The Caregiver

See this Lithuanian woman. She has been
feeding my father dinners of mashed turkey
and broccoli, potato pancakes, washing his
clothes, bathing him, offering him the choice
between Wolf Blitzer and Vanna White for years.

Observe her hands as they gently push his body
to the side of the hospital bed. They are covered
with latex gloves. Consider the way she has taught
me to tenderly pull up his socks and cover him
with a quilt, put drops in his eyes, rub powder
on a rash, splash his neck with Old Spice, then
bend down to kiss his cheek goodnight.

You must come closer, you must hang up your jacket,
be prepared to spend hours listening to his slurred
speech, help feed him applesauce with vitamins,
raise and lower his bed, monitor his erratic heartbeat.
Remember what he has given up—his Buick LeSabre,
his cane, his walker, then finally his wheelchair, to get
to where he now lives—a bed with guard rails.

Go to the night-stand and offer him a Frango Mint,
put on his favorite Garrison Keillor CD. Listen as he
smiles with his one good eye and whispers something
so faint, you ask him to repeat, “I’m lucky.”
Think about all this while driving the long way home.
You may get angry at the world, like I do, until you
see your husband asleep in the Lazy-Boy, bare
legs dangling. Until you suddenly realize what the caregiver
has taught you as, without a word, you slowly rub lotion
onto your husband’s chapped heels, then cover his ice-cold feet.

Caroline JohnsonCaroline Johnson enjoys watching movies with her father, especially James Bond movies. She has two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork. In 2012 she won First Place in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Poetry Contest, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She has published poetry in Encore, Chicago Tribune, Uproot, The Quotable, Rambunctious Review, Blast Furnace, Origins Journal, Naugatuck River Review, and others. She has led workshops for veterans and other poets on such topics as Poetry and Spirituality, Speculative Poetry, and Writing About Chicago, and serves as president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago.

Want Cokes?

Since sophomore year, the crew walks three blocks to the bakery with the bitchy lady at the counter. Sometimes we get the cheese-filled dough beuregs, but sometimes we get the ground-beef flatbreads for only two bucks each. You can smell the cheese wafting through the smog on Broadway, and it meets the sweet smell of nazoug cookies from the pastry place across the street. The crew thinks it’s better than the Chinese place since Owner lets us sit there until Vartan picks us up. At least Ashot thinks it is, and we all care about what Ashot thinks because he’s fuckin’ Ashot–the only guy that can pull off a collared shirt without looking like a wimp.

One time, Owner said some shit like, “Tghek, do your homeworks.”

“You don’t need to graduate to start a business, aper,” said Ashot.

“Right. Back in Armenia, I graduate for music and was composer. What you want to be?” he said, wiping his hands on his sweaty apron.

Ashot said, “Rich. I want to be fuckin’ rich.” All of us busted out laughing, including Owner.

Ashot always knew what to say. Since the seventh grade, he always fucking knew. His dad beat him up with a belt almost every day which made him a smart ass, but he would move up in life as a loyal one too. When we were in the eighth grade, I got caught touching Maria’s tits because I didn’t really know how to ask her out. He didn’t even know me well, but he followed me to the principal’s office and told him that he dared me to do it.

[blockquote align=left]We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us.

He told the principal, “They mentioned it in biology class and I wanted to know how it felt. Consider it a lab.”

I remember asking him later on why he did it. And he just shrugged. They gave him detention. But we stayed best friends.

“Do your work to be rich,” Owner said. “Want Cokes?”

We never want Cokes. We just go out on the sidewalk to smoke a pack instead.

Ashot says, “Kobe killed it last night. I love him, man. If only I could be him.”

Standing behind him, I can see a scar near his collar.

“Fuck yeah,” I say. “Who doesn’t?”

*     *     *

I actually like Maria. I’ve liked her since the incident with the boobs, for the last four years. The crew calls her a slut because she hangs out with the other Mexican girls near the football field at lunch and because there’s a rumor going around that they slept with the same guys in the soccer team. I didn’t really care if she did, because I knew she wasn’t dumb. I had English class with her, and one time, she read a poem she wrote about a car crash. It made me feel wack–like someone had pulled out my gut for a second.

The glass windows slide deeper into my heart. And I can feel me rip apart with each painful toss–hoping to be loved and pulled together, she’d written.

After class I said, “So you write poems?”

“Yeah,” she said, fixing her shirt. I could see her tits.

“It was cool,” I said and walked away. Her sharp, green eyes followed me out the door.

*     *     *

The football field where she hangs out is Latino territory, and one time, Ashot got busted for kicking a guy named Juan in the dick because he hit on Ani, the hottest girl in the school–and Ashot’s childhood friend. She has black, straight hair and rarely smiles, kind of like those Russian dolls–the ones Mam likes to collect to put over the fireplace. Ani moved here when she was four, same as Ashot. I don’t think Ashot liked Ani, but I think he just likes to protect the girls in the crew from older guys, mostly Mexicans.

“No one’ll want to marry her if she fuckin’ sleeps with that Mexican,” he said.

“What if she actually wants to sleep with the Mexican?” I said, unwrapping my burger.

“I don’t give a shit,” Ashot said. “There’s no way in hell she’s gonna do that shit. And if Vartan isn’t gonna do anything, then I am.”

“Let her brother handle it,” I said. “Why you gotta get involved and get us all in this?”

“Because we have to,” he said. “Because we’re the Armo fuckin’ corner.”

And then he sent a note to Juan through Marco, the half-Armenian half-Mexican kid to have him meet the crew up in their territory at lunch the next day. Juan showed up with five other guys, and Ashot kicked him in the dick. Everyone got pissed and started fighting each other–even me. It was messed up because Ashot got suspended and the rest of us had to do community service for a few months.

When the counselor called me in, she asked, “Who started it, Armen?”

I hate how counselors use names to make something sound more serious. The small waterfall on her desk chimed and echoed the sounds of rushing water. What the fuck?

“They started it,” I said. “Juan and his guys.”

“That’s not what I heard,” said counselor.

“Isn’t that called hearsay or something,” I said. Her face didn’t get soft.

“I’m just messin’. Listen, Juan asked us to be there ‘cause he had to talk to Ashot about something and then he just attacked him.”

She eventually let me go after firing off questions about why my math and science grades had dropped.

*     *     *

When I come home from school, Mam already has dinner ready for us–us being me, Pap, my three aunts, their husbands, and two single uncles.

“Of course Obamacare is a bad thing,” says Uncle Khachik. “They want our tax money to pay.”

“It’s for the greater good,” says my other Hopar.

“The Soviet Union was too,” Pap says.

“Greater good is capitalism. That’s all I know,” he says.

“So you vote democrat but aren’t one,” says Hopar Khachik.

After a pause my dad responds, “Of course, it’s California. And we like welfare.”

Everyone laughs, but I don’t really think it’s funny. The women don’t speak much and Mam doesn’t even work, but she has the smile of a woman who isn’t a fucking house wife–one that reminds me of a picture she has as a girl in Tzaghgatsor. She’s standing in front of a field of flowers in a skirt almost to her ankle, holding a set of books. As a kid she would tell me that the blooms in Tzaghgatsor were unlike any other, that they were caused by the beauty of Armenian’s most beautiful goddess, Anahit. The fields of flowers spill over into green, rolling mountains, almost like magic. I imagined, as a kid, that she was the goddess in some way, although her eyes have wrinkles around the edges and her hair is kind of faded brown. She dyes it blonde, probably to cover it all.

“Of course the United States will recognize the genocide,” Pap says. “The democrats will do it.”

“It’s a lie,” says my uncle Khachik. “They want us to vote like you.”

A pile of Asbarez newspapers sit face up on on our TV stand. Pap’s horn rimmed glasses shift lower on his nose. And no one can hear a thing.

My dad slams his hand on the table, “They raped our women and exterminated our people–the democrats actually give a shit. Armen, get us some cognac glasses.”

I bring him the glasses, and he says, “How was your school?”

“Good,” I say.

“Doctor or lawyer? Decided yet?”

“Not yet, Dad. One of them, though,” I say.

I go to my room. I like to think about Maria or watch porn or read. I stare at my Transformers poster sometimes or just watch trailers. Sometimes we even meet up at the parking lot near the Starbucks in La Cañada. All the guys from all the high schools meet up there to smoke–too young to have cognac anyway. We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us. Ashot rarely comes except for one night.

He sneaks out to join us. He’s wearing a stupid baseball cap, and he asks for a stog.

“What’s up with the hat?” Vartan says. “Vibin’ white guys, huh?”

And I see it then–the right side of his face all blue.

“What the fuck dude,” I say. “What the hell?”

“He just made a man out of me,” he says, smiling.

“Fuck man, you okay?” I say.

“Yeah, aper, yeah. Let’s have a smoke, and I’ll be good.”

“Should we tell the cops or call Counselor or something?” I ask.

“No, I’m good. I’m tight. I promised him I would get my grades up.”

“Yeah man, we should,” I say.

“We will. But let’s have a smoke first.”

“Fuck yeah,” I say, looking down at the pavement.

Talar MalakianTalar Malakian graduated with a degree in English and an emphasis in Fiction from the University of California-Irvine. She works in digital marketing but really hates Twitter. You can find her in Los Angeles, usually with a book, an Apple product, and a cold latte.

Thrash in Eighths

after Night of the Rats by Mark Andres

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]my sleep—[/one_sixth][one_sixth]it makes me[/one_sixth]fall down. 
[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]my jazz[/one_sixth][one_sixth]how it [/one_sixth]croons & whistles.

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]my lover’s [/one_sixth][one_sixth]spirit[/one_sixth]boogie. 
[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]buildings[/one_sixth][one_sixth]in me[/one_sixth]crumble.

[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]music stand;[/one_sixth][one_sixth]holy[/one_sixth]talent-hands. 
[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]marquis,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]scarlet[/one_sixth]velvet.

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]humble[/one_sixth][one_sixth]ladder[/one_sixth]chair. 
[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]moon who’s[/one_sixth][one_sixth]breathing[/one_sixth]fire.

[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]aspect:[/one_sixth][one_sixth]slow burn[/one_sixth]in glass. 
[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]you who[/one_sixth][one_sixth]leave me[/one_sixth]undisturbed.

[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]perturbs me[/one_sixth][one_sixth]with lights[/one_sixth]and brushes. 
[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]neighbor’s[/one_sixth][one_sixth]voice[/one_sixth]aflame.

[one_sixth]Sacred[/one_sixth][one_sixth]ivy[/one_sixth][one_sixth]razes[/one_sixth]my house. 
[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]the rivulets;[/one_sixth][one_sixth]sacred[/one_sixth]the leaves.

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth][one_sixth]portal[/one_sixth][one_sixth]like[/one_sixth]half-lidded eye.

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth]the dust motes. 
[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth]the grace notes.

[one_sixth]Sacred,[/one_sixth]the blue jay’s dark shoulders+++++in myth.

Jill KhouryJill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Arsenic Lobster, Copper Nickel, Inter|rupture, and Portland Review. She edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press in 2009. Her first full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.

You can find her at www.jillkhoury.com.

Break Rooms: Photography

Quantum

1.
You get in the car and I know
you have something to tell me,
not because I see the unspoken
pooling in the curve of your eye,
but because I feel you not speaking.

2.
Afterwards we lie in bed, your head
cradled beneath my clavicle; you say,
What did you just think about?
Why?
The rhythm of your heartbeat changed.
I reach to pull you closer, but closer
no longer translates in our new language.

3.
We both understand
that the blue herons
around my lake and your dock
can hear me thinking.

Two thousand miles between
me and your downward spiral,
weeks before I’ll see you again
when a heron lands
two feet away from you,
spanning the dark distance for us.

4.
In the quantum world,
scientists perform experiments
on the crystalline structure of water:
shouting at one container for a month,
saying thank you, I love you to another,
ignoring the third.
Under the microscope, changed expressions—
exposure to negative thoughts forms
dull, incomplete, asymmetrical patterns;
exposure to loving words creates
brilliant, complex, snowflake patterns.

5.
2014 was the southeast’s second
wettest year since record-keeping began.
In California they continue to have
the worst drought in modern history;
I am saturated; you are flammable.

Michelle Lyle M.S. Lyle hails from NJ and currently writes from Roswell, GA, a revived milltown hugging her beloved Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. You can find some of her work at Postcard Poems and Prose, Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Write Room and upcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review. She’s currently furiously editing her first full-length poetry manuscript and working on a collection of travel essays. Oh, and daydreaming. Above all else, daydreaming—a skill she gives high regard to not only as a poet, but as a sentient being in general.

Race in the Brain

One warm southern California day, I strolled up the sidewalk of my apartment building in West Hollywood and spotted my white seventy-something neighbor sitting at her window, her daily spot.

“Hey Virginia!” I greeted her as I approached.

She glared at me and asked, “Are you a racist?”

“What????” The suddenness of the question and the repulsion in her face and voice sent me backwards.

“All you ever write about is race. Race race race.”

I was too stunned to defend myself, outraged at the person I passionately prayed for when she had open heart surgery. The woman whose newly-purchased treadmill I helped move across our busy street so she could begin her rehab.

How dare she?

“You need to watch who you call ‘racist,’” I told her. “Don’t ever come at me like that again!” I stormed into my apartment cursing.

How could she view my work as racist? My artistic mission statement is, “I am an artist striving to share my life and my observations, acting as a bridge between races, sexes, sexualities, religions, and religious believers and non-believers.” How had I failed?

After giving Virginia’s question much pondering, I found myself asking, Was race all I wrote about? Was I like one of my black friends who couldn’t have a conversation without finding a way to reference “white people?” The one who I once told, “If you ever have brain surgery and your head is cut open, white people are going to crawl out of it.”

My mind downloaded poems, essays, and scenes I had written that disputed her claim. I realized all Virginia knew of my work were two essays. One, featured in the LA Weekly based on a real letter to my seventeen year-old nephew, recounted the experiences his father, my brother, and I had with the police, and what he should to do if he were stopped: Don’t argue, keep your hands down, don’t ask questions, be polite, suppress your anger, get away alive, report them afterwards, if you wish.

The second piece was what prompted Virginia’s question. It was an essay she had just read in the LA Times: three men (two blacks and a Latino) voluntarily stopped what they were doing and helped a surprised white male motorist push his van to the shoulder of a busy street. In the essay, I marveled that these men put aside any possible racial slights in their personal history and dealt with the task at hand—helping a fellow motorist out of the street. The rainbow coalition at work, I joked.

Virginia’s husband was Chinese—they are both dead now—who often told me how horribly they were treated as a newly-wed interracial couple in the late 1950s. This included being verbally assaulted on a train by a group of passengers, but he also shared how poorly her family had treated him. Virginia may have suppressed her memories in the name of a melting-pot society but her husband certainly had not.

I finally realized she just wanted me to buckle down and move on. No time for all this race foolishness. Her criticism reminded me of those from a conservative Latino friend who has been a major supporter of my work and a great friend for seventeen years. Occasionally though, he teases me about the poems I’ve written depicting racial injustice, implying that I give them too much power, that I perversely enjoy the incidents that inspired the work. I laugh it off but it bothers me and adds to the injustice I’ve already experienced. I interpret his mocking and Virginia’s denial as coping mechanisms, refusals to acknowledge oppression and racial slights in their attempts to avoid rage. Admitting that you’ve been slighted or are affected by the horrors going on this world also brings witnesses to your oppression. Who wants to be perceived as a victim?

Perhaps Virginia and my friend possess the ability to move past injustice without being emotionally involved or taking it personally. That is their choice. They are mentioned here because they have made personal comments about my choice. I am oppressed, but I’m not anyone’s victim. I am powerful. That is my worldview based on the madness I have seen and experienced. Choices and thoughts. That is where I practice my freedom. I strive to make sure someone else’s bullshit doesn’t consume my life. When I look in the mirror, I want to see my ancestors, not my oppressors. I have written several solo shows and at the end of each writing process, I inspect my work to ensure all my poems, monologues, and scenes aren’t about experiences with oppression, insult, and racial profiling. I make certain there are pieces that reflect me as a human being, though the culture of race is used as background. (And the culture of homosexuality, too—I’m gay.) Topics I have addressed in my work include ambition, debt, religion, unrequited love, parental issues, family, and self-actualization. But suppose I decided I wanted to address racism or homophobia as a single issue: Would I be guilty of race (or homophobia) in my brain?

Once, in front of a friend visiting from Chicago, the owner of a neighborhood store where I frequently shopped accused me of stealing an eighty-nine cents bottle of Coke while I was wearing almost a thousand-dollars-worth of clothing. The altercation ended with the storeowner screaming from behind his thick glass-plated window, “I saw you! I saw you,” while I, so angry I stood on my toes (according to my friend), yelled, “I’ve never stolen anything in my life!”

A day later, my friend and I sat in a gay bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood, and watched as the bouncer carded every black person who entered (including us). I took the manager aside and informed him. “It didn’t happen,” he yelled repeatedly, angrily waving his large flashlight as the other bouncer stood menacingly at his side.

Shortly afterwards, I wrote “Welcome to LA,” a multi-media poem with video and music, detailing the racism I experienced in my neighborhood the weekend my ex-boyfriend—my soulmate—came to visit, and how the weekend ended: with an exquisitely warm welcome from a white storeowner on the same block, a balm for my anger. For weeks, I sat at my desk enthralled with the writing of the poem, in a state of bliss I don’t get from anything else. I loved writing it. I love performing it. I DESPISE the incident that inspired it.

I began “Welcome to LA” with humor, as I often do when I write a piece that features moments of rage. The humor is a reminder to myself that I am not just that moment. It’s also an attempt to ease the viewer/reader into what will be an unsettling ride:

++++++Silk baseball jacket
++++++Khaki pants from Beverly Hills
++++++Dress shirt from Georgio Armani
++++++I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!
++++++I’m a star!
++++++Got on my good shit today!
++++++Soul mate’s coming to town!
++++++Welcome to LA!

++++++Chicago sons—Valedictorians
++++++We trade book recommendations
++++++I am reading on self-esteem
++++++And recite my lessons
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++I’ve got to speak up for what I believe.

In this poem, I use the metaphor of LA as the film capital of the world to take the piece beyond I was accused of stealing, and the very next day I saw all the blacks carded at a bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood while all the whites were warmly welcomed.

The encounters with the indifferent managers sent me into a rage that resulted in a deeper understanding of the murder of Latasha Harlins. Harlins was a fifteen year-old black female who was killed by a Korean storeowner in Los Angeles almost two weeks after the videotaped assault against Rodney King was broadcast. Six months after Harlins’s death, Soon Ja Du (the storeowner) was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of up to sixteen years in prison. The judge sentenced her to time served, 300 hours of community services, and five years’ probation. The 1992 LA uprising wasn’t just about Rodney King; Rodney King was just the last straw.

++++++The store video of young Latasha Harlins
++++++Plays on his face (the storeowner who accused me of stealing)
++++++She is thirsty so she drinks
++++++As she approaches the counter.
++++++The storeowner calls her a thief.
++++++Latasha sees her movies playing on her silver screen.
++++++A child of the inner city
++++++Young and emotional
++++++She curses and swings.
++++++As she turns to leave
++++++She jerks and takes a bullet to the back of her head
++++++The money for the drink spilling out of her hands.

++++++Oh Latasha, now I understand.

++++++Soul mate knows I will not swing
++++++So he allows me to speak
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++For what I believe.

++++++I’ve come here for years, I say
++++++Every time I say hello
++++++And the only time you see me
++++++Is when you think I’m stealing.
++++++I am on my toes yelling
++++++Soul mate describes the scene later
++++++I remember nothing but Latasha
++++++The store clerk at DeKoven’s (who followed me every time I entered their store when I was a teen)
++++++Water hoses with extreme velocity spraying children
++++++Lynches
++++++Castrations
++++++Tar and feathering
++++++Whips and chains.
++++++African drums beat out a warning
++++++It could be you, It could be you.

The poem—as did that week—ended on a hopeful note, but asks, What would have happened if I didn’t have the whites I knew to balance the horrors I was reliving? How would I have perceived that weekend if my friend and I hadn’t met the white storeowner who gave us the warm greeting?

Writing to work out my pains is something I have done since childhood. When I couldn’t bear what I face—bullies, an angry stressed-out mother, the stifling of my personality—I wrote. This carried over to my adulthood. The infuriating incident of being accused of stealing, and being disrespected in a world where customers are supposedly always right, became an epic performance poem. The story of a white cop lying that my brother was speeding the night he was driving me to my high school district’s Board of Education meeting, where I served as a student advisor, was part of my essay on the necessity of telling a young black man I loved what to do when he encountered the police. (This was in 1995, by the way.) I turned that same encounter into a funny scene from “Black Stuff,” a well-received satire on black male identity that I co-wrote with actor/writer Alexander Thomas. Unfortunately, I know there will inevitably come a day when I have another work inspired by a despicable act to add to my oeuvre. In fact, another outrage from the summer of 2015 inspired this essay.

Besides my work being a balm for my ills, it is my calling. I feel I was put on this earth to share my life, no matter my intense need for privacy and someone’s demands I be quiet. When I tell of the incidents that insult my spirit, I release them and hope that my listener/reader will know they are not alone. Others will remember my stories when someone around them asks, Why are black people so sensitive, so angry?

I write my story so it will be there for someone who has never experienced the humiliation that comes with profiling and racial insult and think it doesn’t happen. I write for those who are unable to articulate what they feel when they are slighted, and for those who succumb to the influence of someone like Virginia who wants them to ignore what they’ve experienced or seen, and pretend it didn’t happen. That is what the manager of the bar yelled at me when I pointed out to him that his bouncer only carded black customers: “It didn’t happen.”

As I wrote in “Welcome to LA”:

++++++He can tell me
++++++He’s punishing me for something my brother did
++++++Mother used to do the same.
++++++He can tell me
++++++Only the blacks he knows can enter without being carded.
++++++But he can’t tell me it didn’t happen—
++++++My glasses give me 20/20 vision.

Alexander and I performed the “Black Stuff” scene involving the lying policeman at a national performance conference. A liberal white lesbian from New Orleans I had befriended at the conference stopped me afterwards and asked, appalled, “LeVan, was that true? Did that happen?” I took her beyond her experience. That experience confirmed the necessity of being exposed to lives unlike our own. In order for this to happen, writers can’t sit on their truths.

*     *     *

In 1996, at one of my closest friend’s rehearsal dinner for his wedding, his brother-in-law, who is white (as is my friend), told me that when he witnessed blacks’ ecstatic reaction to the OJ Simpson murder verdict on television (absolute joy at the not-guilty verdict when it looked like Simpson killed his white wife), he was puzzled and wanted to understand. He went to a local bookstore and purchased a bagful of memoirs by black authors and devoured them.

“Do you have a better understanding?” I asked him.

“Not a better understanding,” he replied. “I understand.”

LeVan D. HawkinsLeVan D. Hawkins is a solo performer and published poet and writer. He is a Lambda Literary, Millay Colony of the Arts, and Dorothy West/Helene Johnson Foundation Fellow. He has read his work at venues such as Dartmouth College, UCLA Hammer Museum, Disney Hall REDCAT Theater, Minneapolis Central Library, & Links Hall Chicago. www.levandhawkins.com

Three Poems by Anna Piwkowska

Iphigenia’s morning

Who recognized these crossroads, these poisonous bogs,
false lights of will-o’-the-wisps on succulent marshes?
Where are you today and what are you brewing
in your copper cauldrons—what new, sudden vision
of terrible fate led you to fulfill
a familiar prophecy, to spool the skeins of wool?

As usual, you are traveling. I am sitting in a flood
of transmissive lights, trying to read the verdicts.
Maybe it is better to pour olive oil on a wrathful fire
in the very heart of Athens, to throw Iphigenia’s shawl,
torn from her shoulders, onto the hissing essence
of sandalwood, onto its white flames.

Because the mornings were cold, because she shivered,
because she did not know whom to ask for advice.
So now what can I do, when I, descended
from her kind, suspect a similar betrayal?

Oh, all of us betrayed and sacrificed,
we commiserating nursemaids, Iphigenias,
towers of bone, Towers of Babel—
I believe in the unity of language,
soft whispers, alliance.

January 2005

 

Toward passage

Are these forgotten graves or buried animals?
How many years have they lain here, bleached, overgrown
with moss, deprived of breath, warmth, and happiness?
What destruction passed through this sweet ravine,
and on what misfortune did the fruit ripen?
The snap of a breaking branch and the eyes see
a small blot of dimmed magic in the pupil’s darkness.
Tired, scarred, grazed by love,
we depart through a meadow where once a man
might have killed a man, a hound an animal, and the darker-haired
sister drove her sharp knife into the fairer.
Is that dawn or dusk beyond the meadows, and what
are we walking on, where are we going, toward what annihilation?
But now the moon is rising and it lays its silver
across our bones, eyes, and sockets.
All drowns in this silver as in the sieve of time,
a dog howled, a red van shot by
as we emerged from the Dantean woods onto the road,
now prepared for further passage.

And with us our pots, dogs, foals, goats,
those small, lost, compromised,
an entire crowd of creatures, matted coats,
drowned pups, frightened eyes.

In a gray cap, by ferry, someone comes for us:
our Penates are packed, our Lares corrupt.

Nieborów, October 2009

 

Uncertain days

No one needs dreams any longer, winter is ending—
green bark on the trees, fragrant boxwoods,
new grass, and it’s probably almost time
for buttercups. A ray of sunlight
falls and wriggles down a red, faded roof.

These days are uncertain, and if we listen
by candlelight to Russian records,
to bows sawing silver cellos in the sky,
nostalgic melodies from southern seas,
or female voices, dense and operatic,
it is only for a moment,
and then we get in the car,
spattered with the greasy mud of March,
and drive impatiently down side roads,
watching the sky now clear, now dark, now a flash
that retreats like a mole to its subterranean bed.

Relentlessly we clean the attic, we buy seedlings
at the garden store, we begin to count
the days til spring and then the deep drifts come,
the dreams and snowstorms, a freezing draft from the windows.

Nieborów, March 2, 2007

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Poranek Ifigenii

Kto poznał te rozstaje, trujące moczary,
błędne ogniki świateł na soczystych bagnach?
Gdzie przebywacie dzisiaj i jakie wywary
w waszych miedzianych garnkach, jaka nowa, nagła
wizja strasznego losu kazała wam spełnić
znajomą przepowiednię? motać kłębki wełny?

Ty jak zwykle w podróży. Ja w powodzi świateł
transmisyjnych, próbuję odczytać wyroki.
Może lepiej oliwę w samym sercu Aten
lać na gniewne ognisko, na syczące soki
drzewa sandałowego i białych płomieni
rzucić zerwaną z ramion chustkę Ifigenii?

Bo ranki były zimne, bo drżała od chłodu,
bo nie wiedziała, kogo ma prosić o radę.
Więc co mam robić teraz ja, która z jej rodu
wywiedziona, podobną podejrzewam zdradę?

Ach, my wszystkie zdradzone, złożone w ofierze,
współczujące piastunki, Ifigenie, wieże
z białej kości słoniowej, wieże Babel, wierzę
we wspólnotę języka, cichy szept, przymierze.

styczeń 2005

 

Ku przeprawie

To zapomniane groby czy pochówek zwierząt?
Ile lat mchem porosłe, wybielone leżą
pozbawione oddechu, ciepła, i radości?
Jaka zagłada przeszła przez ten słodki parów
i owoce na jakim nieszczęściu dojrzały?
Trzask łamanej gałązki i oczy dojrzały
w ciemnej źrenicy plamkę przygasłego czaru.
Zmęczeni, naznaczeni, draśnięci miłością
odchodzimy przez łąkę, gdzie kiedyś, być może,
człowiek zabił człowieka, chart zwierzę, a siostrę
jasnowłosą, ta czarna pchnęła ostrym nożem.
Czy to brzask nad łąkami, czy zmierzcha i po czym
stąpamy, gdzie idziemy, ku jakiej zagładzie?
Ale już księżyc wschodzi i srebrem się kładzie
na kości, oczodoły i na nasze oczy.
Wszystko tonie w tym srebrze jak w durszlaku czasu,
czerwona furgonetka przemknęła, pies zawył,
gdy wyszliśmy na szosę z dantejskiego lasu,
na dobre już gotowi do dalszej przeprawy.

A z nami nase garnki, psy, kozy, źrebięta,
te, które niedorosły, chore, utracone,
cała gromada zwierząt, futra skołtunione,
i oczy przerażone, topione szczenięta.

Ktoś w szarej cyklistówce płynie po nas promem:
penaty spakowane, lary przekupione.

Nieborów, październik 2009

 

Niepewne dni

Nikt już nie potrzebuje snów, dobiega końca
zima, pachną bukszpany, zielenieje kora
na drzewach, wschodzi trawa i zapewne wkrótce
pojawią się zawilce, spadnie promień słońca
i spełznie po czerwonej spłowiałej dachówce.

Dni są niepewne i jeśli słuchamy
w te dni, przy świecach, z płyt rosyjskich smyczków
tnących wysoko w niebie srebrne wiolonczele,
albo nut nostalgicznych znad mórz południowych,
albo głosów kobiecych, gęstych, operowych,
to tylko krótką chwilę, a potem wsiadamy
w samochód opryskany tłustym błotem marca,
by jechać niecierpliwie bocznymi drogami,
i patrzymy na niebo raz czyste, raz ciemne,
błysk, który jak kret wraca w koryta podziemne.

Wytrwale strych sprzątamy, w sklepach ogrodniczych
kupujemy sadzonki, zaczynamy liczyć
dni do wiosny i wtedy przychodzą głębokie
zaspy, sny i zamiecie, mróz ciągnie od okien.

Nieborów, 2 marca 2007

Translator’s Note

I recently had the pleasure of doing a reading together with Anna Piwkowska, where we took turns reading her poems, she in Polish, and I in English. It was a fascinating experience to hear them side by side—the way she intended them, and the way I’d interpreted them. She told me the translations did justice to her poems, and I asked her how she knew that, since she doesn’t know English. She said it was partly because she could hear it in the way I read them, the way I felt them, in the rhythm. In the introduction to our reading, Anna cited another great Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska, who had said that poems ought to be read—and heard—in their native language, where they retain their essence and convey the magic of the poetry. On one hand, I agree, but by no means do they need to be read only in their native language. Translation gives a poem new life, expanding its depth, stretching its frame. In translating these poems, I wanted to stand by their essence and magic, but I also wanted to allow the poems to live in a second language as gracefully as they had in the first.

I have loved Piwkowska’s poetry for a long time, partly because the things she writes about are the things that also fascinate me: myths, relationships, the natural order of the world. The way she weaves mythological tropes with nature and the everyday concepts of modern life is lovely, and she continues to assert that myth, while shadowy or mystical or ancient, is also universal. The images in Piwkowska’s poems are striking—blends of Polish countrysides and forests with Mediterranean landscapes with surreal images of stars and skies and the underworld. Her poems are highly visual while also being highly aural. Their rhythm is pervasive, and rhyme is always lurking in the corners. I don’t write poetry myself, but I have found translating poetry to be a unique experience, where paying attention to the meaning is one thing, but paying attention to the sound is quite another. It makes me notice, and it makes me explore the English language in a way that I usually don’t.

