniforms, their lab coats, the stethoscopes, the bedpans, the tubes, the jars of ointment. Two years.

I have eyes, I have a nose, I have lips, I have cheek, chin, throat. I have hair. Not my hair, but still, hair. The main thing is, they have given me a face.

No hiding now. I smile, and they smile with me. You’re beautiful, they tell me, and I say, yes, thank you, so are you.

Damyanti Ghosh_headshot_I'm Beautiful_flash fiction

Damyanti’s short fiction appears or is forthcoming at Griffith Review, The First Line, Ducts.org by New York Writer’s Workshop, and other journals in USA, UK, Singapore, and India. She’s featured in print anthologies by Twelve Winters Press, USA, and by major publishers in Malaysia and Singapore. Her one wish is to have a body double to do the chores, leaving her free to read and write fiction. She’s now wrestling with her first novel.

Pools, Crabs, and Wikipedia

The pool stayed the same for most of the year. Just a few meters from the beach. The waves came in far enough, breaking across the sand into the tangle of mangrove trees and long grasses, to give it just enough water to stay level with the well-padded trail that led from the small Honduran village to the shore. Bugs spawned in the yellowing water, and crabs hunkered down in the rocky bottom.

Julio Garcia walked this way every day. He’d finish work on Uncle’s long fishing boat, accept his meager pay of fifteen lempiras, buy fifteen lempiras of masa from the ancient looking señora Mondragon, and walk the path back to home so Mama could make that masa into tortillas. And every day Julio backtracked to throw bits of the corn flour into the pond. He picked a chunk, lightly rolling it between his brown fingers before letting it slip into the pool. Julio squatted down, hands pressing on dusty knees. He watched the ball fall down into the lichen-darkened water. It touched the bottom, balancing in a crack between the rocks for a moment. Then one claw emerged from the crack, then a pair of spindly eyes. In a swipe the masa was gone.

“Still watching those cangrejos, Julio?” a playful voice called.

Julio knew that voice. Suyapa Ordoñez. The daughter of Chepe, el jefe, the man who owned the group of lanchas where Julio worked with Uncle. He stood up smiling, “Ah yeah, well it’s either that or watch Mama make tortillas.”

Suyapa laughed, tugging on a strand of her hair. That hair, thought Julio, dark as driftwood pulled right from the sea, smooth and straight. Julio’s eyes caught on the red bow laced through her hair. She had been at the school in Choluteca today.

She knelt down to look into the pool. “What have the crabs taught you today?”

Julio began “Well, they eat what you throw in to them. Watch this.” Julio leaned over the water and spat into the middle. Sure enough after a moment one of the crustaceans flexed through the water, groping at the wad of saliva. “That’s it. Why don’t they leave the pool and go to the beach? More food there. More crabs to be with. No more spit.”

“More gulls to eat them too, yeah?” Suyapa raised an eyebrow.

Julio shrugged. It was hard for him to look at Suyapa. Every time, he got that strange feeling. Sort of like someone had lit a fire to cook tortillas in his stomach. They both sat down in the dirt.

Que tal la escuela?” he asked.

“Ah school? It was okay. You’d love this school, Julio.” The tortilla fire burned hot as she spoke his name. “You just learn stuff. But my favorite part is after, when we go to the cyber to use internet for our homework.”

“Yeah?” Julio had been to the little school here in Cedeño. He learned how to read and write until he was twelve. Then the girls in the village began to weave fishing nets, and the boys began to work on the lanchas. It had been two years since Julio had left school. Suyapa was the only one in the village whose Papa had enough to send her to the big school thirty kilometers away in Choluteca.

“Yeah, they showed us this place called…Wikipedia…it’s a weird name, but you just type in whatever you want, and you can read about it.”

Weeekeeepedeea?” Julio felt the strange word roll through his mouth.

“Yeah! I typed in ‘Cinderella.'” Her eyes widened. “You remember? From that movie we watched at my house?”

Julio remembered. Chepe’s house had a TV and a movie player. Sometimes, he’d round up some of the younger workers after the fishing was done, and they’d watch something. Most of the boys liked El Rapido y Furioso. They loved the speeding cars. Julio’s favorite had been Cielo de Octubre. He was fascinated by the learning process, how the boys had done the math and built the rockets. Suyapa, and the other girls of course always wanted the princess kind.

“They had so much about her. And other princesses too.” Suyapa nodded at Julio.

“So why do you go to school if this…weekee…can teach you everything?”

She laughed again. “You’re funny Julio. I’ve got to go home. See you.” She stood up, brushing the dust off her knee length blue school skirt. Julio watched her walk the path back to the village. She skipped down the road, sprays of sand lifting off the road and catching light. Suddenly she held her arms out, letting her skirt flair out. Spinning like a princess.

Julio’s feet padded through the sand. Sunlight arced through the coconut trees as he walked toward home. Other boys yelled at him to come play futbol before supper but he merely waved at them, continuing through the village with one new thought on his mind. “Wikipedia.”

*     *     *

Tuesday morning Julio rolled over in his hammock, eyes still closed. The air smelled of smoke. Mama was putting out breakfast.  He opened his eyes to the clay wall where they lived. It was cracked and crumbling. They had painted it once, or twice. White paint chips hung on the wall only by soil-studded tendrils that sprung out of the wall. Julio wondered about roots. He stretched, letting his fingers twist the fraying holes in his hamaca. Where did roots begin? Mama smiled at him.

Buenos dias hijo, quieres tortillas?”

Julio thought it was funny how Mama always said the same thing. You want tortillas? Tortillas. Most mornings that was the only option. But she still asked.

*    *     *

Julio hefted his side of the lancha. The rusted out grooves of the tarnished metal handle felt familiar in his hands. Uncle lifted the other side.

[blockquote align=left]“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”

Vamos, Julio, the sky is good right now.” Uncle looked at the sky. A sheet of clouds covered the entirety but the rising sun was still visible, like an ember behind grey ash. If it got too overcast that meant rain. Rain meant no fishing; the lanchas couldn’t handle the swells.

They ran with the fishing boat into the surf. Julio hopped into the front, holding on to the precious net while Uncle pushed the lancha into the grey water. Then Uncle lifted himself in. They floated for a minute, and Uncle started the old motor.

The dull thwack of the propeller blades sounded from the lancha. Uncle turned to Julio. His forehead crinkled from years of sun and salt.

“Today we will have enough pes to make Chepe happy, eh?”

Julio nodded.

“You are already a good pescador, hijo.”

Hijo. That was a word Uncle used for Julio a lot, even though Julio wasn’t his son. He was brother to Julio’s father. The unknown father who had left before Julio had been born. Mama didn’t talk about him a lot. And that was fine by Julio. Plenty of kids in Cedeño didn’t have Papa around. Uncle said he had gone to Mexico, for work. Sometimes those who left for Mexico sent money. Usually not. Julio understood why many of the men left for Mexico. Better work, better pay, better life.

“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”

Uncle slowly lowered the green net into the water. The threads disappeared into the sea, seamlessly blending into the depths.

“Ah…Mexico…” Uncle blinked, frowning at the sinking net. “Pues…my family is here. I’ve got to take care of them, no?”

“You can send money from Mexico.”

Uncle sighed, his frayed shirt tightening and then loosening against his sinewy frame. “Most don’t send money.”

It was Julio’s turn to frown. “But you would, no?”

Espero que si. But maybe a Papa owes more to his family than just money, eh?”

Julio thought of his Uncle’s family. Poor, just like everyone in the village. Well, everyone except Suyapa’s family. Everyone else was stuck in Cedeño. If he had a chance to go to Mexico, or maybe even Los Estados, he would take it in a second. He let his slender fingers down into the water wondering why water let his hand pass through. Maybe Wikipedia knew about that as well.

Uncle looked at Julio again, “And besides Julio, Cedeño needs its people to stay, you understand? Stay and make Cedeño a good place. Look at Chepe. He fights like un dragon to make the village a better place. You should see him haggle with the men from el mercado. He will do whatever it takes to get the best prices for us, for Cedeño. He’d give anything to make this village good.”

