Writers Read: Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak

Coal Mountain Elementary is a noteworthy example of investigative poetry, which incorporates data and reportage—including statistics, historical documents, news media, interviews, and images—into, most commonly, lyrical and prose poems. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) is a well-known example of the former type as it lets the reader enter the narrator’s mind via the technologically-mediated words, images, and sounds that assault contemporary Americans. Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary represents a more scholarly contribution to the genre. It relies on print news stories, court testimony, and lesson plans to convey the normalization of environmental injustice inherent in resource extraction,. The roots of both works lie in poet-activist Ed Sanders’s journalistic approach to poetry, which creatively sequences “fragments of information” in order to provide a critical history (Paul 2009).

Novak did not write Coal Mountain Elementary. Rather, he compiled its contents. The poetry is in how the media are arranged—as a curriculum of coal.

Nowak follows close in Sanders’s shadows, providing a critical history of labor, as motivated by the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, which trapped thirteen coal miners for two days. Only one of them survived. He creates a collage of life and death in the global mining industry by alternating testimonies from the Sago Mine Accident Report and Transcripts, news stories of mining disasters in China, lesson plans supplied by the American Coal Foundation, and photos of American mining towns, and Chinese mine workers. Poet Dan Featherstone views this collection of artifacts as a multimedia response to the question: “What kind of poem would you make out of the lives ad deaths of coal miners throughout the world?” The question is derived from Langston Hughes poem, “Johannesburg Mines”: In the Johannesburg mines/There are 240,000/Native Africans working. /What kind of poem/Would you/Make out of that? /240,000 natives/Working in the/Johannesburg mines.

photo credit: Lisa Arrastia

Much as Hughes arguably did not write this entire poem because the first lines are drawn from the news, Novak did not write Coal Mountain Elementary. Rather, he compiled its contents. The poetry is in how the media are arranged—as a curriculum of coal. The text is organized into three lessons based on the American Coal Foundation instructions for making “coal flowers,” “mining for cookies,” and “history of coal camps and mining towns,” and a coda. The ACF lesson plans were created by coal producers and mining suppliers for K-12 students. In the context of the Sago case testimony and the mining accidents in China, these lesson plans illuminate and critique the recuperation of “public” education into corporate propaganda. Though Novak provides very little historical or social background for the Sago and Chinese mining cases, it is nearly impossible for the reader to miss his argument that coal extraction is far more costly than lessons in art, economics, and history reveal.

 

Works Cited

Featherstone, Dan. 2011. “What Kind of Poem Would You Make out of That?” Jacket 2, 4 April. Web. http://jacket2.org/reviews/what-kind-poem-would-you-make-out

Paul, Steve. 2009. “An American History, Line by Line: Interview with Ed Sanders.” Poetry Daily 76, 1. Web. http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_sanders.php

Juliann AllisonJuliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and a recent MFA graduate at Antioch University Los Angeles.

The Beauty of Release

For two years and five months beginning in 2006, I lived in a 3000-square foot home—a sprawling suburban dream. It was a contemporary Spanish colonial with a red tiled roof and a series of sloping arches that surrounded the white stucco façade. My mother thought our house was the town library the first time she visited and saw it sitting atop the hill, grandly lit by recessed porch lights in our community-under-construction on a desert summer night in Arizona.

The kitchen was appointed with professional grade stainless steel appliances and a large island topped with a honed granite countertop that screamed, “I’m rare and precious.” The builders had hung hand-rubbed alder wood cabinets about two feet below the raised ceiling, creating a strange space that made the kitchen appear unfinished and empty. These same spaces had been filled with various decorative items in the designer-touched model homes. I watched HGTV and figured I was supposed to fill my newly acquired voids accordingly.

Each day, I’d leave my master-planned community after dropping my daughter off at the newly constructed elementary school, also stuccoed and arched, and head out to the malls that had sprouted up overnight in the middle of sprawling acreages of open farm land.

I wandered the isles of Ross, Home Goods, and Kirkland’s with the other zombie wives searching for the perfect items to place atop my kitchen cabinets. I had rules. The items I selected had to be tasteful. I wasn’t completely ready to sell my soul to suburbia and purchase anything with a rooster on it. And it had to be cheap. I mean final markdown cheap. I was okay with damaged items—a vase with a small crack or a dented metal sculpture would work just fine if I turned their imperfections to face the wall where no one would ever see them. I filled the space, one discounted item at a time, until my new kitchen resembled a somewhat classier version of Cracker Barrel or Chili’s.

I arranged and rearranged items in our home each day, until it was time to pick up my daughter from school. Arriving ten minutes before the bell rang, I gave myself enough time to park the car and chat with a few of the other parents. Mostly we were women, financially fortunate enough to stay at home while our husbands went off to work each day earning enough income to support our shiny-suburban lives. Their jobs afforded us regular trips to Target, the grocery store, the dentist, and perhaps a summer trip to Disneyland or Legoland or Sea World.

Then, on a crisp day in November, 2007 the Dow dropped 777 points. A seismic shift rippled throughout our tidy community. My shopping trips stopped and my daily chats with the other pick-up moms took on a tone of uncertainty. My stomach knotted every afternoon as I stepped onto the curb. I’d scan my neighbors’ faces for swollen eyes and runny noses—the tells that alerted us as to whose husband was laid off that day. It was like some sick version of suburban roulette. I’d tuck in my lips and nod at those mothers with red-rimmed eyes in acknowledgement of the fact that they had received the call. Their journey into the dark abyss was beginning and I imagined them bracing for the ride, seatbelts fastened snug around their hips, all loose items secured.

My daughter was still in elementary school and filled with the sweetness that allowed her to greet me each afternoon with arms outstretched and a sing-songy Mommmeee! I was so grateful for the distraction of her affection. Her small embrace and gooey kisses floated my sanity and prolonged my self-delusion for a few months. At least we were okay. My husband didn’t work for a large company that could lay him off. He was self-employed, working for the development and construction industries as an architectural illustrator, and could always find new clients.

Until he couldn’t.

The first few clients disappeared without much fanfare—a brief e-mail or a short phone call letting him know their project was being put on hold. Incomplete projects yielded zero payments. Zero payments yielded unpaid bills. We borrowed money from ourselves, convinced this was a temporary situation and we’d pay off our debt as soon as my husband landed a new project. This game went on for a few months. We received daily offers from our bank encouraging us to extend our credit line. We’ll be fine, we thought. The bank is still betting on us.

Until they didn’t.

In a Hail Mary attempt, we reached out to our parents, asking for a large loan to help us correct our deficits. With heavy hearts, they denied our requests, offering well-intended advice rather than handing over their own retirement savings. I signed up to work as a substitute teacher at my daughter’s school. At first the calls came in every day, and then slowly trickled to one assignment a week as the sub roster filled up with my neighbors’ names.

*     *     *

When Obama took office, his administration advised us to contact the HOPE hotline to request a modification loan. A kind young man on the other end of the call encouraged us to immediately stop making mortgage payments. He said the HOPE program could only help us if we were behind on our payments for three or more months. His advice felt scary and wrong and against everything we’d ever been taught about homeownership. We were flailing. We complied.

Foreclosure notices began arriving immediately. We’d call the HOPE office every few days for reassurance that we were doing the right thing and that they were going to intervene and help us save our home. Each call would connect me with another new, inexperienced voice. They’d ask us to send pages and pages of documents: three months’ worth of bank statements, two years of prior taxes, budgets, business profit and loss statements. I handled the gathering and sending as my husband scrounged for any type of work he could milk from his remaining clients. I’d always follow up with our latest HOPE negotiator’s requests, only to be told they’d never received my paperwork and could I please go ahead and send it all through again?

HOPE was disorganized. Our finances were disorganized. Our community was disorganized. Our dream, our collective dream crumbled as we looked on from the steps of our stuccoed Spanish contemporary.

In the early spring of 2009, I laid out all of my cabinet swag—bread baskets and decorative plates and pitchers and vases and oversized letters spelling “EAT”— on borrowed card tables inside our garage and waited as eager neighbors combed through them hoping to take advantage of my misfortune and good taste. I accepted all offers and refused to barter with anyone. Extended family arrived to help out. And I was scolded for not haggling. According to their garage sale expertise, I was letting my money “walk away.”

Explaining my methods of release and acceptance felt futile. I wasn’t letting opportunity escape, I was exercising the one last sliver of control I had in my life. I was letting go of the crap that had consumed me, that I’d attempted to fill my voids with. I was finding beauty in the release of my possessions—my discount wares, my house, my utopian community, my American Dream.