These three poems, in particular, while never intended to stand side by side, work wonderfully together. All three dwell on the cusp of things, on imminent change, on an uncertainty about what comes next. They dwell on the mundane and the mysterious both. It’s an honor to be able to translate them and to be published here.

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Special Guest Judge, Tony Barnstone

“The best thing that translation can do is to extend the possibilities of writing in your home language. These translations of the Polish poet Anna Piwkowska bring over to English some absolutely gorgeous poems, but even more, they naturalize to English an aesthetic that is not native, and in the process they make English richer and make the possibilities for writing in English larger. How unexpected is the snap of a branch and the sudden vision of a small blot of dimmed magic in the pupil’s darkness in the violent woods. How gorgeous is the rising moon, laying its silver across our bones, eyes, and sockets. How surreal and emotional evocative are the bows sawing silver cellos in the sky. These are lovely poems, and they leave the reader with that hungry greediness that comes from eating something so delicious that you are left wanting more and more.”

– Dr. Tony Barnstone is a poet, translator, essayist, and the author of sixteen books, including Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2015), Beast in the Apartment (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014), and, most recently, Pulp Sonnets (Tupelo Press, 2015).

 Anna Piwkowska

Anna Piwkowska is a poet and writer and the author of nine acclaimed books of poetry, including, most recently, Farbiarka (2009), which won the Warsaw Literary Prize, and Lustrzanka (2012). She is also the author of a novel based on the life of Austrian poet Georg Trakl, two books about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and a young adult novel, Franciszka, which won the 2014 Polish IBBY Prize for best YA novel of the year. Her poems have been translated into English, German, Italian, Slovenian, French, Spanish, Catalan, and Slovak, and published in numerous anthologies. She lives in Warsaw.

 

Iza Wojciechowska received an MFA from Columbia University in 2012. She is the winner of PEN/Heim Translation award, and her translations of Anna Piwkowska’s poetry have appeared in A Public Space, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Common, and The Massachusetts Review, which awarded her the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize. She works as a freelance writer and editor in Durham, NC.

The Rifle / Tüfek

On the wall hung a rifle. A brown rifle. Who knew how many years it had been there. From time to time, my father took it from between the deer, who seemed spooked, and cleaned it, blowing away the dust. He gazed at it, maybe daydreaming, maybe remembering old times, before getting up and hanging it back in its place. The direction of the rifle never changed. Its long eyes seemed to stretch beyond the window, scanning the faraway mountains, which rolled lazily over, their bellies in the air. A forest, wild and willful, swelled at the skirt of the mountains. The enormous trees stood arm-in-arm, their sprawling leaves warm and inviting like the tent of a nomad. The rifle focused on the red deer wandering the forest, their eyes glistening.

On the wall hung my mother’s youthful memory—a carpet she had woven from a million intertwining daydreams. Framing these countless silk reveries was an ornate border, its deep red and light brown rings gently embracing one another. This interlocking pattern gave way to the color of the night sky. A twilight hue. With its billowing clouds, it filled mere handfuls of space. Then a forest overtook the scene. No two leaves were alike in this strange wood—they were of all shapes, sizes and colors. I would get lost—amazed—in the sheer array and diversity of the forest.

[blockquote align=right]Was I a guest in a strange house? Or had we invited in a giant mountain once upon a time? I had no way of knowing. Silently, the clouds moved in from the distance.

Evening descended upon the sky in this silk carpet of my mother’s girlhood dreams. Yet in the wood, daylight lingered, due possibly to the density of the immense trees, beneath which stood two crimson-eyed deer. They looked at one another. “The small one is her son,” said my mother. The fawn stood on still-puny legs in front of the doe.

I imagined my mother sitting at our foggy window for years weaving the carpet, her sad eyes reaching for the mountains. Along the teasing skirts stretched the forests, through which the red deer meandered easily. There lay her inspiration. Nevertheless, this intensive watching dug sad trenches in her face—from her own nature or perhaps from the weight of all these dreams. Melancholy pervaded the carpet, and each day a different expression passed over the faces of the doe and her son.

Even more so, it was fear residing in the faces of the deer and marring the human heart—a result of the rifle’s proud, menacing demeanor.

And only on their faces? In the curve of their knees, the arch of their backs, the crimson wag of their tails, in the moist black of their noses. The fear was embedded especially in their hooves, planted firmly in the bushes. Its traces grew deeper, little by little, every day, and became unbearable. And so would the dreadful vulnerability of the two. This vision emerged from the wall, seeping into the movements of each of us.

Many times my mother got up and left with a guilty feeling, as if the mother and fawn were at fault. The silence inhabiting the carpet then echoed throughout the house.

My father would sink into his chair, relying on his cap to block it out. He drifted to sleep.

These were the deep-blue hours of the sky. The faraway deer sought a leaf—one bigger than themselves—under which to pass the night.

I would on misty April evenings sit in the cool garden, my back to that foggy window, watching the mountains. But I couldn’t comprehend their childish game; how these enormous, fat-bellied lords of the forest hid from time to time. Was I a guest in a strange house? Or had we invited in a giant mountain once upon a time? I had no way of knowing. Silently, the clouds moved in from the distance.

When the mist sank like this, the peaks seemed higher than usual. They seemed to slice into the haze. And at the base of the mountains, the sage forests disappeared. The endless fields too, vanished in the mist. At times like these, my mother insisted we head inside.

Those misty April evenings. As I took in the distant scene, I knew that the rifle’s long eyes crept from our foggy window. Running along the arousing curves of my back, it looked on with longing. At me, and perhaps—who knows—the crimson eyes of the faraway deer. A cool, tingling feeling spread from my ears. The rifle fumed with rage, hanging there.

There. Over the silk carpet my mother wove from her dreams, where doe and fawn quivered—their minds locked in fear.

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TÜFEK

Duvarda bir tüfek dururdu, asılı. Kahverengi bir tüfekti, kim bilir kaç yıldır oradaydı. Zaman zaman onu birbirinden ürkek ceylanların arasından alır, temizler, üzerine yağmış tozu üfler, bir de bilmem eski zamanların anısıyla, bilmem dalgınlıkla bir zaman seyreder, sonra götürüp yerine asardı babam. Tüfeğin yönü değişmezdi hiç. Sanki bu mağrur tüfekti, evimizin bulanık penceresinden upuzun gözlerini uzatır, uzakta göbeğini devirerek oturmuş Tembel Dağları’na sıra sıra bu dağların eteklerinde büyümüş arsız ormanlara. Bunda kol kola sıralanmış devasa ağaçlarla bu ağaçların, her biri bir Yörük çadırını andıran kavisli yapraklarına. Bir de bu iri gölgelikte ışıl ışıl gözleriyle dolanan kırmızı renkli ceylanlara bakardı.

Duvar, annemin bir genç kızlık anısıyla örülüydü. Annemdi, birbirine geçmiş binlerce hülya ile örmüştü bu halıyı. Bu sayısız ipek hülyayı, bir zencerekti, çevreliyordu. Koyu kırmızı ile açık kahverengi halkaları bu zencereğin, birbirine geçmemişti de, sarılmıştı sanki. Sonra bu sarılma, bir koyu gökyüzüne bırakıyordu kendini. Bir lacivert. Gerçi bu akşam rengi gökyüzüydü, içinde köpük köpük bulutlarla, ancak birkaç karışlık bir alanı kaplıyordu, halıda. Sonra bir orman başlıyordu ki bu tuhaf ormanda birbirine benzer iki yaprak bulunamazdı. İrili ufaklı yapraklardı yani, her biri ayrı renk ve biçimde. Böylece ben bu rengârenk yapraklara şaşkınlıkla dalar, hayretle, ormanın çeşitliğinin hayretiyle kalakalırdım.

Annemin gençlik hülyalarının bu ipek halısında, akşam, gökyüzüne inmişti. İri, sık ağaçlar yüzünden olsa gerek, orman, gündüzdü.

Ağaçların altında, kırmızı gözlü iki ceylan vardı. Birbirlerine bakan bu iki ceylanın, ana-oğul olduklarını söylerdi annem. Yavru ceylan annesinin önündeydi, çelimsiz bacaklarıyla.

Annem sanki, yıllarını almış bu dokumada, pencerenin önünde oturmuş, evinizin bulanık bu penceresinden mahzun gözlerini uzatarak Tembel Dağları’nı sıra sıra dağların nazlı eteklerinde boy atmış devasa ormanları, bu ormanlarda aheste gezinen kırmızı ceylanları seyretmiş. Bu ipek halıyı böylece örmüştü. Yine de, onun uzakları bu tedirgin seyri, kâh kendiliğinden, kâh bütün bu hülyaların ağırlığından, tutup hüzünlü bir koca yüz gibi çizgi çizgi. Kaplamıştı halıyı. Da ana-oğul ceylanların yüzünde. Her gün bir başka şeydi.

Tabii, tüfeğin mağrur ve tehditkar duruşundan olacak, bu ceylan yüzlerinde daha çok, insanın kalbini çizen bir korkuydu sezilen.

Hatta, yalnızca yüzlerinde mi? Dizlerinin kıvrımında, sırtlarının ürperişinde, kuyruklarının kızıl salınışında, burunlarının ıslak karartısında. Hele tırnaklarının çalıya gömülmüş kınalı sertliğinde bu korkunun. İzleri her gün biraz daha artar, sonunda iyice dayanılmaz bir hal alırdı da. Bunların bu korkunç korunmasızlığı. Evimizin duvarlarından bir hayal olur. Kalkıp tek tek hepimizin hareketlerine sızardı.

Böylece çoğunlukla annemdi, ana-oğul bu ceylanların sebebiymiş gibi kalkar, bir suçluluk duygusuyla giderdi. Bununla halıya sinmiş sessizliğin bir benzeriydi, yayılırdı eve.

Babam da, kasketi onu bütünüyle kapatabilecekmiş gibi, oturduğu sedire iyice gömülür, uykunun müridi olurdu.

Gökyüzünün lacivert vakitleriydi, bunda uzak ceylanlardı, geceyi altında geçirmek için, kendilerinden büyük bir yaprak ararlardı ormanda.

Ben de nisan aylarının puslu akşamlarında, evimizin serin bahçesinde oturur, yani bulanık o pencereye sırtımı verir, dağları izlerdim. Ama, bu tuhaf, çocuksu dağların alayıyla bilmezdim; kimi zaman bu göbekli, devasa orman efendilerinin kendilerini sakladıklarıydı. Ki bir yabancı eve konuk mu olmuştum? Anlayamazdım. Uzak, usul usul bulutlanmaya başlardı.

Böyle zamanlarda bulutların yeryüzüne indiğini, dağlar yüksekti, ilkin dağların buluta kestiğini, eteklerinde bunların, ak sakallı ormanlar bulunurdu, sonra bu ormanların yittiğini, ardından uçsuz bucaksız şu tarlaların sisle görünmez olduğunu. Bu yüzden evimize girmemiz gerektiğini söylerdi annem.

Uzakta olup bitenleri izlediğimde, yani nisan aylarının puslu bu akşamlarında bilirdim ki tüfek, evimizin bulanık penceresinden upuzun gözlerini uzatmış. Seyretmektedir beni. Sırtımın iştahlı kıvrımlarında böylece, kim bilir, uzak ceylanların kırmızı gözlerini, özlemle. Kulaklarımdan yayılan ürpertinin serinliği ile bir de. Öfkeyle kudurmaktadır yerinde, asılı.

Orada. Annemin gençlik hülyalarıyla nakşettiği ipek o halının üzerinde. Ana-oğulun akla zarar korkularıyla titrek.

Translator’s Note

I was attracted Faruk Duman’s “The Rifle” because it haunted me. When I first read it, the final paragraphs of the story echoed through my mind as I drifted to sleep. The misty mountains, the carpet, the rifle—each are endowed with a unique energy, yet they cannot coexist in harmony. An eerie tension fills the house, sinks into the characters, and emanates from the page. As with much of Duman’s work, it relies heavily on objects to relate the conflict at the heart of a story. In this way, I like to think, his work shows the emotional osmosis that occurs between us and our surroundings.

Faruk Duman’s style walks a fine line between poetry and prose. It reminds me of something I once read about the Japanese art form of sumi-e, or brush painting. The key of this art form is to convey the mood of a scene with a minimal number of brush strokes. Its power lies in its simplicity, and the same goes for Faruk Duman’s spartan prose. His sentences in Turkish are unassuming and leave much unsaid. What was the mother looking for there in the forest? Why did she feel guilty? Why was the back of the narrator “arousing”? As a translator, I found this to be an interesting task; I would have to communicate what I believed to be the author’s intent while also leaving room for readers’ interpretation.

Rendering Duman’s cadence in English presented a challenge, as English sentences contain particles, articles and other elements that make them longer than Turkish sentences. The process required reading aloud countless times, testing each sentence to see if it had a resonance similar to the original. I marked up hard copies, printed new drafts, and marked them up again. Of course, a translation never works the same way as the original, but it’s my hope that this rendering ultimately has a similar effect on readers.

Faruk DumanFaruk Duman was born in Ardahan in 1974. He graduated from Ankara University Faculty of Humanities with a major in Library Science. Afterward, he worked as a librarian for a time. His stories have been published in a number of magazines. His first book Seslerde Başka Sesler was published in 1997. His book Av Dönüşleri received the Sait Faik Short Story Award in 2000, and his book Keder Atlısı was awarded the Haldun Taner Short Story Award in 2004. He was awarded the Mehmet Fuat Essay Award in 2011 for his book Adasız Deniz. His book İncir Tarihi won the Yunus Nadi Novel Award in 2011. He currently works as an editor at Can Publications. His short story collections include Nar Kitabı, Sencer ile Yusufçuk and Baykuş Virane Sever. His novels include Piri, Kırk, Ve Bir Pars Hüzünle Kaybolur and Köpekler İçin Gece Müziği. He has also written a collection of essays entitled Tom Sawyer’ın Kitap Okuduğu Kulübe.

Dayla Rogers first learned Turkish in high school as a participant in Rotary Youth Exchange. She continued language studies while earning a degree in history at the University of Michigan. After earning a master’s degree in education, she moved to Istanbul to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher trainer in Turkey. Over time she developed a passion for Turkish literature and translation. “The Rifle” is her first literary translation to be published. She currently teaches English at Marmara University.

The Funeral Pyre / Le Bûcher

(September 1884)

Last Monday, in Etretat, Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatgay died. He was an Indian prince, a relative of His Highness, the Maharaja Gaikwar, Prince of Baroda in the province of Gujarath,in the Bombay Presidency.

For about three weeks, we saw about a dozen young Indians passing through the streets: small, supple, with very dark skin, dressed in suits and wearing hats like English grooms. They were important dignitaries, come from Europe to study the military institutions of major nations in the West. The small army was made up of three princes, a nobleman friend, an interpreter and three servants.

The head of the mission had just died. He was forty-two years old and the father-in-law of Sampatrao Kashivao Gaikwar, brother of His Highness, the Gaikwar of Baroda.

The son-in-law accompanied his father-in-law.

The other Indians were Ganpatrao Shrâvanrao Gaikwar, cousin of His Highness Khâsherao Gadhav; Vasuded Madhav Samarth, interpreter and secretary. The servants include Râmchandra Bajâji, Ganu bin Pukâram Kokate, and Rhambhaji bin Favji.

Just as he was leaving his homeland, the man who died the other day was overcome with a terrible sense of grief; and persuaded he would not return, he wanted to cancel the trip but he had to obey the will of his noble relative, the Prince of Baroda. So he left.

They came to spend the end of summer at Etretat and, curious, we went to see them go swimming at Roses­ Blanches each morning. For five or six days, Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatgay suffered from sore gums, then the inflammation spread to his throat and became an ulcer. Gangrene set in, and on Monday, the doctors told his young companions that their relative was going to die. His final struggle began almost immediately, and as the unfortunate man could hardly breathe any more, his friends grabbed hold of him, tore him from his bed and laid him on the stone floor of his room, so that lying down on the earth, our mother, his soul could be released according to the orders of Brahma.

They then asked the mayor, Monsieur Boissaye, for permission to cremate the corpse the same day, in order to obey the formal requirements of the Hindu religion. Hesitant, the mayor telegraphed the Administrative Offices of the area for instructions. He added, however, that the lack of a reply would amount to consent. Since no answer arrived by 9 o’clock that evening, it was therefore decided, due to the infectious nature of the disease that had killed the Indian, that the cremation of the body would occur the very same night, under the cliff at the edge of the sea at low tide.

That decision by the mayor, who acted intelligently, decisively and generously, and who was also supported and advised by the three doctors who had monitored the disease and pronounced the Prince dead, is now being criticized.

There was dancing at the Casino that evening. It was an early autumn evening, a little cold. A strong wind blew in from the sea but without causing the water to rise, and some ragged, fraying clouds moved rapidly in the sky. They reached the edge of the horizon, dark against the horizon, then the closer they floated towards the moon, the paler they grew, veiling it for a few moments without hiding it completely as they quickly passed by. The large, high cliffs that formed around the beach of Etretat and ended in the two famous arches, called Les Portes, remained in the shadows and cast two large black patches in the softly lit landscape. It had rained all day.

The orchestra at the Casino played waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. A rumor spread suddenly through the crowd. It was said that an Indian prince had just died at the Hôtel des Bains and that the Minister had been asked for permission to cremate him. We believed nothing, or at least, we did not assume the event would take place quickly, since this practice is so foreign to our customs; and as it was getting late, everyone went home.

[blockquote align=right]The moon could no longer be seen, leaving the muddy, empty streets dark, but the body on the stretcher appeared luminous in the radiance cast by the white silk, and it was a wondrous thing to see the clear shape of the body passing in the night, carried by men with skin so dark, that we could not even make out their faces, their hands or their clothing in the darkness.

At midnight, the man who lit the gaslights ran from street to street, extinguishing, one after the other, the yellow flames that lit up the sleeping houses, mud and puddles. We waited, waited for the time when the small town would be silent and deserted.

A carpenter cutting wood since noon wondered in astonishment: what was going to happen with all these pieces of small, sawn boards, and why would anyone waste so much good merchandise. The wood was piled in a cart that went by side streets to the beach to avoid arousing suspicion with the night owls they met. It moved forward on the pebble beach, to the very edge of the cliff, and having emptied its load on the ground, the three Indians servants began to build a funeral pyre that was long rather than wide. They worked alone, because no irreverent hand should help with this holy work.

At one o’clock in the morning, the dead man’s relatives were told they could carry out their task. The door of the small house they occupied was open and we could see the corpse wrapped in white silk, lying on a stretcher in the narrow, barely lit hallway. He was lying on his back, clearly outlined under that pale veil. The Indians, serious, standing at his feet, remained motionless. One of them, murmuring mysterious words in a low, monotonous voice, performed the required ceremony. He walked around the body, sometimes touching it, then taking an urn suspended at the end of three chains, he sprinkled him with sacred water from the Ganges for a long time, holy water that all Indians must always take with them, wherever they go.

Then the stretcher was lifted by four of them, who began walking slowly. The moon could no longer be seen, leaving the muddy, empty streets dark, but the body on the stretcher appeared luminous in the radiance cast by the white silk, and it was a wondrous thing to see the clear shape of the body passing in the night, carried by men with skin so dark, that we could not even make out their faces, their hands or their clothing in the darkness.

Three Indians followed behind the dead man, then a tall Englishman, a head taller than all of them. He was wrapped in a large, pale gray traveling cloak, amiable and distinguished, their friend, who guides and advises across Europe.

Under the foggy, cold sky of this small Northern beach, I felt I was witnessing a sort of symbolic image. It seemed there was, before me, the conquered spirit of India, followed, as the dead are followed, by the victorious spirit of England, dressed in a gray overcoat.

On the pebbly beach, the four bearers stopped a few seconds to catch their breath, then set off again. They took small steps now, bending under their load. They finally reached the pyre. It was built in a fold of the cliff, at its foot, which rose above it, very straight, a hundred meters high, all white but dark in the night.

The pyre was about one meter high. They put the body on it, then one of the Indians asked if we could point out the North Star. We showed it to him, and the dead Rajah’s feet were turned towards his country. Then they poured twelve bottles of oil on him and covered him entirely with pine boards. For nearly an hour longer, relatives and servants built up the pyre that resembled the piles of wood that carpenters keep in their attics. Then they spread twenty bottles of oil on it and emptied a bag of small wood shavings on the very top. A few steps away, a light flickered in a small incense burner, which had remained lit since the arrival of the corpse.

The moment had come. The relatives lit the fire. As it barely burned, they poured a little oil and suddenly a flame rose, illuminating the entire expanse of the great wall of rock. An Indian leaning over the incense rose, both hands in the air, elbows bent, and we saw suddenly a huge shadow emerge, the shadow of Buddha in his sacred pose, very black against the immense white cliff.  And the little pointed hat the man wore seemed an imitation of the God’s. The effect was so striking and unexpected that I felt my heart beat, as if some supernatural apparition stood before me. It was indeed the God, the ancient, sacred figure having hastened from the Far East to the furthest point in Europe, watching over her son, who we were about to cremate.

The vision disappeared. We brought the fire. The wood shavings lit up atop the pyre, then the wood caught fire and a fierce light illuminated the pebble beach and the foam of the waves crashing on the shore. The fire grew brighter by the second, lighting up the sea and the crest of dancing waves in the distance. The sea breeze blew in gusts, fanning the flames, which died down, whirled, then rose up again, throwing thousands of sparks into the air. The sparks wafted up along the cliff with extraordinary speed, disappearing high into the sky to mingle with the stars and increase their number. Awakened seabirds uttered their plaintive cry, and circling in long curves, their white wings extended, flew high above the bright light of the funeral pyre before disappearing into the night.

Soon the pyre was no more than a fiery mass, not red but yellow, a blinding yellow, a furnace whipped by the wind. And suddenly, in a stronger gust, it tottered, leaning toward the sea as it partly collapsed. And the whole body of the dead man could be seen, black on his bed of fire, burning amid long blue flames. And since the right side of the pyre had collapsed, the corpse turned over, like a man does in his bed. He was immediately covered with new wood, and the fire raged even more violently than before. The Indians, seated in a semi-circle on the beach, watched with sad, serious faces. And as it was very cold, the rest of us drew closer to the pyre, so close that smoke and sparks flew into our faces. All we could smell was the burning fir and oil.

The hours passed; it was dawn. About five o’clock in the morning, nothing but a pile of ashes remained. The relatives collected them. Some they threw to the wind, some to the sea and a little they kept in a bronze vase they would bring back to India. They then returned to their homes to grieve. Thus the young princes and their servants, with hardly anything they required at their disposal, were able to carry out the cremation of their relative perfectly, with singular skill and remarkable dignity. Everything was accomplished according to the rites, ­­­­according to the absolute requirements of their religion. Their dead man now rests in peace.

In Etretat, as day broke, we felt an indescribable emotion. Some people claimed we had burned someone alive, others that it was meant to hide a crime and that the mayor would be imprisoned; still others that the Indian prince had succumbed to an attack of cholera. Men marveled; women were indignant. A crowd of people spent the day where the pyre had been set up, searching for fragments of bone amid the still warm pebbles. They collected enough bones to make ten skeletons, for the farmers on the coast often threw their dead sheep into the sea. The gamblers carefully put away these various fragments in their wallets. But none of them had any real part of the Indian prince.

That same evening, a government delegate came to open an investigation. He seemed a man of intellect and reason in judging this exceptional case. But what will he say in his report?

The Indians said that if they had been prevented from cremating the dead man in France, they would have taken him to a more liberal country, where they could carry out their rites.

And so I saw a man cremated on a funeral pyre and it made me wish to disappear in the same way. That way, it is all over immediately. Man hurries the slow work of nature instead of further delaying it in a hideous coffin where one decomposes for months. The flesh is dead, the spirit has fled. Fire purifies and scatters what used to be a person within hours. It throws him to the wind, it turns him into air and ashes, not revolting rot.

Fire is clean and healthy. The putrefaction underground in that closed box where the body becomes pulp, black, stinking pulp, has something repugnant and atrocious about it. The coffin that descends into the deep mire fills the heart with anguish; but a flaming pyre beneath the sky is magnificent, beautiful and solemn.

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(1884)

Lundi dernier est mort à Étretat un prince indien, Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatgay, parent de Sa Hautesse le Maharaja Gaikwar, prince de Baroda, dans la province de Gujarath, présidence de Bombay.

Depuis trois semaines environ, on voyait passer par les rues une dizaine de jeunes Indiens, petits, souples, tout noirs de peau, vêtus de complets gris et coiffés de toques de palefreniers anglais. C’étaient de hauts seigneurs, venus en Europe pour étudier les institutions militaires des principales nations de l’Occident. La petite troupe se composait de trois princes, d’un noble ami, d’un interprète et de trois serviteurs.

Le chef de la mission était celui qui vient de mourir, vieillard de quarante-deux ans et beau-père de Sampatrao Kashivao Gaikwar, frère de Sa Hautesse le Gaikwar de Baroda.

Le gendre accompagnait le beau-père.

Les autres Indiens s’appelaient Ganpatrao Shrâvanrao Gaikwar, cousin de Sa Hautesse Kâsherao Gadhav; Vasudev Madhav Samarth, interprète et secrétaire; Les esclaves: Râmchandra Bajâji, Ganu bin Pukâram Kokate, Rambhaji bin Favji.

Au moment de quitter sa patrie, celui qui est mort l’autre jour fut saisi d’une crise affreuse de chagrin, et, persuadé qu’il ne reviendrait pas, il voulut renoncer à ce voyage, mais il dut obéir aux volontés de son noble parent, le prince de Baroda, et il partit.

Ils vinrent passer la fin de l’été à Étretat, et on allait les voir curieusement, chaque matin, prendre leur bain à l’établissement des Roches-Blanches.

Voici cinq ou six jours, Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatgay fut atteint de douleurs aux gencives; puis l’inflammation gagna la gorge et devint une ulcération. La gangrène s’y mit, et, lundi, les médecins déclarèrent à ses jeunes compagnons que leur parent allait mourir. L’agonie commença presque aussitôt, et comme le malheureux ne respirait plus qu’à peine, ses amis le saisirent, l’arrachèrent de son lit et le déposèrent sur les pavés de la chambre, afin qu’il rendît l’âme étendu sur la terre, notre mère, selon les ordres de Brahma.

Puis ils firent demander au maire, M. Boissaye, l’autorisation de brûler, le jour même, le cadavre pour obéir toujours aux formelles prescriptions de la religion hindoue. Le maire, hésitant, télégraphia à la préfecture pour solliciter des instructions, en annonçant, toutefois, qu’une absence de réponse équivaudrait pour lui à un consentement. Aucune réponse n’étant venue à neuf heures du soir, il fut donc décidé, en raison de la nature infectieuse du mal qui avait emporté l’Indien, que la crémation du corps aurait lieu la nuit même, sous la falaise, au bord de la mer, à la marée descendante.

On reproche aujourd’hui cette décision au maire qui a agi en homme intelligent, résolu et libéral, soutenu d’ailleurs et conseillé par les trois médecins qui avaient suivi la maladie et constaté le décès.

On dansait au Casino, ce soir-là. C’était un soir d’automne prématuré, un peu froid. Un vent assez fort soufflait du large sans que la mer fût encore soulevée, et des nuages rapides couraient déchiquetés, effiloqués. Ils arrivaient du bout de l’horizon, sombres sur le fond du ciel, puis à mesure qu’ils approchaient de la lune ils blanchissaient, et, passant vivement sur elle, la voilaient quelques instants sans la cacher tout à fait.

Les grandes falaises droites, qui forment la plage arrondie d’Étretat et se terminent aux deux célèbres arcades qu’on nomme les Portes, restaient dans l’ombre et faisaient deux grandes taches noires dans le paysage doucement éclairé.

Il avait plu toute la journée.

L’orchestre du Casino jouait des valses, des polkas et des quadrilles. Un bruit passa tout à coup dans les groupes. On racontait qu’un prince indien venait de mourir à l’hôtel des Bains, et qu’on avait demandé au ministre l’autorisation de le brûler. On n’en crut rien, ou du moins on ne supposa pas la chose prochaine tant cet usage est encore contraire à nos mœurs, et, comme la nuit s’avançait, chacun rentra chez soi.

À minuit, l’employé du gaz, courant de rue en rue, éteignait, l’une après l’autre, les flammes jaunes qui éclairaient les maisons endormies, la boue et les flaques d’eau. Nous attendions, guettant l’heure où la petite ville serait muette et déserte.

Depuis midi, un menuisier coupait du bois en se demandant avec stupeur ce qu’on allait faire de toutes ces planches sciées par petits bouts, et pourquoi perdre tant de bonne marchandise. Ce bois fut entassé dans une charrette qui s’en alla, par des rues détournées, jusqu’à la plage, sans éveiller les soupçons des attardés qui la rencontraient. Elle s’avança sur le galet, au pied même de la falaise, et ayant versé son chargement à terre, les trois serviteurs indiens commencèrent à construire un bûcher un peu plus long que large. Ils travaillaient seuls, car aucune main profane ne devait aider à cette besogne sainte.

Il était une heure du matin quand on annonça aux parents du mort qu’ils pouvaient accomplir leur œuvre.

La porte de la petite maison qu’ils occupaient fut ouverte; et nous aperçûmes, couché sur une civière, dans le vestibule étroit, à peine éclairé, le cadavre enveloppé de soie blanche. On le voyait nettement étendu sur le dos, bien dessiné sous ce voile pâle.

Les Indiens, graves, debout devant ses pieds, demeuraient immobiles, tandis que l’un d’eux accomplissait les cérémonies prescrites en murmurant d’une voix basse et monotone des paroles inconnues. Il tournait autour du corps, le touchait parfois, puis, prenant une urne suspendue au bout de trois chaînettes, il l’aspergea longtemps avec l’eau sacrée du Gange que les Indiens doivent toujours emporter avec eux, où qu’ils aillent.

Puis la civière fut enlevée par quatre d’entre eux qui se mirent en marche lentement. La lune s’était couchée, laissant obscures les rues boueuses et vides, mais le cadavre sur la civière semblait lumineux, tant la soie blanche jetait d’éclat; et c’était une chose saisissante de voir passer dans la nuit la forme claire de ce corps, porté par ces hommes à la peau si noire qu’on ne distinguait point dans l’ombre leur visage et leurs mains de leurs vêtements.

Derrière le mort, trois Indiens suivaient, puis, les dominant de toute la tête, se dessinait, enveloppée dans un grand manteau de voyage, d’un gris tendre, et coiffé d’un chapeau rond, la haute silhouette d’un Anglais, homme aimable et distingué qui est leur ami, qui les guide et les conseille à travers l’Europe.

Sous le ciel brumeux et froid de cette plage du Nord, je croyais assister à une sorte de spectacle symbolique. Il me semblait qu’on portait là, devant moi, le génie vaincu de l’Inde, que suivait, comme on suit les morts, le génie victorieux de l’Angleterre, habillé d’un ulster gris.