*    *    *

The collection shack was housed between two coconut trees, about two lancha lengths from sea at high tide. It was built of mostly driftwood with a tattered yellow tarp nailed in for the roof. Chepe’s lanchas came in one by one from fishing, Chepe would weigh the contents, and mete out the day’s pay. At a little past midday Julio and Uncle dumped the contents of the now full, wriggling net into the old white cooler at the entrance of the collection shack. A squelching jumble of eels, small crimson anthias, and thick spotted groupers slid into the empty void of the cooler.

Chepe leaned in, inspecting the day’s haul. His shirtless gut hung over the side of the cooler.

Ahhhh…bien hecho pescadores!” He straightened up, his teeth yellow like kernels of maize grinning in satisfaction. “Great big groupers are what we like to see!” He turned to Uncle, “The men are coming from el mercado in Choluteca tonight to inspect things. If it goes well, there will be more lempiras for everyone.” He nodded, bloodshot eyes intense. Chepe knew how important these meetings were. More lempiras meant a better Cedeño.

The men from the market. They already bought from Chepe, but Chepe brought them around once a year to renegotiate prices. They’d feast at the house, eating grouper, and drinking beers. Julio thought about Suyapa. She hated the night the men from el mercado came.

He turned to Julio, “And you, Julio! Maybe we make enough money to get a teacher to come down a couple times a week from Choluteca to teach some school to the kids in the evenings. You’d like that, no? Suyapa tells me you are always wondering things. We’ll make you into an educated fisherboy!” A deep laugh erupted from the man. He patted a meaty hand on Julio’s’ shoulder.

The words made it feel as though light was being filtered through Julio’s veins, lifting the heart in Julio’s chest. A chance to get more school? He thought of the boy in Cielo de Octubre. Studying, and launching rockets. Leaving the dark mines of his village to go to college.

Si, Señor Chepe. I would like that.”

*     *     *

The pool had deepened when Julio passed by after dropping the masa off with Mama. Thoughts flitted across Julio’s mind like the dragonflies hovering around the balmy surface of the pond. He rolled a small ball of masa, watching as the more dry flecks flaked into the water. School. Wikipedia. Suyapa.

Buenas tardes, Julio.” Julio turned, startled. She had sat down next to him so quietly. No comment about watching crabs, no humming of princess songs.

“Suyapa! You scared me.” She had a blue ribbon today. “I heard the men from el mercado are going to be at your house tonight. Your papa says maybe this time there will be enough money to get a teacher to come down from Choluteca.”

A breeze broke in from the sea, the cool air penetrating the dank humidity. She gave him a half smile, “Why would you need a teacher when you can just use Wikipedia?”

“Nobody here has a computer…as you well know.” She laughed at him, but only a little, dark bangs trailing with the gust of wind.

“I don’t like it when the men come to visit…” Her eyes lingered on Julio’s before looking down at her feet.

[blockquote align=right]Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words. “…he’d give anything to make the village good.”

“Yeah, they get really borracho, no?” Julio thought of seeing Uncle drinking too much one night. Uncle, who usually was so at ease and levelheaded had been screaming at his kids in a drunken rage. How could a drink make a good man act so strange?

“Well it’s not just that they get drunk…” She twisted the point of her black school shoes into the sand.

“Someone has to…please them, no? Papa says any fish seller can give the men beer, but we can do more…my sister used to do it…but she left to go to the university in Tegucigalpa. Mama says I’m old enough, and that she is too old, so it’s my turn to help. Papa says that it’s the only way to make enough so I can keep studying, and it’s only for the good of Cedeno, but…” she spoke quicker, and quicker. The words spilling out like the eels into Chepes’ cooler.

The wind stopped blowing. A gull cawed softly in the distance. Something hot and painful welled inside Julio making him clench his hands into fists, the gooey ball of masa plastering to his palm.

“I’m afraid.” Her eyes fixated on the ground.

Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words, “…he’d give anything to make the village good.” He swallowed. “Chepe is making you sleep with the men?”

She nodded, tears springing from the corners of her eyes.

“You don’t have to do this.” The heart in Julio pumped heatedly. “Tell Chepe you’re sick, or hide tonight. Getting a beating as punishment is better than being a puta for the men from el mercado.” Puta. The word shredded the heavy air.

“You think I’m a whore, Julio?” She sobbed, standing up. “You think this is as easy as saying no, take the punishment, and yeah? You think I do this because I want hombres viejos touching me?”

Julio felt his face go hot. “I didn’t mean…”

“I need to help my family, no? We have to get the best prices. This is real life, Julio. This is Honduras.” She stopped sobbing, and looked at Julio. “This is what I have to do.” She turned and hurried towards the village, leaving Julio alone with her footprints in the sand.

*     *     *

That night, Julio lay awake in his hammock. The harder he tried not to think about Suyapa the more quickly the images came. Her face lingered on the back of his eyelids. You think I’m a whore, Julio? His stomach squirmed. He rolled over, trying to think about Wikipedia. What would he type in, given the chance? Cangrejos? In his mind crabs scuttled between the rocks in the pool. Raices? He thought of the giant palms that covered the village, all of them held up by roots. Raindrops began to beat on the tarp roof.

*     *     *

Thursday morning the rain continued. The sky was a heavy gray. Water plinked into a pot, drop after drop. Mamascooted the black metal pot with her foot, trying to catch more of the liquid sliding through a hole in the roof. She smiled at Julio.

“Demasiado lluvia hoy hijo, no vas a pescar. Un dia libre!”

There was too much rain for fishing. Mama knew as well as Julio a free day wasn’t a good thing, but Mama always saw the good in things.

A rumbling voice called from outside the door, meshing with the rain. “Ey, Julio you going to leave your jefe out here in the rain?”

Mama pushed open the door. Julio remembered lashing the wooden sticks to make the door last year. Chepe passed inside wiping his big hand across his forehead. “Lots of rain today, eh? Nobody can fish! But that’s okay. You all deserve un dia libre. Things went very well last night with the men from el mercado!”

The hot thing swelled up again in Julio. Mama clapped and exclaimed, “Que bien!”

“Yes! Anyways, I need to run by your Uncle and talk to him about the new prices, and wages, but Suyapa wanted me to bring you something.”

You think I’m a whore, Julio? The sob strained voice echoed inside Julio.

Chepe continued, “She told me how bad you wanted to go to a cyber in Choluteca to try out this internet thing, and well she’s not feeling well enough to go to school today. Must have eaten too much grouper last night…” Chepe paused for just a moment, breaking eye contact with Julio. He looked back up, “She told me to bring you the money she uses to pay for the bus, and to use Internet. What do you say, eh? Go learn something new in the city? If it’s all right with your mama, of course.”

Mama nodded. The sound of storm-enhanced waves crashed into the shore. Waves of shame and anger collided with currents of curiosity about to be satisfied inside Julio. He felt tears of gratitude bud underneath his eyelids.

Si, Senor Chepe… Muchas gracias.

Chepe laughed, slapping thirty lempiras into Julio’s hand. “Ah, and Suyapa says just to tell the lady at the cyber you want to use this…weeekeepedeea. She will help you.” Chepe moved towards the door, “And you should come by the house when you get back, we’ll watch a movie.”

*     *     *

Julio approached the lady at the front desk of the cyber. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets, nervously aware of the eyes staring at his dirty blue jeans and shoeless feet.

“Can you take me to Wikipedia?”

The lady looked up from the book she was reading, “Claro que si. You like to learn things, hmm? That’s good! Most boys just want to play games.”

Julio nodded. She led him over to the computer closest to the back wall. The fingerprints smudging the dark screen vanished as the computer filled with light. She entered Wikipedia into the machine.

“You just type in what you want okay? You can read the letters?”

Julio nodded again, and gave the lady ten lempiras. The lady walked back to her desk. He thought of Mama, Uncle, Chepe, and mostly Suyapa. Familia. He took a breath, and began to type, scanning the keyboard for one letter at a time. P….r….i….n….c….e….s…s….e…s. Princesses.

Benjamin ThompsonBenjamin Thompson is a writer based out of Logan, Utah. He is fascinated by Central American culture, especially Honduras, where he lived for two years. His work centers on the delicate connections and parallels that exist between humans and nature. He works as a parking enforcement officer, and writes poems and stories as he continues to work towards his B.A in Creative Writing at Utah State University.