It was during my first downsizing garage sale that the foreclosure processor showed up. She taped a public notice to the front door with a piece of beige masking tape, and then shrugged and apologized. We told her we understood and she asked if she could shop our sale. The irony cut through me like a hot knife and I stifled my pain with humor. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it diffused the awkwardness of the situation and she laughed, handed me some coins, and walked away with a dented metal vase.

The grief of losing a house feels a lot like the grief of losing a person. I stepped through the stages in a completely irrational and non-linear way. Some days I was grounded in acceptance, trolling Craigslist for free moving boxes, while other days found me raging against the inevitable, refusing to remove family pictures from the hallway. I felt pain and sadness and remarkable amounts of shame. I learned to let go of the way-things-should-have-been narrative running on a constant loop in my brain. My desire to look back and judge our decisions, trying like hell to determine the moment it all went so wrong, began to fade as I released the dream and tried to move on in search of a new normal; wherever and whatever it may be.

We packed up our car and left the suburbs on a sweltering summer day in 2009. We returned to the city and moved into a rental we affectionately deemed our “penalty box.” Today, I stand in our imperfect present, eyes wide open, and say with all certainty that I am grateful for our loss. I like this version of myself, my family, better than the one that bought into the dream in 2006. We are humbled. Our priorities have shifted. We aren’t as afraid as we once were. We appreciate our family, friends, acquaintances and each other more. We no longer feel the need to run from uncertainty, because we know it is a given, not just for us, but for anyone daring enough to live. The mere act of existing is rife with risk. None of us will escape this planet without the scars of trial and loss.

*     *     *

In 2010, The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a federal law designed to prevent banks and financial institutions from taking on too much risk, was established after millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure. Because of the protections put in place, many of those same Americans have been able to rebuild their lives and re-enter the housing market—including my own family.

I’ve lived long enough now to have survived many life shifts—the ones that force you into a new normal, willingly, or not. I’ve been present for official cancer diagnoses, divorce announcements, career endings, car repossessions and bankruptcy hearings, moments of inevitable change—points of no return. The permanent markers of life before and after. They are never remarkable occasions in the moment. Instead, they’re rather plain and ordinary. Their weight is only realized and appreciated down the road after healthy distance is established and the lessons behind the shift can be understood and valued.

Donald Trump has been inaugurated as the forty-fifth president of the United States, and as a nation we are officially thrust into our new normal. Uncertainty surrounding his administration’s proposed changes to health care, immigration, education, women’s issues, climate protection, foreign policy and press access infiltrate our day-to-day existence. Everything previously designed to protect the best interest of our citizens is up for discussion, reorganization, and possible dismantling. Our new president values excess and things. He doesn’t need the protection Dodd-Frank offers. His wife and child live in a tower of gold.

What we’ve known and come to expect from our country shifts. Our foundation is rocked. We waver between feelings of anger and fear and helplessness. Some days we cry, and some days we rage. I wish for us all a quiet moment amidst the social media feeds and endless news cycles where we might pause, look inward, and ask, “Who do I want to be when I make it through to the other side?” Because this too shall pass; I promise. I know. No doubt the next four years will take us down to depths we didn’t even know existed, but we will find our way out again. And what’s left after the shift will be stronger and sweeter because it will be hard-earned and it will be real.

After a twenty-five-year hiatus, I made the decision to return to college in 2015. I wanted to learn more about writing, and about myself. Studying creative writing forces you to examine personal truths. Surviving the past decade has revealed mine. I need my heart, my brain and my family to survive this world. Everything else is a fickle bonus.

This afternoon, I’ll resume working on manuscript revisions needed to complete my MFA. I’m focusing on my story’s climax today. I will release precious words, clever dialogue and superfluous characters before my daily practice is complete. It will be hard, but I do this knowing that my story will be truer and cleaner and more honest in the end. Then I’ll venture into my tiny kitchen, open the pantry and select some loose tea leaves. I’ll settle on a nice green with hints of orange that I picked up during my last residency in Los Angeles. While I wait for my tea to steep, I’ll admire my current lack of kitchen décor. And for a moment, I will feel grounded in simplicity while the promises of gilded dreams lurk beyond my back door.

 


Kim Sabin studies Writing for Young People in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. When she isn’t driving across the desert to study craft, she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and daughter.

Savannah Johnston

Spotlight: Shells II by Savannah Johnston

[fiction]

Our room is around the back of the motel, away from the highway floodlights. Hiram and Baby are sleeping in the backseat by the time we pull up, and Mama carries Baby while Daddy slings Hiram over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Myself I walk. I’m grown enough to see the motel before we even get there, before Mama’s even started folded up her quilts. Quilts is about the only thing she brings anymore.

This last house I kind of liked, but once Mama and Daddy decided it was time to leave, Daddy pulled the stove off the wall for its copper. Left a mess, dust and plaster all over the floor, but the landlord’s a real prick. When Mama finally got Hiram and Baby and Daddy to just get in the damn car already we ain’t got all day, I said I had to pee and ran back in, though the water’d been shut off all week.

The house wasn’t empty, just empty of us. The mattress with the busted coil was against the front window and a pot of macaroni and cheese on a shelf. I hopped over cups and old clothes into the kitchen. There was this knob on one of the drawers that I liked, a little painted metal flower, and I’d been working on loosening that screw. No time for that now. I sat on the floor and put my feet up against the drawer, trying to wrench it out. I wanted it.

“Frankie!” The car horn honked out front, two short beeps, not enough to get anyone’s attention.

“Gimme a minute,” I hollered.

I kicked the drawer as hard as I could, the wood cracking and, finally, splinters and all, the flower was mine. Brushing it off as best I could, I put my flower in my pocket.

One thing I don’t like about Mama’s wandering bones is that we always drive at night. Hiram’s only six and Baby’s just a baby, so they sleep, but me, I see the road. This time, I think we’re heading east, but it could be south. If the sun were up I’d know. We’re between towns, so there’s nothing but the blinking lights of the wind farm and the occasional floodlights of an oil rig. The windows are down and it feels like we’re driving through stars.

“Where we going?”

“We’re just gonna go until we can’t no more, punkin,” Mama says. “Maybe we’ll find a place where you can get back in school, huh? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Nice as a kick in the ass,” I say.

“Watch your language.”

*     *     *

I think it’s the routine that drives them nuts, Mama and Daddy. It starts with a hiss in the blood, then a settling feeling that strikes low, deep in the gut, weighing you down like a cinderblock. Sometimes I feel it in my palms, like when your hand goes to sleep and it’s just waking up. This last time I knew it was coming when Mama started talking about investing in a nice set of silverware. She was doing the dishes. Washing those pink plastic forks Daddy swiped from the Party Mart. She had suds up to her elbows and maybe she looked happy, but every time she brought the sponge out the water, she’d blink real fast like she caught smoke in her eye.

*     *     *

The room is like all the rooms: varnished table with a plastic gold-colored inlay down the legs, cheap varnished chairs, a nightstand, a TV, and a large bed with a scratchy, pink and blue comforter. Mama and Daddy will sleep with Hiram and Baby, and I’ll get a pallet on the floor. At least this room has carpet, even if it’s thin and has a deep tread into the bathroom. While Mama settles Hiram and Baby in the bed, Daddy clicks on the TV and throws himself into a chair. It’s the Weather Channel. He takes out the little bottle he keeps in his pocket and takes a drink, smacking his lips.

I make my place on the floor and open up the sack of boiled eggs Mama made for the trip. She left the shells on because she knows I like to roll each egg between my palms, cracking the shell until it peels away in one solid piece. I do this now with two of the eggs and spread the shells out side by side. They make me think of earthquakes, something I’ve only seen on TV. I imagine the earth opening up beneath me, swallowing me into its yolk, and then I crush the shells beneath my thumbs. The dust feels good on my fingers, but Mama swats my hand.

“What’re you doin’? Making a mess already?” Mama says.

“I’m eating, duh.”

I don’t look at her as I say it. She grabs my arm and digs her nails in like she does when she’s angry. She lets me really feel the pink half-moons forming on my arm, and she talks through her teeth. “Frances Marie, you pick that shit up now.”