Sur le galet roulant, les quatre porteurs s’arrêtèrent quelques secondes pour reprendre haleine, puis repartirent; ils allaient maintenant à tout petits pas, pliant sous la charge. Ils atteignirent enfin le bûcher. Il était construit dans un repli de la falaise, à son pied même. Elle se dressait au-dessus, toute droite, haute de cent mètres, toute blanche, mais sombre dans la nuit.

Le bûcher était haut d’un mètre environ; on déposa dessus le corps; puis un des Indiens demanda qu’on lui indiquât l’étoile polaire. On la lui montra, et le rajah mort fut étendu les pieds tournés vers sa patrie. Puis on versa sur lui douze bouteilles de pétrole, et on le recouvrit entièrement avec des planchettes de sapin. Pendant près d’une heure encore, les parents et les serviteurs surélevèrent le bûcher qui ressemblait à ces piles de bois que gardent les menuisiers dans leurs greniers. Puis on répandit sur le faîte vingt bouteilles d’huile, et on vida, tout au sommet, un sac de menus copeaux. Quelques pas plus loin, une lueur tremblotait dans un petit réchaud de bronze qui demeurait allumé depuis l’arrivée du cadavre.

L’instant était venu. Les parents allèrent chercher le feu. Comme il ne brûlait qu’à peine, on versa dessus un peu d’huile et brusquement, une flamme s’éleva, éclairant du haut en bas la grande muraille de rochers. Un Indien, penché sur le réchaud, se releva, les deux mains en l’air, les coudes repliés; et nous vîmes tout à coup surgir, toute noire sur l’immense falaise blanche, une ombre colossale, l’ombre de Bouddha dans sa pose hiératique. Et la petite toque pointue que l’homme avait sur la tête simulait elle-même la coiffure du dieu.

L’effet fut tellement saisissant et imprévu que je sentis mon cœur battre comme si quelque apparition surnaturelle se fût dressée devant moi.

C’était bien elle, l’image antique et sacrée, accourue du fond de l’Orient à l’extrémité de l’Europe, et veillant sur son fils qu’on allait brûler là.

Elle disparut. On apportait le feu. Les copeaux, au sommet du bûcher, s’allumèrent, puis l’incendie gagna le bois, et une clarté violente illumina la côte, le galet, et l’écume des lames brisées sur la plage.

Elle grandissait de seconde en seconde, éclairant au loin sur la mer la crête dansante des vagues.

La brise du large soufflait par rafales, accélérant l’ardeur de la flamme, qui se couchait, tournoyait, se relevait, jetait des milliers d’étincelles. Elles montaient le long de la falaise avec une vitesse folle et, se perdant au ciel, se mêlaient aux étoiles dont elles multipliaient le nombre. Des oiseaux de mer réveillés poussaient leur cri plaintif, et, décrivant de longues courbes, venaient passer avec leurs ailes blanches étendues dans le rayonnement du foyer, puis rentraient dans la nuit.

Bientôt le bûcher ne fut plus qu’une masse ardente, non point rouge, mais jaune, d’un jaune aveuglant, une fournaise fouettée par le vent. Et tout à coup, sous une bourrasque plus forte, il chancela, s’écroula en partie en se penchant vers la mer, et le mort découvert apparut tout entier, noir sur sa couche de feu, et brûlant lui-même avec de longues flammes bleues.

Et le brasier s’étant encore affaissé sur la droite, le cadavre se retourna comme un homme dans son lit. Il fut aussitôt recouvert avec du bois nouveau, et l’incendie recommença plus furieux que tout à l’heure.

Les Indiens, assis en demi-cercle sur le galet, regardaient avec des visages tristes et graves. Et nous autres, comme il faisait très froid, nous nous étions rapprochés du foyer jusqu’à recevoir dans la figure la fumée et les étincelles. Aucune odeur autre que celle du sapin brûlant ou du pétrole ne nous frappa.

Et des heures se passèrent; et le jour apparut. Vers cinq heures du matin, il ne restait plus qu’un tas de cendres. Les parents les recueillirent, en jetèrent une partie au vent, une partie à la mer, et en gardèrent un peu dans un vase d’airain qu’ils rapporteront aux Indes. Ils se retirèrent ensuite pour pousser des gémissements dans leur demeure.

Ces jeunes princes et leurs serviteurs, disposant des moyens les plus insuffisants, ont pu achever ainsi la crémation de leur parent d’une façon parfaite, avec une adresse singulière et une remarquable dignité. Tout s’est accompli suivant le rite, suivant les prescriptions absolues de leur religion. Leur mort repose en paix.

Ce fut dans Étretat, au jour levant, une indescriptible émotion. Les uns prétendaient qu’on avait brûlé un vivant, les autres qu’on avait voulu cacher un crime, ceux-ci que le maire serait emprisonné, ceux-là que le prince indien avait succombé à une attaque de choléra.

Des hommes s’étonnaient, des femmes s’indignaient. Une foule passa la journée sur l’emplacement du bûcher, cherchant des fragments d’os dans les galets encore chauds. On en ramassa de quoi reconstituer dix squelettes, car les fermiers de la côte jettent souvent à la mer leurs moutons morts. Les joueurs enfermèrent avec soin dans leur porte-monnaie ces fragments divers. Mais aucun d’eux ne possède une parcelle véritable du prince indien.

Le soir même un délégué du gouvernement venait ouvrir une enquête. Il semblait d’ailleurs juger ce cas singulier en homme d’esprit et de raison. Mais que dira-t-il dans son rapport ?

Les Indiens ont déclaré que, si on les avait empêchés en France de brûler leur mort, ils l’auraient emporté dans une terre plus libre, où ils auraient pu se conformer à leurs usages.

J’ai donc vu brûler un homme sur un bûcher et cela m’a donné le désir de disparaître de la même façon.

Ainsi, tout est fini tout de suite. L’homme hâte l’œuvre lente de la nature, au lieu de la retarder encore par le hideux cercueil où l’on se décompose pendant des mois. La chair est morte, l’esprit a fui. Le feu qui purifie disperse en quelques heures ce qui fut un être ; il le jette au vent, il en fait de l’air et de la cendre, et non point de la pourriture infâme.

Cela est propre et sain. La putréfaction sous terre, dans cette boîte close où le corps devient bouillie, une bouillie noire et puante, a quelque chose de répugnant et d’atroce. Le cercueil qui descend dans ce trou fangeux serre le cœur d’angoisse; mais le bûcher qui flambe sous le soleil a quelque chose de grand, de beau et de solennel.

Translator’s Note

I have rekindled, in the past few years, a literary friendship with master writers I have enjoyed reading in the past and others I have recently discovered. This has led to an opportunity to investigate aspects of how they approach the process and craft of writing; essentially, of using language in ingenious combinations to convey human emotions, concerns and preoccupations (Bridglall, Beatrice. On Exploring Craft: Writers as Architects. University Press of America / Hamilton Books, 2015.).

In the midst of reading several novels by Gustave Flaubert (one of the authors featured in the book) and his biography, I became aware of Flaubert’s role in encouraging Guy de Maupassant to write. The world now benefits from de Maupassant’s six novels, 300 short stories, three plays, some poetry, and travel books; a stunning oeuvre that reveals a mind attuned to the complexities of culture, diversity, human behavior and emotions. This multi-faceted complexity can be seen in his short story, Le bûcher (The Funeral Pyre), which tells of the cremation of an Indian prince in Étretat, France. At its heart, it seems, is the narrator’s realization that the funeral ceremony he witnesses, which is imbued with a tradition that is unfamiliar, honors the dead in a way that preserves their dignity. And although a Frenchman in a culture with different burial traditions, he too wishes to ‘disappear’ in the same way. This wish however, is conveyed in a dignified, restrained manner, much like the quiet blaze of the burning funeral pyre.

It is my hope that my translation of de Maupassant’s short story preserves his subdued yet lyrical style evidenced in the source language, which is French. Additionally, this translation, my first, has been proofread by Sandra Smith, to whom I am grateful.

Guy De Maupassant (1850 – 1893); French novelist, travel and short story writer, and poet.

Beatrice Bridglall, Fulbright Specialist in Higher Education and Director, Office of Special Projects, Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, New Jersey, has a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University.

Labeled

The trek across the asphalt and brutal heat coming from the sun made the sliding doors ahead appear as a mirage. New Mexico. New Mexico. Arizona. New Mexico. New Mexico. New Mexico. One out-of-state car in the entire row of parking spots. Probably one in the entire lot. I walked past my therapist’s office and other stores to the Wal-Mart. Cool air slammed into me as I entered. I wandered through the aisles of electronics and stopped at a large television playing a loop of a children’s movie. It was loud and vibrant, opposite of the ocean CD that played in the waiting room for comfort. My guilt dissipated into relief.

In my peripheral vision I saw a guy approaching, his dark hair cropped close to his scalp and blue Wal-Mart shirt partially untucked from his khaki pants.

“Can I, uh, help you find something?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said.

“All right.” He stood near, making no attempt to leave. I recognized him; he’d graduated when I was a sophomore. He and his friends smoked weed behind the locker rooms.

I waited for him to leave, go to the pet aisle and help some old lady lift cat food into her cart. Instead, he leaned against the display, slipped a hand into his pocket, and pulled out a scuffed, gray flip phone. I pretended to study the movies in front of me.

“I know who you are, you know,” he said, his eyes trained on the ancient cell phone.

“So? You don’t need to be Sherlock to know who’s who around here.”

“You’re the girl whose friend died riding her bike,” he said, as though he was telling me it was hot outside. I knew I should’ve been horrified, or upset, but I couldn’t form the appropriate response. He was the first person to say it. Everyone else treated me that way. I knew they thought it, pitied me, but they never said it. My brain took too long to process his words, but he waited.

[blockquote align=right]It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.

“Actually, most people call me Shy,” I finally said.

I turned away, not wanting to hear what always came next.

“Yeah, I guess Shy is simpler. I’m Wes,” he said.

He had yet to say what I expected: the blundering and sometimes tactless questions concerning my well-being. As if I could return to any semblance of normal while being treated like normalcy was no longer a possibility.

“Yeah, I know, the town screw-up,” I said. The words were sharper than I intended.

“It’s actually just Wes.”

“Whatever. Don’t you have diapers to restock?”

He raised one eyebrow and nodded to himself before he shoved his weight off the display and walked away.

“Wait, where are you going?”

My question was ridiculous, but he didn’t point it out.

“Outside, it’s my break,” he said.

I followed him to the “employees only” door. He held it open for me. I wondered if this would get him fired. Standing hesitantly between the time-card holder and the lockers, I was unsure if I needed to look out for other employees. He pulled a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from a locker, returned his time card to its slot, and led me out the backdoor. He pulled out a cigarette, offered me one, and smirked when I shook my head.

Wes rolled the unlit cigarette between his thumb and index finger and we both hovered close to the wall to avoid the sun. We stood in silence for a few minutes before he finally lit it. I tried not to cough, not wanting to be rude. Worrying that I couldn’t think of anything to say to him in the growing silence, I became aware of every breath I sucked in. I stepped away from the wall and instantly felt the dry heat of the sun. I thought my makeup was going to slide off my face with the drops of sweat that formed around my hairline.

“Where are you going?”

His tone didn’t reveal if he wanted me to stay.

“To my therapy appointment. You know, because I’ve got a dead friend?” I tilted my head in the direction of the office.

He nodded a bit before replying, “You ever notice how therapist reads the ‘the rapist’?”

“Can’t say I have. But thanks for that interesting thought.”

“My break is almost over anyway,” he said. “It’s this time every day, in case you ever wanna rebel and smoke.” He raised one eyebrow again and it seemed like a challenge.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.

I trudged across the asphalt, my t-shirt sticking to my lower back from sweat by the time I arrived. I knew Dr. Anderson would let my late arrival go.

My mom picked me up after she got my sister, Lorraine, from swim practice and took us home. I went straight upstairs to take a shower before Lorraine.

“Shy! Come on, I need to get the chlorine out of my hair! I don’t want it to turn green!” Lorraine said after I already had the water running.

“You could have showered at the pool!”

I heard Lorraine stomp away. Two months ago she would have broken down the door if I tried to shower before her when she had chlorine in her hair.

My shirt was plastered to my back from my still-damp hair, the smell of cucumber soap and coconut conditioner surrounded me and I felt refreshed after scrubbing the sweat from my body. Lorraine jumped into the bathroom with the steam from my shower still pouring out. Mom was in the kitchen leaning against the counter and flipping through a magazine when I entered. She looked up and set down the magazine.

[blockquote align=left]“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”

“Come here,” she gestured to a chair. I sat down and she pulled my hair over the back.

“Look at how long this has gotten.” She combed her fingers through sections and I felt my muscles relax at the sensation.

“You look just like a princess out of a fairy tale. Long hair like gold.” Her fingers twisted the pieces closest to my scalp, French braiding hair that went past my waistline. While she braided, she talked about SAT’s and college applications. I let her talk without responding.

*     *     *

Two days later, I went straight to the side of Wal-Mart after my mom’s car was out of sight. The side door opened after a few minutes and Wes settled against the wall, setting a Monster Energy drink down beside him. He didn’t look surprised to see me. He offered a cigarette and huffed a laugh when I shook my head.

“I prefer my lungs cancer-free,” I said.

“Does your mom drop you off really early for therapy or something?” he asked.

“No, I was late last time.”

“And this time?”

“This time I’m not going.”

“It’s in a great location, isn’t it?” Wes asked.

“What is?”

“The therapist’s office. Far enough from the hospital to take comfort in the fact that you aren’t crazy enough for a padded cell, close enough to remember that it’s still a possibility.”

“You really know how to give a girl butterflies.” I scuffed my sneaker on the asphalt.

“And you’re still here talking to me instead of your therapist. He must be really terrible.”

“It’s just… bullshit really. Like talking to some shrink is going to make your problems disappear.”

I wondered if he’d rather be collecting carts and greeting pajama-clad customers but not knowing didn’t stop me. Words spit out, things I would have told Sydney, had she been here.

“Seriously though, how sick is that? ‘Oh, your best friend died? Sit here, talk about your dream, pay me, and you’ll feel better.’ I just want everyone to stop seeing me as the girl with the dead best friend. It’s bad enough she’s gone. Do I have to be gone too?”

A car backfired, making me jump. I kicked my foot against the wall before leaning back again.

“You ever light the extra lint on your socks on fire?” Wes finally asked.

I looked over at him. The unlit cigarette in his hands, forgotten as he waited for my reply.

“No, but I’m guessing you did,” I said.

“What was your childhood? Let me guess, you never even crashed a party either? Or. . .”

“Skipped homeroom to get Slurpee’s at the 7-11? No, sorry to disappoint. Ditching therapy session are about as ‘badass’ as I get,” I said.

“Ah, see that’s where you don’t get it. Doing those things are not about being badass, it’s about living. You’re doing life wrong.”

“And working at Wal-Mart right after high school instead of going to college or getting a real career is living? You’re right, I am clearly the one ‘doing life wrong’.”

Wes didn’t flinch. I couldn’t have been the first one to say it. I didn’t mean to say it. But he had yet to censor himself around me, and I found it easy not to either.

“So, when do you think your parents will notice you aren’t going to therapy?” Wes asked, picking up the Monster Energy drink from the ground after placing his unused cigarette back in his pack.

“No idea. But I doubt they’ll get mad when they do.” I felt certain that they’d conveniently accept that I no longer followed every rule.

“Ah, they’re letting you get away with everything so you’ll get better.”

“Pretty much,” I asked.

“It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older, we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You’re a former goody-two-shoes who’s ditching therapy to talk to a cigarette-smoking Wal-Mart employee. Why?”

“I needed to talk to someone.”

“You have a shrink. A family. And other friends, I’m sure, who all want to talk. That’s not it,” he said. He was right but I didn’t admit it. “What are you going to do after you graduate? Take a year off, go to Europe and ‘find yourself’?” he asked. I appreciated the subject change.

“College, not sure where though. Probably Southwestern. It’s where my mom went; I know she wants that.”

“And good girls like you always listen.”

“And impulsive ‘living life’ people like you smoke outside of a Wal-Mart.”

He ignored the jab and jumped away from the wall, spreading his arms out from his sides. “That’s what you need!” he said.

“A Monster or a job?”

“Impulse! What do you want to do? Something you didn’t plan to do today, didn’t plan to do this month? Something that you know might even upset your parents?”

“I don’t want to go to therapy.”

“Seriously, something you were never brave enough to do?”

“I—,” I couldn’t think. My life was a series of checklists, not spontaneous decisions. Get good grades. Crush on the football captain. Watch horror movies with Sydney. Go to college. I was a walking stereotype, a parent’s wet-dream. I never even snuck out. I raked loose flyaways of my hair out of my eyes. “I want to… to cut my hair. I want to cut my hair, short.”

His arms dropped a bit but he still smiled. “Okay! That’s what we’re going to do. Not what I had in mind, but if that’s what you wish, Rapunzel.”

“That’s what I want to do.”

“Is this like the biblical thing? Cut your hair and it shall set you free? Should I call you Samson instead?” he asked.

“Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut. So I’m gonna go with no, this isn’t a biblical thing,” I said.

“Sunday School attendance was never a specialty of mine.”

“I don’t think any form of attendance is a specialty of yours,” I said, nodding back to the store where I was sure his second shift would be starting soon. He shrugged but kept leading me to his beat up Honda Accord that was three different colors between the hood and two front doors.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said.

*     *     *

When I got home I almost ran straight upstairs. I didn’t think I would actually go through with it. I thought my parents would find out and my mini-adventure would end before it started, but I mentioned hanging out with friends and there were no more questions. My mom heard me close the front door and was in the foyer before I could reach the stairs.

“Oh! Shy… you cut it. Your hair, you… cut it?”

I could tell she was sad, but she tried to hide it.

“Well. Well, I imagine it’s a lot nicer for the summer. Cooler, right?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s lighter. I feel lighter.”

Her shoulders went down a bit and she even smiled.

“It looks nice, it really does.”

I smiled back and went up to my room, enjoying the way the feathery layers brushed against my cheeks with each step. But I had to wonder if she meant it.

*     *     *

A few days later I met Wes outside the Wal-Mart, and he didn’t even bother to pull out a cigarette. Instead we went straight to his car.

“Where are we going?”

“Where do you want to go?” He opened the passenger door for me but I didn’t get in.

“You really should be here for your second shift.”

“I don’t have a second shift.”

“Well, I have studying to do, so I need to stay here.”

“Studying? It’s summer, how could you have studying?”

I was already pulling a stack of flashcards from my bag. “SAT studying. You know, for those of us who want to do something after high school?” I wondered how long it would take for him to stop being nice to me and why I wanted to push him until I found out.

“Well, you can do that on the way. Or later. Or never. Come on, I got my second shift off and my job is not in danger, now will you get in the car? You’re in training, remember?”

I got into the car and he went around to his side and got in.

“Training? For what, cart returning—”

“Shut up. Training for impulsive decisions.” He had excessive energy as he maneuvered the car out of the parking lot and for a moment I worried that he was on drugs, but then I realized he was happy. Maybe even excited.

“Ah, but training implies a schedule, which implies a lack of impulsive decision-making.”

“Alright, whatever Miss SAT. What do you want to do today? Get a tattoo? Join a nudist colony?”

“You wish.”

He shifted the car in park in the middle of the street. I looked around us, afraid that at any moment a semi would slam into us but no one was around.

“Seriously? You are failing as my prodigy.”

“I’ll consider that a compliment.”

“Come on, Shy. Anything. As stupid as burning ants with magnifying glasses or as big as flying a hot air balloon, just something.”

“Fine. I want to… learn to drive stick.” I noticed the way he pumped the extra pedal with his left foot and slid the stick over the first time riding in his car and something about it made me want to try.

“Okay. Okay! Um, do you know anything about driving stick?”

“Other than that you drive a car that is, no.”

He blew out a breath.

“You know what, never mind, I need to study anyway.”

“Hang on, I was just thinking about where to start, relax. Okay, well first watch me drive and listen. Listen to how the engine sounds right before I switch the gears.”

“Okay.”

We drove around for two blocks before he pulled over. I felt my heart thud the way it did before I got on a roller-coaster as we switched seats. I fell in, far from the wheel and couldn’t reach the pedals even with my toes pointed. Wes laughed.

“Reach under the seat, there’s a bar to slide the chair forward with.”

After I was close enough, he started to get into the numbers and position of the gears.

“Hold up, André the Giant, I’m still looking through the steering wheel center, not above it.”

“That’s as high as the seat goes.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. It wasn’t made for nine-year-olds.”

“I’ll be eighteen in two months. That still doesn’t change the fact that I can’t see out the window.”

“Okay, hold on.” He got out, went to his trunk, grabbed something and came around to my door.

I stepped out to find him holding two thick Yellow Books.

He set both down on my seat.

I picked one of the books up and handed it back to him. “I don’t know how short you think I am, but I’m pretty sure four inches will work.”

Once we settled back into the car, he lectured on the gears and how to let off the clutch slowly. He didn’t mention the clutch punched back, and it got stuck before second gear if you didn’t slide it just right. We stalled every six feet. Slowly, every six feet turned to every block, and then only when I stopped. When I was comfortable, he read my vocab words, but stopped when I let the car drift over the center divider if I couldn’t remember the answer. When my phone rang, I realized the time.

“Mom?” I said after pulling the car over.

“Oh thank… where are you?”

“I thought I told you I was hanging with my friend again today?”

“No. I don’t think you did.”

“I’ll be home soon. We were just talking. Catching up before school starts.”

“Okay, be home for dinner.”

I heard her sigh on the other end and tell my dad what was going on.

I hung up and closed my eyes until I heard Wes laughing.

“I guess I’m back in high school?”

“I didn’t say that. I didn’t even lie.”

“Uh uh. Not lying. Just impulsively deciding to not give the full truth, right?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

*     *     *

Wes had almost become an agreement. We’d be each other’s companion, so neither of us had to focus on reality. We’d hung out together for three weeks, and now I could drive his car without even stuttering at a stop sign. But I didn’t have any more ideas on what to do.

I arrived at the Wal-Mart and waited at the side door, but Wes didn’t show. I didn’t see him gathering carts so I went inside and found him in the car section helping an older man pick out an As-Seen-On-TV headlight cleaner. When he saw me, he quickly helped the man by putting the two bottles in his cart and sending him on his way.

“Did you finally decide to join a trapeze act? Are you coming to say goodbye?”

I laughed and shook my head.

“I came in late today. I’ll be off in five minutes.”

I nodded and waited for him outside.

“So what’s the plan?”

“Come on, Shy, don’t be shy.”

“Clever. I don’t have one.”

“Not even robbing a casino? Finding Atlantis? I guess we can just talk. I have another shift today that I probably shouldn’t miss.” He pulled out a cigarette and I held out my hand for one, too.

He raised his right eyebrow. I realized that was his way of calling bullshit.

I took it and he pulled out another for himself.

“I thought you liked your lungs cancer-free?”

“I don’t know what I like. I’ve always liked what my parents liked.”

Wes didn’t reply.

“I’m no expert, but aren’t we supposed to light these?”

He pulled out his lighter, lit mine and watched as I put it between lips and inhaled. It burned like I was swallowing embers, but I was determined not to cough. My eyes watered and my brain felt fuzzy, but I didn’t cough. Wes lit his own and we fell back into silence.

“Guess I’m fired,” Wes said eventually.

“What? It hasn’t been fifteen minutes.”

“From being the person you talk to. You haven’t said anything.”

“I’m sorry. I just,” I struggled with my words. “One person is responsible for my life basically turning to shit and I can’t even fight for justice because it was an accident. My life is irreversibly changed, and he gets to live unaffected by it all. I mean, I’m sure he feels bad, but—”

“But it’s not enough. Want to egg his house? Slash his tires?”

“No. Yes, but no. I mean, it’s not his fault. It is, but…”

“Well, maybe something bigger’ll get him. He’ll go skydiving in celebration and get taken out by a blimp.”

“Yeah. Maybe. Maybe I do want to egg his house. I don’t know, I just—”

“Need someone to blame.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do,” I said with an exhale.

We finished the cigarettes, mine burning out while I talked. Wes tossed his on the ground to join the countless others, but I took mine to the ashtray attached to the trashcan.

*     *     *

The next day when I met Wes, he was already in his car with the air on.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

I closed my eyes as we drove. When the car slowed to stop and Wes nudged my arm I reopened them. He pointed out the window to the only house I could see. It was a small, ranch style home that looked out of place in the dirt landscape. It had no driveway, only a little patch of grass close to the front door.

“Where are we?”

“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”

I eyed the carton.

“I—I can’t. I can’t do that to him.”

“It’s okay, I get it. You don’t have to convince me. We’ll head back, it’s fine.”

Wes didn’t push me. He let it go. He became my parents. He became my sister. Dr. Anderson. He was everyone but who I wanted, who I needed him to be.

“No. You don’t get it. You can’t get it. I want to, but… I want.” I was furious with him; the emotion was so overwhelming that all I could concentrate on was the tingling sensation behind my forehead. “I just want everything back! I want my best friend back. I want everyone to stop watching me. I want my sister to start fighting with me again, my parents to punish me when I do something wrong. I want to be able to talk and not be judged or monitored or labeled. And it’s his fault she’s gone! Why did she die? Why am I stuck here, in this shitty town, where everyone is fine with never amounting to anything more than a Wal-Mart employee? Why am I stuck here with you and not the one person who wanted to leave as much as me?”

Wes was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke his words were slow and forced.

“You don’t want to be labeled Shy, but you give me a label every fucking day. Listen to yourself, you think you’ve got shit figured out, you think you’re better than everyone? You label every person who stays in this town a loser. Look around, Shy, you’re one of us too.”

I finally got him to snap.

“Well I’m not the only hypocrite, Wes! Insisting that life has no meaning, there is no value in the structured things, and then lecturing me on how life’s about the impulsive and experimental. So which is it, Wes? Does life have a meaning or not? Are you a loser or a genius?”

Wes didn’t reply. He threw the stick into gear and drove to my house. I got out and slammed his door, our front door, my bedroom door, and they all echoed in my head.

For the first time in three months, I didn’t know exactly why I needed to cry. Mom let me sulk. I watched three foreign documentaries on Netflix until the subtitles made as much sense as the language being said. I paced, reorganized my CDs alphabetically, and refused to go downstairs for meals.

The next day I tried to do the same but I was woken up at seven by my mom. Once I was showered and dressed, I met her in the kitchen.

“Your father and I aren’t going to make you attend therapy. It seemed like the right decision because you were hanging out with friends again. But if you think you can mope for the rest of the summer, you’re wrong.”

She pointed to the table where an SAT practice test sat with a timer and pencil.

After three days of cleaning and SAT preparation I wasn’t angry or even sad, just lonely. I felt pathetic, but I was too stubborn to admit that I enjoyed Wes’ company. But I was too busy to mope.

“We’re out of bleach,” my mom said, her voice muffled because she was looking under the kitchen sink.

“Well, I think that’s a good place to stop, when you run out of cleaning supplies.”

“Or it’s a good time to run to Wal-Mart,” she said. “Go freshen up. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”

I thought about venturing out to Wal-Mart several times but never had the courage. At least if Wes ignored me I had a logical reason for being there, now.

The minute the blue sign appeared, I felt nervous. I didn’t even know if I would see him and I was torn wishing I would and hoping I wouldn’t.

We went down a few aisles without any sight of him. I helped my mom grab laundry detergent and led the way to the next aisle when I saw him re-stacking napkins. I stopped walking and my mom rounded the corner with the cart and ran into me. My knees hit the linoleum tile and a jolt of pain went up to my hips.

“Shy, are you okay?” I heard Wes ask as my mom said something similar.

“I’m fine. I’m all right.” I tried to stand without making a face and wished my hair was still long enough to hide my blush.

“Why were you just standing there?” my mom asked, her voice taking on the sharper tone it always had when Lorraine or I almost hurt ourselves.

“I didn’t want to get in his way. Here,” I said as I grabbed the first set of paper towels I saw and tossed them into the cart. I pulled the cart forward to get us to the next aisle.

“You sure you’re okay?” Wes asked as I passed.

“I’m fine. Thanks.” I tried to say it nicely. But I was also trying not to cry. From embarrassment, from the ache already forming behind my kneecaps, from wanting him to say something rude or irrelevant just to make me laugh instead of being concerned like an actual friend would be, from all of it. My mom let me lead her past four aisles before she talked.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

I took a deep breath and was impressed that it was not the shaky kind that always came with a sob. I nodded.

“Because if you’re not, I’m sure you can ride around in one of those little Rascal carts they have for injured or elderly people. I promise to only take a few pictures.”

I laughed and shook my head.

“He went to your school, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

*     *     *

We finished unloading groceries from our shopping trip and even did a little cleaning after getting home. Two hours later we were putting a dinner roast in the oven when the doorbell rang.  She answered it while I doodled on the notepad that sat next to the phone until she called me over.

Wes stood at my front door and smirked when he saw my face. He’d shaved the patchy scruff that normally shadowed his chin and traded his khakis for jeans. It was strange to see him out of his uniform. The fact that seeing him had me in a better mood annoyed me. I only expected to feel mild amusement and irritation from him.

“Where exactly were you two planning on going?”

“Just a get-together with some friends. There won’t be any alcohol and Shy will be home no later than eight.”

I thought I had no chance of going, but she proposed a deal.

“If I let you go, you have to take an ACT exam as well.”

Wes’s smirk grew and I almost said no just to see him lose it.

“Okay, deal.”

“Home by 8:30,” she said to Wes.

“Where are we going that ends earlier than eight?” I asked when we got in his car.

“You’ll see.”

While we drove, I programmed a radio station that wasn’t Screamo.

“Now when you pick me up, you can turn this on so I don’t have to listen to guys go hoarse screaming into microphones.”

“Whatever.”

I could tell he got my pathetic apology.

We pulled up to the only banquet hall in town.

“What are we doing here?”

“You’re still in training. We’re gonna crash a party.”

I looked at the sign that displayed the events.

“Bingo? We’re crashing the senior citizen’s bingo?”

“I figured we should start small. But just a warning, they do make you wear those ‘hello my name is…’ name tags. We may want to use code names.”

I laughed and shook my head, leading the way to the entrance. He wasn’t lying, a little table with name tags and markers and refreshments was just past the entrance. Most of the guests were already seated. Wes stopped at the table and grabbed a name tag and marker.

“So, what’s your code name gonna be? Samson?” he asked.

I thought for a moment before writing ‘The Girl with the Dead Best Friend.’ He laughed.

Wes wrote ‘The Loser’ on his.

Mackenna CummingsMackenna Cummings lives in Orange, California where she is studying at Chapman University to earn her MFA in Creative Writing. While earning her BA from Eckerd College, she studied in England, Ireland, Spain, and Ecuador and hopes to find more opportunities to travel in the future. Aside from traveling she loves to spend time with her family. This is her first publication.

In the Suburbs You Can Have a Perfect Life

The dog sniffs a fire hydrant.
The son shoots baskets until dark.
The grass is sharply edged along the sidewalk.
It takes only a moment for the man
to forget he is father, husband,
for his wife to become stone.
He clenches his fist, brings back his arm,
as though winding up for a pitch.
The driveway is swept clean.
Moths dart around the porch light.
Dirt spills from the planter.
The son runs away.
The sky fractures.
Fruit hangs low on the plum tree.