Change: Watercolor Paintings

The Egypt of Mary’s Womb

A small town.  A back door.
A young woman at her work
chopping, searing, holding.
A flash, not so much of light, as
the chorus of sight that light trails
as it passes by.  A strange
word, an aspiration,
a slight bow of the head,
a warm wrapping of wings.
There will be lions, later.
There will be swords.
But tonight, your flesh
is reed and pitch,
bitumen and straw,
floating on the great river,
eyes open, naming,
one by one, all the stars
of the vast, quaking world.

*Title from a poem by Robert Bly

 

Patrick HanselPatrick Cabello Hansel has had poems, short stories, and essays published in over 30 anthologies and journals, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Ilanot Review, subprimal, and Hawai’i Pacific Review.  He was a 2008-2009 Loft Literary Center (MN) mentee and a 2011 grantee of the MN State Art Board. His novella Searching was serialized in 33 issues of The Alley News. He is the editor of The Phoenix of Phillips, a new literary magazine for and by people of Phillips, the most diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis.

A Map of Jerusalem

For years my face and name were a message I didn’t know I was sending. In kindergarten, our teacher gave my classmate Daniel and me blue and white construction paper to make cards for our family when everyone else got red and green. I knew this was because we were both Jewish, but my mother had to explain that blue and white were the colors of Israel. Growing up in Virginia, Daniel and his family were the only other Jews I knew.

“You have the map of Jerusalem across your face,” my father told me once when I was in high school, which I thought was a nice way to say that I had a big nose, brown eyes, and curly hair. I smiled at his attempt to make me feel better about my awkward looks; after all, I looked just like him.

We were so secular that we had a Christmas tree every year until I turned 18. At the top of the tree was a sun instead of an angel because my father was an astronomer. My father was raised a Jew in Indianapolis. He went to temple, but it met on a Sunday, and he had no inclination to practice Judaism as an adult. My mother was also Jewish, but was raised as a Christian Scientist. If you asked her if she believed in God, she’d tell you she was a member of the Unitarian Church, where she played piano. Even as a kid I knew that wasn’t a real answer.

Like many young bookish Jews, I went through a World War II phase. I read The Diary of Anne Frank, The Summer of my German Soldier, The Upstairs Room, Journey to Topaz, which was about the Japanese internment camps in the United States, and Snow Treasure, where the kids used their sleds to smuggle Norwegian gold to a boat under the nose of the Nazis. These books taught me that I was part of a people who had been killed in Europe thirty-five years before I was born. I thought about whether I could bear being hidden in an attic with my family, or whether I was brave enough to join the resistance. But it was just an intellectual exercise. No one I was closely related to had been killed; my father’s family had been in the United States since the 1880s, and my mother’s family came over from Germany sometime around the Civil War.

At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

*     *     *

In 1990, my parents and I watched the first Gulf War on TV mostly during dinner. I hated the idea of fighting, but I was also fascinated. A war! In my lifetime! The newscasters were excited too. They talked in detail about missiles and missile strikes. Reporters described the new “smart” bombs in breathless detail. My mother’s mouth tightened as the nightly news stopped covering domestic events, or anything but the shiny new war.

My mother said, “When I was a teenager, everyone knew someone, a friend or a brother or father, who had died in World War II.” She went to high school in the late forties. My father turned 18 in 1942 and knew he didn’t want to fight; so he signed up and joined the Signal Corps, where he was a radio repairman. He went back to school on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer and eventually an astronomer. His stories about the war were mostly about his own ingenuity. He told me about repairing a juke box for officers in the Philippines, and being rewarded by one cold beer, or about sleeping on the floor of a Mitsubishi factory in Japan and rigging up a wire that electrocuted the rats that ran across their bags as they slept. When his ship arrived in San Francisco, he remembered seeing a sign visible only to incoming boats that said, “Welcome home, soldier. Job well done.”

But as he watched the news about the war in Iraq he said, “We had to go to war to stop Hitler, but this one….” He shook his head. “The Arabs and the Jews are brothers.” I gave him a hard time about not including sisters (inclusive language was a long-term recreational argument between my father and me), but his words were aphoristic and I remembered them.

*     *     *

[blockquote align=left]At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. It was the Western Goldsteins we meant, my father’s brother and his family in California. My oldest cousin Lisa was in rabbinical school, and my aunt and uncle went to synagogue every week. We were the Eastern Goldsteins, living in Virginia. The first time I was ever in a synagogue, I was seventeen years old, and we joined the Western Goldsteins in New York City to see Lisa’s ordination. I watched my uncle and male cousins put on the black yarmulkes offered in baskets at the end of the pew, and I looked around, wondering what it would be like to have been raised in this familiar, foreign faith. My father did not take a yarmulke, and my mother looked politely bored. She had been a church pianist for years, and liked to say that she could give a Unitarian sermon in her sleep. Although she taught me how to recognize Jewish names, she called herself a self-loathing Jew.

“Why?” I finally asked her.

“I just don’t find any connection with other Jews. I wasn’t raised Jewish, I don’t know the same people they do, it just seems judgmental and narrow minded.” I knew she was referring indirectly to my aunt. My mother and aunt had never gotten along.

*     *     *

People often look at my Jewish looks and name, my lack of religious upbringing and assume that my mother wasn’t Jewish. But because my parents were born in the 1920s and 1930s anti-Semitism meant they were not likely to marry outside their religion. For someone my age, I am remarkably racially pure. It’s such a troubling phrase, once used to keep Jews from opportunities, but when someone questions whether I am a Jew, I can’t help but think it.

My parents told me instances of oblique anti-Semitism. My father, a professor at the University of Virginia, once remarked that he would not have been allowed to teach there a hundred years ago. My mother would tell me the story of her cousin Paul, who rushed a fraternity at the University of California. During the swearing in, the men stood in a circle.

“Step out of the circle if you’re Jewish,” they said as part of a list of “unacceptable” traits of future fraternity brothers. Paul, who was not religious, stepped out.

“We don’t mean you, Paul! Come back!” the other students shouted, but he was already putting on his coat to leave.

Both of my parents liked to talk about history. When I learned about Kennedy’s assassination in elementary school, my mother told me people didn’t want to elect Kennedy because he was Catholic.

“Why would they care?” I asked. There were not very many Catholics in my hometown either.

“They worried he’d be ruled by a religious authority outside the United States,” she explained. “They used to say the same thing about the Jews,” she added.

*     *     *

Just after college I went to visit Lisa, who became a Hillel rabbi. She led services on Friday night. We sat in a circle in a room off the student union and the prayers were sung. I was embarrassed to be the rabbi’s cousin, and not know anything about her world of Judaism. And so I relied on my years of playing in orchestra when the prayers started. I mumbled the words and followed along with the tune, sight-reading the prayers. After, Lisa turned to me in surprise and said, “Where did you learn those prayers?” She knew for a fact I didn’t learn them at home.

I became used to sight-reading Judaism, faking my way through the encounters. I understood the cultural cues of being Jewish, but I knew nothing about the religion.

*     *     *

My father and his brother were close, even though they lived on opposite sides of the country. My uncle flew east frequently when my father became sick with terminal brain cancer. My aunt and uncle came together sometime before Passover, and my aunt was not eating anything that the Israelites wouldn’t have had on the exodus out of Egypt.

“Isn’t it rude to have such strict diet requirements in a house where someone is dying?” I asked my mother over the phone. I was 24, and I watched some of my friends give up leavened bread around Passover, or candy for Lent, but this seemed extreme.

“I think so,” my mother said. “Your father and I laughed about it. It was one of the last things we laughed about.” Not long after the visit, my father slipped into a coma.

*     *     *

“Why do they have to argue all the time?” my colleague at the bookstore asked, gesturing to the two older Jewish men standing by the newspaper rack, arguing about Israel. I smiled and said nothing. After my father died, I went to grad school, and got a job at the Brookline Booksmith, in a very Jewish suburb of Boston. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by Jews and I was just beginning to pick out aspects of my family that seemed to me to be Jewish. And Goldsteins, East and West, sure loved to argue. My dad and I used to argue all the time. Usually they weren’t fights, just heated discussions about all sorts of things such as whether we’d go back to horses when we ran out of oil, or the ethics of the atomic bomb, or the best topping on a hot dog. I was outspoken in my family, especially with my father, but quieter in public. I hated to argue when I didn’t know the facts, and I couldn’t always articulate what I was trying to say. I lost some confidence without my father’s keen appreciative eye. My favorite opponent, gone.