She lets me go and I stuff a whole egg in my mouth. “They on the sheets, it’s easy,” I mumble, talking through egg and shame. I sweep the crumbled pieces into my hand and toss them into the trash. Mama doesn’t look at me as she lies down, just motions for Daddy to hand her the remote and starts flipping through. The TV wobbles into focus on each channel, and she settles on Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. I’ve seen it before—Daddy and me watched it at this one motel that had concrete floors. Mama takes a boiled egg from the bag and carefully, delicately peels the shell off in pieces, dropping the bits into the garbage. She glances at me from the corner of her eye. I know this is just for show. She’s probably not even hungry.

Mama told me once that she never really considered herself the mothering type until she had me, and then the “surprises,” meaning Hiram and Baby. Surprise is just her way of saying “accident” or “mistake.” It’s moments like this when I think what she must have been like before we came along, when it was just her and Daddy, living like we do now, I guess. Could she really have changed that much? On the other hand, Daddy says that people don’t really change; they just get better at hiding what they are.

*     *     *

I wake up and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is still on and Daddy’s dozing in the chair, feet propped up on the little table, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Mama and the babies are curled up and around one another: Mama, then Hiram, then Baby. Hiram and Baby have her nose and her so-black-it’s-blue hair, and she lets Hiram wear his hair long so the image isn’t a stretch.

On TV, Elvira’s finally got that show in Vegas she’s worked so hard for, and she does this thing where she spins these black boobie tassels around and around just by popping her shoulders back and forth. I thought it was a little weird the first time I saw it, but now I’m more impressed than anything else. My boobs just started growing and they’re nothing like hers. Mama called mine mosquito bites once and I told her hers looked like socks filled with sand. I felt bad about that.

Something shakes the wall behind the TV and I jump. The digital clock on the nightstand says 4:43 AM. The highway hums outside, and I listen. I expect to hear bedsprings next, like I’ve heard before, but the quiet makes me clench my hands into fists. I watch Elvira shake around some more, applauded by her punk-rock poodle, and then the wall shakes so hard that the picture fuzzes out and Elvira’s lost in a grey and blue swarm that rides up and down the screen. This one wakes up Daddy and he pops out of the chair, bleary-eyed but ready.

“What the fuck was that?” he whispers. He doesn’t realize I am awake.

“There’s something in the wall,” I say.

“What are you doing awake?” The wall shakes again, this time with the sound of glass shattering. “Never mind. It’s not our business.”

He sits back in the chair and lights the smoke, pulling the plastic ashtray across the table with his thumb. The TV shudders back into focus and the credits are rolling.

“What were you watching?”

Elvira.”

“Oof, sorry I missed that,” he says. “But you shouldn’t be watching that.”

“I’ve seen it before,” I say, “with you.”

“Fair enough.”

The room next door thumps and rumbles. It reminds me of the dryers at coin laundries. When we got here, I saw that the windowsill of Room 11 was lined with little ceramic figurines—dogs, mostly, but there was a six-inch high unicorn in the center position. The curtains were drawn, the little corgis and cocker spaniels pressed up against the glass like the display in a gift shop. It was out of place, all the little knickknacks set up like that where no one would ever see them. If Hiram had been awake, he would’ve asked or maybe even begged for one. He liked trinkets like that, and even though he was almost six and a half, he still didn’t understand the difference between theirs and ours, them and us. Whenever we stopped at gas stations we had to watch him. He would stuff his pockets if he thought he could. I finger the flower knob in my pocket.

It used to surprise me that people lived in the places we stopped. I imagined they came to these places like we did, passing through, and something held them up, like they were waiting for something that had yet to come. Or maybe they got tired, or maybe they really did love their motel room, though I saw little to love and even less worth staying for.

I sit up when I hear a soft knock on our door. I look at Daddy and he looks at me, like neither of us are quite sure what to do. He goes to the door and, hand over the switchblade he keeps tucked into the back of his pants, opens it just a crack. Hurrying to my feet, I peek around his elbow.

It is a woman with stringy, bleach-blonde hair and thick eyeshadow around her eyes. Her left cheek blooms purple and snot drips onto her upper lip. She cradles a baby not much younger than Baby in her arms, and the baby fusses and pushes against her.

“I’m real sorry to bother y’all,” she says as she jostles the baby, “but my mama and my boyfriend are fighting and I can’t get’em away from each other with this little one in there. Could you—?”

Mama presses my head away with the flat of her palm and opens the door wide. Sometimes I forget what a light sleeper she is, and my ear burns where she smashed it.

“Come on in, honey,” Mama says, “You sit down now. That cheek don’t look too good.”

The woman sits in Daddy’s chair, and in the light she doesn’t look much older than me, but the lines around her mouth say different. She tries to smile but it comes out crooked because of her cheek.

“It’s nothing, really,” she says. The baby in her arms begins to cry and she gets this panicky look and starts to rock the baby, but she rocks it too hard and even I know that she won’t be able to calm it.

Mama goes to her and takes the baby, propping it against her shoulder the way she does when she’s burping Baby. “What’s his name, hon?” Mama eyes this woman the way she does cops, park rangers, and social workers, even though it’s obvious she’s none of those.

“Elijah,” she says. “Elijah. He’s not mine, though. He belongs to this lady at my work. She asked me to keep him tonight.”

There’s a crash and scream next door and the TV screen flickers. The girl’s face tightens like a coyote’s on the side of the interstate. She’s afraid.

“I’m sorry—real sorry. To ask strangers,” she begins. “It’s just I don’t want him to get hurt.” Behind her I catch Mama and Daddy shooting each other looks.

“What about your mama?” I ask, and I get a swat to the thigh.

“They’re both drunk, and they usually don’t hurt each other too bad, but…”

“Want I should call the law?” Daddy asks. He’s by the phone but he doesn’t lift it off its cradle. My palms itch; I wonder if someone else will call the cops and how quickly we can drive away from this place.

“No, please, don’t,” she says quickly. Mama frowns. She’s sized this girl up and she’s not liking what she sees. “No cops. I’m gonna go back over there, I can settle them down. Could you just keep him for me? Just for a minute?”

Daddy looks at Mama and she nods. Mama rubs the baby Elijah’s back and he’s cooing against her neck. “Alright,” she says.

“Thank you, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” the girl says. She’s got a bounce in her step when she makes for the door. As it shuts behind her, another muffled cry springs from behind the wall.

Hiram sleeps like the dead, but the commotion’s woken up Baby and he begins to cry. I can almost see his baby eyes narrow when he spots Mama cradling this stranger.

“Oh, c’mere, sweet Baby,” Mama coos, “Mama’s here.”

She passes Elijah off to me before taking up Baby and I hold this stranger baby out in front of me like a puppy. He’s skinny for a baby, and I sit him upright on my lap and bounce him on my knee.

“Here, sit across from me,” Mama says. “Maybe they’ll play with each other.”

Daddy lights a smoke and changes the station to the Weather Channel. He turns up the volume, and the easy, instrumental soft rock half-drowns the blows from next door. The week’s forecast is high 90s, strong winds, little chance of rain.

I scoot to the edge of the bed and sit cross-legged, Elijah just in front of me, my hands holding up his curved little back. The flower in my pocket digs into my thigh as I try to keep him from toppling over. He leans forward heavily as if his head is weighing him down. Baby, who is bigger, does the same, except it’s just a means to swipe at Elijah’s head. Baby lets out a squawk and pushes forward again, his legs propelling him forward. His nails scrape against Elijah’s head before I can pull him out of reach and Elijah begins to cry. It occurs to me that Baby’s never seen another like him and knowing he’s not the only one must be terrifying.

“I don’t think he likes him.”

“They’re babies, Frankie,” Mama says. “They don’t like anything.”

*     *     *

For a while after Hiram was born, I stayed with Daddy’s friend Manuel and his old lady, Gizzard. Mama told me not to call her that, that her name was LeAnn, but Gizzard didn’t mind so I called her that out of Mama’s earshot. Manuel and Gizzard were bikers, and Manuel was president of his club, the Dead Rats. Their patch was a one-eyed rat with a knife in its heart, and Manuel never went anywhere without his club cut. He tried to get Daddy to prospect every time we visited, but Daddy always said no.

They lived in a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of no-name dogs, and when we visited, Gizzard would make up the screen porch in the back like it was my own room. Manuel took apart cars for a living, and at any given time there might be five or six old frames I could play in. Gizzard took me on her bike once, but I burned my leg on the exhaust pipe and Mama said no after that.