Susan Bucci Mockler Susan Bucci Mockler has had her poetry published in Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Voices in Italian Americana, and the anthology, My Cruel Invention, among others. Her chapbook, Noisy Souls, was published by Finishing Line Press. She is a poet in the Arlington County school system and teaches writing at a local university. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Judy Bolton, Girl Detective, Girl Thief

I was six years old the first time I saw a mystery novel on my older cousin’s bookshelf with my own name, Judy Bolton, on the spine. I couldn’t stop my finger from tracing the letters boldly printed across the front of that hardcover book. I like to think my father chose the name for me for a reason, and that the appellation Girl Detective inspired me to construct my own clue-imbedded world.

Judy was a fictional detective in the 1930s and ’40s. She spied for the good of her family and community. Four decades later I took a different approach. Mine was a darker brand of sleuthing: I stole and manipulated my way into creating and solving mysteries, in part to get closer to learning about the secrets that lurked in my own house.

I was persistent, though never quite successful. Fictional Judy’s cases had neat endings, while my work was more of a scavenger hunt during which I stole objects that didn’t cohere into a full story for me. I went through my father’s wallet, thick with dry-cleaning slips, receipts and dollar bills. I pretended to smoke his fat, unlit Dutch Masters cigars, and tamped down tobacco in his pipes. When I flash back to Dad’s rack of pipes, silent and stony atop his highboy, I think of the artist Magritte. “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist wrote below his painting of a pipe. He called the work The Treachery of Images.

There were some deceptive images connected to my father, like the photograph of him in flowing khakis and a pith helmet, labeled Guatemala 1952. There was also the heart-shaped box stitched in red and blue, curiously soft and feminine, that stood out on his dresser. The box was another souvenir from Guatemala in which he kept a silver ring, serious and dense, stamped with his initials KHB, for K. Harold Bolton. I loved to spin that ring around my middle finger. I loved to put it under my pillow at night—a talisman that fueled my own imagined adventures.

My role as the girl detective also masked my role as a thief, a part I began to play in earnest at Edward Morley Elementary School in West Hartford, Connecticut. This was a school heavily populated with pretty Nancy Drews. I planted red herrings in their fifth grade classrooms, full of glitter and glue, to indicate there was a Frito Bandito at large.

I was the clever thief who knew what mattered most to my shiny pony-tailed classmates and gladly took it away from them. I was the phantom thief who struck after yet another birthday party or sleepover from which the Nancy Drews excluded me. In reality, I was short and chubby; I was the Spic ‘n’ Span Baby whose mother with the Cuban accent didn’t allow to walk home alone from school.

I kept some of their sweet little change purses and hand knit scarves and returned the rest, triumphantly, as if I had recovered them. Magritte’s pipe was not a pipe, and I was not a thief. At best, I was an indispensable sleuth; at worst, a slippery suspect in the eyes of my teachers.

When I had stolen all I could in school, I moved on to the most portentous place of all for me as a girl detective: my parents’ bedroom, a place filled with the soundless noise of too much stuff in too small a space. The bedroom was a staging area where I could perfect my thieving skills. I pocketed fake pearl necklaces and matching clip-on earrings from my mother’s vanity—a rickety desk she had transformed with speckled contact paper, gold trim and crepe skirting. It was as fancy as she was when she went out with my father on a Saturday night.

I rummaged through my mother’s closet, even though she made it clear that playing dress up in her best clothes was akin to stealing them. But I couldn’t help raiding her walk-in closet for slender high heels, sequined dresses and my father’s sister’s hand-me-down cashmere sweaters. That closet was an island of eternal twilight and forbidden possibilities. In particular, the very adult possibilities of love and beauty were embodied in a dress my mother bought from the Siegel Shop, a tony store in West Hartford Center. She carefully hung the beautiful fuchsia sheath she intended to wear to my uncle’s wedding in plastic wrapping. The sheath was delicately embroidered with roses and went over a long slip dress in a slightly darker hue. There were pointy, satin shoes dyed to match.

A few days before the wedding I stumbled around my parents’ bedroom trailing fuchsia and turning my ankle in the dyed heels until I came face to face with my father. He stood in the doorway, brown-eyed like me, staring with wonder and dread.

“Don’t let your mother see you in that dress,” he whispered.

It was the same tone he had when he came home from work, his tie undone, his shirtsleeves rolled up. “What kind of mood is your mother in?”

On those occasions we were co-conspirators.

My mother always aspired to have more, to be more. When she was seventeen, she wanted to be the first in her family to attend college. She struggled with an alcoholic father and depressed mother as she waged a fierce battle that left her slapped and bruised. But she saved enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola to get to the University of Havana. On the first day of classes she registered for only one course with money my seamstress grandmother had skimmed from the household budget. When my mother met my father a few years later in New York, he exuded the financial success and social class she so desperately wanted, though that pipe dream disappeared once they were married.

*     *     *

As I went through Dad’s crowded drawers, I unearthed things as disparate as shot glasses from his Yale 1940 graduating class, pieces of Dentyne gum, golf tees, dehydrated snow globes picked up on family vacations, and outdated calendars from insurance and fuel companies. I found a package of condoms and a well-thumbed paperback of Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses.

I intently studied the unpaid bills my father piled on his dresser. I fanned through canceled checks carefully bundled in their original bank envelopes. I liked my father’s neat, primary school print so much that I kept random checks to start another collection of things that didn’t belong to me. I coveted his elegant check registry as large as a coffee table book. Its brown leather was embossed in gold with KHB. I paged through lists of checks my father recorded, searching for signs of the bankruptcy towards which my mother screamed we were headed. My father, an accountant who organized other people’s finances, oddly enough had little success marshaling his own.

Stashed in his sock drawer, I found elaborate budgets he worked up with words like mortgage and heat floating between asterisks. On pieces of cardboard that came from the dry cleaner with his freshly pressed shirts, he printed the names of stores my mother frequented in red capital letters. It was as if he was symbolizing that her shopping was bleeding us dry.

“The doctor can prescribe something else for your nerves,” my father murmured.

But shopping was a balm for my mother and me. On Saturday afternoons we ended up in downtown Hartford. My mother went to get her eyebrows waxed at G. Fox & Co., a utilitarian, yet elegant department store. When the elevator opened onto the eleventh floor, everything smelled of beauty. Afterwards we rode down on the escalators, stopping to buy sale dresses and support hosiery for my mother. Shopping at G. Fox came with the distinct privilege of bringing home the store’s crisp navy blue shopping bags. Yet my mother always pleaded poverty when I asked her to buy me something. Mamá no tiene dinero was her constant refrain. In response, I surveyed the terrain and stashed forty-fives or jewelry in the bags.

J.J. Newberry, a five and dime store, was easier to steal from. Newberry—all linoleum floors and plastic bins—had a hectic array of lipsticks and eye shadows through which we sifted. By the time I was interested enough to pocket makeup for myself, few of us from the suburbs still ventured downtown. One Saturday, I watched a pair of Puerto Rican girls, slick and confident, shoplifting nail polish and lip gloss from Newberry. Their technique was flawless. Their next move? To filch my mother’s wallet.

Mira esa vieja, que fea. Pero ella tiene plata.

They didn’t expect a lady fresh off the A1 bus from West Hartford to understand them. As soon as my mother turned around, they knew they had underestimated her and her ire over being called old and ugly. My mother pulled the hair of the younger teenager, who was just a year or two older than I. The older one ran away.

“Say it again,” my mother said. Dilo otra vez que yo soy vieja y fea, she said, crazed and up close to the girl’s round face, “and I will take you to the policia, you ladrona.

Though I never doubted my mother would turn me into the police, too, if she caught me stealing, I continued my petty larceny. I moved on to steal mostly drugstore makeup that I applied in the girls’ bathroom in junior high school. But as hard as I tried, I was not the effortless beauty my mother was. When I was little, I watched her put on her armor for a Saturday evening out. She began with a pointy bra and a heavy girdle with fasteners that snapped onto the reinforced tops of silky, shiny, shimmery stockings. She wore a glittery minidress and completed the ensemble with black boots that appeared as if they had been poured on her legs. She was the envy of my father’s friends with their plain older wives. And to me, she was simply the most beautiful woman in the world. “La mas linda della familia, said my besotted father.

I often spied into my parents’ bedroom though the sliver of light and space between the door and doorjamb. There was a twenty-year difference between them—a gulf, a bay, maybe the Bay of Pigs— but the age divide always vanished when they danced a smoked, stoked cha-cha in the blue noir of cigar smoke and the stink of beer. Later that night as my father pulled off my mother’s boots, Mom on the bed, dreamy and sleepy, whispered, “Too much dancing.”

*     *     *

Forty years later, my father has been dead for a decade. I am once again in my mother’s closet. I am once again a detective, a thief. The clues I’ve been collecting for a lifetime have led me to the recent discovery that my father had been on the ground helping to engineer a coup in Guatemala in 1952.

The Treachery of Images. Nothing is a coincidence.

Treachery may be an extreme word for my father’s silence about his time in the CIA, a secret he took to his grave. I wish he had entrusted me with the lives he lived before I was born. But I was the all-too-curious kid who stole, and I think he knew that.

Although, officially, I am looking for papers I requested to prove my mother is eligible for Dad’s veterans’ benefits, I am also on the lookout for any evidence of my father’s presence in Guatemala. My mother does not know Dad was in the CIA. How can I tell her my father wed her on an assignment? His mission was to place himself in Cuba and marrying a Cuban national seemed a natural way to do that. But history went awry and my mother became pregnant with me on her wedding night. My father had to sit out the Bay of Pigs.

*     *     *

My mother has on contact lenses. Her frameless face reflects her desire to capture her once-upon-a-time beauty. But her green eyes now float among broken blood vessels. She wears black flats and leans on a cane. She stares at me sprawled on the floor and I am instantly reduced to the little outlaw girl playing dress up in her mother’s closet. The little girl who appeared so much smaller when she wore her mother’s heels or glimpsed herself in the reflection in her father’s aviator sunglasses.

Que carajowhat the hell are you looking to take this time, Judy Bolton?” My mother uses my full, original name—my detective name—when she’s furious with me.

“I’m not sure.” All I know is I need to piece together a paper trail to prove she was married to Lieutenant Commander K. Harold Bolton. I’ve already written away for their marriage license the same way I filed a Freedom of Information Act for my father. But the CIA would neither confirm nor deny his affiliation with the agency.

I rifle through yellowed tax returns in brown accordion folders, financial information conveyed in Dad’s straightforward green-inked print. I sort through the uncharacteristically sugary, fancy long-ago birthday cards he liked to send us. I examine the credit card bills my mother accumulated from stores that are now shuttered. I hear my father’s echo: “The doctor can prescribe something for your nerves”

I steal a black and brown tweed shawl with a matching skirt. It’s a mid-century relic from my aunt, but Mom always wore it with verve and youth. I continue to rummage through the glamorous wreckage of clothes and the dust sends me on a coughing jag. This closet has become all past, with no touchstone to present or future.

I find the fuchsia sheath, tattered and streaked with neglect. The matching shoes are now stained; one of them has a broken heel. I can’t get the ragged slip over my chest, but I try anyway. My mother once starved to maintain her figure, never setting a place for herself at the kitchen table. Instead, she’d stand at the sink and eat scraps off our plates.

J.J. Newberry is gone, but the makeup we bought from its bins, now dried out and flaky, still crowds my mother’s ancient vanity. As a kid, I sat at that vanity, brushing circles of rouge on my cheeks and applying dark red lipstick until it looked like a scar slashed across my mouth.

The leather checkbook registry, stashed deep in my mother’s closet, is cracked. KHB—the initials once so stately and regal on its cover—are faded into near oblivion. It looks like time and condensation have blurred my father’s meticulous entries.

Just as Magritte declared his picture was not a pipe, this house is not the one in which I grew up. And yet the embroidered roses on my mother’s sheath—though wilted—are beautiful to me in the same way that a man who has loved a woman for decades stills sees her as young and pretty.

I fold the sheath and pack it with the shawl and skirt in a creased G. Fox bag. I grab some of the papers and cards, just to have my father’s inimitable handwriting near me again.

I still sleuth, I still steal.

I am, after all, Judy Bolton, girl detective and thief.

Judy Bolton-FasmanJudy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Salon, 1966: A Journal of Creative Non-fiction, Brevity, Cognoscenti and other venues. She has also written a memoir, currently unpublished, entitled “The Ninety Day Wonder.” Judy lives and writes with her family outside of Boston. Find her at  http://thewritewaytocollege.com and at http://thejudychronicles.com.

Sailing into Saigon

It’s still dark, 0500 on a December morning. From our ship out in the harbor we see the lights of San Diego sparkle on the horizon. We are excited by the lights. Because for so much of the last four months the horizon has merely blended with the blue of the ocean. Nearly one thousand of us—students, faculty, some family members—have been sailing around the world on a university study abroad program known as Semester at Sea. Now we’re coming home. It’s been a long voyage.

At 0500 a month earlier, we were entering another port, winding our way up the wide Saigon River on our way to Ho Chi Minh City. Our small cruise ship moved slowly, churned up the sandy river bottom. The sun was just starting to rise on our starboard side. It was foggy, which made the little fishing boats, with big slanting eyes painted on both sides of their swooping bows look eerie, like ghosts down there on the water, materializing out of the ethers.

We passed rice fields—all harvested by then—and miles and miles of jungle where the trees looked like they, too, were recently harvested. The trunks were spindly, the leaves wan and thin in many places. The sight of this sparse, sickly jungle made me sad. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the woman who poled the little painted boat being buffeted by the waves of our wake. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the family in the wobbly wooden house teetering between the trees and these muddy waters. Because as an American, I felt responsible.

I have no direct connection with the American War, as it is called in Vietnam, except that I grew up during the ’60s, was in high school in the early ’70s. Our government had stopped giving college deferments by then. Every one of my male classmates knew he’d get a draft notice along with his diploma. The war was like a pall.

In 11th grade English class, Mr. Trosan asked us to define irony. Some of us tried. Some of us were surprised when the stoner in the back of the room raised his hand. His sandy hair lapped at his collar bones. He wore dirty, faded blue jeans so long he walked on them, the hems all ratty and frayed. He slumped around school like he couldn’t care less about being there or what people thought about him. Sometimes I think teachers held his attitude against him. He was smart and they wanted him to care, wanted him to put forth some effort. But Monk’s hooded eyes were clear; he could already see what was waiting for him.

Mr. Trosan liked Monk. Mr. Trosan’s thinning hair hung over his ears too. A bushy mustache drooped over his lips, and he had a habit of playing with it with his tongue. Mr. Trosan lived down the hill from me and drove a little blue sports car. I saw his wife a couple of times. “Hippie” was what people thought when they saw her. She was tall and skinny and had very long, straight hair like Cher. She wore big glasses and bell-bottom blue jeans. I tried not to admire this couple. In my working class family, we weren’t supposed to like hippies. But I couldn’t help it; Mr. Trosan was one of the coolest teachers I ever had.

When Monk raised his hand, it was like Mr. Trosan knew he’d have the right answer. He held off calling on him to give the rest of us a stab at irony. When Mr. Trosan nodded at him, slouched in the back of the room, Monk twirled his pen around his fingers then flipped it into the book of O. Henry stories lying open on his desk. And here was his answer: “Irony,” he said, “is living through your tour in Vietnam and coming home and getting hit by a bus.” Wow, I thought, how did he know that? Behind his big mustache, Mr. Trosan just smiled.

I wish I could say I had been an anti-war activist. I wish I could say I had been a member of SDS and campaigned for George McGovern, even though I couldn’t vote. I wish I could say I had been informed and outraged and wrote letters to members of Congress and participated in protests down at the University. But the truth is, I didn’t pay attention to the war in Southeast Asia. Mine wasn’t the kind of family that had conversations around the dinner table about current events, or anything else for that matter; children were to be seen, not heard. My father had been in the Army for two years during the Korean Conflict. Even though he spent his whole tour of duty shoveling a pile of dirt from one side of the road to the other at an outpost in Germany, he still believed in the U.S. military. In high school, I just kept my head down, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to get from one day to the next. I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion about my country’s little police action on the other side of the world.

It was The Deer Hunter, the 1978 film that won the Academy Award for best picture, that showed me what I missed. Three steelworkers from the same ethnic neighborhood near Pittsburgh, friends who went deer hunting every fall, who could bring down a deer in one shot, who got drafted and returned from the war changed, if they returned at all; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep; the contrast between those two rites of passage, marriage and military service, and what happens to a man when he learns to bring down people in one shot and to play Russian roulette. The movie made me a pacifist. It shocked me. It saddened me. It angered me. In part because of the political message, yes, but the thing that pushed that message in under my skin was that I knew those people. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Those guys shooting shots at the bar were just like my cousins. I had driven by that Russian Orthodox Church, or one very like it, and those streets were my streets. My grandfathers were both steelworkers. Half the men in my town wore steel-toed shoes and hard hats and clomped off to the mill every morning with identical black lunch buckets. Guys in my class thought that the first day of deer season was a school holiday.

Decades later, in graduate school, I would learn that the most effective teaching tool for changing someone’s attitude is film. I was a nurse then, and the teacher was talking about changing how people thought about their health: how to get teenage girls to believe that doing self breast exams would keep them from dying of cancer; how to get diabetic patients to commit to pricking their finger, testing their blood sugar six times a day, and shooting themselves with insulin. But I thought about The Deer Hunter—the guy from down the street who danced at my cousin’s wedding and came back from ’Nam without any legs—and I knew this teacher was telling the truth.

So as I sailed in that cruise ship up the Saigon River in the early morning fog, seeing the jungle that forty years ago my country turned to hell with napalm, I imagined what it might have been like for guys like Monk to prowl these waters in a navy patrol boat with two fifty-caliber rotating machine guns mounted on the bow, a grenade launcher on the stern, and two crewmembers poised on the deck, pointing M-50 automatic assault rifles toward the shore; and I wondered why those people in their little painted boats were waving at us. Don’t they hate us, I wondered? Don’t they hold a grudge against these selfish Americans who destroyed their land, their villages, their country, because we just couldn’t let the Commies take another pawn?

But here’s the irony: we sailed up the Saigon River waving at all those people in pointy straw hats, armed with oars, rowing little boats with eyes on the bows. But a month later, as our journey around the world ends and we sail into San Diego, our home port, the boats that greet us really are those patrol boats, and the men in military fatigues, standing on the deck brandishing automatic weapons, are U.S. Coast Guard. None of the soldiers in those boats are waving to us. For more than two hours, these armed patrol boats circle our ship and escort us all the way from the mouth of the harbor to the pier where our ship will dock. Maybe I’m just disoriented from being abroad for four months, touring countries where we knew we weren’t safe, where we knew we didn’t have rights. But right now my skin is prickling and I don’t get this. Why is the U.S. Coast Guard riding around our little ship full of college students and professors, pointing their guns at us like we’re the enemy? We’re Americans. This is our home. Shouldn’t they be welcoming us?

Then I think of Monk, the stoner who couldn’t care less, who just wanted to get high, because who wouldn’t with war in his future? What if he were here, standing at the rail on deck seven of our ship as we approached this city, this American city; this place we think we know; this place we think is all about freedom and justice; this place where we think we don’t have to worry about our government coming after us with guns because we stand for liberty? What would Monk be thinking if he were standing here, in his ratty blue jeans, his long hair flying in the wind, watching these guys in fatigues circle our ship in a patrol boat armed with automatic weapons? I think I know. I think he’d shake his shaggy head at the irony of it all and turn away. “Fuck it, man,” he’d say. “It’s all a game, and we’re the pawns.”

Linda KobertLinda Kobert teaches creative writing in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Her creative work has appeared in Postcard Poetry & ProseSmall Spiral NotebookAnnalemma, and Spirituality and Health, and she has had several essays broadcast on a local NPR affiliate. She also reads submissions for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction and serves as prose editor for Hospital Drive magazine.

Honor’s Justice

The pavement shimmers with the melted snow rush hour traffic has left in its wake. I cross the street and tuck myself inside the doorway of a closed office building. Flashing lights kaleidoscope from the alley leading to the back of the courthouse. I want to see the police car that will take Noor’s killer to the Massachusetts Correctional Facility at Cedar Junction. Even if that killer was her dad. Especially because her killer was her dad.

From the darkness of the margins, a voice reels me in from my vigil.

“Grace, is that you?”

My heart starts punching, even as the voice clicks into place so I recognize it.

“Geez, Cory, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” he says. “You had to see it, too, huh?”

Yes. I had to see it, too.

Cory and I have never been close. Not before Noor and not after. Not even during the trial. I guess we’d both been jealous of how much the other took Noor away from us. We each held our own separate piece of her, our own place in her life that was already segregated like a walled compound. I was her best friend since fourth grade; Cory was the boy she fell in love with eight months before her father stopped her life as easily as if he were stilling the pendulum of a clock.

I move over in the doorway and Cory stands beside me. I want to be hidden from Mr. Altameemi when the police car goes by. My heart still strums from the hate-filled stare he set on me while I testified. I had struggled so hard to keep my voice from quavering, tried so hard to use the anger to keep me focused on my testimony, just like DA Meyers told me to do.

“I wish they’d fry that son of a bitch,” Cory says, warm mist from his breath catching the orange glow of a streetlight. Cars and buses trickle by, but most of downtown went home hours ago. It had been almost five when the jury started to deliberate, and even DA Myers couldn’t believe they had come back in less than four hours.

“Noor wouldn’t want that,” I whisper.

“She forgave him no matter what he did, didn’t she?”

I shake my head. “She wouldn’t forgive him this. She hated how he was trying to make her live. But she wouldn’t want him to fry.”

I glance up at Cory and reach for a breath. My chest feels squeezed like I’m being crushed in a crowded elevator.

“He was her dad,” I say. But saying that feels like somehow excusing him. He was her dad, so how could he do this to her? How could he kill her in the name of honor?

Cory shakes his head, and the same frustration rises in me. The same hunger for retribution fills my stomach with a gnawing ache that never goes away. Losing Noor has been like losing my shadow, and I keep looking back for the part of me that’s missing.

“I can’t help thinking, Grace,” Cory says.

“What?” I ask, although I don’t think I’ll like what he’s about to say. He pulls his hands into the sleeves of his hockey jacket, the blue one Noor loved because she said it set off his fair skin.

“I can’t help thinking that you and I should have stood trial, too.”

I don’t disagree.

“Me, anyway,” he says. “You got it, even if it was too late.”

What was the use of getting something if it was too late? Cory and I had ignored so many clues, dismissed so many warnings as not really important. Noor’s parents were strict, like they hadn’t really ever left the place they’d come from, but they were living here, they sent her to school here. She wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my house and they wouldn’t let her go to parties, but she didn’t have to cover her head or dress in black or anything extreme. She played on the tennis team and wore makeup. She was the one every girl turned to when they needed a spritz of hairspray or some lip gloss. I had accepted every excuse Noor ever gave me for why we didn’t hang at her house, whether it was her mom’s supposed migraines or her brothers having to study. She didn’t like to be at home unless she had to be, but I had never understood it was because she felt watched like an animal in a research lab. Best friends for seven years, and she had hidden the worst of how controlling they were until the last few months. The months after Cory entered the picture. The months when hiding it had become too much of a burden.

I close my eyes, trying to shut out the view in my imagination of Noor struggling to pull out of her dad’s grip right before he pushed her from the bridge over the railroad tracks down by the river. He probably would have gotten away with it if a couple hadn’t been sitting in the dark on the back porch of one of the little brick row houses set on either side of the bridge like bookends. They heard angry voices and Noor pleading in English “let me go!” They saw Noor tumble over the railing, though they couldn’t say she’d been pushed. They watched her dad lean over as her body hit the tracks with a bouncing thud. They watched him turn and slowly walk away, leaving her there for the next train to hit her. But they hadn’t waited for that train. The girl had called 911 and the boy had run down and pulled Noor’s body from the tracks before the train that was due in a few minutes could roar through in the dark, thousands of tons, its whistle silent because there was no crossing to make it sing.

Cory’s voice rushes through the fire in my head.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of that stuff?” he asks, pulling me back to the doorway’s dark cold. I don’t have to ask what stuff. He means my own testimony.

“I couldn’t talk about it.”

I’d sat on the witness stand for nearly two days, reliving my friendship with Noor in pieces of montage. Photographs and text messages, conversations and Facebook posts. The pattern of Noor’s efforts to keep her two worlds separate became so clear when I looked at it from the vantage point of too late. The police had retrieved our texts, the ones about Cory in which Noor confessed how much she liked him and told me how sure she was that he really liked her, too. She had used me as a cover with her parents when she wanted to spend time with him. She’d tell her parents she was with me so they wouldn’t know she had a boyfriend. DA Myers couldn’t use everything, some of it was hearsay she said, but she combed through my life with Noor as if she were a homeless person picking through trash to find the useful bits. Combined with Cory’s testimony and what the boy and girl by the bridge saw, it was enough.

Cory leans back against the shadows.

“Sitting in that courtroom, it felt like yesterday instead of nineteen months ago,” he says. “If I had listened to her, maybe he wouldn’t have done this. She told me not to let her family know about us. I thought she just didn’t want to deal with a hassle. She should be applying to colleges with us now, not this—” his voice falls away.

“I should have called the police when she told me she was scared that night. I should have gotten someone to help her, or at least check on her. I didn’t understand.”

No one would have understood. The police would’ve arrested me as a prankster if I’d told them I thought my best friend was going to be killed by her dad because a delivery boy brought her a bouquet of chrysanthemums and Gerber daisies.

A week before she died, Noor told me her dad said I was an “unsuitable friend” because I sing in a garage band “like one of those loose whores in the magazines at the grocery store.” Noor’s white smile had spread like pearls across her argil face. “What kind of whores are tight, do you suppose?” she’d asked and we’d laughed. The irony was, there was nothing wild about Noor or me. But she had fallen for Cory’s easy personality, and she’d just wanted to go to the movies with him, or watch him play hockey, or grab a burger with him. She’d just wanted to be like any other American girl. She’d just wanted to be a little bit in love.

Then Cory had sent flowers and Noor’s dad had snapped.

I start coughing and put my fist up to my mouth.

“Your asthma bothering you?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Stress.”

Cory laughs in a sour, candy-apple kind of way and offers me his inhaler.

“Thanks.”

I slip it from his hand and raise it to my mouth. The breath I blow out makes me light-headed. I take a puff and hold it. Letting it go feels like watching confetti flutter from a bridge.

“The thing that pisses me off most is that Noor is probably up there right now forgiving that bunch of animals she called a family.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, handing the inhaler to him. “One of the last things she said to me was—”

“‘I’m scared, Grace, they live by rules you don’t understand,’” Cory interrupts me. “Yeah, I was there when you testified. You should have told me that.”

A red light begins to spiral around the buildings across the street as a police car slowly makes its way up the alley. A bunch of reporters and cameramen race along the sidewalk following it, shouting things. Cory and I step forward to the edge of the doorway. I have to see Mr. Altameemi.

The car stops at the alley entrance and the driver looks both ways. Then he turns the car left into the lane in front of us. Mr. Altameemi sits in the back in his orange jumper, his chained hands held up. It’s an ugly orange, embarrassingly bright, the color of hell fires. He looks up as the car passes and his eyes lock on mine as his mouth forms words at me through the closed window. I pull back, hiding a little behind Cory, defiant and scared all together. Then the car is past us, rolling down the street.

“Did he just say what I think he said?” I ask.

“He did, if you think he called you an American slut.”

“Yeah,” I say, shoving my freezing hands into my pockets. “That’s exactly what I thought he said.”

A voice shatters the static hum of downtown at night. “Hey, that’s the dead girl’s best friend!” A middle-aged woman is pointing at me from across the street. The reporters twist around and move like a pack, lifting themselves onto the sidewalk in front of us in what seems like one single step. I back away from the blinding cameras.

Cory pushes me behind him. “She’s not giving interviews.”

“He’s the boyfriend,” the woman says, as if she’s announcing a winning lottery ticket. A man shoves a microphone into Cory’s face.

“How do you feel about the verdict?” the woman asks.

Cory pulls away, telling them it was too late, weaving a few angry swear words into his answer.

“We can’t use that,” her cameraman growls, “it’ll never edit right.”

Cory grabs my wrist and darts around them. We head down the street in the opposite direction the police car went.

“I’ll make sure you get home,” he says.

We walk the two blocks to the outbound bus lane heading west.

“I’d better text my mom,” I say, pulling out my phone.

“How come she let you stay down here by yourself?” Cory asks. “Noor told me she’s the overprotective type.”

“She is,” I say. “But I told her DA Meyers needed to talk to me.” I didn’t like to lie to my mom, but I had wanted to see them take Mr. Altameemi to prison so badly. I needed to see it. It was the kind of white lie Mr. Altameemi would probably have placed on his list of reasons why it was better to kill Noor than let her be westernized, like me.

Heading home on the bus with Cory. He’ll make sure I get home safe. I hit the send button and shove my phone back in my pocket. My mom will be relieved. She told me to call when I needed a ride, but my little brother is home sick and my dad’s out of town.

We shift on our feet and watch as a bus that isn’t ours comes by. A man wearing a Boston Bruins jacket walks up and stands beside us.

“What position d’you play?” he asks Cory, his voice crunchy with the cold.

“Right wing,” Cory answers, before looking past me toward the next bus heading up the street.

“Is that a travel team?” the man asks, pointing at the logo on Cory’s jacket.

“Yeah,” Cory answers, and I wonder if he’s thinking about being in Canada with his team when I called to tell him Noor was dead. “No,” he’d said, “you’re lying. Why would you say that? That’s not funny.” But when I told him she’d fallen from a bridge, that the police thought she’d been pushed, he had started crying and asked, “It was her dad, wasn’t it?” Why had it been so clear to us after it was too late to stop it?

Our bus whooshes up, and I blink to keep from crying.

Cory puts his hand on my back and guides me onto the bus. We dig out money and feed it into the box, which drags in the dollar bills we give it like waves sucking everything back from the shore. We sit down as the bus lurches into drive and bounce along without saying anything.

We get off three blocks from my house.

“You want a coffee or something?” Cory asks, nodding at the coffeehouse halfway up the street.

“I hate the stuff,” I say, but maybe he isn’t ready to go home. “I could go for a hot chocolate, though.”

He smiles a little. “I’ll buy.”

Wind whips the collar of my coat as we head up the street. My phone buzzes and I pull it out to check the message. I stop when it’s a number instead of a name.

It’s Hadi. I need to see you.

“What’s wrong?” Cory asks.

I turn the screen so he can see the words.

I still have to pass Noor’s cousin in the halls at school every day, but we haven’t talked since Noor was killed.

“What’s he want?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he wants to yell at me for getting his uncle convicted,” I say, but then I think maybe what he really wants is to hurt me. Noor’s brothers and mother had been at the trial, supporting her dad. As if he had brainwashed all of them into believing that what their extended family and neighbors thought of them was more important than Noor. It had taken me so long to wrap my mind around that idea, to get that they cared more about what people might think about their daughter than about their daughter.

My phone buzzes again. Please Grace.