*     *     *

My father’s cousin Dave sent me a chain email that talked about how the Jews had contributed incredible learning and culture to Spain, but were expelled in 1492. The email suggested that Muslims contributed poverty and violence to European culture and should be expelled. I was tempted not to answer. I didn’t talk to Dave often, and I wasn’t sure how to talk to a man sixty years older than me about how short-sighted and racist I found his email. Then I remembered my father’s words.

I wrote back that I was glad to hear from him. I told him that my father had always said that the Jews and Arabs were brothers. (I knew that statement had the purity of coming from a dead man everyone loved.) I asked him to stop forwarding me emails of this kind, but that I would love to get letters from him. I told him a few things about my job and that I was moving in with Mike, the man I would eventually marry. I never heard from Dave again.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. I now realize that does not mean, “don’t start an argument.” My family loved a good argument. Instead it meant, “Don’t nudge the sleeping dragon of racism.” We don’t want to know. Because if we knew we would have to act, or at least speak up. And then we would have to deal with what followed.

*     *     *

At a neighbor’s Hanukah party (my second Hanukah party ever at age 39), I sit next to a woman in her sixties. “I don’t have a mezuzah,” she said. “I don’t tell people I’m Jewish.” She lives in a smallish town in New Hampshire.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’m afraid of prejudice,” she said. Our conversation moved on to other things. Twenty minutes later, I heard her tell someone else, “I would never get on a plane with an Arab.” It was thirteen years after September 11.

“Oh, come on,” the other person said. “Not all Arabs are terrorists.”

“You never know,” she said. Her face hardened. “I wouldn’t feel safe with any of those people. Would you?”

[blockquote align=right]I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown.

 

To my shame, I did not respond to my neighbor’s friend. I was angry, but did not engage. Instead Mike spoke up about the many Muslim students he had taught over the years, and others joined him in the conversation. I had gotten used to talking to my non-Jewish liberal friends about how I found Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians hypocritical to say the least. But when there were Jews around, I was silent around the subject. What could I tell her that would make her understand? I thought to myself. I can blame the fact that my parents taught me to be polite. I can blame that I was the youngest nonfamily guest and I didn’t want to offend the hosts. I can blame that on the old Eastern/Western Goldstein silence. But they’re just excuses.

I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown. Everyone would know I wasn’t a real Jew.

*     *     *

A month later terrorists blew up the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The prime minister of France lamented that this violence might cause Jews to flee France, and how that would be a loss to the Republic. He discounted far-right anti-Semitism of white supremacists, and instead talked about “this new anti-Semitism comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”

In the early twentieth century, many Americans talked about the new, dangerous immigrants with close ties to foreign radicalism. A banker on the Board of Overseers at Harvard wrote to Harvard’s president, “there is acknowledgment of interests of political control beyond, and in the minds of these people, superior to the Government of this country—the Jew is always a Jew first and an American second…” During World War II, a Gallup poll revealed that Americans saw Jews as the group with the greatest menace to American security, over Germans and Japanese.

*     *     *

When I was a teenager, I made my own peace with Israel by vowing that I would never go there. I figured I didn’t really know enough to be able to engage either side, so I held myself above the whole situation. This was something I learned as an Eastern Goldstein. My mother protected herself by proclaiming to be a self-loathing Jew. My father offered platitudes. But platitudes sound different coming from a man who was in World War II.

My father and I are (were) profoundly naïve, ignoring a wide range of politics that we never really understood, to say that the Arabs and Jews are brothers (and sisters). And I have been silenced by politeness, by ignorance, by the desire to get along. But I am a writer, and my silence will certainly not protect me. My voice is not political except with my face and my name, and I have a new message I would like to figure out how to send.

 

In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote that Jews were the canary in the coal mine for Europe. A rise in anti-Semitism indicated a rise in totalitarianism. The world has changed since 1951, and I think Islamophobia is a new indicator of the danger of far-right nationalism. Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism. And it is an anti-Semitism that Jews perpetrate.

After the bombing of a Danish synagogue, a month after the Hebdo massacre, local Muslims gathered to form a human ring around a synagogue in Oslo. Jews should be forming rings around mosques and Islamic centers. To be a Jew should be to protect other people’s precariousness as well. For if not us, who?

Ellen Goldstein was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in journals such Ellen Goldstein asPost Road, Solstice, The Common, Measure,andCarbon Culture Review; as well as in the anthologiesNot Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs, Letters to the World, Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry,andQueer South,which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She lives in Eastern Massachusetts.

We’re So Lucky

[flash fiction]

She likes her son best when he’s sleeping. At night, she sneaks into his bedroom, sits on the edge of his twin-size bed and watches his little chest rise and fall below the sheet. She places her lips on his temple and kisses him softly. It’s one of the few moments in the day when she feels tenderness toward him.

Each day at 3:35 p.m., her son jumps off the bus and bounds through the front door, bringing a mess of chaos and chatter with him. He is like a little tornado, interrupting her solitude. And all the bags: backpack, lunch box, soccer bag. In the mornings she neatly consolidates them, a feat he cannot recreate at the end of the day. She nags him to put his things away: the smelly soccer socks in the laundry, his half-empty lunch containers in the sink, his scuffed shoes in the cubby. He almost always forgets all these things.

Over Christmas break, he left a half eaten sunflower butter and jelly sandwich in his bag. You can’t send your kids to school with peanut butter anymore. When she found his sandwich in January, it was covered with green mold. Her husband tried to spin it as a fun science experiment, as if growing mold inside a backpack was educational.

She is not one of those mothers who enjoy volunteering in the classroom or sitting on committees or helping with homework. The truth is she could care less about any of those things. She spends her days alone, doing nothing, and prefers it like that. She had quit her job as a legal secretary to stay home with her son. She imagined trips to the library, pulling him in a red wagon behind her, and baking cookies, his little hands rolling out the dough with the miniature rolling pin. That was nine years ago. Nobody told her how hard it would all be.

She did not look for work when her son started school but told her husband she did. She didn’t want to go back to work—donning pantyhose and skirts and blouses only to trade serving her son for serving some other master—fetching coffee, scheduling depositions, transcribing letters while wearing a headset that had previously nestled on some other secretary’s head.

“All those years out of the work force and now nobody wants me!” she said night after night until her husband stopped asking.

The truth is she thinks she deserves these years of daytime silence after what she endured: his red-faced screams day in and day out, the sleepless nights, the way she existed for the sole purpose of feeding him, followed by months of opening cabinets and drawers, making a mess of everything. And the time he opened the bottle of Rogaine stored in a bathroom drawer and she rushed him to the emergency room. No, she didn’t know if he drank any of it. Was she supposed to watch him every god damn second?

All those trips to parks and playgrounds, both indoors and outdoors. Sitting on benches or leaning against walls while he ran and played, coming back to her only when he wanted juice or a snack, which she was expected to have endless supplies of in the diaper bag—the bag that marked her as a mother.

And all those mothers at the parks and playgrounds, glowing with the joy of it: how they loved it all. We’re so lucky, they murmured to each other, as if repeating it could make it true.

She’s not sure why she ever thought she could be like those mothers, why she ever thought she could be a mother. She had watched her own mother with a mixture of wonder and confusion: aprons tied over poufy skirts, baking muffins and pies day after day as if there was no greater pleasure.

She pretends as well as she can. For years she made small talk at those parks and playgrounds, murmuring along with the others—yes, we’re so lucky—feeling sorry for the childless and the working mothers, the ones missing out on all this. She kissed his skinned knees and translated his nonsensical babble for strangers. She sang lullabies and pureed squash. For a while she’d almost convinced herself. That she was like her mother, that she was like those other mothers, one of the lucky ones.

And then he was suddenly in grade school and his feet were almost as big as hers and his chubby cheeks were long gone and she read a study online that boys are now entering puberty at an average age of ten. One year away. How long until she finds Speed Stick and pubic hairs in his bathroom? How long until this long-limbed boy is a man? How long until her work here is done?

Shasta Grant is the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Epiphany, cream city review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a prose editor for Storyscape Journal.