It was cold the day we pulled into their driveway, coming or going from one of the somewheres I don’t remember. My coat was a season too small and my wrists ached. Mama and Daddy didn’t talk as they drove, or even listen to the radio, which I remember thinking was weird, especially as we were going to stay with our friends.

They didn’t say how long they’d be gone. They didn’t even come into the house, or unbuckle Hiram from his car seat. When they each crouched down and hugged me, I felt like a handshake would’ve fit a little better. Gizzard put her hands on my shoulders and pressed her fingers into my collarbones.They didn’t look at me, Mama or Daddy, as they got back in the car. Gizzard steered me into the house like a buggy, sitting me down at her high wooden table. She gave me a glass of something called Ovaltine that looked and smelled like chocolate milk, but it left a thick dust on my tongue, so I spat it on the table and told her it tasted like horse piss. It was something Daddy’d said once. She asked me if I wanted a birthday party, even though Daddy had taken me to Chuck-E-Cheese for my fourth birthday some months before.

I can’t say for how long I stayed there. Mama and Daddy called sometimes, but they always sounded so far away that it felt like it couldn’t them I was talking to because that would mean they’d really gone. I remember being outside a lot, the smell of wet dirt in the air after it rains. I must have been too young for school. I don’t remember going. But a school bus bumped along the road twice a day. Sometimes the kids on the bus would wave if I was out in the field, climbing over some frame or chasing the dogs. A couple times a few boys spit out the window, too far away to even come close to me but near enough that I threw rocks at them.

Gizzard caught me the last time. She let out a shrill whistle from the porch, a trick I knew she’d picked up from Mama, and even from across the field I could tell she was angry. I loped back to the porch, my wide step trying to fake calm or carelessness. Gizzard put a stop to that right quick. As soon as I was in arm’s reach, she snatched my elbow and tried to whip me around to spank me, but something was off and I twisted but my arm didn’t. I felt my elbow slide into itself and out, like a sprung hinge on a door, and at first it just felt icy cold then, when she let my arm go and I couldn’t hold it up, it burned from the inside.

Gizzard cried. She cried and I cried and she said we’d have wait for Manuel to get home. When he finally did, he drove us to the hospital two counties over, told the lady at the desk I fell out of a tree. Driving back, Gizzard cried some more, though it sounded like she was screaming underwater. I’d gotten a shot of something before the doctor put my elbow back together and it made me too sleepy to listen. I watched the doctor do it, but it was almost like a dream: the click of my bones together like Legos. On the way back, Manuel’s voice carried like a lawn mower’s roar over the soft hum of the road. I slept better in the backseat of that car than I had since I’d been dropped off.

The next evening, Mama and Daddy pulled up the drive, the sideboards of our car caked in red dirt. Mama barely looked at my slinged arm, barely looked at me at all. Hiram had a full head of hair, his fat baby face having taken on some of the shapes and angles of Mama’s. He gurgled in his carseat. I climbed in next to him and Daddy restarted the car.

“Seatbelts,” Mama said.

*     *     *

There’s shouting now, louder than the Weather Channel’s version of “Landslide.” Hiram and Baby are both half-asleep, their eyes open but not moving, lying still on the big bed. Hiram’s lips pucker like a fish, his tongue poking through the gap in his teeth; he was on the bottle too long. He pops his thumb in his mouth and sucks noisily.

Mama paces, bouncing Elijah on her hip. He cries in short, gasping breaths, his face all twisted up and red. I wonder what his mother does. “I’m gonna call them,” she says. “This is fucking stupid. I can’t listen to this all night.”

“It’s not our business, Jemma,” Daddy says. “Leave it be. We don’t want this to come back on us.” He sips from his little bottle. “We can ride it out.”

“You don’t think she’d really not come back, do you?” she says. “Too nice. Shouldn’t have been nice. We’ve got enough on our own.”

Daddy lights up again, relighting the stub of a cigarette that’d gone out, and he exhales through his nose. His lips twitch beneath his mustache. “Oh, come on.”

“Here, Frankie,” she says. “You take this.” She hands Elijah to me, and I lay him down on his belly over a pillow. He still cries, but he’s not as insistent as before. The shouting is just background noise, like static on the radio. On the TV, a pretty blonde delivers a report on riptides in South Carolina. An uptick in riptides has caused seven drownings so far.

“Didn’t you say you always wanted to see Myrtle Beach?” Daddy says. Mama swats his knee.

*     *     *

When Baby was born, we were staying with Manuel and Gizzard again. We didn’t see them so much after Mama and Daddy picked me up, but eventually we circled back, probably because we didn’t have anywhere else. Gizzard was really nice to me, so I cussed and spit at her whenever I could. Mama saw it, but she didn’t stop me.

The night Baby was born, they were playing cards, everyone drinking but Mama, and her water broke right there in the kitchen. Hiram was coloring on the floor, and some of it soaked into his coloring book. Daddy had to scoop him up and take him outside while Gizzard helped Mama into the bathroom. Baby came out in the bathtub an hour later, fat, hungry, and screaming. While Mama rested, Gizzard kept Baby happy, changing him, feeding him, bathing him. I didn’t hate her when I watched her with him. She always wanted a little boy, she told me, swaddling Baby up in a cotton blanket. I told her she could keep this one, if she wanted.

“Oh, hon,” she said. “Some of us are just meant to be aunties. That’s the facts.” She used the soft brush to push Baby’s hair across his forehead. “When I was your age, I wanted five babies. With that many you’d never have to worry about them being lonely.”

A week later, we were back in the car, pointed east or maybe north, Manuel and Gizzard waving at us, sitting side-by-side in their white porch swing, their band of dogs chasing us down the drive.

When Mama gets upset, she paces and she does this thing with her hands where they flutter at her sides like hummingbirds. She used to hide it, sitting on her hands in a chair or in the car. Here, in the little matchbook motel room, the quickness in her hands makes my skin bristle. I press my palm into my thigh; the hard edges of the metal flower in my pocket dig into my skin. I imagine a perfect flower stamped into my leg, a perfect purple scar blooming. I flinch, a wood splinter having founds its way through my jeans and into my palm. There’s not much blood. Just enough to leave a pin-sized bloom on the blue denim.

“Come sit down, hon,” Daddy says. A bedspring bounces in the room next door. “They’ll wear themselves out soon.”

“Well, we’ve got to do something,” Mama presses.

“What, you want me to go kick his ass?” She gives him a look and Daddy snorts. “No, sorry,” he says. “It’s not good for anyone if we go over there.”

Wood splinters next door, and this time, the screaming doesn’t stop.

A man on television explains that a tornado forms when the cool air of an updraft meets the warm air of a downdraft. The video playing behind him shows a Jeep sliding across a four lane highway.

Do something.”

Daddy shakes his head. He looks old in the yellow light of the lamps, and from my place on the floor I can see the shadows running beneath his cheekbones. He rubs his eyes with both hands and sighs, putting his hands out like he’s praying. He doesn’t look at Mama, but I catch his eye for a flickering second. He opens his mouth a little in a way that feels sad. Mama just stands over him, her jaw set tight. The muscles in her neck play like piano strings.

I saw Mama fight once, with Gizzard, but she didn’t know I could see her. It was somewhere between Vinita and Chouteau, some big thing Manuel was throwing for the Dead Rats. It was too hot to stay in the tent. All the grown-ups were drunk and more than a few were laid out with half their clothes off in the grass. Gizzard must’ve said something that set Mama off; Mama was on her like a dog on a rabbit. It took three men, Manuel included, to pull her off. She chipped Gizzard’s tooth on her knuckles. Daddy told me later that they fight like sisters.

But Mama isn’t flaring mad like that now. Her face is hard, even as another crash echoes through the thin walls. Time feels slower, but I know it’s not because I don’t think anyone can scream that long. “Give me your knife,” she says. Daddy hands it over, the blade still clipped into the handle.

“The clasp is sticky,” he says. She gives him a short nod.

“What are you gonna do, Mama?” I say. She looks at me like she’s just remembered I’m there, and then turns to the door. The screams have stopped; only a thin whine, interrupted by bursts of coughing. The handle on our door twitches. Mama opens Daddy’s knife and, with the blade in her left hand, she jerks open the door.