“Tell him to go—” Cory starts to say.

“He’s just going to keep bothering me. If not now, then he’ll track me down at school or somewhere worse. What if he finds me someplace where I’m alone? What if he wants to get back at me for testifying against his uncle? That wouldn’t be much different than killing someone for honor, would it?”

Cory sweeps his gaze up and down the street. “Tell him to come here,” he says, “to the coffee shop. While I’m here to confront him, too. We’ll call the cops if we have to.”

I look around and then nod and text Hadi. Whatever Hadi wants, it’s better to get it over with.

The coffee shop fireplace is turning its sterile flames neatly in motion as if they’re a rotating picture instead of actual heat. We order hot chocolates and Cory gets a couple of snowman sugar cookies. We sit away from the few other people in the place.

Cory takes out a cookie and slides the bag over to me.

“I don’t think her dad had any idea how south that trial was going to go,” he says. “Did you watch him? One minute he was looking around the courtroom like he looked at you tonight, defiant and superior, like no one had the right to tell him what to do with his own daughter, and the next he was trying to play the part of the grieving dad who just ‘accidentally’ pushed his kid off a bridge.”

The sugar cookie turns dry in my mouth, and I drop it onto the bag.

“This is America,” Cory says. “They can’t do anything they want just because it’s family. She wasn’t his property.”

“They let no one in,” I say. “And no one out.”

That’s what Noor told me about her community a few days before she died, when she finally admitted to me that she was worried. She loved being American, but she wanted to please her family, too. “I live in two worlds,” she told me, “but I don’t feel like I belong in either of them.”

She had tried to explain why she had to keep those worlds separate. She’d tried to let me know how dangerous it was, but I had never imagined her father would kill her rather than let her be who she was, the girl he had chosen to raise in America. The girl who wanted to be American.

Noor had always seen beyond limitations. “A voice like yours shouldn’t be hidden behind a veil,” she’d tell me whenever I had stage fright. After I joined my band, she’d sit there listening to us, telling us what songs went best with my voice, making our lead guitarist, Jonah, change keys to suit my singing.

Noor was filled with so much conviction about everything that you just believed her. “Start with ‘Stars in the Daytime’,” she’d told Jonah when we’d played a local band jamboree. “Grace’s voice will wow them so much on that one, they won’t care what you play next.” We got four more gigs from that performance. Now Jonah complains that I haven’t sung right since Noor died.

“You want another?” Cory asks me, pointing to the half empty cup in my hands.

I shake my head no. Cory goes back to the counter. I glance at the door, almost hoping Hadi doesn’t show. The street is a dark hole against the lighted interior of the coffee shop.

Cory comes back and the door opens. His head turns at the same time mine does and we watch Hadi walk in, his curly, dark hair sticking out from a knit Patriot’s hat. He’s got a blue and white cotton keffiyeh around his neck. He pulls off his gloves as he zeros in on us. He doesn’t seem surprised Cory is here. I wonder if he stood outside and watched us before coming in.

Hadi stands in front of us, nodding uncomfortably. He doesn’t look angry, but my heart is still beating double-time. I tilt my head just a little to tell him to sit down.

He scrapes the chair across the floor as he sits next to me.

“So what do you want?” Cory asks, sounding like the side-kick in a Robert De Niro movie. I wish he and I were on the same side of the table. I slip one hand around my phone.

Hadi moves his gaze from Cory to me and back to Cory, slowly, as if he’s as on edge as we are.

“I just needed to see Grace,” Hadi says. “But I’m glad you’re here, too.”

“Your uncle got what he deserved,” Cory says, the resentment in his voice preemptively striking at anything Hadi might have to say. I grip my phone a little tighter.

“I know,” Hadi says. “I wanted you and Grace to know that I’m grateful you testified against him. I want you to know not everyone in my community believes Noor should have been punished for being westernized.”

“What does that even mean?” I ask, surprising myself with how angry I sound. “What did she do that was so bad? Crush on a boy? Go to a few movies? Have a best friend who doesn’t even have a boyfriend? What’s so terrible about how I live?”

“Nothing,” Hadi says, shaking his head, his eyes fixed on the table. “In my uncle’s eyes, Noor was westernized for having friends who aren’t Arab, having friends who are boys, hanging out with people from other cultures.”

“But you don’t believe that,” I say, sounding almost as accusatory as DA Myers on a cross-examination. “You have American friends at school. Or is that all fake?”

“Lots of people don’t believe it. My uncle is old-fashioned. He comes from a certain place and time, like a conservative redneck American.”

“But no one from your community would even testify for Noor,” Cory says, and the rage in his voice is pulsing through me, too. DA Myers told us the police couldn’t get anyone to cooperate with them. Not one of them would come forward to admit her father had told everyone she’d dishonored her family, even though Noor told me he’d been complaining about it nonstop.

Then Cory says the thing that is running through my mind as if he can see inside of me. “Not even you.”

Hadi stares at the table. “My mom,” he says. “She told me it wouldn’t bring Noor back, and what were all my cousins going to do if my uncle went to jail for what happened.”

He looks up at us, his gaze darting from Cory to me, tears brimming in his eyes. “What did I have to say that could’ve helped?” he says. “I never heard my uncle threaten her myself. I never realized how bad it was until it was too late. If I had testified, my mom would have been ostracized from the only community she has. She doesn’t know how to fit in here without the rest of them.”

Cory shakes his head to tell me not to buy into Hadi’s sob story.

“But you knew it,” I say, the anger gone, replaced with hopelessness. “You know in your heart that he killed Noor for honor. His definition of it, anyway.”

Hadi nods slowly. “But knowing something in your heart isn’t the same as having evidence,” he says. “I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of what was going on with Noor and my uncle. Just suspicions and overheard innuendos. I didn’t think he’d actually hurt her. It’s like an unwritten law that we grow up knowing about, but I didn’t believe would happen. But not everyone from Iraq is like that. You have to believe me. Some of us know better.”

“Knowing better doesn’t change anything if you won’t testify,” Cory says.

Hadi hangs his head like a dog that’s been yelled at for something he knows he’s not supposed to do. “It’s not as easy as it seems,” he says. “That’s why Noor hid her world from you for so long.”

He looks up at us. He’s right. Cory and I are as guilty as he is. We didn’t know how to stand up for Noor any more than he did. We’ve all gained the strength we needed after it was too late. I touch his sleeve with my fingertips.

“Anyway, thank you, Grace,” he says, choking on the words. “You, too, Cory. Thanks for getting justice for Noor.”

So much pain feels as if the three of us might shatter in one single explosion. “Justice isn’t as good as not letting it happen in the first place,” Cory says. “We should have been able to stop this.”

We sit there quietly for a long time. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket and push it to the middle of the table. It’s a page from the dictionary, and Cory and Hadi don’t have any trouble finding the word that matters.

Honor takes up almost an entire column of Webster’s: (on′er), n. 1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions. 2. a source of credit or distinction. 3. high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank.

It goes on from there, a long list of all the things honor is.

“You won’t find the answer in there,” Cory says.

“It was the only place I could think to look,” I say. “Noor was so many of these.”

Hadi sniffs. “What you did in the courtroom for Noor. That was honorable.”

His gaze locks on mine for just a moment.

“I should go,” he says, rising. Cory slowly holds his hand out to Hadi. They shake and Hadi turns once before walking through the door into the darkness. But the light lingers behind him.

I fold up the page from the dictionary and slip it into my empty cup.

“After Noor died,” Cory says, “I felt like I was all alone, like no one understood.”

“Like an animal in the zoo, living in a solitary enclosure.” Cory tilts his head and nods. Cory and Hadi and I have been aching in the same way, all along, but each of us alone. Tonight, watching Mr. Altameemi go to jail, it’s as if someone has opened our cage doors to let us out if we dare.

A flash of cold air hits us as Cory opens the door and holds it for me. The street is nearly empty, the store windows lit up with twinkling lights and brightly colored displays like a movie set from a romantic comedy. Noor would have loved walking with Cory like this.

We turn toward my house. There’s a cleanness to the cold. It’s like walking over a bridge with the wind at your back. Cory walks me up the sidewalk to my house. I turn around to thank him for walking me home, my gaze drawn to the strip of sky where the trees that line the sidewalk break apart. The milky blue night, softened by the countless city lights, is bursting with stars as if they were glitter someone had tossed up and the sky had swept it all into its arms. For the first time since Noor died, I feel like maybe I want to sing again.

“Cory, look.”

He tilts his chin to the beauty of it and takes a deep breath.

“For Noor,” he says softly.

“For Noor,” I whisper.

Sabrina Fedel

Sabrina Fedel holds her MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in Writing for Young People, from Lesley University, and her J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Sabrina is an adjunct faculty member at Robert Morris University, and her work has appeared in various publications including Mothers Always Write. Her first Young Adult novel is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions in 2016. She is a 2014 Merit Letter recipient for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Work in Progress Grant. Sabrina writes from Pittsburgh. For more about Sabrina, visit www.sabrinafedel.com or follow her on Twitter @writeawhile.

Intervention

On Monday, the neighbor’s kid is late coming over. When I hear her on the stairs, I call out, “Hey, you’re late. Nothing much is on.” Since returning from rehab five months ago, Syd’s been coming over to watch TV with me in my attic. Her parents asked me once if I’d mind keeping an ear open for anything going on. Seemed easier to tell Syd I had satellite dish and let things unroll from there. Except for weekends, she’s over here all afternoon. And except for Thursdays, when she’s seeing her shrink.

Syd tosses her bag onto her corner of the futon and snakes her hand into the open bag of Doritos. She’s got a nose ring sticking out of her face that wasn’t there on Friday. I want to ask about it but don’t because Syd’s the kind of kid that gets shitty when you ask too many questions. She takes the remote and sees what my TV’s been recording. “Oh, let’s watch this,” she says and begins the A&E show Intervention, one of our favorites.

Syd likes to bite her nails, giggle, and say, “I did that shit,” as we watch the addicts spiral down and the families cry and blame themselves. I like to get high and tell myself I’m not as sad as those people.

Syd plays with her nose ring and glances over at the notepad I tossed onto the couch when she came up. “What’s that?”

“New project,” I say glancing at it. “I’m supposed to be drawing up a marketing ad for that new burrito place downtown. Buddy’s Burritos. Heard of it?”

She shakes her head. “I stopped going downtown. I’ll just make bad decisions.”

That’s Syd’s way of saying her parents won’t allow it. She glances at the notepad. “Can I see?”

I hand it to her. So far, it’s just covered in a bunch of crummy sketches when it should look more like what will eventually be painted as a mural on the side of the Buddy’s Burritos building.

“What’s the theme?” she says.

“Theme?”

“Yeah. You know, do they do a Southwest menu or is it like a Thai burrito place or a veggie place or what?”

“I dunno,” I say. “Southwest I guess.” I hand her the menu and a brief but melodramatic history of the franchise written by one of the owners.

She’s looking closely at one of the things I’ve drawn—a spindly cactus with a cartoonish cowboy trying to sleep in the tiny shade it throws. There’s a burrito tucked into his arm like a sleeping baby except it looks more like a massive joint. “Make this bigger,” she says, tapping the cactus, “like those fat round cactuses. I think they’re called Segourney’s—”

“Saguaros,” I correct.

“Whatever. A bunch of them, and leave out this stupid ass cowboy. The cactuses eat the burritos.”

“Cacti,” I tell her.

“Hmm?” She’s twirling her nose ring again, picking at some crust growing on the outside. It’s getting red.

“The plural of cactus is cacti,” I say again. “And stop messing with your nose. You’re making it all red.”

She flips me off, smiles and says, “Icepick did it.”

During that break where you learn how great these people were as babies, I roll another joint. “You pierced your nose with an icepick? Are you fucking nuts?”

She laughs again. “No, his name is Icepick.”

We’ve come to the point at which Syd is throwing out a carrot which she will retract as soon as I go for it, making me feel stupid and out of touch in the process, so I say nothing and pick up the lighter. I can never figure out the etiquette for this sort of thing, so I let my open hand with the pipe and full, green bowl hang there between us for a second.

“Nah,” she says, like always, “weed was never my thing.” She readjusts herself, tucking up her legs. “Weed’s not really the kind of thing you sell your ass on 82nd Street for, you know?”

Sometimes she says things like that, things that make me wonder what the hell she’s getting at. Her mother Diane once hinted to me that Syd had gotten caught up in some “fast things.” That’s what she calls the months Syd disappeared into the fray of homeless teens living around the Square and the ensuing year in rehab. But Diane’s the type of person to say stuff like that, like saying she needs to tinkle instead of take a piss. It’s hard to tell how bad it got. And you can’t really believe Syd either. One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue….”

Halfway through the second episode, I ask her, “What do your parents think about you coming over here every day?”

She spits a bit of nail onto the floor and shrugs. She says too quickly, too offhandedly, “Oh they don’t care,” which tells me they have no idea.

Around seven, she slides off the couch. “You know,” she says, “you should get married. What kind of life is this for a guy in his forties?”

“I’m thirty-three.”

“Still.” She takes a business card from her bag and hands it to me. “Did you call her yet?”

“For Christ’s sake, Syd,” I say, refusing to take the card, “I’m not desperate enough to ask your therapist on a date.”

“Oh come on, she’s desperate too!” she says and her voice is high and whiney. What must it be like to get this kid to load the dishwasher? “She’s really cool. You’ll like her. She wears a lot of leather. I think that means she’s into SM.”

She leaves the card on my table and disappears downstairs and out the door. A minute later, I hear her front door open and then, through the tiny window in my upstairs room, I see the light in Syd’s room come on, her shadow passing back and forth. Syd paces when she’s on the phone, which is what she’s doing now, probably calling Icechest.

No fucking way, I say to her window and leave the card on the table when I go downstairs for the night.

 *     *     *

[blockquote align=left] One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue…”

But on Thursday, I’m sitting at a table in a bistro wearing a too-tight sports jacket and asking myself what made me come down to the Pearl. I remind myself of the leather and take a deep breath.

Mimsy, Mimsy, Mimsy, I say in my head. I heard once that if you repeat a name or a phone number or whatever seven times, you’ll have transferred it to long-term memory. I also heard that a child needs to be told something around seventy-five times before it sticks, which reminds me of how Syd’s mom is always exclaiming, “How many times do I have to ask you to pick up before I get home?” Seventy-five, Diana.

The whole time I’m waiting and drinking cocktails, I’m wondering why I agreed to meet a woman whose name makes her sound like the kind of person voted most likely to show up to my mom’s Friday evening book club. But when she arrives, she’s nothing like what I pictured at all. She’s young, short, and cute. Skinny but not athletic, her arms and legs like four cigarettes sticking out of her body, what my sister calls “skinny-fat.”

She sees the three empty cocktail glasses on the table and says, “Well, I guess you’ve been waiting a while.” She puts her leather jacket over the back of her chair and slides into her seat. Her skirt is leather and the chair is vinyl, so they stick together and make a farting noise as she scoots in. We both pretend not to hear.

When the waiter comes, she orders a bottle of wine. After her third glass, Mimsy reaches across the table, aiming to clasp my hand, but misses and grabs onto the side of the table, her cleavage almost landing in her pasta. “Do you think it’s bad boundaries to date the neighbor of your client?”

I consider things for a minute, decide that yes, it is bad boundaries—for both of us—and conclude to treat this like the “does my ass look OK in this?” question.

“Yes,” I say, “your ass looks great in that skirt,” and swallow the last of my fourth drink.

Mimsy looks at me a little puzzled and then laughs. “You’re weird,” she tells me. “Weird is good.”

As we’re leaving, Mimsy struggles to get her left arm into the left arm hole of her jacket and drops her miniscule purse in the process, the contents of which dump out onto the floor of the bistro’s lobby. I stoop down with her, hand her tampons and feminine wipes and a cracked tube of mascara.

I lead her outside and aim her in the direction of my car. She tries to pull away from me. “I’m parked that way,” she says and begins patting the pockets of her jacket to find her keys.

As soon as she pulls them out, I take them away. “You don’t need to be driving,” I say.

“Oh yeah?” She lurches toward me. “And who’s going to stop me?”

As I pull up to the light, I look over at her, waiting for her to tell me which way to go. Finally, I say, “Well, which way?” but she’s fallen asleep with her head against the glass.

So I drive us back to my place. I told her about the 70” flat-screen up in my attic, so of course she asks to see it. There’s a lot of other things up there too—an ashtray full of roaches, a glass pipe in the shape of a baby’s hand, and my college bong made from a two-liter pepsi bottle attached to a WWII-era gas mask. I’m excited to see what happens when she sees it, hoping it’s like one of those cartoon moments where the terrified lady runs screaming through the front door, leaving behind a cut-out in the shape of a flailing woman.

“Follow me,” I say and lead her through the living room, down the short hall to the small, cluttered spare room in back. I point to the closet and say, “In there,” and amazingly she goes right in.

Halfway up the narrow staircase, she turns and asks, “Did a skunk die up here or something?”

“Almost there,” I tell her and nudge the back of her thigh.

She stops dead in the middle of the room. I slide past and fall onto the futon, dig under a pillow for the remote.

“What. . .” —she starts. She picks up the gas mask and the Pepsi bottle nearly spills.

“Hey!” I say, “Careful with that. I’ll have you know that won an Honorable Mention at Hempstalk ten years ago.”

Mimsy places it back on the coffee table. “I had no idea,” she says. “You’d think I could have been able to tell.” She swivels her head back and forth, peering through the small dormered windows on either side of the room. “So which house is Sydney’s?” she asks. Then she says, “No, don’t answer that. We shouldn’t talk about Sydney.” When she says this, she flaps her finger from herself to me as though to remind me which two people are off limits talking about Syd.

But she keeps looking, probably trying to discern which of the houses meets Syd’s descriptions, so I say, “The green one.”

“They’re both green.”

Finally, Mimsy takes a seat beside me. She sits very rigidly upright, but I know she’s still drunk from the way she sways back and forth, like a stick stuck in the dirt on a windy day. “I haven’t smoked this in years,” she says and picks up a pipe, sniffs it, and makes a face. “You know,” she goes on. “I don’t really think weed is a problem. Only when users are too young or when their dealers push harder stuff.”

I ignore the term “users.”

“What does your boss think? Your mom and sisters?”

“My sister’s cool, but it’s not really something I talk about at work.”

“I see. So you’d identify yourself as functional?”

“Functional?” I turn off the TV and stand. “You know, I don’t need this from you or anyone else. Functional, my ass.”

“Wait.” She pulls me back onto the futon and kneels in front of me. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She gives a lopsided grin and starts to unzip my pants.

Sure you did, but I don’t say anything else.

 *     *     *

On Monday, Syd shows up with a drugstore bag around her wrist. “Can I dye my hair in your tub?” she asks.

I heave off the futon and follow her downstairs.

Syd takes the box out of the bag and tears off the top. She dumps the contents into the sink. The picture on the box shows a teenaged rocker-girl with jet-black hair holding a purple electric guitar that matches the purple of her eyeshadow. Raven the box says in big black letters.

I sit on the toilet and smoke a cigarette while Syd clips the top off the bottle of grayish looking liquid, places her gloved finger over the hole and shakes. She glances from the corner of her eye, “How was your date?”

“What date?” I say.

“I know things.”

“Your nose is looking really red,” I tell her. “I think you need an antibiotic cream or something.”

“Nope,” she says, “Icepick says you have to let the body win the war.”

“Yeah well, tetanus is no joke.”

“You sound like my dad.” Now she’s standing bent over the tub mixing the dye into her hair. Her jeans, which she wears too low anyway, show the top of her ass and I look away sharply, focus on the pattern of mildew forming near the top of my shower and try to make out shapes. The only sound is Syd’s fingers working the dye in, the slick squish-squish of gloved hands on scalp.

While watching another episode of our favorite show, Syd and I get talking about the questionnaires the families fill out and read from during the actual intervention part. They always start, “Your drug abuse has negatively affected my life in the following ways. . . .” This is normally the least exciting part of the show because everyone is crying and sometimes the addicts run away, but they always come back, and they almost always go to treatment, so we’d just rather not watch the crying part and skip to the ending credits where the producers tell us how long the addicts stayed clean and what they’re doing now, where they’re living, et cetera. Mostly, they’re living with their parents again, doing what they were doing before the camera crews showed up and made promises about how beautiful life was going to be.

“If we were having an intervention for me,” I say, “what would you say?”

Syd thinks about this for a minute, smiles and says, “Well, I guess I’d say that I’m glad you’re mostly high when I come over because I don’t think you’d like me very much if you weren’t.”

“Aww,” I say, “that’s so sweet. You don’t get many of the ‘you should stay on drugs because’ speeches. But I’d still like you anyway, infected nose ring and all.”

“What would you say,” Syd asks, “at my intervention?” She has curled herself even tighter into the corner of the couch.

“I’d say that you are an amazing, beautiful person and I hope you never touch the poison again, because if you did, I’d throw a brick through my TV and sneak into your house to shave your head while you were sleeping.”

Syd laughs. We go back to watching our show and making fun of the people on it.

Before she goes, I talk to Syd about Mimsy. I tell her that Mimsy is pretty militant when it comes to appropriate boundaries, that I said I hardly knew Syd at all, we just wave sometimes passing by. I hint that things could get awkward for us both if Mimsy finds out. “Don’t worry, Steve,” Syd says, “If you can’t lie to your therapist. . .” and she gives me a knowing look and nods.

 *     *     *

Mimsy refuses to come over until after dark, and even then she parks her car around the corner and slips in the back door wearing a dark hoodie and enormous sunglasses like some second-rate celebrity.

She likes to walk around my house picking up things, turning them over in her hands, and putting them back down again. On the mantle, she finds my sketch pad, the pages grey with smudged drawings that still haven’t formed themselves into the image my boss hovers around my desk waiting for.

“Do you like it?” I call from the kitchen, where I’m adding cheese and basil to a frozen pizza. “I’m going to make the cacti eat the burritos. Cut out those stupid-ass cowboys.” Mimsy’s head tilts to the side as she thinks. “I’m not sure anthropomorphizing the cactuses are the way to go,” she says, “They’re so prickly, and coarse, and phallic. Not what I want to look at while I eat.”

Mimsy goes upstairs to wait for the pizza. I walk to the foot of the stairs and call up to ask how the hell I’m supposed to get a whole pizza, two plates, and beers upstairs on my own. I hear my lighter clicking, and then she calls back, “You mind? I’ve got a three-day weekend.” But before I can answer, I already smell the sickly-sweet smoke drifting downstairs.

It’s not easy lugging all that food plus beers up those stairs and I make a big show of it when I take it up.

But Mimsy doesn’t notice. She’s lying on the floor with her shirt and jeans off, naked except for a pair of black tights. The toe-seam of her tights snakes around her foot and I want to bend down and straighten it out, make it run along the tips of her toes, but I don’t because her feet look strange in tights with no shoes. Like a fragmented sentence.

Mimsy wants me to eat the pizza off her stomach.

“Are you crazy,” I say, “I’ve just taken this out of the oven.”

“Oh, I bet it’s nice and warm.” She pats her belly again.

I set the pizza pan on the floor and place the palm I used to hold it on her stomach. She pushes my hand away, saying, “Eww, eww, it’s too hot.”

We watch TV while we eat, another Intervention, which is one of Mimsy’s favorites too. Often, I have to watch the same one twice, once with Syd and then save it for Mim. There is an intricate process by which I have to completely rewind the show so she doesn’t know I’ve already seen it. During pauses when one of us goes downstairs to piss, she gives advice on what the families should be doing differently. She takes a hit, then says things like, “This family, you can tell they’ve never bothered with rules. Now they want to tell their kid how to live and why should he listen?” Soon, she’s talking during the rest of the show too. Which would probably be annoying if I hadn’t seen it already.

The interventionists are never the therapists for the people they intervene on, probably because they have to fly all over the country, leading cry-fests in hotel rooms. Mimsy seems to like her job, but when I say so, she merely shrugs.

“It can be hard sometimes. A lot of therapists are former users which gives them an edge but also makes it hard when they have to hear how much their clients miss getting high. You wouldn’t believe how many of us fall off the wagon.” Then she corrects herself, “I mean, I’ve never been on the wagon, so. . . .” She looks down at the pipe in her hand.

“Maybe I should become a drug counselor,” I joke.

She hands me the pipe and stands. “This is cashed,” she says and goes downstairs to sleep in my bed.

 *     *     *

Syd’s got a Band-Aid over her nose the next time she’s over, but from how it bulges, the ring is still in.

“It smells different up here,” she says.

I point to the candles placed about the room, one on almost every flat surface, including the top of the TV. “Mim says it smells like shit up here.”

“It does,” Syd says. “Now it smells like shit and apple pie.”

Once settled on the couch, Syd rummages in her purse, eventually finding a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and handing the pack to me. “I have two things to tell you,” she says. She readjusts herself on the couch. “Well, actually one thing to say, one thing to ask. First is, I sort of relapsed this weekend.”

I’m not sure if this is another carrot, but I take a chance and say, “What do you mean, sort of?”

She lets out an exasperated sigh and rolls her eyes. “Well, I went downtown to hang out with some friends.” She pulls her ankles up. “I thought everyone was clean, but, you know. . . .”

I try to hand her the remote but she crosses her arms. “So what,” I go on, “you did drugs or something?”

She bites off some skin around her thumbnail and chews on it. “Gawd, you sound like an after-school special. Did drugs,” she repeats. She goes on chewing, then finally, “Yeah, I did drugs.”

“You smoke crack? Shoot heroin? Snort cocaine?”

Syd shakes her head, “No, nothing like that. Just a little crystal.”

“Are you fucking nuts?”

Syd gives me a withering look, says, “Oh, go smoke a bowl already. Give yourself some perspective.”

“Fair enough,” I say. Syd is quiet next to me; it’s clear she doesn’t want to leave. How could she with her body wound around itself like a pretzel? “So what did you want to ask me?”

Immediately, the mood shifts. She drops one leg to the floor and hugs her other knee against her chest. The leg on the floor swings up and down giving me a brief glimpse of Syd as a real child, not this nether-region not-girl, not-woman. “Will you take me to get my eyebrow pierced? My dad won’t sign for it,” she touches the Band-Aid over her nose, “and I want it done right.”

“Sorry,” I tell her, “but I can’t. Those things are practically legal documents. Besides, I think they’ll know I’m not your dad.”

“But you could be,” Syd goes on. Her voice is picking up in excitement, getting nasally and I can sense a whine imminent in the room. “I mean, you could have had me when you were, like, sixteen, you know?”

“But I didn’t.”

“Come on,” she goes on, “What’s the big deal? I’m paying for it, I just need your little signature. Maybe some initials.”

I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. “I said no, Syd. Why don’t you have Icebucket do it?”

“Icepick! Icepick!” She begins to unfold herself, starting arms first, then legs. Next she’s standing over me glaring at the eyebrows-raised, questioning look on my face. “You’re just like everyone else,” she says.

“That’s right,” I tell her. “I am just like every one of the other six billion people on this earth. How’s that for perspective?” I expect her to say something more, to go on begging me to sign the paper, or to maybe admit that perhaps she was a little over the top. But she doesn’t. Just grabs her bag and clomps downstairs.

 *     *     *

The next day I hope Mimsy says something about Syd. I expect at least for her to look troubled but she doesn’t.

“How was work?” I ask.

“Fine,” she says, “long.”

“Anything interesting happen?” She doesn’t answer. “Tell me about your day.”

I offer her the pipe, but she shakes her head. I don’t know what to make of things because all appearances point to Mimsy being in the dark about Syd’s relapse, and Mim’s not one to play her cards close to the chest. One of her favorite things to do is recount her craziest client stories while we lie in bed, me smoking, her taking a few hits now and then. Sometimes I recognize which stories are Syd’s.

“Syd’s mom thinks she’s doing well,” I say. Just the other day, Diana popped her head over the fence to say, “Doesn’t Syd seem to be doing great? She’s like a whole new person.” Then she offered me rosemary from her garden, which I took even though I have no idea what you do with it. “She gave me some rosemary over the fence.” This doesn’t bring much of a response so I go on, “Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Have you ever tried to quit smoking?” she asks. “You know, permanently.”

I offer her the pipe again, but she still shakes her head. “I’ve thought about it,” I say jokingly but she doesn’t laugh. “Look, I could quit if I wanted to, if I thought it was a problem, if it interfered with something.”

“But it doesn’t,” she adds.

“No,” I say, “it doesn’t. I go to work everyday. I get my projects done on time and usually under budget.” I pat my belly. “I could lose a few pounds, sure, but who couldn’t?”

Again I offer her the pipe. “Come on,” I say, “something’s bothering you. This will help you relax.”

 *     *     *

On Friday, the boss holds me over for a little cocktail hour with the Buddy’s Burritos guys. They wear goof-ball grins and exclaim over and over, “The cactuses eat the burritos. Who would’ve thought! A marketing dream,” they say. Plants and animals appeal to diners, they repeat. And the subtle pot reference, they crow, pointing at the joint-like burrito. Brilliant! What I’m wondering is, doesn’t anyone know the fucking plural of cactus?

When I get home, Mimsy’s upstairs with Syd. Mimsy and I weren’t supposed to see each other tonight.

Syd stands. “Sorry. I saw the light on and thought it was OK to come over. Thought you were home.” She looks at Mimsy who slouches limply on the couch. Syd gathers her bag and heads for the stairs.

“Wait,” I say, “don’t go. Intervention was on marathon this week. Watch it with me?”

“I have to go meet someone.” She starts down the stairs but stops after a few steps. “It’s not a comedy, Steve” she says, “These are people’s lives.” She casts a glance at Mimsy to be sure she heard, to be sure Mimsy knows where allegiances lie, where the demarcations have been drawn. I thought it was me and Syd all along, but that only shows how much I know.

This leaves Mim and me alone in the attic. She opens her mouth and closes it again, does this a few more times, like a fish just jumped from the bowl, lying on the floor, tired of flapping, just breathing heavily, wondering if there’s any way back where it belongs. She stands and paces the floor. She picks up a candle and holds it to her nose, breathing deeply, calming herself. Syd’s door slams and Mim’s eyes flash to the window facing her house, at Syd’s shadow pacing back and forth, and then Syd stops. And there’s the shadow Mim can see from my house, and the shadow Syd can see from hers, but where I am is just a whiff of nothingness in the corner of the attic, a swirl of dust and smoke and ash, and then gone.

Amy Foster MyerAmy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.  She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.  Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Prime Number, Blue Lake ReviewEunoia Review, Jersey Devil Pressand others.

Slowing Down #5 – Digging Deep

On the Amtrak Palmetto

On the Amtrak Palmetto, passing through Metuchen, NJ, early morning rain.