The Persistence of Wolves

I

Stillness in the mountains, in the way the mist clings, eternal, like suspended cobwebs on the prickly pine needles and limbs of green guavas, in the way the mountains curve like the rolling hips of the women hiking red dirt clearings far away. They’re balancing bread in baskets atop their tightly turbaned hair. Time, here, is crystallized against the mountains around my friends’ house. The stillness is abruptly broken, first by their adhan, a call and response weaving a song, their song a prayer, their prayer a call to persist, persistence to desire a right to live, to exist in the flesh among the fertile minarets of Haiti.

From the balcony, we watch this world stretch wide like a vintage post card of the days before we were broken by putsches and pillage, before we learned to turn our rage inward.

Stillness, first broken by song, now splinters like desiccated bamboo. The crack is irreversible. The clouds huddle overhead as frightened ewes in the approaching storm, but it does not rain. It’s just the sky bracing itself to cry over Port-au-Prince, as bullets crack the afternoon down its middle.

II

I hide behind the pillars of my father’s legs and plug my ears with my fingers. I’m thankful and aware, perhaps for the first time, for his height, finding reassurance in his stillness. He is unmoved and unimpressed. He is a mountain, too, arms folded on his chest. Next to him, his friend adjusts the butt of a rifle against his daughter’s shoulder and teaches her to aim, to seek out the peak of pines through the rear and front sights, to target the imaginary enemy who isn’t yet at their door. It’s only a matter of time, he says, showing her how to wrap that finger around the trigger, and pull.

“This is a necessity,” he says to my father. Foolish is the man who cannot provide safety for daughters and mothers in a country where men have morphed into wild dogs. They rape and hate and teach submissiveness, he says. They force the husband to watch as they take his wife, and force the father to rape his daughter and force the mother to watch, and the violence is now a flash flood rushing through our veins. Blood, blood in our eyes and blood in our mouths and blood on our hands, ready, aim, shoot, and try again.

The girl pulls the trigger. She is my age, and she wears a dress hemmed above the knee, and I can see her brown legs tensing with each blow of the gun, like chords on a violin before they snap. It’s only a matter of time before they come for you, or me, her father says. My father is still a mountain, unimpressed, deciphering for himself the silence of mountains around us.

I imagine what blood tastes like in the mouth when a bullet hits the flesh. I think it tastes like a shrapnel explosion would, like cold iron or peppered gunpowder. The clouds close in, thick layers of cotton dripping a milky, misty film over peaks, swallowing the songs of women.

III

He has four daughters in these mountains, and my father has just one in the plains.

We meet here on occasional Sundays to measure and compare the effectiveness of fathers.

Other families have both parents to shield them in the midnight hour when the werewolves come bursting through doors to feed. Violence now becomes a need, and we are teaching each other self-defense by arming babies.

It used to be that what we feared bumped in the shadows: hairy tarantulas, vicious centipedes, or the blind collision of bats in the night hunting for fruit, tossing almonds and custard apples against our windows. It used to be that we turned our clothes inside out or smoked our pipes upside down to ward off evil spirits, night walkers, zobop and chanpwèl and loup-garou roaming the dark, reaping innocent souls. We used to fear the unknown, the impenetrable mystery carried through the Middle Passage, woven in the cavernous hold of the Negrier ships, hauled through the oceans from coastal beaches of Benin, or the Congo.

Fear, for a while, was killing mothers by licking a table knife, or pointing to an owl at night, or letting a black butterfly flutter close. Fear was dying of a coup de poudre and living death to be zombified.

Haitians now fear two things in this world, they say: rain drops, and bullets. When they feel or hear both, they disperse and disappear, ducking for shelter.

Now, fear inhabits us during the day and at the onset of night. Now, each man, and woman, and child, learns to survive the edge of machetes and the fatal blow of machine guns, which seem to abound more than magic. Now, fear is sending a child to school with nothing for food but a rock of salt under the tongue for sustenance, or a glass of sugared water for breakfast. Fear is a rubber necklace that begins to melt into the skin when a tire holds a man’s arms in place and he is set on fire. Fear is the silence on the radio after the voice of the journalist has been silenced with bullets. Fear is the knocking on the metal gate. Fear is a man in uniform entering the house, asking to use the telephone. Fear is the men in khaki driving past homes, eyes hidden behind dark glasses.

I devise to hide under the bed, as if bullets cannot pierce my mattress. I devise to crawl inside the armoire, as if men with machetes cannot smash through mahogany and reap the limbs they came for. Violence is already in my house, in the way fear possesses my father at the thought of the task to raise children alone. There is no sleep tonight, or tomorrow, or any other night, for a long, long time, a never-ending time, for as long as those wolves persist in the dark.

IV

On the way home, driving from the mountains, my father clutches the wheel and veers left, then right, to avoid the ghosts roaming the road. They walk through dusk as zombies do, fighting the density of the city, blending in with the darkness, barely grazing each other, arms wrapped around buckets of glorious gladiolas and sunflowers, around strings of leather masks and clusters of feathered hens and cocks. They pack the remnants of their day as the clouds descend lower onto the needling domes of cathedrals and fences, their midst opening a wide mouth to swallow them whole.

Night falls on Port-au-Prince at its own pace, yielding them with time for the final offerings of oranges and avocados, the fear of the dark already twining in their eyes. We’re all afraid of the same monsters, I think. But I wonder if we—my father and I—aren’t more susceptible, behind our oak doors, beneath our blanketed beds, inside our acacia armoires, than they are within the four walls of their slum villages, and somehow I manage to resent the world for that cold critter crawling up my esophagus as we arrive home and lock our gates.

There will be no sleep tonight, nor tomorrow, nor any other night, as long as fathers teach daughters to shoot, as long as my father teaches me to feel safe and still as he, in the dark, unpacks his own secret weapons and slips a pistol under his pillow.

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat is a native of Haiti living in Miami. She graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has been featured in Fourth Genre, Grist Journal, Damselfly, and Off the Coast Journal.

The Known Unknowns

[flash fiction]

1.

What do we know about her, a retired social worker, wife to a stubborn sonofabitch who refused to evacuate when the big one finally came? What does it say about the sonofabitch that he teaches conservation law, that his eyebrows go untrimmed, that he jogs in day-glo short-shorts each evening along the flooded path of the streetcar line? What did it mean when he struck his youngest with an open palm that same sweltering summer, when he tucked the boy into bed later that night in his softest hand-me-down shirt—the one from the marathon that blew his knee out—and then sat cross-legged in a chair in the hallway, his fingers working little chunks of paper from the pages until the boy was asleep? What does she say to him when they speak to each other in French, their voices tense but volume capped somewhere just below shouting, each with one eye on the children wheeling their plastic dump trucks in the garden? What words does she recite when the sun sets and he still hasn’t returned from canoeing in the swamp, when she knows he purposely tries to get lost, just a little more earnestly each year, even as his body thins out, dries up, crackles like tinder when he walks? What kind of love knows that he truly lives to be alone?

2.

We might think she’s chosen to be the stitches for a man bent on unraveling. We might make easy metaphors about a city and its people, each duty-bound by momentum to raise the stilts and keep going. Some questions likely don’t have an answer beyond the fact that he suspects, in ways he wouldn’t articulate to himself, that he is himself still a child, that striking his boy proves he will always be one, and although this suspicion is a source of dread for him, it is also a strange and bitter reassurance. He likes, for instance, that they’d made a game of speaking French to each other around the kids, taking something originally meant to hide their fights and using it to talk about the things they’d otherwise lost the words to say.

And when he’s gone, alone in the woods or the swamp, no calls past dark and the empty driveway visible through the open front door, she will say a few of those words like a chant over a mug of tea. For her kind of love is only sentimental at the surface—hand-holding after dinner, a weekly picnic on the river levee when summer heat gives way to fall. The core of her love is pragmatism. Let it be quick, she’ll say to the tea. Let it be quick, and let him be alone.

3.

Tomorrow New Orleans will bulldoze one hundred vacant homes. Three people will be shot, and a car fire at the I-10 onramp will stop traffic from mid-city all the way uptown, a line of honking cars that he will bike past on his way to work, still sleepy from making it home late, his mind still on the blackness of the water at sunset, the canoe still atop their battered station wagon, duckweed and a film of sulfurous mud still caked to his shins. She will walk the dog, past the neighborhood trees that survived the storm, past the toy figurines from her sons’ toy chest that she’s left in their branches as talismans, and home again to their sunwashed kitchen for tea, a check of weather, and a long, unquiet silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, and studies in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has MFAs in writing from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa, and his work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Flyway, Spectrum, Sweet, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Grist, PANK, The Pinch, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, and Mid American Review, where he was lucky enough to win the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. He is currently working on his first short story collection, along with a nonfiction manuscript about a creationist museum in Kentucky.