There in the door frame, stark against the yellow security lamps in the parking lot, is a man. Even shadowed, he’s pale and thin, like a bad cartoon. For a second, he starts and stares at Mama. His eyes shine so bright it’s hard to imagine he can see anything with them. Mama raises the knife. She screams. She screams louder than the people next door have all night, waving the knife wildly, stamping her feet, shaking her hair. It only takes about three seconds of this before the man sort of shudders and takes off, tearing through the parking lot as fast as his legs can carry him. Once he’s gone, Mama stops screaming and brushes the hair back from her face. I go to the door and watch him run. He doesn’t have any shoes on. Mama puts the knife on the table and sits on the side of the bed. She puts her head in her hands and her shoulders begin to shake. At first it looks like she’s crying, but she starts snorting, and then she’s laughing hysterically, giggling. Daddy starts to laugh, so I start laughing, too, and the babies, woken up with Mama’s tantrum, stop fussing.

When they’ve finished, Daddy scoops up Elijah and takes him out of our room. The voices next door are nicer, quiet. One even laughs. Mama sets about getting Baby’s bag and some of our odds and ends back out to the car. Hiram sleeps with his eyes open again; he can sleep through anything.

The weight of the metal flower feels good in my pocket. I feel like I haven’t slept in days, almost giddy. When Daddy comes back, he and Mama hustle the little ones into their seats. Hiram they let lie on the floor, curled into the floorboard. I’m last, like I’m always last. “C’mon then, Frankie,” Daddy says. He shoos me out of the room, shutting the door behind us. I glance at the window to the room next door: the trinkets are gone, except for one ceramic corgi. The figurine has a chip in its ear, giving it a cockeyed look.

I climb into the backseat and rest my head against the window. The glass is cool on my forehead. Daddy turns the ignition and off we go, headed east or west or I don’t know. I keep my eye on the horizon, waiting for the sun to tell me where we’re going.

Savannah JohnstonSavannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia University and received her MFA at New Mexico State University. She was most recently the Managing Editor of Puerto del Sol, and her work has appeared in Portland Review and Moon City Review. She can be found shouting into the void on Twitter at @savrjoh.

Rituals of Kindness

                … for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type,
the most important office in a democracy, Citizen
.
~President Barack Obama

I have an aging mom. She lives in Brooklyn, New York while I live in Los Angeles. We talk almost every day, and through our conversations, I attempt to glean changes in her perception, cognitive ability, attitude and disposition. I wonder if she is eating right and getting enough exercise. I ask if she’s spoken to her friends and distant relations and how they are doing. I’ve discussed my mom moving to Southern California, but that would take her away from the community of friends and neighbors she loves, the home she’s worked so hard to maintain throughout the years, and her beloved church choir.

The men and women in my mother’s choir have an odd practice of greeting one another by their surnames. It has always been Mrs. Woods or Mr. Franklin or Mrs. Bullock. Having known each other for years they nevertheless maintain a reserved formality when interacting with one another. The formality speaks to a deep respect, an agreed-upon social order and a level of graciousness I never see in younger generations. There is gentility and sweetness, a reverence for decorum and civility that is an outlier in modern interaction rather than the norm. I watch these interactions between my mother and her friends now with a sense of awe. It has become clear that, as a country, we are losing something. Like the disappearance of the monarch butterfly, something of grace and beauty is slowly fading from the world.

Photo credit: Angela Bullock

With accelerating frequency, my mother is losing those who make up her social network and help give her life meaning. Mrs. Woods, her longtime neighbor, lived just a few doors down the street. She died right before Christmas.

Mrs. Woods also sang in the choir. Called the Chancery Choir, it’s made up of the elders, the decades-old members of Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black congregation in Brooklyn. It was founded in 1766 and incorporated in 1818.

Both women were sopranos and longtime friends. And so to relieve Mr. Woods from his vigil, my mom sat by her friend’s bedside and held her hand in the hours before she passed.

A few months earlier, my mother’s choir director, Mrs. Clark, suddenly died. A former music teacher, she was petite and always fashionable. Ninety year old Mrs. Clark continued to direct the choir and play the church organ until the new pastor determined that her music program, with its traditional anthems, hymns and spirituals, needed updating. In an attempt to attract the generation of younger parishioners, Mrs. Clark was replaced. Upon losing this most significant purpose in the evening of her long successful life, Mrs. Clark became ill. She died within the year. I cannot help but believe that the way Mrs. Clark was discarded helped to hasten her death.

*     *     *

The coarsening of our culture has been gradual. Within my own family, I don’t recall my mother ever uttering a single expletive, though my late father cursed like a sailor. It feels to me as if the culture has normalized the habits of my long dead father while my mother’s refinements and those of her friends are gradually fading into the past. I’m referring to the everyday neighborliness shown by individuals during ordinary encounters. Not the unfortunate events of war, crime, discrimination, or the myriad acts of cruelty that have always plagued human interaction. I’m speaking of the callous lack of manners, as reported on the local news, witnessed in our malls nationwide, of the rash and sometimes dangerous aggression enacted behind the wheels of our cars, and the ever increasing lack of common courtesy on social media.

Social media has not only become a vehicle through which to disseminate false information, it has rapidly become the primary vehicle for crude, unkind and disparaging communication. We are losing the capacity to simply be nice to one another, as the anonymous nature of online platforms allows for and actually gives us permission to dismiss the humanity of our fellow citizens. With increasing ferocity we insult, berate, and defame those we cannot see.

Con artists and charlatans have always been among us. Smooth as silk, the cunning and duplicitous use of courtesy and social grace blithely hide their corrupt agenda. I do not believe, however, that those individuals represent the majority of us. I believe that a renewed commitment to kind, thoughtful and courteous discourse within our families, among our work associates, and especially in our encounters with those with whom we disagree will go a long way in disrupting the downward spiral into the pool of lies and false assumptions that is taking hold of our culture.

But it requires pausing before speaking, or tweeting, or posting. It requires a breath before an impulsive, reactionary, and possibly destructive communication. It is in those micro-courtesies that we fortify our society. For, when someone is kind to me, I am more inclined to be kind to the next person I meet.

Photo credit: Creative Commons

The reverse is also true. Callous behavior ripples beyond its origins like a stone thrown into a tranquil body of water. The choices are subtle in their effect on our culture. And it is our leadership, both cultural and political, the (often unwitting) arbiters of taste and decorum who set the tone. Reasoned and compassionate discourse at the top has never been more necessary.

As our country moves through this political transition, my feelings of loss with respect to my mother and her friends is no coincidence. It feels, at least to me, as if we are bidding farewell to an era of decorum and grace; we are ushering in an age of crassness and naked vulgarity.

Demagoguery is nothing new and resistance will not only require healthy skepticism, but strength of character and a disciplined, principled adherence to respectful discourse. When some complain that our society has become too politically correct, I wonder if they resent the social agreement to no longer weaponize words like “faggot” and “nigger” in their public discourse. Isn’t the use of politically correct language a choice requiring both thoughtfulness and empathy? Doesn’t careful speech signal a willingness to share space with, and acknowledge the value of those who have been marginalized? Are not all of our lives enriched when our leaders lead not just from strength but also with compassion?

The unwillingness to think before speaking or tweeting or posting, and the insistence on one’s right to refer to those who are different in traditionally derogatory terms, is lazy and cruel. Whenever we write or post or tweet or speak, it is our responsibility as civil and humane citizens to raise the level of discourse. Doing so could help mitigate the continued coarsening of our society and the dehumanization of our neighbors. We mustn’t allow others, particularly our temporarily elected political leadership, to alter our course toward a more welcoming, tolerant and compassionate nation. Words matter.

I’m writing this for my own edification, for I am as susceptible to lashing out as anyone. It’s why I have had difficulty writing this essay. I started and stopped numerous times in the last week. Right now I want to scream and curse and spit like a child. It is hard to resist the impulse to hit back in the midst of noxious political rancor. But such behavior weakens that stage on which we all must stand in order to reach one another—in order to live with one another.

*     *     *

Every time my mother loses a friend I feel her gradual retreat from the world. I become more aware of her delicate light beginning to fade, of her slowly slipping through my fingers. With each loss, passing conversations further lose their crispness, their now-ness. With each loss her language is less focused, seemingly shrouded in the past. Each death takes a little more out of her.

Every life eventually ends and I am keenly aware that the loss of my mom is somewhere in my future, so I hold on to her softness and, now more than ever, appreciate the emotion she so freely wears on her sleeve, her lack of guile and her very open heart. I find myself reveling in the beauty found in the ordinary greetings between my mom and her friends, the tender way they hold one another’s humanity within the gracefulness of their encounters. It feels Old World in our increasingly changing landscape.