I’m on the six-o-five Palmetto train from Penn Station to Union Station, Washington, DC, all set up with coffee in the dining car, tip-tapping on my laptop. I’m on my way to DC to participate in a couple of panel discussions after back-to-back performances of a new play about Rwanda, where a million people lost their lives in the hundred days of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

I’m writing-thinking about my time in Rwanda where I was one of the creative directors for the twentieth commemoration of that genocide. The guy across the table from me—tall, bearded, campsite-hip in an olive green parka and cap—is banging away on his laptop, too, and at the same time, he’s on the phone talking to someone (I can’t tell exactly who) about the contractor who’s doing the patio behind his house. And all of a sudden I hear him say the word genocide. And that doesn’t happen all that often in public places, ordinary encounters. So I wait for him to get off the phone and we’re nearly at Union Station, and I say, as we’re packing up our mobile offices, Did you say genocide

He says, Yes, I did say genocide. He’s an editor for an international news service, has been for many years, so he has covered—as an editor, not a writer, because he is adamant he is not a writer—Sudan and Kosovo and, currently, Syria and Central African Republic and Yemen and Nigeria and countless known, intractable conflicts and mass atrocities all over the world. His writers covered events I worked on in Rwanda, he says, but he doesn’t travel. He stays at home. He’s building a patio.

He asks me how I define genocide, which is a rather intellectual and inside-political conversation people have in the genocide industry. I say what I always say: the definition in the United Nations Convention is pretty specific. He wants to talk about how the g-word gets bandied about for political gain, and I say, nonetheless, the UN is pretty specific: mass targeted murder or calculated efforts to make it impossible for a specific group to live and prosper. Because when people indulge in the kind of discourse he’s inviting, it becomes an obstacle to simply saying, when we see killings start—or know people are planning to kill—we need to be able to stop them. We can discuss why they want to kill later. I say that, just like that, and he nods.

He asks what brings me to this realm and I tell him I was in the Middle East during the Intifada, wound up working for ten months on the twentieth commemoration of Rwanda, and came away with what I now believe might be a touch of PTSD.

Yeah, he says, you got to keep that stuff at arm’s length.

And I think, well, he can do that. He’s an editor; he doesn’t write. He doesn’t travel; he doesn’t dig in. It never occurred to me that keeping this stuff at arm’s length was an option, but if you have a choice, arm’s length might be exactly the thing to do.

*     *     *

Because shit happens
and it knocks you over
boom boom boom:
You move to a new city
There’s a breakup (a biggie)
There’s the death of a parent after sickness for years
You’re two years in the Middle East, mid-Intifada
Things blow up
You come back to the States
You meet and marry
You buy a home
The economy tanks
You’re way underwater
Other parent gets sick and too-soon dies
Black mold invades your bathroom
My LA job gets mean

I get a new job in Rwanda

I immerse myself, open my heart to what happened in Rwanda twenty-odd years ago. But twenty years is the emotional equivalent of five minutes, and, in my line of work, the present is still defined by the bad shit that hacked more than people to pieces. Trust is the first thing that gets smashed in the wake of a genocide, especially there, where neighbor turned against neighbor and could easily turn again. And now do-gooder muzungu (white people) come from afar, saying they want to help.

Where were you, muzungu, in 1994, when all hell broke loose and no one came?
You sat watching us die on TV.

And I learn first-hand about the cruelty of those who have been cruelly treated.

*     *      *

Bumgogo

BUMGOGO. Rwanda

I refer to the awful stuff with which I am “invited” to interact—Intifada; Holocaust; familial pathology; genocide in Rwanda—as catastrophic. Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, literally means catastrophe, as does Nakba, the Arabic word for what happened to the Palestinians when the Jewish state was founded.

The physiological effect of those catastrophic events is trauma, and trauma is cumulative. It builds up, and it creates us. The way someone might threaten to carve someone else a new asshole, trauma fashions us a new nervous system, right on the surface: we no longer have skin.

This is what I have been thinking about, writing about, for the year and a half since I got back from the lush and terrible and glorious land of Rwanda.

I’m a theatre artist, a writer-performer. I wrote a play about my Russian great-grandfather who abandoned the family, which led to a commission to write my next play in the Middle East, which led to a play about the Holocaust, which led to my being asked to go to Rwanda. Because people think I know how to find my way into rough stuff and tell compelling stories. Insider-outsider, that’s who I am.

I take pride in the following response to a script I wrote, from a Rwandese writer who graciously helped me understand what it was to live through the killing times there: Ce que tu as écrit est si touchant, si précis et si juste qu’on comprend bien que tu le vis de l’intérieur. “What you wrote is so moving, so precise and so true, that it is clear you see our situation from the inside.”

But on that six-o-five train last week—fighting a miserable cold with four hours’ sleep and looking ahead to a day watching and responding to both matinée and evening performances of a play about one of the most god-awful events in human history—I think, maybe this guy in the parka is right: arm’s length would be an excellent way to go.

*     *      *

I’ve had lots of therapy: talk therapy; bashing-pillows-with-a-foam-bat therapy; wiggling on the floor like a serpent to liberate primordial rage. Yoga. Deep breathing. Baths. Long walks. I got a dog.

I could get myself a job somewhere idyllic, untouched, but if there’s trouble there, I’ll find it.

What works for me—in the realm of addressing personal or global distress—is writing. Writing entails wrestling meaning from the senseless, the unspeakable, which, sadly, wriggling like a serpent does not do. Meaning is story, and it will set us free.

I screw whatever courage I can muster to the possibility that what gets made—what I make—might be of use, might unlock empathy in an audience or a reader; that it might foster engagement with rough narratives, with which it is deeply difficult to engage. Because engagement begets awareness; awareness leads to agency, the sense we might be able to take action.

And all of this counters the impotence we feel in the face of things over which we think we have no control. And if we are engaged and aware, we may find we have more control than we think.

Can I do this in a parka on a patio, at arm’s length?

Can I get up close—dig deep—and not get burned?

Billie, the unpredictable.

UNCONTROLLABLE – photo: Irene Borger

 

Bang

It all happened so fast. I keep trying to play it back in my head, moment by moment. But it’s like finding a plot hole in your favorite movie; it only leaves you with this dissatisfied feeling that you can’t shake. So, I’ll start at the beginning and crawl my way to where I am now, staring up at my ceiling with a furrowed brow and a pit in my stomach.

It was a normal Saturday night for me, a seventeen-year-old kid who’s never been to a real high school party in her life. I was three weeks into my senior year and felt like slapping whoever told me that nothing was harder than junior year. At least once a week during the summer, I would walk down my street to Sunset Boulevard. I’d pass a couple of bars and Persian rug places to cross the legendary street in order to get to a not-so-legendary 7-Eleven. It was the only place near me that sold Dippin’ Dots. I don’t know why I like them so much; it’s just strangely packaged ice cream.

Sal McIntyre managed the place and by the end of the summer we greeted each other by name. He was a wiry guy with a name fit for a fat Boston gangster. Sal was good at his job. He never had to worry about much, other than the odd hobo who’d walk in and attempt to barter for some booze. This part of Hollywood, the older part where I live with my parents, isn’t quite as glamorous as the parts that are closer to Beverly Hills. They say that the house up the street was formerly a bathhouse that Rock Hudson used to frequent. Leave out the Rock Hudson part if you ever talk to any kids my age. They’d think you were talking about Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, this particular Saturday night was no different than the others when I’d stopped by to get my tacky dessert. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that I planned on telling Sal that, now that school had started, I was trying to wean myself off of my ice cream addiction. It was time to hit the college apps.

At 9:30 p.m., the store was almost empty. The only people in the store were Sal, me, and this touristy-looking chick browsing the chip aisle. The ice cream cooler is across from the register. That night I was having a hard time deciding between Cookies and Cream or Banana Split. They both had their pros, but to be honest, I think that in the end they taste the same. Right as I was putting back the Cookies and Cream, a skeleton of a man walked into the store. I glanced up at the mirrors on the ceiling to get a look at the fellow 7-Eleven customer.

From what I could see, he was a skeletal dude with tattoos up the wazoo. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. They were the kind of tattoos that didn’t have a lot of thought put into them. He was wearing a black hoodie with no sleeves and baggie jeans. That was all I could see. His face was turned in the opposite direction as he studied the Hostess baked goods section of the store.

The touristy lady, who I’d later come to know as Carol, was still vacillating over a bag of cheese puffs as I had successfully set my mind on Banana Split. I heard Carol tell Sal she was visiting “The City of Angels” from Tucson, Arizona. She’d booked a room in the hotel a couple blocks from the 7-Eleven, thinking that she’d be right in the heart of Hollywood. She was wrong.

The store had this eerie quiet for just a beat. It was the kind of quiet you can hear in a really snowy place, where the sound’s absorbed like cold water into a sponge.

Then all of a sudden, the quiet was gone. There was a SMACK!—the sound of metal hitting flesh. I looked up at the mirror to see Skeleton Man slapping Sal across the face with a handgun. Carol screamed, and I ducked behind a shelf of Hollywood postcards. They say that time slows down in moments like these, but for me it sped up as if time itself had just taken a shot of adrenaline.

“If you say one word, I’ll put a bullet through your head, man. Just give me the money in the register,” Skeleton Man commanded to Sal.

My heart was beating so loudly I thought that it would burst out of my chest. Carol was cowering and crying in the chip aisle. Skeleton Man kept moving his gun from Carol to Sal, Sal to Carol. I wasn’t sure if he had seen me. Maybe he just thought I was the unassuming teenager I am. I squeezed the life out of the Banana Split package as I watched Sal slowly unload the register’s contents into a plastic bag. There was a loud BANG!—a gunshot.

The thing about gunshots is that you think you know what they sound like because of movies and shows, but you’re dead wrong. It’s the type of sound that rattles your ribcage and leaves your body, taking all the warmth with it.

Sal let out a howl. I peeked through the shelf to see that Skeleton Man had shot him in the shoulder. Carol sobbed more as he yelled at Sal, “Keep your friggin’ hands on the counter where I can see them or you’ll lose one!”

That was when the chain of events became a blur.

I remember that I turned to see a shelf with rows of those metal coffee thermoses. I grabbed one and bolted towards Skeleton Man, who had his gun pointed at Sal’s head. I took a swing and made contact. Metal to skull. Skeleton Man fell forward a bit and his gun ricocheted off the side of the counter and onto the floor. He stared at me with wild and surprisingly desperate eyes. They seemed void of any color. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a knife. Carol was still crying, and Sal was trying to keep himself upright, clutching his arm in pain.

I lunged forward and grabbed the gun on the floor. With shaking hands, I brought it up, pointed at Skeleton Man. “Little girl, you’re gonna hurt yourself. I don’t want any trouble here, just the money. But if you ever want to see Mommy and Daddy again, get the hell out of my way,” Skeleton Man snarled at me.

I was paralyzed. Stuck in a sad version of a C.S.I. cop’s ready stance. My head was reeling. Then, the alarm went off with a deafening wail.

Skeleton Man widened his eyes at me and lurched forward, knife leading the way. There was another BANG!

He hit the floor.

I sunk down to the floor with the gun in my hand, my back pressed up against the cool ice cream freezer. The sound of sirens added to the alarm, creating a thundering amalgamation of noise.

That’s when the rewinding started. I sat there, in a 7-Eleven on Sunset Boulevard, gun in hand, wondering how I got there. I tried not to look at the blood that began to pool out around Skeleton Man. There was no way I could have done that. My hands were sticky with Dippin’ Dots ice cream, not the blood of another human being.

I put the gun down beside me, watching the veins in my hands that were full of color not too long ago. I didn’t even look up as the first wave of policemen entered. I was too busy trying to remember what had happened.

And from then on, it was one big rush of words and flashing lights all around me. I was asked the same questions at least a half a dozen times. There were tears from a lot of people, but not me. It was like my eyes were perpetually downtrodden, trying to grasp onto how I ended up at a 7-Eleven being questioned by the police.

I don’t even remember what my parents said when they got to the scene. I was sitting on the curb in the parking lot with a blanket over my shoulders and policemen surrounding me. What was the point of the blanket? Was it for comfort? It certainly wasn’t because it was cold out; the summer was still in its Florida-like humidity phase. I hate Florida. The blanket was just as dumb as someone asking me if I was okay.

I didn’t even look up when my parents called my name. I just recall that there was a lot of yelling and hugging. Every once in a while, I looked up to watch the cars whiz by on Sunset. They reflected the situation in a much more abstract light, one that better represented the one in my head. There were lights of red and blue and white. There was even the occasional call-out from a reporter. I felt like I was there forever. Time stood still because all I could think about was how I ended up sitting on a curb at night by my formerly favorite convenience store.

That was the beginning of the end. That was the cessation of any freedom I thought I’d gained in my short time on this withering planet. From then on, whenever I left the house, I caused enough worry and paranoia to silence conspiracy theorists for decades to come.

I was taken out of school. I didn’t have to go to court on the big fat account of self-defense. Journalists blew my privacy to pieces. I received letters from Sal and Carol about how grateful they were for my actions. Sal sent me packs of Dippin’ Dots, even when he was in recovery. Carol wrote me letters from Arizona. I felt obligated to reply, but remain unapologetic about my curtness. These people thought I was a hero, so why don’t I?

His name was Ed Moore. He was twenty-three years old and strung out. His record showed that he’d a history with drugs and petty crime. Yet another skeleton in the closet of this so-called great city, he was born and raised in the Pacific Palisades, a suburban village so rich and tidy you almost lose the smell of rotting souls swept underneath the rug. But something had gone wrong, and things took a sharp turn for him. I couldn’t just think of him as Skeleton Man anymore. Now he had more than a face. He had a history. A life cut short.

They tell you not to think about the what-ifs, but I can’t help it. What if I had gone to the store at 9:00 p.m.? What if I had chosen my flavor sooner? What if I had stopped going altogether, a week before? There were so many variables that led me to that store on that day at that time. Why were there so few that would brand me for the rest of my life?

So, here I am, in the dark. And although I can’t see myself, I’m sure I have the same look on my face that I did three months ago. Every night, I do this. I’m stuck in a hamster wheel built on blood and ice cream. I’ve been told that there’s a step to take in order to get past this. I need to accept the thing that I’ve done. But what if I don’t think of myself as a hero; instead the polar opposite? Won’t that make it worse? Won’t it draw me farther into the maze of misery that I’ve put myself in?

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

“I killed someone.”

Izzy KalichmanIzzy Kalichman is a young writer from Los Angeles. She has been writing stories and scripts for most of her life. She is now studying at McGill University in Montreal and looking forward to growing as an author. She would like to thank Lunch Ticket for the opportunity and hopes that this is only the beginning of a long list of published works.

I Want To Be A Cowgirl

“We can’t move! Are you crazy?” I yell at my parents.

Mom raises one eyebrow, ready to lecture me about being disrespectful. Instead, she turns back to the chilaquiles in the frying pan. The crispy corn tortillas with eggs, queso fresco, and chile verde is my favorite breakfast. Usually, Mom doesn’t make them in August because that much cooking makes the whole trailer hot. This must be an exception to deliver the news.

Dad clears his throat and leans forward across the table from me.

I sit back and slouch on the bench; I can’t even look at him. “Why now? I’m about to start high school. What about junior rodeo? I am in first place overall right now and could win the senior all-around cowgirl saddle in December. How can you do this to me?” My voice gets louder with each sentence.

“Becky,” Dad says in a warning tone, “this new job pays more and my new boss is building us a brand new place to live. That saves us money. And we need to save money.”

Mom walks over to us and puts one hand on Dad’s shoulder, looking down at me. “Your father won’t have to listen to a mean boss anymore. And neither will I.” She smiles and rests the other hand on her belly.

I look at her, confused. Sure, she can’t work where she does now from so far away but surely the other town has a Mexican restaurant. “You also have a new job? Did you already enroll me in classes without asking me, too?”

“No, Becky.” Dad puts a hand on my arm, and I pull away. “Your mother finally gets to focus on selling her salsa, sauces, and preserves.”

“I get to be my own boss,” Mom almost squeals with delight.

“And what do I get? Some lame school where I don’t know anyone in a place I’ve never heard of?” More anger rises from my empty stomach, so I stand and say louder, “Mom, how can you leave Tia Marta? How can I not go to school with Marissa? That was the plan.”

[blockquote align=right]“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

“Becky,” Dad says calmly. “This is what’s best for our whole family.”

Mom turns back to the stove, but not before I see her tears.

“What’s best for me is to stay here. How am I going to college without rodeo scholarships, huh? Did either of you think of that?”

Mom turns off the stove and removes her apron. “I need to go lie down.” She walks out and closes the bedroom door gently behind her.

Dad stands up, looks down at me, and in a serious voice says, “Do not upset your mother right now.”

I lower my volume to match his, as angry as he now seems to be. “What does she have to be upset about? She’s getting what she’s always wanted.”

“She doesn’t want to be away from her sister.” He pauses and clears his throat. “When she has this next baby.”

“Baby?!” I say louder than anything else. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I wish I had my boots on so I could stomp out the back door for the company of my four-legged friends. Instead I huff off to my bedroom and slam the door. Dad won’t yell at me now because that might upset my pregnant mother. But I’ll get a lecture later.

Turning on 95.1, I let The Judds play louder than I’m supposed to; I’m already in trouble. Mumbling hateful comments under my breath, I change out of my pajamas. If I had a phone in my room, I could call Marissa. She’d know what to do.

“Eat some breakfast, Becky,” Dad says through my door in a tired voice.

I go into the laundry room for my boots. “I’m not hungry,” I lie, my stomach loudly expecting something.

The sun is barely touching the backyard, and the moisture makes the grass slippery under my boots. I put on white, cotton gloves so my hands won’t get more calluses. Walking around, I swing my rope above my head, warming up my arm. Our yard isn’t very big, but after three laps I’m tired. Our wooden fence is tired too; it can no longer hold itself up. On one side, it leans so low, I can see Señora Marquez rocking on her back porch. She waves, either shooing a fly or saying good morning, I’m not sure which. So I wave back to be polite. Who’ll take her to church if we move?

Mom watches from her bedroom window; I can feel her. Not ready to be wrong about my hunger, I stand on the bales of hay stacked behind the heeling dummy. It was painted brown a long time ago and Dad actually put a frayed rope tail so it looks like the skeleton of a steer’s butt. Its rusty pole legs dangle lifeless until I kick them; their squeaky rhythm breaks the morning’s silence. Mom closes the curtain. She hates when I practice roping and defy her orders.

Above my head, the rope floats around one, two, three times before I release with the tip of my rope aimed for the left hock—which is like the calf’s elbow on its hind leg. Usually I just rope the dummy around the horns, practicing for calf breakaway, which Mom agreed to let me do when I explained how no one loses a finger because there is no dally involved; the end of the rope is already tied to my saddle horn.

But today, I focus on what I’d rather be doing: heeling. Team roping is another way to earn money. I’m flustered and release too low. Like a wide open mouth, the loop floats through the air to swallow the fake hind legs. When I pull tight, only one leg is captured—a five second penalty. Not going to win like that. After a few more warm-up loops, I successfully snag both legs. Victorious. If only my mom would let me do it for real. Heelers rarely lose fingers when they dally the rope around the saddle horn at the end.

About ten more minutes and many more successful catches later, Dad walks out to the edge of the porch. “Your breakfast is cold. And I have to go to work. I know you’re pissed off, Becky, but don’t take it out on your mother. You can deal with me when I get home.” He turns and walks towards his truck.

Standing there with my rope in one hand and both fists at my hips, I don’t say anything but glare at his back and wait until he is out of the driveway before I sit on the bale of hay and cry. I can’t remember when I last cried this way. He betrayed me. After all these years, I’d always thought he was on my side.

Mom never is. How can she have another kid when we never have enough money?

“You’re probably glad I won’t be able to do this anymore!” Knowing she can hear me, I’m not sure what kind of sin I’ve committed by yelling at a pregnant woman. Swinging my rope around for emphasis, I whack myself upside the head. “Son of a—,” I catch myself before the last word slips out loudly and mutter it under my breath repeatedly until I untangle myself.

Going in the tack room to sulk, I hit the old saddle with my rope, the thwack not as satisfying as I’d hoped. Inhaling dusty, sour leather usually calms me down, but today I’m too upset. I kick over an empty metal bucket, and it clatters across the cement floor, scaring my old German Shepherd, Princess. I wander out to comfort her by telling her how rotten my parents are making me move to a town that probably doesn’t even have Junior Rodeo.

*     *     *

I was five the first time Daddy took me to watch. Older kids rode fast horses and chased real calves, trying to catch them around the neck. Kids my age had to stand on two bales of hay and aim for the plastic head stuck in another bale a few feet away.

For months, I imitated the boys and girls I saw that day. The rope was too big and heavy for me at first; I got all tangled up, a few rope burns. Momma tried to get me interested in something less dangerous. But I wanted to rope. The whooshes above my head sounded like I was about to take flight. And even though my mom refused to let me compete that year, I kept practicing.

When I was six, Daddy convinced her to let me enter two events, dummy roping and goat tying. When she wasn’t looking, he also signed me up for calf riding.

A lot of people saw me get bucked off, but I didn’t care. It hurt a little, but I wanted to get back on, determined to stay on for the six seconds.

“Robert, are you insane?” Momma yelled at Daddy, startling my grin away.

Daddy laughed. “She’s okay, hon’. Look.” He lifted my left arm, then my right.

Following his cue, I wiggled each leg like I was doing the hokey pokey. “I’m okay, Momma, see.” I dusted off my cowboy hat before putting it back on my head. “That was fun. Can I do it again?”

“Later,” Daddy said.

“No!” Momma yelled louder at the same time. “Look at her clothes, covered in manure. Her hair, coming undone. Her face, all dirty. This is too dangerous for a six-year-old girl.” She started to re-braid my loosened trensa, pulling hard as she wrapped the liga to fasten the end.

Daddy said nothing. People in the stands watched us, probably embarrassed for him.

Momma continued more quietly, “I was fine with the goat tying and roping the plastic cow head. The worst thing is a sprained ankle or a nasty burn. But this.” She grinded her teeth and spoke each word slowly, “She could break her neck.” She took my hand and started to drag me away, leaving Daddy standing near the pile of poop.

I waited for Daddy to stop us. But he didn’t.

So I stopped myself. Momma tugged; I tugged back.

“I don’t want to ride the calf,” I said.

For a moment she looked relieved.

“I want to ride those bucking broncos bareback.”

She let go of my hand.

Daddy walked closer to us but still said nothing, so I continued.

“I don’t want to stand on hay and rope the dummy. I want my own horse so I can chase the calf and rope like the big kids. Momma, I want to run barrels so fast my braids stick out behind me, and I get blurry when I fly by you.” I stopped because Momma’s face wasn’t mad anymore. She looked sad. Like she’d lost something.

I looked up at Daddy. He looked scared. But his mouth tried to smile at me.

“I wanna be a real cowgirl.” I flicked my braid back and folded my arms across my chest.

Daddy cleared his throat. “Becky, if your mom thinks it’s too dangerous—”

“I think it’s too dangerous?!” She moved towards Daddy like I wasn’t there anymore. “It is too dangerous. You have to support me on this, Robert. She’s only six years old.”

“I’m almost seven,” I mumbled, but they were too busy yelling at each other to hear me.

“She’s a little girl. She doesn’t know what she wants. It’s our job to keep her safe.”

“Safety? That’s what you’re worried about?” He grabbed my arm and pulled up my sleeve to reveal a different kind of burn scar. “Hot oil and sharp knives aren’t dangerous? Becky helped you in the kitchen and that wasn’t dangerous? Dancers like Marissa sprain muscles and tear ligaments. Waiting by the highway for the school bus is dangerous, too.” Daddy’s voice kept getting louder. Momma seemed to be listening. Maybe she would give in. He lowered his voice and touched her arm. “You can’t protect her from everything.”

Then Momma’s eyes opened their widest so all the white around them showed; I thought they were going to pop out like on the cartoons. She looked down at me and moved so close to Daddy’s face I could see his moustache moving as she talked. “It’s not the same thing, Robert!” Her piercing shriek was so loud I covered my ears.

Other people were watching us instead of the next contestant.

Momma’s gestures at Daddy got bigger. “No one gets paralyzed from slicing a finger or scalding an arm!” That made everyone around us stop moving and look. Momma shouted in my face, “Is that what you want?” and stomped out of the arena without me.

*     *     *

“Becky,” Mom interrupts my memory. She stands in the doorway dressed for work. “I packed you lunch so you don’t eat all Fiona’s food.”

I feel victorious; the least she can do is take me out to ride my horse. Peeking inside the bag, I see Mom put carrots for Pearl, too. I mumble thank you but she might not have heard it. We sit without talking all the way to the stables; only the corrido playing softly on the radio hacks into the silence.

When she stops the car, she looks at her watch. Probably wanting to continue the earlier conversation, but knowing she can’t be late for work. “I’ll pick you up when I get off, okay.” She pats my arm.

In response, I jump out, slamming the car door and running towards the stable. Musty alfalfa fills my nostrils and makes me sneeze. My tears rise to the surface. “Pearl!” I yell.

My horse hears me, nickers in response, and leans her head over the stall door. She nuzzles me, snorting and sniffing in search of her snack.

“You know me so well, girl.”

She nods after I break off a piece of carrot and let her lip it off my palm.

Reaching under her forelock to scratch between her eyes, dirty hair sticks under my nails.

I’m so annoyed with my parents that I want to kick something. But it would be Fiona’s something, and it isn’t Fiona’s fault. She’s been a friend of Dad’s family forever and lets me keep Pearl here free in exchange for shoveling manure out of the other stalls and keeping an eye on water troughs; when she goes out of town occasionally, I also feed her chickens and whatever dogs and rabbits she has rescued or any stray cats that pass by her back porch. Why can’t she be my parent? She wouldn’t make me move away from my friends and junior rodeo.

While I maneuver Pearl’s halter into position, I tell her. “Guess what?” Trying not to cry, I share, “We’re moving.” I gather grooming equipment from the nearby tack shed. “Can you believe this crap?”

While I pick her hooves, I continue, “Dad got this new job with a new house. Mom will finally do her salsa business full-time. We get nada.” I’m upset all over again telling her.

Pearl stomps her right front hoof impatiently.

“What can we do?

The only thing that will take my mind off this horrible moving news is riding. Since the poles are still up from my last practice, I speed through them after a short warm up. The line of six tall obstacles is our favorite event, one we usually win. Victory is crucial if we are going to get that all-around cowgirl saddle this season. Only three more rodeos until the finals in December and Janelle Barnes has almost as many points as I do. I cannot let her beat me. When I saw her last June that was all she talked about—kicking my ass.

When we finish pole bending practice, I carry them, two at a time, back to the storage shed and start plotting response to my parents’ news. “I could stop doing school work,” I tell Pearl. But I tried really hard in summer school to make up two eighth grade classes that I didn’t pass so they would let me move on to ninth grade with my cousin, Marissa. I can’t risk being held back again. “But bad grades could also hurt our chances at a college rodeo scholarship,” I tell Pearl. And without a scholarship, my parents cannot afford veterinarian school.

After I set up the barrel racing pattern—three 50-gallon drums 100 feet apart in a triangle—I tighten Pearl’s cinch so I don’t slip sideways on the sharp turns.

Most competitors take the right first, then two lefts before a straight shot home. Not us. Pearl’s strengths lean in the opposite direction. The first time I tried to contradict her instinct, I regretted it. She balked. I ended up with a saddle horn in my crotch and a mouthful of mane. It isn’t like cloverleaf patterns in nature inspire one direction or another; it’s as rare as the occasional lefty scissors in that box at school. But when my partner has her mind set on something, there isn’t much I can do to change it. She’s a lot like me.

As we warm up, trotting and loping in figure eights, I try to figure out a way to not move. Pearl snorts, summoning me back to this moment, this place. “I know, Pearl, you love barrel racing.” We need to make our turns as precise as possible. She nods her head a few times then tries to shake off the bridle. It’s a sign she wants to run. With no one to time us, I care less about speed and more about the angle of her shoulder in relation to the top rim of each barrel. The closer we get without knocking it down, the faster our time.

Once Pearl and I are both overheated, we wander out to the nearby trail. It doesn’t relax me like usual. August in Runnelton is hot, so Pearl is pretty lathered up after all that practice. The eucalyptus trees are still, and I swear I can see the air hovering above the homes nearby. We turn around after 15 minutes, overwhelmed by the stench of somebody’s open garbage cans.

As I remove her saddle and bridle, my long, brown braid gets in the way, I flick it back and it reaches around the other side to poke me in the eye. “Seriously?” I’m sick of this thing.

The space between Pearl’s front legs is still warm, so before I can give her any water I walk her around more, kicking at the dusty ground.  “What if I cut my hair?” Stopping suddenly in front of Pearl, she almost steps on my boots. “Pearl, you know how much my dad loves long hair.” I grab the end of my trensa and look around for some accidental place I could get it stuck so they’d have to cut me loose. “What are they gonna do? Glue it back on?” Pearl shakes her head like she’s as disgusted with them as I am. Some of her snot gets on the shoulder of my pale blue shirt; good thing it’s an old one. I tie her to the rail and remove her built-up grime, currying and brushing her coat, checking each hoof for stray rocks. “It’s so unfair. Marissa and I are supposed to graduate together.” When she’s cool enough, I lead her across the dirt path to the empty stall and release her from the confines of her halter. After I throw a flake of alfalfa into her feeder, I complete a few of my basic chores.

Afterwards, I feel even more outraged. While I wait for Mom to pick me up, I sit in the shade of the barn and wipe down Pearl’s sweaty bridle. “And what about Fiona?” I say to Pearl. “She’ll be all alone out here without us.” She ignores me as she chomps her first mouthful.

Reaching over the stall door, I rub behind her ears while she eats. “Maybe I won’t talk to them anymore.”

Pearl wanders away for a sip of water, having lost all interest in my drama.

“Who are you not gonna talk to anymore?”

I turn around to face Clay Campbell. I hate Clay Campbell.

When I don’t answer, he continues, “Sorry, Becky. I didn’t mean to scare you.” The lopsided grin on his lightly-freckled face tells the opposite truth.

“You’re an idiot, Clay!” Gathering my composure, I shove his shoulder. “Jerk.”

“Whoa!” He fakes a few stumbling steps backwards. “Don’t damage my ropin’ arm.” Now he’s using his pretend cowboy voice. “You know I need that if I’m gonna beat your friend, Eric, next weekend.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” I ask, stomping away without an answer.

Clay picks up his rope from a nearby fence post and follows a little bit behind me. “C’mon Becks, don’t be mad at me.”

“Don’t call me that!” I say too loudly. I try to take longer steps but at 5’5″, I have half the stride he does.

He answers me, “My old rope horse, Gunner, is gonna stay here while we build a new barn. Only have room for my new one, Easy Money.”

I stop and turn around. “You’ll have to talk to Fiona. And she’s not here today.” If Fiona was here, she’d help me figure out what to do about the move.

Clay winks at me, still trying on the country accent. “My dad already talked to her. I came by to check it out. Looks like we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of each other.”

“Or not. If you pay enough, we’ll take care of Gunner without you.”

“But I don’t want to neglect the old guy; he won a lot for me.”

As I continue walking away, he can’t see my smirk. Gunner was a winner until last season when Pearl and I beat them in Calf Breakaway; Clay was sure that first place belt buckle would be his. Instead it’s holding up my pants now. I rub it and turn around to glare at him.