Centerpiece

Days were short and buckled,
the dinner to prepare, our table
to set, cream and tan plumage to fan

in a gold-rimmed goblet, hint
of flight.  Together we hunted
wild turkey feathers, tracked

hay fields where flocks lumbered
in summer, walked a trail over
to the next road, followed it past

the last house as gravel gave in
to double mud ruts strung
under high tension towers stacked

on a hill of scrub oak and granite
where we found a feather more
than once and understood always.

Grace MatternGrace Mattern’s poems and prose have appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Hanging Loose, Calyx, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the NH State Arts Council and Vermont Studio Center and has published two books of poetry. She has worked in the movement to end violence against women for 35 years. She blogs at www.gracemattern.com

Selected Works: Oil Paintings

Dispatch from Liberty Ave.  

Pittsburgh, PA—

It’s another day: not a sale, not a bite, not a solid, single look-e-loo. So I stand alone at the window and watch the old men walk in a stiff and stony parade up and down the avenue past my post at the East End Book Exchange. I count the ways to be an old man: to rein trembling fingers in coat pockets, to search for solid ground with each forthcoming step, to let cigarettes hang from thin lips, to pretend to wait for buses, to steal the company of strangers, to zombie into traffic, to crink over and collect butts of cigarettes, and to scrounge enough grit to roll your own.

The sun descends behind the tenement brick across the street, obscuring its rays from our window plants. The languid philodendra, the once-proud succulents, lush months before, droop in the shadows, when, finally, a silhouette at the door appears. A wrinkled woman, at once elegant and gritty, snubs out a cigarette behind the doorframe and enters the store in a long fur coat.

“You seen an old man named Lee in here?” she asks. A second-hand tick echoes. “You know…Lee?…The old man who smokes cigarettes?”

I shrug.

She says, “You know—Lee? I think he comes by the bookstore.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “A lot of old men come by.”

She steps outside, lights a cigarette and begins to yell: “Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!”

For five minutes she yells.

I step out and join her. Light a cigarette, too. She says the missing man is brother to her aunt who’s married to her mother’s brother—who are all dead. The whole family, she says, is just about dead. We both look up and eye the windows of the apartments above the bookstore. She says she hasn’t heard from Lee since the day he helped her haul garbage to the curb a fortnight ago.

“I’m breaking in,” she says, “Can’t wait.”

She ascends the stairs, lights another. In the bookstore, through the floorboards, I hear a tromping, a slamming, and more tromping before the woman reappears, an unlit cigarette gripped in her fingers.

“Lee is dead,” she says. She is stoic. Her eyes are stones. “Lee is dead,” she says again. She is solid, sturdy, immovable. She moves nearer to me. Her lower lip trembles ever so slight. A teeny, tiny dab of water wells in the corner of one eye. I light her up and we step outside. We stand. We smoke… We watch. For a long time we say nothing. Then she says, “Lee is dead. Lee is dead,” she says. “Lee is dead.” We watch a crooked old man on the other side of the street take one long, slow, eternal step forward.

Timothy MaddocksTimothy Maddocks lives in Pittsburgh and writes essays, stories, and reportage. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, where this piece first took shape. He is currently at work on a book about kindnesses gone awry.

 

 

 

 

Spotlight: TOUR OF A HOLLYWOOD DEATH / THE FALLEN BODY / THIS VOLUPTUOUS POEM

TOUR OF A HOLLYWOOD DEATH 

Here’s the peach bathroom
that gave her new ways
to look taller—

++++++Thin desperado, speaking
++++++blonde code to the business. 

Here’s the last shower, hot
steaming weakness, collapse
on the pearl travertine—

charm in her eyes
turned feral++++++++++ the dripping

exhaustion
++++++of stalking
+++++++++++++++++++++++++her own++++++ black star


THE FALLEN BODY 

++++++May 1, 1947: Evelyn McHale jumped to her
++++++death from the Empire State Building

I am too much like my mother. I will
not marry in June. On this dazzling day,
I choose to jump in white gloves.

Last deep breath, strong leap of my legs.

That novice photographer sold me to Life.
He’ll never publish again!

You can gawk at the arch of my brow.

Note my dark lips, coral suit loose
at the waist. Dainty, except for a
wind-blown shoe.

I wanted this crash more than jewels and
punch. I found my whole peace, and gave
all of you beautiful proof.


THIS VOLUPTUOUS POEM

Never enrolled in community college, splicing
++++++commas with risk

Nor workshopped with lemongrass refugees
++++++bleating a tropical syntax

Nor failed to wink at legacies, whipping
++++++the can-can skirt of convention—

flaunting her savvy, flashing rare opals
++++++and rubies, beaming an orchid light

as spinster poems skulk in a boxy shape
++++++of splintering unlit trim—

This poem has rattle and thrum. Watch her spark
++++++and pierce the sphinx’s paw

guarding pink turrets of fantasy. She dribbles
++++++the castles of brown sugar sand

in the bam-bam ching of bikini string samba,
++++++the bang of her iambic boom.

Laurie BartonLaurie Barton is a Best of the Net finalist and winner of the New Southerner Literary Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in Juked, Glass, Word Riot, Jabberwock Review, and The Missing Slate. She studied French at Mills College before completing an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. There she was gently told that her shy little stanzas were not poetry. With time and encouragement, she learned that the beauty of language would not let her down. Beauty, surprises, and mystery. Laurie lives in southern California and welcomes correspondence on Facebook.

When You Ask Me to Describe the Grief

 (after Clementine von Radics)

I open my mouth
& nothing comes out—I think,
chest caving in, robber
of breath, thunderbolted knees
hitting the bathroom floor
but it felt more like
tumbling down a staircase
into the basement of a heart
that no longer relays rhythm,
my shoveled out stomach—
a hearse, a grave, a place
for it to rain memory,
to flood, to send your body out
to river, to ocean,
to sky.

Amanda OaksAmanda Oaks is the founding editor of Words Dance Publishing. Her works have appeared in numerous online & print publications, including Stirring, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, Glamour, Elle, Parenting, & Artful Blogging. She is the author of two poetry collections: Hurricane Mouth (NightBallet Press, 2014) & her co-authored split book, I Eat Crow (Words Dance, 2014). She likes poems that bloody her mouth just to kiss it clean. Connect with her @ http://amandaoaks.com

Recent Work: Mixed Media Sculpture

Classy

I’m particular about my gym wear. To illustrate, my socks must be white or a shade approximating my skin tone. I call the shade “nude.” Crayola misguidedly called it “flesh.”

After a torturous day’s work, I reached the Y desperately in need of a stress-defusing workout. Too bad I’d forgotten to bring allowably-colored socks. I hadn’t time to run home to fetch them. I also knew, if I showed up at home, I’d be held captive there. I checked the car trunk and backseat. No socks. I contemplated dumpster-diving into the pool deck’s lost and found bin, teeming with abandoned bathing suits, towels, plastic dinosaurs, socks from one-footed people, and what have you. Faced with the prospect of diving into that gloppy, ammonia-stinking, intertwisted morass, I decided I’d sooner stand in rush-hour traffic in an ice storm holding a sign like the homeless people carry, but mine would say, “Need socks.” I bit the bullet and wore the only socks I had: dark blue.

The locker room deposited me into a room crammed with seasoned weight machines decorated by red pleather upholstery. I hoped nobody would observe my sock irregularity. Before I started working out, a 17-year-old girl engaged in reverse lumbar curls made it patently obvious she was looking over her left shoulder at my dark blue socks. She seemed to laugh and then flashed a smile. I figured she laughed because I looked like a nerd.  Wearing dark blue socks to the Y is as nerdy as slipping those old plastic ink stain protectors on a shirt pocket. It didn’t matter she was only 17. That’s plenty old enough to make me feel mortified.

I exited the weight room and walked fast to the far end of the Y. I didn’t talk with or even look at anyone to avoid attracting undue attention. I finally reached safety. On the balcony overlooking the indoor pool, I’d be alone in the embrace of hothouse humidity punctuated by muffled, indecipherable pool yells. In peace, I could ride a recumbent bike there, eyes shut, with nobody to observe my dark blue socks.