Change is that disruptive mechanism, that inevitable fact of  public and private life that forever moves us forward but sometimes also pulls us back. It is my mother’s open heart that I will strive to emulate in the days and weeks to come. If we must cling to the past, let it be to the rituals of kindness.

Writers Read: The John McPhee Reader by John McPhee

johnmcpheecoverJohn McPhee writes beautifully. About anything. From conservation and aviation to art and citrus. His voice renders topic irrelevant. Relentless specificity of language is the main attraction.

Think ­pieces can blur the line between journalism and literature. Between the academic and the personal. McPhee is investigative nonfiction’s spirit animal.

Even The John McPhee Reader’s ‘70s artwork ­with its triangular evocation of basketball, tennis ball, and orange­ imbues the mundane with metaphysical significance.

McPhee’s erudite, airtight essays cover everything from nuclear fission to portage. Is the implied expertise merely a front, the misdirection of a master journalist? Picture the man knee deep in materials ­method ­actor­ style­ prepping for a new assignment. His commitment to each subject is total. The rigor of the research, tangible.

“America’s most versatile journalist,” says the New York Times Book Review. True. And McPhee can spin a yarn. He is curious and curious.

In McPhee’s world, sport is both science and math. “The metaphor of basketball is to be found in these compounding alternatives,” he writes. “Every time a basketball player takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created around him.”

Picture the man knee deep in materials ­method ­actor­ style­ prepping for a new assignment. His commitment to each subject is total. The rigor of the research, tangible.

Watch McPhee manipulate story and time in “A Roomful of Hovings,” the multi­-angled impression of a former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director. Navigate these short vignettes (“Schoolboy,” “Curator,” “Fifth Avenue”) without the reassuring roadmap of sequence.

“In the museum, he’ll make the mummies dance,” says one of McPhee’s talking heads. The writer lets his characters dish out the details so he has time to meditate on things like high­ end art forgery.

Sometimes McPhee tags along as himself. In “Encounters with the Archdruid,” he follows two contentious environmentalists on an unlikely Colorado rafting trip. McPhee’s path of inquiry often leads us into the great outdoors.

A folksy article lingers tenderly on the people of Colonsay, Scotland. It also contains some characteristic horseplay: obscure bagpipe numbers, antiquated Gaelic, the delightful phrase “clootie­-dumpling fruitcakes.” Colonsay starts to feel like home.

511px-john_mcpheeWarning! Long paragraphs ahead. Dense thickets of thought envelop full pages. Readers accustomed to tidier formats may find themselves gasping for air mid-­graf. Down on forest floor, McPhee cuts his winding trails with frequent comma splices. Rarely does he brandish vocabulary for its own sake. Instead, McPhee prefers sturdy, dependable technical jargon.

The multiple braids of “The Search for Marvin Gardens” weave together surreal gameplay, Monopoly lore, and snapshots of life in Atlantic City. Marvin Gardens is a placeholder for paradise and prison. “Colonel Sanders’ fried chicken is on Kentucky Avenue.” Classic McPhee.

These essays circle their subjects with caution. Always they abstain from overt conclusions. “It’s obviously helpful to a basketball player to be able to see a little more than the next man,” goes a line from “A Sense of Where You Are.” McPhee might well be speaking of the writing life. The dogged pursuit of a vision.

Ari RosenscheinAri Rosenschein’s writing has appeared in Stratus, From Sac, The Observer, Cuepoint, and other publications. He is pursuing his MFA at Antioch Los Angeles and completed University of Washington’s creative nonfiction certificate program. A lifelong musician, he plays in The Royal Oui alongside his wife Adrienne. They live in Seattle with their dog Arlo.

Americans: Seeing Ourselves Through Growing Darkness

We all seemed small in the shadow cast by the Los Angeles Federal Building on Wilshire. The building, which is in an area known as Unincorporated Sawtelle­­­­—a parcel of land, surrounded by LA that is not part of LA County—is a white monolithic structure with columns that the eye follows from ground to sky. I arrived in the back courtyard at 7:15 on a Monday morning. At least a hundred people were already waiting, many wrapped in blankets or heavy winter coats. Families huddled to shield themselves from the cold in the sunless courtyard. We formed a line outside the entrance to the passport office, tucking our fingers inside our sleeves for warmth. I held tight to my paperwork, not wanting it to be swept up in the strong winds that whipped through the open space. A tall security guard, who worked for the passport agency, was checking to see that each person had an appointment. When he came to us, I explained my situation.

I had been in LA for 12 days for my MFA residency at Antioch University Los Angeles, the entire time waiting for my passport to arrive in the mail. It arrived on the tenth day, a Saturday, at 4:30 p.m. I was relieved, as my flight to México was on Monday morning. The priority envelope was torn and re-taped with black markings, which I assumed was related to its lateness. It was supposed to have arrived on Tuesday. Opening the envelope, I pulled out a plastic bag with text that read “We Care” and expressed regret for the damage to my item and hopes that this would not be an inconvenience. Inside the bag I saw a mess of blue. I did not pull out a passport, but a collection of pages in various states of ruin held together by a warped blue cover. I pulled out tattered images—an eagle with a mountain behind him, another eagle with a tall stalk of wheat, a flag engorged by wind, the Statue of Liberty. My photo page was intact, but detached from the rest of the booklet. I could not travel with this.

The security guard at the Federal Building asked a question that I would hear all day from different passport agency workers. “They sent it to you like that?” I confirmed, “Yes, just like this.” He sent me across the courtyard, where another line formed at ground floor. In between the ominous concrete white fins that rose to the very top of the Federal Building were dark pockets and a ledge where more people huddled, filling out paperwork. The tall columns caught the sun and glowed golden, but all else stood in shadow cast by the building. Two of these pockets had signs that read Will Call A and Will Call B. I joined the line there.

*     *     *

On that same morning, electors were gathering to cast their electoral votes for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The dim future of a Trump presidency had begun to reveal itself and although I was holding out hope that the electors would stage a resistance, I did not believe that it would be enough to turn the tide. My broken passport was a bag of American tropes and symbols, an obvious metaphor for my confusion about being American. This identity is supposed make me feel or act with a certain sense of pride, but what I often feel is confusion. These symbols somehow represent who I am, who we are. Seeing them strewn out on the table that Saturday, I felt only the rising tide of conflict in my chest. Is the conflict and confusion I feel in my body an identity? Part of what it means to be American?

Although I have never been in the military, they allowed me to enter the passport agency on the veterans’ line, which meant that I entered rapidly, but once inside, I waited the same as everyone else, first for a number and then for the number to be called—in total about an hour and a half. People in need of papers settled into their seats, whole families, single individuals, representing several countries and many different faces of America as well as varying class backgrounds. (I suspect the super-rich must have a way to avoid this waiting game.) A girl entered wearing gold rimmed glasses, tinted dusty rose. She scowled at the full waiting room, found a seat and took out her phone. She kept the sunglasses on the entire time. I wondered if the scene looked better behind that warm blush. Everyone present needed a passport fast. That was what we had in common. And we were all U.S. citizens.

Being a white middle class American has meant knowing that I have privileges that folks all over the world (including within our borders) do not have, knowing that my privileges are directly correlated to the lack of privilege that pervades the lives of most human beings. This has meant never feeling “pride” in my country, because while my country (and the idea of my country) protects me, it does not protect (in fact, it harms) so many others. I have never known how to live with this.

My parents are Italian American raised in New York City, which now having lived in another city, I realize is unlike the rest of the country. I never saw rural poverty, but knew kids who looked different and practiced different religions. Many of our families came by way of Ellis Island, passing Lady Liberty, who stands proudly in the blue passport booklet.

My passport reads like an advertisement for Westward Expansion, the imagery tells a history of movement across the continent: the billowing sails of an explorer’s mighty ship, rivers carrying goods inland, the Liberty Bell in mid swing, buffalo, cowboys, cacti, an eagle. Migrating birds soar across the fibrous pages, along with a bear eating a salmon, heroic looking corn, even a totem pole (an ugly ironic gesture toward inclusion that actually points at a genocide). The images express a belief that it is not only our “right,” but God’s will that we expand West. They intend to show me my birthright—the place we call America, which is actually just part of the North American continent. Like the continents drifting apart, these images drifted out of their passport binding, their supposed meaning losing substance, becoming a hypocrisy.