He’s standing there swinging his rope above his head with his tight Wranglers and fancy, snake-skin boots. In spite of the victory at my waist, I’m self-conscious. My own boots are scuffed suede hand-me-downs and this particular pair of jeans has been patched several times. I look down; at least they aren’t high-waters. Now I have to worry about seeing him every time I want to ride; I don’t have enough decent clothes. Why do I care what he thinks? When I look up, he’s still standing there. “You’re an idiot,” I repeat, not able to think of anything better to say before I turn around, walking as fast as I can. Maybe he won’t really come around much since he’s got a new horse at home.

I can’t wait until Eric gets back from Wyoming so I can tell him about this. Eric Wilson has been my best friend since elementary school, and now that we are going to high school, I hope that doesn’t change. He was acting weird before he left with his cousin, Eli, to work on their uncle’s ranch for the summer. People used to think Eric and Eli were twins. Their African-American fathers both married Filipina women, so they have skin the same shade of dark goldish-brown. I’ve always envied it; I’m pale like my Irish dad instead of brown like my Mexican mom. When Eli started high school two years before Eric and me, he grew six inches in three years. Now Eric looks wider, more muscular, but is barely one inch taller than I am.

Behind me, I hear the whoosh of Clay’s rope and thwap as it hits the dirt next to me.

I whirl around, pick it up, and jerk it hard to throw him off balance. He still has that stupid sideways smile and chews his gum in exaggerated bites.

“You look like a cow!” I shout at him. My mom honks twice out by the road, so I hurry away from him. She hates to wait. “And you missed,” I say, triumphant that his failed attempt means me beating him in calf breakaway was not a fluke.

He jogs up next to me, his rope tucked safely under his arm. “I was trying to heel you.”

I walk faster. “What? Why?”

He moves in front of me and turns around to face me, walking backwards.

I want to push him and then stomp over him.

“They added team roping to junior rodeo.” He pushes his baseball cap up a little and for the first time I notice his eyes are the same color as his jeans. I stop.

“I thought maybe we could team rope together.” He keeps looking at me in a way that makes my stomach feel funny.

Mom honks again. More insistently. I shove past him. “No way. Pearl’s the only partner I need.” I run up the gravel drive out to the highway where Mom has pulled over to wait for me.

Clay keeps walking behind me but the sound of his rope cutting the air gets further away. Him asking means he knows I’m good, and he doesn’t want me to team up with anyone else. Eric and Eli will definitely team up together. They’ll beat Clay easily, no matter who his partner is. If I’m going to keep up with Janelle in all-around cowgirl saddle points, I’m going to have to find a partner other than Clay. Then I remember, my mom won’t let me team rope.

As I climb into her old Buick, Clay’s dad pulls up behind us in a brand-new truck.

Quien es?” Mom asks, always curious about boys I talk to. Usually she wants me to avoid them, but this time her voice insinuates that there is more than riding between us. “Does he go to your school?” Coming straight from work, burnt tortilla still lingers on her skin.

“Clay?” I gesture towards the shiny vehicle. “He lives in a different part of town.”

She looks in the vanity mirror on her sun visor to check her eye makeup. Her hair is coming out of its bun, so she smooths it down. She still has on her red apron stained with dark grease spots. “Es chulo, no?”

“Gross. He’s not cute.”

Mom sighs. “Anything is better than the boys you and Marissa were talking to after church.” Her true motivation: she hates when Marissa and I hang out with wanna-be gangsters who live in Marissa’s apartment building. “Does this Clay go to church?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Clay gets closer and Mom reaches across me to roll the window down further. “Stop, Mom!”

He hollers something, but I roll the window all the way up in spite of the heat and refuse to respond.

“Don’t be rude!” Mom scolds.

“I don’t like that guy, Mom. At all. He’s arrogant, and he’s only good because his dad pays a lot of money to make him that way. When I beat him last year, it was awesome.”

“Ay, Becky. You shouldn’t be like that.”

“Like what?”

Mom doesn’t answer. She repeats, “like that,” and waves her hand over me like she’s performing some kind of magic trick.

If she had a wand or fairy dust, she would make me care more about my appearance. It bothered my mom when I refused to have a quinceañera last year, so she’s helping Tia Marta with Marissa’s. Not that we could afford the kind of party they are planning. It also irritates Mom that I don’t knit or cook or play piano or want to be a dancer like Marissa.

All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a cowgirl.

Tisha Reichle Tisha Marie Reichle is a Chicana feminist and former Rodeo Queen. Currently, she spends her weekdays engaging high school students with socially conscious literature. On weekends, she writes. Her stories for young people have appeared in 34th Parallel, Inlandia Journal, and The Acentos Review. For the past 25 years, she has lived in Los Angeles and earned an MFA at Antioch University. She is a member of AWP, Women Who Submit, SCBWI, and a weekly critique group. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Tucson Literary Festival Fiction Award. She is the new fiction editor at Border Senses.

Tequila, Jesus in a Nighttime City, Clock Maker, Life Is-Transition

Tequila (V2)

Single life is-tequila with lime,
shots of travelers, jacks, diamonds, and then spades,
holding back aces-
mocking jokers
paraplegic aged tumblers of the night trip.
Poltergeist defined as another frame,
a dancer in the corner shadows.
Single lady don’t eat the worm
beneath the belt, bashful, very loud, yet unspoken.
Your man lacks verb, a traitor to your skin.

 

Jesus in a Nighttime City (V4)

Jesus walks
Southwest side
Chicago nighttime city
in bulletproof vest
barefoot
broken
beer
bottles
glass,
stores closed,
blasted windows,
mink furs stolen,
a few diamonds for glitter-
old parks, metal detectors, quarters, nickels, dimes,
coins in the pockets of thieves, black children
on merry-go-rounds, Maywood, IL.
Danger children run in danger
in spirit, testimony,
red velvet outdates Jesus’ robe.

 

Clock Maker (V2)

Solo, I am clock maker
born September 22nd,
a Virgo/Libra mix insane,
look at my moving parts, apart yet together,
holes in air, artistic perfection,
mechanical misfits everywhere,
life is a brass lever, a wordsmith, an artist at his craft.
Clock maker, poet tease, and squeeze tweezers.
I am a life looking through microscope,
screen shots, snapshot tools,
mainsprings, swing pendulum, endless hours,
then again, ears open tick then a tock.
Over humor and the last brass bend,
when I hear a hair move its breath,
I know I am the clock waiter,
the clock maker listens-
a tick, then a tock.

 

Life Is-Transition (V2)

Transition, is song, passages.
291.5 pounds, age 67, 6’4′, gross as a pig waiting for
+++++butcher’s cut.
Aging chews at my back, my knee joints, chisels, slivers
+++++in dampness.
Legs are corn stalks burning; twist fibers, bending, late
+++++October, Halloween night.
Good news, 67, lost 38.9 pounds this year, rocking gently
+++++shifting my pain away.
I am no longer a beagle pup, an English cocker spaniel
+++++chasing the bitches around,
no longer a champion bike rider, yo-yo champion, nor
+++++Hula Hooper dancer or swinger.
Now I expand my morning stiffness with stretch rubber
+++++bands, legs lifted high then down.
Wild mustard, wild black rice and the Mediterranean diet
+++++have taken over my youthful dining experiences.
I no longer have nightmares about senior discounts, or
+++++Meals on Wheels,
part-time bus driving jobs, or aerobics.
When spices are in season, I out live my postponements
+++++to my grave.
Screech owl, I am an old buck, baby hoot on a comeback,
+++++dancing my ass off.
Transition, shedding old loose snakeskin.
Still listening to those old hits, like Jesse Colter, Waylon Jennings,
+++++“Storms Never Last.”
Transition is song passages.

Michael Johnson

Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era. He is a Canadian and US citizen. Today he is a poet, freelance writer, amateur photographer, small business owner in Itasca, Illinois.  He has been published in more than 850 small press magazines in 27 countries, and he edits 10 poetry sites. He is the author of The Lost American:  From Exile to Freedom, and several poetry chapbooks, including From Which Place the Morning Rises and Challenge of Night and Day, and Chicago Poems. http://poetryman.mysite.com/

Pathology

With a red pen,
the disease draws
inside my abdomen

a chain of volcanoes
erupting on cue
and rivers of lava
sliding across organs,
then hardening into rock,

traces on my ovaries
silhouettes of faces
that will never be,

scrawls on my uterus
infinity symbols.

The disease takes
years to gestate.

The disease claims
dominion over me,
makes me an accomplice.

Elizabeth Onusko Elizabeth Onusko’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Witness, Best New Poets 2015, Slice Magazine, The Journal, Linebreak, Southern Humanities Review, and The Adroit Journal, among others. They have also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured on Verse Daily. She is the author of Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, which won the Bryant-Lisembee Book Prize and will be published by Red Paint Hill in 2016. Visit her at elizabethonusko.com.

Violet Rain

two months at best
the doc said,
and we went home…
—in drowning rain
—in pregnant silence
—in circular, useless thought
* houseplants *
* houseplants *
* houseplants *
(need watering)
and we’re still out of milk…
‘better remember to—
oh!
a new lymphatic system!
you need
a new lymphatic system, too…
‘missing red lights
that beamed like
land bound sentinels
worn-out
windshield wipers
smearing grey horizon
over everything
. choking view .
obscuring doorways
faceting teardrops
blurring petals
of withered African violet
(the one in the foyer)
(the one that’s been there as long as I’ve known you)
(the one that needed watering sooner)
leaves falling
like fuzzy rain…
like two months left
to live
(at best)

Robiscoe Karen Robiscoe’s short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in the literary journals Spectrum, Postscripts to Darkness, KY Story, Bohemia, Steamticket, Peachfuzz, Dark Light 3, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Main Street Rag, Meat for Tea, Sand Canyon Review, Midnight Circus, Peachfish, Checkmate, Blue Crow, and 300 Days of Sun, and at Handful of Dust, Whistling Fire E-Zine, Art4theHomeless, and on her blog: Charron’s Chatter. Her recipes are regularly featured at Hub Pages, and Fowlpox Press released her brain-bending, idiom-twisting chapbook Word Mosaics in early 2014.

A Case for Emotional Truth

This much I know to be true: Hurricane Andrew made landfall near Homestead, FL, in the early morning of August 24, 1992. Winds reached 165 miles per hour at their height, aside from the resulting tornados, and the rainfall averaged eight inches in Miami-Dade County. Twenty-six people died nationwide as a direct result of the storm, with another forty dying from indirect causes, although my father heard rumors that many more body bags were packed into a stadium, and undocumented migrant workers weren’t counted in the death toll. My mother, sister, and I flew to Virginia the day before the storm. Mom had planned the vacation months before. Dad stayed in South Florida. Our roof lost three-quarters of its shingles and tar paper, which made the house vulnerable to rain. Water ran into the attic and seeped down through ceiling fans and lighting fixtures. Our carpets, clothing, furniture, and toys were destroyed if not immediately by the water, then by the mold that developed afterward. Our shed and everything inside it blew away.

This much I also know to be true: in August of 1992, I was three years old. My mother collected my toys onto the back patio, where I was tasked with discarding anything damaged. Mom documented everything we tossed for our insurance claim. I lifted the toys one by one to my nose, sniffed, and then, with great authority, said, “Claim it!” Mom assured me everything was replaceable. Twenty-two years would pass before I began to attribute the destruction of my home and belongings to why I form little attachment to place and material possessions.

By definition, truth implies something is in accordance with fact or reality. Which calls on writers in the sticky genre of creative nonfiction to define reality, a word literally defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.” Does perception not shape our individual realities? Or does reality belong solely to that which is proven factual and apparent to all? Who’s to argue it wasn’t the storm that made me less attached, less sentimental toward belongings, when I know that to be true?

The day after Hurricane Andrew, when my father drove from Broward to our home in Cutler Ridge (now Cutler Bay), people were cutting down trees so cars could navigate the streets. It’s true that during the drive Dad saw houses leveled or roofs blown away; inside those homes one could look up and see only sky. It’s true the National Guard patrolled the streets with guns to ward off looters, there was no electricity for almost a month, and the neighborhood organized a schedule so that every day the responsibility of preparing dinner for the whole neighborhood fell on only one household because food was hard to come by.

What’s not true, at least not in the way truth is defined—concrete, absolute—is that when my father arrived to see our home still standing, albeit undeniably damaged, the sight was a relief: it was fixable, he told me. Because had another person, in the same circumstance but who brought to the experience their own knowledge and expectations, seen their house in this state, they may have felt something entirely different.

When my mother returned to Miami with my sister and me three weeks after the storm—we had stayed in Virginia, as Amy was only ten months old and crawling—Mom told me she felt disturbed by the insurance policy numbers spray painted on houses. She felt obliged to be tough and proactive. At my young age she was unsure what I would remember, or what could hurt me. It was only after dinner at the neighbor’s house, after my sister and I were sponge-bathed and kissed goodnight on the mattresses on the floor, after the lights turned off, that my mother smelled the mildew in the walls and started sobbing.

I called my mom to ask her about the hurricane for the purpose of this essay. She said then, “Something really bad happened, and you found out real quick what you were made of.”

*     *     *

When writing creative nonfiction, we aren’t reporting news; we’re reporting life the way the author feels and internalizes it—if nothing else, CNF is entirely representative of an individual’s emotional truth. An individual’s perspective. Don’t humans navigate the world emotionally? Who’s to say which reality holds more weight: that 126,765 homes were destroyed or damaged in Hurricane Andrew, or that Mom felt devastated because while she could not decipher what the piles of debris in her home consisted of, she knew at one point whatever it was had been important to her?

Photo by Andrew Itkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Photo by Andrew Itkoff/AFP/Getty Images

There are two schools of thought dividing the debate. Joan Didion champions emotional truth, while Tracy Kidder argues for reporting facts and facts alone. In Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” she proposes that journaling is not for keeping a factual record, but rather to remember how it felt to be her. She writes, “The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day’s pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab.” But no matter how fictitious the cracked crab, that detail allowed Didion to later envision the afternoon with her family, “a home move, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping.” The emotional truth far exceeds the minute, often overlooked details, like what one ate for lunch.

Minds are not recording devices for memories. Sensory memory—that which allows one to retain environmental information, including (but far from limited to) the light of the room, the texture of the seat on which you sit, the noise of the traffic outside, the vase in your periphery—decays in seconds, unless retained in one’s short-term memory through what’s called the “process of attention.” Short-term memory cannot hold complete concepts and acts more accurately as a notepad, usually jotting up to seven memories that can be recalled within 20-30 seconds. Memories are only then transferred into long-term memory by associating that memory with something else or bestowing it with meaning.

Which is to say, memory, flawed and unreliable as it is, ultimately pulls through—as best it can—when emotion’s applied. Dad remembers throwing chlorine on the mold; Mom remembers the mold making her cry.

*     *     *

In my first memory, I sit on the front porch of my grandparent’s house in Virginia. Dad phone calls for Mom.

Later I’d learn this happened three days after the hurricane; it’d been all radio silence and news reports before then. When my mother went to the local store and saw friends who knew of our family’s move to Miami, she couldn’t answer their questions: Where’s Tom? Is Tom safe? My father’s mother would call, panicked: have we heard yet? Where is he? The news plays in the background, talks of looters, images of destroyed homes.

I remember my grandfather on the white rocking chair, my newborn sister on the ground by our feet, my mom standing in the doorframe. Dad is okay. He is fixing the house.

Was my newborn sister really crawling by our feet? Was she instead cradled in my mother’s arms, or bouncing on my grandfather’s knee? Did I simply place us on the porch because on that porch sits my Pap Pap’s favorite chair, but in reality we sat around the dinner table or in the basement with deer heads mounted on the walls? I remember the scene vividly, as if twenty-three years later I can still feel the weather coming through the screen enclosure. Was there a screen enclosure? Perhaps in the years since I’ve filled in the gaps, applying knowledge and perspective acquired much later, to make that day feel real.

What mattered that sunny afternoon on the porch—or in the dim light of the basement, that evening during dinner—was Dad survived the storm. The relief and joy were palpable to all of us; the location hardly mattered.

Lidia Yuknavitch, Author of The Small Backs of Children

Photo: Andrew Kovalev

The story in Lidia Yuknavitch’s national bestseller, The Small Backs of Children, is centered around a picture taken by a photographer on assignment in a war zone. The picture is of a young girl caught midair at the moment an explosion kills her entire family. The novel is a combination of sexual fairy tale, anti-cautionary tale, art manifesto, and the story of the birth of art. The plot unfolds around that picture, and although the story is told in a straightforward manner, it’s anything but. This is a novel in the classical philosophical tradition, long belonging to male writers, more recently shared by Cixous, Aker, and Sontag. Themes of art, violence, feminism, war, sexuality, addiction, loss, and motherhood are expertly braided with a riveting plot and parallel narratives. But unlike the tomes some other modern writers produce—Jonathan Franzen, or David Foster Wallace, for example—Yuknavitch writes compact prose, layered and dense with meaning. And everything that occurs comes through the body, unapologetically.

Anyone who has read The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch’s brilliant anti-memoir (she calls it anti-memoir because there is no linear narrative arc, a varied tone, and no resolution; I call it brilliant), will recognize the story of the loss of her daughter in The Small Backs of Children. “Inside everything I have ever written, there is a girl,” says the writer, a character known only by her profession. The rest of the cast, too, is known only by a simple description: the widow, the filmmaker, the girl, the poet, the playwright, and the photographer. “This, reader, is a mother-daughter story,” says the writer, the only character to speak in the first person. We wonder who is speaking: the writer character, the author, or both. From that character’s point of view, the story is about the loss of her baby and her obsession to save a child she’s seen only in a photograph. Somehow, the inclusion of nonfiction makes the fantastic story believable. Yuknavitch’s muddling of roles, of fiction and nonfiction, personal and political, is used effectively, with authority. Interpretation is left to the reader.

Like all of Yuknavitch’s writing, The Small Backs of Children is a physical experience. It’s one reaction after another of breath and tears and muscle and heart. We are never in a scene where the bodies are not doing the work; the physicality of the violent imagery is powerful, as is the beautiful prose. The book starts off asking the reader to imagine Eastern Europe in winter, “However it came to you. Winter. That white….” The scene is of the girl observing a wolf caught in a trap, about to lose its leg, its blood red against the white of the snow. The girl goes over and “pisses and pisses where the crime happened.” A bit later, “This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed—an image at a time—against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal.” It’s how Yuknavitch makes art in the story, too, one image at a time, from pain, from the body. The unflinching violence of her story feels real in a way the news cannot.

The Small Backs of Children answers the question of what to do with all of the pain and suffering we endure as a result of violence. The answer is that we feel it in our bodies, and then make art.

Some of us admire movie stars, some sports stars, but people like me have writer stars. Lidia Yuknavitch is my writer star. I am lucky enough to live close to where she lives, writes, and teaches. I’ve taken several of her workshops and I attend every reading of hers that I can. I first became aware of the Cult of Yuknavitch (I am a member!), when The Chronology of Water came out. I saw people with pain-dazed eyes wanting to be near her, to tell her their stories, to touch her. It made me vow never to ask her for anything. I held to that until this interview, which took place in September 2015, at Papa Hydns in Southeast Portland, Oregon.

*     *     *

The week or so before our formal interview, I heard her read and give a Q&A at Imprint Books in Port Townsend, WA. She said the Small Backs of Children didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of years of war photographs, which she had gotten from her aunt. When her father became ill her aunt gave her a box of war photographs her uncle had taken illegally in Lithuania, along with redacted stories from the war. Yuknavitch wanted to know two things: what happened to the stories of those people in the photos, and what about the war zones doesn’t make the news? What happens to the people who live in those cultures daily? Those photographs, along with daily grief over the death of her daughter, were the genesis of The Small Backs of Children. She “put the stories in pieces across the bodies of women and girls.”

Someone at the Imprint Books Q&A (okay, it was me), asked about the frank sex scenes in The Small Backs of Children. Lidia said that we experience sexuality from birth, and she wanted bodily reality in novels. She wanted to liberate sexuality for women from what we’ve inherited. It was important to her that the girl in the book not flinch sexually, even though she was a victim.

All of this was rolling in my thoughts when I met Yuknavitch for this interview a week later. I tried to act normal but, like I said, I might as well have been sitting down with a rock star. She bought me a sandwich (!); we split a piece of cake (although I am sure I ate more); and then I started off by telling her that I was a reluctant interviewer. I told her how I was hesitant to take from her, but she was so approachable and intelligent that we started talking and didn’t quit, even with food in our mouths.

[blockquote align=left]Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate.

I have heard Lidia talk about how much she doesn’t care for the question, “What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” so I opened with this question. She laughed, but then talked about it. I told her the one thing that bothers me about all MFA programs is that you have to pick a genre and stick with it, and how much I admired that The Small Backs of Children straddled the line.

Lidia Yuknavitch: Gak! So many people ask me that question. Why? Fiction and non-fiction are mirrors of each other. One does not exist without the other and each contains elements of the other. I’m interested in how they play off of each other.

Kirsten Larson: The great reviews and attention coming from first The Chronology of Water and now The Small Backs of Children might make it seem that you’ve had rapid success, but you’ve been successfully publishing for quite a while. How have your recent successes been different from previous books, which have also received excellent reviews? Is it more than media exposure?

LY: Yes. I had two different experiences with The Chronology of Water, which almost killed me emotionally, and The Small Backs of Children. I didn’t know that opening up my story would make it so that others could open up theirs. I was really overwhelmed by it and wanted to take care of people. I’ve since learned to have healthy boundaries and how to make them without hurting people.

With The Small Backs of Children I know who I am, I know my limits. I recharge with family and copious amounts of time alone. Literally double what the exertion was. With Chronology of Water I needed two years of alone time in pillow forts. My family has learned to tell.

Lidia is married to Andy Mingo, a filmmaker. Lidia is also a painter. They have a son Miles, also a deep thinker and artist. I asked what it’s like with a house full of artists.

LY: [Talking about when she met Andy] Right away, we had a conversation about image systems and image syntax. (I had to Google these concepts later. – KL) I love that we can talk. He understands me. Oh, and he’s in charge, I like that. (She said something like, “he’s hot, too. Even our lesbian friends agree to that.” – KL)

KL: The poetry of your writing, your unique music, is stunning. When reading your words I’ve often had physical reactions and have had to stop and linger over sentences. I hold the book to my chest until I can calm my racing heart and breath. I don’t know what my question is. Um. In the narrative of The Small Backs of Children, art seems to be born of pain, from the body. On your website you write, “In 1986 my daughter died the day she was born. From her I became a writer.” I read this and my body sinks in, there’s a lifetime and more in those two sentences. Can you talk to me about the body / pain / art connection?

LY: I secretly hoped people still had bodies. I wondered, is anyone willing to meet me there? Despair is fear and hopelessness and violence. I want people to have a physical experience when they read my book.

KL: Do you get tired of the media?

LY: It’s both heaven and something else. Important things are happening, though, like “Black Lives Matter.” The movement is bringing bodies back through the very media that erases the body. It’s so important.

KL: I always wonder, why do you think women’s sexuality is shamed by religions?

LY: Anthropologists say major religions need to establish taboos because taboos regulate behavior. Those in charge are those who control procreation. It’s like property to be owned and passed down. Subordinating the feminine is a social regulation tool—keep the wealth. In ancient matriarchal societies they shared labor and wealth. Only in a very few is sex taboo. Although, if you make that argument you are an essentialist, which is very threatening to patriarchal social groups.

KL: You’ve inspired me to radical body acceptance. We’re both 52. What are your thoughts on aging in a society that fetishizes youth, and demoralizes women’s bodies through every available channel?

LY: Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate. I’m starting teen workshops that give a different message. Every facet works to agitate against messages. We don’t even know, we haven’t figured out what women are or should be. We can’t take a day off. The day we really do wake up as a group will be a revolutionary moment. We could change the world in a week.

KL: I know you have another book coming out next year, but you don’t necessarily want to talk about specifics. I heard it was about Joan of Arc. I’m excited to read it.

LY: I think I am on the final edits. I hope they are waiting for me when I get home.

KL: Your generosity toward other writers is something that I love. Who has influenced you in the past?

LY: Who is next? Who has the most fire? Work needs to be alive, on the cusp. I am excited about fissures opening to different styles of writing. We have to turn things over continuously, or it deadens. We have a market problem, and literature is a product of the market. It’s a living organism. I’m very excited about Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Gerard.

KL: I am excited to hear you are starting workshops based around the seasons. What’s the significance of seasons?

LY: It’s a chance to remind everyone that change is happening all of the time. It’s important. Transformational. There is movement in writing, life is omnipresent. We get stuck. Making art is change—all the different ways we make art. Also, I might be a dork, but I really like the change in weather and the ritual around it. There is pleasure to me in changing color, the experience of the seasons. Winter is cooler and darker. For introverts, it’s an amazing time.

Lidia Yuknavitch is author of The Small Backs of Children (Harper, 2015); Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, 2012) which has been optioned for film by Katherine Brooks; The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011), which won the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice 2012, the PNBA Award 2012, and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA creative nonfiction award; Real to Reel (Fiction Collective 2, 2003), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000); Liberty’s Excess: Fictions (Fiction Collective 2, 2000); Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997); and Caverns (Penguin Books, 1990). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, and in several anthologies. She earned her PhD in English Literature from the University of Oregon, and teaches writing, literature, film, and women’s studies at Mt. Hood Community College.

What Lidia is known for, besides all of her accomplishments, is being an extremely generous teacher. She is genuinely free with advice and gives of herself in a way I’ve rarely experienced. She wants to start a revolution and bring a bunch of artists along.

Kirsten LarsonKirsten Larson lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a contributing editor at NAILED Magazine and an instructor at Portland State University. Her essays and stories can be found in the Huffington Post, NAILED Magazine, Manifest-Station, and several small literary journals. She has a short story in the anthology, City of Weird, forthcoming in October of 2016. She is currently working toward her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Writing: The Toolbox IX

“Desperation is better than inspiration”

I cannot write this blog. I have too many deadlines. Yet I will. I always do. I deliver. That’s my professional obligation. There is no can’t in this profession, there’s only must. As long as I’m still alive at the end of it all, the deadline is exactly what I need to get things done.

I continue my series writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my long-standing experience of writing screenplays and books.

 

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25. Deadlines

This week’s deadlines are so pressing, I don’t know if I will survive them. That’s how I always feel. That’s what I always say. But my friends, and even my kids, don’t want to hear it anymore. They don’t care. I’m the boy who cried “deadline” too many times. “You’ll manage, you always do,” still doesn’t help to quell the panic. Empirical evidence only goes so far to reassure the racing heart. The piece doesn’t write itself after all. The sweat and terror that go into the meeting of several deadlines at the same time, are painful no matter how many times you have survived them in the past. And there’s always that fear, what if this time I don’t make it? Then what? I imagine myself treading water in a devouring vortex and I just let go, stop trying. All that’s left is to drown. But I keep swimming. I must.

The worst deadline I ever had to tackle was when I had months to rewrite a script and due to the my-bad-wherever-does-the-time-go-ether of life, I found myself with only three days before the deadline’s due date and I hadn’t even started. The director called on Thursday and asked if I would submit the script on time. It was due on Sunday. I paused and said, “…Yes.”

I rewrote that script—a complicated total overhaul—in five days. I worked night and day. I started writing with my morning tea by 8am. My shoulders hurt by 5pm from fatigue. I pushed on until 10pm until I passed out. The next morning I rewrote what I had done the day before, editing and polishing until it started to work, to give myself a running start for the day. Feeling things getting better through the rewriting motivated me and reduced the pure panic fueling my adrenals better than coffee. The rewrite required a new voice for the main character. Things had not been working. I was desperate. I began to imagine a friend of mine, an actor with a strong personality, speaking the lines. Suddenly the character began to speak on her own. The script came to life. I was in that zone, in that haze of immersion. Some writers refer to it as channeling. I know it’s how I work best.

Papers can’t wait for excuses. Productions have millions riding on schedules. Books have set publishing dates. An army of editors, producers, actors, typesetters, lit agents, studio executives, publishers, are all waiting for your product. It’s always life and death. It’s not called a lifeline after all.

I handed that script in on the following Tuesday, only two days late. It was the best draft I had written by far, and the entire production team was excited. Everyone could “smell the awards” coming down the line. No one ever knew what it took to get it there.

In the end, when I read it over myself, I had that sense, the sense I always get when writing in this kind of immersive state, that I have no idea where all those words came from. Those characters started talking on their own. The script did almost write itself.

I work well under pressure. That’s why, for me, desperation is better than inspiration.

 

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26. Dramatic Changes and Writing by Degrees

Sometimes in young writers I see the tendency to “write by degrees.” This means to describe, create, or construct a scene or develop an idea within a narrow and tepid  time frame or quantity or amounts. The simplest of these would be an example in a sentence, “Some people linger by the door.” Certainly in a screenplay the vague word “some” is a death knell. A crowd. A horde. A group. A smattering. But not “some.” No one can imagine “some.” Never use it.

Stories live by wide contrasts, strong emotions, big conflict, heavy tension. Novels can sometimes move within the narrowest of degrees, as the primary content can reside in the smallest subtleties in between the action. But in screenplays, and in stories that are moved by wide dramatic changes, the narrative can’t just go from a little bit of this to a little bit of that. A character in a screenplay who starts off deeply angry in the beginning has to end up at peace in the end. He can’t start off slightly angry and end up a little less angry. The change needs to be total. The wider the path, the more satisfying the change.

In Glory Road (a film I wrote for Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney), the coach who wanted nothing more than to win, in the end voluntarily gives up half his team because he learns there are more important things than winning. At the beginning of his life, our founding father, George Washington, wanted nothing more than to be an aristocrat. Later, the very British aristocrats he admired rejected him from their military, and he ended up kicking their asses and drumming them out of America. And when the people wanted to make him king for his victory, he refused the crown and gave the power to the people. These are satisfying stories, because they entail big changes and dramatic character reversals. When writing, don’t just write within narrow degrees. Embrace change. Don’t be afraid to take your characters to wide dramatic opposites in their journeys. It usually makes for the most satisfying story.

 

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27. Use It or Lose It

When I first started writing screenplays, I heard this phrase from an AFI screenwriting student, and I forgot it. “Use it or lose it.” If anything is not essential to your story, whatever you may be writing, then you must remove it, no matter how attached you may be. If two children are walking along a country road, and there’s a scarecrow in the distance wearing a Dodgers sweatshirt, then there better be something significant in the Dodgers shirt, or else it needs to go. If a character is wearing a bright green shirt with an orange jacket and teal corduroy pants, that get-up better mean he’s color blind, a nerd, or deeply eccentric. But if those colors don’t contribute something to the story, it shouldn’t be described. If two gorillas are eating hot dogs in the background of a scene, those gorillas and hot dogs better come back again later with irony or significance. Everything must be organic, inherent, symbolic to the theme, serving the content, setting up whatever comes next. Extraneous details and descriptions are misleading, confusing, and bog down the material. In good screenplays not a word is wasted, not a description is superfluous to the action, the theme, and the plot.

In Collateral by Michael Mann, the introduction of Tom Cruise’s character is detailed.

VINCENT. He walks towards us… an arriving passenger. Suit. Shirt. No tie. Sunglasses and expensive briefcase say “confident executive traveler.” The suit’s custom-made but not domestic. His hair and shades are current, but it would be difficult to describe his identifying specifics…grey suit, white shirt, medium height. And that’s the idea…

This description sets up a man trying to blend in, masking the fact that he is actually a cold-blooded killer. His grey and whiteness also signify a coldness not only in color, but in character.

In Taxi Driver by Martin Scorcese, the character description is specific.

Travis is now drifting in and out of the New York City night life, a dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed, no reason to be noticed, Travis is one with his surroundings. He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a patch reading, “King Kong Company 1968-70”.

This description sets up a man who, though he appears nondescript on the surface, blending into the city’s shadows, later is revealed to be a renegade, a rebel, a traumatized and disillusioned veteran, a man on the edge and on the outside, who is eventually capable of shooting a gang of pimps.

The cowboy boots and the Army jacket mean something. The grey jacket and white shirt without a tie mean something. The scarecrow with the Dodgers shirt might sound vivid, but without significance it becomes a ruse and a weight on the writing.

It’s not just that everything must be organic to the core. If it’s not intrinsic to the story, it also sounds like writing. I don’t like to let the seams show in my work. I like to keep things moving, clean and fluid, and precise, polished and buffed. Too many self-conscious descriptions, too much meaningless detail draws attention to itself and should always be cut. It can’t just be writing for writing’s sake. It can’t just be detail for detail’s sake. Use it or lose it. In writing, every word has meaning.

 

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Previous posts:

https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iv/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-v/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-vi/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-vii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-viii/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

 

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Taking the Edge Off

 

  1. IT’S BEEN A LOVELY DAY (EVEN IF I DID WANT TO KILL MYSELF)

“I find that being in a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” —Anne Enright, The Gathering

Greetings all,

After a pleasant Thanksgiving with Mom and my siblings where he won all the after-dinner games, my father suffered a massive stroke. He’s currently on life support in the county hospital. Mom was also admitted, so they are on the same floor!

Dad is not expected to live, and Mom is referred to hospice, meaning the final months of her life.

That’s all I know at the moment, receiving hourly reports here in Manhattan, but please send loving thoughts as we all make this transition. 

[blockquote align=right]My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

The upbeat, even cheerful tone reveals the depth of my denial, up to and including the exclamation point. And here’s the weirdest part, and if anyone can explain it by logical means, please let me know. My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

From early childhood, I suffered from depression. At various times, I believed that if I killed myself, I assumed power over pain and death. I tucked suicide into my back pocket, an option and sometimes a threat, to extract as needed. You can’t kill me because I’ll kill myself first.

“Who wanted you dead?” When I finally succumbed to asking for help, that’s what the grief counselor asked.

“Oh!” I said cheerfully. “Everyone!”

 

  1. IT WAS THIS

When your parents die, your molecular structure breaks down and is re-arranged. You literally become a different person. –Mark

The morning after my father died, I woke with energy and enthusiasm. I loved my first espresso in the bright Manhattan morning. I was ready to run out onto Broadway and dance around. Then my mood shifted. Mark, my partner of ten years, was distracted. He had a show coming up. When he is concentrating on his work, he hardly acknowledges me. This makes me crazy. Or it used to. Before I learned how to cry, if anyone ignored me, I felt invisible. Being invisible was akin to being dead.

I thought I can’t stay one more second in this stupid relationship.

“Are you ready to be a pioneer in the middle of nowhere?” I asked for the third time that morning. When Mark failed to respond, I said, “You don’t care about my feelings.”

“I’m tired of your feelings,” Mark said. He danced around in a fierce circle and pounded the air with his fists. “Why would I want to live in the middle of nowhere when I can be in Manhattan?”

I didn’t bother to respond. I could not wait until he left the apartment, and then I could not wait until he returned. As I followed him around the apartment, I felt like one of our dogs, dependent on his attention. That day, across the nation in sunny California, a famous writer hung himself, and I totally got it. At least I thought I did. I was more arrogant then. I thought Now he’s captured everyone’s attention forever. He’s saying: ‘Here is my pain and here its breadth and height and depth, its weight. This is how grief smells.

 

  1. HOW TO CRY

You only become yourself when both your parents are dead. -May Sarton

When Mark and I finally returned to the sea and sky of the Pacific Northwest, my father no longer in it, I was unprepared for the blow. Nearby, in hospice, my mother’s body died more slowly. For the months it took her to die, my universe shrank to the length of trails near our cabin and my mother’s bedside, and, when the only other choice on offer was drugs, the support group.

“Want something to take the edge off?” Sarah, the physician’s assistant, turns her face toward me, and for a moment, I’m bathed in her gaze. I exist.

“Yeah, a lethal injection,” I say. “Of course I want something to take the edge off.” I think I’m hilarious and ironic, but Sarah returns to the laptop she usually taps instead of looking at me. Suicidal ideation. I could be in big trouble for letting that slip out.

“If you refuse medication,” Sarah says, “the hospital offers a bereavement support group.” Crying lessons, I called the sessions I began to attend every week. As my mother shriveled, I hunched into a brown metal folding chair and shared secrets with strangers with whom I had nothing in common. Except, of course, death. We had death in common. That thing, that word you weren’t supposed to say. Just as I wanted all of Mark’s attention devoted to me, in the group I didn’t want to listen to other people’s sorrows. I wanted to writhe on the floor, my fellow mourners tossing tissues at me, or at least kicking the tissue box in my direction.

“Do not hand a tissue to someone,” the counselor said. “That’s an attempt to stop the crying.”

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I asked. “To make the pain stop?”

Everyone looked at me and smiled. The other group members were always so nicely dressed, and smart, and dignified, yet I sensed that if I rolled around on the floor and sobbed, they’d be fine with it. And very quickly, despite myself, I did become interested in their lives. For one hour every week, I didn’t have to make tidy. I didn’t have to pretend my father passed. I could say my mother is dying. For one hour, I could rage at the dead and dying, or, more likely, at myself, or I could feel nothing at all. At times, I could even laugh.

 

  1. THE SCENIC ROUTE

Addiction to family impacts us on a cellular level, and because of this, escaping is like withdrawing from heroin. –Grief counselor

In Central Park, on my last day before returning West, the witch hazel started to bloom. When I arrived at my cottage in the West, the witch hazel my mother gave me burst with golden stars. I could hear her voice that winter afternoon in Port Townsend when she saw pots of witch hazel for sale on the sidewalk: “Would you like that for your birthday?” And without waiting for my response, she leaned over and swept the heavy pot onto her hip.

Grief became a screen that separated me from those I loved. Although I craved comfort, I forgot the rules of engagement. On some days, I couldn’t even remember how to talk. But worst of all was the exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy. I dragged myself from bed to espresso pot to shower, and then onto the forest paths to walk for miles, so tired I wanted to lie among the mosses and sleep. Several times, tended by my golden retriever and collie, I did. At night, if I finally managed to sleep, I jolted back awake, sometimes filled with terror, the child who has lost its parents and become prey.

Mark stuck it out. He wrapped himself around me like a warm and fragrant blanket, and his touch allowed me to relax in what felt like my own final days.

When we visited my mother, Mark always seemed to know how to be, perhaps because he tended his own mother as she died. He touched her and talked, or just sat quietly with a calm I lacked. My mother had no idea who I was, and without her recognition, it was as if I lacked a self. I dreaded visiting, and then felt guilty for my dread. Once, when ten days passed between visits, the hospice owner, Rosemary, said, “Long time no see,” and I obsessed about it for weeks.

The hospice consisted of two private rooms in the sea-facing home of a couple who grew organic fruits and vegetables. Chickens and dogs rambled around the property. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and allowed my mother to eat or not eat as she chose. “She’ll eat when she feels like it,” Rosemary said, but I wanted to spoon feed my mother as if she were a baby I could somehow keep alive.

Sometimes, when I returned home, I imagined kayaking toward the horizon, and how it might feel to slide, gently, into the sea. Before my mother was moved into Rosemary’s house, she often kayaked alone, her arms whirling and her body almost invisible in the shallow seat.

“Should you be out there without a life preserver?” I called from the cliffs above the bay.

She shook her head. You really don’t get it, her look said.

 

  1. THE GRIEF-CAVE

In essence, a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel. -Jacques Derrida

On that December morning in Manhattan, after my father’s sudden stroke, when I felt almost merry, there must have been some kind of shock to my immune system. Within weeks, I was struck by one cold and flu after another. Then came kidney stones, two or three bouts with trips to the emergency room. A tooth abscessed, requiring multiple surgeries and a gum graft, which then failed.

Being sick served a purpose. I could burrow into my grief-cave. In our Washington Heights sublet, I hung double layers of dark curtains over the windows, and when that wasn’t sufficient, I bought a silk eye cover. I inserted two layers of ear plugs. I had tumbled over some kind of edge, and my internal structure collapsed. I yearned for that merry day when the patriarch died, and I was, at last, free. Now I wanted to take the scenic route, as my mother always called it, and arrive someplace else.

“Is this normal recovery from a bone graft?” I asked the surgeon when the graft failed.

“No,” he said.

After a month in my isolation chamber, I started the walking cure. On my first day out, an airplane crash landed in the Hudson beside me. When everyone survived, I counted that as hope for me, too. I walked Manhattan for miles, up and down, back and forth, and around the length and width of Central Park. I didn’t listen to music or talk on my phone or look at people. I didn’t really even think.

One night while heading home at night, north on Broadway near Columbia University, I passed a brightly lit café. As I glanced inside, a young woman froze in place, swayed slightly, and then collapsed. I looked around for someone to help, but a policeman arrived almost instantly, and then another stood in the street to flag down the ambulance wailing its way through traffic.

I ran through the dark to our sublet. Once inside, I leaned against the wall, started crying, and could not stop. I replayed the image of the young woman’s collapse, an endless reel of a horror film. My heart pounded.

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“I wish that ambulance was for me,” I said.

Gradually, and then suddenly, like electric shock, a memory appeared as stark as that crashing plane in the Hudson. During my first semester at college, I held three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. I took on another, as an artist’s model, and was assaulted. The following morning, I showed up for one of my other jobs: serving pancakes and eggs to my peers. As I stood behind the food cart dishing out plates of food, I fainted.

“Get her out of here,” someone said. The food service inspectors were due at any minute, and when I awoke, I was back in my dorm room pounding my head against the wall.

 

  1. COMFORT MEASURES

Social contact constantly rearranges our DNA. -Anna Fels

After my mother could no longer drive, my parents were locked into a six-mile radius around their home. “You need to write your wishes,” I told them, “what you want after your death.” My parents sat in their usual places at the maple table we’d had since I was a kid, their one splurge covered with multiple layers of plastic, so that a lifetime later, the surface remained immaculate.

Obediently, my parents leaned over the bright green Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm or POLST. They wrote rapidly, and without consulting each other. They knew exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. As if completing an exam, they handed the forms to me.

What about afterwards, I asked. Did they want a funeral? Cremation? What did they want then? They needed to write down their wishes about that, too. They glanced at each other and frowned.

“I want to donate my body to research,” my mother said.

“And then what?” I asked. “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”

“Buried,” my mother said. But when I asked her where, she had no idea.

“I don’t need a grave,” my father said. “Just scatter my ashes on the bay.”

“No scattering,” my mother said. “You’ll be beside me.” When my father shook his head, she looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll see,” she said, in a humorous mock-stern tone she often used with him.

I asked around our little village and learned that my parents qualified for a site in the historical cemetery. I contacted someone on the cemetery commission, an elected office, and secured one of the last available sites. My parents seemed disinterested in my efforts, but one afternoon, my mother asked me to drive her there. Just six miles from their cabin, the cemetery overlooks the bay, and the Olympic Mountains rise directly behind. The plot I’d chosen was beside that of the Native American founder of our village.

“You can have a line of poetry if you want,” I said, “on a stone.” She shook her head. Once again, I wasn’t getting it.

“Daddy,” she said.

Then I understood. She meant the grave was for him. That he would die first. And she was, of course, right.

 

  1. WAKE TO SLEEP

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”

I’d been frightened about my mother’s physical death, but with the guidance of the hospice nurse, who’d known my parents for decades, the active dying, as it’s called, was gentle. That first night, two of my sisters and I sang every song we knew, including those she taught us when we were small. The next night, as my sister held our mother in her arms, I read from a book my mother gave me when I was in fifth grade, Words for the Wind. For the thirty minutes or so that it took me to read “Meditations of an Old Woman,” a poem I’d set to music in my teens, my mother stopped her intense dying breath, opened her eyes, and fixed her gaze on mine the way a child does as she’s being read to sleep.

After my mother’s burial, my father’s ashes tucked into her coffin, I felt flattened. Every day, I roamed the trails behind my house. All these decades, my parents lived just through the forest on this land where I grew up, anchoring me to the world. Some of the trails along the shoreline dated from the original people who lived here for ten thousand years. It was my job as a child, and then as an adult, to keep those trails clear.

Once a week, I continued to meet with my fellow mourners. Several of us lost significant amounts of weight, becoming almost skeletal. I could not imagine how I had ever been able to do anything, or that I would ever again function in any kind of normal way. “All responses are correct and normal,” the counselor told us. “You can’t rush grief.”

Most of us focused on regrets. We hadn’t spent enough time. We hadn’t done enough. “She wanted a scarf,” said one widower. He looked down at his hands. “The scarf only cost six dollars, and I wouldn’t let her have it.” One slept in her beloved’s shirt, and another carried her sister’s purse. Yet another tore the clothes from her mother’s closets and flung them into garbage pails, dragging them to a distant shed.

“Don’t rush into any changes if you can help it,” the counselor advised. Yet everyone else pushed the survivors to change. One widow wondered if she should move closer to family, as her sisters were insisting, and abandon the house she loved. The widower’s kids wanted him to shed the too-large family home where he’d spent so many years caretaking. “But then I’d have to pack,” he told us. “I don’t have the energy.” A young woman wondered if it was proper to stay on in her mother-in-law’s house.

“Am I even related to her now that my husband’s dead?” she asked.

One widow suffered none of these pangs. She joined us only once, and she spoke of her husband’s death with glee. “My girlfriends and I are headed for Hawaii,” she said.

“Take us with you,” we murmured. She didn’t need us, and we were glad. But we lacked the will to minister any such kindness to ourselves. In that icy Northwestern winter, our grief seemed frozen into our flesh. We might yearn for bright sun on sandy beaches, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. None of us could even manage hugs. Despite the intimacy of what we shared, we never exchanged numbers. We returned to our warrens like snails to shells, to reappear the following week.

Until we didn’t. When we were done grieving, we simply vanished. Time collapsed and fell forward, moment telescoping out of moment, until I barely remember any of them at all, but for that stretch of time we embraced without touching.

K.C. PedersonK.C. Pedersen lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State, holds an MA in writing and literature, and blogs at www.kiriepedersen.com.

Boiler Rat

The power plant loomed out of the morning blackness, hulking above the Iowa corn fields like some menacing, malevolent, medieval castle. It was surrounded by trees in soft fall colors, planted there in an attempt to showcase it as environmentally friendly and to soften its sharp square lines; but you can’t hide that much ugly.

I passed the memorial park, a rock with a bronze plaque listing the names of men killed during the plant’s construction and subsequent overhauls with space at the bottom for more names, a reminder that if this plant was on your yellow brick road, your life sucked.

The little park had a sidewalk leading to and around the rock, along with picnic tables and benches nobody used. The families of the dead men had moved on—ol’ ladies remarried, kids grown and scattered, living out their own dramas, looking for their own big rock-candy mountains.

It’s better if you don’t survive an industrial accident. Then you don’t have to watch your family leave, because when the money stops, they leave. When Big Mike got that hook buried in his head and they had to cut pieces of his skull out of his brain, his wife and kids were gone by the time he learned to walk and talk again. It’s better for the company, too, if you don’t survive; it’s cheaper for them to buy your family off than to take care of you the rest of your life. Most families settle out of court, and by the time the lawyers take their cut, there’s not much left.

It was the last overhaul of boiler season. The guys had come in from all over the country with pockets full of money from other jobs; enough money to do whatever it was they did—drugs, booze, road whores. The outfit had pulled all three of its boiler crews in for the job, and it was western.

From the parking lot the boiler was silent, and I wondered if night shift was made up of ghosts caught in some never-ending, boilermaker hell, going about their tasks in quiet agony, forced to serve for eternity the same evil they served in life—the almighty dollar. Only this time they know the payoff—broken homes, failed relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and industrial carnage. I thought about turning around. I felt like my soul would be damned as soon as I brassed in, but I’d cut that deal long ago. Someday, I will join that ghostly crew and be greeted by their vacant stares, recognized, and welcomed.

A Navajo woman was selling burritos at the gate. They’re tasty, but go off like a five-hundred pounder two hours after you eat one. I passed.

Two of the big 750s were still on line, and as I got closer to the plant the hum of operation—the rumble of the boilers, the rushing sound of I.D. and F.D. fans, the roar of the suck trucks, and the rev of ninety-ton cranes—became a wall of sound that drowned thought.

[blockquote align=right]On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools.

By the time I got to the unit we were tearing into, I could hear the big boiler groaning in protest at the violation and pick out the individual sounds of the overhaul in heat—the hiss-crack of the gougers and the pop of molten metal hitting pavement; the angry snarl of nine-inch grinders cutting their way through water walls; the high cymbal clash and deep clunk of light metal and heavy iron being moved; the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding of nine-pound beaters and the thump of separation with its clouds of rust, fly ash, and insulation; the knock, knock, knocking of the air chippers busting out refract, and the piercing, teeth clenching whistles of the suck truck’s big vacuum hoses.

Up on level 8, the nightshift was barely visible through the clouds of fly ash. Their eyes were blank and twelve-hours tired, and their faces were covered in brown dust. They looked at me without seeing. They’d been thinking about cold beer for the last three hours and just wanted the shift to end. They’re tough rock-and-rollers for the most part, getting old before their time, with no way out.

I headed down the catwalk to the back of the boiler where we had our gang-boxes staged and where the crew met for the morning safety meeting. Boom-boxes pounded out AC/DC, Metallica, and Monster Magnet from inside the firebox.

The crew drifted in one at a time. A couple of them looked and smelled like they’d been out all night. A few more were animated and wired for sound—obviously on meth. A lot of them are level-one primates with no recognizable human response mechanisms. Oh, they know when they are hungry, horny, and thirsty, and they do feel pain, but have no sympathy for the pain of others. They aren’t the kind you would want around your daughter. Most of them I’d shoot if I saw them in my front yard—out of common courtesy for my neighbors. On a good day, when they aren’t sick, throwing up, and soiling themselves from the excesses of the night before, they wipe their ass and toss the shit-paper on the floor. You try hard to keep from becoming a product of your primitive environment, and it makes you antisocial in most people’s eyes, but direct in yours. You become blunt, with language that is socially unacceptable, and like the rest, addicted to adrenalin. Still, there are a few good guys in the mix. Lem walked up and we nodded in greeting. I had worked with Lem for ten years. Lem was one of the good guys.

Some of the crew were coughing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole crew was down with whatever they had. I wondered if I still had any meds left from the last time boiler crud went through the crew.

The safety meeting was the same ole BS from the general foreman, foreman, safety men, and company ass-sucks who couldn’t care less about safety—all trying to justify their existence. On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools. The reality is that broken bones and stitches hardly foster comment, and managing the risk is the best that can be hoped for. But management loves the sound of their own voices. Hell, when I got hauled out in the meat-wagon in ’94, they didn’t even pay the doctor bill. If they cared about safety, they would drug test some of their pushers. The general foreman was sweating like a whore in church, and his brother-in-law, a foreman, had a syringe sticking out of the pocket of his coveralls. It’s the same with all these outfits; they load the job up with their non-productive sons, sons-in-laws, and sons-of-bitches, and then demand productivity from the rest of us. The meeting and the paper work they make us sign are just so they can cover their asses when something does happen, and for the company to get a break on its insurance. If you pay attention at the meeting, you can pick up on the political intrigue and power struggles, but I had no time for it. I was there for the paycheck, not the “intelligent” conversation.

They put the word out that they were in a bind for welders again. Welders had been dragging up and going to other jobs. Boiler outfits deserved that though; they call all over the country to get skilled labor to travel into their jobs, and then act like they’re doing them a favor by letting them on the jobsite when they get there. They asked us for phone numbers of any welders we knew who might want to come out. I did know a couple, but I kept my mouth shut. That outfit was too chicken-shit for me to take a chance on losing a friend.

I saw Lem at the gang-box and asked about his kids. He had two boys playing in state finals in football and was thinking about pulling the pin so he could go home and watch them play. The foreman stopped to line us out, with slurred speech and animated motions. I was headed for the water-wall-screen and Lem, for the v-bottom. I grinned at Lem and he rolled his eyes. We made plans to meet on the turbine-deck for lunch.

I slipped into my harness, grabbed my tool bucket, and crawled through the manway into the boiler. Some kid was working next to the hole and sprayed me in the face with his grinder. Pieces of metal imbedded into my skin like thousands of hot needles. I didn’t say anything to him and worked my way to the other side of the boiler where I dug my welding hood out of my bucket and started attaching tube shields.

I had put on six or eight shields and was leaning back on my pelican hooks, fishing in my pocket for a can of chew, when I noticed that the boiler was quiet. I could hear the distant hum of the suck truck but nothing else. I checked my watch to see if it was lunch time, but it was only 10:30. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. I looked over at the manway and saw a foreman from another crew motioning me to come out of the boiler. I crawled through the hole and asked, “What’s up?”

“They want everybody out of the boiler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know. I think something happened in the bottom-ash,” he replied.

Ten minutes later they passed the word that they wanted everybody off the unit. When I got to the ground, I saw the head safety man directing everybody to meet in front of the office trailer. I walked up and he tried to ignore me, but I stepped in close to him and asked, “Who is it?” He finally looked at me and said, “Lem.”

I asked him, “How bad?” and he just shook his head.

“What happened?”

“Scaffold collapsed…somebody cut out one of the panels supporting the scaffold.”

We stood around in front of the office trailer for about an hour until the project manager came out and said, “Lem died on the way to the hospital.” We were told to hit the gate and come back in the morning, a routine I was familiar with, having been through it eight times before.

I went back to my travel trailer, showered, put on the best clothes that I had, and walked across the street to a quiet little bar to get good and drunk, think about Lem, and honor him in the only way I knew how.

It was a nice quiet place, and I took a seat alone at the bar and ordered up two shots with two beer chasers. I sat one shot and one beer in front of the empty stool beside me—Lem liked his booze—and proceeded to slowly and quietly get plastered.

A couple of hours later, I sat staring at Lem’s drinks in front of his empty stool. The fluted shot-glass reflected dull amber light through the whiskey, and the sweat from the beer bottle had pooled onto the bar. I tried to remember his face, laugh, and the color of his eyes, but he was already fading. My eyes filled with tears. I slammed down another shot, slid off the barstool and headed for the door, drinking any more would be disrespectful.

The next morning we had a meeting with the corporate damage-control team. They had flown in from California the night before on a private jet to stick their fingers in the dike. They all had brand new company coveralls on—I didn’t know they even had company coveralls—with the fold creases still visible. They all had brand new welding gloves on—the same gloves that they took money out of our checks for—so they could look like one of the guys. They all had brand new company hardhats that they carried under their arms, so as not to mess up their hair. They talked about what a great guy Lem was, but they didn’t know him, had never met him, had never shared their lunch with him or loaned him a few bucks till payday. But you’re always a great guy after you buck out. They looked put out, their tidy corporate lives had been interrupted and they had to look at us, the industrial human rags that had been employee numbers up until now, and it was uncomfortable. They said we needed to put the tragedy behind us, because we had a lot of work left to do to get the unit back on line. We knew they were only worried about busting the bid and losing their Christmas bonuses.

Out on the unit, the thing I noticed most that day was how the hands couldn’t look each other in the eye. They looked down as if ashamed, as if they felt complicit in Lem’s death—and maybe we were. We all knew about the drugs, the lack of supervision in the boiler, and the job-first-people-second attitude. Hell, most of us had participated, or at least accepted all of it as the cost of employment.

After the meeting, I got back in my hole and sat on my bucket for most of the morning, eyes welling up, at times overflowing. I took my welding hood and put it on so I could hide under it when the tears came. I thought about the meeting and how the execs had called Lem Leonard. I realized I had never known Lem’s given name, and he had never known mine. Most of us went by nicknames—Tiny, because he was big; Ladder, because he was tall; Hook, because he hooked up the crane; Eight Ball, because he hooked up the hands; and Fubar, because he was. I wondered if it was some primeval survival instinct that made us do that; if I know your name and speak it, I own your soul. My friend Charlie came and pulled up a bucket. We sat for a long time without saying a word—what could we say? Finally, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder, turned and started for the hole. I said, “Hey Charlie…what’s your real name?” He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said, “William, William Charles.” I stuck my hand out and said, “Mine’s Robert.” We shook hands and he crawled out through the manway.

I rolled up my bucket highway tight and headed for the parking lot. There was a job in Texas I could get on. The conditions would be the same; the dangers, the drugs, and the systemic nepotism would all be there, but at least I wouldn’t be working for the same shitbirds.

 

Robert RobinsonRobert’s work has appeared in the following publications: The Flyfish Journal, Fly Fisherman Magazine, Fly Rod & Reel, Fur-Fish-Game, and World Unknown Review. He lives, hikes, and fishes in Utah with his dog, Touch. His blog can be found at flyfishingthehighcountry.com.

I want to die the way my dog sleeps, In Gratitude of the Strange Phenomenon of Reynaud’s, It doesn’t spell disaster


I want to die the way my dog sleeps

__________________

—a tiny, take-up-no-room-curl.
I want to live like him, too,
rising twice or thrice a day,
a lift up from a stomach,
a grin to an n,
a head-to-tail unfurl
to a laughlined, smiling u face,
an l for a tail that (with a bolt’s click)
triggers a merry metronomic tick
that trots my rhythm out a door,
where I wander, mark,
causally claim,
a chunk of bark
and a few blades of grass,
breathing in the glorious world
before sauntering back to that door
with a noise in my throat
a warm hand on my neck
and an oh-wow-what-a-way-
to-get-at-that-itchy-underskin-patch,
and then—with one gulped explosion
of taste and a bowl full of coolness—
the action ends
with a nonchalant stroll
back to my bed, where
I neatly collapse, twist a little
and a little more,
turning and turning
and turning and turning
and, yes, turning and turning,
spiraling down and down
into the teeniest, tiniest
take-up-no-room-at-all-curl,
until there is no more
Andrea, just a plain
old sleeping ball
of lower-
case
a.
 

In Gratitude of the Strange Phenomenon of Reynaud’s

___________

This living hand, now warm and capable,
is not so on some days. On colder days
—and sometimes on hot ones—my fingers
become ghostlike, corpselike,
zombie digits drained of blood,
and yet are attached to my body still.
I blow on them. I put them by the fire.
I plunge them into bowls of boiling water.
I urge them to live!
And sometimes they say, okay,
we will not die today,
and tingling bloodlife creeps back
along veins, and then I am the
bearer of two hand-balloons
filling with red air,
subtle and warm,
warm and capable,
up for the fisted fight,
and once again I am reminded:
I am alive but all of us
are running out of time.

 

It doesn’t spell disaster

________________

Look at that sad case
of an o lying
by the side
of the road,
like a flat tire
rolled from a car—
and that other o
half-filled as if
gasping for air
in the despair
of a too long run.
And that v?
See it tipped and lonely,
useless as a flipped
table. But that ə?
Perhaps it harbors
some gasping “uh”
even as it hangs
like a forgotten hook
from a ceiling.
But that antenna of a y—
it can’t get any signal at all—
and that u
has rocked to a stop,
where it leans with exhaustion
as if abandoned in an alley,
left to idly catch rain.
But the L, you say, is made-
of-concrete-and-wood—
a crate lift of Barthean expertise!
I watch you grip the handles,
and, like that, factory doors slide open,
and together we step into the ratcheting,
uprighted, spell-it-anyway-you-like noise.

Andrea Witzke Slot

Winner of Fiction International’s Short Fiction Contest and Able Muse’s Write Prize in Fiction, Andrea Witzke Slot is author of the poetry collection To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and a recently-finished novel (now under representation) titled The Cartography of Flesh: in the silence of Ella Mendelssohn. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have been published widely, including in Bellevue Literary Review, Adirondack Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry East, Measure, Southeast Review, Nimrod, Fiction Southeast, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in academic books published by SUNY Press (2013) and Palgrave Macmillan (2014). She lives between London and Chicago.

Beyond This Place

The air is thick with ambivalence.
The residue of those both forgotten and pushed away.
A watchtower too certain of its own authority.

The slow grating of a mechanical door granting
one passage in and out of the yard.
The dull gray of clothing rendering life

invisible against a backdrop of concrete walls.
Barbed wire coils itself precariously
around the edges of the prison.

It can be difficult to tell what they are trying
to keep in and what they are trying to keep out.
Chain linked fences standing upright as soldiers do.

Only what they are told,
only what they have convinced themselves
they have been built for.

But is anything built for what it ultimately becomes?
Stripped of any agency it might have had,
when this steel was melded into a false deity,

a pretense of human control,
did it dream of what else it could have been?
The wheels of a child’s first bicycle.

The monkey bars from which they would swing
to and fro.
The car a family drives on cross-country road trip

filled with laughter
and fighting
and spilled ketchup across the floor.

When did it learn it was to become a cage?

But how can a cage become a refuge?
A circle of men swallowed
by the world’s indifference.

Where the totality of their personhood
has been diluted to a single act.
That they have become singularly defined

by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
We don’t remember they are brothers,
husbands, fathers, friends.

We don’t remember that they are people
worth remembering. But their writing is a declaration
of all that makes them whole.

A classroom of men who refuse to forget themselves.
Each word provides the sort of liberation
a parole board can never grant.

So often they write about their family,
their children.
How they want them to remember

their father as the man whose laugh
would turn a room into a festival of rapture.
How he would read them stories before

they fell asleep to a world that didn’t always
make sense, but always made sense
in his arms.

It’s the sort of thing that reminds them
that they once existed beyond this place.
That they still do.

Clint SmithClint Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in the American Literary Review, Harvard Educational Review, Masons Road, Off the Coast and elsewhere. He was born and raised in New Orleans, LA.

in the middling alabama

In the middling Alabama
unpopular girls grow tall
and firm given the cover
of hundred-foot magnolia
tree towers. Given limbs
too thick to rustle, betray,
or give a girl away. Make
it so you can never look
up and say it wasn’t me.

Never say you are not
the girl who wobbled
into magnolia arms
weeping. Tears you
spilled in overturned
leaves. Fallen boats.

Like others, you grew
on iced-tea stories with
sprigs of mint. Slept in
silver moon puddles.
Fear a response to the
brilliant neon bibles
or anything that stood
between a girl and sky
she could see. Stars.

You grew an inch more
per annual ring. You grow
until the room key is a
bulge in pressed khakis.
A trinket for your thoughts.
One look from the eye
of a mounted stag
above the fireplace.

Alina

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and reared in Alabama. She lives in Tuscaloosa with her partner and three small native species. This poem is drawn from her chapbook, objects in vases, forthcoming from Anchor and Plume in March 2016. She wants you to read it. More online atwww.alinastefanescu.com.