A few shameless minutes into my bike ride, the same 17-year-old showed up, prostrated herself on the mat in front of my bike, and began a stretching routine: hamstrings, calves, quads, hip flexors. It looked like she was planning to stretch everything. I wasn’t staring. She’d planted herself directly in my line of sight. It was only then I noticed she was wearing dark blue socks just like mine.

“I thought you were laughing at my blue socks, but you’re wearing them too!” I said.

Mid hurdler’s stretch, she looked up, opened her brown eyes wide, smiled knowingly, and confidently pronounced, “They’re classy.”

She resumed stretching. When done, with legs crossed, she took a few slow, deep, yogic breaths. She then stood, gave me the familiar smile of an old friend, and opened the balcony’s exit door.

I kept on riding in my classy dark blue socks.

James RossA newly-retired health researcher, Jim Ross has published poems, photos and stories recently in Lunch Ticket, Friends JournalPif Magazine, and many other journals. Forthcoming includes Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, and two photo essays. He and his wife split time between MD and WV and look forward to becoming grandparents of twins this summer.

Post-Reunion

I drive my mother home because the train
is late, because her hands shake, because

my brother doing push-ups after he lost
a bet had all of us fearing the explosion

in his chest and what are family reunions for?
Food.  Too much wine.  A kickball in the gut.

When I pulled the folding chair from its bag,
unused for a year, a nest of mice tumbled out

all stolen cotton fluff, shredded paper, trembling
like a dropped heart in the grass.  The mother,

a baby still attached to her milk, ran for it,
watched the rest of the day from a tree’s branches

her babies scattered and blind.  We discussed cruelty
and survival, circled our chairs like stagecoaches.

Isn’t each family a new frontier, in its way?
Spreading out into unknown places, each child

a satellite shot into the dark above.  My mother
wants me to spend the  night—such a long drive

to get her safely home—but the car is already
pointing away, has a full tank, I even bought

a coffee in the biggest size they sold just
so I could kiss her on the cheek and say no.

Suzanne ParkerSuzanne Parker is a winner of the Kinereth Gensler Book Award for her poetry collection, Viral (from Alice James Books, 2013), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and is on the National Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List of recommended books. Her work has recently appeared in Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, and BODY. Suzanne is the managing editor at MEAD: A Magazine of Literature and Libations and directs the creative writing program at Brookdale Community College in NJ.

Baltimore is Burning

and my students don’t know
a thing about it

Ronnie StephensRonnie K. Stephens is a full-time English teacher and the father of identical twins. His first full-length collection, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka, was published by Timber Mouse Publishing in 2014.

Secret Gardens, House Finches, and Apricots: Finding Voice and Purpose In Mundane Moments

Me in the secret garden a few years ago.

Me in the secret garden a few years ago.

To the right of my house, hidden past four raised beds of squash, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and cucumbers, further past two wild patches of mint, there is an old secret garden. There, morning glory grows wild, climbing our two-story house, twining into our rain gutters, pulling them down, and covering our wooden fence. There, also, mature rose bushes thrive. Each spring these roses house hummingbird nests, give me fragrant roses to bring inside, and send out wild shoots of rose plants. Though it is easily seen from our dinning room’s large picture window, it is the piece of land I spend the least time attending and caring for. In truth, I can hardly call it a garden; it is a wild, untamed patch of our home with its own story.

As our main garden has slowly filled in with vegetable plants, fruit and avocado trees, wild-growing blackberries, and herbs too many to name, I’ve turned to other places to cultivate and plant. Last summer, for example, Edward and I painstakingly pulled up our front lawn with pix-axes over a hot and humid July. In the midst of California’s current historical drought, it made no sense to continue pouring water into a lawn that refused to stay green, and only fed and sheltered grubs. Now, nearly a full year later, it is full of native western plants. Swallowtail and monarch butterflies, finches, sparrows, dragonflies, and bees gather and call it home. Our native garden is young, still finding its voice, but it has already begun to sing its song and tell its story.

The native garden this spring.

The native garden this spring.

The air above the native garden is a highway—swallowtails skidding to the backyard, hummingbirds sitting a spell on tree limbs, bumblebees wrestling their fat bodies into the throat of violet morning glory blooms, and June bugs flying drunk in airstreams. Even the leaves refuse to die without saying something—singing loud, final songs, as the same airstream carries them down the sidewalk. I cannot help but be reminded, witnessing the young voice of my native garden; we all have our own songs and stories, too.

This week, while attending to the wild, secret garden, I wondered about its story. What song, what story, what purpose does it hold? Last fall, Edward and I installed a raised bed there, a place to grow shade-loving vegetables like carrots and lettuce through our hot summers.

“Isn’t it too shady to grow anything here?” Edward asked while I arranged the cinder blocks for the bed. “Don’t you need more sun?”

“It’ll be an overflow and experimental bed.” I stopped and started talking excitedly with my hands. “I can try new plants out, finally figure out how to grow carrots, probably even grow lettuce in August.”

Truthfully, I did not have a sure answer to his questions; I do not know if shade will help me produce more food, or if more sun is always better. I see the bed as an opportunity to figure those things out. Our summers here in California’s Inland Valley are brutally hot. Weeks pass, one after another, stacking days upon days of triple-digit temperatures. Heat-loving tomatoes stop growing, and everything but citrus takes a break August through September.

Edward watering squash plants.

Edward watering squash plants.

Edward followed my lead, and went about filling the cinder bed with soil. Not long into his work, he came running from around the corner, finding me in the main bed. He was not running excitedly to tell me something, or bring me to see something he’d discovered, he came running from a hummingbird. Though we had neglected this garden over the years, she had already begun to sing her own song, to write her own story full of characters with lives and purposes of their own. We learned we are just visitors, and hummingbirds are very territorial.

When Edward went back, he worked more respectfully, taking up less space and being mindful of the nest in the rose bush the hummingbird was protecting. Eventually, the bed was raised, and last season we grew Brussels sprouts and trochuda cabbage. I’m still trying to figure out the carrot thing, however.

But something else has begun to happen. This garden has begun to teach me about what we do with our lives, how we live out our purpose in ordinary time, more specifically, how we live out the quiet moments of our lives.

Last week, my two and a half years of creative writing study culminated into a final thesis. It is 177 pages with its title pages, acknowledgments, table of contents, etc., but more specifically, it is 52 pages of poetry, and 102 pages of fiction. Somehow, during my pursuit of becoming a better novelist and completing my first novel, I wrote a poetry book, and became a poet.

As my mentor signed off my final manuscript, and I realized my poetry book was full and complete, hollowness set in. For the past seventeen months, those poems were my creative focus and purpose. I poured myself into writing those poems, then editing them, arranging them, naming, and polishing them. They gave my writing life purpose and dedication.

A morning glory flower.

A morning glory flower.

Today, with the extraordinary moments witnessed and recorded in that poetry book, what do I do with the ordinary time of today, until the next moments of reverence for a new subject comes? What about tomorrow, after the book, the degree is finished? While working through extraordinary goals we often think that work and that effort is hard and demanding, but I have come to differ. The hard work is witnessing the mundane, the quiet, the ordinary time of our lives and finding the same passion, grit, reverence for those silent moments as we have for the loud moments we can announce on our social media streams. Those quiet, dusk moments of our lives without enough light to photograph. Who are we then? When we put the projects down, who are we; who are we when we settle down with ourselves, come down from the high of extraordinary, and live in ordinary time?

While sitting on the edge of a cinder block, in my secret garden, planting a Black Diamond Watermelon, a bird flew from the gutter above me and around to a heavy thicket of morning glory vines. Perched, it began to chirp amongst a chorus of chirpers, and soon after, a hummingbird flew out, dipped its body near my head, before flying off into a nearby tree, out of sight. I turned my attention back to the bird singing from the morning glory vine, noting its strawberry red throat, its tan body, and short-pointed beak, all clues to help me discover the name of this rare visitor. A few hours later, while sitting still with my journal, I noticed the same bird sitting on a branch, eating a ripe apricot across the yard. His strawberry pink throat matched the blushing apricot and as he took moments to pause between pecking at the apricot, he’d sing a quick note.apricot

I had to fight myself to sit still, to watch him from afar, knowing if I came close, he’d scurry off and leave his afternoon lunch. Some minutes later, when he flew off, I started poeming. Once I realized he was done eating the apricot, and not coming back, I walked over, sat beneath the tree and decided to poem from there, with the sun on my arms. On the ground a half-eaten, ripe apricot caught my attention. I held it, inspected it, pushed my nose into its cleaved flesh, smelling the sweet, musky floral scent of a sun-ripened apricot. I instantly knew why my feathered visitor kept singing.