Where do we fit in this? Who is the we? It is no secret that the American identity is fraught with too many meanings. As our best self, we offer a place for the “huddled masses.” At worst, we carry out and sanction murder and nurture a belief that we are superior, which seeps into the bones of Americans and creates desirous attachment to wealth. This country scares me and this country fascinates me. But I do not believe in it. It is not a religion.

*     *     *

The manager at the passport agency promised to try to rush the creation of my passport, but by 11am it was still not ready and, knowing I would miss my flight, I left Unincorporated Sawtelle for Los Feliz to eat burritos and browse the oddities at Soap Plant Wacko, a store that sells items like robot lunchboxes and taxidermied raccoon feet and was exhibiting a series of Barbie Dolls in reenactments of biblical scenes. Somewhere inside the pillars of the Wilshire Federal Building, they were creating the blue booklets that would grant us permission to move freely through most of the world. They were binding, taping and quality checking, so I could exercise my right to come and go.

I returned to the courtyard passport agency later that afternoon and joined the end of a very long line at the Will Call windows. The sun had retreated behind the building and everyone in the line held their bodies up against a beating cold wind that made the flagpoles clank continuously. The woman in the rose sunglasses pulled a cowl neck sweater over her face and spoke through it. “Watch me get sick right when I go on vacation. I swear it took me an hour to warm up after standing out here this morning.” A man’s wife brought him a Santa hat to keep warm and then retreated back to the car with her baby. If we had known one another, we might have formed a huddling mass to keep warm.

We were there to take advantage of our right to move freely, by retrieving our passports, the ultimate form of identification and proof that we belong here in The United States. We had jumped through the hoops and proven ourselves worthy. By the time I got my passport, we knew that the electors had chosen Donald Trump to be our next president. Now his presidency is almost upon us, and the part of the population that has the ability to move freely will become narrower as this new president attempts to change what it means to belong. Some of us will be deported, some might need to register; we have heard talk of internment and have seen blatant disrespect for the rights of activists. We have seen that the victims will be blamed. I continue to use the “we” because the “we” will be necessary.

We will need to keep each other warm, to belong to one another. We will need to fight for the rights of others. In doing so, we will stay warm, stay protected. The shadows grow wider, we reach our fingertips out to the sides, trying to catch the sunlight, trying to see ourselves.

 

Spotlight: Tapetum

[fiction]

I hunt in the morning, because the world makes sense when you watch it beginning.

The woods, they wake up like my 5-year-old, Emma. Kind of slowly, fluttering, then suddenly it’s all action everywhere all at once and you can’t keep up. The trees and bushes light up from inside, and then the sun peeks up and you realize the glowing was just the light rays racing faster than the sunrise and sticking themselves to everything they hit. Then the squirrels start up trees and before you can take it all in it’s the day already.

This October morning, I bring my ten-year-old, Heathcliff, along to the woods. It’s his first time hunting. Tessa took a picture of us in front of my truck, him in his camo clothes and neon orange hat and shaking like an aspen leaf from excitement. The flash of the camera left black splotches in my line of vision for half of the drive out here, to the woods where I hunt. We didn’t talk during the drive, because mornings are a time for quiet peace, and Heath knows that, too, I can tell.

It’s a cold dark, and I can feel my breath turn wet on my lips when I breathe into my collar. Heath’s eyes are wide, probably so he can see better, and he picks his feet up high to get over the corn stalks sticking out of the frosted field. It looks like he’s got tapetum in those dark eyes – tapetum’s the iridescent pigment layer in a deer’s eye, the part that glints when they run in front of your truck and your headlights shine at them. They’re eyes like his mother’s, when they glint at me. Like when we were on our honeymoon, and went swimming in the ocean at night. Wait, she’d said when I waded away from her. Be careful. There might be a current. The moonlight had flashed off her eyes and her pale shoulders.

We get to the hunting blind. Heath sits on my stool, and it grinds against the floor when he sits on it and makes a noise. He widens his eyes again. He’s a wide-eyed kid, whether here or during action movies or on his first day of school every year, though  each year I remind him that he’ll be just fine, like my dad used to, but I also add that I love him and I’m proud of him, which usually my dad forgot. I smile and nod at Heath to let him know that it’s okay that he made a noise. The deer aren’t awake yet to get spooked. He smiles back, and we look out of the hut window and into the clearing. It’s still early enough that everything’s grey, smudged like a charcoal drawing.

We wait while the world wakes. The morning is serene, and there’s something kind of magical about it today, like all the trees are reaching out and anticipating the day. It’s a morning I’ll remember for a long time, and him too. He’s a good kid, quiet like I was when I was his age. My own dad never took me hunting—he wasn’t a hunter, really—but my older brother let me tag along. My brother and I, we were close, because our parents weren’t around too much.

Tessa loves the kids like a bear, fierce and strong. And I make sure I’m around and take time, because even though I got tough quick growing up on my own like I did, I don’t want my kids to remember me like I remember my dad—even when he was there, he wasn’t really there with us.

We’re still as oak for an hour or so, and then a few doe and a  two-pointer come across the field in front of us, nosing for leftover corn. “The middle one, the button buck,” I whisper to him. “You’ve got a good shot. Take your time.”

He holds his muzzleloader to his shoulder, squints his left eye, and presses his right to the scope. His finger over the trigger trembles. The barrel’s unsteady. “Take your time,” I breathe again, but he aims for less than three seconds before he shoots. His shoulder recoils, punched by the gun’s backfire, and he drops it like it’s got an electric charge.

We’ve been practicing at the shooting range and on the decoy at the back of our field, and his aim is great for a kid his age, but he’s nervous just now. I was too, the first time. I remember my brother saying steady, steady while I aimed. I’d had a clean shot, no wind interference, and the doe had barely gotten a hundred yards before she dropped.

Heath’s shot is off. He hits the buck too far away from the vital organs, near the back. The buck crumples downward, a dropped puppet, then jolts up and runs across the field behind the other doe.

“You got him, bud. Let’s go track him.” I ruffle Heath’s hat, even though I’ve tensed up. A few years back, I shot a doe and missed her vitals. If you get them through the lungs or heart, they only get a few hundred yards before they’re done, but if you get them anywhere else they could go on for miles and might not ever drop. This doe, I got her in the upper shoulder, and she didn’t bleed too much. I followed her trail for hours, almost giving up before I’d find a ruby drop on a leaf or some torn-up soil and would keep on for another half hour. Eventually it was too dark to follow anything. I came back the next day and looked another four hours, but nothing. So I had to just picture her out there, wounded, maybe alive, maybe not. That happens sometimes, but I think it got to me because wounding is worse than killing, at least in nature. They’ll die eventually if they’re hurt, but it’ll be a more painful process than a quick shot.

This trail’s different, and I relax. It’s a red carpet across the snow, rolled out for us. Heath must’ve hit an artery. The boy’s white as the clean snow, and I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze as we’re following the trail.

Two, maybe three, hundred yards away, the buck’s thrashing at the edge of a soybean field. He’s getting weak, his kicks like a flashlight beam when the battery’s out of juice, and he strains his neck away from us. I know he’s not got long, so I shrug my gun off my shoulder, step so Heath’s behind me, and shoot the buck in the back of the skull, quickly, to put him out of pain. I turn to Heath.

“You got him in the femoral artery, see? That’s why he bled so much.” I’m explaining because Heath’s not moving. Standing like a cornstalk. “I’m going to take care of the deer now, okay? He’s got to be gutted and then we’ll pull him back to the truck. Then I can make the sausage and steaks that you like. And we’ll tell mom that you brought home the meat.”

I’ve got a lot of work to do today, skinning the buck and trimming and grinding and processing and packaging, so I get right to it. My knife, with the gut hook, unzips the underside, groin to neck. Guts spill out, steaming, and I pull out what’s left, then lash the front hooves together and turn to let Heath help me pull him to the car.

He’s retching, bent at the waist. After vomiting, he sniffs and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyebrows remind me of his grandfathers’ when he stands up, daring me to say anything.

In the truck, he’s quiet. I put on the radio to break the silence, but he turns it down. “I don’t really like country,” he says, looking at his knees. This shocks me, because he’s never said anything. I wonder how long he’s thought that, and I wonder what else he doesn’t like that I thought he did.

Emma’s waiting at the back door when we get home. Her hands have smeared maple syrup on the glass pane.

“Didja? Shoot a deer?” Emma’s a head shorter than Heath, and she cranes her neck and looks at her older brother. Her pigtails are lopsided, one sticking to the side and one sticking up.

Heath stands taller in his camo. “Sure did.”