I left space in my poem for the bird’s proper name, something, I imagined, rare sounding that I’d never heard before. A name to give my poem a flair of the extraordinary. Later, after going through my regional bird book, and researching online, I learned this fellow was an everyday house finch. Colorful in his mating plumage, I failed to notice the ordinary in the extraordinary in front of me. Or, is the bigger truth that I failed to have reverence and awe when witnessing the mundane.

This, my friends, is what we do in the quiet, humdrum time of our lives. We follow the paths of birds, we investigate and smell sweet fruits in the sun, we get still and listen to the birds sing, the bees humming their glassine wings—this is where we truly find purpose, passion, and meaning, when we are wildly present and able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is this time, between the extraordinary seasons of our lives, which defines us and guides us towards our purpose(s).

I believe we truly live during ordinary time. Not the big moments, but the quiet moments. Those times we are preparing for the bigger moments, we are writing the stories and singing the songs under our breath, waiting for the extraordinary times to sing our stories on the big stage. The big stage is for the world, but the quiet, everyday moments are for us, for us to be present and purposeful in song.

I’d like to share a recipe for a quick hand pie to eat during your ordinary, in between time. It is just as comforting as a morning treat with coffee or tea, as it is in the evening, warmed for dessert. To my kids it’s a homemade pop tart, to Edward and me, an old-fashioned hand pie. Either way, it’s homey and good in the best kind of way.

Boysenberry Hand Pies/Pop Tarts

Boysenberry Hand Pies/Pop Tarts

Boysenberry Hand Pie/Pop Tart

The best thing about these hand pies is the contrast between the tart berry filling and the sweet icing on top. The flaky dough serves as the perfect backdrop; it’s sweet enough to help round out the tartness of the boysenberries, but not too sweet. I use a good quality vegan margarine for my dough, but feel free to use all butter. The key is ice-cold margarine/butter, ice-cold water, and quick handwork. Of course, you can use what ever flavor of jam you like!

Pie Dough

3 ¾-4 C. all purpose flour

3 sticks of margarine/butter, diced and ice-cold

3 tbl. Sugar

¾-1 C. ice-cold water

Directions:

  1. An hour before you plan to make your dough, cut up your margarine/butter into cubes and put in the freezer. Chill 1 cup of water.
  2. To Make Dough: Measure 3 ¾ cups of flour into a large bowl, add the sugar, and mix well to incorporate. Add the cubes of butter, and then cut it into the flour with a pastry blender/cutter, or two forks. When the butter is the size of small peas, slowly stir in the ice water. Start with the lesser amount of water, and add enough extra water to make the dough hold together. It’s okay if there are dry areas. If the dough is too wet, add in extra flour.
  3. Separate the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and put in the refrigerator to chill. In the meantime, make your filling.

Boysenberry Filling

1 C. seedless boysenberry jam

Squeeze of lemon juice

1 tsp. freshly grated lemon zest

1 tbl. cold water

1 tbl. cornstarch

Directions:

  1. In a small saucepan, add the jam, lemon juice, and lemon zest. In a separate small bowl, mix the water and cornstarch to make a slurry. Add the cornstarch slurry to the jam, and cook over medium high heat until the jam begins to thicken, about 3-4 minutes.
  2. Once thickened, put the jam in a small bowl, and set aside to cool. (Note: to cool quickly, place the small bowl of jam into another larger bowl filled with ice water. Stir the jam continuously, until it cools and thickens.)

Assembling the Hand Pies:

  1. Cover your work area and rolling pin with flour. Roll out the dough into a rectangle roughly 9 x 15 inches long and about ¼ inch thick. Cut the rectangle into nine rectangles, about 3 x 5 inches big. Set aside, then do the exact same thing with the rest of the dough. (You may have dough left over.)
  2. In the center of the first set of rectangles, spread about 2 tablespoons of the thickened jam, avoiding about ½ inch of the edge. Be generous, but also mindful that if you put too much jam, it will squeeze out when you put the top layer of dough on top. Too little, and your hand pie will be dry.
  3. Once each rectangle is spread with jam, moisten your finger in water and wet the edges of each rectangle (the ½ inch area without jam), and then place one of the second set of dough rectangles on top. The water will help seal the two layers of dough together. With a fork dipped in flour, press around the edge of the pie, crimping the two pieces of dough together. Set aside, and repeat the process with the remaining pieces.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and place the prepared pies into the refrigerator to cool while the oven preheats, about thirty minutes. This gives the margarine/butter a chance to harden again, which helps to create flaky dough.
  5. Cook the cooled pies for 25-35 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Set aside to cool while you make the icing.
  6. Icing: To make the icing, mix 1-1/2 cups of powered sugar with 2 tablespoons of milk, 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract (or less if you prefer, but I always use a lot of vanilla), and 1 teaspoon of light corn syrup (optional). You do not have to add the corn syrup, but I find a little helps the icing to not flake off it dries. Whisk well, adding more sugar to thicken, or milk to thin until you reach your desired consistency.
  7. Ice the cool pies, shake on candy sprinkles, and enjoy!

boysenberry handpie boysenberry handpie filling

 

Noctiputations

Three a.m., and night is an oil spill
seeped down to the benthic zone.

The way a man-of-war is simultaneously
individual and colony,
I am wide-awake and exhausted.

My head, sunken into the pillow, fills
with ideas, insights, plans, and epiphanies

like the gold coins and suits of armor
stuffed inside a seafloored shipwreck.

I load my arms and make for the surface
where the submerged treasures
will atomize in the barbarous sunlight,

and the waking world, as always,
will plunder me of my private riches.

Doc SudsDoc Suds is a proud Wisconsin native currently residing in North Miami. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Atlanta Review, New Delta Review, Paper Darts, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Find more at www.docsuds.net.

Tracing Wrist Scars

I used to keep exquisite potted plants.
Now, just pots of dirt.
My friend Meghann keeps pots of dirt.
One with a ceramic hand creeping out,
another, a foot. Funny, the things we covet.
I only learned to begin wanting again recently.
I don’t know where to place my wants.
How to justify them, or actually obtain.
It isn’t fair to want things
after trying to give everything away.
The wine isn’t fair, the overpriced penne.
Paycheck, new bootlaces, a night out for music
or poetry or beer. This guilt.
Wanting a day of sun. Or even rain.
Things that racket and wail, things that shimmy
or sit quietly on a windowsill.
Shameful, I think, to covet a tattoo
or philosophical conversation.
A book, a trinket. A new poem. A pulse.

Jeanann VerleeJeanann Verlee is author of Racing Hummingbirds, recipient of the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in poetry, and the forthcoming collection, Said the Manic to the Muse. She has been awarded the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, and failbetter, among others. Verlee wears polka dots and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you.

Denouement

Prayer flags heave like healthy lungs beneath a five colored sheet.
Wind is implied. Or breath. Healing. But definitely movement.

All the weightless things around us convulse into terrible
ghosted forms, then return to their tenacious dangling.

The world ages at the rate we expect it to.
We are not so fortunate

as cricket legs at dawn. Here is the dawn:
caked translucent light, war painted heavens

steadily retreating, bewildered impulse
to enter the house and leave the house

without opening a door. Here is the door;
it’s grown smaller than a child’s body

and fits our burning. It fits her body.
I shine a flashlight up

to where hours ago we misidentified the North Star.
Temporary light. False light. We’ve lost as much

in going as in her being
gone. Go, I whisper, though she doesn’t

seem to hear much anymore as the body hum
slows into earth. Breath weakens its search

for more of the same. On the porch between us stars
are implied. Or roots. Her shoes with just enough wind left

++++++++++++inside them.

John Sibley WilliamsJohn Sibley Williams is the author of eight collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. Publishing credits include American Literary Review, Third Coast, Nimrod International Journal, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.