Then Tessa steps into the mudroom, drying a fry pan. “My men! How was the hunt?” She’s smiling, and her sweater is wrinkled and her hair is falling out of its braid. Even when she doesn’t try, she’s beautiful. We made love last night for the first time in weeks—not because we’d been fighting or anything, but because she’s usually so tired at the end of the day that I feel bad turning to her in our bed and asking more of her.

Heath clenches his teeth, and his eyes fill, and suddenly he’s vaulting towards her. She wraps the pan around him in a hug and looks at me, a question, maybe an accusation, in her eyes. Heath sniffles into her sweater, his corn husk hair sweaty from the hat he’d shed in the car. She kisses the head and tightens her lips, says “Shh, shh, honey, you’re okay,” and I wonder how she knows what to say and why he can cry to her and not to me.

I wonder if she’s disappointed in me, like I am for not knowing he didn’t like country music or maybe isn’t a hunter. You’re a good dad, she says sometimes, when I take work off to go on a field trip or when I fix their bicycles. Now, I watch her turn her body so she’s between me and Heath, like a mama bear stands between her cubs and danger.

I wonder if she’s thinking that she told me so, because a couple of days ago she asked if Heath was old enough to hunt and I said of course he was, because I was even younger when I started. Maybe she didn’t mean old in terms of years.

“He was great,” I say.

I spend the rest of the Sunday in the garage, skinning the deer and trimming the fat off of the meat, wrapping the back straps in parchment paper for steaks and grinding the flanks for sausage. The sun’s bright, and dust particles are suspended in beams that shoot through the garage windows.

Heath comes out in the evening. He’s changed out of his camo. My matching men, Tessa had said this morning when we left all geared up. I remember my mom saying that, once, when my dad and I both wore suits to a family wedding. I remember the collar was stiff and my tie was too tight.

My boy shifts on his feet at the edge of the garage. The air smells like blood, a rusty iron smell, rich and thick. He’s seen me cutting a deer before, but he watches at the flesh now, eyes narrowed, as though really noticing it for the first time. I look at him, noticing him, too, a mix of flushed and pale. Josh Turner is crooning on my radio, and I go over and turn the knob down. There’s blood under my fingernails.

“You know, you don’t have to listen to it just because I listen to it,” I say.

“I know.” He’s not looking at me but at the head of the deer. It’s lying sideways on a table because I was going to saw through the skull to mount the antlers for Heath. My own antlers are mounted along the wall of the garage on wooden plaques of coated red oak. I had thought Heath that maybe would want his mounted and hanging in his room, even though it’s only a two-point.

The buck’s eyes are like marbles, wide open and glassy and black. My son and the deer hold unbroken eye contact, and in the fading evening light their tapetum looks the same.

Hannah Ford

Hannah Ford grew up in Coldwater, Michigan. She graduated from Hope College with an English degree, a heap of book knowledge, and a gnawing dissatisfaction with her own writing ability. For the next three years, in an effort to satisfy that dissatisfaction, Hannah will be attending the University of South Carolina to pursue her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction). Hannah has been published in The 3288 Review, Lipstickparty Mag, and Opus. She has been awarded for her writing in both fiction and nonfiction.

 

Writers Read: Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion

playitasitlaysPlay it As it Lays is the perfect novel and Maria is a fascinating mix between Lana Del Rey (the old Hollywood glamor, the detached gloom) and Little Edie Beale (the saltine tins, the psychic instability, the domestic disarray), appealing in large part because she is unapologetically herself. As Amy Schumer highlighted through a now-viral sketch, this is a rare trait among women.

Maria renders glamorous so many traits of which I’m personally ashamed—she lives in her head, she loves sleeping in the afternoon, she craves mind-altering substances, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone (I, too, have trouble keeping up my end of the dialogue with hairdressers), she casually degrades her body, she lacks of patience for bullshit, she’s irreverent, all her friends are gay men or people with whom she is sleeping, she tends towards dysthymia, her body crackles with sensitivity, and she really just wants to spend her time wandering around and looking at the way the light hits random objects. These traits are glamorous in Maria because (a) Didion describes them beautifully (more on this later); and (b) Maria’s attitude—she is not embarrassed. I think her character is best captured in the following two passages:

“I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?”

“For the rest of the time Maria was in Las Vegas she wore dark glasses. She did not decide to stay in Vegas: she only failed to leave. She spoke to no one. She did not gamble. She neither swam nor lay in the sun. She was there on some business but she could not seem to put her finger on what that business was.”

Maria renders glamorous so many traits of which I’m personally ashamed—she lives in her head, she loves sleeping in the afternoon, she craves mind-altering substances, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone…

I also relate to Maria’s nihilistic vision. We live in a highly competitive, status-conscious society—that is the game. I’ve often felt compelled to play the game, but Maria gives me permission not to. Maria sees through the bullshit and doesn’t apologize. She keeps playing because she has to to live, but she knows the game is ultimately meaningless. She instead finds solace in beautiful images, soothing her mind through sleep, wandering, and driving (also, through her fierce attachment to her daughter, Kate, the only relationship that matters to her). Her vision may seem depressing on its face, but there is actually something Zen about it. Maria doesn’t overthink things. Most people ask why Iago is evil. Maria doesn’t ask. Maria takes things as they are. She plays it as it lays.

joan_didion

Joan Didion

My second favorite thing about the novel is its classically California aesthetic, what I call Southern California Gothic. This is also embodied by the music of Lana Del Rey, who, like Maria, is interestingly not a native Californian. Both Del Rey and Maria solace on California highways. Note the similarities between between (a) Del Rey’s song “Ride” and (b) a passage from Didion’s novel:

a) “I drive fast /I am alone in the night /Been tryin’ hard not to get into trouble, but I /I’ve got a war in my mind /So, I just ride Just ride, I just ride, I just ride”

b) “Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove… She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour.”

California is a character in all of Didion’s writing, but Play it As it Lays presents a vision of California at its most haunting and glamorous.

California is a character in all of Didion’s writing, but Play it As it Lays presents a vision of California at its most haunting and glamorous. California is often romanticized as a paradisiacal dream land. Didion captures this allure, but beneath her prose lurks a more ominous reality. She does this by evoking the precarious California landscape and shining light on its residents’ insincere motives. An example of the former is when she explains that she sleeps outside in part because when inside, the “palms scraped against the screens.” I love the notion that palm trees—often considered a symbol of tropical paradise—for Maria are oppressive. An even more poignant example of the brutal California landscape is the following:

“Maria lay on the bed watching a television news film of a house about to slide into the Tujunga Wash. ‘I’m not living here, I’m just staying here.’

‘I still don’t get the joke.’

She kept her eyes on the screen. ‘Then don’t get it,’ she said at the exact instant the house splintered and fell.”

Here, Didion infuses mood into the scene through setting. The house sliding into the Tunjunga Wash helps drive home her dying relationship with Carter. The way Maria sees the world helps establish her character. She’s sensitive and soaks up her surroundings. She’s a careful observer. She views life from a distance, which is related to Didion’s cool, detached writing style. Didion’s sentences here are frosty and cinematic.

This is not the type of novel where I get lost in the narrative. This is the type of novel where I want to sit with every sentence for minutes or hours or days or forever

This is not the type of novel where I get lost in the narrative. This is the type of novel where I want to sit with every sentence for minutes or hours or days or forever. I’ve probably read it ten times now and every time I come across a new sentence or passage that overwhelms me. This time around, it was the following:

“What happened was this: I looked all right (I’m not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I’m telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights.”

I’m in love with this sentence. It packs in immense detail and is very long but still easy to read. It establishes character. Most beautiful women apologize for their beauty or are uncomfortable with it (the patriarchy forces this upon them), but Maria states her attractiveness as an objective fact. I also like the combination of “Southerners and faggots and rich boys.” Maria has an army of men at her behest and its part of what makes her such an icon.

Sometimes I see this book less as a novel and more as a series of beautiful poems/vignettes about the coolest woman in the world. Either way, I think it’s perfect.

Anna DornAnna Dorn is an attorney and writer living in Los Angeles. She regularly writes about music for The Hundreds  and DJBooth and legal issues for Justia. In the past, she has written for Thought Catalogue, Labeling Men, and Vice Magazine. Her article on juvenile life without parole was recently published in American University Law Review.

Anna holds a BA in American Studies and Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill and a JD from UC Berkeley Law School. She is in the process of getting her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles.